The Risk by Caitlin Crews

The Risk

HEAT LEVEL:
Down & Dirty

In the second installment of The Billionaire’s Club quartet, arrogant billionaire Sebastian Dumont risks everything for one night with an exquisite dancer…whose dark fantasy leaves him wanting more.

Love is a risk I will never take, a prize too good for a man who betrayed his family. That’s why I prefer to keep things transactional. So when I see the exquisite tiny dancer in the exclusive Parisian billionaire’s club, turning her burlesque into an erotic art form, I’ll give whatever it takes to have her…

She is mine for one night, to do with as I please. But following my commands seems to bring her as much pleasure as it does me. And I can’t help wondering at her performance. She almost makes me believe this is a fantasy of her own making.

I’m not ready to let her go after just one night, but I never imagined my hunt would lead me to New York City, or to a restrained and disciplined ballerina. Stoking the fire that rages between us could be the biggest risk I’ve ever taken…one that may cost me everything, including my damaged heart.

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The Risk

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Darcy

Once I walked through the door, there was no going back.

I stood there on the Paris street in the thick, rich darkness of an autumn night, staring at the discreetly unmarked door in question. I was breathing hard and felt faintly dizzy, as if I’d danced a difficult night of several shows on very little food.

I was used to the feeling. It was the reason for the feeling that was making my heart pound tonight.

I had signed all the documents, in triplicate, from the straightforward performance contract to several different NDAs that would make certain I never dreamed of telling a soul what happened within the walls of the M Club. To me or around me. I had practiced the burlesque routine that was my entrance into this excruciatingly private club in Paris—though I’d been informed there were many other locations scattered across the globe—until I could do it in my sleep.

“All you have to do is dance,” my friend Annabelle had told me with an eye roll when she’d asked me to take her place here at M Club. “Or whatever you want to call it.”

We’d laughed, because we were proper, professional ballet dancers, not burlesque performers. We dedicated our lives to perfecting lines and steps, counts and patterns, in a world-renowned ballet company. We didn’t play pretend with feathers and bloomers or whatever it was burlesque was meant to do when, really, it was just a striptease. Emphasis on tease.

And, yes, we were maybe a little full of ourselves. Annabelle and I had met in the corps de ballet of the prestigious Knickerbocker Ballet in New York City when we were both seventeen. Ten years of dancing and struggling through injuries and setbacks, occasional partying and rooming together in a tiny walk-up in New York City, and we were still hanging in there.

That we were both still—and only—members of the company meant, of course, that we were not likely to be promoted to principal dancers, despite whatever dreams we’d had as younger, newer dancers. It also meant that our inevitable retirements were looming, whether we wanted to stop dancing or not.

No one wanted to stop dancing. I certainly didn’t. But the body could only take so much, and nothing but sheer greatness in the eyes of the world—and demanding artistic directors—ever seemed to combat the ravages of gravity. Soloists and principal dancers were more likely to fight their way toward the age of forty before retiring—when their bodies finally gave out after too many surgeries and untreated injuries and the daily toll of so much pointed use. Or when they could no longer maintain the preferred form and appearance required by most of the major ballet companies, no matter what lip service they might give to a newer, more body-positive approach. Ballet was about precision. And even the most celebrated principals were forbidden the creeping ravages of age.

But dancers who had never made it out of the corps in the first place? They leaned in hard, made themselves indispensable and became ballet mistresses when they could no longer perform, like the Knickerbocker’s much-feared and widely respected Miss Fortunato. Otherwise, they tended to give up the fight sooner, usually after a steep downward spiral from an esteemed company like Knickerbocker through far less demanding organizations until even those wouldn’t have them.

That I knew my own future didn’t make it any less grim. I did my best to focus on the day before me, not the future I couldn’t change no matter what I did.

It didn’t surprise me that Annabelle had found yet another new and strange way to get her center stage fix, while crossing as many lines as possible in the process. She had always been the adventurous one.

