DIRTY DAMSELS (DotComGirls, bk1) DOP 7.2.19
He was massive. At least six-three with shoulders so wide they blocked my view of the room behind him. Jet-black, military-style, close-cropped hair surrounded a face constructed of sharp angles and etched planes with a concrete-hard and square jaw. Thick eyebrows the same color as his hair framed two of the greenest eyes I’d ever seen. They mimicked jade crystals, freshly mined and polished. I would’ve bet cash his light gray suit was tailor-made because it hugged the width of his shoulders with sartorial precision and tapered down to a trim waist.
All this ran through my mind as I devised a plan to escape from him to avoid being attacked. I held the plastic dustpan and brush against my body, two pitifully ineffective weapons, should I need them against this potential ax murderer.
Okay, I was pretty sure ax murderers didn’t wear Armani to their kills, but still.
His brows pulled together, his lips moved, and he motioned with his hands. When he pointed to his ears, I got it. I yanked out the earbuds and let them fall to my waist.
“Can you hear me now?”
Before nodding, I let the sound of his voice wash over me. It was deep, rich, and warm, like a glass of perfectly aged, room temperature, Irish whiskey on a chilly night. In a heartbeat, I realized a girl would be happy to do whatever that voice asked her to.
“I tried to get your attention.” He dropped his hands into his pants pockets—exceptionally well fitted pants, by the way. “Then I realized you couldn’t hear me when I saw you swaying back and forth. I’m sorry I scared you.”
I found my voice. “How did you get in? I know I locked the door behind me.”
“You did. But Cal left a key for me with the doorman. I didn’t expect anybody to be here.”
“You’re Cal’s guest?”
The smile working its way across his angular face had the same effect on me as his voice. To call it charming would have been an understatement. His mouth moved with a slow, purposeful amble from the middle of his bowed upper lip, down across his thick bottom one to finish in a deep dimple on each of his cheeks. Perfect teeth lived under those sexy, full lips. On a girl, they’d be described as pouty. On him, they were completely and utterly masculine. And devastating. Just as a girl would do anything the voice asked, she’d also give anything for a taste of those lips.
“Buddy,” he told me, pointing to his chest. “And you are?”
“The cleaning service. I thought I had enough time to get the whole place done before you arrived. You’re way early.”
“I hopped on an earlier flight. And don’t be sorry.” His smile changed into a boyish grin. “I enjoyed the show.”
For a second, I didn’t know what he meant. Then it hit me.
He must’ve seen the realization in my eyes and the embarrassment that heated my face and neck, because his smile widened and grew a tad wicked, crinkling the corners of his gorgeous eyes. “That was a pretty impressive rendition of the Thicke song.”
I’d never been the kind of girl who could be teased and be comfortable with it. Probably because the Evil Bitch and her twin spawns of terror teased and chided me mercilessly during my adolescence. My face grew even hotter as my discomfort danced within me. I usually had a pithy comment handy to pull out of my back pocket to shoot down anyone who made fun of me. It was an old and trusted defense mechanism I’d tried to curb for years, but I hadn’t yet succeeded. For some reason, though, I couldn’t think of a response. A little niggle in the back of my mind reminded me he was the guest of a client. A high-paying client. A client I didn’t want to lose or annoy. Maybe my subconscious was working for me for once instead of against me, as it forced me to keep quiet.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” He moved closer while he pulled something from his pocket. Before I realized what he meant to do, he cupped my chin in his hand and placed a handkerchief against my cheek, giving it a little rub. This close, I could see the dark rim of deep moss surrounding the brighter jade color in his eyes. Eyes that never left mine. I couldn’t blink or look away. For the first time in my life I understood what the saying “like a deer caught in the headlights” meant.
The skin across his fingers was rough where he held my chin prisoner, but his touch was disarmingly gentle. His warm breath blew across my face as he wiped something away, inspected the handkerchief, then pulled his gaze back to mine. His eyes were heavily hooded and so damn hot, a tiny tug yanked low in my belly then pushed its way down lower. Much lower. His eyelashes were long and thick, and jealousy stabbed through me. No amount of mascara or lash plumping product ever made my skimpy, spiky little lashes look like his natural ones.
“Ashes,” he said, folding the handkerchief then sliding it back into his pants pocket.
I bit back a whimper when he let go of my face.
“Since I’m here now, Cinderella, why don’t you go?” He took a cursory glance around the room and added, “It looks great in here. I can’t imagine you have more to do. Why don’t you take the rest of the day off? Call it a job well done?”
“I still have the bed to make,” I told him, not surprised my voice sounded a little breathless. “It shouldn’t take me much longer to finish up.”
He sighed, deep and long. “Sweetheart, I’ve been on a plane for the past sixteen hours. I’m tired, I’m hungry, I need a shower, and the airline somehow misplaced my luggage, so I need to get some clothes. I don’t care how clean the place is, as long as it’s got a functioning bathroom with some fresh towels and a bed I can crash in for a few hours. I’m still on Asian time.”
I never wanted to leave any job undone. It’s not how I was wired. Plus, it was bad business. But he did look exhausted, and a pang of pity hit me.
I bit my bottom lip, debating.
“Let me just get rid of this mess,” I said, lifting the garbage bag, “and then make the bed. Is that okay?”
“Deal. I’m gonna take a quick shower.” I nodded.
Dearly Beloved, bk 1 in the MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN SERIES. Est. DOP Fall, 2018
“9-1-1! Colleen, I’ve got a 9-1-1 in the Bawl Room!”
