(Too Far #1)
Love can be dangerous!
Valentin Bychkov, rising star of contemporary Russian ballet, appears to have everything: wealth, talent, success, and a face and body to match. Not that anyone can get close. Bypass the entourage and there's still Valentin's sharp tongue and acerbic wit to deal with. He may give his body freely, but his emotions are kept tightly locked away.
Max Farley's life is a simple one. All he's interested in is work, drinking, and picking up the latest in a long line of one-night stands. The way he chooses to live may not be to everyone's taste but it suits him down to the ground. He's never met anyone who's made him want to confront the demons from his past. Until now.
A show in London brings the two together. Lust brings them closer still. But if rumors of Bratva connections turn out to be true, then dangerous men wait in the wings. One dangerous man in particular, who's used to people following his orders without question.
Difficult choices need to be made on both sides. Valentin and Max need to stop playing with fire and let each other go, or face the consequences. But letting go isn't that easy where love is concerned.
And some things are worth the risk.
Warning: This book contains a snarky ballet dancer with an aversion to clothes, a little too much wall sex and an overabundance of Russian heavies.
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Heat Level: 4
Romantic Content: 4
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 18-25
Protagonist 2 Age: 26-35
Tropes: Forbidden Love
Word Count: 75 000
Languages Available: English
Just when I was convinced that escape from the bedroom was going to be possible without him waking up, he sat up in bed. Bleary eyes searched the room, eventually focusing on my location and watching intently as I fastened my belt while avoiding looking his way. "You're leaving?"
I went to nod, stopping mid-action when the pounding in my head due to last night's overindulgence made it clear it wasn't a good idea. "I'm late for work."
The man in the bed ran a hand through his rumpled blond hair. "But you can stay for breakfast? Or a cup of coffee at least?"READ MORE
I recognized that expression. It was the "I can't believe that after everything we did last night, you're going to leave just like that” look. I recognized it because I'd been on the receiving end of it far too many times to count. Why couldn't he have stayed asleep? Five more minutes and I'd have been out of there, and we could have avoided this conversation altogether. "Listen, Aaron..." At least I remembered his name. "...I'm really late. I'm not just saying that." I checked my watch, wincing at the time. "I'm meant to be across the other side of London in ten minutes to start a new job, so..." I let the rest of the sentence hang there.
His eyes turned cold. "My friends warned me about you."
I bit back a sigh. It appeared as if my hangover was going to come with a free dose of early morning drama. The temptation to simply ignore the comment and leave was strong, but I guessed I wasn't quite as much of a dick as I liked to think I was. Turning to face him, I kept my voice as even as possible. It might be drama, but it didn't need to escalate any further. "Did they? What did they say?" I could probably guess, but sometimes it was better to hear it straight from the horse's mouth rather than fill in the gaps yourself. Who knows, maybe it would be something I hadn't heard before.
His face turned belligerent, the sheet dropping to reveal several red marks on his neck that I guessed I'd been responsible for. "That you don't do relationships, that you're more the ‘fuck ’em and leave ’em’ type."
I shrugged my shoulders into my jacket. It was lucky that last night's undressing hadn't started till we'd gotten to the bedroom. Not that I could remember. The whole night was pretty much a blur. "Yet you still chased me." He had. For weeks. Everywhere I'd gone, he'd popped up, offering himself up like some sort of tasty appetizer. He'd even gone as far as cock-blocking me a couple of times when I'd had someone else in my sights. I'd made it clear I wasn't interested. But at some point after the third or fourth tequila, his sex appeal had increased exponentially, and I'd gone home with him against my better judgment.
"I thought..." He looked embarrassed, his cheeks taking on a distinctive rosy blush.
I rolled my neck from one side to the other, trying to ease some of the stiffness out of it from sleeping in an unfamiliar bed. He was a good-looking guy with a good body. There was nothing wrong with him. But there was nothing that stood out about him either. Not to me anyway. But then you could say that about all the men I slept with. They scratched an itch. Gave me a physical release. Nothing more. I didn't need anything more than that. I didn't want anything more than that. "You thought you might be special?"