For every lover I took, Annabelle took three. At once, whenever possible. Annabelle’s boundaries were fluid, smoky. One year, between seasons, she beguiled a well-known older Broadway actress who still called our apartment, all these years later, begging for one more night. Another year, while nursing a broken ankle that took her out of the company, she had entertained two princes and a number of politicians on the sort of Mediterranean yachts that were forever appearing in the tabloids.

Last year, when rent money had been scarce between our performance seasons, Annabelle had decided that she might as well monetize her dating life. She’d found the initial experience electrifying. She liked to indulge herself on nights we didn’t perform, and liked to tell me every scandalous detail of the men who paid her for the privilege of touching her.

Others might call it escorting. They might use other, less euphemistic words. But Annabelle didn’t care what anyone else thought of her. And I was the one who pretended to find her stories scandalous…and then, when I was alone in the dark, imagined it was me starring in all those dark and dirty scenes.

“And if you’re not too afraid,” she’d told me, when we’d finished laughing about burlesque and the idea that it was on a par with what we did, “who knows? Maybe you can finally do something about your own prudishness.”

“Your definition of a prude is anyone else’s definition of a lusty, committed whore,” I pointed out drily.

It had been a morning last spring. We’d been limbering up before the daily company class, which we took every morning before the afternoons of rehearsals and the evening shows. We stood in the back of the studio space behind the Knickerbocker theater, because everything in ballet was a hierarchy, even where we practiced. I was trying to pretend that my body was as supple and invincible as it had felt when I was seventeen and had believed that, truly, I could fly. And had, here and there, across stages in my toe shoes.

These days, my hamstrings and hips protested a lot more than they used to. And my feet were so battered that it was never a question of whether or not I was in pain but what, if anything, I planned to do about it. That day.

Everyone was injured, always. We all had to pay attention to these injuries, taking care not to let minor flare-ups become major problems.

That day I flexed my toes as I went into my first split, failed to wince and decided I was about as good as I could expect to get.

“You know what I mean,” Annabelle had been saying.

She was holding on to the barre as she worked her way through a few positions, her willowy body flowing as she moved. To the untrained eye, every move she made was deserving of applause. I could see my own reflection in the mirror and knew it was the same for me. But we did not dance for untrained eyes. We danced for beauty and learned judges. For precision and grace. We chased perfection, and were willing to starve and slave, whatever it took, to get as close to the sun as we could for as long as we could.

Annabelle’s hair, bright and red, was in the typical bun on the top of her head. Next to her, I always felt dimmer. My dark hair never seemed glossy enough to combat her brightness. And my eyes certainly never shone like that, wicked and insinuating.

Annabelle might not be a prima ballerina any more than I was, but she always captured attention. Though that was not always a good thing in company class, where those of us in the corps were working on uniformity, not interpretation.

“I don’t understand why you think your kink has to be my kink,” I told her, perhaps a bit loftily. It was an old argument. “As I think we’ve established in the past decade, you like things that I definitely do not.”

“How do you know if you won’t try?” she asked, as she always did. Her gaze was wicked, as usual, but steady on mine in the mirror. “And believe me, Darcy, you will never find more controlled circumstances than these.”

“Annabelle.” I was afraid that the sudden roughness in my voice would give away the startling truth that this conversation felt emotional to me. Which I was terribly afraid meant that, as usual, my fearless, impetuous friend had poked her finger directly onto the sort of button I preferred to keep to myself. As if she knew exactly what fantasies I toyed with in the dark. Alone. “I have no interest whatsoever in selling myself.”

She sniffed, then grinned cheekily when our friend Bernard, another member of the corps, looked over his shoulder at us with his eyebrows raised.

“You sold your body to the ballet ten years ago,” she told me, with the brutal practicality that made me love her no matter how little I understood her. “Selling a fuck or two is far less wear and tear on your body, pays more, and unlike a lifetime in the corps, will make you come your face off.”

But all my face did that day was turn red, which got me a sharp rebuke from Miss Fortunato when we were called out into the floor to begin the class.