I cringed at the crisis call blaring through my earpiece. I hated emergency calls, especially when everything was about to start. To pull off the perfect wedding, just like when invading an enemy country during wartime, you have to run on a strict, unbendable time schedule. There was no room for deviation. A 9-1-1 call was the equivalent of a ticking time bomb, set to blow up the whole operation.
“On my way.” I said. “Any bloodshed?”
“None so far,” my assistant Charity Quinlan replied, her small voice breathless with urgency. “But it’s coming. Get here. I don’t know how much longer I can keep them from killing one another.”
I shot from my command post at the back of my hometown church in Heaven, New Hampshire, and sprinted down the long corridor toward the kid’s section, affectionately known as the Bawl Room, which was the staging area for the soon-to-start wedding I was in charge of. The small space was given this moniker because it was where parents of unruly children shuttled their little miscreants when their behavior disrupted the congregation during Mass. My sisters and I had been banished to the room every Sunday of our childhood.
I took a calming breath in front of the closed door—a door that did nothing to muffle raised, angry, and shrill voices—and ran a hand across my quaking abdominal muscles. They’d been throbbing and pulsing like a precision quartz timepiece from the confining, belly-flattening, spandex undergarment I wore to mask the extra eight pounds I’d recently packed on.
I said a silent prayer to St. Gabriel, the patron saint of strength. “Breathe,” I whispered, making it a plea. “Just breathe.”
Placing a broad smile across my face, I pushed through the door and entered into a tempest I regarded as the tenth circle of Hell: ex-wives.
Two lavishly dressed women—one in her fifties, the other ten years younger, and both trying desperately to look in their thirties—stood, dyed stiletto to dyed stiletto, glaring at one another. Both had fisted hands planted on their hips, shoulders hunched, perfectly coiffed heads bent, ready to do battle.
“Who do you think you are?” one screeched at the other. “You’re not her mother. You’re nobody in this wedding, just my ex’s current squeeze of the second, so back the hell off. Now!”
The woman being shrilled at, all six foot of her in icepick heels, leaned forward and pulled her outlined, lipstick-enhanced mouth back into a perfect teeth-baring snarl. She jabbed one of her french-manicured tips at her aggressor and ground out, “I’ve been married to him longer than you were, bitch, and you know it, so who you calling squeeze of the second, because from where I’m standing, you were more like a mistake who got knocked up than a wife any day of the week.”
The elder of the two was set to pounce, aiming for her rival’s perfect camera-ready face so I did a quick little jog and insinuated myself between them.
“Ladies.” My gaze ping-ponged from one to the other. “Please. The wedding is about to begin. We can’t have this kind of behavior.”
“She started it,” the actual mother of the bride, Mary Ann Stively said, pointing at her ex-husband’s current wife. “She says she should go down the aisle after me because she’s married to my loser ex—”
“Who’s the father of the bride,” JoEllen, wife number two, said. She turned her back on wife one and faced me. “You’re the wedding planner, Colleen. You know proper protocol says I should go down the aisle right before the party, since I’m married to the father of the bride. I looked it up, read all about wedding etiquette and procedures.”
“In what? Your current edition from slut-of-the-month book club?” Mary Ann spat.
JoEllen’s eyes slitted under penciled eyebrows standing stationary on her unlined and unmoving forehead, a paralytic effect—I surmised—from years of Botox injections.
“Why, you—” She inched forward and tried to reach by me, but eight years of track in school and four more in college gave me a decided advantage in swiftness. I blocked her, my arms splaying out at my sides so she couldn’t go around me.
My left eye started to twitch—never a good sign—and I knew I had to set this situation to rights. Now. The wedding was scheduled to begin in less than ten minutes.
“Mrs. Stively.” Both women stared at me. “Um, the current Mrs. Stively.”
JoEllen pulled herself up to her towering height and gave her paid-for breasts a good forward thrust. “What?”
“I know you feel you deserve to walk down right before the wedding party—”
“—but I’m sorry. Whatever you’ve read stating that was the correct procession is incorrect. The actual mother of the bride is the one who immediately precedes the party. Unless, of course she’s not present or deceased. Then it would be proper for a stepmother to be the last person down the aisle before the attendants and bride.”
JoEllen slanted a deathly glare at Mary Ann. I swear I could hear her brain running through scenarios on how to commit murder in the next five minutes.
“Now, I need you both to take your places so we can get this wedding started. Stop arguing and let’s go.”
I’d dealt with these two overbearing women many times in the past few months and knew neither would give an inch, or relinquish control of, their own accord. Since they continued to stand rock-still, daggers zipping between them, I did what I always do in situations like this and got physical.
I grabbed the first Mrs. Stively firmly by the forearm and gave her a good yank while motioning to Charity, who’d been cowering behind a pew, to do the same to Stively spouse number two.
Charity, at a spit above five foot, was no match for the lengthy stilettoed second wife, but what she lacked in height, she more than made up for in determination. With a firm hand draped along JoEllen’s back, Charity began walking, propelling the woman forward.
“Can you believe that bitch?” Mary Ann asked as I escorted her down the long hallway to the back of the church where the procession stood, waiting. I continued to hold her forearm in a grip of steel in the event she planned to escape and go back to punch her replacement.
“Forget JoEllen,” I commanded. “It’s your daughter’s day. Focus on her. You don’t want Annie to remember this day filled with problems or fights. You want her to have the most wonderful memories of her wedding, don’t you?”
Before she could reply, I steamrolled right over her. “Of course you do. Fighting with JoEllen serves no purpose and will only upset Annie. Take a quick, deep breath if she annoys you again and ignore her. Believe me, you’ll feel better for it.”
