"Your address, miss?"
Jia's head jerked up. "Sorry," she said hastily, wanting to pinch herself for zoning out in a stranger's car.
This was why she preferred the subway. Yes, it would have taken far longer than this forty minute drive from Manhattan to the Bronx, but anonymity among strangers felt so much safer. And she could only imagine what kind of attention they were attracting now as they cruised down a dirty, pot-hole ridden street manned only by a few homeless, some delinquents out past curfew, and generally everything that the rich and glitzy Manhattan wasn't. The Bronx borough - particularly this side of it - was a different kind of beast altogether.
"If you could just drop me off at the intersection of Mancala and Grant, I'd appreciate it."
"I have strict orders to see you to your doorstep, ma'am," the chauffeur said apologetically. "It is very late. And I think in your state, you may draw the wrong attention."
"I have something to do before I get home, sir," Jia lied. Vague, yes, but he couldn't disprove it. That was her business.
Too bad; he seemed like a nice man. She wished she could be honest with him, but circumstances weren't so forgiving. Talk about a stereotype, though, she thought privately: a chauffeur in his mid-forties, elegantly sporting salt-and-pepper hair, and a faded English accent on top of that? Ticked off all the boxes.
At least appeared far more personable than his employer, Atlas Grayson. She hadn’t been able to help but like his smile when he held the car door open for her earlier on the curb in front of the restaurant. There had been no judgment or discontent in his eyes, even though he must have wondered about the sudden development.
Indeed, Atlas Grayson had given him no explanation for his orders to take Jia home. Nor had he said anything about what he planned to do with Richard, who still lay unconscious in the VIP room and possibly missing a few teeth now.
"You don't work here, remember?" Atlas had sardonically replied when she protested leaving. "You need to get out of here. I'll handle things. Someone will come by in the morning to pick you up at eight, so be ready."
With no choice but to reluctantly obey, Jia had found herself where she was now, in the backseat of his car. Leather seats with heating functionality, a spotless interior, tinted windows - this luxurious German sedan was worth far more than Jia would ever be able to afford in her lifetime.
"I am happy to take you there as well, ma'am," the man offered kindly. "But I still need to know your address for the morning."
Ah, right, Jia thought with a sinking heart. Mr. Grayson had told her to be ready by eight. She was supposed to start her morning shift at the restaurant again at seven-thirty, but that was out of the question now. Incidentally, that left her with a conspicuously unoccupied block of time tomorrow until the evening, something that the man had taken full advantage of.
"It would be a lot of trouble for you to come out this way," she said, trying to steer destiny in a more favorable direction. "I can take the subway and be where I'm needed. I'll be early, and that way I won't be such an imposition."
"That's all right, miss."
"Please, call me Jia." Maybe she just needed to make it more personal to sway the chauffeur. Her heart thudded anxiously; until she knew what kind of trouble she was in, she didn't want to reveal her address. She couldn't let the twins get pulled into this.
"Then I'll have to insist you call me William," the man responded warmly, and despite her nervousness, Jia felt the uneasy knot in her stomach relax. Something about him made her want to trust him, but she couldn't afford to take that risk...could she?
"I don't know your exact circumstances, Jia, but I promise you that nothing untoward will happen. I only want to see you safe, and I suspect it'll do both of us good to have someone watching your back tonight. Even if it's only to your doorstep."
Jia looked down at her lap where the tattered top half of her apron lay in a crumple, and a small wave of guilt brushed her conscience. William did seem genuinely worried. It didn't take a rocket scientist to guess what might have happened to her, even if he hadn't been there to personally witness it. It was obvious she had been a victim of violence tonight, and if their positions were reversed, she was sure she would have had a similar reaction.
It was getting late, too. With a defeated sigh, Jia gave William her address, and several minutes later, he came to a slow stop outside an old apartment building. She had only just undone her seatbelt when the chauffeur came out of the car and opened the door for her.
"Thank you," she said in a small voice, cowed by his elegant kindness.
"You are very welcome, Miss Jia. Have a good night."
Jia waved goodbye just before disappearing through the building entrance. She quickly took off her torn tuxedo apron and draped it over her arm to hide its condition before trudging up the stairs to the second landing. She would just tell her brother and sister that work had run late, that was all.
