Sydney Allen has a dream. To dance one day on Broadway, and be a star. She’s moved to New York, and with her best friends Portia and Trish at her side, her dream is destined to be a reality. That is until she meets the Executive Producer of her show–Nolen Adams. A Wall Street Investment banker who’s playboy ways are notorious among the Big Apple’s socialites. His lust and desires for Sydney are at first spurned. She will never be a casting couch bunny. But Nolen Adams doesn’t take well to rejection. He’s a man who always gets who and what he wants. Despite her efforts to achieve her chance at stardom through handwork and discipline, she is forced to address the admiration of her Producer. His pursuit of her sets Sydney and her friends on a collision path of pain, heartache, and self-discovery that will forever change their friendship. Every bond between friends and new lovers are put to the test when lies and deceit overshadow the best of intentions. And Sydney soon learns the price of fame can ultimately be the cost of one’s heart.
Publisher Warning: Strong language, Explicit Sexual Content, Autoerotic Asphyxiation, Mild Violence, Strong Adult Themes.
The Birthday Girl
He came out of nowhere. Caught in his tailwind, her foot slipped under her in an awkward twist. The savage bend of her ankle caused pain to slice through every tendon and muscle along her leg. In sheer panic, Sydney flapped her arms like some wild bird in a failed attempt to keep her balance. Desperate to grab something for support, the only option left was to snatch hold of the person next to her. At that moment a short woman with a crown of tightly wound silver hair walked by, pulling her small grocery cart toward the subway stairs.
Sydney clung to the lady’s coat. The stranger immediately withdrew in surprise, but Sydney held on. Lucky for them both, Sydney’s grip offered enough support to keep them upright.
The assailant bolted, charging like a bull down the crowded sidewalk. Shoving a rancid overstuffed garbage can and unsuspecting pedestrians out of his way; he ran as if the devil himself were on his heels.
“Stop him! Police! Somebody stop him!” A shrill scream broke through the crowd. An Asian woman, short and thin with the stature of a child, raced out of her bodega, pointing after the fleeing teenager. She continued to scream at the top of her lungs.
Sydney struggled to regain her balance. “What happened?” she asked.
“Are you ok?” the silver-haired woman answered.
“I, um, I think so.” Sydney panted, a bit winded. A crowd had formed around the distraught storekeeper. Only the stranger Sydney clung to showed the least bit of concern for her. With her backpack hanging loosely down her arms, she shrugged off the embarrassment. “I’m sorry, yes, I’m fine.” She blushed, accepting her purse. “Thank you.”
“Mhmm.” The woman snorted, then walked off.
Sydney stepped out of the oncoming tide of pedestrians to regain what remained of her composure. One minute she walked on clouds, and the next she found herself flattened to the ground. A quick check of her watch and Sydney realized valuable time had been lost. She needed to hurry, but after taking one step away from the store wall, she winced under the warm sting emitting from her ankle.
No, please, God, not today, she thought.
“Excuse me,” said Sydney, pushing past people. A soft morning breeze brushed her cheeks, and her gaze lifted to the sky for the source. Snowflakes, carried in the wind, were reduced to light sprinkles melting on her face. The day would be considerably warm and the falling snow would turn into chilling rain soon. Shape shifting clusters of grey storm clouds moved in waves, covering and uncovering the sun. It didn’t matter. Neither her achy foot nor a New York ice storm could steal her joy. Today was hers.
Determined and a bit hopeful over the audition of her dreams, she pushed past several more people and quickened her pace. The morning’s alive with honking car horns and the warning beeps of a delivery truck backing into a cramped parking spot. An SUV swerved around a cab blasting reggae beats loud enough for the entire city to hear.
With her hands shoved deep in the pockets of her favorite jeans, she kept going. The freezing wind lifted her bushy locks from her shoulders despite being tucked behind her ears, and under the knitted skullcap she wore to keep them pressed to her head. Sydney had a wealth of naturally thick hair. Once unleashed it puffed out at all angles like a reddish brown cloud. She had already burned through two flat irons this year trying to straighten it. Her hair, an inherited trait from generations of women in her family, had become a curse. To others it seemed to be her best feature, evident by the constant barrage of compliments she received regarding its unruly flow.
Sidestepping others along the crowded sidewalk, and ignoring the pulsating pain in her ankle, Sydney finally spotted the dance theater. She darted through the sea of yellow cabs, throwing her hand up as she went. Her eyes focused only on the studio sign. She imagined it with her name sparkling across the marquee. A crazy mixture of hope and fear passed through her. Sydney stood underneath it, she savored the moment. This audition would change her life forever.
“Are you going in or what?” A snarky voice echoed behind her, above the honking horns of traffic on the congested streets.
Sydney, startled, found herself blocking several others from passing. The narrow space of sidewalk before the studio doors left little room for the dancer anxiously trying to access the front steps. With a sweet smile of apology she stepped aside. “Sorry, my fault,” she said.
The dancer, a petite brunette with a distinct Cyndi Crawford mole above her lip, cut her eyes at Sydney before disappearing through the door. That wasn’t surprising. She’d been snubbed many times at auditions such as these. Sydney dismissed the young woman and returned her gaze to the sign. No longer caught up in the fantasy, she re-read the marquee. It advertised the casting call would be by invitation only.
“You won’t go to New York with Portia and that’s final! No daughter of mine is going to be some street dancer! Give me those car keys dammit! Now!”
The strong harsh words of disapproval always surfaced when she reached for her dreams. Since she left Carolina her father hadn’t spoken to her. Not a single word. Only a year and six months had passed since the blow-up over her wanting to leave. Her mother said things between them would change, he’d come around, but Sydney knew better. She needed to become the dancer she aspired to be to prove her father wrong. Then and only then would the walls erected in disappointment come down, and acceptance could mend the pain between them.
