“…Seven...eight...nine...ten, ready or not, here I come!” Uncovering my eyes, I stay seated a moment as I wait on Svetlana Renznikov to find her perfect hiding spot. Lana is the only child of Anton Renznikov, the man who has employed me for the last two years. She’s a darling three-year-old girl with her father’s dark hair and nearly black eyes. She has a mischievous soul and constantly keeps me on my toes.
During the day, I am her au pair and playmate because Mr. Renznikov doesn’t trust outsiders. He runs the Odessa Organization, a criminal enterprise that the whole of Ukraine knows about, and I don’t fully understand, but I know he has many enemies. All of which would do anything to bring him to his knees. Hurting Lana is the only way to make that happen.
“Here I come, malo svitla!” I warn her again as I stand from my spot, ensuring my uniform is in place because, despite my position as an au pair, I’m expected to project the role of the help. There isn’t much room for error in this home.
Lana’s favorite game is hide and seek, and we play it nearly every day, so I know all of her hiding places. Opening the doors to the den, I peer under the small desk left for Olena, the house manager, and my supervisor to do her payroll and assignments.
“Hmmm, where could she be?” Sometimes Lana hides too well on me, and I have to continue to speak out loud, so she’ll giggle and give herself away.
“He’s not going to be pleased,” Olena mutters as I pass her by the staircase, and suddenly, I suspect I know where she is.
Mr. Renznikov’s office. A place nobody is allowed to enter without his explicit permission, which barely ever happens. Rushing to the other side of the house, I take deep breaths before knocking softly. I didn’t think anyone was home today, but they must have come in while Lana and I were in the garden.
How she would have come and snuck into his office while he was in there is beyond me. I knock again, louder this time because I can hear masculine voices.
The door springs open, and I jump as Vasyl Renznikov, Anton’s middle brother, lifts an eyebrow in question. “Did she come in here?” I ask quietly.
He frowns before laughter fills his signature playful eyes. “I don’t think so.”
“Who is there, Vasyl?” Anton shouts, making me jump again.
Vasyl’s gaze softens with sympathy as he opens the door fully. “My apologies, sir,” I nearly stutter, but I know it will only make him angrier.
“Well? What do you want?” I swallow roughly as he stands behind his desk, six other men in the room, including the youngest brother, Petro, who looks bored. “Spit it out already. I don’t have time to waste with you.”
The constant reminder of his disdain for me cramps my lungs. “Someone mentioned Lana might have come in here.” If possible, he looks madder, ready to kill, and I take a step back.
“Come here.” He barks the order. “Vasyl, close the door.” With trepidation jostling my body, I step into his office as the doors close behind me, sounding like the nails banging my coffin shut.
All eyes are on me as Mr. Renznikov points to a spot in front of his desk. One man snickers when I pass him.
Striking forward with his hand, Anton grips my chin in a ferocious grasp, nearly painful with his anger. “Are you stupid, Miss Koval?” I go to shake my head, but he holds me tighter, bruising my fair skin.
“No, sir,” I mutter. Embarrassment tinges my cheeks.
“Then why, after reprimanding you twice already this month, do I have to repeat myself about keeping the child out of my office and not disturbing me?” His words are growled with so much force, it’s like a punch to the sternum.
My eyes drop. “I’m sorry, sir. I was only trying to entertain Lana before her piano lessons.” Biting my tongue, I attempt to resist the urge to shake in fear of him.
“Read her a book, do a puzzle...Stop ignoring me!” he shouts, and his grip grows painfully restrictive. I don’t even think he realizes he’s done it until Petro is clawing his hand off my face.
Turning my chin towards him, he warns, “Touch her like that again, big brother, and we might have a problem.” My gaze darts to Petro, terror from his words strikes my heart.
“You threatening me?” Anton challenges him, and I know I shouldn’t be here for this.
“Look at her face.” Gently, he turns me to look at Anton, and I close my eyes, trying to fight back the looming tears.
“Get out!” Anton’s furious voice gets my feet moving before my brain has processed his words.
I hear someone shout after me, but I don’t stop until I’m in the restroom and splashing water on my face. Locking the door, I place my hands on the sink and hang my head, water dripping off my chin.
I have no idea why Anton has such a fierce hatred for me or why he keeps me around, for that matter. None of it makes any sense. I know the only reason I got this job is that Petro went to school with my older brother, Vlad. He died just a month before I was hired, and Petro saw my family was struggling and that nobody wanted to hire me for anything.
I’m quiet, was raised to be seen, and never heard. I don’t kick up a fuss about anything, but this last month, Anton’s animosity for me has become overwhelming. Hearing the door jiggle, I mumble, “Just a moment, please,” as I dry my face. I can’t look in the mirror because I know exactly what I’ll see. I’ve always bruised easily; today will be no different.
“Let me in, Sofiy.” Petro’s voice penetrates the thin wood panel.
Straightening my uniform and inhaling a sobering breath, I open the door and plaster a smile on my face. Lana is at his side, a look of dismay on her precious, cherubic face.
“You found her,” I gasp.
“Hiding under the stairs,” he says, but his focus is on my face. I shake my head when he tries to reach for me.
“Let’s get you ready for your lesson, Lana.” I clap my hands and pretend like everything is fine.
I always pretend.