Unravel, page 1
Copyright © 2018 Renee Fowler
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This book is a work of fiction. Any and all names, character, places and locations are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to places or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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Chapter 1 - Penny
Chapter 2 - Liam
Chapter 3 - Penny
Chapter 4 - Liam
Chapter 5 - Penny
Chapter 6 - Liam
Chapter 7 - Penny
Chapter 8 - Liam
Chapter 9 - Penny
Chapter 10 - Penny
Chapter 11 - Liam
Chapter 12 - Penny
Chapter 13 - Liam
Chapter 14 - Penny
Chapter 15 - Liam
Chapter 16 - Liam
Chapter 17 - Penny
Chapter 18 - Penny
Chapter 19 - Liam
Chapter 20 - Penny
Chapter 21 - Liam
Chapter 22 - Penny
Chapter 23 - Liam
Chapter 24 - Penny
Chapter 25 - Liam
Epilogue - Penny
Thanks for Reading
Bouncing on the balls of my feet, I roll my shoulders and stretch my arms overhead. I’m trying to stay warm, along with all the other corps members confined in that tight space as we wait off stage. Blood soars through my ears, drowning out the quiet whispers, the muffled scratch of stiff tulle as our tutus brush against one another. We are almost all the way through the season, my first season, and I still get mad butterflies and that nervous, almost nausea inducing rush of adrenaline before each show.
All those eyes won’t be fixed on me specifically, which is such a relief. I can’t imagine starring center stage. Maybe one day. I’m only eighteen, and although I have many years of ballet under my belt, I have years to go yet before I reach that level.
A quiet hush falls over the gaggle of dancers, and I know before looking up who is approaching. A week ago we were told by the director that a guest star would be filling in for the role of Des Grieux this last handful of shows. The other dancers had laughed and rolled their eyes when we were instructed not to make eye contact with Liam Thibault, and absolutely under no circumstances were we to engage him in conversation or pester him in any way. I hadn’t rolled my eyes, or laughed. I didn’t join in the idle gossip after rehearsal. I was too busy daydreaming.
Liam Thibault may be too old for me, and happily married, but it doesn’t stop me from my girlish fantasy about the man who is more of a legend in my mind. I have a scrapbook devoted to him, which I would never admit outloud to another soul. I keep it hidden from plain sight, my shameful little secret. He is the reason I took french in high school. He’s also the reason I can’t currently suck breath into my lungs. Gazing at him up through my lashes, I resist the stalkerish urge to reach out and touch him as he passes close enough that I could touch him.
As he moves past, I openly gawk. I bet his thick, dark hair feels like silk. He is solid and beautifully muscular. He fills out those tights perfectly, and I am absolutely enthralled by the lines of his body. He moves gracefully and sensuously, but there isn’t an ounce of swishyness to his hips. He drips masculinity, and he is married to a very beautiful and talented woman, his long time dance partner. I wonder where she’s at? I don’t wonder very hard though. Elise Santos-Thibault might be worthy of admiration, but I don’t have a scrapbook devoted to her. I don’t know when her birthday is, or where she studied dance. In fact I’ve purposefully cut her out of many of those pictures for my silly little book of clippings.
This is Liam’s last night. Would it be so awful if I caught up with him after the show, told him I was honored to perform on the same stage with him, that he inspired me, and I looked up to him? Even before the house lights go down and low orchestral music wafts through the air, I know I won’t. I doubt I would be able to form coherent speech in his presence, and I could never muster the courage to try.
Peeking out from the wings, I watch Liam take stage for the opening sequence. Typically I would be trying to quell my nerves, mentally preparing myself for what was to come, but I stand still like a statue, utterly enthralled. Liam really is perfection. His movements are clean and fluid. The smile he wears is breathtaking. It certainly takes my breath away, and I’m not the only one swooning for this adonis either. There are a few of us there watching eagerly, sighing as he lands a jeté with practiced ease.
I’m irrationally jealous of Daria, the principal who is dancing Manon. She is lithe and blonde. People say we look alike, but I certainly can’t move like her. Yet. She gets to kiss Liam, even if it is only a stage kiss. I wonder what his lips feel like. I’m flush at imagining his hands on me, strong and competent. I’ve been partnered with male dancers before, but none like Liam.
We line up, preparing to file out en pointe. I take my spot halfway back and push every lustful, inappropriate thought of Liam Thibault out of my mind. I have work to do, and it is work, even if I love ballet. These almost nightly performances have taken a toll. I’m sore and achy. I have a blister on my third toe that stings despite the tape I applied earlier.
The choreography is not too demanding or intricate, but keeping time with the music and synchronizing my movements with the dancer to my left, and the dancer to my right is a challenge. It is as much a mental game as it is muscle strength and memory. All those eyes. They are here to see Liam mostly, but they see me too.
