A new heartfelt and suspenseful stand-alone novel from New York Timesbestselling author Cassia Leo that will have you on the edge of your seat until the final page!
How much is love worth?
Twenty-two-year-old Kristin and her single mom have always struggled to make ends meet. When her mother’s body begins to deteriorate after many back-breaking years of working as a housekeeper, Kristin must say farewell to her college dreams and hello to a full-time job waitressing. She doesn’t really mind. After all, giving up on her dreams will be her penance for that one horrible night.
Her luck begins to turn when she meets Daniel Meyers at work. Daniel is sexy and funny, but most importantly, he wants to get to know the real Kristin. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also extremely wealthy and intent on protecting her. Kristin feels safe with him. She wants to open up to him, to share the details of the awful night that changed her life. But she can’t shake the feeling that Daniel may be keeping a dark secret of his own…
When I was five, I wondered if I was invisible—not metaphorically speaking, but actually invisible. I would watch in complete silence as my mom came home from a fourteen-hour shift, cleaning up other people’s messes. Quiet as a mouse, I would heat her a plate of whatever meat or pasta I’d smothered in sauce in a desperate attempt to cover up my lack of culinary skills. She’d collapse onto the sofa, turn on the evening news, and accept her saucy dinner with a tired smile. Then I’d retreat to my bedroom and dream of a world where I existed. It wasn’t until a rainy evening in September two years ago, my fingernails peeling off as I desperately clawed my way up the slick blackness of a highway embankment, that I finally realized how tangible I was; how heavily I was anchored to this merciless world.
As I stepped into the hallway of our five-floor walkup in the Bronx, the bright yellow notice taped to my front door told me I was about to be dealt another wake-up call.
“What the fuck?” My curse came out much louder than I had anticipated.
Dropping my canvas bag of groceries on the floor, I quickly snatched the paper off the door, but not quick enough to avoid my neighbor’s prying eyes. Mr. Williams walked out of his apartment as I stuffed the notice into my grocery bag.
“Good morning, Mr. Williams,” I said, breathing far too heavily for a casual walk to the bodega. “How’s your day so far?”
He tilted his head a bit as his dark eyes remained focused on my bag. “Is that an eviction notice?”
I dug frantically through the receipts and half-used drugstore makeup in my purse for my house key. “It’s just a mixup,” I replied with a chuckle. “Same thing happened a couple weeks. At least this time it happened on a Monday morning instead of a Friday night. I’m heading straight to the property manager’s office as soon as I get these groceries in the fridge.”
“Is everything okay with you and your ma?” he asked through narrowed eyes.
“We’re fine,” I said, forcing a smile. “Thank you so much for asking, but we’re just fine. This is just a huge mixup.”
Mr. Williams scratched his scraggly white beard, which sparsely covered his chestnut-brown skin. “Okay,” he said, slowly nodding his head. “Well, if you need anything, don’t you hesitate to holler at this old fool.”
My smile widened, and this time it was genuine. “Thank you, Mr. Williams. I promise I’ll do that.”
He tilted his head back and beamed with pride. “That’s a good girl. You take care now,” he said, then ambled back into the apartment across the hall.
I rushed inside the humid apartment I shared with my mother in the South Bronx. Closing the door softly behind me—so as not to attract the attention of any more neighbors—I power walked into the kitchen and tossed my canvas grocery bag onto the counter. I yanked out the bright yellow eviction notice and contemplated the ten-digit phone number scrawled on it in black marker.
No. I wasn’t going to give those incompetent pricks at the property management office the courtesy of calling before I showed up. No way would I give them time to come up with some trumped up violation that my mother or I had supposedly committed.
Despite the fact that our building was more than a hundred years old and in serious disrepair, the bylaws consisted of a list of rules at least sixty-pages long. The list was mailed to us every year with an offer to renew the lease—with another rent increase, of course. And every year, the list got longer. I swear to God, one rule stipulated we were not allowed to walk around in high heels after 10 p.m. I supposed it was a good thing I had no social life, so I was in no danger of violating that rule.
Of course, whatever bone the management was picking with us now was probably not due to anything I did or didn’t do. The eviction notice was almost certainly a response to what I had threatened to do. Three weeks ago, I threatened to file an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) complaint if they didn’t fix the handrail in the stairwell between the fourth and fifth floors.
When my mom and I moved into this apartment more than ten years ago, my mom was in excellent physical shape. Despite the fact that she had spent most of her life working as a housekeeper, she had managed to take good care of her body. Until she fell off a ladder at home, while trying to hide my birthday present on the top shelf of my bookcase. With a shattered kneecap, she lowered herself down five flights of stairs and outside to hail a cab, all with a shard of bone protruding out of her knee.
