Dance With Me
Author:Hayden Braeburn

chapter ONE



Katerina Nemecek buckled her heel before stepping in front of the studio's mirrored wall. Dance was her passion, her joy, and if she didn't get a break soon, she would have to give it up. She danced with abandon, channeling her worry, her pain, and her sorrow into the steps. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and although she wasn't sure what those measures were, she had to think of something. Perhaps she should sell.

She'd had an offer a year ago from Juliette Jamieson in Aylesford. Although Jamieson Studio specialized in ballet and lyrical dance, Juliette felt Kat's expertise in ballroom and musical theater could be an asset. Panting with exertion, Kat threw herself harder into the routine. She didn't want to sell, and she didn't want to leave, but what other choice did she have?

Mason Everett watched Kat as she performed a series of intricate moves. She was so beautiful, it hurt. He was there to serve her with papers stating she had one month to pay her back mortgage or she was headed to foreclosure, but he had to watch her. She was utterly mesmerizing when she danced, and he hadn't seen her in over a week.

The economy had come crashing down around them and although ballroom dancing was more popular than ever with that TV show, people just weren't taking lessons like they had a few years ago. He knew Kat was working her ass off, he knew she was doing everything in her power to stay afloat, but the bank–what was once his family's bank–didn't care. The day the national chain bought them out was the day Kat's mortgage troubles began. Now, he was here, having taken this assignment himself. He wasn't sure if he'd volunteered to torture himself or because he thought he could comfort her, but he was here nonetheless. He watched her dance a while longer before making himself known.

“Kat,” he called.

Her lithe movements stopped abruptly. “Mason? What are you doing he–” she broke off. After the last time she saw him, she knew he wasn't here for her, he was here on behalf of the bank. “Oh.”

“I can't hold them off any longer,” he apologized as he walked toward her. Quietly he added, “I just wish you'd let me pay it.”

She crossed her arms under her full breasts. “Mason,” she began in her most censuring tone, “we've been through this before.”

Their last conversation was one he wouldn't soon forget. He'd offered to pay off her mortgage at the most inopportune time–while naked in her bed–and had lost her because of it. He searched her face as he pinned her with his espresso gaze. “Why can't you just accept my help?”

She turned away from him. “I just can't!”

“Why not?” He threw his hands in the air as he made his way to her. “It's not payment for services rendered. This is so much different than that.”

Brows raised, she turned toward him. “Different how?”

He blew out a sigh. “I... I can't bear to see you lose something you love so much.”

She looked at him, the epitome of the town golden boy with his perfectly styled caramel hair, handmade grey suit, and his Italian leather shoes. She knew firsthand the mouthwatering body those impeccable clothes covered was honed by plenty of tennis, sailing, and daily workouts in his home gym. He was, in a word, perfect. She knew he had more than enough money to save the studio, and that was the problem. She didn't want him for that. Worse, she didn't want anyone to think she wanted him for that. She refused to sully him with her issues.

Mason watched her stare at him as if she were memorizing him, committing him to memory. No way. She wasn't going anywhere. “Kat? Say something,” he begged, hoping she would break her silence. It was no hardship staring at her, far from it, in fact. Today she was in a wrap style dress that accentuated her hourglass figure, the purple doing great things for her light blue eyes. Her black hair was pulled away from her face into a messy ponytail, and her mouth, oh, the things she could do with that mouth.

Yeah, he more than liked looking at her, but right now he needed her to say something. “Kat?” he said again, a crack in his voice.

She held up a hand. “It's okay. I know why you're here. I know I'm losing this place. I know I have to move,” she said, her tone even and quiet.

“No!” he barked. “It's not okay.” He crossed the floor to pull her into his arms.

“Dammit, Kat, it's not okay.” He crushed her to him then, taking her lips in a hard kiss. “You're not leaving. I won't let you.”

