The longer Zayn stares at the computer screen, the deeper his frown gets.
“What?” I ask, my heart beating an irregular rhythm against my ribcage.
He shakes his head. “The pictures. They’re everywhere.”
I told the lads about the magazine and Allie’s overprotective dad yesterday, after I got back from breakfast. They were concerned, but not overly so; they thought the odds of her dad finding that exact magazine and scouring its pages thoroughly enough to see those two small pictures were too slim to make much of a fuss over. I tried to tell myself that what they said made sense, but I worried about Allie all day long, right up until I went to sleep. The boys kept asking me why I was taking it so badly, but I couldn’t find the words to explain it. Something about the bright fear that showed through her eyes when she looked at that magazine just didn’t sit right.
I didn’t feel much better when I woke up this morning. Starting to get frustrated with my mood, Zayn pulled out his laptop to check the Internet and prove to me that the pictures weren’t that big a deal.
“Twitter’s exploding,” Liam adds, scrolling on his phone. “Everyone wants to know who she is.”
“‘Who’s That Girl With Niall’ is trending,” Harry says, looking at his own phone.
I groan and throw my head against the back of the chair.
“He’s sure to hear about it now,” I say.
“Niall, look,” Louis says matter-of-factly, “did Allie ever actually say what her dad would do if he found out about you two hanging out?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Then why are you worrying? She’ll probably just get a lecture or something. No big deal,” Louis says.
I just shake my head. “If you saw the look on her face when she saw those pictures,” I say, “you’d be worried too.”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Zayn says, closing his laptop. “If the fans already know—”
“Maybe it’ll die down,” Liam says. “If a few days go by and there aren’t any new pictures or rumors or anything, everyone’ll just forget about it.”
“I’m supposed to see Allie today,” I say.
“Just don’t let anyone see you, then,” Harry says.
“This is LA, people are everywhere.”
“Well, sneak around or something.”
I’m about to ask how exactly I’m supposed to do that when my phone starts ringing. The caller ID says: Management.
My stomach drops. This can’t be good.
“Hello?” I say, putting the phone to my ear.
“Niall,” says a man’s voice. I don’t recognize it, but that’s nothing new. The men who actually make up Management change so often I can’t keep track of their names anymore.
“Hello,” I say again.
“I’m Mr. Norris, Niall. I’m from Management.”
“Yeah, I figured,” I say.
I raise my eyebrows at his overly-friendly, too-cheerful tone; the lads raise their eyebrows too when they see my expression. “Good,” I say.
“I’m glad to hear it. Listen, Niall, it’s late here in London, so I’ll just get straight to the point. There are some pictures floating around of you and a girl. You’ve seen them, I assume?”
My stomach sinks even lower. “Yeah, I’ve seen them.”
“Ah. Good. Well, Niall, you see, those pictures have brought up a bit of a problem. People are starting to think—well. There are rumors that you two are dating.”
“Well, we’re not,” I say. The words send a strange sort of ache through my chest.
“See, Niall, you say that, and I believe you. But the fans—well, they’re harder to convince.”
I frown. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that maybe you should…take it easy with this girl.”
I frown even further. “Meaning?”
“Meaning—Niall, can I be blunt with you?”
“Sure, Mr. Norris.”
“Well, then I guess what I mean to say is—don’t date this girl. In fact, it’d be best if you stopped seeing her altogether, now that I—”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Norris,” I interrupt, “but you want me to do what?”
“You have to understand how important appearances are in this business, Niall,” Mr. Norris says. “And for you to even look like you might possibly have a girlfriend, let alone if you actually had one—well, it’s bad for the morale of the fans. And the morale of the fans needs to stay up so they stay interested in the band, and buy merchandise, and you five still have a career. See what I mean?”
“But we’ve all had girlfriends before. It’s never been a problem.”
“Well, things are different now, aren’t they?” Mr. Norris says in an overly-patient tone. “You five are in America now. American fans don’t like it when their favorite pop stars have girlfriends. And British fans don’t like it when pop stars from their home turf date American girls.”
“Listen, Niall, there really isn’t much to discuss here. Don’t date her. Try not to see her at all. Okay?”
“She’s my friend,” I say, frowning even more. “I’m not just going to dump her because you say so.” Bad word choice. That makes it sound like you really are dating.
“Then be discreet about it, for heaven’s sake,” Mr. Norris says. “Don’t get photographed with her again, and don’t let her distract you from your work. Your career is the most important thing right now. Don’t throw it away for some girl whose name you won’t even remember a year from now.”
My hand clenches around my phone.
“Thanks for the advice, Mr. Norris, I’ll keep it in mind,” I say through clenched teeth. I hang up the phone, my blood pounding so loud in my ears that I almost don’t hear Louis ask, “What was that all about?”
“That was Management,” I say, my teeth still clenched, “telling me to stay away from Allie.”
“Because it’s bad for our image.” I can’t help the angry edge that creeps into my voice.
“Let me guess,” Harry says. “You’re not going to listen to them?”
