Chapter 1 - The Escape
"Now I'm going to work angry because of you!" The tall man yells as he stands over her with a menacing look on his square face. His thick eyebrows are raised high on his slopped forehead. A vein throbs in right between his eyes. He's angrier than she's ever seen him before, and she's seen him be angry a lot.
Desperately, she tries to diffuse the situation. "Tyson, I didn't mean to upset you."
"Shut up!" He seethes, snatching his red windbreaker jacket off the back of the wicker dining chair and stomping out of the dilapidated apartment. Anxiously she listens for the sound of his heavy footsteps descending the creaky staircase. When she's sure he's gone, she carefully stands to her feet. She learned long ago that if she moves too fast, it'll only make her suffering worse.
Despair hangs over her head like a dark cloud as she makes her way to the dented white refrigerator. Inhaling deeply, she grabs a handful of ice and pours it into a plastic bag. She holds the bag to her stinging cheek. It is past time for her to seek a better situation. The cruelty that Tyson routinely subjects her to has tainted her life for entirely too long. She used to think that things would get better, but it's been nearly four months already. There's no sign that anything will change. The man who was once her loving boyfriend no longer exists. He's been replaced by an abusive and controlling tyrant. It started with demeaning words meant to tear down her confidence. When that no longer worked, he escalated to physical assaults. Now she spends every day worrying that it will be her last. She hardly sleeps at night because she's scared to let her guard down when he's around. She's at the mercy of his violent and erratic temperament. It's not safe.
You don't have to put up with this anymore. You can get out. The thought is like a bright sign flashing in her mind as she remembers the job advertisement she saw online the night before.
LIVE-IN NANNY NEEDED
All applicants must be female and have at least one year of childcare experience. Serious candidates will have to undergo a background check and drug screening. This position requires you to live on-site and provide full-time care to a two-year-old boy. Walk-in interviews will be available Tuesday, August 11th from 8 AM until 1 PM at 1231 Enterprise Avenue, Suite 1012. Ask for Rachel Skylark. A resume is required.
She paces on the dingy carpet flooring of the small square living room, contemplating what could be a way for her to finally escape this never-ending nightmare. Any other job would require her to work secretly for months to save even half of the money she needs to move out. If she's hired for this job, it will give her a new home right away. The need to get away from Tyson grows stronger every day. His vicious attacks are intensifying. It's only a matter of time before she ends up in the hospital, or worse, dead.
There's no guarantee that she'll be chosen for the job, but it's a step in the right direction. Besides, there will be no harm done no matter the outcome. If she is hired, then she'll be able to leave without her so-called boyfriend interfering. If she isn't hired, then Tyson will never know that she's trying to get away from him. It's a win-win situation, something she rarely encounters anymore.
Her eyes move to the digital clock of the microwave. It's just after nine o'clock in the morning. Tyson won't be home from work until after six. There's plenty of time for her to go to the interview and return home. A slow grin spreads across her diamond-shaped face. She's going to do it. She's going to the interview for the job. It's exciting and nerve-racking.
Quickly the grin falls as a nearly pained groan sounds from her mouth. The disheartening reminder that she's without transportation flashes in her mind. Again she paces as she thinks of a way around the hole in her plan. This situation will not be the end of her. She will not die at the hands of a cowardly man like Tyson. She will escape, even if she has to walk to her first glimpse of freedom.
An idea strikes her. It's Wednesday which means her neighbor, Derrick, is at home. She sends him a text message asking for a ride. If he says no, she'll have to use Uber or Lyft which will diminish the little bit of money in her bank account, but it'll be worth it if she gets the job. If being the operative word. There's no doubt in her mind that several women have already applied for the role. The perfect candidate is probably being interviewed at this very moment. Maybe I shouldn't go. Maybe it'll be a waste of time. Maybe I should wait for another opportunity to come along.
Like a sign from above, her cell phone chimes with a new message.
Derrick: Sure, I can drive you.
She rushes to the one bathroom in the apartment that is located in the dank hallway. She doesn't need to shower, but she does need to apply some makeup. There's a fresh mark on her cheek that will raise questions and cause concern if anyone sees it. The last thing she wants to do is attract unnecessary attention.
It's almost ironic that she didn't wear makeup except on special occasions before she met Tyson. At first, he told her he liked that the way it enhanced her beauty. She was willing to do anything to please him, so she watched several YouTube videos to learn how to perfectly apply foundation, concealer, and everything else. Makeup became a daily part of her routine sometime after the first time Tyson hit her. The mark on her face couldn't be hidden with a hairstyle, so she wore makeup. By the time it faded away, he had created another one.
The dark memory causes a lump to form in her throat. She shakes her head to clear it away and looks in the cracked mirror. It's cracked from one of Tyson's belligerent rants about how she's unappreciative of everything he does for her. What does he do for me besides yell and hit me? Her head hangs and her shoulders lower with defeated tension. No, not today. Steal resolve fills her.
Her dark chocolate hair is worn loose in its naturally large curls to curtain her sullen face. Her hooded jade eyes lack life. Her usually round cheeks are nearly sunken. She doesn't look like a potential childcare provider. She looks like a potential patient in someone's intensive care unit. She inhales sharply while looking at her distorted reflection. The woman looking back at her is broken and tired. That is not who she is. Not anymore. On an exhale, her lips pull into a timid grin. She doesn't know how to genuinely smile anymore. These days she never has a reason to do something like that. The grin pulling on her bow-shaped lips is unnatural. Hopefully, the interviewer will chalk it up to nerves.
