Like No One Is Watching
One dancer. One cleaner. Two very different worlds.
If Conrad isn’t good enough to be a principal dancer, at least he makes a stellar teacher, stern with the kids coming through his studio, but chatty with anyone else who stands still too long.
Dusty likes the quiet spaces between words. Since a brutal beating as a teenager, he’s content to go unnoticed, reconciled to his broken brain and a dance career lost before it ever began. Cleaning Conrad’s studio is perfect for a guy who doesn’t want to be the center of anything.
Convinced if Dusty comes out from the shadows, he’ll shine, Conrad can’t seem to leave him to his simple work—or stop talking. Because Dusty not only hears him, he also listens. It’s been a long time since anyone listened.
Far from being annoyed, Dusty is drawn to the man hidden behind Conrad’s babble. But Conrad has the life Dusty never got to have, and wanting someone from that world could shatter him all over again.
This book was previously published. The story has not changed, but this version includes the short story Out of Step, previously only available in the series print anthology.
VOICES PATTERED on the periphery of his attention, spreading ripples through the still, heavy air of the dance studio. Dusty glanced over his shoulder but saw no one. The room was empty, as was the office beyond, seen through the plate-glass windows.
He sighed. “Hearing things, are you?” he said. Not that that was a new thing. Sometimes he spent so much time on his own, the world in his head and the one outside it blended together. Giving his head a shake, he bent back to his task, shoving his glasses up his nose with the pad of one thumb as he focused. “Come on, now, pretty girl,” he crooned. “This is for your own good, after all.” He gently set the clean plastic juice cup on its edge on the floor and shooed with his other hand.
His quarry scurried away from his probing finger and scuttled into the cup. Quickly, he slapped the lid in place and picked it up.READ MORE
“There you have it, darlin’. Safe and sound.” Rising off his knees, he peered past the cup’s logo to the eight-legged beauty inside as he hurried for the door. “Just put you outside where you belong and spare the little ones the trauma, yeah?”
So intent was he on his prize, he didn’t notice another person in the studio until he found himself nose-to-very-broad-chest with him.
“Is there a problem?” the man asked.
“Oh!” Dusty backed a step and looked up. “No! So sorry.” He pushed his glasses up his nose to see the man’s face better. Square jaw, aquiline nose, full, wide mouth, and lashes framing eyes that flashed, faceted and glorious, between them. “I wasn’t watching where I was going,” Dusty said, voice embarrassingly breathy. “Dusty… ah… Hatch.”
Holding out his free hand, elbow bent awkwardly in the tight space between them, Dusty scrunched his nose to keep his glasses usefully in front of his eyes.
The man didn’t seem to have a sense of personal space, but he nodded and tilted his head to one side, as though something about Dusty’s plain, acne-scarred face was incredibly fascinating. Dusty couldn’t imagine what, and the scrutiny forced heat upward to prickle at the edges of his hairline.
Then the man blinked, exaggerated, and shook his upper body as though he was about to spin off to music Dusty couldn’t hear, but he settled. Dusty noticed his eyes were actually starkly pale blue. Intense. And Dusty’s mouth went dry.
The eyes focused on the cup, tucked in close to Dusty’s chest. Sandy-brown hair flopped to one side as the man tilted his head the other way this time. “Conrad,” he said, gaze fixed on the cup. “What’s that?”
Conrad. Dusty jerked back, eyes wide. “Conrad Kosloff.” He gulped, mind filled with the endless hours he’d spent watching this man float across the ballet stage in school. He’d been a sensation even outside the ballet world for a brief time. His talent and his family’s high, moneyed profile had lit up the tabloids in Dusty’s youth, and Dusty hadn’t been immune to the beauty he embodied when he moved.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” Dusty blurted, pushing the images out of his head before his brain short-circuited.
Conrad owned this dance studio, and the last cleaner, Tiffany, had said he was a bear, all growly and prowling around the periphery while she worked, watching to make sure she did everything just so, or didn’t touch that pile, or made sure those things didn’t get moved. To Dusty, he seemed more cougar-like, all sleekly built muscle beneath a tank top and dance tights, tawny skin, and those eyes, focused on him, slightly narrowed, almost predatory. Dusty’s skin tingled. He clutched the cup until the plastic crinkled under his fingers.
Conrad crossed muscled arms over his broad chest. “Did one of the girls leave that in here?” The forbidding timbre of his voice vibrated the air.
“Oh! No. Not at all.” Dusty held it up. “You had a refugee. I’m just putting her outside.”
Two fast steps and Conrad was backed up almost against the stereo table. “I see.” His voice wavered.
“Just a spider,” Dusty reassured. “A small one.”
“Right.” A quick nod. A swallow that made his Adam’s apple bob deeply. “Good.” Another step back. The stereo table rocked, and a pile of CDs clattered to the floor. Bits of plastic casing shattered and shot over the smooth hardwood. “Oh damn!” Conrad’s expletive was colored with trepidation, though.
He was afraid. Dusty schooled the grin into hiding before it made it onto his face. “Just be one sec,” he said softly, holding up a hand and angling to leave the room.
“The floor,” Conrad blurted. “Class starts in twenty minutes. Is it done?”
They both stared a moment at the clear plastic shards sprayed out from the table and Conrad gulped. “Stupid question.”
Dusty pressed his lips together. “Almost. I—”
“I’ll take it.” He held out his hand, lifted his chin, squared his shoulders. His lips tightened. “The garden, I think?”
