Prologue – The Hungry Boy and the Shoe
The sudden announcement from behind me made me drop my school bag in surprise, and it plummeted, with gleeful accuracy, onto one of my big toes. A whole host of words that suitably captured the moment flew through my mind, but I clenched my fists and forced a comparatively innocent one to the fore.
There. I was proud of myself.
Yesterday had been my first day working in the Sinclair house and I'd stubbed my toe, the same one that had just been crushed by my school books, on one of Mrs Sinclair's utilitarian bookcases. Thinking myself alone, I'd hissed out a curse, only to turn and see Mr Sinclair walking along the corridor towards me.
Less than an hour later, the Sinclair's housekeeper (AKA my mum) had sat me down and delivered an extremely thorough lecture on the behaviour expected of staff. Swearing like a sailor in front of the family, it transpired, was blacklisted.
Censoring myself had never been my strongest suit, but I needed the job or, more accurately, we needed the money, so I had taken it on board and consciously chosen a replacement curse. It hadn't been difficult; the Sinclair boy had a poster with a leering monkey riding a skateboard on it that I hated.
And speaking of the Sinclair boy...
I kicked the bag off my smarting foot and turned to see Elliot, only child of my employees and bane of my existence, leaning against the kitchen table, floppy hair artfully flopped, braces glinting in his smarmy mouth.
"What did you say?" He asked, immediately voiding his question by adding, "Monkeys? What does that mean?"
"All that money going to your fancy school and you don't even know what a monkey is?" I grabbed up a sponge and leant down to see if I could buff out the mark my bag had left on my school shoes. Although, actually, due to a lean time in the Mapley household, they were currently my only shoes.
"Ha ha, you're so funny," he said sarcastically, before repeating his opening gambit, "I'm hungry."
I looked round, taking in the full pantry, the well-stocked fridge and the oven from which the smell of mum's famous lasagne drifted.
Was this guy for real?
"So eat," I advised, giving up on my shoes and slipping them off. I tried not to wear them any more than necessary to save the tread. Tucked down in the kitchen where Mr and Mrs Sinclair rarely ventured I felt I could get away with the breach in workplace etiquette. Elliot, or 'Smelliot' as I'd very maturely taken to calling him, avoided his parents just as much, if not more, than me so I wasn't bothered about him tattling on me.
"Can't you make something for us? You actually work here now, right?"
At the mention of 'us', I automatically stiffened. Elliot's friends were round, then. Great. It didn't surprise me, they were over most of the time as Elliot had all the latest and greatest in mindless toys for boys, but I always hoped I'd score a reprieve from that lot.
"My mum does the cooking," I said through gritted teeth, watching him absently lean his grotty hands back onto the table that I'd only just wiped down and disinfected. "I'm hired to do the cleaning."
He shrugged. "Same diff."
I looked at him incredulously, wondering what that was supposed to mean. What, did he think that all words beginning with 'c' meant the same thing? Luckily, I didn't have to come up with a response to his stupidity. Unluckily, it was because, at that moment, a whole bunch of Elliot's mates trundled into the room.
"Hey, Elliot, did you get us some food, yet? I'm starving!" One of them bellowed and I flinched.
Seriously, what was with teenage boys? They were just so loud.
"Oh, look, it's Cinderella!" The big ginger one I had, somewhat cruelly, nicknamed Jonah the Whale grinned widely over at me. "Hi, Cinders."
I waved feebly.
"And here're her glass slippers!"
My blood ran cold as one of the boys darted forward to snatch up my shoes.
Trying to sound nonchalant so they wouldn't know how freaked out I was, I said, "Yep, well, it's not midnight so Cinderella will have those back, thanks." I reached out for them, but knew straight away I'd made a tactical error.
A glint of evil joy entered their eyes and the one holding my shoes chucked them towards another of the boys. My hands snapped back to my sides and I forced myself to stand there, unprotesting. If I didn't object I knew they'd get bored sooner. Still, it took every last bit of my self-control to just stand there as my shoes flew from hand to hand, arching over my head and around me as they sought for a reaction.
It took a lot longer than I would've liked for them to grow bored, but eventually, they did. Still, the last one who held my shoes had one more nasty little trick up his sleeve and, at the last minute, instead of throwing one of my shoes to a mate, he turned and chucked it straight into the sink full of dirty washing up water.
I couldn't help letting out a short squeak of dismay and he, I think it was the one they called Henderson, smirked, clearly pleased with himself.
"Mate, what did you do that for?" Jonah the Whale handed me my dry shoe and then gave Henderson a shove towards the door. "You're a real dick sometimes." But he was smiling indulgently and the rest of them seemed equally unconcerned by the havoc they'd wreaked as they lumbered out of the kitchen, leaving just Elliot and me.
Making a disgusted sort of face, he reached over and fished my shoe out of the water, giving it a bit of a shake and then dropping it onto the draining board.
"Shit," he laughed, wiping his hand on his t-shirt, "that shoe is rooted." He looked round at me then and, obviously seeing my stricken expression, he rolled his eyes. "Jesus, Rox, no need to look so tragic," he informed me as he, too, headed towards the door, "just buy another pair."