Raven’s muscles ached, but it was a good ache as he stood beneath the stage lights. Sweat poured down his leanly muscled torso as he gasped for breath, desperately trying to refill lungs emptied by his exertion. Still panting, he gave a low bow to the screaming audience and flinched as a rose smacked him in the face.
Despite his stinging cheek, he flashed the crowd his megawatt stage smile, the one he’d perfected as a four-year-old dancing sensation. Raven waved a hand to indicate the other dancers and, as the audience continued to clap, made a discreet exit offstage.
“You were amazing.” A starry-eyed ingénue batted her lashes at him. Why she bothered, he didn’t know. It was a universally known fact he liked men. She was probably one of those women who thought they could be the one to convert him to the other side.
“Want to go out for a bite to eat?” she asked, confident now that she’d caught his attention.
Yep, she was one of those.
“Sorry, my sweet, I’m exhausted. I’m going to change and get to bed.”
“Sure.” Her face fell, and Raven had to rein in his instinct to try and make her feel better. Experience proved consoling women at the moment led to awkward situations later.
He still had a restraining order out on the last one.
He patted the girl on her back and all but ran to his dressing room. Once safe behind the locked door, he threw himself down on the couch.
“I need a vacation,” Raven said to the empty room. For the past twenty years, he’d done nothing but dance. He’d spent the first few years of his career as a prodigy fighting to get noticed, then his next few as a young star struggling to get the best roles. Now at the age of twenty-four, he was the most sought after dancer in the galaxy. He could write his own ticket, but right now he was just tired.
Although this last production had been technically and physically challenging, Raven knew he’d lost some of his fire. The critics and the audience never noticed, but Raven felt something lacking on the inside. In this last performance of the season, he’d frantically tried to recapture his passion, but the spark that had kept him going all these years had left him. Maybe he needed to a new career.
Raven tried to envision a life without dancing but drew a blank.
What would he do if he didn’t dance? Choreograph? Direct? Raven didn’t know what his future held, but he did know he needed a vacation from both dancing and the paparazzi. The media hounds stalked him from planet to planet, hoping to catch a picture of him in questionable situations. It didn’t help that the top three galacticnet agencies had voted him the most eligible bachelor in the galaxy, every year since puberty. Even after all this time, Raven still didn’t understand the amount of fuss made over his appearance. Too much attention went to his genetic makeup instead of to his dancing.
Raven took a quick shower, donned a fresh set of clothes and slipped on a cap and pair of shades to hide his identity. Hopefully, no one would look at an average man on the street. After checking to see if the path was clear, he made his way through the side gate. No one was about. Smiling, Raven walked away from the theater and down the deserted sidewalk. The farther he traveled from the theater, the more stress slid away.
Humming a tune from the show, Raven headed toward the bright lights. Although he should be tired, his body still jittered too much from dancing to settle down for the night. Hopefully he could find some discreet, friendly company to help him wind down. Once his body relaxed, maybe his mind would stop spinning frenetically about his future like a manic toy top.
Raven smiled when bar signs flared into view but quickly lost interest when the sound of someone sobbing grabbed his attention. Curious, Raven followed the noise.
“Hello?” The crying grew louder as he approached the dark alley. He generally wasn’t an idiot who blithely walked into questionable locations in the middle of the night, but it sounded like a child. “Hello?” he called again.
Raven peered into the darkness. The dim streetlights barely reached the mouth of the alley, and he could just make out the shape of a small figure curled up on the ground. Unable to stop himself, he rushed over to the child, stumbling over something as he went.
“Hey, hey, none of that now. What’s wrong?”
A young girl looked up. Raven estimated her age at about seven years old, but it was difficult to tell in the meager light. A dim beam of light reflected shiny tears tracking down a small oval face.
“My nana is gone,” she said in a voice so heartbroken Raven had to blink back the moisture forming in his own eyes. As he crouched down, trying to soothe her, Raven’s vision adjusted to the dark, and he realized the lump he’d stumbled over was a body.
He had no doubt the dead woman was the nana the girl mentioned.
“Shh, sweetheart, I’m here,” Raven cooed. “I’ll take care of you.” He took off his hat and glasses so the little girl could see him and not be scared by a faceless stranger. He set them on the ground, then rubbed a hand across the girl’s back in a soothing gesture.
“Y-you’re R-raven,” the broken voice whispered in awe.
“You know me?”
The little girl nodded. “Nana and me, we saw your show. You were great!”
“Thank you.” Raven reached for his communicator. “What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Trisha,” Raven said. He pushed the emergency button to call the local authorities. After he explained the situation, they assured him someone would be dispatched immediately.
“Someone’s on the way to take care of you,” he told the despondent girl.
The next few minutes were the most nerve-racking of Raven’s life. He’d never had anyone rely on him before. It felt strange to take care of someone else, strange but good. He was glad he had come along to help the little girl. The thought of her left alone in a dirty alley with her dead nana broke his heart. He didn’t know what had happened to the woman on the ground, but it wasn’t his job to figure that out. In fact, his part of this whole ordeal was going to end as soon as planetary security came to pick her up.
“Security,” a deep voice boomed into the darkness.
“Over here,” Raven shouted.
Raven was momentarily blinded as a high-beamed light flashed across his eyes. He held up a hand to block the glare.
“Stand up and put your hands where I can see them,” a voice said behind the light.
Raven slowly raised both his hands but turned his head to keep from being blinded.
When the light finally pointed downward, Raven sighed. His relief was short-lived as the security officer came over to search him.
Efficient hands patted him down, the touch impersonal. The officer removed Raven’s wallet before stepping back. He pulled out Raven’s identicard. “I’m gonna run your ID. Then I want you to come back to the station and answer some questions.”
There went his dream of having a night of hot sex.
“I’ll be here.” Raven nodded his intention to cooperate and allowed the man to lead him to one of their vehicles. As he ducked his head to get into the back of the hovercar, a scream ripped through the air.
“I want Raven! No. No. No.” Her hysterical screams got louder and louder until a security officer raced over to Raven, pulling the little girl by her wrist behind him. “I’m going to have her ride back here with you.”
Raven slid onto the backseat and scooted over for the little girl. For the first time, Raven got to see what a pretty thing she was even with her blond ringlets flattened against her head and her face blotchy from tears. Cleaned up and smiling, she probably shattered little boys’ hearts all over the place.
Surprise overtook him when she scooted closer, rested her head on his chest, and wrapped her thin arms around him. Silent sobs shook her slender body while two security agents slid into the front seat of the hovercar. The driver flashed them a brief look before taking off.
Raven muttered nonsense words as he stroked the golden head, trying to figure out where along the way his night of debauchery had turned into a babysitting assignment.