“Mop the floor.”
Dusty frowned. “Of course. You don’t have to tell me my job.”
That earned him a slow blink. “It has to dry.”
“And it will. Excuse me.” He tried to go around, but Conrad’s graceful, swaying movement cut off his exit.
“I can.” Conrad waggled his fingers at the cup. “Please.”
Please what? Let him deal with a creature he was clearly uncomfortable around? But ultimately, he was the boss, so Dusty held out the cup. Conrad took it between one long finger and his thumb and held it at arm’s length; then he hurried for the side door out into the yard.
Dusty hurriedly pieced together as many of the cases as he could and swept up the remaining bits, then went back to mopping the last section of floor. It took only minutes to finish, and he wheeled the bucket to the back door of the studio. Outside, a six-foot fence had been erected to wall off a gorgeous oasis in the city’s heart. Since the studio floor was washed with plain hot water, he’d been pleased he could empty the bucket out the back door. It kept any grit out of the studio’s aging pipes and saved him having to lift the heavy thing up to the sink in the kitchen. Plus, it benefitted the plants during the more arid parts of the summer.
He would pour the water carefully over the narrow rock garden that controlled weeds and grass in the space between the wall of the building and the fence. That offered the plants on the other side of the fence a source of sustenance as the water drained under the fence and into the garden. That way, water used every day to clean a floor people could probably eat off wasn’t wasted.
As he carried the bucket off the porch to dump now, a soft murmur caught his attention. Setting the full bucket down, he peeked through the fence rails to see Conrad still holding the cup between his fingers, arm straight out from his body, lips moving.
Dusty held his breath to hear what Conrad was saying.
“Not going to hurt you, because obviously, the cute cleaning guy likes you. Just do me a favor and don’t crawl on me. Please. Pretty please.” He squinted at the spider. “God. Take off the lid and dump. Not a problem.” He pulled in a deep breath. His chest rose and fell with it. Sweat glistened in the tiny divot at the collar of his shirt.
“Oh God,” he whispered. His cheeks were pale, and he seemed to be trying to divorce his hand holding the cup from the rest of his body. “No problem. Just.” He gulped. “Take off the lid and dump.”
His strategy had only one flaw Dusty could see. If the spider was quick, she’d spin a web as she fell from the cup, and the silk would let her hang. The breeze would carry the little critter right into its erstwhile rescuer.
Dusty stepped forward, hand on the gate, ready to interrupt, but then Conrad moved fast, ripped the lid free, and upturned the cup.
His scream split the afternoon, and he jumped, probably five feet straight back, dropped the cup, and minced on feet that barely touched the ground until his tight butt fetched up against the fence.
“Easy.” Dusty rushed forward, crouched, and flicked the errant spider free of Conrad’s leg. She landed in the grass and promptly disappeared.
“Ohmygodohmygodohmygod,” Conrad was chanting under his breath, fingers clenching around the wooden slats behind him, eyes closed tight.
“Okay.” Dusty had put a hand on the side of Conrad’s thigh, about to get up, to offer some sort of reassurance, when Conrad’s eyes flew open, luminous and wide, and fixed on him.
“Is it gone?”
Dusty smiled. “She’s gone.”
“Good,” Conrad whispered, gazing down at him, freezing him in place. A heartbeat later, Conrad’s hand came free of the fence and his fingertips brushed over the back of Dusty’s hand, still on his leg.
“S-sorry.” Dusty stood so fast vertigo tilted the earth under his feet.
Conrad’s hands, unyielding but steady and gentle, gripped his upper arms, and Dusty blinked. He’d barely drawn a breath when Conrad took a step toward him, lips parted.
Like gravity, the sight of Conrad’s soft expression drew Dusty to him until Dusty touched his lips to Conrad’s. Or had Conrad done the touching? It was impossible to tell, and it made Dusty sigh out a little breath of expectancy. Then there was no air to breathe, no space, and nothing but the pressure of the kiss.
Dusty closed his eyes, ran fingers over the sides of Conrad’s face, and pressed the advantage of the gasp that ran through Conrad at the touch. He pushed his tongue into Conrad’s mouth and moved them until Conrad was pinned against the fence. Dusty had to stand on his toes to reach properly, but that didn’t stop him until they both needed to breathe.
When he stepped back, lips tingling, breath short, Conrad’s eyes were wide, and his chest heaved. His lips, red and parted, curved in a bemused smile.
“Was that meant to make me forget I just screamed like a little girl?”
“I—” Dusty took a hasty step back. He’d just kissed a complete stranger. He’d had this job for exactly three hours, and he’d tripped over a spider and kissed the man who signed his miniscule paycheck. “Oh shit.”
Conrad’s smile grew. The hand that had come to rest at the side of Dusty’s face exerted a tiny amount of pressure, thumb pad ghosting over his cheekbone and back, like he had brushed away a bit of hair….
“I’m so sorry,” Dusty blurted. “I—I didn’t mean—sir—I—”
Conrad grinned then. “You kiss me like that and then call me sir?”
“Oh God.” Dusty broke away and moved back, out of reach. “I am so sorry.” He turned and fled back inside, through the studio, and out the front door of the building. He had hiked back to his own apartment and was letting himself inside when he remembered he never had emptied the bucket of dirty floor water.COLLAPSE
Like No One is Watching is a sweet and touching romance. At it's heart it's about acceptance and healing.
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