She tore from his arms, her cornflower blue eyes flashing like gas flames. “You cannot tell me what to do, Mason Everett. You gave up that right when you hid me from your family. I may not be good enough for you, but I don't deserve to be treated like a dirty little secret.”

He opened his mouth to speak, closing it just as quickly. That's what she thought? “You thought I was hiding you? That I was ashamed of you?” He let out a bitter laugh. “I was trying to protect you.”

She stalked away from him, heels clicking on the hardwood. “Protect me?” She stopped, turned to face him fully. “From what?”

He shook his head. “Priscilla.”

“You dated Priscilla in high school,” she said, her face a mask of confusion.

Something he regretted to this day. “She's run off every woman I've dated since.” He reached out to touch her, but stopped short. “I couldn't let her get to you, I didn't want to lose you.”

She made a disgusted sound. “That's rich. You didn't trust me enough to stand by you when someone else staked a claim on you–”

“You don't understand,” he cut her off. “She's ruthless.” Kat gave him a disbelieving look and he elaborated, “She pulled the old Visine trick. Mel was sick for a couple days.”

Her jaw dropped. “That's what happened to Melanie Andrews?” She shook her head. “She told me not to get involved with you when I choreographed her wedding dance.”

“That was almost two years ago.”

She shrugged. “She knew I had a thing for you.”

“I have a thing for you, too,” he echoed with a smirk, taking a step toward her.

“Wait.” She held up a hand to stave off his advance. “Why hasn't anyone done anything about Priscilla?”

“We couldn't prove it.” He lifted a shoulder. “What should I have done? Priscilla is one of my sister's best friends.”

God, she'd missed him. She had tried to be strong, had avoided anywhere he might have been for almost two weeks for fear of seeing him. She'd thought he was ashamed of her, but he'd hidden their relationship to protect her from Priscilla? Priscilla McClaren would blow away in a stiff wind and seemed as sweet as honey. Well, sweet as honey until you crossed her. She was famous for her tantrums, spoiled princess that she was, and Kat could understand Mason's reticence to a point. She sucked in a long breath, letting it out slowly as he watched her. Oh how she still wanted him with every fiber of her being, but if this was going to work, he had to trust her. She closed the gap between them, laying a hand on his forearm. “I can take it, Mason. If you want this to work, if you want me to let you help me. If you want...” she trailed off.

“I want,” he promised.

“Then no hiding.”

“No hiding,” he agreed before pulling her into a kiss.

She felt so good in his arms, her curves flush against him. He could kiss her for days and not get enough. He'd known Priscilla was scaring off his girlfriends for years, and hadn't really cared. With Kat everything was different. He couldn't lose her, couldn't let her be driven away. So, he'd hidden their relationship. He kissed her again, sliding his hands into her hair, dislodging her ponytail and savoring the feel of it through his fingers. When he broke the kiss, he took a step back to look into her eyes. “Never, never let anyone make you think I'm ashamed of you.”

She shook her head slightly, the black silk of her hair brushing the tops of her breasts. “You're the town golden boy, Mason. The oldest son of one of the richest families in town.” She looked down. “I'm a woman about to lose her livelihood, who's deep in debt.”

“So?” he asked, his caramel brows furrowed.

“So?” She pulled from his arms, threw her own out in a helpless gesture. “Mason, I am... God. I am completely and totally in love with you.” She turned around then, her voice quiet as she said, “I am not a gold-digger.”

His arms were around her before she'd finished her statement. “Of course you're not. I know you're not.” He spun her around to face him. “I love you, too. I was going to ask you to marry me after I offered to pay off this place,” he paused at her shocked expression. “That didn't quite work out how I'd planned it.”

Her mouth opened and closed a few times before she found her voice. “You were?”

“I was.” He grinned at her then. “What would you have said?”

“I would have thought you just wanted to save me.” She sighed. “You'd just promised to make all my financial troubles go away.”

He shook his head. “I only wanted to help.”

She went up on her toes to kiss him, her eyes sparkling. “Is the offer still open?”