I knew I was telling a bald-faced lie.
Mary Ann and JoEllen both wanted to scratch the other’s eyes out, and today’s incident was another in a long line of antagonistic outbreaks since Annie had retained me as her wedding planner. The two Stively wives despised one another for various and obvious reasons. Their only compatible redeeming value was their mutual unconditional love for the bride-to-be.
In the vestibule, the melodic strings of a Mozart concerto serenaded the waiting congregation.
Annie Stively’s parents had spared no expense on their cherished only daughter. From a twenty-thousand-dollar, custom-made, hand-stitched, lace and satin gown complete with a five-thousand-dollar tiara and train, to the five-hundred-dollar-an-hour stretch limousine waiting outside the church entrance, prepared to whisk the happy couple off to their reception a mere five minutes away, Dr. and the two Mrs. Stivelys set out to give their little princess everything she desired in a wedding.
With my help, they had.
“Mom? JoEllen? What’s going on?” The bride glanced from her mother to her stepmother, concern creasing her flawless brow.
“A few last-minute details we needed to go over,” I answered before either woman could. “They wanted everything to be perfect for you. It’s all settled now, correct, ladies?” With an arched and determined glare, I all but dared them to contradict me.
Both women, with uncharacteristic placidity, nodded.
“Good. Now, let’s get you all lined up, and we can get this beautiful girl married.”
I went into command mode, corralled the wedding party into their appropriate places, and gave the all-start command. “Let’s roll.”
Once the bridal party, including the two warring Mrs. Stivelys, were all seated, the soft, haunting strings of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D drifted through the air.
I stood behind one door, Charity the other. On my count, we threw open the doors wide at the same time. A collective wave of sighs blew through the church as the first view of the stunning bride broke through. While she floated up the aisle on her father’s arm, my photographer darted ahead of them, filming, as they slowly made their way to the altar. Charity and I closed the doors behind us and slipped into the last pew to watch the wedding.
At the front of the church, Dr. Stively stopped, lifted his daughter’s veil, and then kissed her cheek. I could hear dueling sniffling from the front pew, Mom and Stepmother each trying to outdo the other in the waterworks department. Once Dr. Stively took his seat between his first and second wives, the congregation sat as a unit.
“Did you check to make sure the best man has the rings?” I asked Charity, looking toward the stable of tuxedoed ushers at the altar. The groom’s younger brother looked as if last night’s bachelor party had been a rousing success, evidenced by the pasty tinge to his skin, the railroad track redness covering the whites of his eyes, and the none-too-subtle tremor in his hands.
“He does,” Charity replied.
“Did Devon bring the basket with the bird seed?”
Off to one side of the altar, I spied my trusty and talented photographer being as unobtrusive as possible while he captured the happy event through his lens.
“Kolby has everything he needs?”
When I slanted her a look, Charity grinned. “And before you ask, I already called the inn. Everything is ready. The champagne is chilling, and the band is warming up. Maureen told me to tell you not to fret. She’s got it all covered. No worries.”
Two of the most overused and least accurate words in the English language, especially when speaking about a wedding.
With as deep a breath as I could manage (I really was going to throw in the towel with this pseudo-girdle and cut back on the carbs instead), I sat back and watched the ceremony I’d put together, and prayed the rest of the day would go on without any further problems or arguments between warring family factions.
What’s that old saying? Man makes plans and God laughs?
Yeah…the story of my life.
( Cover reveal coming in my August 2018 Newsletter. Are you a subscriber? IF you want to be one of the first to see the cover, you need to be!)
Baked with love ( Christmas and Cannolis) due out holiday season 2018:
Regina’s tips for surviving in a big Italian family, # 2: Count your blessings and pass the macaroni.
“You look tired, bellissima figlia.”
“Thanks, Pop. Just what every girl wants to hear when she walks through the door.” I shook my head and kissed both his cheeks, handing him four of my bakery boxes with the pies I’d baked, then shrugged out of my coat.
Thanksgiving morning had dawned cold with a bitter wind slicing through the air. The bakery was officially closed today, so I’d been able to sleep in until six a.m., which, believe me, was a godsend because I was—as my undiplomatic father had just stated—dog tired.
“Sonny, why you gotta say things like that to Regina?” my mother asked from her perpetual spot at the stove. She’d gotten her hair done-up, as she calls it, the day before, and the halo of champagne-tinted curls was wilting a bit as she stirred the boiling pot of pasta. “My Regina looks as beautiful as she always does.” She flicked her gaze to me and gave me a once-over rake every Italian mother has known how to do since the dawn of time. “Even tired.”
Left handed compliment, thy name is Ursula Rigetti San Valentino.
“Thanks, Ma.” I bent to kiss her cheeks as well. “It smells great in here.”
“It always smells great in here,” my oldest brother GianCarlo (Pesce’s dad) said, coming up behind me. He wrapped his hands around my waist and hugged me like he was attempting a Heimlich maneuver. “Did you bring me my pie, sorellina mia?”
“What kind of a little sister and baker would I be if I hadn’t?” I spun around and kissed his cheeks, too.
That’s my family: a bunch of cheek kissers, men and women alike. No one was exempt from the two-smooch bacio.
“Yours is the one with the blue string,” I told him. “It came out of the oven about an hour ago.”
“I’m putting it out in my car so I can take it home an’ eat it later when I’m watchin’ the game.”
