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Chapter 1

127 East Fifty-seventh Street, New York City

    $325? No, it couldn’t be right, Cynthia decided, gazing up at the luxury Manhattan high-rise.
    “Excuse me,” Cynthia asked as she approached a uniformed doorman. “Is this 127 East Fifty-seventh Street?”
    “Yes, miss,” he said, tipping his hat and opening the large glass door wide for her to enter.
    “Oh, thank you,” she replied, awed by her surroundings as she stepped inside the elegant lobby, almost in disbelief. Cynthia rummaged through her canvas tote and found the printout of the Craigslist ad. That’s what it said, all right. 127 East Fifty-seventh
Street. $325 a month.
    This has to be some sort of mistake, Cynthia concluded,admiring the gorgeous swirls of marble in the magnificent foyer. No apartments for that price in New York City had marble lobbies, let alone a doorman. Not to mention working indoor fountains. She should know; Cynthia had been apartment hunting for five days straight, sleeping on a skimpy blanket on the cold linoleum floor of cousin Rachel’s studio apartment, which she learned cost well over $1,000 a month. Cynthia’s apartment hunt had taught her, up until now, that $325 a month got you a closet somewhere in Brooklyn. But because Brooklyn was less than ideal for walking to her posh fashion dream job in the four-inch designer pumps she soon would own, she had to follow up on this lead.
    “I’m looking for 21PH, please,” Cynthia said with hesitation as she approached the large mahogany reception desk and the three well-suited attendants.
    “Yes, miss,” one said with a friendly smile. “You are here to see Miss Jessica, I presume?”
    Cynthia consulted the ad clutched tightly in her hand. Jessica Smith, it said, clear as day. She nodded, scared a peep would press her luck.
    “Right this way,” the attendant said with a smile, pointing to the elevators. “The penthouse suite, miss. The elevator will take you directly there.”
    Cynthia stepped into the polished wood capsule and pressed the shiny brass button labeled “PH,” certain she was in some sort of dream. “Three hundred twenty-five a month, three hundred twenty-five a month,” she repeated in disbelief, all the while scrutinizing the ad for some digit she must have missed. When the elevators arrived at the penthouse, Cynthia stepped carefully out onto the shiny marble floors outside the apartment door. Before she could even think to knock, the heavy door opened, revealing a plump, glossy-haired, twenty-something brunette in a too-tight Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress and a generous amount of jewelry, standing in the doorway with a sour expression.
    “Hello, Jessica?” Cynthia said hesitantly.
    “Like, what?” the girl asked, chomping loudly on her gum, her sausage-like arm making a barricade against the doorframe. Cynthia would have been more put off if she wasn’t so dazzled by the sparkle of a gorgeous crystal chandelier dangling in the foyer behind Jessica.
    “I’m, um, I’m here about the room,” Cynthia stumbled on her words, holding out the crumpled ad to help explain herself. Jessica didn’t say a word. She looked Cynthia up and down, as if mentally sizing up Cynthia’s outfit of a T-shirt, jeans, and Keds. She snapped her gum loudly and continued to stare, probably noting, Cynthia thought, that her clothes weren’t from designer labels, her fingernails were not at all manicured, and her long blonde hair was indeed overdue for a trim.
    After a long pause, Cynthia sighed. What was she thinking? Obviously any apartment with a crystal chandelier was much more expensive than she could afford. Certain the deal was too good to be true, Cynthia withdrew the Craigslist ad and stuffed it back into her tote. “I’m sorry, I must be in the wrong place,” she said with a sigh of disappointment. “I thought there was a room for rent,” she said, turning back toward the elevator in defeat.
    “Yeah, there, like, is,” Jessica replied, taking a moment away from gum chewing, but maintaining her haughty attitude. 
    Cynthia whipped back around. “For $325 a month?” she asked, certain that Jessica would correct her. Either this girl didn’t realize the market value of her apartment, or she was playing some cruel joke.
    “Yeah,” Jessica said with a loud, obnoxious sigh, as if she couldn’t be more annoyed.