“Until you say yes, the offer is there,” he promised as he tightened his hold on her.

She gave him a mischievous smile before she said, “Good to know.”

He laughed. “Good to know? Good to know? I lay my heart at your feet and you say, 'Good to know'?”

She kissed him again. “Also, yes.”

“Thank God.”

~*~

Stepping away from her was one of the hardest things he'd done in a while. Willing his erection into submission, he dropped a soft kiss on her lips. “I have to go back. I have a meeting.”

Had she really just agreed to marry him? “I have a class in less than an hour.” If he didn't go now, she'd jump him.

“Come home with me tonight.” He softly kissed her again. “Please.”

“I don't think I can wait that long,” she murmured.

He gave her a slow, sexy, panty-melting smile. “You will come home with me every night.” He kissed her fully then, his hand finding its way back into her hair. “Oh, you will come,” he promised, “after dinner at my parent's.”

That jerked her out of her hormone-induced buzz. “What?”

“It's Thursday. Cassidy, Camryn and Caleb will be there too.”

She briefly wondered why all his siblings had names that began with C, but pushed the thought away. Tilting her head, she asked, “Earlier today I thought you were ashamed of me, and now you want me to come to family dinner?”

“Yes,” he answered with a sharp nod. “I'll pick you up at six.”

She flashed a nervous smile. “I guess you will.”

~*~

She changed from her purple wrap dance dress into a more sophisticated blue silk sheath paired with a pair of silver ankle-strap stilettos. She'd curled her long black hair and artfully applied her makeup. She knew she looked good on the outside even if her stomach was a butterfly sanctuary.

True to his word, he arrived at six, still dressed in his immaculate grey suit, pale blue shirt, and blue and grey striped tie. He looked gorgeous and she realized she'd chosen her dress to coordinate with him. She couldn't help it, she laughed.

“You're laughing?”

“We match!” she exclaimed through her fit of nervous giggles.

His eyes traveled slowly down her body, snagging on all the good places. “You look wonderful, Katerina,” he said, his voice rough.

She swallowed. “We match, Mason. We look like we're trying too hard.”

“You were made for me, babe. Matching or not won't change that.”

She heaved a sigh, pushing her breasts high against the square neckline of her dress. “Remember that later,” she warned.

He tucked her into the passenger side of his silver Audi coupe, kissing her briefly before making his way around the car. “My family really isn't that bad,” he said as they drove the short distance to the Everett estate.

“One sister is a prosecuting attorney, the other is a Broadway actress, and your brother is a doctor.” She ticked his siblings off on her fingers as she listed professions. “And you,” she pointed at him,“you are the Executive Vice President of Tyler Central Banking.”

He chuckled. “I, I am the Executive Vice President of Tyler Central Banking,” he mimicked, “because my last name is Everett and NationBank thought it best to keep me on when they bought us out.”

“You have an MBA,” she protested.

“So does everyone else.” They stopped at a light and he turned to look at her. “My family is wealthy, that's just the truth, but they're not going to look down at you.”

“You're a banker, your father is a banker.” She blew out a breath as she tossed her right hand out, hitting the window. “Ow. Look, I am in debt up to my eyeballs, my mother is in prison, and I don't have a father.”

He jerked the wheel at her revelation about her mother. “Your mother's in jail?”

“I haven't seen her in years, but yeah. She was convicted of embezzling and fraud.” She blew out another breath. “You don't want to be with me.”

“Yes I do,” he bit out. “You are not your mother, you are not your debt. You are Katerina Nemecek, ballroom champion, owner of Dance With Me, and the love of my life.”

“You see it that way, but will anyone else?” She tapped a finger on the glass. “Or will everyone think I'm manipulating you for your money? Will they think I am a gold-digger and a whore?”

“I'll kill them if they do,” he vowed.

“Just remember I love you, Mason. I always will.”