“Nope,” I say. “I’m not.”
“Niall, you’re going to get yourself in trouble,” says Liam.
“I’ll be careful, alright?” I say, trying not to snap at him. Why doesn’t anybody get it? I’m not just going to drop Allie because Management says so. I haven’t even known her for a week, but she already means far more to me than that.
Madame Garcia sighs very loudly as I fall during the twenty-fifth fouette. “Again, Allie.”
The command might as well be a death sentence. Every square inch of my body feels like it’s on fire; the bruised parts—my back, my arms, my stomach, my face—scream in protest to the extreme exercise I’m putting them through. I knew from the moment I woke up this morning that it was going to be a rough rehearsal; even after sleeping for eleven hours, my whole body felt stiff and sore from the impact of my dad’s angry hands on my skin. It doesn’t help that it’s nearly a hundred degrees out today and I’m wearing a long-sleeved navy blue shirt over my leotard—the bruises on my back and arms were far too obvious to cover up with makeup; as it is, I practically had to paint my face with foundation to hide my black eye.
I put my feet in fifth position and force my aching back to straighten. Sweat drips down from my forehead and drops silently to the floor. I try not to pull at the sleeves of my shirt. Sam and the other girls have already given me plenty of grief about wearing it; I don’t need to draw any more attention to myself. At least there are only two minutes left in rehearsal. Then all the girls will leave and I’ll be able to ice my muscles a bit and wipe some of the sweat from my face before Niall gets here.
Niall. The thought of dancing any longer makes me dizzy. But I can’t cancel—he’d suspect something. I’m just going to have to push through and hope for the best.
“On my count,” says Madame Garcia. “5, 6, 7, 8, and—”
I’m spinning on my toes again, my eyes spotting the exit sign, my working leg extending out and in again as I turn. But my breath is coming in labored gasps now, the effort of trying to stay balance too much for my exhausted body; my eyes drop to the ground for a second as I try to gather my breath, and in the instant that I stop spotting, my ankle buckles and I fall again. I didn’t even make it to 20 fouettes. My cheeks burn. I haven’t done that badly in weeks.
Madame Garcia sighs again. She glances at the clock. It’s exactly 3 o’clock.
“Well, I guess that’s it for today. See all of you tomorrow,” she says. Her voice is tired and disappointed.
The other girls all run off and immediately start untying the ribbons on their pointe shoes, chatting and laughing together, but I follow Madame Garcia as she walks out the studio door to the lobby.
“Excuse me? Madame Garcia?”
She stops and turns to look at me. “Yes, Allie?”
“I was wondering if I could stay in the studio for a bit,” I say hesitantly, “to practice my fouettes a bit.”
She sighs. “Sure. I daresay you need it. But don’t stay past 5, a Hawaiian dance class rents the space then.”
I ignore the slight to my dancing ability. “Of course,” I say.
Madame Garcia leaves the studio a couple of minutes later. The girls take a bit longer to take off their pointe shoes and put on their regular clothes over their leotards and tights and pull the hairnets and bobby pins from their hair, but after fifteen minutes or so, most of them are gone, too. Sam is the last to leave.
“You coming?” she asks before she walks out the door.
“Nah, I’m gonna stay a bit longer. Practice those stupid fouettes,” I say, massaging my sore foot. I didn’t even tell Sam about Niall meeting me here. Maybe I’ll tell her about it tomorrow. If I don’t completely embarrass myself.
“Alright. Don’t overwork yourself, okay?”
“I won’t, I promise.”
“See you tomorrow, then.”
“See you tomorrow.”
“And take off that long-sleeved shirt before you get heat stroke!” Sam calls.
I laugh and find myself pulling at the sleeves of my shirt again. I can hear Sam’s footsteps as she walks down the stairs, and then the creak of the door as it opens and closes. I’m alone in the building now; I could take the shirt off if I wanted and nobody would see the bruises. But I’m afraid that if I pull it off now, I won’t have the strength to put it back on before Niall comes.
I lean against the back wall and close my eyes, breathing slowly and deeply. What I wouldn’t give to be at home in bed right now, the ceiling fan whirring above me and one of my CDs playing and my mattress cradling my battered limbs.
Don’t think about that, Allie, I tell myself. It’ll only make you feel worse.
I wipe some sweat from my forehead; my hairline feels sticky and damp. Geez, it’s hot. I feel like someone’s taken a wool blanket and is just pressing it on my skin, suffocating me, keeping all my body heat trapped in my pores—
There’s the creak of the door again, and then footsteps walking up the stairs.
Niall. Quickly, I scramble to my feet and run over to the barre. I prop my foot on it and do a few slow plies, both trying to look like I’ve been dancing this entire time instead of just sitting on the floor and to stretch out my stiff muscles. The simple exercise, though, only seems to make the pain worse. I have to work very hard to keep from grimacing as I bend my knee.
“That looks horrible,” Niall says.
