Take the Lead: A Dance Off Novel368
Take the Lead: A Dance Off Novel368
This novel was originally published as an ebook original in 2017, won a RITA award in 2018 – and is now in print … you know what we’re going to say, "No one puts Take the Lead in a corner." Let this novel sweep you off your feet as it did ours!
Gina Morales wants to make it big. In her four seasons on The Dance Off, she’s never even made it to the finals. But her latest partner, the sexy star of an Alaskan wilderness show, could be her chance. Who knew the strong, silent, survivalist-type had moves like that? She thinks Stone Nielson is her ticket to win it all—until her producer makes it clear they’re being set up for a showmance.
Joining a celebrity dance competition is the last thing Stone wants. However, he’ll endure anything to help his family, even as he fears revealing their secrets. While the fast pace of Los Angeles makes him long for the peace and privacy of home, he can’t hide his growing attraction for his dance partner. Neither wants to fake a romance for the cameras, but the explosive chemistry that flares between them is undeniable.
As Stone and Gina heat up the dance floor, the tabloids catch on to their developing romance. With the spotlight threatening to ruin everything, will they choose fame and fortune, or let love take the lead?
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Series:||A Dance Off Novel , #1|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
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Read an Excerpt
Gina Morales clutched the edge of her seat in a white-knuckled grip and prayed for a winter Olympian. A skier would be good, or a snowboarder, or better yet, a figure skater. Olympians were the holy grail of partners. If one of those awaited her when she landed, this whole harrowing journey would be worth it. Besides, what other kind of celebrity would be hanging out in the uncharted Alaskan wilderness?
Now she understood why her mother used the rosary in airplanes. It was to keep your hands busy so you didn't chew off all your fingernails in nervous terror. Noted. Next time she was on a seaplane, she'd bring a rosary.
Gina gave her producer a side-eyed glare as he and the camera crew sorted out equipment. A seaplane. An honest-to-god seaplane. Painted bright yellow and blue with a tiny propeller stuck to the nose, cute little wings, and pontoons positioned underneath. It looked like a toy, not like something rational human beings who valued their lives should travel in. But here she was, flying in a tin can over a large body of water somewhere in Alaska, while the motor droned on like a monstrous mosquito and the faint scent of fuel tinged the air.
When she dared to peek outside, even she had to admit it was picturesque. A rippling ribbon of water below. Tall evergreens spearing a brilliant blue sky crowded with thick, puffy white clouds. A gust of wind teased the treetops, making the seaplane bounce in the air.
Gina clenched her jaw. Even the pretty scenery didn't distract from the bouncing. Where the hell were they going? And if they were meeting a skier or snowboarder, shouldn't there be more snow?
A tap on her arm drew her attention from the window. Jordy, her producer, pointed at the cameras. His voice came through the headset she wore.
"All right, Gina. Ready to start?"
Taking a deep breath, she nodded and rolled her shoulders to relax them. Nerves notwithstanding, she had a job to do. When Jordy gave the goahead, she waved at the camera.
"I'm Gina Morales, a pro dancer. I'm on my way to meet my celebrity partner for season fourteen of The Dance Off." She gave the intro in a loud, clear voice. Or so she thought. She couldn't hear herself over the engine.
The crew exchanged glances. The sound guy looked up from a device in his hand and shook his head.
After adjusting the mic on her headset, she repeated her words at a volume closer to a shout. When she received a thumbs-up, she continued.
"We're in a seaplane flying over a river in Alaska, and I'm a little worried my producers are trying to kill me."
Next to her, Jordy covered his mouth to stifle a laugh. He gestured for her to keep going.
"I've been on three planes so far, each one smaller than the last." She gave an exaggerated shrug and a grimace that wasn't faked. "What's next, a hot air balloon?"
Jordy smacked his forehead like he should have thought of that. She resisted the urge to flip him the bird.
The pilot cut in. "We're beginning our descent."
The plane dipped. Gina spun to face the window again, pulse racing as the water zoomed closer. They were going to make a water landing. Despite climbing aboard at a marina, she hadn't allowed herself to imagine the landing. With every second, the glistening surface of the inlet raced closer, but she kept her eyes open. She could do this. She was strong.
And if she died, at least she'd see it coming.
The pontoons hit the water, skimming along and kicking up a wave under the wings. Her stomach bounced, but she'd braced herself for a rougher landing. As the plane pulled alongside a small floating dock made of barrels, Gina pried her fingernails out of the seat cushion. She focused on getting her breathing under control while they disembarked, climbed into a waiting skiff, and motored to shore. The air carried the scent of salt and wet soil, along with a crisp freshness she could taste on the back of her tongue.
Fresh air. Such a novelty.
She and her crew gathered on a pebbly beach that led right into the water from a clearing. Ahead stood a line of trees the pilot had called Sitka spruce, the national tree of Alaska. Behind her, the water. Nothing else, aside from the seaplane, the skiff, and a second camera crew she didn't recognize. No stores. No houses. No cars. Just trees, water, and dirt. And sky. Lots and lots of sky.