The door to the studio opened again and another person rushed through. Sydney followed. She unraveled her wool scarf off her neck. She found the hall of the building empty except for her and one other prospect. Quickening her steps she grimaced when her ankle reminded her of the folly a few minutes earlier. She did however, make it to the elevator in time. Together they rode to the third floor in silence. Maybe she’d get a good slot. The elevator doors opened and her hopes were dashed. Before her stretched a line of hopefuls, and each head turned toward her once she joined them. This scene had a familiarity she couldn’t dismiss. Talent from the American Dance Academy accounted for, and handpicked for today’s audition.
Showtime, she thought. At the end of the table sat a striking blonde. The woman appeared to be in her late twenties possibly early thirties. Her golden hair groomed in a blown straight style, draped the sides of her face from a center part reaching down the length of her back and arms. Her features were nearly flawless with a perfect aquiline nose, pouty lips and high cheekbones. Sydney considered her too pretty to be a dancer and too classy to be just a model. Near her, a very fashionable man checked off names. Then it hit Sydney like a bullet. Oh dear God it’s her. It’s Xenia Minetti. She’s here greeting each dancer personally. I can’t blow this. She’s looking dead at me. Okay, calm down, straighten up and smile. The line moved quickly, and soon it Sydney stood before the star maker. She burned with hope.
“Hi!” she said.
Eyes ringed with dark liner and naturally long lashes lifted to her face. “Yes?” the man asked, unimpressed with her enthusiasm.
“I’m Sydney Allen. I think I have an audition today,” she said, removing her skullcap.
“You think?” he asked, drawing his platinum brows together. He clucked his tongue and chewed on the back of his pen. Sydney felt her throat go dry, but she kept a pleasant smile on her face.
“Um, no, I do. I, ah, I have an audition today.”
“Sydney? Wait I know that name. Sydney Allen? Ooooo, Sydney Allen!” he sang merrily. “Yes, honey, you’re the one that Mario told me about, right?”
Sydney tried not to make any unfair judgments about the man’s flamboyant appearance, but when he offered her his hand, she was reminded of how far from Carolina she had come. Over a year and half had passed since she arrived in the city. She should be used to the diversity. Hell, it was 2011 after all.
The man before her had a uniquely handsome face. With mocha brown skin, and a dazzling white smile, she took note of his original flare. For starters, his brown skin complimented the sharp contrast of his platinum-bleached hair, cut low on the sides with tight curls on top. And he had bleached his eyebrows as well. He popped the collar on his blush-pink button-down shirt. Even his lips sported a dew-kissed pink shine.
Sydney accepted his hand with a firm shake. When their fingers parted, she noticed his manicured nails had pink tips.
I guess pink is his signature color, she thought.
“I’m Juan, but my friends call me Juanita,” he said, with a sly smirk.
“Thanks for the opportunity.” Sydney beamed. Portia warned her that her cousin Mario, who dated this man, could only get her name on the list. The rest would be up to her.
Sydney noticed from her peripheral line of vision the attractive blonde seemed a bit annoyed. When she spoke, Sydney’s suspicions were confirmed. “I let Juanita here pull these stunts with strays every now and then,” she said. “I’ve found some talent that way. But understand that your favors end here. I’m Xenia Minetti,” the blonde said, extending her hand.
“Thank you so much, Ms. Minetti.”
“Why? You haven’t even gotten in the door yet, sweetheart. ID, please.”
Sydney pulled off her backpack and took out her wallet. She passed Xenia the ID; she gave her the address and telephone number where she could be reached.
“Are you Dominican, no maybe Haitian?” Juan asked while chewing on the cap of his pen. He walked around the table to get a better look at her. In doing so she got a better look at him. He wore dark blue skinny jeans and a fashionable pair of pink stiletto boots.
“Haitian?” Sydney frowned. She felt his eyes on her figure.
What the hell is he talking about? Though her skin was a very deep shade of brown, affirming her ethnicity, her hair, high cheekbones, and the exotic slant to her eyes always gave others pause—thinking she was Caribbean. She didn’t know what ancestor slept with whom, but in this city she considered herself the least unique. Especially when compared to Mr. Juanita.
“Your hair, eyes, and booty, girl. Something is mixed up in there! You definitely black, but––”
Sydney’s embarrassment quickly turned to annoyance. “Aren’t we all mixed with something?” she asked and shrugged, wishing he’d just move on.
Juan threw his head back and let go a girlish peal of laughter, then sashayed back to his seat. “Aint that the truth, honey. I’m the damn Rainbow Coalition,” he announced to everyone in line. “My mother’s half black, half Italian, and my father’s half Latino, and sumthin’ French, I think—ooh, maybe Creole.”
Xenia handed back the ID, and Sydney appreciated the distraction. She liked Juanita but she didn’t want to be singled out by him. The attention could backfire. Then Xenia Minetti narrowed her eyes on her and said something that stopped her cold.
“Happy birthday, Sydney.”
“It’s her birthday?” Juan asked. The high pitch shrill in his tone had every eye in the room on her.
“Sure is,” Xenia said. “Let’s hope that brings you good fortune. You’re going to need it, and a truck load of talent to make it in my show.” She passed Sydney a paper number to wear on her front and back. “You can change over there. You’ll be on the red team. Juanita here will call your group after you meet with the choreographer.”
“Choreographer? Excuse me, but I thought we got to do our own routine?”
Xenia looked up from her fast scribbling. “First, we see if you can follow instructions. Then we decide whether you can audition. I don’t care if you can shake that sweet ass of yours in the club or on a pole. I need a trained, disciplined dancer, if that’s ok with you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sydney nodded to the woman who could make her dreams come true.
Sydney headed to the dressing room to change. She’d been in this spot before. There would be no need to debate or question anything. As she started to change, she realized she had dropped her scarf. When she returned for it, she heard Xenia and Juan discussing her.
Juan leaned over to his boss. “I like her!”
“You haven’t seen her dance,” Xenia said.
“Doesn’t matter. She has a hungry, urban look that will spice up this production. How many times have I told you that these kids you get from the Academy lack flavor? Look at ’em!”
Sydney looked over to the line of hopefuls from all walks of life. They all seemed to have the same stance of control, body type, and discipline.