She owns one pair of black slacks. They're slightly faded and there's a hole in the right leg that she sewed up the last time she wore them nearly two years ago. She needs to look professional which means she either has to wear nice pants or a dress. The fading bruise on her lower thigh will be nearly impossible to hide if she wears a dress, so the pants are the obvious choice. She pairs them with a purple blouse that has quarter-sleeves and a crew neckline. Her plain black faux leather pumps complete the look.
Her printed resume is stashed in the top right drawer of the vanity dresser. It's been there since yesterday when she first saw the ad. She retrieves it, along with her small black purse, and walks out of the apartment into the hallway. Derrick, a tall and untraditionally handsome man with skin the color of cocoa and round mocha eyes, patiently waits by the rickety staircase.
"Let me see." He reaches for her chin with a grimace. His eyes can just barely make out the raised skin. "Cristiana, you have to get away from him."
"That's why I'm going to this interview," defensively she responds to him.
"Good. You need this." Derrick is always trying to help. He's offered to let her move in with him more times than she can count. The first offer came after he caught Tyson trying to push her down the stairs and intervened. The thought of being reported to the police calmed Tyson down for a week. Cristiana experienced seven whole days without his yelling, berating, and violence. He almost acted like the man she used to love. Once he realized Derrick hadn't reported him to the police, he punished her. Derrick apologized when he saw the damage. He felt guilty for intervening and causing Tyson to lash out even more, but he had worried about what would happen if he chose to mind his own business. After that day he realized that it's best to play it safe when it comes to Tyson. The man has a temper that blows hot more often than not. Cristiana is too scared of him to leave and he doesn't react well when others get involved in their business.
"Alright, let's go." Derrick leads the way out of the ramshackle, brick building to the parking deck across the street. He waits until her seatbelt is buckled before pulling out of the parking spot and driving towards downtown. "Are you nervous?"
With a gulp, she nods her head. "Yeah, for more reasons than you can imagine."
"Oh, I'm sure," he grumbles. His mouth turns down in distaste. "You need this. You need to get away from him."
"I'm trying," she mutters while wiping away a stray tear. It's not uncommon for her to cry when talking to him. He's privy to her greatest shame. Shedding tears for him to see is nothing of significance.
Derrick sighs and reaches over the console to take her hand in his large one. "I'm scared for you. Tyson is an unstable maniac. There's no telling what he'll do. One day he may get so enraged that he-"
"-kills me," she finishes the sentence in a soft and broken voice. "I'm scared for me too, Derrick."
"I need you to promise me something."
A humorless laugh falls from her lips. "My words don't mean much right now."
He shakes his head, vehemently disagreeing. "Promise me that no matter the outcome of this interview, you'll leave Tyson."
"How can I do that if I don't get this job?"
"By allowing others to help you. I'll take you anywhere you want to go. You've just got to want to go first."
"I want that more than anything." The admission nearly clogs her throat. Her words are tainted with hope. It's an emotion she hasn't felt in a very long time.
"Then we'll make it happen," Derrick vows with a solid nod of his head. He can't sit back and listen to her pain any longer. He has to act. He has to help her gain her freedom.
It takes fifteen minutes for them to reach their destination. Derrick pulls in front of the building. "I'll find somewhere to park. Call me when you're done."
Cristiana nods before getting out of the car. "Thank you for this." She steps into the hustle and bustle of the city. Her head falls back as she looks up at the building before her. 1231 Enterprise Avenue is a very modernly designed, tall, dark, and chrome building with lots of large windows. There's a silver awning over the main revolving door that reads Enterprise Business Tower. The circular door never seems to stop spinning as people enter and exit. Feeling seriously out of place, Cristiana makes her way inside. The large lobby is busy with people of all calibers. There's a circular reception desk sitting in the center of the lobby. A young woman with rosy skin and bright ginger hair is sitting behind it. Cristiana approaches it warily. There's a small voice in her mind telling her to tuck her tail and run.
"How can I help you?" The receptionist politely asks. Her slim face and narrow eyes give her an unapproachable look that she's trying to soften with a bright grin.
"I'm here to interview for the nanny position with Rachel Skylark."
"What's your name?"
The woman's fingers click on the computer keyboard momentarily. "Her office has been notified." She extends her hand offering a blue and white sticker. "This is your visitor pass. You are to wear it at all times while in the building. When you leave, you will return the sticker and sign out." The woman points to a black digital tablet on the desk's edge. "Please print and sign your name, the date and time, your reason for being in the building, and hold your identification to the scanner."
Cristiana's eyes widen as she moves to follow the woman's instructions. "That is a lot." She's never been inside of a building that has so many safety measures.
The receptionist doesn't respond to her comment. "Once you are done, you may take the elevator. You're going to the tenth floor. There will be a receptionist desk in front of the waterfall wall. Tell Suzanne your name and she'll show you where to go. Good luck."
"Thank you." The walk to the elevator bank isn't a long one. The golden doors start sliding close, but a manicured hand shoves between them. "Oh gosh!" Cristiana quickly jams the button to open the doors before the woman's hand can be crushed.
An older woman, probably in her mid to late fifties, slides into the elevator holding a struggling toddler on her hip. "Thank you." Her smile is halfhearted. She's too busy trying to keep her grip on the boy as he tugs angrily at her peach blazer.
