He's a rockstar, she's a ballerina, they're worlds apart yet just what the other needs.
Jordan Steele’s life began when he was ten. When he was taken from his parents and a house that was never a home. When he met his brothers, the other lost and abandoned boys in his group home. When he learned what friendship and family and love looked like.
Now he’s made a career out of playing the music he loves, touring the world with the band he and his brothers formed in that crowded group home. No one but his found family really knows the man under the fame and fortune, the scars he hides behind the rockstar lifestyle. Until he sees her through the windows of the National Ballet, dancing, and suddenly the world doesn’t seem so dark.
Aleksandra Artemov ticks all the ballet boxes. Father a legendary Kirov dancer. Check. Prepping since birth for classical ballet. Check. Compulsive control over the food she eats. Check. Principal dancer at The National Ballet of Canada. Check. But what she craves is freedom.
She craves Jordan.
Everything about him should terrify her. His size, his tattoos, his hard rock edge. But he doesn’t. He stirs her very soul. Jordan has nothing but himself to offer her, and he's never been good enough for anyone. Can he figure out how to face his own demons before he loses his light for good?
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By Scarlett Cole
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Scarlett Cole
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If it got any fucking colder, his ass was going to freeze off, hit the sidewalk, and become a special feature in next week's People magazine.
Jordan Steele, bass guitarist for the metal band Preload, could have worn a hat to protect his ears from the biting freezing temperatures. He could feel frost gathering on his short beard. Since he'd made the decision to undercut his hair on one side of his head, he felt the cold even more acutely. But he embraced the bite of frigid air as the wind chill tested his limits. After all, the cold meant he was home.
As he and the rest of the band approached the narrow Cabbagetown Victorian house, he studied the steeply pointed gable and gingerbread trim. Colorful lights twinkled on the small Christmas tree perched in the three-sided bay window. The softly falling snow made the imposing three-story Toronto group home look picture perfect, camouflaging the anger and sadness that festered inside.
A small wreath decorated the front door he'd first knocked on at age twelve. While he'd been in the care of the Canadian foster and group home system since age ten, this was the only home he'd ever known. It had sucked balls to be forced out through the very same door at eighteen. Crown Ward status — the fancy official name for kids nobody wanted, even temporarily — had its limitations, and though he'd received some ongoing assistance until he was twenty-one, he hadn't been allowed to continue to live with Ellen. The thought of living without the friends he thought of as brothers had driven him to ... He shook his head to cast away the melancholy thought.
God, it was good to be home. Toronto felt millions of miles away from the glass mausoleum in L.A. the band had recently lived in. He'd been hugely relieved when they'd decided to put the house on the market six months earlier and resettle in Toronto permanently. It was hard to believe it was Christmas Eve already, another year almost done.
"Incoming!" someone yelled from behind him.
A solid ball of snow whizzed past Jordan's ear. "Lennon, you jackass," he said without even having to see who'd launched the missile. Lennon was the only one of his four bandmates to ever start that kind of shit.
"I remember the day you arrived," Nikan said, walking up next to him. "You were a scrawny shit, and your stuff was packed into one plastic Canadian Tire shopping bag."
Nobody knew that the Canadian Tire bag still sat in a box in his bedroom. Jordan looked down at the large Christmas-themed gift bag he carried, filled with thousands of dollars of presents. Funny how life — and more importantly, music — had changed him, changed all of them. He benched well over his own body weight now, which given his six-foot-five frame was a lot, and he brought home six figures a month, which for the most part disappeared into a bank account he rarely touched aside from paying bills for living expenses.
Nikan, who played guitar to Jordan's bass and sang back-up vocals, slapped an arm around his shoulder. "I scared the crap out of you back then. Admit it."
"Not so much now, eh?" Jordan asked. He could take any of the guys in a fight if he needed to. And he'd done so plenty of times over the years.
"When you ladies are done sharing your feelings and shit ..." Dred said, handing him Petal, Dred's nearly nine-month-old daughter, before he trudged to the front door and grabbed the snow shovel. Holding Petal was one of the few things that brought Jordan any kind of joy. When her dark eyes looked up at him, he saw glimpses of a path that might lead him out of his daily hell. Whenever Dred took Petal to go stay with his girlfriend, Pixie, in Miami, it felt like somebody had stuck a knife through his chest.
As Dred made short work of clearing the pathway to the gate, Jordan made a mental note to ask Ellen if she wanted them to hire a snow-clearing service. They'd gone around the city council to financially support the home for years. It had been the only way to ensure their donations specifically helped the place they grew up, instead of falling into the bottomless city coffers.
