Astrid by K.D. Robichaux

Chapter One

“And plié,then relevé… that’s it, girls! Up on those tippy toes. Good job,” I call out over the music playing from the stereo system in my ballet studio. “Now take your booow. Aaand… lift.” All their little cherub faces come back into view as my tiny ballerinas strike their final pose at the end of the routine they’ve been practicing for months for their recital coming up next week.

I clap for them, startling a bit when applause also sounds from behind me, and I spin toward the door. I grin when I see my sister Twyla and my brother-in-law Seth there, and I glance at my watch, surprised it’s already nearly 7:00 p.m. Time flies when I’m teaching these little ones. They’re so much fun, and I hope to have a whole brood of my own one day.

I glance to where Josy is sleeping in her carrier next to the wall of mirrors a few feet away from me. My husband Neil and I became proud parents almost six months ago, and we couldn’t be happier. If someone told me five years ago that I would be married to the most loving, handsome, intelligent, and incredible man to ever grace this planet, I would’ve laughed in their freaking face. Because five years ago, my sister hadn’t come to steal me away in the middle of the night from my horrible, abusive ex-boyfriend yet, and it would’ve taken a lobotomy and several exorcisms to turn him into any of those positive traits.

At that time, I never would’ve believed I could make it as far as I’ve come. I had been broken down and beaten, literally, isolated from every friend I ever had, and with my parents having moved across the country, that only left Twyla, my brilliant little sister, as my only ally. Although she was busy most of the time being a genius chemical engineer, she still made time to visit me a couple of times a month, and it was during one of those visits the truth came out. A tight hug goodbye made her aware of the slashes across my back that went all the way down to the backs of my knees. Brandon’s handywork with an extension cord.

And that’s when Twyla decided enough was enough. Because after nearly a decade in that relationship, I had given up on life. I was so far gone that I didn’t even daydream of a better existence anymore.

Thanks to countless sessions with my wonderful therapist husband, I rarely even think back to the time before that night Twyla showed up in the dead of night while Brandon wasn’t at home. I threw my meager belongings into her trunk and hopped in the passenger seat, and when we were hours away and forced to stop for gas, we finally pulled out our dad’s old road map, closed our eyes, and picked a spot. We let Fate decide where to take us, and homegirl did not disappoint.

Twyla and I both ended up finding our soul mates where we landed, the two men on this earth who were truly meant to be ours. And they just happened to be best friends. More like brothers really. And they had secrets of their own, secrets they entrusted us with and that we keep to this very day.

On the outside, Dr. Neil Walker and Seth Owens, along with their colleagues Corbin Lowe and Brian Glover, are the owners of a legitimate private security firm named Imperium Security. On the side, behind closed—dungeon—doors, they are also the co-owners of Club Alias, a high-end, members-only BDSM club. But the real secret, the one we will keep past our dying breath, is that they are a mercenary team. They have a code—a life for a life—and never break it. They don’t kill anyone who hasn’t taken an innocent’s life. Their specialty: Vengeance for the families of sexual assault victims who didn’t make it out alive.

Yeah, Fate has quite the sense of humor. Two girls from California who hadn’t done much living, and we were tossed into a world of vigilantes and sex clubs. It’s like we’re living in an episode of SVU or Criminal Minds or something. But hey, at least we got our happily ever after. Sure, it took some fucked-up situations to get here—really, really fucked up—but that’s all in the past.

“Daddy!” my niece, Luna, squeals as she takes off toward Seth in her little ballet shoes. He squats just in time for her flying leap into his arms, and Twyla beams next to them as he leans Luna over to give her mom a kiss hello. As they step farther into the studio, I see the rest of the parents behind them who are ready to pick up their kiddos.

My family hangs out next to Josy in her carrier until everyone else leaves, and when I call out a final goodbye to my last little munchkin, I spin around in my own ballet slippers to face my sister. “You sure you’re up for it? She’s still not sleeping all the way through the night. She demands a bottle at exactly two o’clock on the dot—”

“And after she chugs it down like a frat boy with a Solo cup at a house party, she goes right back to sleep and doesn’t make a peep until eight. Doc already told me,” Seth cuts in. “You ain’t got nothin’ to worry about, sis. We’ve got this.”

I let out a huff of laughter and wipe my brow with the back of my hand. “I’m sorry. I know you do. It’s just… this is our first night away from her.”