Too much nature. Not enough civilization. Was it possible to feel claustrophobic in a big empty space? She hunched into her big coat. "Where are we?"
Jordy didn't look away from the tablet he shared with the other crew's production assistant. "Alaska."
"I know that, but ..." Searching the unfamiliar crew's clothing for logos revealed nothing. Gina pulled out her phone. No service. Of course not. Why would there be service in the middle-of-fucking-nowhere Alaska?
Better not to think about how far away they were from the rest of the world. Shoot, now it was all she could think about. What if there was an emergency? Eyeing the trees warily, she inched toward the boat. "Seriously, where are we?"
Growing up in New York City had given her a healthy distrust of forests. Forests had animals and serial killers hiding behind every tree. Didn't these people watch movies? "You know I'm from the Bronx, right? I don't do nature. I've never even been camping."
Damn it. She bit her tongue. It was the perfect sound bite and would without a doubt be aired during the premiere. This was exactly what they'd hoped for — bring the city girl out to the wilderness, film her freaking out, then toss her at her partner before she could get her bearings. The producers would do everything they could to throw her off-balance in the name of good TV.
Gina took a deep breath, then another. The air chilled her lungs. It was colder here than it had been in Juneau, but so fresh, she couldn't stop swallowing it in deep, cold pulls. It helped focus her, but also made her giddy.
"You all right?" Jordy looked concerned for the first time instead of gleeful.
"I'm fine." Just having an existential crisis over the complete and utter remoteness of their location. No big deal. She shoved her hands in her coat pockets and balled them into fists. "Let's go meet him."
The crew checked her mic, touched up her hair and makeup. After she fed a few more lines to the camera about how excited she was to meet her partner, they started the trek through the trees.
"Don't break an ankle," Jordy warned.
Gina pressed her lips together and didn't reply. If she'd known where they were going, she would have worn different boots. The soles of her shiny black riding boots were better suited to sidewalks than wet docks or dirt trails. They were currently caked in mud and sand, which crunched under her feet with every step.
Jordy was right, though. It would suck to get injured right before the new season started. With her eyes on the trail, curiosity about the man she was about to meet consumed her thoughts. What kind of a celebrity was he? Would he be able to dance? And more importantly, was he popular enough to get lots of votes?
On Gina's first season, she'd been paired with a young guy who'd started his music career on YouTube. While he'd been a great dancer — if a little too energetic — with a vocal fan base, he didn't have the recognition factor needed to win over The Dance Off's older audience. They'd only made it halfway through the season. Nostalgia could help, too, but Gina's partnership with an aging actor from a popular action movie franchise ended after three episodes due to his arthritis.
Despite entering her fifth season, Gina didn't have the fan following some of the other pro dancers did. Kevin Ray had been on the show since season one, and The Dance Off was now approaching season fourteen. Kevin had won four times. With his easy charm and incredible choreography skills, people voted for Kevin no matter who his celebrity partner was. It made Gina want to pull her hair out. He'd made it to the finals in season thirteen with a teenage makeup artist from Instagram, while Gina and her partner — a popular football player who'd shown marked improvement — had been cut in the semi-finals. At least she wasn't the newbie anymore — that spot went to Joel Clarke, who'd joined the cast a month ago.
This time around, she would do whatever it took to reach the finals and get a shot at The Dance Off's gaudy golden trophy. Please, please let her new partner be up to the challenge. If he had even a modicum of dance skill and audience appeal, she'd make it work.
The trail ended in a large clearing with a two-story house made from planks of yellow wood. A smaller house of dark, weathered wood sat to one side, and a hut made of ... branches, maybe ... sat on the other. A treehouse painted with a camouflage pattern perched in one of the tall trees.
What ... the ... fu ...
This was ... well, she didn't know what this was exactly, but there was no way the collection of makeshift homes was the training camp of a winter Olympian.
Damn her producers. They could have warned her. When Jordy said they were going to Alaska, she'd dressed for a meeting at a ski lodge or an ice rink, or at least somewhere indoors. And they'd told her to do full hair and makeup. She was going to look ridiculous wearing false eyelashes at a meeting on a rough Alaskan homestead.
"Reaction, Gina," Jordy said.
Oh, they really didn't want to know what she thought. No way could she say how disappointed and angry she was. She took a deep breath and was assaulted by a medley of rich, earthy scents her brain couldn't even begin to classify. Somehow, it soothed her, and she found her voice.
"Wow." It was the first word that popped into her mind. "This is like ... stepping into another time. I mean, look at these houses. And is that a treehouse?"
There. They could splice her words with shots of the buildings, if they chose. It was the best she could do under the circumstances.
A loud, rhythmic thudding came from behind the biggest house. She didn't bother to ask what it was, as the other crew's producer was now guiding her toward the noise.
Years of stage training kicked in, washing away the anger. It had no place here. She grinned at the camera, infusing her voice with excitement. "I hear something over there. I think it's him."
As she turned the corner around the back porch and got her first look at her new partner, her pulse pounded in her throat and stole her breath. She blinked and spoke without thinking. "Is he ... is he mine?"
"Yes," Jordy said. "That's your partner."