    “Oh! Well, in that case, I’m very interested,” Cynthia gushed, deciding not to be deterred by Jessica’s unfriendliness. “I’m Cynthia, but my friends call me Cindy,” she said, holding out her hand to shake. 
    Jessica, after staring at Cynthia a little longer, let her fat arm fall from the doorframe, turned, and ambled inside. Cynthia, guessing it was her cue to follow, stepped inside the foyer and was mesmerized by the brilliant chandelier, its crystals bouncing freckles of light on the dove gray walls. A loud snap of Jessica’s gum brought her back to the present, and Cynthia trailed the click of Jessica’s stilettos down the remarkably long hallway.
    “Wow,” Cynthia gasped as the dark oak-wood floors emptied into an enormous living room. She could hardly believe her eyes. Gigantic, overstuffed white couches clustered around elegant glass end tables. A huge, movie-theater-worthy flat-screen TV rested above the immense white marble fireplace, which surely would have been the treasure of the space but for the view. The view. Two full walls of windows presented Manhattan like a Monet, wrapping around the curved edges of the space.
    “Totally gorgeous, isn’t it?” Jessica said, twisting her gum on her finger in a circle, before letting it snap back into her mouth.
    “Yes,” Cynthia replied, catching her breath. She couldn’t argue. This was the most beautiful apartment she had ever seen, as well as the most disgusting.
    The spectacular view didn’t disguise the fact that the apartment looked as if the girls hosted an elaborate party that had yet to be cleaned up. The detailed Oriental rugs were almost hidden by plastic cups, empty bottles of Fuji water, tiny brown candy wrappers (some even with remnants of chocolate filling), dirty napkins, and loose cheese doodles. Half-filled wineglasses teetered dangerously close to the edges of the glass end tables. Partially eaten servings of moldy steak on china plates were stacked carelessly on the fireplace mantle, surrounded by forgotten Diet Coke bottles, stacks of DVDs, and a distinguished-looking gold plaque with three Greek letters.
    “Yes, we’re all in the Alpha Theta Mu sorority,” Jessica said when she noticed Cynthia looking at the plaque. “I would ask if you are a member, but I already know you’re not. Alpha Theta Mu girls just have, like, a certain look about them.”
    “Oh,” Cynthia said, not quite sure of an appropriate response, and wondering what sort of look Jessica was referring to.
    “Now, you haven’t signed the contract yet, so don’t touch anything,” Jessica warned as she clumsily stepped over a pile of garbage. Her high heels inadvertently caught a chicken wing which flew toward an auburn-haired girl engulfed in an Us Weekly on the couch.
    “Yeah, if anything goes missing, we know where you live!” the redhead yelled, batting the flying food with the magazine.
    “No, we don’t know where she lives, Ericka,” said a petite blonde sitting across from the redhead on the sofa. “I can’t believe you’re so dumb,” she continued, as she painted her toenails bright red on the loveseat, leaving little pink cotton balls carelessly on
the pure white surface. 
    “Shut up, Stephanie!” Ericka scoffed, giving the curly-haired blonde a dirty look before focusing her attention on the latest Brad and Angelina saga and her large bowl of popcorn.
    “You shut up,” Stephanie replied, throwing a nail polish-covered cotton ball in Ericka’s direction.
    “Ew!” Ericka screeched as she jumped onto the tufted leather ottoman. “You’re the most annoying roommate ever!” she yelled. “Why don’t you just, just—oh, go away!” she said, flinging the Us Weekly in Stephanie’s direction.
    “Fine! I can’t wait until the day when I never have to see your ugly face again!” Stephanie snapped as she stood up from the white couch and stomped out of the room with a huff, scattering cotton balls and nail files in her wake.
    “Anyways,” Jessica drawled, twisting her gum on her finger and walking into the kitchen, “That was Stephanie, and this is Ericka. They, like, live here, too.” Jessica took a few more chomps of her gum before taking it out of her mouth and sticking it to the gray marble countertop. “Ericka is an assistant editor in the accessories department of Chic magazine, you know.”