Three surgeries later, she was desperate to return to work so I could return to NYU, but no one would hire her back. She was too much of a liability. I never went back to school and my mom’s health has only deteriorated more with each passing day. She claims it’s a side effect of old age, but she’s only forty-eight. If I were a doctor, my professional opinion would be that my mom was slowly dying of a broken heart.
The eldest of four sisters, she left the small town in North Dakota where she grew up to make her way in New York City when she was just nineteen. After a brief brush with homelessness, she decided cleaning houses was better than begging. She started her own cleaning business when she was my age. Two years later, I was born and her dreams of expanding her business to a franchise were dashed as she struggled to keep the business afloat while taking care of me with no help from her family or my absent father. To outsiders, hers seemed like a sob story. If you asked my mom, she’d tell you she was just wildly lucky.
If the notice was left on the door, that meant my mom wasn’t home, which meant our neighbor Leslie had come by to take her shopping. Leslie was a stay-at-home mother with two kids in high school and a husband who drove a bus for MTA. She was dyslexic and never learned to read well, which I suspected was the reason she stayed home, but she still worked hard. She helped my mom up and down the stairs twice a week, and each her kids were involved in more activities than I could count. Having amazing neighbors like Leslie and Mr. Williams was one of the many reasons I never tried to move to another apartment building with an elevator.
One subway ride and nine blocks of walking in the glaring summer sun later, I arrived, sweaty and determined, at the front doors of Golde Property Management. I entered through the glass double doors, which squeaked on their hinges as I pushed my way inside. The black and gold confetti design on the linoleum looked like something straight out of a ’70s discotheque. The faux oak furniture in the waiting room, with the wood grain laminate peeling off the corners, confirmed that I had stepped into an office stuck in another time.
In the decade since we moved into our apartment, and even since I began paying the rent a few years ago, I’d never had to visit Golde Property Management. I always paid the rent on time, and I always agreed to the new lease terms I received in my mailbox once per year. If I had known that they were living in the ’70s, I wouldn’t have bothered asking them to bring our apartment up to ’80s building standards. Nonetheless, I needed to clear up this eviction nonsense. The last thing I needed was for my mother and I to be thrown out onto our asses for an easily cleared up mixup.
The receptionist sat at a desk behind a sliding glass window at the back of the waiting room. She watched me approach without even attempting to smile.
I slid the yellow eviction notice across the counter onto her side of the glass. “I want to know what this is about.”
She spun in her chair to face her computer, positioning her fingers over the keyboard. “What’s the property address?”
“Twenty-four eighty-three Hughes,” I replied abruptly.
She typed in the address, then her eyes scanned down to the lower right part of the computer screen and stopped. “It says here that the eviction notice was posted today 10:02 am by the Bronx County Sheriff’s Department due to violation of the rental agreement. The violation listed here is non-payment of rental dues in the amount of $7,050.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Are you kidding me? Our monthly rent is $1,175. $7,050 is what, like, six months’ rent? We’re not even late one month, let alone six. I want to speak to a manager.”
She rolled her eyes as she picked up the beige phone handset and dialed an extension. “Is Jerry in his office?” she asked the person on the other end. “I’ve got a tenant here who says she’s paid up, but she just got served.” She sighed as she held the handset between her ear and shoulder. “Well, tell him when he’s done with his meeting that I got someone waiting for him up here. Okay, okay.” She hung up the phone and looked up at me with a bored expression. “He’s in a meeting with an investor. You’ll have to wait a few minutes.”
I wanted to protest for the simple fact that if I caused a scene it might ruin their chances with the investor, but I decided not to press my luck. “I’ll be waiting right over there,” I said, nodding toward the tweed sofa in the waiting area.
Taking a seat on the sofa that smelled like desperation, I picked up a copy of the NY Post from the coffee table. The paper was dated thirteen months ago. This place needed an investor more than I needed to an apartment building with an elevator.
I had just finished reading a story about a feud between the hosts of two popular YouTube channels when a door leading into the back office opened. The first man who stepped into the waiting area—whom I assumed was Jerry—looked to be about sixty years old, and wore brown slacks and a short-sleeved blue oxford thin enough to show the dinginess of the tank top he wore underneath. The second man who walked through the door looked more like a mirage than a man.
He was no more than thirty years old, wearing a sharp navy-blue suit and a swagger in his step that said he didn’t just own the place, he owned the world. His dark hair was short, but not so short you couldn’t notice it held the perfect amount of wave. Every inch of him, from his prominent brow, to his broad shoulders and beyond looked sturdy. Like he was built to last a thousand lifetimes.