He shrugged, unwilling to admit that what I'd said was the truth. "Why don't you do relationships?"
It was my turn to shrug. I knew. Of course, I did. But it wasn't something I was willing to discuss with a near stranger simply because our bodies had gotten intimately acquainted for a few hours. I offered a tight smile. "Maybe listen to your friends next time. They were trying to help you."
He looked hopeful for a minute, his lips curling into a smile far more genuine than mine had been. "Okay. No relationships. I get it. But everyone needs a fuck buddy, right? I can give you my number."
I shook my head, the pounding having eased off enough that it wasn't too painful. Bloody tequila! "Thanks, Aaron, that's sweet, but I'm going to have to turn down your generous offer." I took another pointed look at my watch. "I've got to run. See you around."
I didn't wait for his response before hightailing it out of the bedroom and managing to find my way out of the unfamiliar house.
* * * *
I slid down lower in the seat and laid my head back as the tube train approached Covent Garden. As a freelance sound engineer, I was used to working in many different venues. The Royal Opera House was a first though. Apparently, the person lined up to do the job had had to pull out at the last minute. Something to do with a family emergency triggering a trip to New Zealand. The head of set design, and a long-term friend of mine, had put my name forward as a possible replacement. So there I was, on my way to hang out with a load of ballet dancers for the next few weeks. I wouldn't normally have been available, but I'd been planning on taking some time off. But with the money they were offering, plus an additional bonus for taking the job on such short notice, it was too good to turn down. The planned trip to a sun-soaked beach somewhere exotic would have to wait. It was for that reason that I wasn't too concerned about turning up late. If they were desperate enough to pay me almost double what I was used to, then they were hardly likely to turn me away for being a bit late. I checked my watch again, my mouth twisting. Okay. More than a bit—an hour late.
I sat up as the tube train slowed to a stop, the man in the seat opposite catching my eye and making a point of letting his gaze travel slowly down my body. Jesus! He must be desperate. I hadn't looked in a mirror, but given the way I felt, and the fact I hadn't showered or shaved, I knew I was hardly looking my best. Perhaps he dug the homeless look. I averted my gaze and headed for the door farthest away from him.
It took another fifteen minutes to reach the imposing white stonework and intricate masonry that made up the Royal Opera House. I navigated my way between the columns that fronted the building, wishing I'd had time to stop for something to eat. Or at least a coffee. I'd kill right then for a coffee. I doubted there was going to be much on offer inside. Particularly for a latecomer reporting for duty on his first day. A further ten minutes was wasted while security checked out my story. It seemed that nobody had thought to change the name of the previous employee to mine: a glaring oversight on someone's part. It took multiple phone calls and conversations before it was finally sorted and I was issued with a pass and a set of directions to where I needed to go.
I wended my way down the corridors, attempting to recall the barrage of "left, right, right, left" instructions I'd been given, and thankful for the occasional sign that told me I was on the right track. After a long trek, I finally reached the side door that would take me into the auditorium and therefore to the sound booth next to the stage.
I'd barely gotten a foot inside when my arm was grabbed and I was hustled back out into the corridor, the door banging shut loudly behind us as Noel's furious face glowered into mine. "For fuck's sake, Max! Do you know what time it is? They've been asking where the hell you are. I put a good word in for you to get you this job. So you being an irresponsible dick reflects badly on me. As well as you. Not that you probably give a damn. But I do."
Noel and I went back years, ever since school, but I couldn't remember ever seeing him this pissed before. Not at me anyway. I removed my arm from his grasp. "I had a problem getting through security. They were still expecting the other guy."
"For two fucking hours? I don't think so." His nose wrinkled. "You stink of booze, and you look like shit. What happened?"
"I woke up late."