    “Yes, the Chic magazine,” Ericka reiterated from the living room, as if automatically answering Cynthia’s thoughts. That was exactly the kind of job in the fashion industry Cynthia hoped to have!
    “And Stephanie is getting married,” Jessica explained. “She’s too busy planning the wedding to have a fabulous job like moi. I’m the assistant celebrity dressing coordinator at Reese Landon,” she bragged as she reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of Fuji water. She twisted off the cap and began to pour the cool, pricy water over her hands.
    Cynthia watched in shock, but one glance at the sink explained it. In it, there was such a pile of pots and pans, stacked in a tower over two feet high, that it was impossible to even see the faucet. 
    Cynthia’s eyes moved from the sink to the rest of the kitchen. Surely they must have had some kind of cooking contest, Cynthia thought, and then the fire alarm rang, and they all had to run out and didn’t have time to clean up.
    “So Stephanie lives in that room over there,” Jessica continued, gesturing with her Fuji bottle toward a row of bedroom doors, sending splashes of water on the floor. “Ericka lives in the one next to it, and I’ve got the master suite down the hall. So, like, you’ll be responsible for cleaning our bedrooms as well as the common areas of the apartment.”
    Cleaning? What was Jessica talking about? “Excuse me,” Cynthia started. “Did you say I would be responsible for cleaning?”
    “Yes,” Jessica said matter-of-factly. “That’s why the rent is only $325 a month. You would be our housekeeper, live-in cleaning lady, maid, whatever you want to call it. You’ll make sure this apartment is, like, sparkling clean at all times.”
    Cynthia nodded in understanding. So that’s why the rent was so affordable! It wasn’t that the deal was too good to be true: there was a catch. Hmm, Cynthia thought, looking around the messy apartment. It did look pretty disgusting, but after an initial overhaul, she couldn’t imagine it would be too hard to keep up. As Cynthia processed this unexpected arrangement, a fluffy,
small white terrier bounded into the kitchen with a fuzzy Jimmy Chew toy in its mouth.
    “Oh!” Jessica added, picking up the dog. “And the study has been converted into a room for Trixie. Isn’t that so, my little sweetie?” she cooed. “Besides being in charge of housekeeping, you’ll, like, be responsible for walking and feeding Trix, and taking her to her beauty treatments.”
    “Sure, no problem,” Cynthia said with a polite nod, though she wasn’t sure if she had heard Jessica correctly. Was she saying that the dog received beauty treatments?
    As if reading Cynthia’s mind, Jessica explained. “Trixie has a standing appointment every two weeks with Jean-Claude, the best dog stylist in New York, in case you didn’t know. I used my connections at Reese Landon to get the spot.”
    “Of course,” Cynthia said, bending down to give Trixie a pat on the head. The terrier did look quite adorable, though Cynthia wondered just how many salon treatments it took to get that look.
    As Cynthia pet the dog, she thought about the details of this odd arrangement. Pro: She could live in a gorgeous apartment at a price she could actually afford. Con: She had to clean up after New York’s messiest prima donnas and take care of the city’s most pampered pooch. But no matter where she lived, even if she were living alone, she would have to clean, Cynthia thought. And if she had to clean, why not clean a beautiful apartment in the middle of Manhattan?
    Also, Cynthia had to consider the cost. Every apartment building she had seen so far had been way out of her reach, and this was frankly the only arrangement that seemed within her price range. Of course, she mused, once she was working at Vogue, or even Saks, she surely would be able to afford a place all her own; however she did have to do something for the present time.
    Trixie’s eye caught a stray dog treat on the other side of the apartment, and ran across the messy living room toward the row of bedroom doors, when Cynthia realized she had one important question.
    “So if you don’t mind my asking, where would my room be?” Cynthia asked, hoping one of the roommates would answer.
    “Right here!” Ericka said as she popped up from the couch, clumsily spilling the bowl of popcorn and adding to the mess on the littered rug.