“A trained dancer is what I need,” Xenia said. “You stop taking advantage of our relationship by adding these walk-ins. No more after today. I mean it.”
Juan clucked his tongue. “Honey, please. The last stray I brought in, and you chased away, is headlining up the street on Broadway. My record speaks for itself.”
Just then Juan looked back and spotted Sydney. She blushed, picked up her scarf, and hurried off. She had a better chance than she thought, as long as she could disguise her throbbing foot.
From the thirty-sixth floor, Nolen Adams glared out the window of his office. Nolen had accomplished a lot at twenty-seven. Though the seedy waters he swam through to reach the shore of success had taken its toll. The investment-banking firm he founded ranked fifth behind Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs. Six years ago when he arrived he found Wall Street polluted with eager to succeed investment bankers, hunched over keyboards with phones pressed to their ears, sleeves rolled up, gambling with an uncertain market. The hustle was no different than the one he learned in the back door casinos and poker rooms at his father’s knee. Banks handle the wealth of everyday people, while investment firms like the one Nolen would eventually build, handled the wealth of companies, high net worth individuals and even small governments. And he’s done it all with no help from good-ole dad.
A sardonic smile curled the left side of Nolen’s face, and reflected off the windowpane before him. At the tender age of six Nolen’s mother had him tested on the suggestion of a family friend. She was told he had an IQ of 160 possibly 180. From that day forth school became an afterthought. Nolen officially joined the family business—grifting gamblers and unsuspecting retirees out of their pensions and savings. He later learned his father’s IQ ranked closer to 200. When his old man discovered Nolen too had his smarts, he took a special interest in him. Nolen’s talents for understanding numbers and all American boy looks made grifting easy. They’ll never see you coming kid! The old man would say.
At thirteen everything changed. His father disappeared, presumed dead, and his mother re-married. A man named Heathcliff Adams entered his life. A banker and lover of the stock market. A year under his roof, and Nolen had learned of the legitimate hustle, investment banking. Silver tongue tricks that would help him use his genius to convince the most conservative investor to turn over capital and allow him to gamble with their riches. Of course he stole as much as he brought in, but he had a talent for covering that as well.
A brief run up against the law and in college and Nolen decided to turn over a new leaf. He went legit. Beat those bastards before they took him down. Still he indulged the thirst for the grift, left behind by his dad’s absence, and craved it like his old man did. Made some dangerous friends along the way. The kind of men who wanted to wash their money clean and needed Nolen’s skills and influence to make it happen. He’d never let dirty business take him under. Nolen had proved the belligerent con man wrong.
Storm clouds moving in across the horizon drew his attention upward. The holiday season had come and gone. Today was February first, a nasty wintry month. Something new on the horizon, stirred in the wind beyond the window glass. He sensed it. Reclining in his desk chair, his lids lowered, and then closed.
“Excuse me, Mr. Adams.” His personal assistant tapped on the frosted-glass door to his office.
“What is it?”
“The car is here to take you to that dance studio.”
He grimaced. “Dance studio?”
Annemarie showed no surprise at his memory lapse. He could tell by the monotone answer she gave. “You promised Ms. Minetti that you’d attend her auditions today. She’s looking for investors, remember?”
“What time is my meeting with Scott Harris?” Nolen turned in his chair. He leveled his eyes on the petite brunette that knew more about his life and schedules than any wife could.
“At two, sir.”
A quick glance at his watch, confirmed it was after ten. For the life of him, he couldn’t recall the commitment or why he’d bother honoring it. Then he thought of Xenia, and how exhausting she’d be if he ignored her.
Xenia Minetti owned a ballet studio uptown. In the past four years she had produced only one classical ballet to rave reviews; however, her social standing and connections made her shows the most sought after in the city. A month earlier, Xenia had been his date at a charity event hosted by the mayor. The next day, their names appeared in the society column of the newspaper, citing them as the new “it couple.” The article had the nerve to announce his retirement from bachelorhood. Why his dick and how he chose to use it would be more newsworthy than his twenty-million-dollar investment deal confounded him.
“Inform the driver I’ll be down shortly,” he mumbled.
Annemarie nodded, excusing herself. Resigned to his day’s appointments, he stood, pulled on his black, floor-length trench coat with his cigar still pressed between his lips, and strolled out the door. Maybe he was wrong. The storm brewing wasn’t carrying something fresh in the wind, just the stale odor of the same shit that blew his way every other day.
C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, ignore it, her inner voice whispered. Imposing an iron control over her emotions, Sydney entered the practice studio. The pain in her ankle became unbearable. But she’d be damned if it stopped her now. Instead of caving, Sydney had changed into her black leotard and tights. Her feet and ankles were properly taped around worn over dance shoes. With her heart thundering in her chest, she carefully masked her weakness. Along the way her naiveté had caused her to make some critical mistakes. But it would be different this time.
Practicing her breathing, she stretched at the ballet barre, loosening her muscles and letting go of her anxiety. With a slow, meticulous rotation, she worked her foot and felt the pressure in her ankle ease. Maybe the pain could serve as a distraction from her nerves, giving her something else to focus on. She could only hope.
“Dis is it!” A voice cracked like a whip through the girlish chatter, silencing her thoughts. Everyone turned and Sydney lowered her leg, curious to see who was speaking.
“I am Madame Gustav, and for you ladies de free ride begins and ends heah!”
A petite woman stepped out from under the arch of the doorway. Sydney’s only instructions in dance hand come under her mother’s care. She’d never faced a professional instructor before, especially one as rigid and serious as this woman.
“Dey say you’re dancers. I say prove it! Line up!” she ordered.
The girls all fell into a military straight line. Birthed from the Academy, they were disciplined and compliant. Sydney followed their lead, her stomach now twisted into a pretzel knot.
“Nice feet,” a dancer said, snickering at the state of Sydney’s shoes.
Sydney smirked at the lame attempt to intimidate her. It only showed how weak her opponent was. Besides, her focus was now on winning over this choreographer.