All through my rehearsals that day and the show I danced that evening, I pretended that I’d put Annabelle’s nonsense out of my mind the way I normally did, whether she was claiming she’d seduced the chiropractor or pretending she might at any moment become a stripper, instead.

But that night, I dreamed. Of a private dance in a dark room, and the hot, demanding stare of the man I danced for. I imagined peeling off my clothes and embracing the true vulnerability of my performance, around and around until I landed between his legs. I dreamed I knelt there before him, alive with need.

I could feel his hand like a brand against my jaw, lifting my face to his, and what I saw there made my body tremble.

Because he saw me as his. A possession. An object.

Something he could use for his pleasure, however he wished.

My whole body clenched. My thighs pressed tightly together. And a wild, intense orgasm woke me from a sound sleep and left me panting there in the dark.

In my bed. Alone.

“There are some fantasies that should never become reality,” I told Annabelle a few mornings later.

We’d set out on the run we sometimes did in the mornings before company class, if we weren’t in the mood to swim or hit the elliptical. That left our break times free for the more pointed bodywork or extra rehearsals we might need as the day wore on. That morning we’d followed our usual loop, running up a few blocks from our nondescript street on the Upper East Side, along Fifth Avenue, then into Central Park.

Annabelle and I lived in a studio apartment in the low 70s we’d long ago converted into a makeshift two-bedroom—which was to say we’d put a few bookcases and a screen here and there to create a little psychological space. It meant that no matter how often I might hear Annabelle crying out her pleasure or making her lovers sob her name I didn’t actually have to witness any of it unless I wanted to.

“Why?” she asked me then. “Making fantasies reality is the point of life, as far as I can tell.”

Neither one of us liked running that much, though we dedicated ourselves to it the same way we did everything else: with intense focus and determination because of course we needed the cardio. We always needed the cardio. We were still in our twenties, but our metabolisms were already shifting and we were certainly no longer the seventeen-year-olds we’d been when we’d started. A few miles every morning helped, and went by quicker with a friend and some conversation. But soon I was much too aware nothing would help. Time came for us all, whether we wanted to face it or not.

There were no elderly ballerinas in the Knickerbocker.

“Why?” I repeated. “Let me think. First of all, safety.”

“You’re a grown woman, Darcy,” Annabelle said with a laugh. “I feel certain that you can make yourself safe, if you want. Or not so safe, if that’s hotter.”

“Just because you sell yourself without blinking, it doesn’t mean that kind of thing comes easily to others. It’s a social taboo for a reason.”

“I consider myself a world-class performer. Why shouldn’t a lover pay just as they would if they were coming to see me dance at the theater?” She laughed again when I made a face. “I always forget that you have this traditional streak. This is what happens when you grow up sheltered in Greenwich, Connecticut, the toast of all those desperately preppy boarding schools.”

“I was not the toast of Miss Porter’s.”

“Miss Porter’s,” Annabelle repeated, pronouncing the name of my high school alma mater as if she was belting it from the center stage. While also mocking it. “I’m just saying that I had fewer moral quandaries at good old Roosevelt High.”

“To hear you tell it, your tiny little high school in Indiana was ground zero for debauchery.”

“It’s Indiana. What’s there to do except get a little twisted and dirty?” Annabelle blew out a breath as we sped up to pass a group of nannies. “Your trouble is, you think that if you actually got what you wanted, it would ruin you.”

“I do not.”

I did. I really, truly did.

“Here’s the deal, Darcy,” Annabelle said, coming to a stop when we’d only done the first of our three miles. She rested her hands on her hips, and I knew she was serious when a good-looking man ran past and looked at her admiringly and she didn’t look back at him. “I’ve spent years trying to get inside this. Any branch, anywhere.”

“Then you shouldn’t give up your opportunity to do it this time.”