I turn my head and see him standing in the doorway, his eyebrows raised and a skeptical expression on his face. The sight of him brings a surprisingly easy smile to my face, despite the pain.
“It’s a pretty simple stretch, actually,” I say, gently lifting my leg off the barre. Wow, my legs hurt.
“Ha. I doubt I could even lift my leg that high,” he says, taking a few more steps into the room. He looks around, observing the posters of famous ballerinas tacked to the wall, the stereo system in the corner, the mirrors against the back wall, the barre stretching around the entire perimeter of the room. “So this is where you come for three hours every day?”
“Yup,” I say, walking over to him. My muscles are so sore that I have to put a lot of effort into simply bending my knees.
“Nice place, except for the heat,” he says, laughing as he hugs me. “How are you wearing that long-sleeved shirt? It’s miserable in here!”
“Ah, I’m okay,” I say, laughing.
Niall shakes his head. “You’re crazy.”
“Hey, if you insult my sanity, I’m going to change my mind about letting you watch me practice.”
He throws his arms in the air, like a surrender. “Fine,” he says, grinning. “Where shall I sit for this lovely rehearsal, then?”
“Oh, anywhere. It doesn’t matter.”
Niall takes a seat at a chair by the door and I walk out to the center of the dance floor. I do a couple of tondues and plies and releves, trying to delay the moment when I’ll have to dance for real. This hurts enough as it is, and I’ve got to save my strength.
“Fancy footwork, that,” he says, grinning.
“Shut up, I’m just stretching my muscles,” I say, grinning back. I do a few more tondues, then decide I can’t possibly delay any more. I put my feet in fifth position. “I’m warning you now, I’m not very good at this, so I’m probably going to make a massive fool out of myself. Okay?”
Niall rolls his eyes. “If you say so.”
I take a deep breath. I tondue, bring my foot to fourth, and then spin again, around and around and around—twenty-seven turns, twenty-eight turns, twenty-nine, thirty—
I lose my balance halfway through the 30th turn. My face is burning with embarrassment again, but Niall’s clapping very enthusiastically; the sound echoes around the studio.
“Aw, don’t clap,” I say, suddenly fighting to catch my breath again. My head is pounding. I’m so tired. “I didn’t even do that right.”
“Are you kidding? That was incredible!” Niall says. “What was that?”
“Fwe-tays,” I say, drawing the word out. “I’m supposed to do 32 of them in a row for one of my solos, but I can only do 30 of them. That’s why I’ve got to practice.”
“Well, keep practicing, then,” Niall says. “I won’t interrupt, I promise.”
I prepare again and start turning. I fall on the 30th turn and immediately try again. And again. And again. The pounding in my head is getting worse, as is the pain in my muscles; I can feel my body starting to shake from the pain of it. Sweat slides down the slides of my cheeks and the heat in my body is so intense it almost hurts. The t-shirt over my leotard feels like a straightjacket.
On my fifth try at the 32 fouettes, I can’t even make it through 5 turns. I stumble to flat feet, the sound of breathing loud in my ears.
“Allie? Are you okay?” Niall’s voice sounds like it’s coming from the end of a very long tunnel.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I mumble; I can hardly hear my own voice. I straighten up and try to put my feet back in fifth position, but pain seizes my muscles so badly that I can feel tears stinging my eyes; a wave of dizziness crashes over me and white lights pop in my vision. Suddenly I find myself sitting on the ground, fighting the urge to faint, my whole body hurting worse than ever.
I can feel Niall’s footsteps through the floorboards as he runs over to me. Before I know it he’s kneeling right beside me, one hand resting protectively on my sweaty, t-shirt-covered back.
“I’m fine,” I say, but when I raise my hand to wipe some sweat from my forehead, I find that my fingers are shaking uncontrollably.
“You’re roasting hot,” Niall says, and even in my numb state, I can hear the concern in his voice. “You’ve got to take that shirt off.”
“Niall, I’m fine,” I say. It’s somewhat true; the white lights are gone, at least, though every inch of my skin still hurts.
“No, you’re not.” Niall’s hands are suddenly on the sleeves of my shirt; he tries to lift my arms up to peel the t-shirt off, but I use what little strength I’ve got left in my body to resist.
But Niall keeps pulling, and then at last my overworked muscles give out and he lifts my arms up, pulling the sweat-soaked t-shirt away from my back. And then I’m sitting there in just my leotard and tights, and I can’t meet Niall’s eyes because he’s suddenly silent; I can feel his gaze on my arms, on the dark purple bruises there. The tears burn more fiercely in my eyes.
“Allie,” he says, “where did all these bruises come from?”
It’s over, it’s done. He knows. He must know. But I can’t bring myself to say the words aloud. I’ve never told anyone, least of all a boy I met not even a week ago.
My hands are still shaking.
“Allie,” Niall says, his voice so quiet now that I almost can’t hear it, “did your dad give those to you?”
I take a deep breath, about to calmly say yes, yes he did, that that’s just what he does—
But when I open my mouth, instead of calmly stating the truth, I burst into tears.