The day Katarina surrendered to the aches and discomfort in her feet was the day she’d hang up her pointe shoes.
The familiar tenderness in her arches as she strolled through the airport after coming off a rigorous performance schedule over the last six months was more comforting than disconcerting. Although, at thirty-one, she had begun counting the days of her career with the New York Metropolitan Ballet. She’d been touring and performing with them for the last twelve years and had been prima ballerina for the last eight. Like any athlete, ballerinas had a shelf life. Kat had begun noticing the daily dual performances taking their toll on her body. Not enough to stop her from dancing, but enough that her body no longer had the buoyancy and fast recovery it once had.
And if that wasn’t just a smack in the face. It was bad enough that dancers courted career-ending injuries with every fouetté jet é and leap.
She was still at the top of her game, at least appearance wise, but physically, she knew her years of dance had taken their toll on her body. She felt it in her bones. It didn’t help that her ballet troupe had recently acquired some young dancers fresh out of dance school who were beginning to give her a run for her money. The day when she’d be replaced as prima was approaching at lightning speed. Dammit.
After her brief stop in Scotland for her friend Declan’s New Year’s Eve wedding, Kat had one final stop on her tour in Los Angeles. Two more months of performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then it was on to her apartment in New York for some rest and re-assessment.
Kat wasn’t an idiot. She had known when she signed up for the ballet that her professional performance career would likely end somewhere in her thirties. That was if she were lucky enough to avoid career-ending injuries along the way. She’d been fortunate thus far on the injury front, managing to come away with nothing more than sprains. It was up to her to decide whether she retired from performing at the top of her game or allowed herself to continue until the decision was taken out of her hands and she was demoted back to second fiddle. Kat had no idea which was the better route—which was why she wasn’t making a decision at all yet.
And then there was the little nagging question of what she was going to do after she retired. The enormity of it, the uncertainty, had been keeping her up at night. Did she want to teach, assemble her own troupe and direct, become the choreographer for another troupe, since Blanche Cartright had no plans to leave her position as choreographer for their ballet company, or should she have a career completely outside of the dance world? Did she want to remain in Manhattan? While technically it was home, as in when she filed her taxes with the IRS it was the address she listed as her permanent one, her constant touring had kept her away from the city for months at a time over the last twelve years. Manhattan didn’t feel like home; it was just another place in a long line of stops along the way.
Kat had no clue. Whenever she considered it, she found herself flummoxed over the dilemma. Being a prima ballerina had always been what she’d dreamt of and worked toward with a dogged determination. She’d made sacrifices along the way, ignored other parts of her life completely in pursuit of excellence in her chosen discipline. She had had a career that most would be envious of, she understood that more than most, and yet, when she looked past her professional expiration date, there was this gray cloud shrouding her future from every angle. Kat hadn’t taken the time—like many of her peers—to cultivate a romantic relationship. She wasn’t married, she didn’t have a boyfriend lingering in New York, waiting on a facetime call from her. The moment she left the company, the loneliness she was usually able to hide away would consume her.
Grimacing as she left the quaint terminal with its benign tan and beige color scheme, she headed toward baggage claim. At least she had a few days off to relax and enjoy Declan’s wedding. It had been ages since she’d seen her old childhood friend.
Her boots clicked against the linoleum floor as she entered the baggage area. Pain lacerated her chest when she glanced down at the ground. Strange, the associations our brains make, she thought, for it was similar to the hospital floor she had stared at for hours after her father had died last year. His death had made her examine her life and question her lonely existence. She’d forfeited relationships in pursuit of her dreams and now she wondered if it had all been in vain.
Shaking off her grief and putting it on the back burner for another time, Kat spied a uniformed driver wearing all black, holding a sign with her name on it. Taking a deep breath, she marveled at the diminutive man. His wrinkled visage beamed as she approached him. God, he had to be near eighty and made her think of leprechauns. She only hoped his driving was much more sturdy than he himself appeared.
“Miss Roberts?” his grizzled voice asked. His cheerful blue eyes shone with a wealth of intelligence as he regarded her.
“Yes, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr…” Kat held out her hand and shook his, stunned by the strength in his grasp.
“McNamara. Stan McNamara at your service.” He tipped his hat. “Let me help you with your luggage, Miss Roberts. We have one more guest whose arrival we are waiting on before we can depart for Mullardoch Manor. The guest’s plane should be landing shortly so I don’t think you will have to wait too much longer.”
Kat nodded and sighed internally at the delay. That went without saying. She was beyond exhausted—so tired, even her tired was tired.
“That’s not a problem,” she fibbed, when all she really wanted was to climb into bed for twelve hours. “My suitcase should be at baggage carousel number two any minute. Why don’t you wait here for the other guest and I’ll go retrieve it?”
Kat did not travel light. When you were on the road as much as she was, there were things one could and couldn’t go without. All her costumes and ballet wardrobe were shipped with the company’s stage equipment via cargo shipment. So at least she didn’t have twenty leotards and tights taking up space in her luggage, although she did have her pointe shoes in her carry-on bag and a few workout leotards in her checked bag, just in case something happened to the shipment. However, when it came to her suitcase and Stan McNamara, she worried that the older gentleman wouldn’t be able to heft its forty-eight pound weight. Quite the opposite, in fact. She could see as clear as day the man’s back going out at her expense. It was easier and a far safer bet for her to gather her belongings herself.