He started to answer, but instead parked the car in his parent's circular drive before he turned to her. “I love you,” he said as he took her left hand in his, kissing her fingers as he pulled an enormous diamond ring from his pocket. “Marry me, Kat. Forget all this talk of gold-digging and just know I love you,” he promised as he slid the platinum ring on her finger.

“I do know you love me, Mason. Of course I'll marry you.” She stared at her hand for a moment. It was official. She had a diamond on her hand and was walking into Carolyn and Charles Everett's house as their future daughter-in-law. She suppressed a shudder at the thought of meeting Mason's parents, but took the hand he offered to pull her from the car. As they made their way up the pathway she let out a short bark of laughter, causing Mason to turn to her with an eyebrow raised. “Why are you the only one without a C name?” she asked.

This earned her a grin. “My mother's maiden name is Mason,” he explained. I'm the only Everett not to have a C name in a couple generations.” He laughed. “I think my dad first started dating my mom because her name was Carolyn.”

“Would we have to name our children with C names?”

“We can name our children whatever you want,” he answered with a squeeze of her hand.

It was at that precise moment the door opened, Cassidy Everett in the center of the mahogany frame. “Hi big brother. Didn't know it was date night,” she greeted, tilting her head toward Kat.

“Tonight's special, nugget.”

Cassidy shot him an exasperated look. “Really? You have to call me nugget?” She narrowed her eyes. “Special?”

“Very much so,” he answered.

“Alrighty, then,” Cassidy said, gesturing for them to come in. “It isn't every day my brother comes home with a beautiful woman.” In fact, never. He'd never brought a woman home for Thursday dinner. Cassidy looked the woman over from head to toe. She was exquisite, with a little bit of a Snow White vibe going on there, and–holy shitballs–a diamond on her engagement finger. A big-ass, I'm-marrying-Mason-Everett diamond on her hand. Quickly, she stuck out her own hand. “Since my brother is oh so wonderful at introductions, I'm Cassidy Everett.”

Kat took Cassidy's hand. “Katerina Nemecek. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Cassidy answered. Something about this woman was familiar. She tilted her head. “Do I know you?”

“I own Dance With Me. You might've seen an ad.”

She didn't think that was it, but nodded anyway. “Yes, I'm sure I have. Ballroom dancing?”

“Among other things,” Kat replied with a smile.

~*~

Doctor Caleb Everett came into the dining room at the same time Kat, Mason and Cassidy did and stopped dead in his tracks. His brother had his arm around a stunner of a woman. “Mase?” he called as he made his way over.

“Cale! I haven't seen you in almost a month. What's up with that?” Mason asked, the woman tucked to his side.

Caleb gave his brother's woman a once over. Some guys had all the luck. “I've been working. Trauma docs don't keep banker's hours,” he answered with a smirk. “You planning on introducing your lady, or do I have to do it myself?”

Mason chuckled. “Katerina Nemecek, meet my baby brother, Caleb.”

She took his outstretched hand. “Nice to meet you.”

He raised his eyebrows at his brother. “The pleasure is all mine.” Caleb held onto her long enough to watch his brother's coffee eyes heat. With a grin at Mason, he dropped her hand. “So, Katerina is the woman you've been mooning over lately?”

Mooning over? Was he that dopey? “I've asked Kat to marry me.”

A high pitched screech sounded from close by before their youngest sister appeared. “You're getting married!” She skidded to a stop, her cloud of auburn hair flying. “Mom! Dad! Mase is getting married!”

“Thanks, Cam. I don't think they heard you in China,” Mason remarked.

Camryn's yell brought the elder Everetts downstairs quickly. “What's this about getting married?” Carolyn asked as she bustled into the room.

Kat didn't know what to do. She was used to being the center of attention when she was dancing or teaching, but she felt a little like a butterfly pinned to a board beneath the collective gaze of Mason's family. She clutched his hand a little tighter. “I can't do this,” she whispered.

“Of course you can, they'll love you,” he assured her before turning to his family. “Meet Katerina Nemeck. I just asked her to marry me today,” he met five pairs of eyes before continuing, “and I know you'll love her just as much as I do.”

