The fringe on Katarina’s Samba skirt was the only part of her keeping pace with Simon.
“Three and four, three and four.” He emphasized the sequence of dance steps in her ear as they bounced in rhythm at the Grand Nationals multi-dance event Friday night. Miami’s annual competition was fierce, and Katarina had been practicing.
But maybe not enough.
Between her expensive tangerine and lime spandex, nude dance heels, and enough body glitter to clog the Ritz-Carlton’s plumbing, she tried to channel the spirit of Brazilian Carnival on the dance floor. Simon eased her into the Samba Walk portion of their routine. She pranced to sustain a subtle bounce with every step.
“Foot-fall, foot-fall.” His constant coaching was a barrage of whispered repetition that only ceased when he smiled to the judges. A millionaire grin seemed to come naturally to the self-aware Russian Katarina had hired as her coach, but she was sure obliging Simon was gritting his teeth with every stride. She couldn’t seem to close the gap of being a half step behind his sequence. “And bounce!”
I’m bouncing. I’m bouncing. At least she had that part of the Samba down.
The flirty fringe in an alternating pattern of orange and green continued to give the appearance of controlled movement. Maybe she could fool the judges that way.
Who am I kidding? These are skilled professionals. Katarina tried not to look like a citrus-colored mess. Forcing herself to keep her shoulders back and spring more quickly on the balls of her feet, perfect posture led as she picked up the pace. Simon faced her for hand-holding Whisks, one of her favorite Samba moves. In closed position, one foot crossed behind the other while both partners kept traditional Samba bounce action. The suede soles of her specialized footwear provided the right balance of friction and glide on the floor.
“That’s it!” Simon beamed at Katarina for the first time in the routine, her confidence building through his attention.
I’m back on count! Katarina kept her shoulders firm and her chest forward. She moved with a bit more spunk from side to side, even taking a split second to flip her hair with a sharp flick as she winked in the direction of the judges. Maybe she wasn’t going to win any awards during her first amateur entry at Grand Nationals, but she was going to have fun trying.
“Finish strong.” Simon coached her through the end, his words guiding her as much as his body. Katarina knew her final position had to be dramatic, and she tried to add flair to the distinct move of extended arms while throwing her head back. The dance warranted a finishing touch to leave the judges with a favorable impression.
Katarina needed to exude passion, even if the interaction with her partner had been bought. She had, after all, paid not only to take lessons from Simon but had also footed the bill for half his expenses in Miami so he would accompany her to the amateur portion of the competition.
“And, end!” Simon barked his order for her to freeze in final form, giving the judges a chance to capture a mental snapshot before they delivered a score and the audience erupted in applause. On his command, he snapped her hands forward, righting her before spinning to give a bow in the direction of the judges. She pulled one leg behind the other and dipped into the sexiest curtsy she could muster, enjoying the applause and energy of the ballroom.
This is what she had paid for and worked all year to feel.
Eyes were on them, and Katarina was going to soak it in.
Pride swelled inside of her, not for completing a perfect dance in terms of technique but for finishing.
On her feet.
Dance hadn’t come easily to Katarina, but that’s precisely why she wanted to try it. To push herself mentally and physically, she’d stepped outside her comfort zone and committed to the instruction of a coach with whom she had a love-hate relationship. She loved to learn from him. But she hated the way he spoke to her.
“Simon says, spin.”
There it was again. The man thought he was so clever with the kids’ game joke that he didn’t realize it was only funny the first time.
Not the fifteenth.
Katarina tried to stifle a cringe as Simon willed her to pivot, holding her hand as they exited the floor. She remembered to keep her posture and her plastered smile even through each heel click across the smooth wooden floorboards of the hotel ballroom. The minute, though, they hit the carpet, Simon leaned into her ear, blowing Katarina’s confidence with a “Don’t overdo it” warning.
Katarina didn’t have the voice to bark back during the dance, but off the floor, she couldn’t bite her tongue. “Do you have to suck the fun out of everything?”