My father’s open palm swatted the top of his oldest son’s head as he walked by. “Hey! What’s with the head smack, Pop?” ’Carlo gripped the top of his head, shielding it—I knew from experience—from another hit.
“Since when are you so greedy? Your mama and me taught you all to share, no?”
“Reggie made me a special pie,” my brother whined, rubbing his head now. “I called and asked her to make one just for me to bring home. There’s still three left for everyone else. I’m not being greedy.”
A scowl the twin to his son’s branched across his full face.
“He did, Pop,” I said.
Experience has also taught me that no apology for the head smack would be coming anytime soon from my father. The zombie apocalypse would occur before Salvatore San Valentino ever expressed regret at something he’d done.
“What can I do to help?” I asked my mother. “Set the table? Open the wine.”
“I set the table last night when I got home from Mass. And your sisters-in-law opened the vino when they got here.” Ma’s lips puckered into a self-righteous line that had me experiencing flashbacks to my grade-school nuns. The presence of it across an aging and withered bride of Christ’s face denoted someone in the class was about to experience a little Hell on Earth. Luckily, I’d been spared from the experience. My brothers had not.
“It’s a holiday, Teddy. Let the girls have a couple-a belts while they watch the Macy’s parade.” My father still referred to his wife by the nickname he’d gifted her with more than fifty years ago. The root meaning for Ursula is bear. From the moment Pop was introduced to her at a church dance by the parish priest when they were both fifteen, he’d called her his Teddy Bear because she was so tiny and—in his words—cuddly.
I know. My little romantic heart always sighs when I think about that story.
The line across her face deepened. My mother is as old-school Italian mama as they make ’em when it concerns her children. No girls my brothers brought home had ever been good enough for her bambini ragazzi—baby boys. I doubt the Virgin Mary would have been good enough in her eyes.
And let’s not forget about my loser ex. To this day if his name—or God forbid a reference to him—is made or said, she crosses herself and then spits on the first two fingers of her blessing hand to ward off potential evil from the mention.
“They should be in here, helping me, like good wives, instead of in there cackling and gossiping like old hens. And drinking. Non è giusto. It’s not right.”
I’d heard this lament more times than I could remember over the years. Ma would complain about her daughters-in-law not helping, but the reason they didn’t was because they couldn’t do anything right in Ursula’s eyes. Whatever they did, whether it was set the table, roll out the dough for the pasta, or even open a jar of my aunt Frankie’s famous tomato sauce, Ma complained they were doing it wrong. After a few years of this constant haranguing, my brother’s wives had all defected from the kitchen to the den whenever she was cooking.
Pop shot me a look, rolled his eyes, and shook his head. He knew the reason his daughters-in-law had decamped. Fifty years of marriage to the same woman had taught him when to hold his tongue though, especially if he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of her wicked one.
“Let me help, Ma,” I offered again. Because I was her own flesh and blood, the only girl, and the youngest of all her bambini, I knew I could do no wrong in her eyes.
Spoiled, much? A bit, yeah.
A half hour later the turkey was carved, the homemade pasta was perfectly al dente, and the rest of the side dishes were all set on the table. This was an Italian household to its core, so the usual Thanksgiving fixings—sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce, and Parker House rolls—were absent, substituted by tagliatelle, red sauce—what we refer to as gravy—ciabatta bread, and roasted peppers, along with stuffed tomatoes and a huge salad.
We did succumb to one American tradition, though, and have turkey with the meal. The fact that each and every one of us smothered it in Aunt Frankie’s tomato gravy, well, that’s the Italian in us.
“Sonny, you say the Grace,” Ma instructed as we all held hands.
My father stood at the head of the table, my mother seated next to him. As was also tradition, my father never sat down to eat in his shirt. A bright white wife-beater I knew he got by the gross at a discount dollar store a friend of his owned was his usual table garb. And by got by the gross, I mean it in the literal way. Pop had crates of the shirts stacked in the garage. It didn’t matter that the rest of us were dressed appropriately. Ever since my memory could be counted on, my father sat at a family table sans his outer shirt. Of course if we were out at a restaurant or a fancy function like a wedding, he submitted and left it on for decency’s sake. But with family, all thoughts of decency flew out the storm windows. Since packing on a few extra belly pounds over the past couple years, he’d started wearing suspenders to keep his pants up because he hated the confining feeling of a belt.
“Hold hands and bow ya heads,” Pop instructed. We all complied. Pop looked up at the dining room ceiling. As a kid I’d always wondered if he could see God somewhere floating around the crystal chandelier. “Lord,” he said, focusing on the ceiling stucco, “we want to thank you for this food, made by the wife and paid for by my hard work. We want to thank you for our health, the roofs over our heads, the fact we got no bills, ain’t no one doing time right now, and most of all for the love we share as a family. Bless this food, Lord. Amen.”
A chorus of Amens went around the table. Pop sat, tucked his napkin in his undershirt collar, his suspenders draped over his hairy, beefy arms.
“Petey,” he said to my youngest brother, “pass the macaroni.”
And so we ate.
My mother believed in the old adage that if you ever ran out of food at a meal it meant you’d been miserly in the making of it.
Conversation was loud across and along the table with my brothers, their wives and some of their kids all talking at cross purposes and over one another, each trying to be heard.
Like I usually did, unless someone was speaking directly to me, I tended to tune them all out.
The twenty-five pound turkey Pop had carved was picked clean to the bones. I knew Ma would make soup stock from it tonight after everyone had gone home. At the conclusion of the main meal, my brothers all sat back in their seats, slid their belts open a few notches, and ’Carlo had gone so far as to undo the top button on his pants.