"Want daddy!" He throws his head back with a loud cry.
"Liam calm down. You'll see your dad soon." The woman speaks softly. It doesn't soothe him. He continues to struggle until she releases him so that he can stand. She kneels before him. "Liam, please behave for Nana." Her voice is tired as are her chocolate eyes. The little boy kicks out his foot trying to connect with her legs.
"Woah, little man!" Cristiana interjects. She can sense the woman's desperation. "You're going to hurt your nana. You don't want to do that, do you?" She kneels so that she's eye-level with the child.
Slowly he shakes his head. "I no hurt Nana." His little voice waivers. His round blue-silver eyes are glassy with unshed tears.
"Do you love your nana?" Cristiana asks, hoping to keep him calm. He nods his little head. "We don't hurt the people we love, right?"
"Right," he agrees, eager to please his new friend.
Cristiana smiles, ruffling the boy's curly sandy blond hair. "Can you tell your nana that you're sorry?"
Liam turns his little body to face the woman with a saddened pout, "Sorry, Nana."
The woman bends down lifting him into her arms. "Nana forgives you, my sweet boy." She kisses his cheek lovingly before looking over his head at Cristiana. "Thank you. What's your name?"
"Nice to meet you Cristiana. I'm Heather Skylark. Are you here for the nanny position?" Heather asks hopefully. Cristiana nods in response as the elevator doors slide open. She steps out onto the tenth floor with a parting smile at Heather and Liam.
She walks to the receptionist's desk, smiling at the older woman she assumes is Suzanne. "I'm Cristiana Barnes. I'm here to see Rachel Skylark."
Suzanne nods her tightly curled salt-and-pepper head. She touches a button on the side of her headset. "Rachel, you have a visitor. It's a candidate for the nanny job." Suzanne verbally assents before turning her attention to the woman with dark skin standing before her. "You can have a seat over there. Rachel will be with you in just a moment." She motions to a pair of charcoal gray, square chairs.
Cristiana takes a seat. Her legs bounce. Her hands rub her pants repeatedly. Her stomach feels uneasy as if it's been tied in a knot. With paranoid eyes, she looks around as if her tormentor will appear at any given second. This is a bad idea. This is a bad idea. The words are chanted in her mind as she contemplates leaving and returning to the apartment before Tyson finds out she's left it.
A deep inhale settles her fear. You have to do this, Cristiana. You have to get away from him. The reminder comes from the woman she used to be. The woman who stood up for herself and wasn't controlled by a man. That's the woman she wants to be again. That won't happen if she doesn't try.
A leggy woman with taupe skin and perfectly straightened, shiny, chestnut hair appears from around the corner. She's wearing a bubble gum pink dress with capped sleeves, a thin off-white belt around her slim waist, and off-white stilettos with a noticeable red sole. She looks like a runway model with her angular face filled with expressive chocolate eyes, a perfectly curved nose, and sharp cheeks. Confidence and power radiate from her shiny hair to her expensive shoes. It's intimidating to see.
"You must be Cristiana. I'm Rachel Skylark." The woman extends her perfectly manicured hand as Cristiana rises to her feet. "You can follow me." She leads the way down the wide hallway, passing a large area filled with cubicles. They reach a corner office with a frosted glass door and window. It's a stylish space with a faux fur off-white area rug and mustard yellow sofa pushed against the wall to the left of the door. The desk is made of frosted glass framed by bright chrome. There's a white leather executive chair behind it and two navy and white checkered chairs in front.
Rachel gestures to them. "Please have a seat. Would you like something to drink?"
Nervously Cristiana shakes her head. "No, thank you."
"Alright, then I guess we'll get right to business." Rachel purses her pink lips. "I'll be frank, the job is already yours."
"Already mine?" Cristiana's eyes widen in shock. She did not expect to hear those words.
"Apparently, you have impressed my mom. She said that you handled Liam really well in the elevator. No one has been able to calm him as quickly as she claims you did. She's insisting that you're hired on the spot. Heather Skylark is rarely wrong about things like this." Rachel explains with a curious pout on her thin lips.
Cristiana gasps, "I had no idea that was your mother. I was only trying to help. I'm sorry for getting involved."
Rachel holds up her hand silencing the skittish woman before her. "There's no need to apologize. What you did is impressive. Liam is a sweet boy, but he has some issues."
"When you say 'issues' do you mean limitations such as developmental or social difficulties? If so, I can handle that."
"No, Liam's issues are nothing like that. He's not autistic or on the spectrum in any way that we know of. Still, his behavior is ... abnormal for a child his age. His life has been unstable since before he was born for reasons that we won't get into right now." Rachel sighs heavily rolls her eyes. "His previous nanny unexpectedly retired and her replacement suddenly became unfit for the position leaving us in a bit of a lurch. Liam's been shuffled from babysitter to babysitter while we've searched for a suitable caretaker. The agency we hired has been unable to provide adequate candidates. The uncertainty has caused him to be more irritable and difficult to please."
"Understandable. Kids don't react well to change." Cristiana responds cautiously. She's waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is going too well. For the past four months, hope and good fortune have evaded her. It is hard to fathom that they would return now when she needs them the most.
Rachel nods her head as if in agreement. "They most certainly do not." She frowns briefly considering the scene playing out before her. A scene she's actively involved in. It's not what she pictured she would be doing five years ago. Life rarely ever works out how you plan.
