A rising star in the world of ballet, Nia Washington fought her way up from the streets and was nearing the pinnacle of her profession when an injury and a broken heart derailed her career. Taking a temporary job at an elite boarding school was supposed to give her time to nurse both body and soul. It was supposed to be a safe place to launch a triumphant comeback.
Shortly after she arrives at the beautiful lakeside campus, she discovers the body of a murdered student, and her life takes a truly dark turn. It's not long before she is drawn into a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with a ruthless killer. And Nia isn't the only target. She must use all of her street smarts to protect her dancers, save a wrongfully accused student, and rescue the man she loves.
A stunning and suspenseful tale of passion and betrayal, Holahan takes readers deep into the mind of a murderer and the woman who must put an end to the killing.
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|Publisher:||CROOKED LANE BOOKS|
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The lawn glittered in the late summer sun, a shining emerald slate as uniform as Astroturf. The grass smelled real, though. Realer than real. Each inhale filled Nia’s nose with a spritz of green, more pungent than mall perfume and far sweeter than the oniony weeds back home. The lawn smelled like money.
Nia stared at the clock on the tower at the far end of the courtyard. Its short hand pointed to the Roman numeral seven. The long hand crept toward the X. He would arrive soon.
A cramp pulled at the meat between her metatarsals. She steadied herself on her good leg and folded in half to grab the throbbing joint that had spurred the contraction. Her thumbs slid beneath the clinging hem of her spandex capris. She pressed into her heel until it grew hot. The pain’s drumming slowed. Only a doctor could silence it. Until she got some real medical attention, she’d keep having bearable days and bad ones.
Today was a bad day. She blamed herself. The tendonitis always flared when she didn’t stretch. She should have risen earlier to warm up. What if the director asked to see pointe work? Could he rescind the offer if he didn’t like her performance?
An iron bench sat just to the right of the registration building. She limped to it. The metal was cool on her palms. She placed her feet in a line, heels together, toes pointed in opposite directions. She dipped into a demi-plié. Tightness trickled from her thighs. The familiarity of the move did as much good as the stretch. It was her morning coffee, a ritual that woke her body and prepared her for the day.
A breeze stirred the lawn, reassuring visitors that a school of Wallace Academy’s caliber would not accept anything as gauche as faux grass. Nia didn’t see any visitors to impress. School offices were closed. The academic buildings that flanked the courtyard remained locked. Classes didn’t start until tomorrow.
The students had arrived, though. Parents had flooded onto campus over the weekend, pouring from imported SUVs with trunks and suitcases, filling the dorms with preppy debris while their teenagers flowed between buildings in search of lost friends. She’d watched the move-in from the bay window of her new studio, which overlooked the entire courtyard. Such views were rare, reserved for so-called resident advisors, a college title intended to trick high school students into befriending the teaching assistant down the hall. But she was more of a spy than a schoolmate. The dean had been clear: she existed to keep boys out and report anyone attempting to sneak in the opposite sex during the week. She was also expected to sniff around for pot and cigarettes.
She didn’t know why the dean worried. So far, the dorm had gone quiet by eleven o’clock each night. These students weren’t nymphos or druggies. How could they be and sneak past the admissions officer? Wallace prided itself on an acceptance rate that rivaled the Ivy League schools to which it funneled graduates.
Birds trilled somewhere above her. Nia listened to their music and dropped into a grand plié, thighs and calves apart, spine straight. Her back released more tension. The throbbing in her heel subsided. She arched her arms over her head. Endorphins chased the nerves from her system. She felt loose. Confident. She rose to her toes.
Pain crackled through her leg like a string of firecrackers. Her ankle wobbled with each small explosion. Her heel crashed to the floor. A smile parted her lips. Dancers didn’t show discomfort. Fifteen years of training let her beam through cramps like the Virgin Mary in labor.
She shook her right leg. Stretching alone couldn’t soothe this pain. She needed the shot. Once the health insurance took effect, she would head straight to the orthopedist.
Footsteps tapped somewhere to her right. A svelte man, clad in black, glided toward her. The bright morning highlighted a shock of silver in his black hair. The streak was Ted Battle’s trademark and the single sign of his forty years.
An embarrassed flush heated Nia’s neck. The dance director had seen her stumble. Nerves pinched the edges of her false smile. She forced a brighter grin.
He nodded in her direction but didn’t pick up pace. She pushed back her shoulders, pulled in her abs, and angled her right foot in front of her left, a relaxed fourth position stance. She hoped her posture obscured her injury.
Battle stood before her and extended his palm, as if asking her to dance. He flashed a smile that illuminated his angular face.
She shook. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Battle.”
Glad we could talk before classes start.”
His voice sounded higher than she’d imagined. In lieu of a commanding baritone, a musical tenor emerged from the director’s lips. She detected a touch of femininity in the way his pitch climbed at the end of the sentence. Was he gay? About half of the male dancers she knew were homosexual, and Battle wasn’t married.
She admonished herself for the train of thought. Her boss’s sexual preference didn’t matter. As for herself, it had been so long that she might as well have been asexual.
