I hurry across the foyer, ducking behind a marble pillar to avoid the watchful eye of the building’s doorman. I manage to slink behind his back, while keeping up a whispered cell phone conversation with my roommate. As I hold the electronic key to the penthouse elevator keypad, she warns me once again to mend my ways. The door glides open and I dart inside.
“You’re going to get caught. You know that, right?” Chelsea demands.
The door closes silently. I stare at my blurred reflection in the brushed steel. Jeans. Boots. Hoodie. It’s a schlubby look, but I work alone, so who cares? My stomach tightens as the elevator rises. “It’s just three more weeks, and he’ll get his old housekeeper back.”
Chelsea snorts. “Aren’t you worried that he’ll come home early one day? How’s that going to go? Hey, you don’t look like Margie, my sixty-year-old housekeeper!”
“I’ll just explain that Margie’s visiting her ailing sister. She didn’t want to bother him with getting a replacement, so I’m filling in.”
“You were supposed to work there two weeks, not six.”
“Right. I know. Margie’s sister had some complications and it’s taking longer. When Margie comes back, she can pick up where she left off and no one will be the wiser.”
“All right,” Chelsea says in a tone that suggests she thinks this is anything but all right. “But if he catches you, you’d better pray he doesn’t call the police.”
“I would definitely pray he doesn’t call the police. That too.”
The elevator car comes to a stop. The doors slide open. I hold my breath, peer out the door and scan the luxurious apartment. Light fills the rooms, glinting off the glass and steel. Everything about Mr. Savage’s home speaks of power and masculine tastes. As usual, there’s no sign of Mr. Savage. I let out a deep sigh. This is always the most nerve-wracking part of the job. Arriving. I don’t worry too much about him coming home early. Or not as much as I fret about stepping off the elevator one morning and coming face-to-face with the man. It’s not logical, but there it is.
“I could so blackmail you, Tessa,” Chelsea muses.
A jolt of shock hits me hard. I look around the apartment. Everything is pristine. Perfect. Manly. I can’t imagine the man who owns it, but something tells me I don’t want to get on his bad side. If he knew some stranger was here in his home, things might not go well for me.
“I bet you’d do anything to keep your little stunt on the DL. Pretty sure it would be worth something. Tell me again how much you’re making.”
I can tell she’s lying in bed while we chat, sleeping in like she does every morning. The minute she started dating Brendon, she quit both waitressing jobs. I haven’t asked her, so I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing Brendon was paying her portion of the rent, and maybe for other things too. At least, he was until a few days ago. It makes sense to me now, why she keeps hinting at smoothing things over with him.
“Split your loot with me and I’ll keep my mouth shut.” She punctuates her threat with a loud yawn.
“That’s not even funny, Chels. Not by a mile.”
“Oh, relax already. Can’t you take a joke? Do you fall in love with all your clients? What about Neville Shandling? That guy had two jets. I’m telling you, you should have shown up in his kitchen wearing lingerie. You’d be set, girl.”
Her light-hearted tone brings a wave of relief. Yeah, Chelsea could so blackmail me. But she wouldn’t. I’m positive she wouldn’t try and hold this over me or sell me out to anyone.
“Neville Shandling? Ugh, no. I get the impression he wouldn’t have minded, but he was such a fussy eater. I hate fussy eaters. Totally pretentious. He needed fresh, organic, free-range lamb bone broth every day. I swear, people who want a personal chef are totally self-absorbed.” I can’t help smiling. “But not Mr. Savage.”
Chelsea snorts. “He’s not keto-vegan-macro-biotic?”
“No, just regular food. Meatloaf. Roast chicken. Big appetite, but no ingredients that need to be delivered by yak.”
As I walk to the kitchen, Chelsea changes the subject. “Speaking of dinner, Brendon is taking me out to eat tonight.”
She says it in a breezy way, like dinner with Brendon is no big deal. My blood chills in my veins. Last weekend Brendon got drunk and put his fist through the wall of our living room. I had to call the police. He was crazy, all kinds of scary, and threatening both Chels and me. When he realized I’d called 911, he went nuts. He grabbed me by my shirt, yanked the collar so hard, he tore three buttons as he shoved me against the bookshelves.
The police arrived right away, thank goodness, but Chelsea refused to cooperate. She glared at me, warning me not to say anything. The cop drove Brendon home, so he could cool off.