"Do you have a resume?" She asks, putting herself back on track. Cristiana hands the paper over. "You worked at a daycare for three years after completing your bachelor's degree in primary education. Why didn't you pursue a position with a grade school?"
"It was a learning academy that catered to children from ages six weeks to ten years old or fifth grade. I was the lead teacher in a kindergarten classroom."
"Ah, that makes more sense. There's a lapse here. Did you take some time off?"
Nervously Cristiana clears her throat before answering the question. "Yes, I was involved in a car accident that left me fairly injured. The school had to fill my position."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Are you fine now? Do you have any physical restrictions?"
"I'm completely healthy." Minus the lumps and bruises hiding under my clothes.
"Good, you'll need to be at one-hundred percent to keep up with Liam. Let me upload this to the computer." Rachel turns to the table behind her desk, which matches it so perfectly they must be a set, and places the resume on the digital scanner. "Because of the delicate nature with Liam, we're looking for someone long-term. Would you be willing to sign a contract agreeing to no less than three years committed to this position? To put it bluntly, we don't want to have to go through this process again. Liam needs stability. He's at a vulnerable age and these are also his crucial development years. At the end of the contract, he will be beginning grade school. It may be possible that this position will still be needed, but we won't know until that time comes. In the meantime, a contractual employment guarantee will be beneficial to everyone."
"I'll sign the contract." Cristiana readily agrees. She'll agree to anything if it means she can get away from Tyson.
Rachel leans back in her seat, crossing her legs. "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
Cristian gulps and slowly nods her head. "No, I don't mind."
"Are you romantically involved with anyone?"
"Technically, I have a boyfriend, but our relationship is dependent upon our joint living arrangement. We won't be a couple once I move out."
"The end of your relationship is sad for you but good for us. Taking care of Liam will be a full-time, everyday, commitment. A significant other likely won't understand the responsibility you're taking on, but now we have a new problem."
"Is it something I said?"
"No, not at all. You're perfect for this position. You're kind, patient, and obviously knowledgeable about childcare. The problem is that you're beautiful, single, and you'll be living with and spending a lot of time with Liam's father, Cole. There's a non-fraternization clause in the contract. To put it bluntly, if I find out you've been anything less than professional with him, then you're fired."
Cristiana's eyes widen at the mere suggestion that she would become involved with a married man. "That won't be an issue."
"I can tell you're sincere. I think my mom is right. You're perfect for this position. Do you have any questions before you sign the contract?"
Relief floods her body. "When would I begin?"
"No later than tomorrow if you're available."
"I'm available." The sooner she begins the job, the sooner she gets away from her tormentor.
"That's great! Liam is in desperate need of stability. The sooner we can get you acclimated into his life, the better."
Cristiana chews the inside of her cheek. "What about the pay?"
Rachel grimaces, uncrossing her legs. "You'll have to speak with Cole about that. He's the money man. As a matter of fact, you'll sign the contract with him since he'll be the one you answer to."
"Wow, I don't know how to thank you for this opportunity. You have no idea what this means to me."
Rachel laughs at Cristiana's enthusiasm. "Don't thank me yet. You'll have your work cut out for you. Liam is not an easy child to deal with. I can hardly manage him for more than a few hours at a time."
"I'm sure he and I will get along just fine. Not only do I love working with kids, but I'm a good cook and very tidy."
"Cristiana, you won't be cooking or cleaning. That's what the housekeeper is for. Your job is solely to focus on taking care of Liam. You'll have to find a way to occupy yourself in the little bit of free time you do have. As long as you don't end up in Cole's bed, then you'll be fine." Rachel explains with a stern look on her gorgeous face.
Her concerns about Cristiana's interactions with the mysterious Cole are perplexing. Cristiana wonders if Cole has cheated before. Could that be why the last nanny quit? Did she get caught having an affair with Rachel's husband? It's unimaginable to the new nanny to be a wife and know that your husband is unfaithful. What's the point of the marriage? You're in no position to judge. Your boyfriend hits you daily. What's the point of the relationship?
"I'm sure I'll find something to do." She responds, suppressing the frown that the thoughts nearly conjure. Several months have passed since she last saw her family. Her free time will be best spent reconnecting with them, starting with her sister.
"Let's go introduce you to Cole." Rachel rises to her feet, leading the way out of the office. They walk down a side hallway eventually reaching a secluded lobby with a larger corner office. There's an L-shaped desk stationed outside of it. A honey-colored woman with jet-black pixie cut hair sits behind the desk. "Hey, Mariah. Is Cole busy?"
Mariah frowns and shakes her head. "You missed him by ten minutes. Heather is keeping Liam tonight, so Cole decided to work from home."
Rachel turns to Cristiana. "Do you have someplace to be? We can go to the house. You really should meet Cole today so you can sign the contract, and you can see where you'll be living."
Mariah's eyes widen as a humored grin pulls at her plump lips. "Maybe you'll learn your way around faster than I did."
Rachel dismisses the woman's comment with a playful wave of her hand. "What do you say Cristiana?"
Cristiana checks the time on her cell phone. It's just past two o'clock. There are four hours until Tyson returns home. "I have time to go to the house," she agrees while covertly sending a message to Derrick letting him know that he can leave.
"Great! You can follow me. Did you drive yourself here?"
"No, I don't have a car currently."