Gustav walked through the room with her hands on her hips. Standing barely five feet tall, she appeared to be very physically fit for a woman her age. She had sculpted arms, a lean body, and finely muscled dancer’s legs that showed beneath the knee length sheer skirt she wore. The choreographer’s hair was a spider’s nest of silver and black streaks pinned to the top of her head. She wore dark red rouge and lipstick. Sydney guessed her to be in her late sixties, fighting desperately to maintain her youth.
She watched the instructor through the reflection in the mirror, careful not to look directly at her. Her heart beat in her throat as she waited, anticipated, and prayed she passed whatever inspection they were now all set to endure.
“Step back!” Gustav commanded of the first girl.
“Step forward!” Gustav said with a nod of approval to the next.
“Step back, step back, step back, step forward!”
The critical tone Gustav used as she approached gnawed at Sydney’s confidence. The coveted front row is always hard to secure. It should be chosen based on skill, not a two-second appraisal from this brutish woman. Sydney’s jaw tensed and her nostrils flared and she braced herself. Locking her fingers behind her back, she silently prayed that her fears were premature. When Madame Gustav stopped before her, she found the courage to look the woman in the eye.
“Step back!” Madame Gustav ordered.
Her chest fell. How dare Gustav dismiss her without a trial? She wouldn’t stand for it. Not today, not after all the rejections and disappointments, not when if this could be her final shot at her dream. “Excuse me,” Sydney said.
The girls all looked at her. Gustav slowly turned. Her cool gray eyes were flat and unreadable. “Yez?”
“I’d like to ask that I be given a spot in the front. Or, um, maybe try out for it.”
Silence filled the room. Sydney could feel a charge in the air at the audacity of her request. Shock and sneers from dancers she didn’t care to know she could handle. What worried her was the flame of anger now glowing in Madame Gustav’s eyes. She had insulted the woman, and it’s too late to retract the error.
“I zee. Zenter stage, no?”
“No, ma’am . . . I mean . . . yes . . . yes, ma’am.”
“Silenze!” Gustav snapped.
Sydney frowned, but held her tongue. Gustav walked around her, looking her over. “How tall?”
“Five feet, six.”
“And jour weight?”
“One hundred thirty-eight pounds.”
She caught the snickering at the mention of her weight, but ignored it. Her bust and hips carried the load, a sure turnoff for many choreographers. If she was a pop singer they’d salivate, but that wasn’t her calling. Sydney wanted to dance.
Madame Gustav’s eyes dropped, and then lifted to her face. “What size are thoze feet?”
And there it was. The dreaded question she had hoped to avoid. Sydney held the old woman’s stare. “Nine, ma’am.”
“Schweigen!” Madame Gustav commanded silence once again. Sydney felt as if her breath was cut off, impaled by the steady gaze of the woman. Tiny beads of sweat dotted her forehead, betraying her attempt at outward calm.
“I ’ave little time, and even lez patienze. Don’t eva question my instructionz again.”
Gustav walked off, barking out the rest of her orders. She then returned her eyes to Sydney. “Zenter Stage, that’s what I shall call you from now on. Heah!” she said, pointing to the front center of the room.
Sydney stepped up. Madame Gustav beat out a routine before their eyes with a grace and agility that many women half her age didn’t possess. It was a routine of lifts on a pointed toe. Quite simple for a disciplined dancer to manage, Sydney hoped.
“Now!” Gustav commanded with an upward sweep of both of her hands. The girls rose on their toes. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight!”
Sydney, as the lead, balanced through a divertissement, a group of short leg lifts and bends usually found in a classical ballet. With Madame Gustav circling the girls, she demanded sucked in diaphragms and precision through each leap. Sydney soon understood why Gustav had chosen this test for the auditioning dancers. Immediately it separated the weak from the strong.
“Zenter Stage, go!” Gustav ordered. “Up! Up! Turn––now to de right!”
Sydney kept going, balancing her way into a pirouette, followed by a jeté—a leap from one leg to the other. Madame Gustav nodded, giving three others a step behind Sydney while making the rest keep up the back. The pain in her foot grew fiery hot and Sydney lost control in a spin twice, which didn’t go unnoticed. Having drawn Madame Gustav’s wrath, she was now in her scope. Every move had to be precise.
But she floundered again and struggled through her discomfort, forced to push herself harder. The other girls, who had trained for this moment since they were possibly children, took over, spinning with synchronizing agility all around her. They didn’t appear more disciplined; they simply were. She could see them in the mirror, which also reflected her own failings. The harder she tried, the more confused she became.
“Zenter Stage! To de back!” Gustav said, shaking her head in disappointment.
“Madame, I can—”
“De back! Now!”
Crestfallen, she stepped back, then the door to the studio pushed open.
“All right, chicas get tight. Ten minutes and you birds take flight!” Juan sang from the open doorway.
The practice run ended. Sydney dropped her hands to her knees and tried to catch her breath while struggling to hide her pain. Her foot pain remains no match for the wound in her heart. She’d messed up. Damn it, she might have even blown the audition. What else could go wrong now? She bit down on her lip and swallowed the humiliation. She couldn’t even look up at the dancers prancing out.
“Hey, you ok?” Another dancer asked as she came over with a bottle of water.
“I’m fine.” Sydney sniffed and smiled up at the generosity. “Thank you,” she said, accepting the much needed drink.
“I’m Bet, short for Bethel.”
“Hi, Bet. I’m Sydney.”
The young brunette grinned. She reminded Sydney of a gymnast with her petite frame and hair tied up in a ribbon.
“I can’t believe you put yourself out there like that. I mean it’s cool, but, man, it was risky. You don’t want to piss her off. Do you know who she is?”
Sydney swallowed the water in two gulps, eyeing Madame Gustav as she checked off a list with her assistant. The choreographer cut her eyes up at Sydney with a hint of disapproval.
“Doesn’t matter now. I blew it,” Sydney said, putting the cap back on the deflated bottle.
“No, you were great! I could barely keep up with you. You just landed wrong. It happens to the best of us.”
“It’s not supposed to happen to me,” Sydney said through her teeth.
