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Belana Whitaker stood backstage at the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center waiting for her cue to take the stage for the final act of Swan Lake. While she waited, she kept her muscles warm by stretching and raising her body onto the tips of the fresh pair of pointe shoes she'd changed into after the first three acts. She rarely had to change shoes between acts, but the toe box in the left shoe of the other pair had begun to break down. Well-fitting shoes were essential to a good performance.
Tonight marked the last show in which she would dance the role of Odette. Around her, other members of the ballet company warmed up as well. Strains of Tchaikovsky's passionate score played by the symphony orchestra filled the air. The sound waves vibrated in her belly, making her jittery with excitement.
Her partner, Gideon Oliveras, who was dancing the role of Prince Siegfried, sidled up to her. Six-two and with a body whose muscular frame had been honed to perfection from years of ballet, he also had the face of a screen idol and was the sweetest guy in the company. "Ready to create magic?" he asked softly in his Spanish-accented voice.
Hearing the smile in his tone, Belana turned her face up to his and smiled back at him. "More than ready. I'm fired up! It would be nice if we didn't have to die this time," she joked. In the ballet, the lovers drown in the lake and their souls ascend to Heaven.
Gideon beamed. "Sorry, I can't make any promises. Besides, when you fall into my arms, it's the highlight of my night, every night."
Belana laughed shortly. "I bet you say that to all the girls."
"I do not!" Gideon replied, feigning hurt at her accusation. He was happily married to another dancer. He would never cheat on her, but he'd always had a soft spot for Belana. He saw no signs that she was aware of it, though. In times like this she was focused only on the dance. He gave an imperceptible sigh, and drank in her beauty. Underneath the stage makeup was golden-brown skin that glowed, and somewhere behind the artificial eyelashes that were so long and thick they looked better suited for a cow, were warm, golden-brown eyes that sparkled. Heavy makeup was one of the sacrifices a ballerina made in order to be seen by theatergoers in the last row.
"Of course you do," Belana said with a grin. She smoothed a stray lock of long, wavy, dark brown hair with auburn highlights behind her ear. "We girls appreciate the attention. Although we know you'd never leave Gwen. You're too perfect together."
His wife, Gwen Barrow-Oliveras, was a principal dancer with another ballet company in New York City. "Because she would kill me if I cheated on her. She's very high-strung, our Gwen," Gideon said.
Belana couldn't tell if he was joking or not, but the image of slender-to-the-point-of-near-emaciation, ultrafeminine Gwen overpowering her much larger husband made her giggle. Now, if she were the one with blood in her eye, she might do him some damage. She was not one of those tiny ballerinas who looked as if a stiff breeze might blow her away. She was an athlete with muscles capable of achieving onstage leaps rivaling those of her male colleagues. Twenty years of ballet plus weight training and long-distance running had made her strong. She didn't look bulky like a weight lifter. Her muscles were gracefully elongated, giving her the kind of extension ballet dancers needed in order to perform intricate moves. None of it had been won without hours of grueling practice.
Which culminated in nights like this, she reminded herself as she and Gideon received their cues and leaped on to the stage, followed by the corps de ballet.
The audience applauded enthusiastically, and Belana couldn't help thinking of the loved ones she had in the audienceher father, John, her stepmother, Isobel, and her brother, Erik.
She knew they were sitting somewhere in the middle of the theater, close to the front, but because of the bright lights she was unable to see them. Perhaps it was a good thing since all her concentration was needed to make certain her movements were precise.
The choreographer had taken risks and included acrobatics that had her soaring in tandem with Gideon, who was well-known for his ability to seemingly defy gravity and appear to be flying.
They executed an airborne split, Belana in her white swan costume, Gideon in his hunter's costume, dancing to her left in such perfect timing that he could have been her shadow. The audience gasped with delight, marveling at the height the two achieved, and the ease with which they landed and promptly went into a lift in which Gideon raised Belana above his head. With her arms spread wide, back arched, Belana exulted in the moment. This was the reason she'd never wanted to be anything except a dancerthis feeling of utter elation, of time standing still, of being in sync with another human being to such an extent that you felt as close to paradise as you ever would on earth.
