Like You’ve Never Been Hurt
About to lose the only thing he ever loved, Adam Pittaluga is at a crossroads in a dancing career that has hardly begun. He has always wanted to be a ballet dancer, but now that it’s impossible, he turns to Peridot for comfort. Peridot has been rebuilding his life after losing his ability to dance professionally, his marriage, and very nearly his daughter. He has a lot of reasons to be leery of starting something new, especially with a man as young as Adam.
Adam and Peridot have to believe that starting again can lead to love and success and that sometimes, the strength needed to love like you’ve never been hurt can be borrowed from unexpected places for a while. But ultimately, they must find it inside themselves to be each other’s happy ending.
ADAM STOOD in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors and studied himself critically. What was it about him that he couldn’t manage to lead a girl through one simple ballet routine? None of the choreography had been challenging, much less beyond his capabilities. Yet he hadn’t managed to make anything of the dance.
And that had been over a year ago. He had to stop obsessing over it.
This was a new year, a new start. His own choreography during that graduating recital, with a willing male partner, had been well received. Conrad had gone out of his way to express how impressed he had been by what he referred to as Adam’s “hidden talent” for choreography, even going so far as to offer Adam an apprenticeship teaching while he saved up for school and auditioned for jobs.READ MORE
A year later, the job was a godsend, slowly filling his bank account and keeping his toes on the dance floor as he nursed a ridiculously preventable injury. It helped that he still received plenty of compliments on that first dance. He attributed the lasting impression it had on people to the chemistry and connection he’d shared with his then dance partner, Landry. In their early twenties, they had both been a few years older than the other graduating students, and that fact alone had drawn them together. The chemistry might have been due to the copious amounts of sex they’d been having. Maybe not. But the summer had passed, and Landry had moved on to a university degree involving maths and sciences and come out the end of his first year of university with great marks and a shiny new boyfriend, complete with glasses and a pocket protector. Adam, on the other hand, was still here, wondering if he was, in the end, meant to be a dancer at all.
“I’m supposed to be here,” he muttered. “So what if one guy didn’t think I was worth his time. His loss.” He could ignore the stab of—whatever it was—that made his gut twist. Landry hadn’t even been his type. Not for the long term, anyway, and now he had a life elsewhere. Adam hadn’t wanted to follow him based on the strength of one summer’s worth of good sex and not much more. Now he had a year of learning to teach dance under his belt, the respect of his mentor, and the friendship of everyone in the rapidly growing school. He liked his life. He was ready for whatever this second year of teaching might bring.
He just had to keep up the mantra, and soon enough, it would be true.
Moving with careful deliberation, he placed his hands on the barre, making certain not to put any of his weight there. He shifted his right foot, moving from first to second positon.
His first ballet teacher had a little chant for this. When he’d been knee-high and eager, the singsong—shoulders, hips, heels—had been useful to help a little kid remember where each body part should line up. He used it with the little kids when he was teaching those same basic principles. But if he was going to make a name for himself or even have a career, he had to do better than the basics. He widened his stance so his heels were out just past his hips, then did a plié, studying every minute motion in the mirror.
Knees over his toes. Tailbone curved down. Ribs held up. Shoulders back. Tummy in. Core engaged. He pushed his heels into the floor and lifted with the backs of his thighs, straightening his knees. Plié and stretch, plié and stretch. Over and over.
This wasn’t hard. He stepped back from the barre, shook out his muscles, stretched the backs of his calves, and resumed the position, toes turned out a little more than before. More pliés, more careful attention to his body, then a slightly larger turnout. Another plié.
His hip popped.
“Fuck!” He shifted his weight to his good leg and straightened, ungraceful and sweating, to shake out the offending leg. His hip popped again and he cursed on the inhale.
“Are you all right?” The hairs at the back of Adam’s neck lifted. Peridot’s deep, quiet voice sent a shudder chasing a cascade of goose bumps down his back. The echo of excitement tingled through his balls. His fingers tightened involuntarily around the wood of the barre.
“Did you hurt yourself?”
Adam flicked his gaze up to meet the steady concern in a pair of eyes so changeable, they could appear green some days, or carved from pure amber, as they looked now. The studio’s newest dance instructor, Peridot Nascimbeni watched Adam closely. He’d arrived during Adam’s last year as a student, along with his prodigiously talented then-eight-year-old daughter, who had an attitude that outstripped her ability by half. Not that she wasn’t good. She was. She was just better at making a big deal of herself.
Peridot himself was a legend in Russian ballet. His career had risen like a rocket from nothing to overnight sensation, complete with a successful ballerina wife, Karen. He’d fallen from the public eye in a hail of rumor and criticism and all but disappeared until he’d arrived at the school to teach. Now, he was back, smaller, leaner, and one would never suspect from his demeanor that any of the rumors could be true. He was probably the most down-to-earth, soft-spoken instructor Adam had ever worked with. Over the year they had been teaching together, Adam had learned an immense amount from him about effectively nurturing young talent. It was interesting the lessons in teamwork hadn’t stuck as well with Peridot’s own daughter.
“I asked you a question, boy,” Peridot said, his voice still sliding through that low register. It now held an edge that Adam couldn’t identify and that was at odds with the concern in his eyes. The paradox sent slivers of intense interest through Adam’s gut. “Are you hurt?”