“I’m understudying Claudia,” Annabelle said, naming one of our soloists. She shrugged. “I can’t be flying off to Paris during our season break, indulging myself, and possibly miss an opportunity that both you and I know is unlikely to come again. Not that it will come this time, either. You know Claudia. She won’t miss a show. She’d dance through the plague.”

I did know Claudia, younger than us and far more ambitious. I also knew Annabelle. And I’d been hearing her talk about the pleasures to be had in this exquisite M Club of hers for at least two years. There was no applying for membership. There was no showing up or waiting in a line. The club was by invitation only, membership was rumored to be extended only to the wealthiest individuals alive, and clearly, the only possible way that someone like Annabelle or me was getting inside was as the help.

Or in this case, as the talent.

“If they’re so fancy, why wouldn’t they hire real burlesque dancers?” I didn’t even smirk when I said it. Because, between Annabelle’s first mention of it and now, I had accidentally spent a little too much time researching the art form. “There are world-renowned burlesque dancers who I’m sure would leap at the chance—”

“For exactly that reason. World-renowned, professional burlesque dancers would likely perform burlesque, then go about their business. M Club is looking for dancers who might do a little bit more than that.”

“You mean dancers who want to be whores.”

Annabelle tipped back her head and laughed at that loudly. Once more drawing attention from passing men and women alike. And ignoring the attention entirely, which was unlike her.

“Keep your morals to yourself, please.” She waved a hand over the sports bra and tiny running shorts she wore. “This body is my instrument. I’ve honed it, beaten it into submission and gloried in it. But what I choose to do with it, who I choose to do it with, and what I want in return is entirely my business. I don’t think that makes me a whore.”

“Please stop saying that word so loudly,” I said. Through my teeth.

Annabelle smiled. “My understanding is that the club wants dancers who are open to using this opportunity as more than just a simple performance. Dancers who will push the envelope and give themselves over to the fantasy.”

I wanted to dismiss the whole notion of M Club out of hand. I wanted to laugh, much as Annabelle had, all lust and delight. I wanted to start running again, stop talking and chalk this up to one more of Annabelle’s predictable flights of fancy.

But my heart was kicking inside my chest as if we’d sped up instead of stopping. Between my legs, I was slippery. Too hot and trembling again, as if on the verge of another intense orgasm like last night’s.

I didn’t know what was happening to me.

I didn’t want to know.

“You need to call the number I already have. You will have to update them about our little cast change. Tell them who you are, answer all their questions, and they will ask you to share your deepest, darkest fantasies with them.” Annabelle smirked at me. “I think we both know what that is.”

“I don’t know what makes you think you have the slightest idea what I fantasize about. For all you know, I’d like nothing more than to zip-tie a room full of domineering men, then make them crawl around and serve me.”

“Yes, yes,” she murmured. “Anyone who’s ever suffered through rehearsals with François has entertained a thousand fantasies of tying up men just like him and torturing them within an inch of their lives.” François was the Knickerbocker’s most temperamental male soloist and a diva beyond compare. “But that’s not quite the same thing, is it? That’s a revenge fantasy. It’s not what haunts you. It’s not what makes you moan in your sleep. Rhythmically. Waking up with a gasp—”

I could feel my face turning red again. Bright and obvious, even outside on a sunny spring morning.

“You must be thinking of yourself,” I countered. “Or either one of those twins you had over last night.”

“I exhausted the twins long before I heard you, Darcy. But tell yourself any fiction you like.” Annabelle reached up and adjusted her ponytail. “I don’t need an answer until next week. You’re welcome to say no and condemn yourself to your usual life of mediocre sex and a thousand fantasies that you will soon enough be too old and too decrepit to enjoy.”

“I don’t have mediocre sex—how dare you—and I have no intention of becoming decrepit.”

“It’s one night, Darcy. In Paris.” Annabelle sighed as if she, too, played out some fantasies in her head instead of hurling herself headfirst into every last one of them. “You dance suggestively for strange men and women whose names you will not know. You show them as much of your naked body as you like, but only on your terms. Then, afterward, if you are so moved, you let the man who most captures your fancy draw you into a private room. You let him purchase you for the rest of the night and then do with you, to you, absolutely everything and anything he desires.”