The bare-chested man chopping wood behind the main house was six-five if he was an inch, covered in rippling, bulging muscles and smooth, tanned skin. Obliques and delts flexed and released with each swing, highlighting his pure strength and perfect form. The rustic axe acted as an extension of his beautiful body and hit its mark every time.
He was the kind of man who would look beautiful doing any activity, but he looked like he had been born to chop wood. He fit here, like he'd been conjured by her wildest fantasies.
She wanted to lick him to see if he was real.
Jordy gestured her forward to confront the magnificent specimen of manliness. The camera crew surrounding him fanned out. Her heart rate had yet to return to normal, and she seemed to have swallowed her own tongue, but she obligingly took a step. A twig snapped under her boot.
The small crack stopped him at the top of his swing. His head whipped around in her direction. As he straightened, the hand holding the axe fell to his side, and he scooped back his long hair with the other. Their eyes met, the bright blue of his visible across the clearing.
Gina bit her lip, and his eyes narrowed in response. God, was she being obvious? She had to pull herself together. Chest heaving, he swung the axe into the wood stump, leaving it embedded and quivering.
If she wasn't careful, she'd start quivering, too.
A blondish-brown beard covered the lower half of his face, amplifying his intense masculinity to a thrilling degree and making him look wild, unpredictable, and ... delicious. The defined muscles of his torso made her mouth water. She swallowed hard.
Work. Cameras. Job.
Ignoring her thudding heart and warm cheeks, Gina marched toward him. Around them, camera operators shifted to capture every nuance of their first meeting — every word, every reaction, every sign of nerves.
Twenty paces away, her steps faltered as she connected the dots.
The producers throwing her off her game with the unsettling seaplane ride. Making sure she was perfectly groomed, with full hair and makeup. Surprising her with half-naked wood-chopping and so many muscles, it bordered on rude.
This man would likely be the hottest guy in the cast, and she was young and single. That could only mean one thing.
Shit. They were being set up as the showmance for the season.
Well, he'd expected a city girl. And he'd gotten one.
She stood across the clearing wrapped in a knee-length black coat and high black boots. Long brown hair spilled out from under a pale blue knit hat, and the way she worried her lower lip had him wanting a closer look.
With the axe safely in the stump, Stone caught his breath before she reached him, unable to take his eyes off her. She looked shiny, put-together, and small. Next to her, he was a great hulking brute. How were they supposed to dance together? He'd crush her.
She was pretty, of course, despite the pound of makeup covering her face. Her eyes were dark and thickly lined, her lashes long, and her skin was a warm tan reminiscent of the cones of a Sitka spruce after they had matured. Her full lips were painted the color of winterberries.
She didn't belong here. Why the hell had they dragged this delicate Hollywood dance diva all the way out to Alaska to meet him? He had to fly to Los Angeles for rehearsals, anyway. They could have easily filmed their first meeting there.
But if a few years on a reality show had taught him anything, it was that TV producers didn't care about convenience. It would make for better behind-the-scenes footage to have them meet in the remote wilderness, as opposed to a bright, stark rehearsal room. The contrast between their appearances was purposeful, a deliberate move on the part of the producers, and he hated them for it.
Hated himself for taking part in this madness. A dance show, of all things.
His partner stopped a couple feet away from him. If she was nervous, she covered it well. Her grin lit her face, showed all her teeth and transformed her beauty into something more approachable and real.
"Hi there, partner." Her voice was smokier than he'd expected, with a musical quality and a slight accent he couldn't place. "I'm Gina Morales."
"Stone Nielson." He stuck out his hand, then froze when she opened her arms. She wanted a hug? Was this for the cameras? He was three times her size, sweaty, filthy, and he didn't often hug people. But she was waiting, so he reached down and awkwardly embraced her. She gave him a peck on the cheek before pulling away, leaving behind the scent of tropical flowers and a tingling sensation where her lips had touched.
His eyebrows popped up in surprise, and she waved a hand dismissively. "I'm Puerto Rican. We kiss hello." Her gaze flicked over to the members of his camera crew, mixed in with hers. "So, I guess you're filming a show here?"
Relief flooded through him. Good, she had no idea who he was. This whole thing was embarrassing enough without her having watched him on TV, playing out the silly storylines brainstormed by his father and the production team.
He raised his voice so the boom mic could pick up his answer. "We're filming the fourth season of Living Wild. My family and I live off-the-grid here on Nielson HQ, where we build our own homes, hunt, and live off the land."
The premise was ridiculous and hokey even to him, and he could never explain it without sounding like a robot. How much worse would it sound to her? She probably thought they were all crazy mountain folk.
But she only nodded and looked around the makeshift compound. "Cool. So, you're like a wilderness expert or something?"
He shrugged. "Or something."
"Well, soon you'll be a dance expert." Her wink was teasing. "Ready to learn a few moves?"
"I'm game," he said, because it was expected of him. The absolute last thing he wanted to do was learn to dance. "I bet you never had to teach someone to dance in the forest before."
Excerpted from "Take The Lead"
Copyright © 2017 Alexis Daria.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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