Images from the last time fluttered into her mind. The seam between Dimitri’s pectorals. His shapely mouth, curled in a smile. She blinked to blur the memories. This job came with health care. She couldn’t let heartache distract her.
I regret that I didn’t interview you personally,” Battle said. Our last assistant left so abruptly that we had to fill the position while I was still in Queensland.”
Nia regained her focus. I understand she had a baby.”
Battle rolled his eyes. The expression seemed to compare maternity leave to claiming the dog had eaten your homework.
Yes. Took us all by surprise. She wasn’t married. Hid the pregnancy with baggy clothes and didn’t let anyone know she wouldn’t return until June.”
He patted the breast of his dark T-shirt, an odd gesture, as if he were feeling for glasses in a nonexistent pocket. His eyes rolled over Nia’s body, lingering for a fraction of a second on her flat stomach. The stare tempted her to blurt,
Don’t worry about me. I haven’t had sex in a year since my ex and I broke up. She swallowed the overshare, aware it was motivated by awed attraction to her handsome, successful, and likely gay boss.
I have of course seen your résumé,” Battle said. I was impressed with your training. The School of American Ballet since age ten. They don’t accept many girls, and, I expect, they take even fewer on financial aid.”
The comment stung. She knew he’d meant it as a complimentevidence that she possessed a certain skill beyond her peersbut it reminded her of things she would rather forget: used toe shoes, slapping pickles on foot-long sandwiches to afford costumes, the dubious charity from anorexic rivalsHere’s a leotard. I’m too small for it now.”
Battle’s light-brown eyes flitted from her waist to her face. They feed many girls to major companies . . .”
He trailed off, providing an opportunity for Nia to explain herself. Why was a woman her age not with an esteemed company or attending college? If not pregnant, then what, exactly, was her flaw?
Where should she start? She didn’t have a classical dancer’s ectomorph frame. Her hands could not circumvent her thighs. She possessed a stereotypical black ass” that refused to disappear, even at a scant hundred and ten pounds. Puberty had somehow swelled her chest into a full C cup that appeared silicone enhanced on her petite frame, a problem she hid with sports bras and unnecessary layers. But her biggest problem of late was literally her Achilles’ heel. Years of pointe work had strained the tendon. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories no longer relieved the pain. She needed a cortisone shot, a flexible doctor, and rest.
I performed with the Andrea Brooks troupe in Brooklyn for a couple years. They’re more contemporary. I don’t know if you would have heard of them.”
The director smiled. He hadn’t heard of them. A blush threatened to crawl from Nia’s neck to her cheeks.
And then this past year, I traveled with the Janet Ruban Dance Ensemble. I hope that, after this opportunity, I can audition for a larger company.”
Why not audition now?”
The director didn’t need to add while you’re young and employable. She couldn’t confess to the injury. He might think it would compromise her teaching ability.
My mother lives in Queens. My father’s not around and I needed to stay close.”
Battle’s mouth tightened in apparent sympathy for her family’s hardship. Nia thanked God that her nutmeg coloring masked any guilty blush.
She pumped earnestness into her voice. I plan to audition next year.”
Battle’s thin smile relaxed. Well, I hope you do. You’re young. Now is the time. And it is difficult to get a job above assistant teacher, even in a public high school, without a few years of choreography experience and an MFA.”
He clasped his hands. Okay. We’re happy to have you this year. Let me take you on the tour.”
He led the way down a red brick path. She followed a step behind, hiding the limp that would not disappear until she had soaked her leg. They passed a mix of gothic revival and neoclassical buildings, homages to the architecture associated with top universities. Battle pointed out those he found of interestthis is the library, that’s the foreign language department, there’s the English buildingall the while dropping names of esteemed graduates.
He stopped before a gothic specimen capped by a massive dome. This is the music hall. In addition to a recital auditorium, it houses practice spaces that are available to the students around the clock and an extensive music library.”
The structure recalled the U.S. Capitol. It featured the same rows of white columns leading to an ice cream scoop hat. Instead of vanilla, the building’s top shone pistachio.
The verdigris really connects it to the landscape,” he said.
Nia traced Battle’s gaze to confirm he referenced the mottled green dome. She would have to Google verdigris later.
Richard French became Richard French here.”
Nia knew of the famous music professor. Dancers read his critiques to better understand the emotion of a piece. I studied his writings on Idomeneo.”
Yes. I assign our students the same critique. Glad you know it, Antonia.”
My friends call me Nia.”
Oh, Nia. Well, in front of the students, you will, of course, be Ms. Washington. We don’t want the kids becoming too comfortable, especially given your age.”
The formal title surprised her. Ms. Washington was her mother. It hadn’t occurred to her that the students would address her differently than anyone else.
Battle maintained eye contact. His lips pulled into a line. You’re just a few years older than our seniors, and in all honesty, you could easily pass for a student. We can’t have them taking you for a peer. It might seem silly, but mistakes happen when distinctions become blurred.”
Of course,” she blurted. When I watched the parents moving the kids in, all I could think was that all the students were so young.”
Battle rolled his eyes. Well, they certainly don’t think so.” He pointed down a gradual hill. A silent expanse of crystal blue stretched beyond it. The lake is over there and, as you know, the dance facility is just above it.”