I paced. I always pace when I’m nervous. It burns calories and hunger gnawed at my gut. Neither a candy bar nor a steak or anything in between would satisfy me. That made me more nervous.
I needed to suck life energy.
“This is just the dress rehearsal, Janet Dryer,” Alexai Sokov, my dance partner, said with his fading Ukrainian accent. He forced my attention on him by using my full name, trying for a soothing tone. That was his job as a multi-championship ballroom dance pro.
Me, the inexperienced celebrity, didn’t want to listen. I wanted to suck him dry! I was so hungry I’d take any life form handy and he was a tall, dark, exotic hunk of male.
Not that I would drain the life out of a person all the way to the Soul-Fire. Not anymore. Never again.
Besides, Alexai had become a friend. An asset in this endeavor.
One of the anonymous backstage minions wandered by with a ubiquitous clipboard. He tapped the metal clip with a pen. Alexai grinned at him and released my face as he kissed the tip of my nose affectionately.
“Save your high energy for the Cha-Cha-Cha tonight, during the performance. This rehearsal is more about cameras and lights than you. Tone down the exuberance. You need to make sure you hit your marks, but perfection in the steps doesn’t matter until you perform in front of the judges. They rarely come to dress rehearsal.”
“Easy for you to say,” I muttered, suppressing the growling noises coming from my stomach.
Alexai handed me a bottle of water. “Just a little.”
I obeyed for once. Experience told me that more than a few drops would come right back up. When I was this famished, nothing normal settled my stomach. Or my brain.
I heard the babble of voices on the other side of the curtains grow quiet. Then a shuffle of feet as crew scurried off the stage. My fingers fluffed the fringe on my miniscule costume skirt. A better choice than touching my hair or makeup. The artists who created my “look” wandered through the crowd with touch-up pots and brushes and combs in their multi-pocket aprons. They scowled at anyone who even thought about mussing their perfect work.
The dancers might be the focus of the show, but the support crew who made it happen out-numbered us ten to one. At least.
The floor director ambled through the milling throng of celebrities and dance pros, speaking quietly with last minute instructions.
“Do we step out on three or after three?” asked Chalet Glorioso (not his real name but his legal one now), the blond teenage singing star from a popular boy band. “And do we stop in the middle of the X mark or behind it?”
Patiently the floor director answered the boy’s questions for the fifth time. He wasn’t really stupid, just a perfectionist with a case of nerves as bad as mine. I’d discovered just how intelligent and thoughtful he was when I interviewed him on my late, late, late night talk show in New York, Janet Dryer About Town.
I was secretly rooting for Glorioso to win this competition. He was as talented in dancing shoes as with a guitar in his hands. My goal was simply to not be the first one eliminated. I admired ballroom dance as a spectator. Participating brought back too many bad memories. And while I’d heard of this show, I’d been too busy with my own career to actually watch it. The money suckered me in.
My brother, Charlie, needed the money for his medical care. I needed some of it, too, for my own future plans.
My custom-made heels felt weird where they’d fit fine through three weeks of strenuous practice sessions and rehearsal. Maybe my feet were sweating. As I wiggled my toes within the confines of the fine leather straps, I touched Chalet’s hand and allowed myself to leech away some of the kid’s nervous energy. Champagne bubbles sizzled through my blood, demanding more.
I yanked my hand away, slipping between my fellow competitors. I sipped here, another there. Just a sip at a time, no more from any one person. Really no more than would allow them to calm down, and to soothe my gurgling tummy. Not enough to harm them, but more than enough to make a quick snack for me. Except. . . something or someone smelled of cat piss. I couldn’t pinpoint the culprit. But there had been a dark and awful time in my life when I’d subsisted on cat energy. They are closest of all feral animals to humans when it comes to sustenance of a psychic vampire. Believe me, it tastes awful, sour, acrid, burning hot, and all-around nasty. Not something I could tolerate a steady diet of.
My tummy stopped growling and my feet felt light enough to dance. With a sigh of relief, I turned back to my partner and smiled brightly.
Alexai grabbed my hand and led me to the top of the stairs so we could descend to the stage gracefully, smiling and waving to the imaginary audience. Rehearsal, I reminded myself. Just a rehearsal.
The theme music blasted my ears. A microphone squealed feedback. A light bulb blew with a loud pop. We all cringed. The host bantered with the hostess off-the-cuff. She tended to look down her aquiline nose at him in true disdain when he moved a little too close to her and let his hands stray.
Two by two the contestants of Dance FromThe Heart pranced and wiggled down the stairs. Alexai and I were third in line, reflecting the order of the competition. The pro who’d won last season always entered last with his new partner. The runner-up led the way. The rest of us were scattered in between, in no particular order.
The lights blinded me to anything beyond the small circle of a stage marked with dabs of colored tape. Mine was bright pink, to match the fringe on my costume. Hideous color. But it looked good as a highlight on Alexai’s black shirt (more than half open showing off his fine, very fine indeed, hairless torso) and trousers. His dark hair, warm brown eyes, and high Slavic cheekbones looked good in almost everything. My publicist politely called my coloring creamy and my hair exotic. I looked better in strong jewel tones than fluorescents. I had just enough Asian blood in me to make my skin look sallow in pink. But I had legs to show off, even if my thighs had thickened over the years, and the costume had been designed for just that purpose.
Changing my hair color along with my name went a long way toward reinventing myself every twenty years or so. Gaining or losing thirty pounds helped, too. This time I was at the high end of my weight profile and the dark end of my color palette.
I was here, on a high-profile network competition, because someone else backed out at the last minute, not for my looks. The producers accepted me because I’d turned a popular subscription blog into a radio talk show, and then by accident ended up on late night—early morning really, very, early morning—TV. The progression from my preferred anonymity to fame had been so fluid and fast I hadn’t quite noticed how it happened until I entered the limelight.
I was safer living in quiet shadows. But who likes to be safe all the time?
The next ten minutes passed in a blur. We moved to the green room to clear the stage for whichever couple was “up.” A lot of “yada-yada” passed for unscripted judges’ comments between numbers. I was running the steps of my dance over and over in my mind, not paying attention to what transpired on the stage, even though we had eight high-def flat screen monitors in the green room to watch the show. Counting the tricky transition in the eighth measure of an energetic mariachi piece seemed more important.
“We’re up next, babe,” Alexai said. He pushed gently against my back, propelling me toward our starting positions.
Blood coursed strongly through my muscles. I bent and stretched my legs and tested the fit of my heels one more time. The heel strap rubbed a little on the right. Not good.
Then a solo trumpet trilled the opening measures of our dance. One, two, Cha-Cha-Cha, wiggle, triple step, spin. Repeat. I shook and shuffled, flicked from the knees, and used my shoulders to flash the fringe across my boobs. One, two, Cha-Cha-Cha. The energy flowed through me, exploding in my limbs and taking over for my brain.
“Slow down,” Alexai hissed in my ear. “Count the music.”
Right! I had to remain in control, working with the music. The music and the energy did not control me.
Control kept me safe.
The grinding rhythm melded with what my feet wanted to do. I used the music. I became an extension of it.
Then it was over. Ninety seconds of ecstasy, Cha-Cha-Cha!
Lights changed, people talked. The crew applauded by rote since we had no real audience. Just a single man seated in the first balcony, taking notes on a tablet. Probably a reporter with more clout than I had.
Glowing and grinning, I let Alexai push me toward the judges’ dais. I found my pink marking tape and looked up.
Straight into the eyes of head judge and former International Ballroom Champion, Bryant Thomas, vampire/demon-hunter, retired. My greatest enemy.
And my one-time lover.