"That's not a problem. I'll give you a ride." Rachel widely grins as she leads the way. The women step into the elevator and ride two floors down. There's a skywalk leading to the parking garage. "I'm parked over here." The woman gestures to the right. Her vehicle is a 2021 BMW SUV that's as shiny red as a candy apple.
Covertly, Cristiana does a Google search as they drive away from the office building. Rachel Skylark is the Chief Financial Officer of Skylark Enterprises. Cole Skylark is the Chief Executive Officer. They own and operate resorts, restaurants, and cruise ships all over the world. Royalty and celebrities are frequent guests at the Skylark establishments. They also own a technology development company that has produced several smartphones and other electronics. The Skylark name is synonymous with luxury and fortune. Music artists have even name-dropped them in popular songs.
Pulling out of the parking deck, Rachel merges into the busy New York traffic, driving towards a Manhattan neighborhood that is known for its large houses and wealthy families. Eventually, they arrive on the Upper East Side. It's not a surprise that people with wealth like the Skylark family live in the same neighborhood that housed Gossip Girl. Cristiana's jaw nearly drops when Rachel rolls to a stop in front of a palatial townhouse mansion. The windows and doors have raw metalwork on them. The kind that's clearly for decoration and not for home protection. There are light-colored built into the front exterior wall on either side of the entrance. The most surprising part is the private driveway which leads to an underground garage. Private parking, in general, is a novelty in this area. Rachel parks in the only available spot in the stark white garage. Without preamble, she climbs out of the car, leads the way to the windowed door, and pushes down the curved handle. They step inside of a narrow hallway and onto sand-colored marble-tiled floors that complement the off-white walls. Purposefully Rachel walks down the hallway to a staircase. They walk upstairs and step into a foyer. The sight of a vast balcony with an intricate metal railing attached to a curved metal staircase comes into view as they pass a large kitchen filled with top-notch appliances. The ceiling in the foyer is vaulted, and the windows fill the space with natural light.
Cristina's mouth is open wide as she takes in the opulence of the house. "This looks like something out of a movie."
Rachel dryly chuckles. "It is a little outdated, but the interior design is lovely."
Outdated? She thinks this is outdated. The new nanny is shocked by the woman's flippancy towards the massive house. Maybe being so obviously rich has made her jaded.
"Cole?" Rachel calls out.
An older woman with hazel-colored skin appears from around the corner in the kitchen. She's carrying a wicker laundry basket. Her salt-n-pepper hair is loosely curled so that it graces the top of her shoulders. Her square face is aged, but there is youth in her almond-shaped eyes. The woman isn't startled to find them standing in the foyer.
"He's downstairs in his gym," she announces with a polite grin on her pert mouth.
"Ugh, I knew I should have stopped while we were down there. He lives in that gym. The man is particular about his appearance." She shakes her head with a humored grin. "Cristiana, this is Linda Carmelo. Linda is the woman responsible for keeping this house in order. She'll be doing all the cooking and cleaning. And she'll be a great asset as you get to know Liam. Linda, this is Cristiana Barnes. She's going to be Liam's new nanny."
Linda places the basket on the floor and extends her hand. "It's nice to meet you. You're gorgeous."
"Isn't she? It's ridiculous. Honestly, Cristiana if you were taller you could be a model," Rachel says enthusiastically.
Embarrassed by the attention, Cristiana looks down. "Thank you." She's spent the last year hearing how she isn't anything special. She's average height and not the slimmest girl in the world although she's slimmer now than she has been since her sophomore year of college. That's thanks to Tyson frequently placing eating restrictions in place for her to follow. Her skin coloring is closer to mocha than to chocolate. Her hair is large and usually in unruly curls. Her nose is wide and she has a cleft chin. She doesn't feel beautiful when she looks in the mirror. She feels ugly and unwanted even by the one man who won't let her go.
"I'll go find Cole. Linda, can you show Cristiana around the house, then take her to his office? This place can be confusing when you first try to navigate it." Rachel instructs before walking down the staircase that they ascended mere seconds before.
"Alright, let's get to it." Linda places the laundry basket out of the way on the floor. "We can start on this floor." She motions to a pair of iron glass-paneled doors on the far wall of the foyer. She twists the sculpted handles and pushes the doors open. Stepping aside, she waves Cristiana forward. "This is my favorite part of the house," Linda conspiratorially says as Cristiana steps into a sizeable private backyard.
There's a lounge area, an outdoor kitchen and dining room, and a pool. The space is enclosed with stone walls that are tall enough to keep the neighbors from seeing, but not so tall that they block out sunlight. What's even more surprising, is that there isn't another building or wall of some sort behind the yard, so the view is unobstructed.
"This house used to be four separate homes, but Cole bought them all made it into a spacious townhome." Linda's explanation provides answers to several of the questions swimming in Cristiana's brain.
"That's extravagant," the new nanny mutters. She's not sure how to feel about the life she's stepping into.
Linda chuckles as if she's heard a joke. "You'll quickly learn that extravagance is Cole's specialty." The kind woman walks back into the house expecting the nanny to follow without prompting. "There are five levels in this house. The underground level houses the garage, in-home gym, and wine cellar. On this floor are the kitchen, dining room, library, living room, and backyard. There are four bedrooms and three bathrooms on the second floor. You're bedroom, the master suite, and Liam's bedroom is on the third floor along with the laundry room. The fourth floor has a theater, game room, and den. Liam loves to watch movies in the theater. You'll probably love it as well. The seats are red leather massage chairs that recline."