Her gaze was hot. Demanding. I told myself that was why I couldn’t breathe.

“Just think about it,” Annabelle said.

It took me much too long to remember I was in New York in the bright light of day, not under a dark Parisian night sky with a relentless stranger… I repressed a shiver.

“I’ll be thinking about the ballet we need to perform,” I told her loftily. “Not your latest sexcapade.”

But I thought of nothing else.

And one of the reasons I loved Annabelle as much as I did was that when I went to her one largely sleepless week later and couldn’t quite meet her eyes as I muttered that yes, in fact, I could go to Paris in her stead, she only smiled.

I’d undergone the written interview. The intrusive background check. I’d signed away every right I could think of and several I had not.

I had met with a woman who had never offered me her name in a brownstone just steps from Fifth Avenue. She was obviously meant to be intimidating, but I’d been contending with famed dragon ladies like the Knickerbocker’s formidable ballet mistress most of my life. I’d smiled politely as we sat together in a room bursting with understated elegance and just enough wealth to seem accessible instead of off-putting. I’d answered what had seemed to me like an excruciating set of personal questions.

What were my fantasies? Why? What would happen if I discovered that the reality was something far different than what I’d dreamed?

“Well, ordinarily, I would demand everything stop. Then leave.” I’d blinked at the woman. “Is that allowed?”

“Of course it is allowed,” the woman replied, with that faint accent I couldn’t quite place. She was regal, silver haired, and with the sort of bearing that it was tempting to ascribe to rampant plastic surgery and a life of ease but was far more likely, I was certain, to be a simple combination of genetics and rigorous discipline.

She reminded me of my first ballet teacher all those years ago in Greenwich. Madame Archambault had been unflappable and much, much kinder than she’d looked. She had once danced with Balanchine. She had brought out the best in all her students, and she’d made a dancer out of me. Maybe that was why I told this stranger, who knew everything about me though I knew nothing about her, my most secret, most tightly held fantasy.

The one Annabelle had guessed but which I’d never admitted out loud.

“It is not a fantasy for everyone,” the woman said when I had finished, feeling dirty and ruined and torn apart by my own black-and-white morality, just as Annabelle had long accused me. “It is easy to get lost.”

My heart was a lump in my throat. “That’s why I’ve never done it.”

“I think what you seek is surrender,” she said, smiling slightly. “For a woman who has always kept her body so tightly controlled, it would be something, would it not, to be under the control of another?”

“You could argue that I’ve been under the control of this or that instructor, director or choreographer for most of my life.”

The woman shrugged and she did that, too, with an innate elegance that made me wonder if she’d ever danced herself. “Ballet is your art. Your ambition. You submit to the tyrants of your daily life in service to your ego, your determination. It will be something else entirely, I think, to truly surrender your will to another’s.”

“Or pretend to.” My voice had cracked on that, and it was a measure of how far I’d already fallen that I didn’t flush with embarrassment or try to clear my throat as if it was a trapped sneeze instead of emotion. “Isn’t that what we’re talking about? A game of pretend?”

“If you like.” The woman’s gaze was steady. And she saw entirely too much. “Let us be clear what we’re talking about here, shall we?”

“I love clarity,” I managed to say, though my lips were numb.

“You wish to sell yourself to a man. A stranger.”

And there it was, stark and unmistakable. I told myself it was an ugly thing, this strange fantasy that had flirted with me for as long as I could remember.

But it didn’t feel ugly. Not here. Not in the face of this woman’s matter-of-factness.

Here, and inside me, it felt beautiful. Pure. Relationships were always muddied by so many external factors. Feelings, histories. Schedules. Resentments. But this fantasy was all about simplicity.

My body. His. Sex and lust, need and surrender, and a deep, intimate dance that ended in the most glorious flight of all.

All unsullied by the mud of our lives outside the space we carved out for our indulgence.