Carolyn placed a hand on her chest. “Honey, we didn't know you were seeing anyone.”

“We kept it quiet.” He pulled Kat tightly against his side. “Until now.”

“Well, boy, you've sure picked a pretty one,” Charles praised. “Now, let's eat.”

Really? That was all? She'd practically wet herself, and that was all. Mason's family was much more accepting than she'd expected. But they didn't know about her yet. Didn't know about her mother, didn't know about her debt. She prayed they would still be as accepting when they found out. She knew it was just a matter of time before they did.

~*~

Dinner was less formal than she'd expected, with Camryn regaling them with tales from Broadway, Caleb talking animatedly about the ER, and Cassidy telling them what she could about her latest case. Charles had spent much of the week on the golf course, and Carolyn was planning the Thanksgiving parade. They were all integral parts of the community. Wealthy, yet unpretentious. Kat found herself liking Mason's family and hoping that wouldn't change when her past came out.

“You own a dance studio?” Carolyn asked, drawing Kat into the conversation.

“Yes, Dance With Me. We've been open about three years now.” She swallowed the lump in her throat and decided she should lay everything out there. “I have to admit, I've run into some financial troubles in the last year or so.”

That perked Cassidy up. “What kind of troubles?”

“Nothing we can't handle,” Mason answered.

Kat shot him a look before she answered Cassidy herself. “Enrollments are down from previous years. I have to admit I'm behind on the mortgage.” She saw three mouths open to say something, but she forged on, “I love Mason. I'd love him if he had nothing, I–”

She was cut off by Charles' laughter. “Girl, no one here thinks you're after the boy's money.”

The widening of Cassidy's eyes showed that maybe she had, but she didn't say anything. Mason pinned his sister with a glare as he told them all, “Kat broke up with me a little while ago because I offered to pay her debts for her.”

This time it was Carolyn's laughter that bubbled up. She grabbed her husband's arm. “Charlie, tell her the story.”

Charles shook his head. “You tell it much better, buttercup.”

The collective groan of their four children made Kat giggle. “The story?” she asked, leaning toward her soon to be mother-in-law.

“Forty years ago, Charlie and I were high school sweethearts. His father hated me because I was from, well, we Masons weren't from the same “class” as the Everetts,” she began, complete with air-quotes. “Charlie told his father he could either accept that I was going to be his wife or he could stick it in his ear.” She stopped to shoot a smile at her husband, and Kat knew Charles had used much harsher language. “Curtis Everett kicked Charlie out and cut him off.”

The four Everett children, who had grown up with this story and the, 'You are no better than anyone else, and don't you forget it,' lectures looked slightly bored, but Kat gasped. “He kicked him out? What did you do?”

Carolyn flashed an indulgent smile before continuing. “We made do. His father didn't kick Charlie out completely. No, he made him work as a teller, a janitor, and absolutely every other job at the bank. I supported us for a long while, first as a receptionist at Kendrick & Gleason, eventually working my way up to Mr. Kendrick's executive assistant.”

“How many years until you were,” she stopped, searched for a word with no luck, “un-cut off?”

“When Charlie finished his degree in finance, the gift from his parents was to reinstate him in the will. It had taken six years of Charlie taking classes whenever he could to finish, and it turns out that made Curtis Everett proud.” She paused, her gaze resting on each of her children before finishing, “It wasn't long before Charlie was running the bank, and we had children running around the house.”

She shook her head in disbelief. “So, so... You really don't care?”

“Do you love my brother?” Caleb asked.

“With everything I am,” she answered earnestly.

“Then, that's good enough for us,” Camryn declared.

The whole table nodded in agreement, but Kat noticed Cassidy wasn't quite as accepting as the rest of the family. She wondered briefly if that had something to do with her mother, but decided not to dump everything into the Everett's laps at once. Small doses. Her mother wasn't due out for ages and she was all the way in Richmond.