In the safety of the packed audience and couples standing behind them waiting for their turn on the dance floor, Simon cajoled her into a sideways hug. “Oh, Kat-Kat.” The annoying nickname he used for her—which she never approved—grated on her. He soothed her head by cradling it on his shoulder and smoothed her hair like he was petting a flustered feline. “I make this fun for you.”
“If you have to convince me—”
Simon shushed her. “You’re an attorney who has found her inner dancer. And I did that.”
Her coach didn’t have an ounce of modesty in his body. And she had looked for it.
She pulled away from Simon’s condescension, finding her voice to add, “And I did that,” as she pointed to scores the judges held up, which weren’t half bad. Katarina beamed with more pride at the outcome of a dance than she ever did at the outcome of a case in court. She was an assistant municipal attorney in Tampa who was paid to keep the city out of hot water. Dancing the Samba at a Miami competition was a world away for her, but that was just what she wanted.
Simon pushed his bottom lip in an “I accept” frown, the score really being for Katarina. As the registered amateur, it was her dance, and the scores were not a true reflection of Simon’s performance. “You are happy with that?”
Katarina was just happy to be in the competition at all, an escape from her stressful day-to-day grind. She was in the company of professional dancers from all walks of life, including plenty of skilled athletes who loved the sport.
And the glitz.
And the glamour.
Katarina was enjoying it all, confirming this for Simon with a nod of her head. “I am happy with that.”
“Then I am too.” Simon kissed her on the temple, letting her have a moment. “Okay, Kat-Kat. Go celebrate. We’ll practice after breakfast tomorrow. Meet me in the room marked on your schedule at ten a.m. Drink lots of liquids. You? Water. Me? Vodka.” He reached his hand around to her backside, playfully slapping her on the rear. A touch on any skin—through clothes or on top of them—was not uncommon due to the close contact of their bodies in practice and during performances. Coaches and their dancers blurred lines all the time, but she had zero attraction to Simon.
Katarina was sharing her dance coach with another amateur performer from her Tampa studio who, like her, needed to be accompanied to Grand Nationals. So Simon’s time was split, and so were his expenses.
But his coaching salary was doubled.
Katarina didn’t go into the competition blind. She knew between the new shoes, new outfit, travel costs, entry fees, and hotel accommodations that what she once thought of as an exciting hobby was turning into an expensive weekend that was costing half a month’s salary. She had never done anything like this, and she was determined to soak up the experience in sunny, hot Miami.
But tonight, there would be no further fun in the sun. Or the ballroom. A Ritz-Carlton feather bed with her name on it was waiting to welcome her, Samba skirt and all.
The Ritz-Carlton was alight with sequins and skin-revealing spandex. One female in the same nineteen to thirty-five age division as Katarina had an unfortunate nip slip on the floor during the round in which she and Simon danced.
“Planned.” Simon leaned into Katarina as they walked side by side. He rolled his eyes. “Desperate attempt for judges’ attention.”
Katarina watched the dancer scramble to cover her breast with the too-small top. “Really? She seemed genuinely embarrassed to me.” And she was pretty sure planned nudity was against National Dance Council of America rules at a sanctioned event such as this.
Simon didn’t waver. “Oldest trick in the book. Don’t you get any ideas, Kat-Kat.” He looked at her exposed cleavage.
Trying to shake his gaze, she crossed her arms over her chest. “I plan to stay completely covered, thank you very much.”
Then he backtracked. “Not that some exposure isn’t good. Remember: tomorrow, bounce that rear. Like I told you today. Judges like to see peeks of skin there.” Dance had done an amazing job at tightening her derrière. Simon didn’t even have to say so; Katarina knew it by the way her jeans now fit and skirts now hung. But judging by the looks of the physiques that swirled around them, dance was doing lots of bodies good.
Fit and lean forms could be seen in dancers, their coaches, competition judges, circuit professionals, and even many of the groupie spectators who filled the dedicated ballroom. People associated with the competition spilled through the lobby, elevators, and rooms, the entire Ritz-Carlton painted with scenes of the flashy sport.