Oh, stop being such a baby, her inner voice teased. She couldn’t help it. To come so far and then stumble backward seemed to be the story of her life. Her father had once warned her that she would be a victim of her own pride. He should know, since his rejection of her only lasted because of his own.
“So who is she?” Sydney mumbled.
“You really don’t know, do you? She was once the top prima ballerina in Europe. It was in the papers that she’d be choreographing this show. She has trained with the best. The only way she will do the show is if she has the final approval of dancers. That’s why we got to do this old, stuffy, funky routine for the first audition. I mean five minutes to learn it? Whatever.”
“Oh?” Sydney, shrugged, feeling stupid. How many times did Portia warn her about doing her research? Sydney had thought knowing everything about Xenia Minetti would be the key to success. Evidently she was wrong.
“Well good luck. Now that you’ve caught her eye, you’ll need it.”
Frowning at the warning, Sydney nodded her thanks. Her stomach soured, and the pain in her ankle throbbed. “Hey, can you cover for me? I’m going to run to the bathroom.”
“Sure,” Bet agreed, and Sydney hurried off. She avoided Gustav and shouldered past the other dancers, who were congregating at the door. She felt like she’d burst into tears at any moment. She needed some privacy.
The winter snow flurries moved him along. Annemarie, half his size in height, struggled to keep the umbrella above his head. Nolen made it even more difficult by entering the studio ahead of her. He swept the faces before him. Then finally locked in on Xenia. She stood at the end of the hall speaking with several of her staff members. When she turned to walk away, she looked up and met his stare. Nolen watched her walk toward him with an exaggerated sway of her hips.
“Glad you could make it,” she said, reaching up to kiss his cheek.
The dancers, now lined up against the wall, stared at him. Some were even bold enough to bat their eyes, trying to get his attention. None of it went unnoticed. Second only to his love of money was his love of women.
Xenia fingered her diamond pendant and moved in closer. Nolen leaned forward to speak into her ear. “You’ve got an hour.”
“It’s all I need, handsome,” she said, taking his hand to lead him down the cramped hallway to a side stage door.
“Mr. Adams, wait. I have to speak with you,” Annemarie said as she passed him her phone. “I’m sorry, sir, but the office called the studio. They just gave me the message. It seems that Lance Delstar has threatened to pull his portfolio for Delstar Textile. No one at the branch office can deal with him. I can get him on the phone in Ms. Minetti’s office, for privacy.”
“Nolen, don’t.” Xenia groaned.
He winked at her before he left her side. “Go ahead. I’ll find you.”
Nolen stepped away, despite her protests. The dance hall was crammed with the anxious chatter of both men and women. Xenia’s office was down the opposite hall in a less populated area of the studio. Annemarie was ahead of him. She had already dialed the number as he approached the desk. He accepted the phone.
“This is Adams. What’s the problem?”
“Adams, fuck, I’ve been trying to reach you for the past three days! Did you see the financial report your office sent to me? You are supposed to be managing my capital issues. Not trading.”
“Lance. We’ve discussed this before. My people have a long-term strategy. A little loss is expected. The financial markets in India are growing, you’ll recover.”
“I explained this. I’m managing your assets, buying and selling shares now.”
“I’m no fool Adams! I know you’re good at what you do, but you’re taking too many risks. I’ve already closed two factories. I need to be conservative now––”
“Fine.” Nolen said in a disinterested tone. He’d already made the money he wanted from Delstar. The insider information he had would bring in another three million before the market closed with Hollister. “We’re dumping the Delstar portfolio.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Get another investment firm. I don’t work under these constraints. Good luck to you Scott.”
“Wait! No I don’t—.”
Nolen slammed down the phone and strolled out of the office. He’d make sure Annemarie got in touch with the attorneys to cover their tracks. He walked down the hall then paused. An unmistakable scraping noise echoing throughout. It was as if a chair was being dragged. Nolen finally took in his surroundings. He noticed the warped floorboards and molding along the walls. In this part of the studio Xenia could have a rat infestation that could shut down her business. He made a mental note to alert her before again turning to leave.
“Darn it!” a woman cried out. Nolen’s gaze was drawn back over his shoulder. What sounded like a plea instead of a curse came from behind the only door in the hall. Who in the hell said darn it nowadays, he thought with a smirk.
Nolen acted on his curiosity. There behind a stained bathroom door he spotted a young woman seated with her back to him. She wore the number thirty-two. Nolen dropped his shoulder against the doorframe and watched. Her face remained hidden to him, but her pain wasn’t. She worked her hands over what looked to be her raised foot, which rested in her lap.
“What am I doing here? How did I ever think I could pull this off?” she asked herself with a drawl that sounded Southern. She then lowered her foot and a soft moan of what he thought to be regret escaped her, before she dropped her face into her hands. “I’m such an idiot! I’m so stupid!”
Nolen’s curiosity peaked. The young woman had poufy hair, dark auburn-brown locks that rested on her shoulders. He wanted to see more of her, but to do so would probably embarrass her. His instinctual need to do her no further harm, kept him silent. She sucked in a deep breath and lowered her hands. “Ok, calm down, just stop it, Sydney. It ain’t over yet. You here and it didn’t take some fancy dance school to do it. All you gotta do is get through the audition.” She wiped her eyes. “It ain’t over. . . I can do it. It’s not over,” she mumbled, forcing herself to rise. After a deep intake of breath, she pressed down on the foot and put all of her weight on it. “See, it feels better. I can do it.”
Sydney? He displayed a sly smile at her name. Nolen slipped back into the shadows and walked out of the hall. In search of Xenia, he checked the time. It might serve him best to meet with the attorneys personally. There were some nasty details on what he had the investment team assigned to Delstar doing. He didn’t need another brush with the SEC. He had no time or patience to stick around for this dancing stuff. When he found his bedmate she was seated in the second row. She looked at him with relief. Nolen heaved a sigh then walked over to the second row and eased inside.
Xenia touched his leg once he sat. “I thought I lost you.”
