The bird was back. Perched outside of the attic window, it chirped a cheerful song, fluttering its wings and tapping its beak on the glass. Ella Sinders found herself distracted again. The bright blue feathers, the same shade as the sky behind the visitor, beckoned her to come outside, to feel the crisp spring air, feel the grass beneath her feet, gaze at the clouds as they rolled by, and forget all of her troubles.
But that wasn’t an option. Not only did she have more work to do than it would be humanly possible to get done in two lifetimes, she literally could not go outside. The door was locked. The door was always locked. Other than sticking her head out the small window and basking in the sunshine that way, there wasn’t much of an opportunity for her to enjoy the great outdoors.
“I’m sorry, little birdie,” she said, refocusing on the computer in front of her. “I can’t play right now.”
The bird sang its song again, and Ella hummed along as her fingers flew over the computer keys. The design she was working on was coming along. She thought her father would really like it. She just had a few more touches to add, and then she’d be ready to submit it for approval.
So focused was she on her work and the song she was humming, she didn’t hear the door open until it closed with a sharp thump, and then the key scraped against the lock again. Alarmed, Ella turned to see who it was. Relief washed over her when she saw it was only her friend, Mary Baker, the only one of the household's workers allowed to come into the attic while Ella was working. It wasn’t because she was the most trustworthy of the group; it was just because Ella’s stepmother, Teresa, disliked Mary almost as much as she disliked Ella, so she sent her up to the attic to do the dirty work.
“Sorry to disturb you,” Mary said, ducking her head. She was a tiny woman, thin, pretty, with a brown mop of short hair.
“Oh, don’t be silly.” Ella giggled and turned back to her work. “You’re not disturbing me. I just thought you might be… someone else.”
“Don’t worry. Mommy dearest is laying out by the pool, as are her worthless daughters.” Taking a few steps closer to Ella, she whispered, “I hope all three of them burn to a crisp.”
Trying not to laugh, Ella shook her head. “Be nice, Little Mouse. No need to lower yourself to their level.” The nickname was more for Mary’s size than the fact that her hair was such a mousy shade of brown. That and she seemed to attract the creatures.
Mary sighed, going about her dusting. “I don’t understand how you can be so sweet, Ella. They’re awful to you. Only letting you out of this attic for dinner. I don’t know why you don’t say something to someone.”
“Who? I never see anyone--except for you.”
“Your cousin Tim is allowed to see you. Does he know about your imprisonment?”
“Don’t be so dramatic.” Ella didn’t wish to downplay the situation, but she knew Mary was right. If she had known what her stepmother had in store, perhaps she never would’ve come back from France. She knew she’d be taking an important job for her father’s movie marketing company, but she had no idea she’d never be allowed to leave the house.
Her father, Lloyd Sinders, one of the most successful, and thus wealthiest, movie marketers in the world, was overseas himself now and planned to be for the next several months. He had no idea that Teresa had her locked up. His wife had explained to Ella that the arrangement was “for her own good,” but Ella knew better. Teresa was still jealous of her mother who had died when Ella was seven. It was clear that her father still loved his first wife more than he could ever love Teresa. Though Teresa was a beautiful blonde with the nicest fake boobs money could buy, she didn't have the natural beauty Chantel Bisett had exuded on both the inside and out. Ella looked almost exactly like her mother, and it drove Teresa crazy. She had been a rival of Chantel’s when they were both models. Thus, Ella was locked away at least until her father returned. By then, Teresa must’ve hoped she’d decide for herself this is where she wanted to be.
Ella didn’t hate it as much as one might think. Of course, she longed to go out into the world, to feel the sun and the breeze. But she had no friends in LA. She’d attend school in France since she had been in grade school. Her Aunt Suzette had practically raised her after her mother died. It seemed her father, who professed to love her, also had trouble looking into the same eyes he missed so desperately since his wife had passed away.
Her two stepsisters, Anna and Drew, who were aspiring actresses, spent every night at dinner chattering about how horrible the world was out there. They were both beautiful, though Ella questioned their acting abilities. With the connections their stepfather had, they should have easily been able to get better parts than the commercials and walk on roles they were getting. Both of them complained that the world was a terrible, cruel place, one that would wad you up and spit you out. Why would Ella want to go out there if she didn’t have to?
Besides that, she didn’t look like the girls she saw in the photographs of actresses and models she worked on for the marketing campaigns. They were all blonde, with golden tans, big, fake boobs, and curvy hips. Ella’s dark hair, Mediterranean coloring, and thin build made her feel inferior to these actresses and other women in every way possible.
Here, in the attic, she was safe to wear her baggy pants and T-shirts, not worry about makeup, and never have to concern herself with being compared with others. If the other women in LA acted like her stepsisters, she didn’t want to have anything to do with any of them.
