Bittersweet Dance

an excerpt



Prologue

June 1989



"What were you whispering to Tony about?" Oleg poked his older brother, Pavel, and ignored the glare he was given.

"Nothing that little boys need to know." Pavel was only three years older than Oleg, but he always acted so superior to him. It annoyed Oleg.

"I'm not a little boy. I'm ten years old. Ma lets me go to the store by myself," he bragged.

Pavel snorted. "Who cares? Tony and me went somewhere the other night that you're too scared to go."

"I'm not scared." He puffed out his chest, resolutely forgetting about all the trouble Pavel had gotten him into before by using that same line about being scared.

He stood there while Pavel studied him as though he were judging whether Oleg was old enough for Pavel to share such important knowledge with. He knew better than to fidget or pester him again. Pavel would walk away and never say another word about it, if Oleg didn't stay silent.

Excitement raced through him when Pavel huffed, "Fine. Tony and I rode out to the Pines the other night."

"Pavel, we're not supposed to go there, especially at night," he reminded him. "Ma and Pa don't like that place. They say it's evil."

"They're old. They're supposed to say that." Pavel dismissed their parents' worry. "We went out there, and we saw something."

He leaned closer. "What did you see?"

There were the legends of the Jersey Devil--a monster that lived in the Pines. People had been seeing the creature for centuries. Could Pavel have seen the Devil?

Shrugging, Pavel got a cagey look on his face, and Oleg knew his brother wasn't going to tell him.

"Come on. Tell me," he whined.

"You could always go out and see for yourself." With that statement, Pavel wandered off to grab the basketball from Tony's hands, and the older boys started shooting hoops.

Oleg stuck his tongue out at Pavel's back, but the idea started percolating in his mind. He and the guys could go out there tomorrow night. There wasn't any doubt that they could all sneak out of their houses. Heck, they'd done it a hundred times.

His mind made up, Oleg ran off to find Abel. He'd convince him to go, then the others would join in.

***

Now that it was time to go, Oleg wasn't convinced this was the best plan he'd ever had. What if something did happen? No one would know where they had gone. Well, Pavel would, but he wasn't one-hundred percent sure his brother would tell their parents, since it would mean he'd get in trouble. He wasn't about to call the adventure off. He'd never hear the end of it, and being called "pussy" the rest of the summer wasn't his idea of fun.

He threw his backpack out the window before climbing out, thanking his parents for putting him on the first floor. After slipping his arms through the straps of his backpack, he got his bike from where he'd leaned it against the side of the house. Oleg pedaled like crazy through his subdivision to where his friends waited for him.

Quincey, Warren, and Tad nodded at him when he rode up.

"Where's Abel and Braden?" he asked once he caught his breath.

"They'll be here," Quin told him. "They live the farthest away, and it's harder for them to sneak out."

That was true. Of the six, Abel and Braden's parents were the ones who paid the closest attention to their children, which made it difficult for them to leave the house unnoticed.

It was his suggestion that they go to the Pines, so he was in charge. And right when he'd decided to give up on them and head out, they arrived. No one said anything, just nodded. Oleg took the lead.

As they biked closer to their destination, Oleg felt his muscles begin to tense. It was as though someone--or something--watched them approach, and he could admit to himself at least that he didn't want to see anything out in the darkness that night. He'd never tell the others, though.

"We should be getting close," Oleg called back to the rest of them. "My brother, Pavel, told me about this spot where we can find the Jersey Devil."

"What if I don't want to meet the Devil?" Braden muttered, and Oleg had to confess he had the same feeling at the moment.

They reached a clearing just another mile down the road. Leaving their bikes lying on the grass, the group of six boys wandered around, swinging the beams from their flashlights all over the place.

"What happens if we see it?" Braden asked Tad softly.

Tad shrugged. "Probably piss ourselves and run screaming back home to our moms."

Stopping, Braden stared at Tad who stared right back.

"What? You know as well as I do, none of us are going to hang around to chat that thing up." Tad shook his head.

"Get over here, you two," Abel called to them, then waved them back to where the others were gathered.

Once they were all there, Oleg grunted before he said, "I think my brother's full of shit."

Yet there was something out in the woods, no matter what he said. The weight of a gaze burning into his back as he moved around had been there from the moment they'd stepped into the clearing. The sensation got stronger as he stood there, listening to the others talk.

The forest went silent around them, and Oleg didn't like that. One time when he'd gone hunting with Pavel, his brother had told him that when the forest creatures go quiet, it meant there was a bigger predator out hunting.

The only light breaking through the leaves was from their flashlights as they shoved each other, laughing loudly to cover their own discomfort. He wanted to leave, but since it was his idea, he couldn't. He had to stay and prove that he couldn't be scared that easily. There was no way he could continue pushing the others around, if they thought he was a wimp.

Suddenly, the crack of a twig disturbed the relative silence of the night. Braden jumped then whirled to shine his light in the direction of the noise. What they saw caught in the beam was an image that would stay with them for the rest of their lives.

It was a creature Oleg had never seen the likes of before. It had the head of a horse and was huge. Leather-like wings stretched from its shoulders, and eyes that seemed to be lit from within glared at them.