He looked to the stage and watched the girls coming out to line up. “Why did you bring me to the auditions? I won’t sit through this. I have things––”
Xenia squeezed his hand and he cut his eyes back over to her. “I needed you to see the nuts and bolts of my production. You’ll finally understand my commitment to picking the best talent out there. This way you will be more inclined to invest. Now please, Nolen, it won’t take long. And I followed the rules.”
A renewed objection formed, but she dismissed him with another quick pop kiss. She reached for her microphone and turned it on.
“Let’s begin.” Xenia called out, prompting the lights to lower over the spectators, brightening for the dancers onstage. Nolen rested his elbow on the chair’s edge and reclined, stroking his chin as he scanned the ladies. One by one the women got in position. Then number thirty-two stepped out last on the stage. He narrowed his eyes on her.
“Sir, should I––”
“Not now, Annemarie,” he snapped. Number thirty-two’s thick hair was pulled back into a ponytail, revealing her delicate features. He couldn’t see her face, as clearly as he wanted to, but there was a striking contrast to this dark beauty that didn’t go unnoticed as she stood beside rail-thin women and men. He immediately noticed how she favored her foot as she got into position.
The music started and so did the dance. Number thirty-two sprung up on her toes. She matched the other dancers’ sideways steps with grace. Nolen’s gaze never left her. Impressed that her movements were masterful and her leaps as agile as the others, he watched, sharing in her secret. She danced toward the back; however, her presence and determination seemed to influence the dancers in front of her.
Nolen heard Xenia speak to her producer. The choreographer leaned in to share her opinion. The three began to systematically check off lines on her clipboard. And then the show came to an abrupt end.
Xenia cleared her throat. “When I call your number, step forward—thirty, twenty-seven, three, twenty-six, nineteen.”
The dancers stepped forward. His number thirty-two raised her hand to her brow, staring into the bright lights. He could read her hope and fear in the way her other hand opened and clenched several times.
“Thank you for coming out. If your number was called, you have not been invited to stay for the next round of auditions.”
Number thirty-two lowered her hand, and her eyes stretched wide with disbelief. Nolen found that amusing after witnessing her personal pep talk. The rejected dancers gave their thanks and walked off stage. Nolen’s eyes lowered to the foot thirty-two favored. She was an expert in concealing her pain, something he shared in common with her.
“Now,” Xenia said to the dancers who remained onstage. “Please go with Madame Gustav. You’ll be allowed to audition individually.”
Annemarie touched his shoulder, but he put up his hand to silence her. Obediently she sat back. Nolen then slid his hand over Xenia’s thigh, easing it up her skirt. “I want to see number thirty-two audition before I leave.”
“Your hour is up, but I’ll watch one audition and make my decision. I want to see number thirty-two.”
Xenia checked her notepad to see whom he was talking about. “Ah, the birthday girl?”
“Nothing. Today’s her birthday.” Xenia scoffed.
Nolen looked back at the stage. “Really?”
“Why do you want to see thirty-two?” Xenia asked. Nolen’s hand dipped in further between her thighs, and his eyes lowered to the hint of cleavage she had left exposed. Shifting in her seat as a signal for him to remove his hand before anyone saw, she spoke into the microphone. “Juan, please come to the auditorium.”
Immediately Juan came onto the stage. “¿Que pasa?” he asked, staring into the lights with one hand on his hip and the other blocking the glare.
“Change of plans. Pull thirty-two. She’s up first.”
Sydney enjoyed her small victory. She couldn’t stop grinning.
“I said, Ms. Thang!” Juan’s high-pitched voice cut through her thoughts. Sydney snatched off her earbuds and spun around to find Juan and several dancers staring at her.
“That’s right. Chu, honey! I don’t have all day. C’mon, get your diva stroll on a roll. You’re up next!” He breezed back out, and Sydney hurried to collect her things as the dancers ahead of her stared in disapproval. The girl next to her whispered, “Break a leg, or should I say foot?” She was the one who made the jab at her earlier, and now she was flanked on both sides by dancers with envious eyes. The hens snickered at the joke.
“Oh, shut the hell up!” Bet snapped. She smiled at Sydney. “Don’t pay the evil one any mind.”
“Evil one?” Sydney asked, glaring after the little group who walked away.
“Emily. She was top of the class at the Academy. She pretty much thinks this is her show. Her father is the chancellor over there, Ben Mendoza.”
Sydney froze at the mention of Mendoza’s name and her face went pale. Stuffing her bag, she tried to mask her discomfort. “Never heard of him.”
“Hey, you ok? You’ll do fine,” Bet said, touching her arm.
“Thanks!” Sydney hurried out of the practice studio.
So Mendoza’s daughter competed for the part. The day just kept getting better and better. With no other choice, she forced down her anxiety over the piece of bad luck. She had a bigger problem to consider. If the dancers saw her favoring her foot, then Xenia Minetti might as well. She had to be careful. Her eyes darted through the moving crowd of dancers and staff before spotting Juan talking to two technicians.
He looked up at her approach. “Girlfriend, mmhmm, look at cha. It’s your time,” he said. “Now, what you dancing to?”
“Black Butterfly,” she said, reaching into her bag to retrieve her CD.
Juan turned up his nose. “Black what?”
“My friend has a local band. It’s something we put together.”
Juan shook his head. “I thought you’d have something with a little more flava?”
Sydney smiled. “Oh, this has ‘flava.’ Just play it. You’ll see.”
“Whateva.” He accepted the CD, then tossed it to the audio tech. “Go on!” Juan said, shooing her off toward the stage.
Sydney dropped her bag. In her haste to get back to the stage, she had forgotten to pull her hair back into the ponytail that she’d removed after the first audition. Her thick mane tumbled carelessly down her back. She would just have to leave it that way.
The stage remained as terrifying as it was when she left it, and the stakes were much higher since this performance would decide her fate and she had to prove herself alone. Sydney could barely make out the small audience, so she chose to ignore them all. She walked confidently to center stage; she lifted her chin to the bright lights shining on her. Two deep breaths and she gave Juan a slight nod.
