Clare Hoffman is a ballerina on the rise.
Or she was, until an injury forced her to watch from the wings and stripped her of the coveted role of Snow Queen in the company’s annual production of The Nutcracker. The only advantage to her position as Stage Manager is that she gets to watch Ian Simard dance every night.
And though her foot has mended, she secretly fears she’ll never be able to trust a partner ever again, and ballerinas must partner if they want the best roles.
But an unusual mouse attack allows her to save the company’s Nutcracker Prince, and in the process, she just may save herself.
“Curtain. Go.” Clare watched the heavy red curtain descend, ready to call a halt so it wouldn’t clock Danila Chernov in the head, not that she didn’t deserve it. She absolutely did. It’s just that Clare didn’t want the kids in the audience to cry because the Sugar Plum Fairy got knocked out. At the last second, the Nutcracker Prince pulled her to him, and stepped back. The audience roared their approval. To them, it must have looked like a hug.
“She’s such a bitch.”
Clare turned to see Tim leaning against the rail, grinning.
She didn’t reply, just shrugged and pulled off her heavy headphones, but the microphone wire snagged in her headpiece. “Ugh. Stupid thing.” The only way to fix it was to put the headset back on and unpin her floral crown. “Damn.”
“You should have gone and changed like I told you.” Tim was busy raising the legs—the narrow curtains that marked the wings—but his voice was clear in her ears. “Oh no, you just had to stay and watch Ian Simard.” His teasing was good-natured, but Clare could feel the heat rising in her cheeks.
Usually, she liked his banter, but tonight had been rough enough. She wrenched off the crown. “See you Monday.” She pulled off her headset and stacked her cue sheets.
“Hey, Clare. Nice job tonight.” Tim picked something off the prop table and brought it to her. “Not many Stage Managers could call cues, run out and dance a number, then come back and finish the show. I wish Cato would just make you permanent Stage Manager.”
“Being Stage Manager is fun, but my foot is healed, and I’d rather dance.”
“I know.” He held out a plastic container. “Merry Christmas. Jan made these.”
Clare peeked under the lid, and the smell of chocolate assaulted her nose. “Truffles. That’s so nice. Thank you.” She couldn’t eat them. They were too fattening, but she appreciated the thought.
“Thank you for the bottle of gin.”
Clare opened her eyes in faux innocence. “What bottle?” There was supposed to be no alcohol backstage, but everyone snuck it in. “You deserve it for dealing with my screwups.”
He shrugged. “Rookie mistakes. Properly calling a show isn’t easy.”
She held up her fingers. “Nine more shows.”
“Miss Hoffman, may I speak with you a moment?” Clipped and cultured speech boomed across the stage.
“Cato needs me.” She sighed, wondering what she had done wrong this time. She hugged Tim. “Merry Christmas.”
Worry lines creased his forehead. “Look, if you get lonely, come hang out with us. The kids love you.”
“I have a lot of binge watching planned.” She held up her hand to forestall his protests. “But I will keep it in mind.”
Tim gave her a quick squeeze. “No one should be alone at Christmas.”
Clare turned and dashed across the stage. “You needed me, sir?”
Cato gave her one of the smiles he used around donors, fake and rubbery. “Nice work this evening, Miss Hoffman. Your notes can wait until after the hiatus.”
Of course there were notes. There were always notes, and why wouldn’t he call her Clare? He’d known her since the day she’d auditioned for the ballet school. “Thank you, sir.”
Cato turned. “Mr. Wu, I’d like you to meet Clare Hoffman. She’s Trent Drosselmeyer’s niece.”
So, that is why he wanted her. To flaunt her uncle’s name. Wu must be important, and Cato wanted him to sponsor the company. She smiled and gave a dancer’s curtsey. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Wu.”
“And you, Miss Hoffman.” Wu looked up at Cato. “If my Lin turns out as elegant, it will be money well spent.” He gestured to a tiny girl standing in the wings. She didn’t look 12, but she would have to be to join the school.
Cato smiled down at Wu, but the smile didn’t reach his grey eyes. Clare knew that meant he wasn’t pleased. “Perhaps that will be the case.”
If Mr. Wu thought he was buying roles for his daughter, he was going to be disappointed. Enough money might get Lin into the school, but a spot in the company had to be earned. Cato Petrov couldn’t be bought.
“Would you mind taking this to my dressing room?” He held out his briefcase.
It wasn’t really a request, but he didn’t trust many people with his things. Clare took the heavy bag. “Certainly, sir.”
He nodded and took Wu by the arm. “Let me show you where the sponsors sit.”
Dismissed, she headed for the stairs that led to the dressing rooms. Cato’s was on the first level where all the principal dancers for this show were housed. Usually, she had a room here. Not this time.
At the top of the steps, she encountered her nemesis, Bryony Wyndam, and her lackey, Reyna. Bryony had hated Clara from the first day of class when, according to Bryony, Clara stood in her spot at the barre.
“Wonderful job tonight.” Reyna was tiny and perfect and bounced wherever she went. “You went in for Viola with only a ten-minute notice. I couldn’t do that.”
Bryony sniffed. “Clare was half a beat behind for the first part. She’s never danced that role before.”
“And if there’s anything you’d know about, Bryony, it’s rolls.”
They turned to see Dax Agustin leaning in the doorway of his dressing room, hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans. He stared at Bryony pointedly and blew out his cheeks like a chipmunk.
Bryony’s ears grew pink. She opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it and stormed off. Reyna gave a half wave and trotted after her.
Dax pointed. “And you danced Waltz of the Snowflakes when Bryony was still an Angel.” Of course Dax remembered. He remembered everything, which was why he was her favorite partner. He never forgot a step.
Clare knew that voice, rich and warm like a Chopin nocturne. “Hey, Ian.”