“You must never enter Master Brandon’s bedroom or his study. He’s not a very patient man. He allows no one in his room. You can do whatever you want in the house but never go inside his private space unless you are permitted to do so. Do you understand?” Ms. Lennie warns. It is clear in her pale cerulean eyes how serious she is.
The head housemaid's hair is ash-colored and seems as if it has been tied in a bun forever. She has a strong countenance and is about five-foot-five. If I had to guess, I’d say she is in her late fifties.
“I understand.” I gulp and nod.
I always do research before job interviews, so I know a little about the ‘Master.’ He’s twenty-eight, a self-made billionaire, and the sole owner and chairman of Grethe and Elga Enterprises, a telecommunications and electronic consumer company headquartered in Manhattan.
But his family background, where he graduated, and his face are all a mystery. No single soul has seen him in person. He never shows up anywhere public and never attends any important events. I can’t help but wonder why.
Does he have a disease? Is he allergic to sunrise? A vampire? I want to know.
“Um, Ms. Lennie? I just want to ask...”
“Yes, Miss Hart?” she turns, acknowledging the hesitation in my voice. We stop in the middle of a long stairway.
“Does he really not come out?”
She meets my gaze. “One more thing: this is the last time you will ask me that.”
Is that a yes? I swallow again.
As we continue to the curve of the staircase, I can’t help but admire the mansion’s grandeur. I didn’t know mansions still existed in New York City, but that’s not so surprising if you walk to the posh end of the Upper East Side.
The house’s neoclassical architecture enchants me. Although it’s undeniably old, modernity is still present. The enormous chandeliers brighten the hall, and the floors are so clean it seems as though no single speck of dirt has ever touched them. Yet I can’t miss the dark gray draperies covering the tall windows, as if they’re there to prevent the light from coming in. And the silence of the surroundings is deafening—making the place seem lonely and empty.
However, the walls display expensive art pieces and oil canvases. I lean close to one—a beautiful scene of a majestic pine tree covered in snow. But what captures my attention the most is the portrait of a handsome young man hanging in the center of the space. He has dark hair, chiseled jaws, piercing gray eyes, a perfectly aligned nose, a mouth made for kissing, and an utterly stoic expression.
“Ms. Lennie, who’s he?” I mumble.
She spins and throws me a warning look but doesn’t answer. After a long walk, we stop in front of a hand-carved wooden door on the second floor. Ms. Lennie draws out a bunch of keys from her pocket and chooses one.
“The Master wants you to use this room. You’re fortunate. The rooms in this passage are for the guests,” she says as she unlocks the door and hands me a key. “Here’s your duplicate,” she explains. Her expression is still blank.
Does she even know how to smile?
“Thanks. I’ll just settle my things inside.” I smile, wondering if she would smile back. Predictably, she didn’t.
“Your job starts tomorrow, but I’ll meet you in the living room in one hour. I’ll give you a house tour.”
“Of course. Thank you.” I smile, then open the door.
I step into my room, dragging my luggage behind me, and my eyes widen the moment I lift my head.
“Goodness gracious! This room is for a princess!” I exclaim, then cautiously lower my voice, anxious someone might hear me. I look around, astonished at the realization that I am meant to be alone in such an enormous room. I don’t need so much space, but God, it’s incredible.
Unlike the gloom in the rest of the mansion, there is light here. The room has white walls and is impeccably appointed. The floors are made of Italian marble, a stone fireplace occupies the far wall, and there’s a sitting area with two small, padded loungers. Also, the curtains aren’t gray, but baby blue! The queen-sized bed is covered by a spread cheerfully patterned with yellow flowers, and the pillows look fluffy.
I’m in love! It’s as if they knew my favorite colors. But the thing that startles me most is the MacBook glowing on the desk. I wonder if I’m allowed to use it.
Considering the extravagance of the room, I have to check what’s up with the bathroom. And as expected, the bathroom is luxurious. My highest hope was a clawfoot bathtub or something I could relax in. Then my eyes spot a Jacuzzi! I want to collapse in amazement.
It is all too much to take in for an assistant cook, but who am I to complain? My new boss is probably generous to compensate for his mysterious lifestyle.
I remember that Ms. Lennie wants me to meet her in an hour, so I quickly unpack my things. I pull out my few articles of clothing and hang them in the wardrobe or tuck them away in drawers. I lay my cosmetics and accessories on the bed; among them is the heart necklace Mom gave me.
Oh my God. Mom! I immediately grab my phone and call home.
“Hello?” a cute, high-pitched voice answers right away. It’s Martin, the one who cried the loudest when I said I was leaving home for a while.
“Hi, it’s Alayna.”
“Alayna!” he squeals excitedly. “Are you at work yet?”
“Yeah, I just arrived,” I answer, staring at the necklace. “Is Mom there?”
“Yes, but I want to talk to you!”
I chuckle. I imagine him pouting. “Fine. Did you miss me?”
He giggles. “I miss you! When are you coming home?”
“Very soon, but I want you to make sure you have good grades at school and show it to me when I come home, okay?”
“Then you will give me a chocolate cake?”
“As many as you like, but you have to share it with other kids too, okay?”
“Yes, because Mira wants it too!”
“Very good. But can you give the phone to Mom for now?”