“As always, Ma,” my brother Petey said, with a drowsy tryptophan-induced grin on his face, “nobody cooks like you. Simply the best.”
His wife, Penny shot him a deadly glare. It wasn’t malocchio-worthy like my nonna’s had been when she was alive, but it was close.
“You doin’ okay?” my sister-in-law Trixie, GianCarlo’s wife, asked me. She was seated next to me, my mother on the other side of me in the runner’s chair, so called because of its close location to the kitchen. Whenever something was needed, the person in the runner’s chair was elected to go get it. It really, in all seriousness, should just have been called “Ma’s chair” because she was the only one who’d ever sat in it in the thirty-two years of my memory.
“I’m okay,” I told Trixie. With a shrug I added, “Busy at the bakery ’cause it’s that time of year. But I’m okay.”
“You seeing anybody these days? Like, dating?”
Trixie was the oldest of all my brother’s wives and the one who routinely asked after my love life. Or lack of it.
“No free time,” I said. “The bakery takes up all my hours. When I’m not working, I’m planning, paying bills, ordering supplies. Throw in a few much needed hours of sleep each night, and months can change before I realize it.”
Trixie shook her head, her over-Aqua-netted sprayed hair staying perfectly in place while she moved. “You’re too young, Reg, to be sitting alone at night in that apartment. You’re gonna shrivel and rot before your time. A girl’s gotta”—she lowered her voice and moved a little closer to me—“get some sometime, you know?” Her raised eyebrows underscored her meaning as her intent glare lit on me. “Don’t use it, you’re gonna lose it.”
“Lose what?” my mother asked in her usual thunderous voice at just the moment the entire table’s conversations screamed to a halt.
“Nothin’ Ma. Trixie and me were just talking about the bakery.” I hoped against hope she’d let it go, but it wasn’t my mother I needed to worry about. It was Trixie.
She leaned forward and cocked her head so she could see my mother across my chest, the few glasses of pre-dinner vino showing their effects. “I was just saying to Reggie that she should be going out, dating. Trying to find a guy worthy of her. Not one like her loser ex.”
Remember when I said there were times I’d wished I’d been a foundling? Yeah. This was a prime example of one of those times.
“She’s still young and beautiful,” Trixie continued. “She’s got needs like any young and healthy woman does.”
Forget about being a foundling. Maybe it would have been better if I’d never been born.
“Hush with that kinda talk, Beatrice Guilia,” my mother said, sharply. She made the sign of the cross over her chest. “We don’t talk about things like needs and such at the dinner table. There’s kids present. Madonna mia.”
Once Trixie starts on a subject, though, it’s hard to stop her. Not even ’Carlo pulling at her arm can sway her when she wants to make a point. “All I’m sayin’ is Reggie shouldn’t let the tragedy of her past prevent her from finding lasting happiness. She deserves to be happy. In every way,” she added, nodding. “Penny, you get me, right?”
I shot my gaze to my other sister-in-law across the table and sent her a silent, wide-eyed plea to keep her mouth shut.
Penny wasn’t tuned into my telepathic appeal, though. I assumed the vino had something to do with her inability to read my mind and eye signals.
“It’s true, Reg. You got no life outside-a work,” she said. “You need to get out. Meet people. Find a boyfriend. I know a couple-a single guys at work. I could set you up with one of them.”
“Nobody’s setting Regina up with nobody.” My father’s booming voice shot through the dining room. “She wants t’ meet a guy, I’ll introduce her to one. Last time, she went looking on her own, and we all know happened.”
He looked pointedly at me, and I said a silent prayer for the dining room floor to open up and swallow me. The only guys my father was every going to introduce me to were the ones he associated with. None of whom had modern notions of a wife as a life partner, but more the old-fashioned and archaic ones of thinking of a bride as an unpaid domestic, a carrier of the next generation of sons, and a cook. In essence, a woman who was perpetually pregnant, barefoot in the kitchen, and subservient.
Yeah, I know. This is the twenty-first century, and we live in one of the most progressive cities on the planet. But we’re talking about a lifetime of shared social mores and cultural dictates that were infused into my family since birth. Maybe even before they were born.
Change was not gonna happen.
“I’m just saying,” Trixie pushed—despite the subtle hand I saw her husband shift under the table to grab her thigh and get her to stop—“she should get out more. She lives in the same place she works, for Pete’s sake.” She turned her slightly tipsy gaze back to me. “You don’t need to go to bars to pick up guys,” she said.
My mother crossed herself again and began muttering in Italian. I wasn’t sure, but it sounded like she was saying a prayer for my eternal soul.
“You could go to paint night someplace. Or maybe go bowling.”
“Bowling?” ’Carlo said. His thick eyebrows shot up the width of his forehead, almost meeting the receding strip of his hairline. “The only guys she’s gonna meet bowling are pigrones who can’t get dates or guys already hitched.” He turned his attention to me and wagged his index finger at me like I was his child and not his baby sister. “Don’t go takin’ up with any married guys, Reggie. Remember Uncle Joey and that whole Delphina thing he had going on. Almost broke Aunt Frankie’s heart.”
“Delphina. Bah.” My mother made the sign of the cross again and spit on her fingers. “Puttana.”
“No good ever comes-a taking up with guys with wives, remember that.”
“Good to know,” I said, standing with my dish. “Thanks for the advice. Who wants pie? I’ll go heat them up.”
If I could have sprouted wings, I couldn’t have moved any faster out of the dining room. I heard hushed, angry voices follow me as my brothers verbally sparred with their wives.