When it screamed, Oleg swore it sounded like someone was murdering it. He barely fought the urge to cover his ears. He couldn't drop his flashlight, not wanting to be in the darkness with it. His friends were yelling and swinging their lights around.

The creature moved with lightning speed, circling them for a moment before dashing into their midst then away. Oleg found it difficult to figure out in the strobing flashlight beams where the monster was, but suddenly, he glanced up to meet its red eyes and froze.

His wrist stung as the creature slashed at him, causing him to cry out. The other boys were shouting and scrambling all around him, but Oleg couldn't seem to get his feet to work. Abel grabbed his hand and dragged him toward the road where they'd left their bikes. They pushed each other out of the way because no one wanted to be at the back of the group in case the creature chased them.

None of them looked behind them, just pedaled as fast as they could to the corner where they'd met. From there, they split up to head back to their own houses without saying a word to each other.

***

Three years later



"Where are you going?" Oleg stared at his older brother as Pavel stuffed some jeans into a duffle.

"I'm outta here," Pavel told him, not looking at him while packing.

"But why?" Oleg didn't understand why Pavel was leaving. He also didn't get why his parents weren't doing anything to stop him.

Pausing, Pavel turned to meet his gaze. "I have some things to do, Oleg, that I can't do around here. Ma and Pa get that, so they're going to let me go. I'll stay in touch. I promise. One day you'll get why I had to leave."

Oleg shot a glance over his shoulder toward Pavel's bedroom door, not wanting to discuss this where his parents might hear them. "Is it because of what we saw?"

He ran his fingers over the scars on his left wrist, then caught Pavel studying them. He tugged his sleeve down to cover them. Pavel had acted weird ever since Oleg had come back and told him what had happened.

Pavel shook his head. "Not just that. I can't say anything more than that, Oleg. I promise I'll explain some day."

Not wanting to see his brother go, Oleg threw his arms around him and hugged him tight before running from the room. He was pissed at his parents, at Pavel, and most of all at himself for taking his brother's dare and going to the Pines that night three years ago.

***

In the twenty-five years that have come and gone since that moment, the six friends never really discussed what had happened to them that night. Yet, it was the one singular event that held the most influence on their choices for the rest of their lives.



Chapter One

Chicago



Ryder circled around the room at the Willowbrook. It was a stunningly decorated ballroom that was filled with people dressed in formal attire. He was new in town, and one of his coworkers had invited him to the party. Several of his other coworkers were supposed to be there, but Ryder couldn't have pointed one out, if his life depended on it. He was pretty sure he stuck out like a sore thumb as people eyed him, smiled, but didn't draw him into their little groups. It was as if he was in high school all over again and couldn't find a table to sit at in the lunchroom. He was twenty-three, dammit. Didn't that shitty feeling ever end?

He'd only been at his new job for two days, and he'd been in orientation the whole time. He didn't know a fucking person here, and the one person he did, just disappeared. Plus, Ryder wasn't the type of person to approach a group and shake their hands either. He preferred working the numbers instead of dealing with strangers.

Ryder tugged at his collar, feeling damn uncomfortable. Fuck, maybe he should just go home or have a drink and wait for his friend to return. The night was early. He hoped Mathis hadn't taken off. The guy had been next to him when they walked in, and by the time they had gotten their coats checked, the man was out of sight. Poof, gone, nowhere to be seen. It was like he got tugged into the wardrobe or something. Ryder tried not to get pissed off about it, but the more he felt isolated, the more he wanted to kick Mathis's ass, if he could only find him.

The two of them had gone to college together, and Mathis had gotten him hired by the company. He was fucking grateful since he had been laid off from his last job. He had been the newest man there, and when the cuts came, it was Ryder who had been shown the door. He'd done good work; he didn't have the seniority.

He and Mathis talked a lot, and when his friend found out about his situation, a miraculous position had opened up in their company. Ryder knew better. Mathis had gotten him in, and he'd called his friend on it, to which he'd replied, "I want the best working for me, and I know you're the best. Who the hell do you think got me through calculus in college? You did. Now it's my turn to pay back the favors you did for me."

Ryder had been touched that a friend of his from college was willing to help out, so he had moved halfway across the country, hoping this change would be what he needed.

Ryder meandered to the bar. Several people surrounded it, laughing and drinking. God, this was awkward, and he nearly decided to head for the door. Parties weren't Ryder's thing. He much preferred to stay home with a book and a nice hot drink.

Should I just leave? It wasn't like he was networking here. The idea was beginning to grow on him, and he was about to tuck tail and go when the bartender approached.

Shit, now I'm stuck. One drink, and I can get the fuck out of here.

The bartender smiled and dropped a napkin. "What can I get you?"

He could muster through one drink. Plus, the guy was pretty cute. At least, he could enjoy the view.

"Gin and tonic with an extra lime."

The bartender swiftly started his drink, and Ryder scanned the room once again for Mathis, coming up empty.

The bartender set his drink in front of him. "Here you go."

Ryder dug out some cash and put the tip on the bar. "Thanks."

