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Natasha Carter's slender frame huddled deeper into her black leather jacket against the brisk mid-September wind, feet hurriedly walking through downtown Manhattan on the way to the most important audition of her career. How many lead auditions had she gone to in the past frustrating years only to come away disappointed? She sighed audibly. She had been surprised and thrilled upon receiving an invitation from the Johnson Ballet Company to try out for the part of Juliet. She was determined things would be different this time.
Shivering, she continued resolutely toward what she hoped would be a turning point in her career. She had to have the part of Juliet! She was tired of being cast in secondary roles or as part of the background dancers because she "wasn't quite right" for the lead. She deserved her chance in the spotlight, but up until now, no one had been willing to take a chance on her, an African-American ballerina.
Also, because she came from a wealthy family, no one took her dedication and drive seriouslybelieving instead she was merely toying with a career in dance.
Glancing both ways, she hurriedly crossed the busy street and entered the performance hall building she had been trying to reach for the past thirty minutes. A grateful smile perked up the corners of her brown lips as the blessed warmth inside greeted her. She looked at the signs that pointed the way to the auditions. Taking off her leather gloves, she stuffed them into her jacket pockets and absently ran fingers through her wind-tossed, shoulder-length dark brown hair before tucking strands behind her ears.
She nodded curt hellos to several fellow ballerinas as she entered the tryout hall to check in. For a moment she wished she had allowed Erina, her coach, to accompany her, but she had firmly dismissed her offer. She was a first-rate ballerina who didn't need anyone to hold her hand. She could and would do this alone, and she would come out victorious.
"May I help you?" A man behind the table was looking at her expectantly.
"Yes. I'm "
"Natasha Carter." A woman smiled and stood.
She was tall and thin, obviously an ex-dancer. Her black hair was cut very short and framed her smiling face and happy brown eyes. She was, Natasha would guess, in her early forties.
"Yes." Natasha smiled slightly. It was nice to be recognized.
"We're so glad you could make the auditions, Miss Carter." The woman offered her hand. "I'm Rachel Weston. I'll be coproducing and codirecting this little extravaganza, along with taking on the responsibility of casting director."
"It's very nice to meet you, Ms. Weston." She briefly shook her hand.
"Rachel," she corrected.
Rachel's eyes traveled over Natasha. She looked perfect for the lead. But Rachel knew that looks alone were not enough for Damien. Over the years, she had learned how by the book and fanatical he was about his ballet companyonly the best talent could work for him, no exceptions. She sighed inwardly as she recounted the numerous hours they had spent scouting for dancers to audition for them before sending out invitations; it had been exhausting, but Damien had insisted they personally sit through entire performances for every dancer being considered for his production.
"Room number three is set up for Miss Carter." Rachel walked from behind the desk. "Damien is around here somewhere." She glanced around the crowded room before refocusing on Natasha. "Let me show you to your dressing room."
Natasha eagerly followed her out. Her heart somersaulted in her chest; she was in no shape to meet Damien Johnson yet. She needed a few moments to compose herself before coming face-to-face with the legendary owner of the company she hoped to join.
"I'll have someone call when we're ready for you." Rachel held open a door for her.
"Thank you, Ms. Weston." She smiled briefly while placing her bag onto the floor.
"Rachel," she reminded with a smile.
"Rachel," she said corrected and returned her smile.
Once alone, Natasha placed hands to her burning cheeks. She was a mass of quivering jelly. She silently commanded her nerves to subside and rolled her shoulders, shaking out her arms and legs to relax, but to no avail.
Damien Johnson was here! Of course, she had known he would be, but still the fact that her idol was somewhere in the same building was unreal. He was only thirty-two, but he owned one of the best ballet companies in the world. His meteoric rise had inspired her, and she clung to the hope that he would give her a chance where others had not; after receiving her invitation to audition for him, she felt certain that he would, but only if she performed flawlessly, which she intended to do.
She quickly shed her street shoes and sweats and donned much more appropriate prima ballerina attire of pale pink leotards, matching jagged-edge wraparound chiffon skirt belted at her tiny waist and expertly laced-up pale pink satin ballerina slippers. Finally, she pulled her hair away from her face, securing it at her nape in a flawless knot.
After taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, she purposefully walked over to the ballet barre and began to warm up.
"Damien, there you are." Rachel reentered the audition hall and spotted her partner onstage.
A teasing grin lit up his brown eyes. "Was I lost?"
"Oh, you!" She laughed and tapped his cheek playfully. "Natasha Carter is here."
"Good, that makes everyone" Damien rubbed his lightly hair-covered chin "doesn't it?"
"Mmm-hmm," Rachel said and nodded.
"Okay, I have a few calls to make." He glanced at his watch. "We'll start in about thirty."
"Right," Rachel said with a nod. "I'm going to check the music." She turned and asked, "Do you want to do the introductions, or should I?"
Damien sighed. "You do them. The last thing I need today is a bunch of ballerinas fawning all over me thinking it will improve their chances of making the cut."
Rachel laughed. "You're just too handsome for your own good."
Damien chuckled. "Or just too rich and powerful."
He winked at Rachel before turning to go to his office. As he exited the auditorium, for some reason, his mind drifted to Natasha Carter's arrival a short while ago; she had breezed in looking breathtakingly beautiful. He knew the dark brown hair that had curtained her oval face would be swept up or back when he saw her next, and she would be dressed in classic ballerina attiresheer, sexy leotards that would mold revealingly to her slender yet womanly curves like a second skin.
He had watched her from the stage as she had smiled politely to Rachel and had intended to join them, but his feet had been rooted in place by her utter beauty. He had mentally scolded himself to stop staring at her like some lovesick schoolboy; however, feelings he hadn't had in a long time had bombarded him, causing the formation of a hard knot of desire in the pit of his stomach.
Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, he attributed his reaction to the fact that she was an extremely beautiful woman, and as a man, he naturally took note of that fact. However, he was here to cast his ballet; she was here to audition, and he would objectively judge her by her performance and nothing else.
Thirty minutes later, the four auditioning ballerinas took the stage and waited for instructions. Rachel and Damien entered the back of the auditorium. Damien stopped at a pair of high stools a distance from the stage, and Rachel continued toward the stage to give instructions.
"Welcome, ladies." Rachel smiled at the four ballerinas as she ascended the stairs. "The Johnson Ballet Company is a world-renowned, medium-sized classical ballet company. We perform about sixty to seventy ballets a year in the U.S. and abroad. This holiday season, we are performing a traditional yet original version of Romeo and Juliet. You all know the order of your performances?" When she received nods, she continued, "Good. Let's have the first dancer, please."
Rachel smiled and nodded to her assistant to begin the taped music of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 before leaving the stage to join Damien. She took the packet of resumes he handed her and pulled out the first one.
The first ballerina walked center stage and danced adequately, as did the second and the third. Natasha was the last to dance. She assumed the fourth position, hands held elegantly at her sides, patiently waiting for the music to begin.
Natasha mentally fought for composure and concentrated with all her might on the dance at hand. Her heart had begun beating erratically the moment she had stepped onto the stage, because she knew this was the moment of truth for her. If she couldn't make it in a black-owned ballet company, then she wouldn't be able to make it anywhere, and that scenario was unacceptable to her.
Though she could no longer see Damien Johnson because of the bright light shining in her eyes, she knew the pair of piercing eyes she felt following every move, every line and curve her body made as she floated across the stage belonged to him. She silently willed herself to be perfect; she refused to allow nerves to destroy this chance for her. She beat down her anxiety and poured all her energy and talent into her performance.
A smile of admiration tugged at the corners of Damien's mouth as his appreciative eyes followed every seamless movement of Natasha's lithe body. He looked briefly at her resume then looked at the stage. She danced ethereally.
Even at twenty-six, she danced circles around the five-to-eight-years-younger ballerinas who had come before her.
He watched with satisfaction as she performed a series of pirouettes and came effortlessly to a fast stop, holding and maintaining her ending positionback arched, arms held high, legs extended and toes pointed without faltering. She came out of her pose to sighs of envy and a small applause of admiration and praise, which she acknowledged with a cool smile and a nod of her head.