No, her best hope at this time was for her father to come home so that she could speak to him about going back to France. She was much more comfortable in the little village she’d lived in with her aunt. She had friends there. That’s where she was most happy.
“You have a phone. And email. Why don’t you tell your father what she’s up to?” Mary asked, sweeping the barren wood floor with a broom.
Ella shook her head. “You don’t understand, Mary. It’s more complicated than that. I don’t want to make Teresa hate me. My father will start asking questions before he believes me, and when she finds out, she’ll take both of those things away. My father will be back in a few months. I’ll talk to him then.”
“If he comes back when he says he will. He’s already extended his trip twice.”
“True.” The bird was still fluttering at the window, and for a moment, Ella wished she had wings so she could fly away. “I’ll be all right, Little Mouse.”
The housekeeper shook her head, but she was giggling. “I’m not as timid as a little mouse. Just because I have a way of attracting the little critters, that doesn’t make me one.”
Ella laughed, remembering how funny it had been each of the times the mice that slept in the walls came out to follow Mary around, curious about her sweeping, Ella supposed. She was some sort of a mouse whisperer. “I’m thankful that you’re so bold, Mary. It serves you well.”
“One of these days, after I’ve secured employment elsewhere, I’m going to accidentally leave this door unlocked. Then, you can escape if you’d like to.”
Turning her head away from the computer to meet her friend’s eyes, Ella smiled. “Don’t get yourself into any trouble on my account, Mary. I’m all right.”
“The moment you change your mind, you let me know.”
“I will.” Ella turned back to the screen, doing her best to ignore the echo of the lock clicking shut, sealing her in the attic indefinitely, at the mercy of a stepmother who was anything but merciful.
“What do you mean you’ve got a secret?” the woman with the bright red lipstick asked, her eyes wide with wonder.“I mean… I’m your brother!” Rome Verona said, doing his best to feel the line as if it were true. He looked across the room at the reader sitting behind the table, holding her gaze for a moment, his expression unwavering, until the man next to her ended the scene.
The promo poster she was working on was just about finished. Ella just needed to add a couple of more filters to get the lighting just right, and she’d be ready to send it to her father for his approval. There was just one thing--she had become transfixed on one of the supporting actors and hadn’t been able to concentrate on finishing. A check of the time told her that her stepmom would be in to check on her soon. She needed to be finished, or else she’d have to eat dinner alone in the attic while she completed the job. Since her cousin Tim was supposed to come over tonight, she wanted to get done.
Rome didn’t know what to think about the phone call he’d just made. Sinders Cinema Marketing was the company the producers of the film he’s just finished were using to do the marketing. What were the chances he’d accidentally call them when he meant to call Mark? How was it that their numbers were so similar?Beyond that, the girl he’d spoken to—Ella--had been really cool. Her accent had caught his attention right away. He couldn’t tell what sort of accent it was at first, so when she’d mentioned that she was originally
The clatter of silverware against dishes was jarring. Ella wasn’t used to being around so many people. Even when she was free to go wherever she wanted, it was just her and Aunt Suzette most of the time. Her stepsisters, Anna and Drew, never stopped talking either. They were prattling on about how awful the auditions they’d gone to earlier that day had been. Tim ran a hand through his dark hair, doing his best to pretend to be interested, but Ella could see in his eyes he really didn’t care what either of the girls had to say. He was listening because he was being polite.
Lucky Red was loud and crowded, and Rome wished he hadn’t bothered to come out at all. Even after a couple of beers, he wasn’t feeling any more relaxed.“Would you lighten up?” Mark urged him. “Come on, man. Rosa’s looking hot tonight. She keeps smiling at you, and you’ve only got eyes for your beer.”Rome loo
Concentrating on her newest marketing campaign was super hard for Ella when all she wanted to do was stare at the picture of the actor from yesterday’s poster and check her phone. She knew it seemed ridiculous to think that Rome would actually call her back, especially so soon after he had called the first time, but that didn’t make her any less anxious to hear his voice.She had his number from the caller ID. In fact, she’d memorized his number. She couldn’t call him, though. Teresa might not actually do all of the things she threatened to do,
He had waited until almost 4:00 in the afternoon, but now that his audition was over and he had nothing standing in his way, Rome sat down on the edge of his bed and purposely called the number he’d accidentally called the night before. He prayed Ella was working and that she was the one who answered. For all he knew, Sinders had a whole bunch of customer service representatives.“Sinders Cinema Marketing. This is Ella.”
Dinner was almost over, and Ella hadn’t heard a word anyone had said at the table, she’d been so lost in her thoughts. Rome knew who she was. He wanted to meet her. In real life. That was both amazing and terrifying at the same time.Ella wasn’t that pretty. She had been told for most of her life that she looked like her mother, who happened to be a famous model. But she knew now that she hadn’t inherited her mother’s beauty. Her stepmom told her all of the time that she had a witch’s