“Okay,” he says, sounding sad. “Mom! Alayna’s on the phone!” Martin shouts, the second youngest of twelve adopted siblings. I chuckle again at hearing his voice. I hear his little footsteps running on our wooden floor and picture him sprinting into Mom’s room.
“Who’s that?” It’s Mom’s voice.
“It’s Alayna! She’s on the phone,” says Martin.
“Oh really?” I hear noisy scratches on the other line before she answers. “Alayna?”
“Oh, darling. We miss you already! Are you at the mansion?” she asks. I clasp my mouth, hearing her voice.
“Y-Yeah, Mom.” I sob. “I miss you too.”
“How is it? Are they nice to you?”
I’m not sure if Ms. Lennie was nice, but I shouldn’t tell her that.
“I haven’t met anyone, except for the head housemaid, but I’m sure they are.” I sniff.
“Oh, honey. Are you crying?” If only Mom was beside me, she would have already wrapped me in her arms. I wipe my tears away.
“No. I just miss you all so much. I wanted to hear your voice.”
“We’re fine, Alayna. Your siblings love you,” she says softly. “Do you want to talk to them?”
“I wanted to, but...” I laugh. “I only have an hour to prepare, but I can still call you later.”
“Sure, darling. Go ahead. I’m glad you called, but make sure to call me again, okay?”
“Okay,” I promise.
“I love you, darling.”
“I love you too.”
I hang up. Not wanting to sink into homesickness, I remind myself why I’m here. I have twelve siblings, and Mom needs help paying for her neuromuscular scoliosis treatment and the debts she needs to settle. And this job is three times the salary of the last restaurant I worked in.
I continue setting my stuff out and go to the bathroom. It takes everything in me to avoid using the Jacuzzi, as it will make me forget the time.
After a regular shower, I step out of the bathroom. I choose denim pants and a shirt as an outfit, fix my hair into a bun, and don’t bother to put on makeup, though I apply a small amount of lip tint for a glossy effect. I turn to gaze at my reflection in the full-length mirror.
Look who’s ready!
I glance at my wristwatch, and I have ten minutes.
I come out of my room and double-check if I locked the door behind me. My limbs feel like they’re not my own. I’m too nervous even to operate.
I blow out a sharp breath. I shouldn’t be nervous. Ms. Lennie is an employee as well, and this mansion probably has more employees than I expected. But God, her stern face bothers me so much.
Reaching the end of the stairs, Ms. Lennie is already waiting.
“Miss Hart. You. Are. Late,” she points out, word by word.
“Late? B-But you said—”
“Early is on time, on time is late.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll remember that.”
“The first level has the living room, dining area, the main kitchen, and the staff’s quarters,” Ms. Lennie explains immediately. “The second level has the grand piano and the library. The third and fourth are for the Master’s use. As the assistant chef, Alayna, you are allowed to enter his study on the third floor. I don’t permit the housemaids to wander around the higher floors if they are not doing chores. But just like them, our curfew is at ten o’clock. No one can go upstairs unless it’s an emergency.”
“I understand, Ms. Lennie.”
“Come, I’ll show you the kitchen and introduce you to the chef.”
I keep following Ms. Lennie until we stop in front of the central kitchen, and it is everything I ever dreamed of. It’s polished with a gourmet marble island, professional-grade appliances, and ample food storage. There’s also an informal eating area beside the windows from which I can glimpse a spectacular outdoor view.
“Mr. Katrakis,” Ms. Lennie calls to the man in a white shirt and jeans standing in the prep area. I can only see his broad back.
A blond-haired man flashes out a wide grin the moment he turns. I can’t believe how young and attractive he is, but what astonishes me more is he’s who I expected.
“And who do we have here?” he asks, and God, his voice... It’s deep, smooth, and manly.
“I want to introduce you to your new assistant chef,” Ms. Lennie says. “This is Alayna Hart, and Alayna, you will address him as Mr.—”
“It’s all right, Lennie,” he interjects, finally extending a hand toward me. “Hello, Alayna. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’m Oliver Katrakis,” he says politely, but it’s as if he was anticipating my arrival. He has a very charming smile.
I shake his hand right away. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to release his grip, but I do.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Katrakis,” I stammer in surprise. “I saw you in the articles. You’re the CEO of Grethe and Elga Enterprises and Chairman Lucien’s sole representative.”
“Someone did some research,” he remarks with a pleasant smile. “Technically, you are correct, Miss Hart. And yes, I’m also Brandon’s cousin and his private chef as of the moment.”
“Wow,” is all I can say.
Well, that’s new information. No one addresses Oliver Katrakis as the chairman’s cousin in public records and news sites, but their relationship makes sense now.
“Alayna?” Ms. Lennie cuts in, her expression still passive.
“Yes, Ms. Lennie?”
“Mr. Katrakis will explain your job description. I’ll leave you. I’ll be in the living room.”
Yes! I want to scream out loud in victory. The man seems more pleasant than her, despite being the CEO or the chef or whatever—no offense to her. I want to thank Ms. Lennie, but she’s already excused herself and left.
“So, did you have a grand tour?” he asks with a genuine grin.
I smile back. “Yes, except for the higher floors.”
“But you didn’t see the outside?”
“Besides the dancing fountain and the eclectic porch?”
“Oh, you missed the good part, I see.” His eyes gleam. “Why don’t we take a walk?”
I shrug, then smile. “Yes, sure.”