The saxophone solo poured out of the speakers like warm honey, charming the notes from the pianist that rippled through the air. Sydney spun into her routine. The tips of her toes kept her feet from the ground and she forced a smile to her face, giving herself up to the performance as the sweet voice sang of beauty emerging from darkness—her voice. Soon she transformed into the natural performer she was, letting the feel of the music control her body’s movements with a seductive ease. Her mind centered on the words she’d written. The sway of her hips and her leaps through the air seemed effortless. Every step synchronized to the lyrics and the saxophone. Suddenly a commanding drumbeat drove her to a climatic ending.
Before Nolen, stood something unexpected—talent tempered with unshakable determination. It left him transfixed. He knew hunger, desperation, and fear of failure when you were poised to seize it all. The playwright at the end of the row actually clapped, and from the corner of his eye he saw Xenia frown as she sized up her new starlet. But Nolen kept his gaze trained on number thirty-two. He smirked when she lifted her head and flashed a shy smile. She had her victory, and a first victory was always the sweetest.
Xenia brushed her breast against his arm when she leaned into him, but his eyes followed his butterfly.
“Well, Mr. Adams, what do you think?” she purred.
“Hmm, nice,” he said with a sly smile. His eyes returned to Xenia. “Put her in the show, and you can consider me an investor.”
Sydney hurried off the stage where Juan and Bet clapped for her. “Oooh, girl, you were something fierce!” Juan said, cheering her on.
“You did great, Sydney,” Bet added, patting her on the arm.
Breathing hard, she reached for her bag to retrieve a towel. “Thanks! Thanks so much!”
“Honey, none of them have anything on you, I promise you that,” Juan kissed both her cheeks. “I might have to give Mario a hot and nasty treat for bringing you to me!”
She grabbed her things and accepted her CD from the audio-tech. “What’s next?”
“The usual. We got your information. Xenia will meet with her production team and that drill sergeant of a choreographer,” Juan said, rolling his eyes. “She’ll go over the tapes.”
“You were on camera,” Juan winked.
Sydney’s stomach soured. “Oh,” she said, thinking that close inspection of her performance might reveal her sore foot.
“Anyway, they’ll call you back for another audition. I’m sure of it.” Juan reached in his pocket and pulled out a pink business card with his picture on it. “That’s my number. You can call me tonight after six, and I’ll give you the bizness! Nothing goes down around here that I don’t know about,” he whispered.
“Thanks so much,” she gushed in a single breath as some of the waiting girls looked on with envious eyes. She said her goodbyes before rushing off to the bathroom to change.
Several minutes later, with her hair back in a ponytail, Sydney slipped out. She couldn’t wait to tell Portia and Trish her news.
From the back of his chauffeured car, Nolen took a slow drag on his cigar. He exhaled a milky white stream of smoke through the window and into the icy rain. The door to the studio finally pushed open and his starlet appeared. She pulled down her skullcap and zipped her jacket. He watched her maneuver with an imperfect bounce down the crowded sidewalk. Impressed, a secretive smile crossed his lips.
“Sir, is six dozen enough?” Annemarie asked.
“It’ll do,” he answered as he continued to watch Sydney.
His butterfly disappeared down the stairs leading to the subway. He knew only two things about her—her name was Sydney Allen, and today was her birthday. “Happy birthday, Sydney,” he said before the sleek car peeled away from the curb.
Sydney dipped her chin into the warmth of her raised, zipped collar, thankful the rain had ceased. For the first time in months, her luck was changing. The smoky lyricists crooning from her MP3 player added a bit rhythm to her stride; she flashed warm smiles at New Yorkers, young and old. Everyone should be smiling today.
Two train rides and a lot of walking had reduced her to hobbling on her achy foot. She climbed the front steps to her twelve-story apartment building in the South Bronx, grateful the journey had ended. Sydney could envision the smug I-told-you-so that she’d get as soon as Portia heard the news. But when she saw that the numbers on the door keypad weren’t illuminated, her mood soon soured. Any passing vagrant could discover that the building was unlocked and come in to warm himself. Their slumlord had done nothing about the poor security in their building. It was getting old. Resigned to the reality of the situation, she went inside.
Pulling off her glove with her mouth, she fished in her pocket for the mailbox key. After opening the box, she sighed. Bills that none of them were prepared to pay. Lately tips were low. If Portia didn’t bring in her steady check from washing hair at the beauty salon, they’d be screwed. Trish never had much money to contribute, but she did what she could whenever she sold a painting.
Shaking her head at the pink cutoff notice for the gas, she headed for the elevator, stuffing the mail in the pocket of her tote. Two weeks ago when she had gotten stuck between floors in the elevator for three hours, the girls made a pact to avoid it at all costs. Sydney, however, could barely take another step.
The doors closed and the ancient gears on the elevator groaned before lurching upward. Sydney watched the numbers blink one by one. When the elevator doors parted, she darted out into the hall, nearly colliding with Ricky.
“Ouch!” she grunted.
“Whoa. What’s your hurry?”
Sydney looked up into his eyes and smiled. “Me? You were moving fast there yourself, mister.”
He towered over her in his worn over, yet beloved leather biker jacket. Ricky’s skin was a deep mocha brown and flawless. He sported well-groomed dreadlocks that hung to the middle of his back under a red, green, and black knitted cap. With a generous mouth, wide nose, and high cheekbones, he was by far the most handsome guy in the building. He told her he was born in Trinidad, but raised in Toronto, which he often spoke of returning to when his band struck a deal. Their shared love of music had led to a very endearing friendship. She knew he was hoping for much more, and she was warming to the idea.
“Happy birthday, love. You ok?” he asked, smiling down at her.
“My fault. It’s my fault. I got a tender foot.”
“Tender foot? Wasn’t your audition today?”
“Un huh, long story,” she said with a sheepish grin.
“So what?” she teased, batting her eyes. “Ok, I’ll tell you! I did it! I think they want me!”
He lifted her up into the circle of his arms and spun her around to her delight. “I knew it. It was the song, wasn’t it?”