This need to dance is in sharp contrast to my fear of being seen. It is a strange compulsion, one which I know doesn’t make a lot of sense. While I aspire to solo roles, there is a part of me that would be perfectly content staying in the corps, or even doing something totally different one day, but what I don’t know. I’ve been dancing since I was three. I attended an alternative performing arts school since the age of eleven. My mother was a dancer too, and she had her career cut short by, well… me. She quit when she fell pregnant. Now she’s out there somewhere tonight, hidden beyond the hot lights beating down on me, watching, analyzing. She travelled all the way from Chicago to see me, and I can’t mess up.
I don’t mess up, I don’t think, although I’m not sure if I’ll ever measure up in her eyes. Near the end of the second act, I’m fatigued and dreading what will come after this show. Instead of celebrating with the handful of friends I’ve made since being hired on at the Riverside Ballet Collective, I’ll go dine with my mother while she quietly and politely picks apart my efforts on stage with a series of backhanded compliments.
Bending down I rub a knot in my calf, and stand back up to shake out my arms. There is some commotion further up the galley hall, but I don’t pay it much mind. There is always a lot going on back here during shows. Scenery is being changed out. Stage hands shoulder past rudely. A hand closes down on my arm, probably to move me aside. “Sorry,” I murmur, even though I’m standing well out of the way.
“Do you know Manon?” Mikhail barks down at me. He’s the creative director, an accomplished dancer in his own time, and a huge jerk.
“Do you know it! Do you know the part?”
Before I understand what’s happening, I’m being dragged along briskly. Then I catch sight of Daria in a heap on the floor, sobbing quietly and clutching at her ankle. There are a handful of people around her of
“Get that dress off her,” Mikhail commands, and without any warning he starts undressing me right there out in the open. I’m in a state of absolute shock as the peach tutu is ripped off me. Daria lifts her arms to help them remove the pale, fluttery dress from her slender frame.
“W-Wait a second. I can’t-”
“You said you knew it.” Mikhail’s dark eyes burn down at me.
“What about the understudy?” Even as the words leave my mouth, I recognize they are foolish. We’re in the middle of a performance, right in the middle of an act, and the understudy looks nothing like Daria.
“Do you know the last sequence or not?”
I’ve watched Daria dance this role. I’ve practiced bits and pieces of it recently, and done it myself back in high school, but that was two years ago, three? For some reason I’m nodding my head. “F-For the most part.”
“You just have to get through it,” Mikhail says, thrusting Daria’s costume in my direction.
There’s no time to run back to the dressing room, so I turn towards the corner and strip out of my flesh colored leotard, and shimmy into Daria’s dress. It is a bit loose in the bodice, but otherwise fits well enough. Turning around, I smooth it down my body and lock eyes with Liam.
I’ve dreamed of dancing with Liam Thibault, but not like this. Oh, my god. I can’t do it. I’m not ready. Maybe I have the same color hair as Daria, and the same build, but I’m nowhere near the dancer she is. I’m going to humiliate myself in front of Liam, and my mother, and every single person I work with. The theater is full. It’s a sold out show, and not one of those people paid to see me. None of them even know who I am. Panting shallow breaths, I feel dizzy. My stomach heaves, and I swallow back bile.
Someone is tugging at my hair. Bobby pins goes flying and I wince. Another person applies dark lipstick to my lips and rouge on my cheeks. She starts smacking her lips in my face impatiently, and I realize she wants me to do the same. I can’t cry. I can’t. I’ll ruin my makeup. I can’t vomit, or I’ll ruin Daria’s gauzy costume.
Mikhail’s hands close around my shoulders. He stoops down so we are eye level. “Penelope, you can do this.”
Penelope? Almost no one calls me that. I bet he just asked someone my name, because I doubt Mikhail even knows who I am. I’m a nameless, faceless corps dancer, at least I’m supposed to be. Maybe I’m dreaming? I bet I’m in the midst of a very vivid and terrible nightmare.
“Penelope?” he asks impatiently, snapping his fingers in my face rudely, and I realize I’m just staring at him with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look.
He rolls his eyes, and shakes his head, then shoves me towards Liam.
The gorgeous and perfect Liam Thibault gives me a wary look. I’m too terrified to be starstruck. My heart is pounding furiously, and not from the feel of his hand around mine.
Liam glides sensuously, with grace and ease. I try so very hard, but my movements are clumsy, off time. The final pas de deux, Manon’s death scene, is set to quiet music and my pointe shoes aren’t broken in sufficiently. I clip-clop across the stage like a horse, trying not to wince at the noise.
“Tais-toi,” Liam mutters angrily under his breath, grunting lightly as he lifts me.
Be quiet. I would love to have quieter shoes. Does he believe I’m doing this on purpose? My guess is he doesn’t think I know french, not that I know it well. Or perhaps he just doesn’t care.
During the first fouette turn, my knee smacks against his thigh. Improvising, Liam lifts me and turns us both in a slow arc.
“I’m so sorry,” I barely whisper.
“Shut up,” he grates out through clenched teeth.
I sweep across the stage, pirouette, then turn back to Liam and fly into his waiting arms.
“Grosse vache,” he hisses, lifting me again.
Grosse vache? Draping myself over his outstretched arm, I wrack my brain for the meaning behind those words. It comes to me as he slowly spins me while I balance on one toe. Fat cow.