He tipped his black chauffer’s hat in her direction with a twinkle. “As you wish. Their flight should be landing any minute now.”
She nodded and headed over to the baggage carousel. In the time it took her to claim her suitcase and make a visit to the ladies’ room, another flight had arrived, this one from the States. She wondered who the other passenger was as she ambled back to Stan. He now held a sign that read, ‘Mr. Evans.’
At the tail end of a stream of passengers entering the baggage claim area, one man stood out above the rest. It was hard for him not to draw attention. The man was enormous. He must have been at least six and a half feet tall, and built like a lumberjack. Even wearing a sleek black pea coat, his shoulders and arms were impressive, large enough to fill a doorway. His long-legged strides ate up the distance as his basketball player form neared. While his body was remarkable, it was his face that had her moaning—internally, of course.
Carnal was the one word that came to mind. His dark brown hair was almost black, was a tad long, and gave the impression that he ran his giant hands through it a hundred times a day. What with the impressive size of his hands and feet, Kat would bet money that below the belt he was also proportionate: long, thick, or both. He had a close-cropped black beard lining his strong, angular jaw, which made him seem virulent, sensual, and made her want to rub up against him like a cat in heat. She had a type and he was it: mister tie me up, tie me down himself.
She loved big, burly, hairy men like Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit. His eyes smoldered with an intensity that rippled off him. Kat felt her belly flutter as he neared.
Was he the other guest they were waiting for? If so, her best friend’s wedding just got a whole heck of a lot more interesting. The man was a far cry from the pretty boys in her ballet troupe. Most of the men she’d dated over the years had been fellow dancers or wannabe Doms who were pretty, not manly—who, while as strong as oxen, also tended to be more effeminate. Everything about the gentleman approaching them was blatantly, unapologetically male. Her insides trembled when he stopped in front of the driver and flashed a grin that showed off his even, white teeth.
“I’m Will Evans.” He had one of those deep, low-bass male voices that carried a sensual undertone which called to a woman’s primitive biological urges to find the most dominant male to procreate with. Kat was putty just at the sound of his voice. Everything about him screamed alpha Dom.
Was he a member of the club?
“Please to meet ye, Mister Evans. Stan McNamara at your service,” Stan greeted the much taller man, looking more like a Keebler elf next to Will Evans striking height.
“Likewise,” Will Evans replied, shaking his hand.
“Once you have your luggage, I will ferry you and Miss Roberts to Mullardoch Manor.”
Will Evans’s penetrating gaze shifted to Kat. She sucked in a swift breath as his dark chocolate eyes peered at her with interest. The intensity in his stare mesmerized her and she couldn’t have turned away from him if she’d tried. Kat didn’t normally feel short, but his excessive height forced her to crane her neck just to make eye contact with him. His sheer manliness, the alpha aura that compiled his essence was an intoxicating, damn near lethal drug to her system. Goose bumps broke out over her skin.
“Will.” He held his hand out. The timbre of his deep bass resonated in her chest, setting off a flurry of tingles in her belly.
As though encapsulated inside a bubble with him, as the volatile, electric energy pinged between them while other passengers parted around their still forms, Kat lifted her hand toward his. His enormous hand engulfed hers as he clasped it in greeting. “Katarina.”
“Pleasure. I’ll just grab my bag.”
She stared, a bit dumbfounded. His touch had short-circuited her brain because all she could seem to think about was how that same palm would feel spanking her, or stroking her between her thighs. His touch set off a flurry of images, each more startlingly carnal than the next.
“I’ll need my hand back, Kat.” He gave her a seductive grin, like he knew she was pondering naughty thoughts about what she’d like to do with him.
“What? Oh, sorry, jet lag,” she explained, embarrassed over her gaffe and tugging her hand out of his, all while attempting to act unaffected.
Kat’s entire system was acting like a cartoon caricature; the old black and white ones where the damsel was dressed like a 1950’s housewife, then, at the sight of the hero, clasped her hands together against her ample bosom, batting her eyelashes and exclaiming, “A man!” in an exaggerated manner that had the audience rolling with laughter. Sheesh. Had it really been that long since she had been in the presence of a Paul Bunyan manly man type?
Yes. Yes, it had, if the melty sensations in her core were anything to judge by.
She couldn’t help but contemplate Will’s mighty fine posterior through his jeans as he sauntered over to the baggage carousel to retrieve his luggage. That such a large man had such a taut rear and wore the hell out of his jeans created enough heat catapulting through her system that she stood there almost needing to fan herself. She envisioned that same tight rear end encased in leather while he held a flogger dangling from his hand instead of the computer bag he currently grasped.
That did it. Tonight she had to go play at the DFC, short for Dungeon Fantasy Club, find a Dom, and get her obvious need out of her system. Was he a member? He had all the bearing of a Dom.
The thought of having Mr. Will Evans discipline her with those enormous hands of his made every molecule in Kat’s body heat to twelve hundred Kelvin.
He didn’t walk back over to where she and Stan were waiting, but strutted with an inbred confidence of his place in the world. There were men in the ballet troupe who faked self-confidence, although it was an easily cracked veneer. Will didn’t appear to have any pretense about who he was and it showed. Will Evans was a sexy beast of a man.
“Follow me,” Stan said, turning and moving with a surprisingly fast gait, pulling her suitcase along with him.
Kat followed him out to the waiting limo, sensing Will at her back the whole time. She had to withstand the hour long car ride alone with him in the back, during which she hoped she wouldn’t melt through the floor.