I took a giant breath, then scraped my plate into the garbage and placed it in the ceramic sink along with the cutlery. My mother still washed all the dishes, pots, and utensils by hand. Pop had tried to gift her with a new dishwasher one Christmas, but she’d waved him off saying she preferred her things hand washed and didn’t trust anything mechanical not to chip or crack the imported Italian china she’d been given as a new bride.
I used to wonder if that was truly the reason or if she knew the dishwasher fell off a truck and was worried the police would find out and cart it—and her—off to jail.
I set the oven to a low temp and pulled the pies I’d baked that morning from their boxes. Then, because I knew this after-dinner routine like I knew the back of my hand, I put the coffee pot on, which was already filled with decaf, and plugged in the espresso machine. From the corner of my eye, I spotted my mother waddle into the kitchen, her hands laden with dishes.
“Here, let me, Ma.” I took them from her and repeated my motions of moments before.
“Grazie, mia figlia.”
“Petey was right,” I said. “Everything was delicious as always.”
She nodded and began filling the sink with warm water.
“Just a reminder, Reggie. Me, Frankie, and Grace are going to th’outlets in Jersey for some Christmas shopping tomorrow. Get a jump on the sales.”
“You know the stores are going to be packed, right? It’s Black Friday.”
“Why you think we’re going? An’ why you think they call it that? Black Friday?” She shot her chubby hands to her fists. “Sounds like some kinda plague or somethin’.”
Questions like this had pestered my mother her entire life.
Why’d’they call it rubbernecking? We’re on a highway that ain’t made of rubber. Why’d’they call it a driveway when we’re parked? Why can’t they put the fabric softener in the detergent?
I knew this question was asked because that’s the way her brain works and didn’t necessitate an actual answer. I gave her one, anyway.
“I think’s it’s because all the stores are hoping to end the day, and begin their holiday receipts, with a profit. You know? In the black?”
“Still a stupid word. Anyways. Your Aunt Frankie’s got a boatload of, whatamacallit, coupon books.” She waved her hand in the air at me.
“Door busters?” Remember I told you this kind of gesture is like a second language for me?
“Yeah. Another stupid name. Door busters. We ain’t bustin’ down no doors. If we get there before eight, we get another twenty percent off everything.”
“You’re gonna have to leave early to beat the traffic.” I grabbed a dishtowel and took the now cleaned plate she offered me.
“Grace’s coming to pick me up at five thirty.”
It was my turn to nod.
“Since you’re closed tomorrow, wanna come with us? We could use the extra hands to carry stuff and you’re strong.”
Again, left-handed compliments were her forte, but I wasn’t even tempted. Black Friday and December 26 were the only nonholiday days of the year the bakery was closed. I usually take advantage of the quiet time to catch up on decorating ordered cakes, take store inventory, and even find a little time to soak in a hot tub. If I accompanied Ma and the aunts tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to indulge in that little guilty pleasure.
Besides, I don’t know how long I would survive with three women in their late sixties who all talked nonstop, commented—loudly—on what strangers were wearing, buying, or how their kids were misbehaving. Add in that I’d be stuck with them in a car for over two hours both ways in traffic, and, well, having my fingernails pulled off to the quick one by one seemed more appealing.
While I took down the dessert plates and coffee cups my mother touched my arm.
Her top teeth were sucking on a corner of her bottom lip, and a crater had formed between her brows.
“Ma, what? What’s the matter?” I grabbed her hands in mine.
She tsked twice, her tongue sounding like sandpaper gliding across jagged, unprocessed wood, and shook her head. “What Trixie said?”
“Do you…have you…are you lonely, bambina? Do you miss being a wife? A mother?”
We never spoke of this, so I was taken aback by the question. Since I’d petitioned the church to annul my marriage and Pop had pulled in some ecclesiastic favors to expedite the process, my former life wasn’t talked of much by my family. I’d made a huge mistake, gone against my parents’ wishes and dated a guy so wrong for me on so many levels, then had come to regret it. The ramifications of my actions had started a downward spiral in my life that had ended with death, emotional and physical abandonment, and divorce. Death was as common in an Italian family as making the sign of the cross. Marital abandonment wasn’t unheard of, but divorce was the ultimate no-no in such a staunchly Catholic family as mine. It simply wasn’t talked about. Ever. For my mother to ask something like this was a shock. But she had real maternal concern in her eyes when she looked up at me.
The need to offer comfort and ease her mind was huge. I pulled her into a hug, my fingertips barely touching as they circled the seven decades of good Italian cooking settled around her waist.
“I’m okay, Ma. Really. I don’t miss being married to Johnny one bit.”
“But what Trixie said, about you having”—she shuddered—“needs?”
No way was I having this conversation with my sixty-eight year old rosary-toting, church-going mother.
“Don’t listen to her, Ma.” I pulled back and held her at arm’s length. “It’s the wine giving her labbra sciolte. Loose lips. Ignore what she says.”
She palmed my cheek. Her eyes were on the verge of spilling tears, and I couldn’t deal with the next question I knew she was going to ask me, so I took the coward’s way out, kissed her cheek, and pulled away to get the desserts ready.
“I’m fine. Really. I’m so busy all the time I’m never lonely.”
I sent a mental reminder to myself to admit the lie when I went to confession this weekend.
“You work so hard,” Ma said. “So you don’t have time to think. To remember.”
Now my own tears threatened, burning the backs of my eyes. Italian mothers see all, know all, feel all when it concerns their children. Why had I forgotten this?