But it was his face that made me wonder if I was actually seeing things. His strong jaw and brilliant green eyes looked as if they’d been chiseled by Michelangelo. As a former student of sculpture at NYU, I could make that type of comparison in the more literal sense. If this investor bought Golde Property Management, I’d probably sign a hundred-year lease.
I shrugged off this ridiculous thought. It wasn’t as if this wealthy God-like man was going to send my next lease renewal along with a handwritten marriage proposal. Will you be my wife? Check yes or no. Please send reply with full rent payment by the first of the month.
“Are you Kristin?”
I snapped out of my absurd fantasy to find the man I suspected to be Jerry staring at me as he held the door to the back office open. “Excuse me?”
“Are you Kristin Owens?” he replied. “Here about the eviction notice?”
The pang of embarrassment in my belly was the spark that set my blood aflame with anger. “Yes, I want to know what this is all about,” I said, getting to my feet as I held the yellow paper in front of me. “We’ve paid our rent on time every single month for the past ten years. If this is about me threatening to—”
Jerry held up his hand to interrupt me. “Okay, okay. Let’s go into my office,” he said, his expression a mixture of shame and anger, probably because I just made a scene in front of his potential investor. He looked up at the man, “I look forward to hearing from you again, Mr. Meyers. Jennie over there can validate your parking.”
Mr. Meyers cocked an eyebrow as he looked me over. “Maybe I should sit in on this.”
Jerry waved off the suggestion. “Oh, no, this is just routine admin stuff. It will be over in two minutes. Don’t want to waste your time.”
I stared at Jerry, making no attempt to avoid looking directly at the huge hairy mole protruding from his temple. “So now I’m a waste of time?” I asked. “If you think you can get away with—”
“Excuse me,” Meyers interrupted by holding up one finger on his large hand. “Earlier, did you say you’ve paid your rent on time every single month for the past ten years. So, forgive me if I’m wrong, that allows you to continue living in the unit until any further disputes are settled in court. Am I right?”
Jerry shook his head. “But she hasn’t paid her rent,” he insisted. “I thought it was strange when the computer spit out the notice, but they only come up when a tenant is coming up on six months’ past due. Computers don’t lie. People lie.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I shouted. “Are you calling me a liar? You piece of trash. I swear to God, I will bury you in so many legal—
“Whoa-whoa-whoa…” Meyers interrupted again. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said, casting a calm, confident look in my direction, holding my gaze for a moment before he turned back to Jerry. “You said computers don’t lie, but they do sometimes glitch. You even said, you thought it was strange the computer spit out her name.”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t randomly spit out names all day long,” Jerry objected.
Meyers nodded his head and pressed his lips together in an expression that said he understood where Jerry was coming from. This guy was good. He was refereeing this dispute like a seasoned mediator.
“But it’s possible the computer got it wrong,” Meyers continued as he looked back and forth between Jerry and me, smiling when I crossed my arms over my chest. “How about this? I’ll pay the past due amount until you can figure out the glitch in the system. Does that sound fair?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you,” he replied. His veneer of confidence cracked for just a fraction of a second before he regained his composure. “You’re right. It’s very presumptuous of me to think I could settle this with the swipe of a pen. Forgive me.” He turned to Jerry and gave him a curt nod. “I have some…thinking to do. I’m not sure your organization is a good fit for us. We’ll be in touch.”
“Wait!” Jerry shrieked. “I think she was just taken by surprise with your offer. Right, Christina?”
“Kristin,” I corrected him. “And I don’t need him to pay my rent. I already paid it. I need you to fix this!” I crumpled the yellow eviction notice and dropped it at his feet.
“I can’t,” Jerry replied as Meyers quietly made his way to the receptionist’s desk. “My lawyer handles the evictions. He won’t close the file until the rent’s paid in full. I can’t pay him if I don’t have your money.”
“You have my money!” I yelled so loudly I could almost hear my vocal cords snap.
I cursed myself as tears stung the corners of my eyes. Blinking them away, I glanced over my shoulder, expecting to find Meyers staring aghast at my lack of control. He probably wasn’t use to that sort of thing in his perfect world of privilege. But he wasn’t there. He was gone. I didn’t know if I felt more relieved that he hadn’t witnessed my outburst, or disappointed that the only sure way out of this eviction mess—at least, temporarily—had just walked out of my life.
God, why didn’t I just let him help me? It wasn’t as if I knew the guy. I didn’t need to maintain some foolish sense of pride in front of him.
I was becoming more and more like my mother every day. “It’s taken care of.”
I looked up at the sound of the receptionist’s bored voice.
She waved a piece of paper in the air, which looked suspiciously like a check. “He took care of your rent,” she said, looking annoyed.
I turned to Jerry, but all he did was shrug.
What the fuck just happened?