If she was careful, they wouldn't notice anything. Or maybe they were already asleep.
She slid her key into the lock and slowly unlatched the deadbolt. With a slow, cautious push, she eased the door open, revealing a small, dim living room. On the two seater sofa inside, two lumps huddled against either arm under a shared blanket.
"You two should be in bed."
Only one pair of eyes glanced up at her. "Come in, you're letting the heat out. And Jini, move your feet. You're kicking me in the shins." The boy shoved at his twin's knee under the blanket. "Jini, move."
Jia sighed and stepped into the apartment. "It's a school night. Go to bed, guys." The door latched shut behind her.
"Did you at least bring home something to eat if you're staying out this late?" Jini had yet to look up from her phone. "Or did you get a promotion or something?"
"You two didn’t eat yet? Well, it’s too late now, so save your appetite for breakfast." Jia took off her shoes and set them against the wall, barely registering the sarcasm in the girl’s questions. "Brush your teeth and go to bed."
"Do you ever give it a rest, Jia." Jini threw off her corner of the blanket and stood up. "As soon as you walk through the door, it’s a lecture from you. Whatever." She stalked off down the narrow hallway on the other side of the living room, and a few seconds later, the door slammed shut behind her.
Jia glanced around, wondering if the neighbors would pound on the walls in response to the noise. When nothing happened, she sighed again and turned to look at Jisu. "You too," she said softly. "It's late."
"She's mad because of the math invitational this weekend. You never said for sure if you were coming, so I told her you probably weren't going to make it. It's fine, though. We're allowed to go without a chaperone this year since we're sixteen now, so no need." The boy slid out from the blanket and stretched, reaching for the ceiling with both hands.
When had he grown so tall? Jia wondered. And Jini, too, for that matter. "I'll do my best, but something came up tonight -"
"Something always comes up. Aren't you tired of it yet?" He shrugged before she could answer. "I'm not giving you a hard time. I'm just saying - aren't you tired?" And then he swayed off down the hallway as well, leaving Jia alone in the darkness.
She wanted a shower. Needed one, really, but instead she walked over and reached down to grab the blanket that had dropped onto the carpet. She laid it out with a billow over the seat cushions before settling underneath it with a long, weary exhale.
The digital clock on the rickety end table by her head was set to six, but as she took deep, calming breaths to soothe her frazzled nerves, she feared she wouldn't be able to sleep at all.
Atlas Grayson, her mind whispered. What in the world was she going to do?
"Mr. Grayson, you have a guest waiting in the lobby. Would you like to see her now?""We're not done here.""Yes, sir. My apologies, sir."The intercom clicked off with a swipe of Atlas's finger scarcely before the woman on the other end of the line, his newest assistant, had finished speaking. "You can continue, Daniel," he said with a wave of his hand as if he hadn't just potentially scarred yet another new assistant with his coldness. It didn't matter. She probably wasn't going to last long anyway. "You were saying?"Another man stood before him on the other sid
“Why do you want to work here?"Jia hesitated. “I’m sorry?” she asked, eyeing the man behind the desk with a leery uncertainty disguised as a case of bad hearing. Or maybe she really had heard him wrong, because what he asked made no sense at all. Last she had checked, she hadn’t had a choice in coming here.“Why,” he repeated, stressing the syllable with a sardonic impatience, “do you want to work here, I said.”“I…” Was this a test, or some kind of sick joke? She was here because he had blackmailed her, plain and simple. Jia wished Mr. Grayson had at least invited her to sit before b
“Do I have to pay for all of this?”Lydia gave Jia a scolding look with a furrow of her perfectly plucked eyebrows. “Don’t be silly,” she chided before dropping the pile of clothes into the other woman’s arms. “Who would make you pay to take old discards? Imagine. We have to pay to get our trash taken out, you know.”Jia’s eyes dropped down to inspect the expensive fabrics with an apprehensive grimace. True, she had never had an eye for fashion. But these looked just as stylish and modern as any ensemble fitted onto mannequins in department stores, all far beyond her budget. Trash, Lydia had said, but if this was trash, what did that make her wardrobe?“Are you sure these are discards?”she repeated skeptically, and squinted at the topmost article on the stack. Was that a Gucci logo? Discard, really?“Well, all right, not all of them are,” admitted Lydia. “But the damage you would do to our image if