“Do you not remember the first time you kept Luna overnight for us?” Twyla asks, her eyes wide behind her thick-framed glasses.

I chuckle then. “Yeah, you were the conductor of the Hot Mess Express that evening. But you made it through, so I guess I will too.”

Seth sets Luna on her feet so she can take Twyla’s hand, then grabs a hold of the handle of Josy’s car seat. Josy peeks one eye open for only a moment before making a little squishy face and going right back to sleep. “Doc said he had an evening patient and will be done around nine. He picking you up here, or are you meeting him at home? Because you can’t be going out on your first real date in over six months dressed like that,” he says, eyeing my leggings and my purple T-shirt that says Astrid Walker School of Dance across my chest in gold glitter.

I roll my eyes. “He’s picking me up, but I brought all my stuff to get ready here, butthole.”

He glances at my messy bun, which I’m sure looks super shiny, but not in the pretty, extra-healthy pregnancy glow kind of way it once had. It’s grease. Lots and lots of grease, and maybe even some baby formula, and sweat from working my ass off in barre at the gym and then teaching three hours of dance classes in the evenings.

“You going to make use of that handy-dandy shower we installed?” he asks.

Aside from my dance studio, I also have a room in the back where I do professional makeup. I got my certification a couple years ago in cosmetology, but I lost a lot of my passion for it after an unfortunate event at a strip club. Doing it as a job was way different than doing it as a hobby I enjoyed. Instead, I do it by appointment for special occasions only, so I get to pick and choose when I want to do someone’s makeup. I also do the stage makeup for all our girls for competitions and recitals. Rather than having just a sink in my Babe Cave, as Brian’s wife Clarice dubbed it, I had them put in a whole shower. Clarice is a professional photographer, and when she asked if I could possibly do body paint for some of her photo shoots, I knew a sink wouldn’t do.

“Yes, Dad. I have almost two hours to scrub and primp. I think I’m looking forward to that as much as the date itself,” I say with a little laugh, and it’s sad how true that is. I haven’t taken a lot of time to take care of myself aside from my daily workouts. I’ve been too busy being a boss-ass bitch, running my own businesses, and being a helicopter mama. I wear the title proudly. Ain’t nothing bad ever going to happen to my baby girl. I lived enough of that for the both of us.

Don’t get me wrong. My husband spoils me rotten by letting me sleep in every morning while he wakes up with Josy. And he’s on daddy duty until his first appointment of each day. He’s the one who always gives the baby her 2:00 a.m. bottle so I can sleep a solid eight hours. And when he’s not at work, every minute is spent doting on me and our baby. It’s me who chooses not to waste any time away from my husband and little one on unimportant things like getting dolled up and… hygiene.

Ugh. I cringe as I think it.

I guess I’m just now realizing how gross I actually am most of the time, because Neil makes sure with every breath he takes that I know he believes I’m perfect in his eyes. I have no doubt he thinks I hung the moon, just as I’m positive he hung the stars. After all this time, he still calls me his goddess. So I never really put much thought into the fact that my poor husband went from having a woman who did a full face of makeup, styled her long blonde hair, and dressed to kill every single day after he helped me heal, to this… swamp creature currently staring back at me from the wall of floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

My hand lifts to swipe down some flyaways, and I grimace when they slick down with the amount of sweat and oil currently sitting on my scalp. “I’m… going to bathe now,” I say woodenly, turning my “ew” face to my sister, who is biting her bottom lip, holding back a giggle I know she wants to let loose.

“Have fun tonight,” Seth says, smacking a kiss to my cheek. When he pulls back, he’s wearing his own grimace as he licks his lips. “Sis, you taste like room-temperature vodka.”

I snort, replying with my own take on a David Rose quote. “I plan on shampooing thrice so that I may wash the motherhood out of my hair.”

“Oh!” My sister raises her hand. “Schitt’s Creek!” she calls out, looking at her husband for approval.

He grins. “You got it, doll,” he tells her, looking proud of our once workaholic Twy, who couldn’t name a single pop culture reference if her life depended on it. But once she hooked up with Seth, who spoke fluently in movie and television quotes, that all changed.

When Luna tugs on Twyla’s hand and whines that she’s hungry, I smile and lean down to press a gentle kiss to Josy’s chubby little cheek. Stepping back, I give the four of them a wave and then head for the back room, knowing Seth will lock up the studio.