His eyes narrowed. "In whose bed?" He huffed when I made no effort to dispute the assumption. "Fuck! Just for once, couldn't you have..." He sighed dramatically. "Never mind. You're here now. If you weren't so good at your job, I swear..." He pulled me back through the door, gesturing at the sound booth at the side of the stage. "Down there. Get yourself acquainted with the equipment. The dancers are due onstage at any time for rehearsals, so you've got little to no time to get your shit together." He backed away a couple of steps. "Don't let me down, Max, please. You might be able to float around and pick and choose your jobs whenever you feel like it, but the rest of us rely on consistent money coming in."
I resisted the temptation to point out that I hadn't asked for his recommendation, offering a wholly unconvincing "sorry" instead.
In return, I got a weary headshake, the beginnings of another sigh, and then the view of his back as he walked away to go back to whatever he'd been doing before he'd felt obligated to lie in wait for me. He'd be fine once he'd calmed down a bit. I headed for the booth, the small dark space I'd share with a couple of other people for the next few weeks. Being a sound engineer sometimes felt like living underground.
I glanced at the stage on my way past. It was still a hive of activity, which meant it hadn't been cleared for the dancers yet. That still gave me some time to get my head around whichever sound console they used, and quickly read through what they required. If I was lucky, I'd also get a chance to test audio levels and start turning acceptable into something that sounded great. It should be child's play for someone of my experience. I'd rather have done it with coffee and breakfast inside me, but I supposed that beggars couldn't be choosers. I should have asked Noel to get me something. I chuckled to myself as I imagined the earful I'd have gotten in response if I'd dared to raise the subject that I was running on empty.
In the end, I got twenty minutes before rehearsals kicked off. More time would have been useful, but I guess I'd sacrificed that the moment the first tequila had slipped down my throat the night before. Everything went smoothly for the first three dancers, Noel appearing by my right shoulder just as the third finished their routine. He looked a hell of a lot calmer than he had earlier. I quirked an eyebrow at him. "See! Everything's under control."
He pulled a face. "Thank God for that."
I gestured toward the stage. They'd called a halt while they discussed some sort of issue with the last dancer's performance. It had looked fine to me. But then what did I know about ballet dancing. "Where're the female dancers?"
Noel laughed. "You don't do any research at all, do you?"
I shook my head, pausing to smile and give thanks to the stagehand who'd taken pity on me and magicked up a coffee from somewhere. He blushed and scurried away. I was beginning to think I needed to adopt the rough-and-ready look more often. If you counted the guy I'd woken up with, that was the third expression of interest I'd had in so many hours. I rubbed a hand over my chin, the stubble rasping under my palm. "What was I supposed to research?"
Noel rolled his eyes. "This show is all-male contemporary ballet. So if you're waiting for the women to pop up, you're going to be waiting an awfully long time."
"I see." I let my gaze rove slowly over the muscular physique of the dancer still onstage. The job was starting to seem too good to be true. Extra money, and I got to ogle muscular men on top of that. I wondered how many of them were gay.
Noel's gaze followed mine, his brow furrowing. "And don't even think about chasing any of the dancers. Leave them alone."
"I don't chase." It wasn't arrogance talking, it was the truth. I didn't need to. On the rare occasion I expressed interest in someone who didn't reciprocate, I moved on. There were plenty more fish in the sea.
The dancer left the stage, making way for another to walk on seconds later. I found myself staring, something about him immediately commanding my attention. I didn't know whether it was his sheer presence, the graceful way he walked, the way he looked, or a mixture of all three, but I couldn't tear my eyes away. After the first three dancers, I'd grown somewhat accustomed to the extremely revealing ballet tights. But none of the others had filled them out in quite the same way this guy did. My scrutiny started at his bare feet before traveling over every inch of his muscled calves and thighs encased in tight Lycra.
I swallowed with difficulty as I reached the distinctive bulge of his crotch. The similarities between how he and the other dancers were dressed ended at that point. Their costumes had all been full body. This guy though, was bare-chested—unless you counted the scrap of black, lacy material fastened around his neck. Matching material also adorned his forehead, the color the same as the short, cropped black hair.