“The anniversary is soon,” she said, in an uncharacteristic soft, low tone.
“You don’t have to remind me, Ma. I know what day it is.”
“Bambina.” She wrapped her arms around me from behind and rested her chin on my shoulder.
Ever since taking the commission for Connor’s cake, Pearl’s Place hadn’t been far from my mind. I hadn’t told anyone in the bakery about where the cake was going yet knowing I’d get pelted with questions, concerned faces, maybe even a few requests not to do it.
And when your Italian family requests something, it’s usually not an option to deny the appeal.
I don’t know what possessed me to tell my mother, since I was sure what her reaction was going to be, but before I could convince myself not to, I did.
She pulled her arms from around me and then spun me around to face her. “Regina Maria. Why?”
A good question. I thought I’d said yes because Connor Gilhooly had looked so worried his planned party was going to be ruined and I’d felt bad for him. Wanting to please people and knowing when to say no have always been at war within me. With a little distance, that reason didn’t quite ring true now, and I knew it.
I shrugged. “Maybe, it’s time. Time to forget.”
“You’ll never forget,” she said immediately. “È impossibile.”
The oven dinged, telling me the pies were warmed. While I plated them, I told her, “You’re right. I won’t ever forget. But I need to move on, Ma. You said yourself I work so hard to try and push…everything to the back of my mind. But it’s always right here.” I tapped my forehead. “Maybe making the cake will help me finally find, I don’t know. Closure? I won’t ever forget what happened, but I can start to heal. Try to be happy again.”
Her champagne mop of curls bounced as she shook her head with the violence of a seizure. “Another stupido word. Closure. The only thing that ever closes is a coffin.”
I winced and shook my head. “Ma.”
She beat a fist against her amble breasts in the vicinity of her heart. “Your heart was broken, bambina. Shattered. To lose the thing you love the most in the world, the thing you’d lay down your life for, you don’t recover from that. Ever. It’s always with you.”
“I know. It is. But I need to do this, Ma. I need to make this cake. I need to know I can do it. That I’ve got the strength to.”
“Of course you have the strength. You’re a San Valentino.” Her lips pursed again and her brows tugged forward in that arrogant, haughty way only a true daughter of Italy can pull off to perfection. “You can do anything you tell yourself to.”
A moment ago she’d told me I’d never be able to forget the tragedy of my past, and now she was saying I could do anything I wanted if I put my mind to it.
Irony, thy name is Ursula San Valentino.
I’d had enough emotional discourse for the day, so I quickly finished plating the pies, brought them back to the dining room and told everyone I was begging off.
“I need to catch up on a little work, and then I’m gonna get to bed early,” I said while I doled out the dessert plates to my siblings.
“You work too hard, Reggie,” Petey said right before he shoved almost the entire slice of apple pie I’d given him into his mouth.
“You need an assistant,” ’Carlo said. “Someone to take the slack off.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine. I like working hard. An assistant would just be in the way.”
I caught the quick raised-eyebrows look that passed between my sisters-in-law. Before they could start up with the dating talk and their thoughts about my needs again, I beat a hasty arrivederci.
I love my family to no end. I’d do anything I could for them, take a bullet, lie down and die for them, help in any way I can.
But sometimes I just needed a break from them.
Twenty minutes later, after taking an Uber back to my place, I shrugged out of my clothes and into my favorite comfort clothes: flannel pajamas.
Tyler pushed through the Stone Hearth Tavern’s door and was immediately hit with a twang of jukebox country music and the familiar aromas of tap beer and sawdust. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust, moving as he had from the brilliance of the street lights to the tavern’s darkened interior.
Despite the early hour, the place was filled. All the tables and booths were occupied, so he moved toward the bar when he spotted an empty seat at the far end.
Settled, he glanced up at the chalkboard of selections and blinked twice in surprise.
Hope Kildaire stood behind the bar, filling two glasses with draft beer. She hadn’t spotted him approach, so he took the moment to observe her, unawares.
A reserved smile graced her face as the guy waiting for his order chatted her up. Early twenties by Tyler’s guess, the kid stared at Hope with a serious case of attraction. He knew how the younger man felt.
During their lesson, her hair had been woven into a braid dangling down her back. In the lodge, when she’d removed her hat, he’d likened the colors to butterscotch and honey. Now, with it unbraided and freely floating down past her shoulders, the colors burst into life. Gold and red highlights shimmered from the waves framing her face, as if each strand had been hand painted for emphasis. In the tavern’s subdued lighting, Hope was a bright, vibrant beacon, sparkling with health and life.
Tyler was drawn to her light, her vitality, as if he’d spent his existence until that moment in perpetual darkness.
Hope turned, reached for something behind her, and caught his eye.
For a moment, her body froze, her hand still outstretched, her eyes widening in surprise when they lit on him. She dipped her chin and regarded him from under her eyelashes as she finger-swiped the hair falling across her face behind her ear. A quick head bob his way indicated she’d be right with him.
With an expert’s finesse she uncorked a bottle of Jameson’s, poured a thimbleful each into two shot glasses, then added them to beer-guy’s order. He slid a bill into her hand and then waved off the change she tried to give him back. He scooped the drinks, then carried them back to his table. Hope slid the change into one of the jelly jars behind the bar marked with several names, hers among them, and made her way over to him.
“Hey, New York.” Sweet laughter warmed with surprise rang in her voice. “How are the legs?”
Tyler groaned and stretched them out in front of him. “Better after a long, hot soak, but I’m betting they’re gonna feel worse in the morning.”
