Elle était toute gênée quand elle nous a heurtés au détour d’un couloir. Élancée comme un saule pleureur et douce comme la mer. L’ambre de ses yeux me hantera longtemps.
— Tu peux mettre le feu à mes habits, Monsieur Kozlov, mais je danserai toujours nue. Tu peux me battre et me toucher comme tu n’en as pas le droit, mais ça ne me brisera pas. Alors, je te le dis tout de suite, si c’est ton intention, vas-y, montre-moi ce dont tu es capable.
— Depuis l’âge de six ans, je m’exerce comme danseuse. Tu crois que ta mafia est exclusive ? Essaie le monde de la danse classique, Kozlov. J’ai assisté à des programmes d’été intensifs auxquels la plupart des gens peuvent seulement rêver. On m’a offert un contrat dans le corps de ballet avant même la fin du lycée. Alors que d’autres gamins jouaient dehors et expérimentaient tout ce que l’enfance avait à leur offrir, j’étais dans le studio. J’ai gravi les échelons de cette hiérarchie en dépit des apparences et si nous devions comparer nos mondes, toi et moi serions égaux. Toute ma vie, j’ai sué sang et eau pour ce rêve, et tu crois que tu as le droit de me suggérer de trouver un autre loisir comme si de rien n’était ?
Let it ruin you. It’s the only way. The words rush between my lips on a stolen breath, and in my mind, Vivi’s face is still as lucid as the day she uttered that direction. She was loud and unintentionally poetic. Silky locks of raven hair, red lipstick, and cat-shaped glasses. These were just a few of the threads that stitched together my mentor and my inspiration. Every dancer at the Met tonight would sell their souls for a career like Vivi’s. I was one of the lucky disciples chosen to study under her, but I doubted it had anything to do with luck at all. She had an artist’s eye, always looking for something different. And in a flock of pale sheep, I was the lone umber wolf. Vivi liked that. From the beginning of our time together, she spoke of her plight to create cultural diversity in a world of dance that still upheld strict ancient standards. My half-blooded Italian heritage and a dash of my mother’s ebony skin elected me as the poster child for her cause. But regardless of her reasoning, I didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. I was not under the delusion that I was special, and Vivi would be quick to remind me of it if I ever got the notion in my head. Every ballet student wanted to think she was special. That she was pure talent and natural grace. That she was the best. But every dancer’s best was only as good as the dancer next to her, waiting to steal her shine in the spotlight. Vivi provided that lesson when she allowed another dancer to do exactly that. Her practice was brutal but effective. More than structure and timing, she taught me how to live and breathe my art.
“Tanaka.” Papà’s voice doesn’t waver, but it’s softer than I’ve ever heard it. “There has been a change of plans. You must be a good girl and do as I say. Do you understand?” My only response is to blink. I’m too numb to argue. I’m too wrecked to give him a verbal response. Something he would chastise me for at any other time. “Nikolai has graciously agreed to provide some accommodations for you while I am away on business. There is no need to worry, though, little lamb. It will only be for a short while.” I don’t have the emotional capacity to accept this as my reality right now. For years, my life has been on a straight course that never deviated. Principle and ballet. Those were my only goals, and I had such little time to make them happen. I was supposed to marry Dante. That’s what I’ve been told. That’s what I’ve been preparing for. For my entire life, I’ve been sheltered. Schooled at home. Forbidden from having friends or leaving the house. I could not be alone with a man, ever. It’s what I’ve been taught and what I’ve always abided by. My father arranged my marriage, and it was set in stone. But now, he tells me he is sending me away with a man I don’t know at all. One who appears to have none of the values instilled in me. For a fleeting moment, I wonder what Dante will say. And then my thoughts gradually drift back to my company. A tear leaks down my cheek, followed by another. I don’t know anything other than one unalterable truth. I’m a dancer. It’s all I have. It’s all I am. When the doctor returns to discuss my fate, his face is clinical. Detached. And he barely glances at me before addressing my father as he’s been instructed to do. “Mr. Valentini, your daughter has ruptured two ligaments in her ankle—” “No.” I try to move, but one look from my father halts me. “I’m sorry.” The doctor looks at me now. “Your injuries will require surgery to repair the ligaments and remove the glass still embedded in your toes.” “But I’m a dancer,” I whisper. His eyes
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