"Pleasure." The bartender had already moved on before Ryder could say anything to him, running off to the next customer. The guy was going to have a busy night with this crowd. There was a steady line, not to mention the waiters and waitresses waiting for table drinks.

He turned and leaned his elbows against the bar, sipping his drink, watching the people dance while others talked and laughed. There had to be over three hundred people here, and it was getting fucking hot.

I'm so ready to go.

He tipped his drink back, and that's when he saw her.

A woman drifted in and out of the crowd across the dance floor from him, making eye contact. She was exquisite with a white dress that flowed behind her as she gracefully maneuvered her way through the crowd. Her eyes were a piercing blue, and she had a coy smile as if she held a secret and could barely contain it. Her hair was styled up with tendrils of dark curls falling around her face. Ryder was completely mesmerized.

Ryder glanced around him, wondering if the lady knew someone else next to him and perhaps the smile was for them and not him. When everyone around seemed oblivious to her, he turned back to see her quirking her finger at him. She was stunning, and there was no way he was going to turn down a dance with her.

He set his drink down. She was the first welcoming person he had encountered that night, and he wasn't going to ignore the possibility of ridding himself of the title of lone man in the room. Like a moth to a flame, he crossed the dance floor toward her. She moved gracefully in his direction, and they met in the center. Ryder went to introduce himself, but she held a finger to his lips.

Okay, no talking. Strange way to flirt, but he was game.

Ryder grinned and went to pull her in to dance when she jumped back and smiled. She beckoned him toward the edge of the dance floor, waving with one hand while holding her dress with the other. Ryder maneuvered around the dancing bodies, watching as her eyes lit up as she gazed upon him. He winked, and she threw her head back, quietly laughing. Oh, he wished he could have heard her laugh, but the band was so loud, it drowned out everything.

She was playful, and Ryder chuckled as she led him away from the dance floor to a private, secluded spot in the corner of the room. He never played liked this with anyone, but he was certainly enjoying himself.

For the first time that night, he felt completely relaxed and at ease while he pursued the shy, beautiful woman.

Finally, she stopped and faced him, head tilted to the side as though she was studying him. That coy smile was still in place, and Ryder nervously brushed his dark hair out of his eyes, then adjusted his suit jacket. She didn't seem to have a hair out of place, and was even more beautiful close up. She was pale with a rose hue to her cheeks. Classically beautiful.

"I'm Ryder." Ryder held out his hand, and she reached forward and shook it. Her touch was freezing cold, and a shock shot up his arm at the contact. Ryder jerked back and held his hand to his chest. Fuck if that didn't hurt. It was wintertime. The air was dry, and grabbing handles or other people would tend to send a shock to the hand in these dry months, but this was by far the worst he had ever received. He could feel it move all the way to his chest.

Trying to nonchalantly shake the pain out of his hand, he asked, "Would you like a drink?"

The woman smiled at him and then nodded her head.

"A glass of wine?" Ryder asked.

Again she nodded but didn't voice her response. Okay, this was getting a bit strange.

"I'll be right back." Ryder held up a finger and moved back to the bar for their drinks. He wove quickly around the crowd, not wanting to keep the one person who was kind enough to welcome him here waiting.

Mathis came up laughing. "There you are."

"There you are," Ryder countered, lengthening his words while lifting his finger to the bartender. "Where the hell did you go? I was…" floundering until about a minute ago.

Mathis laughed. "Sorry about that. I got pulled into a meeting. I didn't know they wanted to talk about the budget during the party. Did you make some friends?" Mathis clapped him on the back then massaged his shoulders.

Mathis was a big guy, well over his six feet tall, and he had at least a good forty pounds on Ryder. He looked good in a suit, a lot different than the holey, stinky sweats Mathis had washed only a couple times a semester. Oh how the man had changed.

Ryder understood Mathis getting pulled away, he just wished his friend would have said something to him before disappearing on him.

The bartender came up, and Ryder ordered, "A glass of wine and another gin and tonic."

"Ah, so you did. Who is it? Guy or woman?" Mathis long necked the room from next to him. Mathis had known since college that Ryder was bisexual.

"Woman. I haven't gotten a name yet," Ryder murmured while tipping for the drinks.

"Huh, I know a lot of people here. Point, and I'll tell you her name," Mathis asked while still scanning the room.

Ryder went to point with the wine glass and stopped. Where Ryder had left her, another group was now standing but there was no sign of the woman. What the…

Brow furrowed, Ryder looked around the room and came up empty. "She's… gone."

Mathis chuckled next to him. "That's tough luck, but come on and let me introduce you to some people."

"Do you think--" Ryder hesitated. He didn't want to ask Mathis, if he did something wrong.

It was as if Mathis could read him. "No man, it's her loss. Come on, one of the directors wants to meet the new analyst."

Ryder stared into the crowd once more as Mathis guided him away from the bar. She was nowhere to be seen. The whole encounter had been incredibly strange.

"Hey, Neil, I'd like to introduce you to one of my new finance guys. Ryder, this is Neil."

Ryder shook the man's hand and focused on the conversation, trying not to let his thoughts drift to the woman in white.