I set the grocery bag on the counter, wincing. My ribs still feel bruised and tender. I can’t believe what she’s telling me. She practically promised me she’d break up with him if I kept my mouth shut.
“I know you don’t like Brendon, but he’s really a sweetheart underneath it all,” Chelsea says, her tone far-off. “He’s just a little rough around the edges.”
I groan. I feel heartsick. I’ve known this girl forever. Chelsea and I were in foster care together. We’ve been together since we were thirteen. Both of us arrived at the group home on the same day. We bonded when we found out that both of our families gave us up for adoption because they had too many kids. When Chels was born her mom was nineteen and already had three kids. My mom was forty-one and divorcing her third husband. Neither woman wanted any contact. Zero. When I tell people my story, they don’t believe me. They think I’m kidding. Who would joke about something like that?
Chelsea got it right away, since she’d been dumped too. She’s the closest thing I have to a sister. We’re tight, besties. We finish each other’s sentences. We’ve always seen eye to eye on just about everything until now.
“He’s very sorry, Tessa.”
“He’s always sorry.”
“I love him. I can’t help it. I’ve tried to stay away but the minute he calls, I melt.”
I rub my forehead. Inside my chest, my heart is a cinder block. The last two nights I sat up with a heartbroken Chelsea, trying to comfort her over the breakup with Brendon. She went through box after box of tissues. It was classic ugly cry. Snot. Wailing. The whole disaster. Chelsea always gets her heart stomped on. I’ve tried to tell her it’s best not to hand it over so easily.
So, nearly no sleep three nights in a row, and for what? For them to get back together.
Usually coming to Mr. Savage’s makes me happy. It’s like walking into a Hollywood set, a land of make believe. Everything is beautiful, and the best of its kind, and perfectly in its place. He’s got this espresso machine that looks like a robot. I’d never seen anything like it. I looked up the brand and saw the price tag… $20K! Ridiculous, but fun. When here my mind goes on vacation, a little fantasy time. But not today. The thought that Brendon and Chels might get back together fills me with dread, even more than the thought of Mr. Savage finding out I’ve switched places with my elderly neighbor, Margie.
“Brendon even offered to take you for dinner,” Chelsea says. “As a sort of peace offering.”
“Ugh.” I jerk my hand to my mouth, but it’s too late to catch my automatic response.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing – I just saw a spider. I mean a bug.”
“I think you’re jealous,” Chelsea snaps.
Jealous? A full-body shudder rolls across me and I’m so grateful she can’t see. I don’t want to explain how Brendon gives me the creeps. Even when he’s sober and somewhat well-behaved, he bothers me. Something about the way he looks at me when Chelsea’s out of the room. A weird, creepy side-eye.
“What can I say?” Chelsea muses with a hint of mock indignation. “I think he feels sorry for you. Ever since I told him you’re still a virgin.”
Shock and embarrassment and a hundred other awful emotions swirl inside my brain. “You told Brendon I’m a virgin? How could you?”
Chelsea snorts. “Please. He thought it was adorable. A little pathetic, but cute. You know, some guys are into that sort of thing. Not Brendon, of course. But someday you’ll find a guy who likes that innocent vibe.”
“I can’t believe you. First of all, I’m not looking for somebody to feel sorry for me. And more importantly, you had no right to share that with Brendon.”
“Pfft… Sorry, Contessa.”
I grit my teeth. Chelsea knows how much I hate that name. She’s one of the few people who know my full name.
I stalk back and forth in the huge kitchen. “That was personal, Chelsea. How could you tell Brendon, of all people?”
“You’ve never liked him, have you?”
“He’s not good enough for you, Chelsea. You deserve someone who treats you well. Really well. You’re better than him.”
“I hate when you get like this. All high and mighty. You’re not a real Contessa, you know? You don’t have to act like you’re better than everyone else.”
My eyes sting. I always cry when I get mad. I hate that about myself. I curl my hand into a fist. I refuse to cry. I won’t. It will only make Chelsea think she’s won the point. I’m trying to make her understand that she doesn’t need to settle for an angry, verbally abusive boyfriend. Chelsea’s my total opposite – tall, willowy, blonde and gorgeous. She doesn’t need a mean, nasty-tempered boyfriend, when she could have any man she wanted. I’ve tried to explain this but more and more, Chelsea is turning into a frenemy.
