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New York Nights (Heart of the City #2)

By:C.J. Duggan

New York Nights (Heart of the City #2)
        Author: C.J. Duggan

Chapter One

Let's get one thing clear. Being an au pair is nothing like in The Sound of Music. To start with, I'm certainly not a nun, I have zero musical abilities, and I failed sewing in high school. There's no handsome Captain von Trapp and there's definitely no choreographed frolicking.

All that aside, it had sounded appealing. The plan was I would sacrifice x amount of hours caring for someone else's children, then stroll through a foreign city during my downtime, immerse myself in some culture, learn another language, study maybe, truly find myself, all before falling in love with a wealthy fisherman called Pascal who enjoyed crafting small objects out of wood with his bare hands. Come nightfall, we'd make an incredible paella with the freshest seafood while we sipped wine, arms interlinked as we toasted to us. I mean, we all have to have goals, right?

The reality was somewhat different. For one, I landed a job in my painfully small hometown in Australia, so the chances of meeting a handsome fisherman called Pascal were pretty slim. Instead, my days consisted of shampooing a toddler's hair or wiping the bottom of a five-year-old, and defrosting meat for an early dinner. It was hard to feel like an adult when sitting at a tiny table with my knees around my ears, trying to convince the children how delicious each mouthful was. 'Look, they're little trees, eat your little trees,' I'd say, coaxing them to eat broccoli.

And as much as my employers made me a part of their family, there was never that feeling of freedom, the kind that let me wander into the lounge to flake out on the sofa and idly channel surf, or to fling open the fridge for an impromptu snack. There was no inviting friends over for dinner and definitely no bringing guys around. It wasn't all bad, but it had been my whole life for the past three years, and I had needed a change.

Now, seemingly a million miles from home, I sat on a plush white sofa, shoulders squared, surrounded by white walls and fresh white flowers. Everything was white, save the glass-and-gold coffee table dividing me from them: Penny Worthington and her equally cold daughter, Emily Mayfair. Like her mother, Emily's smile didn't reach her eyes; there was no warmth there. She swept her blonde bob from her face and looked down at the paper she was holding, no doubt a background check they'd organised through a private detective. I wouldn't have put it past them.

'Won't be long now, we're just waiting on one other,' said Emily. Even her name sounded like she had married into money: Lord Mayfair or something equally distinguished. So distinguished I had been rather taken aback. The Worthington's driver  –  yes, they had a driver  –  had picked me up from the Park Central Hotel and driven me to a beautiful brownstone in Turtle Bay Gardens. I'm not sure what I had expected; I'd always thought of New York as cramped apartments with fire escapes and air-conditioner boxes hanging out of the windows. Instead I saw an enclave of row houses, gardens arranged to form a common space with a stone path down the centre and a fountain modelled after the Villa Medici in Tuscany, or so Dave the driver informed me. 

'Oh, Emily, I think we'll just begin. You know what Dominique is like.'

Dominique? Who was she? Was Emily the mother of the children I was meant to be caring for, or the less-punctual Dominique? And more importantly, why was I about to be interviewed by three women? I took a sip of the water I was holding, kindly provided by the maid. A driver and a maid; they made my previous employers, the rather self-sufficient Liebenbergs, look middle-class. I chose to hold onto my glass of water for fear of leaving a condensation ring on the coffee table. I was certain that act alone would mean instant dismissal.

'So, Miss Williams, tell us a bit about yourself,' Emily said, skimming the pages before looking at me expectantly.

Oh God, how had I not prepared for perhaps the most obvious question of all? Somehow I'd thought I could simply wing it, turn on a bright and cheerful  –  not ditsy  –  façade and fake some confidence. I started by making eye contact with the maid, who promptly came forward and took away my empty glass. But before I could begin the Sarah Williams story there was a distant commotion; doors were slamming and a voice spoke loudly out in the entrance.

Penny Worthington closed her eyes, apparently silently summoning the strength to remain calm. Emily sighed deeply. The maid prepared to throw herself into the path of the impending cyclone.