The October event was sold out as expected. Katarina gave herself an imaginary pat on the back as she made her way through the groups of other dancers awaiting their chance to take the floor. As she approached, they parted so she could pass, and they congratulated her with compliments and well-wishes after her Samba. Simon stopped to talk to someone he knew, and she continued through the throng.
“Looking hot out there,” a male voice called.
“On fire tonight!” a female chimed.
Whether the comments were authentic or rehearsed, she didn’t care. She wasn’t looking to dethrone anyone or join the professional cast of Dancing with the Stars. Katarina never heard such enthusiasm after she exited a courtroom. Nor did she even feel such comradery, forced or not.
On a whim, she’d entered Salsa Caliente Studio in Tampa one evening, brought cash for the pay-as-you-go instruction option, and was promptly hooked after her first lesson. For Katarina, dance was a chance to escape the stress of her job and discover the beauty of movement set to music. The combination of spicy moves and a crisp tempo made any stress she harbored during the day melt away faster than ice in the Florida sun.
Two nights a week, she called herself a dancer.
And no one at her office knew.
Just the way I like it, Katarina reminded herself. Leading with heels that were two inches higher than any footwear she would normally don, long legs gave way to a barely there skirt, more fringe than fabric. A tight bodice hugged her torso while spaghetti straps and a sweetheart neckline accented her chest in a way that a blazer and button-up never did. A tight French braid with rhinestone pin accents kept her hair neat and out of her face, a canvas she used to create a makeup look that was one shade more intense than what she routinely wore. Smoky eyes with sparkly eye shadow, perfectly placed bronzer, intense mascara, and coral-colored lips that popped made her shine as brightly as her outfit.
Which wasn’t cheap. Katarina slipped her fingers through the fringe of the skirt, the silky strands taking on a life of their own with every sway of her hips or jolt in her footfall. Their pattern around the circumference of her hips went high in the back and low in the front to create almost a heart shape through her midsection.
Katarina was flattered by how the spandex second skin that looked so odd on a hanger could frame her silhouette so deliciously. She pinched the end of one of the strands and looked down at it, proud of not only her wardrobe choice but also her first performance for the weekend. Her smug and satisfying review of herself was only interrupted when she neared the exit of the ballroom and was stopped by a pair of ballroom pant legs that stood in her path.
“First time out there?” She followed the lean legs and tight thighs to an unbuttoned dance shirt that exposed a waxed and muscular chest atop ripped abs. Smooth bronzed skin at eye level gave way to a face that she had to tilt her gaze up to see. Katarina met amber-colored irises framed by tousled dark locks when she did. More words came, the dancer’s Eastern European accent thick and alluring. “Florida is made for dancing.”
Katarina stopped just inches from the intruder to her personal space bubble, the dancer occupying it with as much authority as if she had asked him to do so. “I beg your pardon?”
“Dancing,” he repeated, widening his stance. He retained full control of every joint in his body as his hips undulated and his rib cage elongated. “It’s a shame when people don’t do it. Natural here, you know?”
Katarina bit her lip to prevent herself from drooling over this sizzling, suave body just inches in front of her. To create distance, she kept one leg outstretched to a point and leaned back on the other, skeptical of his words. Was this going to be a poaching attempt from another studio to get her to shell out more money for a different coach? The shaved chest alone put this guy clearly on the side of the professionals at the hotel, not the amateurs.
Katarina avoided his questions. “I’m not really in the market for dance lessons.”
“You could have fooled me.” His eyes scanned every inch of her body, top to bottom. “Not that you need lessons.”
Katarina tried to stifle a laugh, not buying what this guy was selling. Sarcasm tinged her comeback. “Because, yes, I look so professional…” She swung her skirt and tapped her foot.
“You do.” He brought his fingers to his mouth and sent a flourishing air kiss her way with an audible smack. Only a smoking-hot European could get away with such an otherwise clichéd gesture. “I couldn’t even tell you were an amateur out there.”
With that comment, you just did. “Ouch.”