In the audience her stepmother, Isobel, momentarily held her breath. "Oh, dear God, don't let him drop her," she said softly.
Her husband, John, laughed quietly. "Don't worry, darling, she's in good hands."
Farther in the back of the theater, fifteen-year-old Nona Reed sat rapt, her eyes hardly blinking as she stared at the dancers onstage. One day, she promised, she would be the one up there wowing the audience. She would be as good as Belana Whitaker.
She'd gotten so excited that she'd reached for her grandmother's hand, something she didn't often do anymore because she thought she was too old for those kinds of demonstrations of affection. Momma Yvonne had squeezed her hand affectionately.
Nona knew Momma Yvonne was as happy to be here as she was. She loved the ballet. "Your father's going to be sorry he missed this," she whispered into Nona's ear.
Nona smiled, but mentioning her father had stuck a pin in her balloon of happiness. She doubted very much that he was even thinking of her tonight. He was somewhere in California negotiating a deal for one of his big-time sports stars. He didn't care about her.
"I swear to God, Calvin, I will personally wring your neck if you don't come to your senses and stop trying to ruin your life!" Nicolas Reed, sports agent, bellowed. Sitting in front of him, reeking of stale booze and holding a cold towel to his pounding head, was Calvin Pruitt, star wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks.
Calvin raised his head. His bloodshot eyes didn't appear to be focusing. "Could you lower your voice?" he whined.
"No!" yelled Nick. "I won't! You need to hear me, and hear me well. You're lucky management is not kicking you to the curb. Fighting over women in nightclubs "
"That only happened once!"
"Driving while under the influence; showing up drunk at charity events. Come on, Calvin, that's embarrassing!" Nick paced the floor of Calvin's elegantly appointed living room. "As for your career, you're lucky it's the off-season. You still have time to get in shape before training for the new season begins. You don't have the luxury of stretching out your bad behavior for much longer. Janet's serious about divorcing you if you don't stop acting like a fool. And I've told you this more than once, you're getting that big paycheck because you're delivering the goods and when you stop delivering the goods, it all goes away." Nick paused for a deep breath. "If you don't believe me, keep treating your body like a trash disposal and see how fast you're fired. Frankly, I don't want to be around to see you fall that hard. If you can't be the man I think you are, I'll have to stop representing you. I don't want to watch you crash and burn."
This time Calvin's eyes focused and he actually looked pained to hear Nick's threat. "You wouldn't do that to me, man," he said pleadingly. Nicolas Reed had taken him on five years ago when he'd been plucked from collegiate obscurity and given the opportunity to play for the Seahawks. He had been a solid college ballplayer, but not a star. He'd seen some of his fellow teammates at Notre Dame become top draft picks while he had prayed that somebody, anybody, would take a chance on him. He'd gotten his wish but was about to blow it because he hadn't been able to handle the pressures. A salary he was certain he wasn't worth. With the salary came responsibilities he wasn't prepared for. His family, his friends were constantly coming to him with their hands out. And the women! Women who probably wouldn't give him the time of day if he weren't a millionaire were throwing themselves at him. He'd broken his marriage vows, started drinking too much and partying until he dropped. Spending money like there was no tomorrow. Spiraling ever downward. Now his wife had threatened him with divorce and the loss of custody of his three-year-old son if he didn't straighten up.
Tears gleamed in his eyes as he stared up at his friend and agent. "Do you think I need to go to rehab?"