Turned away from the audience, I scowl at him. I am not a fat cow. Not even close, but there is a certain technique to partnering that I am rusty on. I know Liam is working harder than normal to compensate for what I’m lacking, but still. Fat cow? Really?
I go limp, rag doll into splits, but this is part of the choreography. Liam lifts me, turns me. He wraps me in his arms in an embrace. I’m too focused on not completely screwing this up to relish the feel of his arms, but after being called a fat cow by him, Liam Thibault looks a bit different to me now.
His face is a mask of practiced anguish, but there is anger lighting his hazel eyes. Liam lifts me with a flourished toss. I stiffen and spin through the air, one, two, three times. Perhaps I’ve worshipped Liam Thibault from afar but I don’t really trust him.
Please, don’t let me fall.
I bite back a tiny shriek as his hands find my hips.
Liam half drags me across the stage, muttering in labored french under his breath. Some I pick up on, some I don’t. He calls me fat cow a few more times. Mon Dieu. He says that over and over.
I’m thinking the exact same thing. My god.
The music swells. I let my arms go limp and I collapse over his forearm. Manon is dead. I kind of feel like dying myself, but my torment isn’t quite over yet. Feigning death with my eyes closed, I try and probably fail to appear graceful and relaxed as Liam lowers me to the ground. I am keenly aware of his solid chest as he cradles me against him. I know from watching this scene in the wings earlier this week, his face is contorted with believable grief. His hand strokes my hair and face. I glare at him through tiny slits as he lowers his mouth to mine.
Liam doesn’t actually kiss me, thank god. One corner of his lips touch one corner of mine, but with his head angled as it is, from the audience’s perspective it looks real enough.
The lights go down, and applause rings through the air. I shove against Liam’s chest. “Fat cow?”
He laughs. He actually laughs, and I struggle up to my feet.
I have adored Liam Thibault from afar for so long that if he gave even the most feeble apology all might be forgiven, but he offers none.
The lights return. I stand beside him, and he clutches my hand in his, leading me through a series of bows. Tears glitter in my eyes. I have never been so humiliated in all my life. I can’t imagine anything worse than this. I really can’t, and my mother saw. It’s only the second time she’s come to see me since I got picked up by this ballet company, and this god awful travesty had to happen tonight? I want to curl up in a corner somewhere and die.
We exit stage together, but as soon as we are out of view of the crowd, Liam drops my hand. Shaking his head and muttering in french again, he stalks away from me.
A few of my fellow corps members swarm me. They assure me I did fine, and well enough. Fine? Well enough? I’m going to cry. There is no way I can stop the tears of abject humiliation burning at my eyes. In the distance I can see Liam gesturing angrily with a bottle of water aimed at the director.
“What was he like to dance with?”
I’m not the only lowly corps dancer infatuated with the great Liam Thibault, or at least I used to be. There’s no need to ruin the fantasy for these others though. “It was wonderful,” I assure them, shouldering past. “I need to take this thing off.” I tug at the scratchy costume for emphasis.
Now that we are no longer under the glare of the stage lights, maybe… No, as soon as Liam sees me approach he throws me a deep scowl. “I will never forget this,” he spits out to the director and turns to go.
Something tells me I will never forget this either, although I very much want to.
Liam walks right past me, like I’m nobody. I continue in the opposite direction with my chin tilted up, and my eyes wide to maintain my composure.
Unimportant nobodies like me don’t get a private dressing room, so
I eventually get control of myself, and blot at my face with some toilet paper. Without a mirror to see, I’ve probably just made it worse. I must look like a red-eyed raccoon.
Mikhail is waiting outside when I exit. He hands me a bottle of water. “Thanks,” I mutter. “Are you coming to fire me?”
“Of course not. You did perfectly adequate given the circumstances.”
Adequate? Coming from him that’s almost high praise, but it does little to soothe my bruised ego. “Is Daria going to be okay?”
“I think so. It looks like a bad sprain, but she’ll recover.” Mikhail shuffles uncomfortably and hands me something. “Liam wanted you to have this.”
I stare down at the signed headshot, trying not to laugh or cry again. It’s not addressed to me personally, and I have serious doubts Liam actually signed this himself in the first place. Mikhail also hands me a rose from stage, and gives my shoulder a stiff pat.
As he’s walking away, I attempt to smell the flower but my nose is too stuffy. I really don’t want to smell it anyways. That rose wasn’t meant for me. I crumple the black and white picture of Liam’s smiling face in my fist and drop it in the trash, along with the flower.
“Look what came in the mail today?” I wave the stiff parchment through the air, grinning from ear to ear.
Seth is draped over the couch in my dressing room, still dressed in his sweaty clothes from practice. He reaches his arm out to snatch the invitation out of my hand. “With great pleasure Penelope Anne Abbott and John Vernon King invite you to join them in the celebration of their marriage,” Seth reads with a high nasally voice, thick with sarcasm. “His middle name is really Vernon? Jesus.”
“This is a mistake, Penny. You’re too young.”
I huff and roll my eyes, turning around to address him in my mirror. “Twenty eight is not too young.”
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