I couldn’t look away from the woman sitting across from me in that hushed, watchful room.

“I do,” I said. And I sounded far more certain than I’d expected I would.

“There are certain expectations in such a transaction,” she said, and her very briskness felt like an acceptance of me, of the dark needs that coiled inside me, of this. I felt my overly straight back ease. “Certain rules. What he wants. How he wants it. When he wants it. And for however long he wants it. He will not ask after your feelings. Your family. He might suspect that you have a history of dancing, but he will certainly not know. Or care. All he will see is something he wishes to possess. Use. Then discard.”

My throat hurt from whatever I was holding back. A sob? A cry of joy and excitement as she outlined precisely what I wanted most? “Are you trying to talk me out of it?”

“My dear girl, I can see your arousal written all over you,” she told me with the detachment of a doctor, which kept me from surrendering to the same mortification that had made me blush when I’d discussed these things with Annabelle. “This excites you, and well it should. Fantasies are powerful. I find it is when you begin to second-guess yourself that the trouble comes.”

I was shaking. I felt jittery, as if I’d downed too many cups of coffee and eaten nothing but sugar for days.

“I understand that you don’t want someone who might back out—”

“You will not back out of the performance, as you are a professional,” the woman said. “But I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity that you are being given to explore your darkest desires. This is normally a privilege of membership. You will not be hurt in any way, unless you request it. The members of our club who choose to purchase what we call ‘party favors’ have all agreed to a certain framework that ensures your safety and theirs. I feel certain that momentum will carry you through this encounter handily. What concerns me is how you will handle it on the other side.”

“You don’t need to worry about that,” I told her with tremendous confidence. If I could stop shaking, I was sure I’d be able to feel it, too. “I get butterflies before I go onstage, but I never think about the show once it’s over.”

Once again, that enigmatic half smile. As if she knew things I did not.

“I hope very much that you enjoy your time in our club in Paris,” she said quietly. And that was that.

I practiced the burlesque routine at home on those summer nights after we got out of ballet rehearsals. Annabelle threw dollar bills at me to “set the scene,” and we laughed and carried on as if it was all a big joke. The required costume came, what little there was of it, fitted so perfectly to my measurements that it almost felt like a lover’s hands when I put it on. And even more so when I took it off, there in our living room that we’d made a stage. As summer gave way to fall I grew comfortable with it. It was another show, that was all, if more naked than anything the Knickerbocker put up.

Still, it seemed like a lark. A story I would tell, the way we all did when we strayed a bit from the ballet, then came back. We always came back. Because the ballet couldn’t last, so we were addicted to what little piece of it we had while we had it.

And now I was here, across an ocean from the place I danced my heart out, always knowing I wasn’t good enough to find myself elevated from the corps. The night I’d been working toward in my scant free time was upon me, and yet I was frozen in place outside. Staring at a door.

It’s only stage fright, I told myself. Just a few butterflies.

All I had to do was the routine. And no one would be looking for missed steps or bungled counts—they’d be looking at my flesh. And then, afterward, instead of tending to my sore muscles and preparing to do it all over again the next day, I could play out one of my more deeply held fantasies.

My pussy was melting hot and slick already.

“You don’t have to do anything but dance,” I reminded myself. Sternly. “You can go straight home after the performance if you want.”

This was my choice. My yes or no that made it happen, or didn’t.

The only thing required of me was the performance, and I knew I had that down. Everything else was icing.

I walked the last few remaining steps until I was square in front of the unmarked door, a world away from the fancy entrance out front. I reminded myself that I was a professional. This was what I did, no matter the costume or lack thereof. I had nothing to fear.

Except surrender, a voice inside me whispered.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of if I choose it,” I told myself, my voice sounding harsh and rough against the night.

I reached out my hand. I took a breath.

Then I rang the bell as I’d been directed, and sealed my fate.

End of excerpt

Print: Sep 19, 2019

eBook: Oct 1, 2019

ISBN: 9781488048807

The Risk

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