Nick nodded solemnly. "I've already set it up. Four weeks in Arizona. Physical conditioning and sessions with a psychiatrist who'll help you face the reasons why you're trying to throw your life away. You say you want your wife back. You're not going to win her back with this behavior and if you're not careful, you're going to lose Calvin Jr., too. You've got to man up, my brother. Do the hard thing, and that's to admit you've screwed up and do everything you can to make it up to your family. Got me? Because if you can't find the strength to do that, it will prove to me that you've given up on yourself, and if you've given up on yourself, then I can't represent you anymore. I know that sounds cold, but sometimes you have to face the cold, hard truth before you can change."
Nick looked regretful but he wasn't about to back down. Too much was at stake: Calvin's future and his wife, Janet's, future. She had been the one to phone Nick and ask him to talk to Calvin, try to make him see what he was doing to their son, Calvin Jr., with his irresponsible behavior. Nick admired her for wanting to fight for her family and had gotten to Seattle as quickly as he could.
Calvin cried silent tears. His head continued to throb with pain and the crying had released mucus that was running out of his nose. He grabbed tissues off the table in front of him and blew his nose. "Do you still believe in me, Nick?"
Nick paused before speaking because he knew his answer meant a lot to Calvin. He'd known from the beginning that Calvin had self-esteem issues, which led to his being so easily duped by women who were only after his money. Calvin wasn't the first professional athlete Nick had dealt with whose ego was blown up by fame, making them believe they could have any woman they wanted and not have to suffer the consequences. Nick hadn't seen this coming, though, because when he'd met Calvin at Notre Dame when he was a senior, he'd been a young man yearning to make something of himself; he'd been honest and hard-working, a truly good guy whom Nick was proud to represent.
One of Nick's strengths was seeing the potential in someone and helping them reach it. "I still believe in you, Calvin." He placed a comforting hand on Calvin's shoulder and squeezed. "Now, get up, get showered and dressed. You're getting on a plane in three hours."
After Calvin had left the room, Nick sat down hard on a chair. Sighing heavily, he raked a big hand over his close-cropped natural black hair and let his bearded chin rest wearily on his chest for a moment. He had threatened to stop representing Calvin only to scare him into facing his issues. When he'd started out as an agent he hadn't known that in his job description would be nursemaid and life coach. However, in the past seven years he'd done his fair share of intervening in the life of an athlete whose career was headed down the tubes. Sometimes he succeeded, as he felt certain he would do with Calvin. Sometimes he failed. It was never up to him, though. Each individual had to find the strength to break through whatever obstacles were keeping him down and find the winner within.
Rising, he smiled to himself, thinking of Nona. He glanced at his watch. It would be around 8:00 p.m. in New York City right now. She would be at the ballet with his mother, Yvonne. He suddenly had the urge to call her just to hear her voice, but he knew he would be interrupting and she wouldn't appreciate it. His little girl was hooked on ballet. She lived and breathed it. She took weekly classes, and practiced every day. There were recitals he missed more often than not, but which he got blow-by-blow critiques of from his mother; and Nona's bedroom wall was covered in posters of ballet luminaries, mostly of guys in tights with prominent packages. Nick grimaced. He hoped Nona didn't choose guys for that reason. But she was fifteen. Try as he might to keep her his little girl, she was growing up.
He'd told her he had two stops to make this weekend, one in Seattle and the other in San Francisco, but he bet she'd only remembered the one in California. She half listened when he talked to her. Part of the reason she heard only what she wanted to hear was because she was behaving like a martyr recently. It was poor Nona this, poor Nona that, twenty-four-seven. She thought he was neglecting her because she didn't live with him. She lived with her grandmother in Harlem while he had an apartment in Manhattan. An apartment he hardly lived in himself because he traveled so often. The agency where he was a top agent was also located in Manhattan. He kept telling her that one day soon he would be starting his own agency and he wouldn't have to travel so much, then she could move in with him.
She'd been only five when Dawn, her mother, and his wife, had gotten killed in a car crash when she was on the way home from visiting her family in Virginia. A day didn't go by that he didn't miss her. She'd been the only woman he'd ever loved. Sometimes he thought she would be the only one he ever would.