Sydney laughed. “No, dummy, it was my dancing.”
“Yeah, right, the dancing,” he said, grinning. “How bad is it?” he asked, looking down at her foot.
“I just need to get off it for a few. Nothing serious. I made it through the audition, didn’t I?”
“Ricky, seriously, I’m fine. You headed out?”
“Yes.” He checked his watch. “Yo, I’ve got something special happening at the club tonight. We can celebrate, so please come.”
Backing away, she nodded. “We’ll be there.” She turned and headed for her apartment.
She looked back over her shoulder.
“I’m proud of you sweetheart,” he called after her.
“Thanks. That means a lot.”
He winked and disappeared inside the elevator.
Balancing her weight on her one good foot, Sydney slipped the key inside the lock, flung open the door, and then froze in the doorway. Large crystal vases filled with the biggest pink roses she’d ever seen were everywhere.
Portia stepped out of the kitchen, holding a phone to her ear. She covered the receiver with her hand and grinned. “Where you been, and what the hell is going on, girl? We’ve got the damn Rose Parade in our living room.” Chuckling, Portia stepped back inside the kitchen.
Sydney closed the door, dumbfounded. Her eyes swept over the six vases of majestic roses all decorated with pink ribbons. The rich aroma of the flowers left her lightheaded.
Portia reappeared. She wiped her hands down the sides of her jean miniskirt and looked around. “You’ve been holding out on me, girl. What you do to get these flowers?”
Sydney unzipped her jacket and removed the scarf from around her neck. She headed toward the closest vase. Her fingers traced the crystal carvings that lined it. Memories of the garden in South Carolina where she’d help her mother plant and care for roses surfaced. Her eyes brimmed with tears.
Portia plucked the card off the counter and read it aloud.
“Black Butterfly, have dinner with me. A car will arrive around eight. Happy birthday. NA.”
Now Sydney was confused. “Black Butterfly?” she mumbled.
Portia moved into her face. “That’s right. Now tell me, what did you do to get a birthday present like this? And who is NA?”
Snatching the card, Sydney read it over and over. The only thing she could think of was the audition, but she hadn’t met anyone named NA there. She crumpled the card and frowned at the gifts.
“Girl, it’s some weirdo. Who knows? I sure as hell don’t know any NA.”’
Portia frowned. “Weirdo? Are you nuts? A weirdo doesn’t send you six dozen long-stemmed pink roses. A man with some real taste did this.”
Shrugging off her jacket, Sydney laughed. “This is New York, Portia. Hell, we don’t even know if it was a man.” She peeled off her turtleneck, revealing the leotard underneath.
“Ok, forget the flowers. Tell me about the audition. What’s the word?” Portia asked.
Sydney put her hands to her hips and gave a coy smirk. Portia nodded. The two of them stood there for a long moment just grinning.
“I think I will get a callback!” Sydney screamed.
“Hot damn!” Portia squealed, leaping into her arms. “That’s fantastic! I knew it! I told you this one was it. I just knew it.”
Sydney hugged her tightly, her heart singing with delight. “Girl, I’m kinda in shock, ya know? And . . . and . . . and Ricky was right about the song, and my singing. I know I fought him on the idea, but he was right. I owe it to you guys, big time,” she gushed in one breath.
Letting her go, Portia shook her head, causing her long curls to cascade around her shoulders. She was a natural beauty, with buttery tanned skin and deep-set eyes under naturally long lashes. Portia could turn heads in an orange prison jumper.
“Nah, girl, if you could see the way you dance, how you make people feel, ya know? This was all you, honey. I’m so proud!”
Sydney’s joy bubbled over in her laugh. She limped away to the sofa.
“What’s with your foot?” Portia asked.
Sydney sat down, but kept her foot raised. Reaching up, she pulled off her boot. “Some fool robbed a store this morning and I got in his way.”
“What the hell?”
“He pushed past me. I’m fine.”
“Damn, girl, don’t tell Trish that shit. All I need is her freaking out again.”
Sydney had to agree with her. When it came to protecting Trish, they always agreed. Their friend had been robbed before, and it took them months to get her to ride the subway alone again.
Sydney’s eyes were drawn back to the vase of roses as she massaged her foot. Whoever this NA person was, he knew her address and her birthday. She couldn’t decide if she should call the police or check with Bellevue.
Portia plucked a rose and sauntered over to her. She put her hand on her hip and waved the rose in Sydney’s face. “Only you could get a secret admirer on your birthday,” she said, laughing. “Damn, too bad Trish isn’t home. This is the most excitement we’ve had in weeks.”
Nolen stormed angrily out of the meeting. Annemarie struggled to keep up. “I gave you specific instructions,” he barked. He cut his eyes over to his assistant. “This deal will go through. You get me what I fucking need to convince Hollister to go public!”
“Yes, sir.” She nodded, hurrying along at his side. His car waited for him on the curb. The rain had turned to sleet and frosty wind nipped at his cheeks, but nothing could cool the ambers of fire glowing in his eyes when he looked back once more at the courthouse.
The driver held open the door to the limo. Once inside, the car eased into traffic. The phone in Annemarie’s hand rang. “For you, sir,” she grabbed his sleeve.
“This is Adams.”
“Nolen, where are you?” Xenia asked.
“What is it?” He gave an exasperated sigh.
“A celebratory dinner, of course.”
“I have plans,” he said. Xenia had taken to calling Annemarie in order to get to him. He rarely shared his direct line with anyone, not even business associates. Xenia’s persistence would have to stop. It made him feel trapped.
Nolen held his tongue. Xenia was wise enough not to persist. “Ok . . . well, soon, then. We need to meet with my other investors to discuss the benefits of you being a part of my team.”
“I’ll call you later this week. Bye.”
Nolen handed Annemarie the phone. “My plans this evening with the dancer, are they set?”
Annemarie nodded. “Yes, sir. A driver will pick her up around eight and bring her to you within the hour.”
“She should have it, sir.”
He settled comfortably in his seat. The day might be salvaged after all.