Jia breathed a sigh of relief when Lydia finally put away the binder full of the Dos and Don'ts of dealing with Atlas Grayson. The other woman was still barreling through a heated scolding session on how inappropriate Jia's conduct had been back in the CEO's office, but after twenty minutes of haranguing her for it, she finally seemed as though she were beginning to tire out.“I understand," said Jia, keeping her voice patient and calm as if soothing a spooked horse. “It won't happen again.”“I told you to never question him! Even things like how he would like his coffee or how the day is are off-limits, and then you go and directly contradict him - !”Jia resisted the urge to jump up and flee the room. Of all the ridiculous insanities of her circumstances, the reverential fear the assistant had for her boss had to take the cake. What was this, a cathedral? Was Atlas Grayson the pope? She swallowed the resigned sigh building in her
“Mr. Grayson is unavailable to take your call, but I can pass on a message for you.”Lydia was somehow juggling three binders, her smartphone, a stack of unstapled sheets, and a large coffee while handling the phone call with the utmost professional demeanor. She sounded downright automated.“I will make sure your message reaches him. Thank you, Mr. Li. We look forward to the conference tomorrow.”The phone dropped back into the pocket of her slim suit jacket, and Jia was left mystified by how exactly the woman had achieved such a feat when both of her hands were still full. Lydia seemed to think nothing of it as she proceeded to speed down the corridor with all the urgency of a Formula 1 car on a straightaway. Somehow, despite being taller than the blonde and most definitely possessing a longer stride, Jia found herself panting slightly to keep up.“Daniel is our Chief Operating Officer,” said Lydia as they rounded
“Close the door behind you, please.”Jia floundered for an instant before she regained the sense of mind to respond to the request. Right, the door. She hastily stepped forward so that she could let it latch shut behind her, but her stare quickly darted back to pin itself onto the young man again. He was the Chief Operating Officer? But how…? Maybe she just thought she recognized him, she told herself, but that couldn’t be it: he had recognized her, too. He had even called her by name.And there was no mistaking that face, of course. A woman would have to be blind to not confess his beauty, with those elfin features and striking green eyes.She didn’t realize she was still staring goggle-eyed at him until Lydia discreetly jabbed her in the side with a well-placed elbow in passing. “These are the documents,” the woman was saying, and Jia catapulted herself back into the present with a firm mental slap. She succeeded just in tim
“Last night?”“Yes,” said Daniel, and Jia had to force her facial muscles to relax so that she wouldn’t remain a dead ringer for a marble statue, paralyzed by panic. Those extraordinarily intelligent eyes wouldn’t miss a thing; she needed to say something to dispel his curiosity before he delved any deeper.She had to act natural, casual. And bored, too, she thought frantically, but without making it obvious she was hiding something. The last thing she wanted was to accidentally pique his interest by being too mysterious.But what should she say? Should she lie? But what if he then asked Atlas, who might or might not reveal everything anyway? Maybe a half-truth then - but Jia couldn’t rifle through the facts and figure out which were ‘boring’ enough to safely tell.Whatever you say, don’t say that it’s a funny story, she told herself sternly as she took in a deep breath, still scrambling for the right words
Daniel already knew how and where and when everything had begun, but the true dilemma had been knowing how little Jia could get away with telling him. She didn’t want to reveal the minute details of her home situation no matter how helpful he wanted to be, or even genuinely seemed to be.But without the proper context, it was impossible to make him understand why she had been so afraid of getting the police involved, why she had begged Atlas to let it all go, and how he exercised such a lopsided advantage over her now because of it.But above all else, Jia knew her priority was to extricate herself from Atlas Grayson’s powerful grasp. She had responsibilities, two kid siblings who depended on her back home. Whatever Atlas’s game was, she knew it couldn’t possibly be good for her.There was no reason to believe this bogus “position” he had given her as the assistant of his assistant would even pay her any wages, muc