She tossed him a quick, sympathetic look. “Make sure you take some kind of analgesic before going to sleep tonight. It’ll help. Trust me.”
Cooking withKandy Book 1 in the Will Cook for Love Series from Kensington/Lyrical Shine
When they were alone, Josh moved to Kandy’s side. “You okay?”
She slumped back in the chair and ran her hands through her hair.
“Not really, but they all need to think I am.”
He stared at her for a moment, admiring her honesty.
“Captain of the ship syndrome.” He folded his hands in his pockets.
When she just gaped wide-eyed at him, he shrugged.
“In order to keep order, you need to keep your head; stay calm, maintain a cool attitude, even when it seems impossible to do so. That way, the ship stays afloat; everyone stays composed and focused.”
She stared up at him, amazement on her face. “You continually surprise me.”
“It’s not hard to understand, Kandy. You run a multimillion-dollar business with your name, and your name alone, attached to it. If you falter, everyone else follows suit. If you stand tall, the line stays stable. It’s one of the first precepts of running a successful business.”
“Not only a business,” she told him, leaning back in her chair, her arms folded across her midsection. “Grandma was always the calm in any storm. With a household filled with hormonal teenagers and unending sisterly fights and drama, she never lost her cool. I can’t even ever remember her crying or raising her voice. When she was calm, it settled the rest of us down. But she had to have been going nuts on the inside.”
Josh stared at her for a moment. “My mother is the same way,” he said. “Unless there was arterial blood splattering or bones were obviously broken, she never got upset, never got emotional. That taught me a valuable lesson about keeping your emotions in check during stressful work situations. But”—he pulled his hands from his pockets and leaned them, knuckles down, on the desk in front of her—“what you’ve been going through isn’t simple everyday family drama or normal work stress, Kandy.”
Her eyes were wary as she looked up at him.
“I can understand you wanting to show a brave front, but this has to be taking some kind of toll on you, whether you’ll admit it or not,” he added when it looked like she was about to interrupt him.
“I can’t imagine the level of pressure you’re under. Business aside, you’ve made yourself responsible for most of your family, and that weight alone is heavy. Add what’s been happening to you lately into the mix and I have to wonder how much longer you can carry on the way you have.”
She didn’t answer him. When she pulled her bottom lip under her top teeth and frowned, he knew he should stop.
Knowing and doing were two different things though, so he pushed back upright and asked, “Doesn’t the pressure of being everything to everybody ever get to you?”
“All the time,” she said softly.
He could tell she regretted giving voice to her feelings when she immediately blushed and lowered her eyes.
After a moment she lifted them back to him and said, “Sometimes…”
She nibbled at her lower lip again and took a full breath. “Sometimes I wish I could go back to when I could just cook and not have to worry about book deadlines and production schedules. No publicity tours or guest appearances. Sometimes…sometimes I wish Grandma was still here and still in charge of the family…instead of me.”
Her blue-eyed gazed pierced him straight in the heart.
“How awful does that sound? Really, how terrible is that? After all I’ve accomplished? All I’ve worked toward? I sound so ungrateful.”
“I don’t think it’s awful at all,” he told her, “to feel that way. I think you’re entitled to.”
She studied her hands, avoiding his gaze again.
“It’s a great deal of responsibility for just one person,” he said. “Being responsible for yourself. For your family. For all the people who work for the show.” She looked up at him, her body perfectly still, her eyes watchful. “Maybe…”
In for a penny, he thought. “Maybe it’s too much for one person. Ever think about that?”
He wasn’t surprised when her eyes widened.
“Yeah,” he said. “I thought so.”
They were silent for a moment, then Kandy, her voice barely above a hush, said, “Sometimes I’m just so scared I’m going to do something wrong or make a monumental mistake and it will all fall down around me. Everything I’ve worked for. Everything I’ve accomplished. If that happens, where will it leave everyone else?”
Her words, and the meaning behind them shot straight through him. To have to be so strong, so intractable, so focused all the time must be physically and mentally exhausting.
She shook her head and rolled her shoulders.
One thing he knew he could do for her was find out who was at the bottom of all the torment. At least that would give her some peace of mind.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS, Book 3 in the MacQuire Women Series ( Wild Rose Press)
“Have you ever been friends with a girl before?”
“Have a beer and shoot some pool friends? Or the kind with benefits?”
When she laughed out loud, he tried to think what was so funny.
“Have you ever just been friends with a girl without sex mixed into the equation?”
“Not since I was sixteen,” he admitted and felt his neck heat.
“That’s what I thought.”
She cocked her head. “It’s no secret I’m attracted to you. I think the way I just responded to you proves it. But I don’t jump into bed with a man just because I’m attracted to him.”
“So, what’s being friends got to do with anything?”
Clarissa sighed and leaned a hip against the doorjamb.
“I’ve been hearing about your reputation with women since I moved here, and I’m not looking to be the flavor of the week, Pat.”
He stared at her for a second as hurt washed through him. “You don’t sugar coat things do you?”
She reached out and gripped his forearm. Her hand felt so good against his skin, he instinctively laid his own over it. He swore he saw a flash of lightning spark from underneath his fingers.
“I don’t mean to insult you, but I’m trying to build a professional reputation in this town and I don’t want to do anything to give gossip mongers any fuel.”
“And dating me would?”
“Dating anyone would. This is a small town and everyone knows one another. But like I said, you have this rep where women are concerned.”
“I’m not going to apologize for liking women, Clarissa. I’m a guy.”
“That, you are.” Her lips split into a huge smile.