He gazed up at the tiny attic window to what once had been his room. Nobody had ever really understood his need to live in the undecorated and poorly insulated attic when a perfectly good bedroom had been set up for him on the first floor. He didn't even understand it himself, why the only place he felt safe was a room that looked exactly like the one in which he had been locked away as a child. He remembered the paralyzing fear he'd experienced when the time had come for the rest of the band to start moving out. Being the second youngest in the group, he'd watched in silent terror as one by one, Nikan, Elliott, and Dred had moved out. The thought of living without the friends who had become his life had driven him into such panic that he'd reached for a packet of razor blades to escape the misery. Fuck. But he hadn't even done that right. Which was why at the age of twenty-seven, he still lived with the rest of the band in a sprawling home a few minutes south of the group home in which they'd grown up. They could afford better, had even looked at homes in the wealthy enclaves of Baby Point and the Bridal Path, but this was their 'hood, where they'd fought against, and ultimately for, each other. Toronto social services had thrust them together, but Ellen, their group home leader, and Maisey, her social worker wife, had made them brothers.
Lennon packed another snowball, which hit the back of Dred's head.
"Fuck you, asshole." Dred dropped the shovel and scooped up snow. With aim as true as his pitch, the lead singer nailed Lennon on the side of his head.
"Guys, can we not act like total douchebags." Nikan tilted his head to the window where a group of young boys looked at them with fake disinterest. Jordan knew that look. Pretending you didn't care meant it didn't hurt so much when you were let down. It was an expression the five of them had worn often. While the kids always changed in places like this, the look remained the same.
Ellen opened the front door. "You never could stay dry, Dred," she said. "Come on inside, and leave the snow on the sidewalk please, Lennon."
Lennon immediately dropped the snowball he held behind his back.
Dred jogged up the steps and kissed Ellen's cheek. "Sorry, Ellen. You look lovely, by the way."
"Where is that precious baby of mine?" she exclaimed.
"You used to be so excited to see me, and now I've been relegated to baby carrier, have I?" he asked. "Jordan has her."
Ellen wore a red velvet jacket, black pants, and the same practical shoes as always. Christmas on the top, group home leader on the bottom. She'd worn the same outfit when they'd invited her and Maisey to L.A. to celebrate her fiftieth birthday the previous year.
"Merry Christmas, boys. Nikan, we can talk about that press report that appeared last week after dinner."
Nikan looked back at Jordan and rolled his eyes. One minute with Ellen and they regressed from fully grown men to adolescent teenagers. None of them knew how the photographs Nikan had taken with his own cell phone had ended up with the media. Fans had instantly recognized the tattoo across his stomach. It had taken a few more days to identify the barely legal girl on her knees in front of him.
Elliott flicked his lighter open and closed. His ability to set fire to a seven-string wasn't the only reason he'd been nicknamed Pyro. Ellen's smile faded to concern. The manias weren't usually allowed to stay in a standard group home, but Elliott had been a temporary emergency placement who had never left.
"I'm fine, Ellen," Elliott said. "It's under control."
Jordan watched his brothers enter the house as they had thousands of times before. Nikan had taken the stairs two at a time. Elliott had kicked the snow off his boots on the top step, and Dred had stomped on the mat more times than was necessary. Habits ... he knew them all.
"Always lost in thought, my little dreamer. Come inside, Jordan, before all the heat disappears, and bring that little girl to me."
Jordan walked up the steps and hugged her tightly. "Merry Christmas, Ellen." He handed Petal over as he was expected to, unable to put words to the feelings of anxiety that washed over him as he did so.
Maisey walked toward them from the kitchen, wiping her hands on the bottom of her apron. "My boys are home. Let me take a look at all of you."
They quickly removed their coats, unbundled their scarves, and stashed their gloves, hurrying to hug her.
"Come on in. There are nine boys in here desperate to see you." Maisey ushered them into the living room.
The boys ranged in age from about thirteen to seventeen. Once the introductions were done, Maisey and Ellen left with Petal to tend to the Christmas Eve brunch, traditionally one of the few meals of the year that Ellen hadn't expected them to cook.
They all grabbed a seat as Dred pulled a brightly wrapped gift from the bag and handed it to a quiet redhead kneeling near the fireplace. "Andrew, right? Merry Christmas."
Andrew ripped into the package and jumped to his feet. "You got me the racing car game I wanted? No fucking way."
"Language!" Ellen and Maisey's voices echoed from the kitchen at the rear of the house. Jordan and the rest of the band laughed.
"We used to get that too, bud," Lennon said as Andrew blushed.
"Thank you," he said, holding his gift to his chest.
Jordan grinned. "You're welcome."
When all the gifts were unwrapped, Ellen called everyone to the extra-large table. Just like old times, Lennon and Elliott jostled each other, elbows raised, to get to the dining room first.
Jermaine, the young boy who'd only ceased looking out of the window when they'd handed him his gifts, stepped in front of Jordan. "Do you think she'll come?" he asked, his voice rough.
At eye level with the boy, Jordan remained seated. "Do I think who will come?"
"My mom," Jermaine said, his tear-filled eyes looking around the room. "I didn't get a card or anything from her. I mean, I thought she'd come. It is Christmas after all."