'Hello Frieda, my love, how's that gorgeous man of yours?' A loud and heavily pregnant blonde woman burst into the room. She shimmied out of her jacket and handed it, and her purse, to a mortified-looking Frieda.

'He is well, thank you, Miss Dominique.'

'Frieda, how many times do I have to tell you? Call me Nikki; every time you say Dominique it's like you're running fingers down a blackboard.' Dominique, or rather Nikki, brushed wisps of hair out of her face. She had none of Penny and Emily's poise or elegance but as soon as Nikki turned I saw the same perfect nose and blue-grey eyes. There was no mistaking that she was Penny's daughter.

'Hello, Mother.' She pecked Penny on the top of the head. 'Sorry I'm late.' She waddled around the couch and sat beside Emily.

'You're always late,' said Emily through pursed lips.

'Well, you're always in a bad mood, so neither one of us can win. Ugh, Frieda, my love, can you please get me a water? I am so fat.' She sighed, turning to look at me with a big smile. 'And you must be Sarah?'

I knew within an instant of her turning that smile on me that I loved her. Warmth and authenticity just radiated from her.

I stood, leaning over to shake her hand so she didn't have to bend over her belly. 'And you must be Nikki?'

Her smile broadened as she looked at her sister and then at me. 'Oh, I like you, you don't miss a beat.'

I was flooded with relief, inwardly saying a prayer that it was Nikki's children I would be caring for and not Emily's. My eyes skimmed her belly, thinking maybe this was the reason I had been called here so quickly; maybe Nikki, clearly the black sheep of the family, needed help with her soon-to-be-here baby.

'We haven't begun as yet, Dominique. We had just asked Sarah to tell us about herself.'

Something told me that there would be no way in hell Penny would resort to calling Dominique 'Nikki'.

'Oh, come on,' Nikki said, rolling her eyes, 'don't you know enough about the poor girl? How many more hurdles must she jump before you give her the job?'


Penny and Emily had matching glares, and it wasn't just because they had the same eyes, although that probably helped.

'Let me ask a question,' Nikki said, propping herself on a cushion that looked like it was more for show than actual use. 'What brought you here, Sarah?'

It was a question that was not easy to answer. Being dumped from the Liebenbergs' employment had not exactly been part of the plan, but neither had following them to Slovenia where they were opening a remote medical practice. Admitting as much, however, might make me seem unreliable, and an au pair is nothing if not reliable; I would have to think of something better.

Nikki looked at me as if trying to tell me that she wanted my answer to be perfect, so I responded honestly.

'I've dreamed of New York City all my life. I am so grateful to Dr Liebenberg for setting up this interview for me, I know he is a very good friend of your family.'

Penny stared at me; there was a long, uncomfortable silence as I waited for her to say something, but she was giving me nothing. I cleared my throat and glanced at Nikki, who smiled and nodded, encouraging me to continue.

'The moment I stepped off the plane I knew I'd made the right move. I feel I'm more than ready for this new chapter of my life.'

'And you believe you can handle a challenge?' Emily asked, her perfectly sculpted eyebrows raised in interest.

'I'm the eldest of four from a working-class family so I've been surrounded by children all my life, in times when it wasn't easy. But my family worked hard, banded together and pulled through. I don't shy away from anything  –  my stomach doesn't turn, and the tears don't flow. I mean, I'm not a robot or anything, but I come from tough stock. I will love the children and I will care for them, something that was never more apparent to me than when working for the Liebenbergs. I cared for their boys, Alex and Oscar, since they were babies, which was a challenge, but I loved my time there.'

'Dennis did provide a rather impressive recommendation for you,' Penny said finally. 'And I am going to be completely honest with you: if it wasn't for that recommendation, I seriously doubt I would have let you through that door.'

Okay, ouch.

'You see, I don't much care how many brothers and sisters you have or how hard it was for your father to put food on the table  –  that doesn't affect me one way or the other. Nor do I care for any girlish fantasies you have about traipsing around New York City. What I care about is you being fully present; in your mind, in your heart. That your dedication is solely to my grandchild.

'You are to ask no questions, you are to simply do what is required and nothing more. If you are successful, you will be given a full induction on what is expected of you. You will sign a non-disclosure form.'