“I am not a boy,” Adam chose to answer, drawing himself back up, using all his training to get the last millimeter out of his height, which still only brought the top of his head to Peridot’s chin. He was twenty-four, but his height—or lack thereof—made people forget he’d been an older student, and probably the oldest to finally graduate from Conrad’s studio. He’d come late to Conrad’s instruction, only finding his home in the studio when he was eighteen. He’d had a lot of bad habits to unlearn before Conrad would give him his final pass, which he’d earned—at last—at twenty-three. He hadn’t complained one bit. Conrad had been the very best instructor he’d ever worked with.
“Then you should be able to answer a simple question, should you not? I saw you favor your right side. Did you hurt yourself?”
“No.” Adam set his right foot on the floor properly and balanced out his weight. There was no pain. There never was. Not after the initial shock of the joint popping. It was just an oddity of how he fit together that gave him trouble every now and then when he widened his stance too far and without care. It was the main reason for his abysmal turnout that gave him so much grief.
“Are you properly warmed up for class?” Peridot asked. “I’d like you to demonstrate some of the more complicated footwork so these students can see what we are building toward.”
“I’ll get ready,” Adam mumbled. He was halfway to his customary corner of the room when Peridot spoke again.
“If you want to be treated like an adult, perhaps you shall begin by acting like an adult, yes?”
Adam felt like sticking out his tongue at the older man. He only scowled.
“A professional adult warms up slowly, making sure he’s ready before he begins exercises he knows to be problematic, and he treats every opportunity to dance with the respect it deserves. You never know when the opportunity to do what we do will be taken from you.” He met Adam’s gaze in the mirror. “Dusty is a perfect example, right under your nose, that you never can be too careful, or get complacent.”
To that, Adam had no response. All the drama with Director Conrad’s new boyfriend, Dusty, over the past year and then some had been a wake-up call. Dusty, a former dancer who had been bashed to within an inch of his life when he was fifteen, had become a fixture at the studio over Adam’s first year of teaching. His childhood trauma had left him with a permanent brain injury and a ruined knee. He was proof. It took one incident beyond Dusty’s control, a matter of minutes, and his promising career had been stolen from him. The fact he could dance at all, ten years later, was a miracle. Adam hoped the miracle held and that the surgery Dusty had scheduled would correct that decade-old knee injury.
“Of course,” Adam said softly. No one made light of such possibilities after seeing Dusty’s struggle.
“Adam.” Peridot’s voice had softened again.
It stopped Adam in his tracks, making him turn with the compelling way it wended through his entire system. That voice was going to undo him. It made him shiver and want things he had told himself over and over he didn’t truly want. Couldn’t have. Should best forget all about, because he didn’t need that kind of distraction. This was his workplace, not a pickup joint. He would have to work with Peridot, hopefully for a long time to come.
“Adam,” Peridot said again, no raised voice, no change in tenor. Just the same inexorable insistence that he would not be ignored.
Adam sighed. “Yes?” He forced himself to meet Peridot’s gaze. Even across the room, those gold-green eyes were mesmerizing. This was a battle against his own will he was never going to win.
“I mean you no disrespect. I don’t belittle you. I speak out of concern.”
Peridot’s formal way of speaking grated on his nerves. The guy wasn’t so much older than Adam. Well, okay, fifteen years or so might be considered an age gap. But Peridot wasn’t from the Victorian age or anything, so why he couldn’t talk like a normal person only irked Adam more. Maybe because the formality of it, the politeness, the refined cant to his words, was just another thing to tingle against Adam’s skin, as if every word had invisible fingers with which to taunt him.
“Do you?” Peridot asked. “Because some days, I think what I say is better heeded by the walls than by you.”
“You’re talking to a wall, dude. Talking. To. A. Wall.” Adam found his fingers clenched to fists in an effort to forestall the creeping mixture of excitement and regret, want and annoyance.
Peridot raised one eyebrow and tilted his head to the side. “I believe I am sometimes, yes.”
“That’s the saying,” Adam snapped. “‘Sometimes I think I’m talking to a wall.’ That’s what you say to a person who’s being a dick and not listening to your good advice.” He snapped his mouth shut.
Peridot said nothing.
The silence stretched.
“I’m going to go warm up,” Adam said, losing the attitude and dropping his shoulders. “I’ll be ready for class.” He worked his fingers loose and shook out his cramped hands.
“Thank you.” Peridot’s own voice had dropped even lower, sounding defeated. “I appreciate that.”
When Adam glanced back over his shoulder, he caught only a glimpse of the older man’s back as he left the room.
What the hell was the matter with Adam? He’d volunteered to help Peridot with the adult ballet classes, so why was he so tense whenever Peridot spoke to him in so reasonable a way?
“Because you’re hot for him, you dumb fuck.” Adam pursed his lips, holding in further vulgarity. This space—the dance studio, the office, the building itself—was a sanctuary. He’d learned when he moved here as a teenager that Conrad ran a different sort of studio. A clean one. A family-oriented space where street talk and attitude were not welcome.
Adam hadn’t found it difficult to purge the blue-collar mannerisms from his speech or to clean up the street from his thoughts when he was here. Bending himself to fit the forms the people around him preferred had never been all that difficult. Not until Peridot.
Peridot Nascimbeni had changed everything, and Adam wasn’t sure he liked it.COLLAPSE