"Did you say there are five levels?"
"Yes, and there's an elevator." She gestures to the decoratively hidden contraption. "It's serviced every six months and works like a dream."
She briefly shows the first-floor living room. There are large windows that flood the space with light. The stone flooring is covered with a large plush cream-colored area rug. The furniture is all mid-century exposed wood frame pieces made of velvet charcoal fabric. There's a gray stone-topped oval coffee table and round matching end table. An oval silver framed mirror hangs over the mantle of the large stone-faced fireplace. It's obvious to Cristiana that the living room isn't often occupied by people. She suspects it's used more to entertain guests.
To the left of the living room is the library. Floating bookshelves cover three of the four off-white walls. Matching modern emerald green wing chairs are placed in the center of the room facing the windows. There's a curved tufted chaise lounge placed directly in front of the windows with a silver paint iron side table. The best touch to the area is a faux fur area rug. The space feels light, warm, and cozy. Cristiana can imagine herself reading a book here when she has the time. From the way Rachel was talking, it doesn't seem like she'll have much time to do anything other than taking care of Liam.
They take the elevator to the fourth floor, bypassing the second and third. To Cristiana's surprise, there's a rooftop lounge with a pool table, a drink bar constructed from iron and redwood, and a round firepit with four sling chairs. Wrought-iron railing encloses the space.
"We may be in the city, but there's plenty of outdoor space to enjoy. You'll probably spend a lot of time in the backyard since it has the pool as well as Liam's sandbox. Enjoy it while it's warm."
"Wow, I may get lost trying to navigate this place," Cristiana mutters, feeling overwhelmed. Everywhere she looks is covered in extravagance. This home is a clear indication of how different her life will be now. Fear of the unknown squeezes her throat. Her heart jackhammers in her chest. The urge to run away is growing by the second.
Linda laughs lightly. "Don't let the opulence deter you. You'll get used to all of this after a week or two. There's a lot of rooms that you'll probably never enter."
The elevator carries them back to the first floor. Linda walks ahead in the low lit hallway before stopping outside a black door with a gold octagonal doorknob. The door is closed, but that doesn't stop the older woman from twisting the knob and opening the door.
"This is Cole's office," Linda announces.
The office inside is simpler than Cristiana is expecting. Large windows are looking out to the backyard. A modern charcoal gray, glass-topped desk is the focal point in front of a built-in bookcase that takes up the entire wall and stretches from floor to ceiling. Two maroon cantilever chairs face the desk. Cristiana sits in one and waits patiently. She hears the door open and heavy footsteps approach.
A tall, stunning man with naturally tanned skin, a square face filled with rugged features, and chestnut hair rakishly tossed on his head sits behind the desk. He wears black gym shorts and a white sleeveless shirt. His long muscular arms are tight, a clear sign that he was exerting himself before Rachel interrupted. He lets out a huff of air while jostling the mouse of his Mac desktop computer. It's angled on the corner of the desk. He clicks the mouse a couple of times before leaning back in his mocha leather executive chair. His deep-set, golden eyes focus on the widescreen.
"So, you worked at Hawthorne Classical Academy." The sound of his warm voice catches Cristiana off guard.
She flounders, "Yes, I was a lead teacher there for three years."
"Why did you leave?" He asks with a slight upturn of his mouth, mentally hoping his mom and sister weren't foolish enough to hire a failed teacher to take care of his son.
"I was in a car accident that left me with extensive injuries. It took me a while to recover." There's a lump in Cristiana's throat as she provides the explanation. The accident was when her life took a turn for the worst. It was when Tyson went from being the man she adored and became the monster she fears.
Cole nods, turning his attention away from the computer screen. His eyes focus on her and instantly darken. Did they have to find someone so beautiful? They know beautiful women are his weakness, yet they're presenting one to him on a silver platter all while telling him not to touch.
He shakes the thought away. "Well, it seems all there's left for me to do is to give you the contract to sign. Do you know what the stipulations are?"
"Your wife told me about the three-year commitment, non-fraternization clause, the live-in requirement, and mandatory twenty-four-seven availability."
Cole rubs at his chin where dark facial hair is growing. "Rachel's my sister." He makes a point of flashing his bare left hand. "You'll have at least one day off a week whenever my mom gets Liam for the night."
"That makes so much more sense," Cristiana mumbles. Rachel isn't a wife concerned about an unfaithful husband. She's a sister concerned about her promiscuous brother. An uneasy feeling creeps into Cristiana's bones. Living with an unknown single man isn't what she was expecting when she accepted the job. Men aren't exactly trustworthy in her eyes right now, especially ones she doesn't know.
"I just have a few more questions." Cole places his forearms on the desktop. "Do you have a car?"
She frowns nervously. "No, I don't."
"That's not a problem. I have three vehicles. You can use one of those when you need transportation in your capacity as Liam's nanny." His words are pointed. She won't be joyriding in one of his fancy vehicles.
"I plan for my lack of transportation to only be a temporary problem." She quickly informs him, not wanting her new boss to think she's trying to mooch off him. Her gaze lingers on his face longer than it should. Awkwardly she clears her throat and looks at her lap.
"See something you like?" Cole smirks. She isn't the first woman to appreciate his good looks.
"I like to read and there's a lot of books on those shelves," she deflects. He's a very attractive man and he knows it. That can lead to trouble if she's not careful.