Every inch of skin on display—and there was a lot—was flawless. And yet it still was not as beautiful as his face. I'd never gone for makeup on men. There was nothing wrong with it, it just had never been my thing. But on this guy it worked, the blue eyeshadow and eyeliner gave his eyes an exotic slant, while the lipstick and blusher drew attention to the perfection of the features they highlighted. He wore no jewelry. Although, that may have been because he was onstage. Whatever the reason was, he didn't need it.
"Who's that?" My voice came out breathless, my eyes still glued to the stage as he took up position in the center.
Noel snorted. "The star of the show of course. Rising star of the ballet world, Valentin Bychkov."
"Valentin?" I tasted the name on my lips. It suited him. An exotic name for an exotic man. "He's Russian?"
"Father was Russian. Mother was English. Why do you..." Noel finally seemed to clue into the reason I was asking, his head swinging around to peer into my face closely. It was clear that he didn't like what he saw. "No. No. No. Don't you dare. I said the dancers were off-limits, but this one is most definitely off-limits. Don't even think about it. Don't go near him. Don't even mention his name. I'm not joking, Max. There are lots of rumors about the sort of people he's mixed up with, and they're not the sort of people you want to get on the wrong side of. So, I take back what I said earlier. Chase the other dancers to your heart’s content. Fuck them all if you want to. But not Valentin. Stay away from him. He's not worth getting your kneecaps broken over."
Amusement over Noel's rant fueled the smile on my lips. "That's one hell of an overactive imagination you've got there."
He shook his head. "Nothing to do with imagination. Stories I've heard. You've heard of Bratva, right?"
I shrugged. "Vaguely. Russian organized crime, right?"
"Right. And Valentin's... mentor"—I frowned at the pause, wondering what word he'd been going to use before changing his mind—"is rumored to be a member of Bratva. He certainly has both the money and the entourage to suggest it's true."
I started the music. "How do you know all this?"
Noel stopped halfway to the door, his eyes darting to the only other person in the sound booth at that moment. Given that he was wearing headphones and not looking our way, Noel must have decided it was safe to continue with what he'd been about to say. "Unlike you, I do my research. Just... take my advice, Max. Please."
I kept my eyes on the stage, offering only the merest glance of acknowledgment to my friend. "You don't need to worry. Even if I was interested, it's not like I'm going to get anywhere near him, is it? Or that he's going to have any interest in the hired help."
He nodded, seemingly placated. "True."
With him gone, I was able to turn my full attention back to the stage. I knew nothing about dance, especially ballet, but even I could tell that what I was witnessing onstage was something special. The other dancers had been good, but this guy—Valentin—was something else. It was easy to see why he was the star of the show. Every movement. Every twist. Every turn was pure beauty in its precision, his muscles flexing and bending effortlessly in ways that could only have been the result of years of hard practice. He was strong, yet graceful. Aggressive, yet playful. The contradiction provided a contrast at the same time as it fit seamlessly together. My concentration waned as I found myself caught up in the beauty of the dance, my fingers occasionally managing to fumble at buttons I was meant to be pressing.
He pirouetted across the stage, each movement as perfect as the last. Then with one last death-defying leap in the air, landed as if he'd barely left the ground, the routine came to an end. As he stood stock-still in the middle of the stage, an officious-looking man, presumably the theater director, applauded while saying something in a language that had to be in Russian.
Valentin didn't bother to offer any response to whatever feedback he'd just been given. His head suddenly turned, his gaze sweeping over the sound booth where I stood. I fought the urge to step back out of view, the searching gaze having a strange effect on me. "The music was wrong. It needs fixing." His voice fit him perfectly, English with just a hint of a Russian accent to add richness to the sound.