“Is it not true?” The man’s face washed with a look of disappointment. “Is this not your first time at Grand Nationals? Because I haven’t seen you before.”
Katarina waved a hand to dismiss his words. “No, I’m an amateur. First time.” She stilled her hand with her palm facing him. “Guilty as charged.”
“I will not arrest.” The words rolled from his tongue, careful yet punchy. He extended his hand for a shake. “Sebastian.”
She lowered her own to meet his. “Katarina.”
“Gorgeous,” he replied over their handshake, though Katarina wasn’t sure if the compliment was in response to her hand or her name. Either way, she felt her cheeks flush to a color she was sure was as bright as her dance costume.
Sebastian’s ease in small talk matched his ease in movement. For several minutes, he got Katarina’s quick version of an autobiography. He offered his own: born in Croatia, his parents moved him to Florida when he was a teenager, and he matured in the professional circuit as a dancer. Now he did that for a living, and this competition was one of several he routinely attended as a participant.
“This one I enjoy.” He scanned the ballroom with a smile. “Good people. Good judges.” He snapped his attention back to Katarina. “And you? From Tampa to Miami?”
“Only for the weekend,” she clarified. Grand Nationals was her sole reason for traveling four hours from her home to the Ritz-Carlton. Driving along the west coast from Tampa to Sarasota and following the highway to Cape Coral before heading across the length of the peninsula to reach Miami won a bonus for a beautiful drive. Actually, all across Florida there were gorgeous highway stretches to explore.
But this drive was extra special, given the destination.
Key Biscayne outside downtown held high-end resorts that were a world away from the pulse of neon-lit South Beach. The Ritz-Carlton was nestled on a seven-mile island—one of many of Florida’s popular keys—that dangled east of the state in the Atlantic Ocean. Surrounded by an aquamarine bay, the location became Grand Nationals dance central once a year.
The location was a huge draw to Katarina, and it had helped her decide to actually move forward with entering the competition. “I planned the trip, but dancing happened on a whim,” she explained to Sebastian. Harkening back to her overwhelming first year of full-time employment in the field of law, Katarina needed some way to cope. Hot Yoga wasn’t cutting it, and Sebastian laughed when he heard that.
She continued her explanation with how her childhood experience of jazz and tap classes exposed her to rhythm and musicality, and how—in her mid-twenties—she had transferred to Florida for graduate school, earned her law degree, and was now practicing in Tampa. “I rediscovered dance as a way to burn calories. And bust stress.” She shrugged, stepping over her own words with an “As if you wanted to know all that” apology for revealing so much.
“Now I know.” Sebastian flashed an appreciative grin. “And now dance has you back.”
“Well…” Katarina hesitated to let a professional think she was a true addition to the sport. “I don’t know that I have much to offer.” Reservations about her own skill level and thoughts of negative reactions from her professional network were why Katarina had chosen to keep her dance hobby under wraps.
“You added some spice here tonight.” This guy certainly was not shy in the compliment department. “Made the Samba proud. And, I’m sure, your coach.”
Simon’s final verdict was still out. Their performance tomorrow would be the true tell. “Tomorrow we dance the Mambo.”
Sebastian nodded his approval. “I look forward to watching it.” A twinkle in his eyes sent a sizzling charge in Katarina’s direction. Was it just her, or was everything about this dancer laced with flirtation? Before she could judge further, Sebastian stepped aside, ushering her to pass. “See you then?”
Grand Nationals was held in this single hotel venue, and because she knew the chances were high that she would run into him again, she repeated, “See you then.”
She felt his eyes continue to scan her as if she were on parade before him. Maybe I’m just not used to the attention an outfit like this brings. After all, there was nothing modest or attorney-like in her attire, makeup, or hairstyle—all of which was precisely the point in embracing the event. She got to be someone else, a connection to a sport she loved from long ago resurfacing in a mature, fulfilling way. This weekend, she wasn’t a municipal law attorney.
Katarina was a dancer.
One who just happened to attract Friday night attention from a hot professional circuit dancer named Sebastian. Not bad for night one.
End of Excerpt