Cole's smirk deepens, flashing crater-like dimples. "You'll have plenty of time to look over the books in here and the library if that's what you really want to do."
"Thank you for your generosity, sir."
He hums appreciatively. "Don't call me sir. How old are you?"
"I'll be twenty-seven in November. Do you mind me asking how old you are?"
"I don't mind. I'm thirty. Not much older than you," he slyly answers. "Why do you want this job? Rachel says you have a live-in boyfriend."
"He's more like a roommate. We're not romantically involved anymore."
Cole nods slowly. "Aw, that makes more sense."
"As far as why I want this job, I like working with kids. I have a Bachelor's degree in primary education and eventually plan to go back to teaching, but this is a good starting position to return to work."
Cole tries not to linger on her relationship comment. Focusing too much on her impending single status would do him no good. She's enough of a temptation just sitting in front of him looking the way she does. Her naturally pouty lips and captivating eyes are stirring his desire.
He steeples his hands. "I guess we should discuss your salary."
"I'm not expecting a lot. I just need enough money for groceries and the few bills I have. I would also like to be able to save for a car." Cristiana explains while toying with the bottom of her blouse.
"Will a salary of $80,000 per year be enough?" Cole suggests while typing on the computer. "Health, vision, and dental insurances are included. You'll have to purchase any additional coverage you may want or need."
Her eyes widen. "The average yearly salary for a childcare provider in New York is $45,000. What you're offering is substantially higher. I'm not sure that's appropriate."
Cole's right eyebrow quirks. "Are you telling me to lower your salary?"
She shrugs her shoulders. "I don't want you to overpay. You're providing me with room and board, so I don't have any living costs other than phone service and small things."
"I've never had an employee to low-ball their salary," Cole comments, slightly amused. "I've always felt childcare providers and teachers are underpaid in this country, and I believe in paying for exceptional quality when it comes to personal services. You're going to be raising my son, that deserves the best pay I can afford to give you. That amount will fall somewhere in the $200,000 a year range, but I have a feeling you would reject a number of that size."
Steadily she nods her head, "I would."
Her honesty humors him. "Keep in mind that this job was yours before you ever met Rachel, simply because you managed to tame my son in seconds. You have all the power to negotiate a ridiculous payment arrangement with more benefits than you can imagine and yet you're not doing that. You're humble. It's refreshing. Keeping your reservations in mind, I think a starting salary of $65,000 per year with a guaranteed yearly raise of at least five percent is fair. Do you agree?"
"Even if I don't agree, you won't offer anything lower than that."
He winks, "You're a quick learner. I'll throw in a $500 bonus to be paid immediately for moving expenses."
"That's unnecessary. I don't have a lot to move."
Cole rolls his eyes, ignoring her as he grabs his checkbook from a desk drawer. "It's non-negotiable. Did you and Rachel discuss your starting date? It would be great if you can start tomorrow. The sooner the better where Liam is concerned."
"I can start tomorrow."
He sighs with relief. "I can send a moving company to your place around eight in the morning. If you need to pay out the remainder of your lease, let me know and I'll take care of the expense. Liam won't be home until noon at the earliest, so you'll have time to settle in before getting to work."
"I don't need a moving company," Cristiana responds. She watches as he actively ignores her. "You're going to force that check on me."
"Once again, you're a quick learner." Cole tears the check out of the book and hands it over. She accepts hesitantly, catching a glance at the round Roman numeral clock hanging in the clear space between the two sides of the bookshelf. Oh God, where has the time gone?! It's nearly six o'clock.
"I have to go. I'll be here tomorrow morning around nine." She jumps to her feet.
Cole's eyebrows rise as he stands. "I'll walk you out. Do you have a way home?"
Her eyes widen. "Where's Rachel?"
"She left after fetching me." He watches as she becomes frantic. His senses tingle with suspicion. She's hiding something. "You'll have to be drug tested and get background clearance within seven days or be terminated," he informs her.
She nods in a rush. "No problem. Do you know where the nearest bus stop is? I really do need to get home."
"You'll be waiting on a bus for a while and you seem to be in a hurry. Let me grab a sweatshirt and I'll drive you home."
"No, I can't ask you to do that. I live all the way in Washington Heights."
He grunts, making his distaste for the neighborhood known. "You didn't ask, I volunteered. It's either me or a cab, and I'm sure you don't want that expense."
The drive is tense and quiet. Cristiana's legs bounce anxiously against the cream leather seat of the dark blue Lamborghini. He silently speculates as to what is causing her sudden panicky demeanor. Is it drugs? I'm not letting a drug addict take care of my son. It doesn't matter how good she looks.
She insistently checks the time on her cell phone while exchanging messages with someone. Cole says nothing although his suspicion increases. He's already decided that if she fails the drug test, then she will be out just as fast as she got in.
He follows her directions and pulls up to a storefront with apartments on top of businesses. "Which building is your apartment in?" He asks as his arched eyebrows pull together.
"I live a few blocks over, but I need to stop by the grocery store."
"Oh okay. Well, go get what you need, and I'll drive you home." Cole's tone is decisive. She's hiding something and he's determined to find out what it was.
"It's kind of you to offer, but I really don't mind walking. It's a nice night and I'm familiar with the area."
"A woman was kidnapped and raped while walking alone at night in this area less than a week ago. Washington Heights has a significant crime rate."
"The crime rate here is actually twenty-five percent lower than the national average, Mr. Skylark."