    “You mean the sofa?” Cynthia asked hesitantly, not quite sure if Ericka was being serious.
    “It’s a pullout. Very comfortable!” Ericka exclaimed. “Well, not that I’ve ever slept on it before, but it is by Shabby Chic.”
    “But where would I put my things?” Cynthia asked, admittedly a little distressed. She didn’t have much really, just the two large suitcases that accompanied her to New York, but her belongings would have to go somewhere.
    Jessica and Ericka glared at each other accusingly, as if the other was responsible for overlooking this little detail.
    “Well, Trixie does have, like, a lot of toys in the front closet,” Jessica said. “I guess we can move them to her den.”
    “Yeah, it doesn’t look like she’s the type that has a lot of clothes anyway,” Ericka added, eyeing Cynthia’s outfit with a judgmental glare.
    Cynthia ignored Ericka’s snobby remark as she took another look around the apartment—its twelve-foot ceilings, breathtaking city views and elegant furnishings—imagining what it would look like after a good vacuum. But that wasn’t hard to do. Anyone would agree that this apartment was nothing short of spectacular. Cynthia reasoned that the cleaning, pet care, and sleeping on a pullout sofa were minor inconveniences compared to the chance to live in such an apartment at such a low cost.
    “So $325?” Cynthia asked, careful to confirm that the rent was really that affordable.     

    “Plus utilities and those sorts of things,” Jessica added. 
    “Naturally,” Cynthia replied, almost forgetting that little detail.
    “Well,” Cynthia began, taking another glance around the magnificent room, comparing it to Rachel’s tiny Lower East Side crash pad. “I’ll take it,” she said emphatically, shocked at her good fortune.
    “It’s not as easy as that,” Jessica replied, annoyed, as if Cynthia should have known there was another hoop to jump through. “You have to be approved by the apartment owner, Vera. She was, like, the founder of Alpha Theta Mu, and she’s very particular about who gets to live with us,” she added, suppressing a mean smile as she and Ericka surveyed her outfit for the last time.
    “Oh,” Cynthia replied, still cheerful. “Then I look forward to meeting her.”


Upper East Side, New York City

    Cynthia emerged from the steamy Sixty-eighth Street subway station and walked up Lexington Avenue, more slowly than her usual quick pace. “Don’t trip,” she whispered under her breath, teetering on her high-heeled sandals in the hot city sun. “Almost there.”
    She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other as she passed the coffee shops, delis, and boutiques that made up the Upper East Side, wondering the whole time why her heeled sandals hurt so much. They were only about two-inches high, but the strappy style was a lot more painful than it looked. 
    “Well, I guess I’ll just have to get used to it,” Cynthia said to herself, trying to ignore the blister developing above her heel. According to the latest magazines and behind-the-scenes footage of every runway show she had seen, everyone who worked in the industry she loved wore very expensive and extremely high-heeled shoes all day long. Since Cynthia just knew she was bound to get a fashion job and wear four-inch-plus heels to work every day, she figured she needed to practice, even if she secretly longed for the comfort of her Keds sneakers.
    Before going into Payard, the elegant French bistro and pastry bar where she was to meet Vera, Cynthia smoothed her cotton sundress in the glass of the gallery widow next door. She wanted to make a good impression, especially since Jessica warned her that Vera was rather discriminating.
    “I’m here to meet Ms. Vera Britt, please,” Cynthia said to the hostess after stepping into the bustling bistro. Cynthia peered through the towering flower arrangements on each table, trying to pick Vera out of the posh diners. She scanned the crowd of Pucci-clad ladies of leisure with their Yorkies and Bichons, some mother daughter-looking types surrounded by shopping bags, and a token group of smartly dressed men speaking Italian, their BlackBerrys spread out on the white linen tablecloths. She wasn’t sure what Vera looked like, but she had a feeling she would be hard to miss.
    “Oh, you must be Cindy,” the hostess replied. “Right this way.”
