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I didn’t let myself focus on the fact that nearly one thousand sets of eyes were locked on me. Progressing into the difficult finale, I danced for only one set. The lights that blinded me to the crowd, the pressure to perform that drove me forward, and the wardrobe malfunction that was one thread from snapping away‌—‌I pushed it all aside and danced for him.

The last few bars of music came to a close as I took my final grand allegro into the air. My pointes landed at the exact moment the last chord flowed through the room.

This was it. The moment I loved. The breath and a half of stillness and silence before I moved into a curtsy and the crowd applauded. A two second window to reflect and revel in the blood, sweat, and tears I’d shed to get to this point. The point where, if I was a spectator at the game of Lucy Larson’s life, I could nod my head and think job well done.

It was a moment I wanted to last forever, but accepted it for what it was. A glimpse at perfection before it was swept away.

Sucking in a breath, I lifted my arms and, moving into curtsy position, I lifted my eyes. Right where Madame Fontaine had trained me to direct them at the conclusion of a performance. Front and center. And then, against everything she’d warned me never to do, a smile played at the corners of my mouth.

It was impossible not to when my front and center was Jude Ryder.

He leapt up from his seat, clapping like he was trying to fill the whole room with it, grinning at me in a way that made my stomach clench. Those around him were already peering over with curiosity, so when Jude jumped onto his seat and began hooting “Bravo” at top volume, those looks of curiosity sharpened into something not nearly as benign.

Not that I cared. I’d learned a while back that being with Jude meant going against society’s flow. We were constantly fighting the current and just about every social norm and generally accepted principle out there. It was a cost worth paying to be with him.

Taking one more curtsy, I met his gaze once more and did the unthinkable. Thank the maker Madame Fontaine hadn’t been here tonight because her perpetually tight bun might have just busted something as I paired my smile with a wink. Aimed right at the man towering over the crowd, cheering for me like I’d just the saved the world from its demise.

The lights fell and, before I hurried off stage, I heard one more round of Jude hooting and whistling. He was breaking every unspoken rule of how one should show their appreciation for the arts. And I loved it.

Like our relationship, we did everything a bit out of the box.

“Think you could try, just for once, to not give a perfect performance? You know, so the rest of us don’t look like such bush-leaguers,” Thomas, a fellow student and dancer, whispered at me as I scurried behind the curtains.

“I could,” I whispered back as the last dancer took the stage. “But where’s the fun in that?”

Smirking, he tossed me a bottle of water. Catching it with one hand, I waved it in thanks and headed backstage to stretch and change. I had a ten minute window before the performance would draw to a conclusion, and I knew from experience Jude would be barreling backstage to find me if I didn’t find him first. He wasn’t exactly a patient man, especially following a dance recital. What watching him play football did to me, me dancing did to him.

Sliding into the dressing room, I grabbed my foot, stretching my quad while I hopped over to my corner of the room, untying my pointe. The nude colored elastic band winding around my neck, holding my corset in place so my performance didn’t turn into a peep show, snapped the moment I stretched my neck to the side. Wardrobe malfunction couldn’t have picked a better time to “malfunction”.

Stretching the other leg back, my fingers worked to undo my other pointe. Tossing both of them into my bag, I pulled out my jeans, sweater, and riding boots. It was Friday night and, since Jude had a home game tomorrow, that meant we got the whole night to ourselves. He had something planned and he’d told me to dress warm. I would have rather been dressing for warm weather, but really, when it came to being with Jude, I didn’t care what I was wearing. In fact, I would have preferred to wear nothing, but the latest patron saint of virtue, Jude Ryder, wasn’t having any of that until he “figured his shit out.”

I’d never wanted shit to get figured out faster.

I really needed to stretch a little longer, but I had two minutes max before Jude would come bursting through the dressing room door. Twisting my arms behind me, I worked at the corsetting of my costume. Where was Eve when I needed her? That girl could fasten and unfasten a corset faster than a playa could lower his zipper in the back seat of his sports car.

I was half contemplating searching for a pair of scissors to escape the satin contraption when a warm set of hands rested over my shoulders.

“May I be of assistance?” Thomas said, grinning at me as I looked over my shoulder.

“If your assistance comes with speed and precision, then yes, please,” I replied.

His grin curled with wickedness. “When it comes to removing women’s clothing, speed and precision are of utmost importance.”

I elbowed him as he laughed. “Anytime today, Mr. Hot Fingers.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, cracking his fingers dramatically before moving to the back of my dress.

Thomas was right‌—‌he’d mastered the speed and precision part of undressing a woman. However, there was nothing even remotely intimate about one dancer helping another dancer dress or undress, male or not. You danced long enough, you got used to about every dancer in a three state radius seeing you next to nak*d. There was no room for being a prude in the world of dance.

