My stomach plummeted.
“Are you joking?”
The whites around her mouth told me she wasn’t. She was in a full panic.
“In her playpen. She’s fine. I have a few more bags to grab, then we’re done.”
“I got the bags. Emily, grab Nova.” Ricci touched my arm. “You do a run-through of the house, make sure you have everything you need. You might not be able to come back for a long time.”
I knew. God, I so knew.
All three of us broke off, going to do what we were assigned.
My heart was in my mouth as I went from room to room. I heard Nova starting to cry, and my heart stretched going to her, but I was the only one who could make sure everything I needed was packed.
We were finishing up. Emily had Nova in my car, and she was behind her steering wheel, white in the face.
Ricci was panting when I met her at the doorway. “You got everything?”
“I—” I’d already packed all my dancing stuff, but there was a picture in there I needed that was irreplaceable. “The studio.”
Ricci swore. “Okay.” She tightened her hold on the bag she was carrying. “I’m sending Emily ahead, then I’ll pull my car around to the studio. You go and look through it now.”
Ricci went out the back door. I shut it behind her, then turned to sprint through the front door and across the lawn to my studio. I was crashing through the door as I heard gravel under tires.
Turning, I felt my entire body seizing up, but it was Emily driving my car.
Oh, thank God.
I waved as she went past.
She gave me a jerky wave back, and I could see her arms trembling, but she kept going.
She kept going. That was all that was important right now.
Ricci wouldn’t be long behind her.
I needed to make this fast.
When I was inside, I had a moment.
Everything slowed, though I was moving at the same pace.
I could hear my heartbeat thundering in my ears, and a wave of emotions rose. They were in my chest, my throat, they were spilling out of me.
I had danced in this room since I was eight years old.
When I was six, I started dancing, then Duke had this built because I was voracious in my appetite. He was tired of hearing my tapping shoes through the house. I stood there, the mirrors surrounding me on the wall chambers, and I had memory after memory blasting me.
My hand on the barre.
My first tutu.
The first time I stood on my toes.
The icing of my toes.
The pile of hairpins on the floor.
The sports tape.
The instructors I had. So many. They came in, they exited, and I had another who would comply with my father until they spoke against him. Then a new one would come, and it would repeat over and over throughout my life.
I had my thirteenth birthday party here.
Then my summers between after I went to a dance school.
My summers during college.
My holidays during college.
I grew up in this room, almost more than I grew up in the house.
This was my house.
The loft above where I did everything. The nights I slept there.
The days I napped there.
When I laid and listened to music.
I made out with a few boys up there, too.
Then the days I had Nova in here with me.
Her high shrieks filled the room. Her giggles.
Her crawling. Then her walking. Then her running.
I was crying as the time came back to me, and I knew there was really only one thing I needed from this room. I grabbed the picture of Nova in her first tutu for a baby. I held her hands as she walked wearing that tutu, and Emily had taken the photograph.
Ricci was waiting for me, scanning my face as I walked to her SUV.
“You ready?” she asked as I got inside.
We would be fine.
I felt it in my bones.
A calm settled over me.
I would freak out in a minute, but for now, there was a deep feeling this was right.
I nodded. “I’m ready.”
Aspen was next to me when the nanny showed up first. She pulled into the driveway, and we waited.
We waited some more.
Aspen shifted. “She’s never been here before?”
I moved forward. “Right. I’ll go and help.”
Aspen moved with me, passing me, and as we both approached what I could now recognize as Quincey’s car, the lady driving was definitely not Quincey. I knew the plan. Aspen stood in front of the car, the headlights still on and blasting her. She waved, wearing a tentative smile.
I knocked on the passenger window, leaning down.
The lady looked scared out of her mind. Her hands were shaking, but she rolled the window down.
She moved her head up and down, her hand going back to gripping the steering wheel.
I looked at the back seat, seeing Nova there. “This is my sister.” I nodded toward Aspen, who was probably the closest person to define what an angel on Earth looked like. She was soft and warm and smiling, and people generally melted into puddles at just meeting Aspen. “If you’d like, she’ll take Nova in? I’ll carry all the bags. You can go in with her and start to get settled in?”
Aspen was still smiling, but now rocking on her feet. Her blond hair up in a braid and without make-up she looked twelve.
Nova was starting to cry.
I moved to the back door, but the nanny cried out, “Wait! I—”
Aspen was starting to come around to my side. We both paused.
The nanny seemed frozen in place, staring at us. Her eyes were as big as saucers. “Can I…I know you’re Nova’s father, but can I take Nova inside?”
I eyed her. She didn’t look able to stand on her own.
“Um. How about you try carrying your purse first? I swear my sister is safe.” The reassurance sounded outrageous, but I’d been cautioned what to expect from this move. Duke Royas was the peak definition of a narcissist. Those leaving him might feel as if they were leaving an abuser at some point, and at that moment, I believed what I’d been told. This nanny was so frightened, she looked ready to piss herself.
“No. I—” She turned the car off and was scrambling to get out.