"Call me Cole," he responds, miffed by her odd behavior. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow. Please be careful."
"Thanks for the lift." She climbs out of the car and pretends to walk into the grocery store.
As soon as Cole pulls away, she rushes down the sidewalk towards her apartment building. She makes it home with barely enough time to change into a pair of black leggings and an oversized t-shirt. She scrubs the makeup off her face and pulls her hair into a sloppy updo. Luckily, she thought ahead about dinner. The delicious aromas waft from the slow cooker and fill the apartment. Cristiana is stirring the tortilla soup with a large spoon when Tyson arrives. He drops his bag at the door and walks into the kitchen.
"Hello, how was your day?" Usually, when she greets him, it staves off whatever foul mood he may be in.
"It wasn't the best," he grumbles. "Have you been out today?" His eyes are focused on her as he asks the question.
She flinches at the suspicion lacing his words. "Why?"
"The management office called asking for permission to come into the apartment. They said no one answered when they knocked."
"They must have come while I was at the grocery store."
"I called you for an hour straight and you didn't answer," Tyson responds. He doesn't believe her. It's obvious by his hardened jaw and narrow eyes.
Nonchalantly, she shrugs her shoulders. "I forgot my phone here."
His mouth twists with disbelief. "You expect me to believe it took you an hour at the grocery store."
"Yes, because it's the truth. I don't have a car, so I had to walk there and walk back while carrying bags."
"Dammit Cris, I know you're lying!" His hands slowly ball into fists. "You're seeing someone else. It's that fucker across the hall, isn't it? What's his name? Derrick."
"Derrick is just a friend."
"Alright, then it must be someone else. What's his name?"
"There's no one else. I promise." She backs away from the counter trying to put space between them. With three long strides, he's standing in front of her. Her back is pressed against the refrigerator.
He inhales deeply and closes his eyes. "I can smell his cologne." The words come through his clenched teeth. Before Cristiana has time to blink, he grips her forearms and slams her onto the dining table. The force makes the table flip, dumping her on the floor. He grabs a handful of her hair, yanking her face up so that he can look into her eyes. "I've told you about lying to me. Do you like it when I treat you like this? Is that why you keep testing me?"
"I'm not lying. I swear I've told you everything. Please don't hurt me," she begs. Her eyes are wet with tears.
"Shut up!" His free hand strikes her across the face. He tightens his grip on her hair, dragging her from the kitchen to the bathroom. "Take a shower. You smell like another man." He's beyond reason. Jealousy clouds his thoughts. He shoves her into the shower and turns the water on to scolding hot.
"Get clean now!" He turns on his heel and stomps out of the bathroom.
Under the pouring water, Cristiana shakes with fear. Her wide eyes watch the door waiting for his return. After several minutes pass, she strips out of her clothes and adjusts the water temperature. How is this my life? The sad thought pulls a sob from her trembling lips.
Tyson wasn't always abusive. When she met him, he was a charismatic hunk of chocolate that made her heart beat fast. They dated for a year before they moved in together. She thought he was the one. Then the accident happened. Cristiana was driving after their night out. She had insisted it would be cheaper than taking public transportation. It was Tyson's birthday and he'd drank alcohol like it was water. A pickup ignored a red light and barreled through the intersection right into their car. Cristiana got the most injuries. Her left leg and right arm were broken. Two of her ribs cracked and her right eye was swollen shut. Tyson walked away with a broken hand and sprained ankle but he had to miss a couple weeks of work. He blamed her, especially after she had to give up her job leaving them with only one source of income. That was when he started getting violent. At first, Cristiana was too injured to think about leaving. Her parents had moved to another state. Her sister was a newlywed. Her brother was hours away at university. She didn't have anyone to turn to. Tyson knew and took advantage of it.
In the present, she turns off the water and steps out of the shower just as Tyson opens the door.
"Are you done?" His voice is calm. Cristiana nods, reaching for her towel on the hook on the back of the door. She winces as her back spasms with pain. "Baby let me help you." Tyson snatches down the towel and wraps it gently around her. He sighs heavily. "Dammit Cris, you're bruising on your back. We may have to do a warm compress."
"I'll do it." She mumbles, moving around him to go to their bedroom.
"Let me help you."
"I don't want your help. You're the reason I'm in pain," she snaps bravely. Come this time tomorrow she will be long gone. She just has to make it through the night.
"I love you more than my own life. You're my everything. I can't stand it when you lie to me. I don't want you with someone else. You're going to be my wife someday."
She scoffs humorlessly. "I'll never marry you. All you do is hurt me. Please leave me alone."
He reaches out for her, but she steps back. "Don't say that. I'm sorry, Cris. I've got anger issues. I'm going to get help. We'll get past this."
"I'm going to bed. I'm exhausted." She hurriedly dresses in a large sweatshirt and leggings before carefully pulling back the covers on the bed and laying down.
Tyson gets in bed as well wrapping an arm around her waist. His lips touch her neck. "I love you so much."
"Let me go, please."
"I'll never let you go, Cris. You belong to me. I know I keep messing up, but I swear it'll get better. I love you so much. You have to believe me. Tell me you love me too."
She closes her eyes tight, pretending to be asleep. She has heard those words too many times before. It's a never-ending cycle. He gets angry and hurts her, but as soon as he sees the damage he's done, he becomes apologetic and starts professing his love. She's tolerated the trauma long enough. This is the last night. Tomorrow she will make her great escape.