“Almost,” Thomas mumbled as his fingers worked towards the bottom rivet of my corset.

I was about to smart back with something of the witty variety when the dressing room door flew open. I didn’t have one hot second to explain before Jude’s face blanched from elation to murder.

“What the hell?” he hollered, his face flaming red.

“Jude,” I began, turning to him and holding up my hands.

“You’re a dead man,” he spit, lunging across the room towards us.

Dodging in front of him, I thrust both hands into his brick wall of a chest. They were going to sting for a while from that maneuver.

“Jude!” This time I yelled. “Stop!” I ordered, dodging in front of him again when he lunged towards Thomas, who was retreating into a corner of the room.

“Sure, I’ll stop,” Jude replied, his silver eyes flashing onyx. “Once this tool is dancing across the stage in a wheelchair.”

I hadn’t seen his rage monster in months and seeing it again in all its grandeur rendered me speechless. This was the kind of anger people told campfire stories about.

Pivoting around me again, Jude thrust towards Thomas, who was staring wide-eyed, half-confused, half-terrified, at the bull of a man trying to obliterate him. My strength was no match for him, not even a tenth of a match, but I had other powers that could render him into servitude. Sprinting in front of him, I jumped, wrapping my arms and legs around him as tight as they would go.

He stilled instantly, the murder dimming in his eyes. Just barely.

“Jude,” I said calmly, waiting for his eyes to shift to mine. They did. “Stop,” I repeated.

I motioned back at Thomas. “He was helping me get out of my costume. I asked him to. He agreed. I wanted to hurry and get changed so I could be with you,” I emphasized, “and unless you wanted to wait a year and a half for me, you should be thanking Thomas.”

Looking between Thomas and me, the lines of his face dimmed. However, his glare landed on me. “Why didn’t you have me help, Luce?” he asked, his jaw clenching.

“Because you weren’t here,” I said, feeling like I was stating the obvious, but if obvious was what it took to talk Jude down from the ledge, that’s what I’d do.

“I’m here now.”

I formed my hands over his cheeks. “Yes, you are,” I said, waiting as his eyes went another shade lighter. His chest was starting to lift and fall in a regular pattern again. “Thanks for the help, Thomas,” I emphasized, glancing back at where he stood, still staring at Jude like he was about to go all nuclear on him again. “Catch up with you later?”

Thomas side-stepped around us, never taking his eyes off of Jude. “Sure, Lucy,” he said, throwing me a tilted smile. “Catch up with you later.”

I smiled my appreciation. “Good night.”

“Bye, Peter Pan,” Jude called after him. “I’ll ‘catch up with you later’ too.”

Thomas was already out the dressing room door, but there was no doubt he’d heard Jude’s latest bout of name-calling threats.

Sighing, I ran both thumbs down his face. “Jude Ryder. What am I going to do with you?” I asked.

It was, perhaps, the most perplexing question I’d ever asked. Nothing was easy about our relationship. Well, nothing but falling hard for each other. Everything else was like trying to swim against a current. You never quite felt like you were making much headway, but the journey made up for the lack of real estate.

Latching onto my hips, Jude planted me back down on the ground. Spinning me around, his fingers worked the satin ribbon free of the last rivets. His hands just barely skimmed my skin, but “just barely” shot bursts of heat deep into my stomach.

“What am I going to do with you, Luce?” he threw back at me, his voice carefully controlled.

The pieces of the man I loved were fitting back together. The rage monster was retreating back into his cage. “Since you’ve almost got me topless, I’ll let you fill in the blanks to that question,” I implied, arching a brow as I turned to face him.

His eyes weren’t liquid like they usually were when we were sharing or about to share an intimate moment. The corners of his mouth weren’t twitching in anticipation. Jude was a pillar of control looking down on me like I’d just behaved like a child.

“Don’t do that again, Luce,” he said, folding the ribbon in his hands before stuffing it into his pocket.

“What?” I said with a shrug, feigning ignorance. I was starting to feel a little belligerent. I didn’t like being talked down to, most of all by Jude.

“You know what.”

I could feel a glower settling into position on my face. “Since I’ve obviously disappointed you, I wouldn’t want to do it again, so why don’t you spell it out for me?”

I cursed myself. The only thing that would result from fighting fire with fire would be some nasty first-degree burns. Jude and I didn’t need our relationship to get any more complicated, so why was I pounding on complicated’s door?

Sucking in a slow breath, I witnessed the effort it took for him to stay calm. He was making the effort to keep this from blowing up into a screaming match‌—‌why wasn’t I?

“Don’t let another man, tight wearing fairy or not, help you out of your clothes again,” he said, his eyes narrowing just enough to know some scalding emotions were firing through him right now. “If you need help out of so much as a sock, you call me, you got it? That’s my job.”