    Cynthia followed the hostess through a maze of gleaming dessert cases towards a woman sitting alone at a table who was wearing a dramatic, large black hat that hid a slightly unpleasant expression.
    Vera said nothing as Cynthia approached the table, but looked Cynthia up and down as the hostess pulled out a chair for her.
    “Hello, Vera, so nice to meet you,” Cynthia said pleasantly, extending her hand to shake.
    “Yes,” Vera said curtly. She ignored Cynthia’s hand and took a long, slow sip of her tea.
    “Err, thank you,” Cynthia replied, unsure of how to respond as they sat in uncomfortable silence before a waiter approached.
    “Hello, welcome to Afternoon Tea. My name is Adrien, and I’ll be your server today,” he said, placing a menu in front of Cynthia. “As you can see, all the items on the left hand side—”
    “She won’t be eating,” Vera interrupted, and the waiter abruptly snatched the menu from Cynthia and disappeared as quickly as he came.
    Oh, Cynthia thought. When Vera asked to meet her for tea, she was being quite literal. Though it was probably better that way, she mused, as the cheapest item on the menu was $21, way beyond her meager budget.
    “Did you have a nice lunch?” Cynthia asked politely, noticing the smattering of crumbs on the white linen tablecloth. Even though she was friendly by nature, Cynthia really wanted to be extra nice during this interview. Last night, she had dreamed only of the fabulous apartment and wanted to do everything she could to make sure it was hers. 
    Vera didn’t speak, but took a long sip of tea, acting almost like Cynthia wasn’t even there. “Let’s get to the point,” Vera said, setting down her teacup. “My Alpha Theta Mu girls lead very important, exciting lives, and they simply cannot be bothered with housekeeping. They need someone who will attend to their needs, keep the apartment in tip-top shape so they can focus more on themselves and their careers. If you do take this position, you will be expected to do the sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, dishwashing, and any other chores that fall under the realm of keeping the apartment clean. Do I make myself clear?”
     Cynthia nodded.
    “And you must take care of Trixie too,” Vera added. “Jessica, Ericka, and Stephanie just can’t be asked to care for a dog. Their time is simply much too valuable.”
    “Well yes, of course,” Cynthia said, nodding again in agreement. “I have always loved anim—”
    “Very well then,” Vera snipped, cutting Cynthia off as she signaled to the waiter, who appeared in a flash.
    “Ready for your dessert course, ma’am?” Adrien asked. Vera gave the slightest nod in response before he dashed off.
Cynthia wiggled uncomfortably in her chair, unsure if the interview was suddenly over, or if Vera was just a bizarre conversationalist. If this was an interview, wasn’t Vera going to ask her questions, Cynthia wondered. She had brought along a copy of her resume and a list of references, fully prepared to prove to Vera just how responsible she was.
    The waiter brought a silver tray of delicious desserts to the table—lemon bars, chocolate tarts, mini cream puffs, and some kind of meringue delicacies Cynthia had never seen before.  Vera promptly selected one, and then looked up at Cynthia, her expression indicating she was displeased to find Cynthia still sitting at the table.
    “Jessica will contact you if there is anything else to discuss,” Vera said, taking another sip of her tea, and returning her attention to her pastry.
    “Well, um, that sounds perfect,” Cynthia stammered. Although the meeting seemed awkwardly short, the last thing Cynthia wanted to do was to annoy Vera. Cynthia quickly picked up her bag from the floor and got up from her chair. “It was so lovely to meet you,” she said cheerfully. Vera merely pursed her lips and pretended not to notice Cynthia as she left.
    Out of the air-conditioned bistro and back on the hot sidewalk, Cynthia’s high hopes drained in the heat as she reflected on her meeting with Vera. She wondered if she had really just been approved to be the new live-in housekeeper of 21PH, or if this interview took her out of the running. Walking back to the subway in her pinchy heels, she hoped that even if Vera wasn’t the warmest of souls, she would find it in her heart to give Cynthia a chance.


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