Fuck! My heart jolted, my mouth going dry. He was right. I'd been so transfixed by his performance that I'd messed up some of the transitions, way beyond anything I could put down to first-day teething problems. I didn't know whether it was guilt for not doing my job properly or the fact that he was looking straight at me causing it, but there was no doubt that I felt unusually out of sorts. I opened my mouth to say something, but he was already turning away, apparently not interested in any sort of explanation.
He left the stage the same way he'd entered, my eyes automatically dropping to the muscled tightness of his ass. An ass you could crack walnuts with. And an ass that I'd give anything to get better acquainted with. I had a serious case of lust bubbling through my veins.
* * * *
The rest of the day passed smoothly. I seemed to have gotten away with the mistakes I'd made earlier when my cock had momentarily taken over from my brain. Either they hadn't been as obvious as I feared, or they just hadn't had time to come and speak to me about it. I needed to make sure it didn't happen again. Valentin had only danced once. The word on the street from the few people I'd chatted to during my breaks that day was that he was on partial medical rest, so an understudy had stood in for him during the rest of the rehearsal. It seemed a good gig to me. Come on. Dance for five minutes, and then get the rest of the day to do whatever it was that contemporary ballet dancers did during their downtime.
The same blushing stagehand that provided me with coffee earlier had showed up at midday with a sandwich. I wasn't entirely sure whether it was his job or I was getting special treatment. But from the looks he gave me, I suspected it was the latter. I'd felt sufficiently human enough by that time to look him over with a bit more interest. He was cute. There was no arguing with that, but everything about him screamed innocence. The poor boy probably wanted to be wined and dined, not fucked and chucked. In spite of what people thought—or said—about me, I did have some limits. My one-night stands were always mutual, and I never made false promises. It was just that some guys chose not to hear it. Like Aaron that morning. No, he was definitely one to put on the "do not touch” list. It wouldn't hurt to flirt a bit though. It'd give him a bit of an ego boost while keeping me well supplied with drinks and food while I was working. That way everyone was a winner.
It was nearly three by the time I finally exited the theater onto the street. I looked forward to getting home, taking a much-needed shower, and perhaps even indulging in a bit of the "hair of the dog that bit me” to eradicate the last traces of the hangover that hadn't quite gone away all day. I was about to head for Covent Garden tube station when I became aware of a familiar figure slouched against the wall, smoking a cigarette. He was in the same outfit as he'd worn onstage earlier, despite a big chunk of time having gone by since. His only concession to being outside was the addition of an open jacket to partially cover his bare chest. His feet were still bare, his toes appearing even more naked against the backdrop of the street tarmac.
Keep walking, Max. Just keep walking. Spurred on by Noel's earlier words of warning, it was excellent advice that my subconscious was offering. It was a shame then that I didn't pay the slightest bit of attention to it. I drew to a halt next to him. He continued to stare straight ahead, either deliberately ignoring me or unaware of my presence. "I thought dancers were meant to be healthy? Isn't smoking bad for you?"
There was a long pause while he took a drag of the cigarette and exhaled the smoke. I took the opportunity to examine his face in profile. Up close, he was equally as stunning, if not more so than he'd been onstage.
Valentin finally answered, his voice crisp and cool, the Russian accent more pronounced than it had been earlier. "Keeps my weight down."
He still hadn't spared me so much as a glance, as if I was of such inconsequential importance that I barely registered on his radar. I probably didn't. He didn't even know who I was. In his eyes, I was probably just some busybody of a passerby who'd recognized he was a dancer from his outfit and wanted to stick my nose into his business.
His head suddenly swung around, his gaze cool and assessing as it swept over me. "Is that okay with you, Max?"
There weren't a lot of situations that could throw me for a loop, but him knowing my name did. I gawped at him. "How do you... I don't..."
His lips quirked at the corner as I floundered over my words—the son of a bitch obviously found it amusing that he'd managed to catch me off guard. He took another drag of his cigarette, the smoke going in my eyes as he exhaled. "You are the one that ruined my dance? Correct, yes? I made a point of finding out your name."