His eyes drifted back toward the window, and Jordan realized Jermaine was watching for her. Internally, he cursed, struggling to stop his own memories from crashing over him. "I don't know if she will or not. I know how tough it is ... to wish for something so hard that your insides feel like they are being squeezed down to nothing, but you just have to have faith that your mom is doing what she thinks is best for you. And that Ellen will, and whoever your social worker is will. You'll get through this. I promise. I know it sucks, but we all came through it. Just keep making good choices, Jermaine."
Jermaine sniffed and nodded his head before leaving the room.
Jordan stood, but instead of following him, he turned toward the window and looked out at the snow. With the exception of the odd crackle of the fire, silence engulfed the living room. They'd dealt with so many hard times in this room together. Adam's death, his own suicide attempt ...
"Stop whatever morbid fucking cog is turning in your head, and get your ass in for dinner," he heard from behind him. "Ellen's asking about our plans for New Year's." Dred laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. "Thinks she wants to relive her glory days and all that."
Jordan laughed. "She can come with us if she wants, but she might get an eyeful of shit she shouldn't." Things often got a little out of control when they really decided to go for it. And quite often, way more women than men made their way back to the house.
Then again, though, the usual debauched celebration probably wouldn't fly this year, not with Pixie getting everything ready for Christmas at the home they all shared. With Dred being a father now, the house looked like Santa's grotto.
But, shit, he really needed to burn off the low-grade noise filling his head. And no-strings, anonymous sex was one of the best ways to take the edge off.
Because it was dirty, just like him.
* * *
Aleksandra Artemov peered out from her hiding spot high above the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts stage and looked out toward the audience. They couldn't see her, but she loved watching them. After her makeup and hair had been done and the huge headpiece with sparkling snowflakes had been pinned into place, she'd pulled on an oversized pair of sweat pants and enormous red warm-up boots to loosen the joints in her ankles and had settled in to watch the people who had come to watch her and her fellow dancers at the National Ballet of Canada. She loved to find someone in the audience whom she could visualize later while dancing. Lexi's father called it a stupid ritual, but she found it helped to keep her centered while she performed.
There was something incredibly special about the Christmas Eve performance of The Nutcracker. It was more than the vibrant and intense music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, which she loved more than any other score. There wasn't a person alive who couldn't hum "Variation II: The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," even if he or she didn't know that was what it was called. The tune was synonymous with Christmas. And, sure, there would be a hard-core group of ballet traditionalists sitting in the audience who were there to appreciate the magic of James Kudelka's choreography, and to ensure the current ballet company hadn't messed with their idea of perfection. The way he'd changed the Snow Queen pas de deux into a pas de trois was one of her favorite things about his interpretation. And of course, legendary Santo Loquasto's staging, with its huge Fabergé egg and other nods to Russia. Some had simply come to check on whether dancer-turned-artistic-director of the National Ballet of Canada, Karen Kain, was still as deserving of the position as ever.
But the Christmas Eve performance was really all about the children, because on that night of all nights, they were so much more open to suspending their belief. Row after row of families were coming together in their finest to stop for a moment and enjoy the ballet. Little girls, their hair pulled into pigtails, fussed with their velvet dresses and patent leather shoes. Little boys wearing Christmas sweaters and dress pants instead of jeans sat gazing toward the stage in excitement. Lexi wished it could be like this every day. She'd love to see more children at the ballet throughout the year.
She spotted a little boy, no older than five, dancing in the aisle, his parents attempting to coax him back to his seat. He'd obviously had dance lessons, his little feet moving between first, second, and third position, his arms waving in all directions. For certain, he needed work on his port de bras, but he had a certain cute potential. Lexi studied him for a few moments longer. He was who she was going to think of as she poured her soul into her character.
As the auditorium started to fill, Lexi hurried from her hiding place to the backstage area where she could remove her warm-up pants, take off her boots, and begin the process of putting on her shoes.
Once her feet were bare, she selected one of the three pairs of ballet shoes she had prepared for this performance. Usually two pairs were enough, allowing her to change partway through the show as her shoes softened. But she liked to keep a third pair ready in case of an emergency, like a ribbon becoming unstitched.
She rubbed her heel in the chalk and began the process of preparing her toes. She put a gel square on the front of her big toe and wound tape around it to keep it in place. Wiggling her toe backward and forward, she adjusted the tape until it was exactly where she wanted it. Then she did the same with her second toe. She always started with her right foot, a ritual she had begun at the Canadian National Ballet School, and now it was a habit she couldn't break. She repeated the process on her left foot.
After her toes had been prepared, she slipped on her tights and pulled them over the pale pink leotard she wore underneath her tutu to prevent all the sequins and stitching from chafing. Next, she pulled on a pair of her favorite indestructible white ripstop pants to keep her warm. Then she began the painstaking process of making sure her feet were comfortable in her shoes and that her body was loosened up for the performance. The orchestral warm-up resonated through the theater, sending a buzz of excitement straight through her, but Lexi wasn't required on stage until the end of the first act.
Excerpted from Jordan Reclaimed by Scarlett Cole. Copyright © 2017 Scarlett Cole. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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