“You know what, just forget it,” I say, suddenly exhausted. There’s no way to win this argument.
“Please come to dinner with us, Tessa Messa,” Chelsea whines.
“I’m working at the community center kitchen tonight. With the cold snap, they’re expecting a heavier load of clients.”
I love volunteering at the soup kitchen. I’m grateful for a good excuse to avoid Chelsea and Brendon drama this evening. It’s not exactly true though. I’m not scheduled until the weekend. “You’re not bringing him back to the apartment, are you?”
Chelsea giggles. “Maybe. I might let him sweet-talk me into a night of make-up sex.”
I grimace, trying not to think about Brendon and Chelsea getting busy in the room next to me.
“If they need extra help at the community center, I might have to stay overnight.”
I pull that straight out of nowhere. It was more wishful thinking than anything. But staying the night could work. I’ve done it once before when the weather forced a lot of homeless off the streets and into the shelter. They have a dorm area for volunteers to rest and shower. I could stay a little while in the morning and help with breakfast.
“Okay,” Chelsea says in a sing-song voice. “Whatevs. Have fun taking care of the penthouse of your imaginary boyfriend.”
With that, Chelsea ends the call. I shake my head in disbelief. Chelsea’s a different person when she has a boyfriend. Catty. Defensive. I don’t know if she thinks I’m trying to poach her boyfriend or what her deal is.
I put the groceries away, tidy the kitchen and push unpleasant thoughts of Chelsea from my brain. Keeping busy helps. Mr. Savage employs a service to take care of the heavy cleaning. All I need to do is tidy things, run errands and make dinner for Mr. Savage. This is my job Monday through Friday.
With a degree in culinary arts, I should be applying to restaurants for a job as a sous-chef. You know, a real job?
I love cooking. I’ve loved it since I was just a kid. The foster home where I spent my teen years received a special endowment for education. When I graduated from high school, I got a generous scholarship that paid for culinary school. I graduated in the spring with zero debt and even had a little in savings.
Since then, I’ve been a private cook for a few people in Westmoreland. I enjoy my work despite some of my fussy clients, but there’s something about cooking for him that feels special to me. I think about every meal that I make for him, research recipes, make sure everything is fresh and seasonal.
I have no idea what he looks like, but I love picturing him savoring every bite.
In my mind’s eye, he’s perfect. Gentle. Kind-hearted. Sophisticated, maybe. I’m not sure about that last part. I like to picture him as my favorite reality show chef, only taller. The suits in his closet were made for a man who was broad-shouldered and probably six-foot-four.
I often wonder what he does for a living. He never leaves mail or personal items around, so I don’t even know his first name. I could dig in his desk or filing cabinet, but I don’t. It feels wrong to pry into a man’s business, but not even knowing his name makes stalking him impossible.
After I finish cooking and cleaning the kitchen, I try to call the Westmoreland Community Center. People usually just call it the Com Center. If I know they need me to spend the night, and I’ll have a cot in the staff room, I could stop worrying about Brendon.
When no one answers the line at the center, I sit in the living room and send a text to the director. I let myself relax for a moment and look out the window. The view from Mr. Savage’s apartment takes my breath every time. From the thirtieth floor I can see the historic district of Westmoreland and the blue water of the lake beyond.
The sailboats that usually dot the lake aren’t out today. With the early winter storm, the water is choppy. Even from here, I can make out whitecaps. The leaden skies and low, afternoon light have a feeling of sadness about them. Margie will return in a few weeks and take back her job. At that point I’ll have no choice but to look for a real job.
The clock on the wall ticks the moments past, but there’s no reply from the community center. I lie back on the couch and close my eyes. The fabric holds his scent. My body responds the way it always does when I catch a hint of his masculine scent. Trails of awareness tickle my skin. I sink in to the soft cushions. My heart squeezes with bittersweet need.
Hugging the pillow, I yawn and enjoy the moment. Lying down on the couch, Mr. Savage’s couch, is scandalous. I can practically hear Margie’s shocked gasp. At least this isn’t as bad as sneaking into his bedroom and lying down on his bed. I’ve done that once. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was a huge mistake because the scent played a number on me and right after that I started having wicked dirty dreams about my mystery boss.
I yawn and stretch. I shouldn’t rest at all. But my work is done. What could it hurt if I take just a moment to close my eyes while I wait for the text?