"Thank you, Miss Carter. That was beautifully done. We " Rachel's praise was cut short as Damien touched her arm. "Um, Miss Carter, I wonder if you would mind performing the courting dance for us."
"Not at all," Natasha agreed even as her body groaned. Part of her wanted to go somewhere private and collapse, but she couldn't refuseit was a wonderful sign this request was being made of her. She frantically ran through the dance in her mind, visualizing steps and combinations, praying she wouldn't forget any of them.
"I'll need a partner," she reminded.
"We haven't cast the male lead yet," Damien said as he stood and slowly walked toward her, "but I'm at your service, Miss Carter."
As he neared the stage, Natasha was quickly cognizant of the fact that Damien Johnson was even handsomer in person. His black hair was cropped close to his head, and a very light goatee accentuated his medium brown skin. His cheeks were chiseled and strong, and his full lips were smiling slightly. His body was magnificentmuscled, hard and completely masculine. He was dressed in black pants and black short-sleeved shirt stretched taut across his broad chest, which showed off his muscled arms. Lord in heaven, had she ever seen a more perfect man?
After an eternity, he finally reached her. Her tongue escaped to wet her suddenly dry lips. When his eyes darted to and fixated on her mouth, she let out her breath on an audible sigh. Trembling fingers smoothed an imaginary piece of hair away from her slightly flushed face, and she waited for him to speak because she couldn't; her tongue had suddenly become glued to the roof of her mouth.
Oh, Lord, his voice! It was deep, sexy and created very inappropriate visions in her mind of them pressed close, and not in preparation for dancingat least not ballet dancing. Goodness, she had to get a grip on her runaway hormones where this man was concerneda man she hoped would soon be her boss. His outstretched hand sent her into motion.
She forced the words through her constricted throat and took his handa hand that almost engulfed hers, a hand that she suddenly envisioned sliding caressingly down her trembling body. An electric shock went through them at that first contact. Their eyes darkened perceptibly as they silently stared at each other.
After interminable seconds, he nodded to the man sitting in the cave, and the music began. Before his disturbing eyes refocused on hers, she took a deep breath and released it slowly, silently reminding herself why she was here and to remain professionally cool and calm and to stop thinking like a woman when it came to Damien Johnson and behave like a dance partner instead.
The first strands were soft and sweet as they danced around each other, never coming too close, testing, teasing and tempting. She prayed she wouldn't miss any steps or embarrass herself by clinging to his hard, tempting body longer than their dance necessitated. Her heart was hammering loudly in her chest. Damien's focused eyes and expression were unreadable; she had no idea what he was thinking or feeling. They moved well together; she knew he hadn't danced professionally in years, but he was still very good. She came within an arm's length and then flitted away on the tips of her toes as the dance called for before twirling back into his waiting embrace.
What in reality took only several minutes to conclude seemed to stretch out endlessly. Finally, the music ended and they stopped close together. Her hands rested on his shoulders, and his were on her waist. Their bodies were touching lightly, and their lips were within centimeters of contact. Thunderous applause broke the spell that she was sure would have led to an inappropriate but very passionate kiss between them in a few more seconds.
"The best ballerina I've ever danced with." Damien's voice was for her ears alone as he reluctantly released her.
"You're too kind."
She told herself the breathlessness in her voice was a result of the dance, but she knew it had more to do with being held so close to Damien than anything else. She took a few necessary steps away from him, willing her heart to stop its frantic thudding.
"Just speaking the truth, Natasha," he said with a smile.
Her skin tingled at the sound of her name on his lips. It was as if no one else had ever spoken it correctly until him.
"We'll let you know our decision in a few days." He abruptly turned and left her alone on the stage.
She stood there in a daze, not fully comprehending what had just happened before realizing she had been coolly dismissed. When no more requests were made of her, she turned and exited the stage, quickly making her way through her congratulatory peers and seeking the solitude of the changing room. Once there, she put cool hands to her burning cheeks and stared at her distressed expression in the full-length mirror.