The words felt like a slap, yet my brain chose to focus on his use of the word ruined. "Your dance was... it was—"
"Better with the correct music transitions." He levered himself away from the wall, even managing to perform that movement with a great deal of grace. What would he be like in bed? When he'd danced, there'd been parts that were slow and graceful, and parts that were fast and furious. Which one would he be? Or would he be both, depending on his mood? Heat filtered through my body as I was bombarded with a series of arousing images.
I needed to calm down. There was no way in hell I'd ever get to find out, so it was a waste of time taunting myself with scenarios that couldn't happen. He dropped the cigarette butt on the ground and turned to face me. I was surprised to find that we were roughly the same height. He stepped closer, raising his chin and looking me straight in the eye. "What's my name?"
"Valentin," I answered automatically, regretting it immediately as a smug smile slowly spread across his face. "I mean... you're the star of the show, right? Everyone knows your name."
He didn't look fooled for one minute by my feeble attempt at a cover-up. "You're going home?"
He stepped closer still, and I did my best to pretend that I wasn't affected by his close proximity. What the hell was wrong with me? It must have been the combination of a hangover and lack of sleep. He leaned forward, his lips mere inches from my own. My breath caught, and the world stood still. Was he going to kiss me? If so, I didn't care that we'd only just met. I didn't care that we were in the middle of the street. I'd kiss him back, and I'd probably thank him afterward. He pulled back slightly, his nose wrinkling. "Good! You are in need of a shower. You smell like a distillery."
Then he was pushing past me on his way back into the theater, a full smile on those delightfully shaped lips, and I was left feeling like something momentous had happened when nothing had happened at all.COLLAPSE
Annie Elm on Goodreads wrote:
What a beautiful cover, totally sums up the character of Valentin. Beautiful, arrogant, and totally aloof. The other MC, Max, is instantly smitten with him.
Max soon learns that beneath Valentin’s arrogant and aloof exterior is a passionate man who warms Max’s heart and scorches his bed. They can't stay away from one another, but Valentin is walking a very fine and dangerous line.
What follows is a compelling mystery/romance, with extremely well written MCs. I got caught up in it very quickly, keen to see how the story would develop and be resolved. I also wanted to beat the living daylights out of Dimitri!
I've read this author's books before, but I honestly feel that this her best yet. I would love to read more about these two.
Natali on Goodreads wrote:
Max doesn't do feelings or relationships, he's fine with one night stands and it would be even better if the guys he's with would stop trying for something more.
That's until he takes a job as a sound engineer and sees Russian ballet dancer Valentin for the first time. Dream of his surprise when Valentin is the one who doesn't want more or expresses any feelings at all.
I loved the way Max got a taste of his own medicine and I love Valentins ballet diva behaviour. The push and pull and the attraction between Max an Valentin is super hot and I couldn't put the book down.
Then there's the threat from the connection to the Russian mafia and the underlying tension in the book just builds and you can just feel that bad things will go down.
I'm just happy that in the end Valentin and Max gets the happy ending they deserve.
This was the first book that I've read by this author but it certainly won't be the last.
This was a very good romantic/suspense story. I grabbed it for having a ballet dancer protagonist and the hint of Russian mobster types. A hurt/comfort trope is also one of my favorites. Max is a sound technician where Valentin is dancing and he’s unexpectedly attracted to the seemingly arrogant dancer. Valentin uses a cold, emotionless manner to hide his feelings from his demanding, heartless investor/manager, Dmitry. The characters are built up well with alternating viewpoints, internal thoughts and dialogues. The plot isn’t terribly sophisticated but the uncertainty and tension was quite gripping right up to the conclusion. I liked that the author didn’t make Valentin’s interaction with Dmitry too disturbing. Bad enough but not as terrible as it first appeared, though there was some violence later on towards Max. The culmination was different than I expected, without entirely satisfying results for Dmitry but it worked for the storyline. The ending and epilogue was nicely done with a glimpse of the future and an HEA. Recommended.