Authors: Erin McCarthy
N HER DREAM, Paige Lombardi was wearing a knock-out bikini, being served a chilly drink pool side by a gorgeous, tanned, muscular… howling cat?
That wasn’t right.
Prying her eyes open, she tried to banish the loud shrieking wail that had appeared without warning in her otherwise delicious dream.
The cat kept wailing.
Swiping hair out of her eyes and removing her cherry red floral comforter from over her head, Paige rolled over.
The dying cat was real. It was in her bedroom.
Only it wasn’t a cat. It was a baby, strapped into a stroller and howling for all he was worth two feet from Paige’s ear.
She knew this baby, and it wasn’t hers.
It was her best friend Gina Benedetto’s baby, sporting the trademark mop of Benedetto black hair.
Her friend Gina who had an awful lot of explaining to do. Especially when Paige jumped out of bed and stumbled around her small apartment in her bedtime boxer shorts. She determined within seconds that Gina was nowhere to be found.
Paige wasn’t really surprised. Since they had met in kindergarten at Holy Rosary School, Gina had been getting Paige into trouble. Gina had been considered wild by most people’s standards, and downright sinful by the nuns.
Everyone said it was the result of being the younger sister of three charming troublemaker Benedetto boys. Their exploits were famous on Murray Hill, and the mention of any of the Benedetto siblings earned head shakes from Italian mothers.
Paige had always been a good girl. Who by a twist of fate, or an act of God, had wound up sitting next to Gina in kindergarten. She had shared her Twinkies with Gina, and they had been best friends ever since.
“This is so like her,” Paige fumed, taking a circuitous route around the stroller, eyeing the baby warily.
Paige didn’t do babies. She had no clue what to do with the creature squalling in front of her. An only child, with zero babysitting experience, Paige would rather bungee jump than be responsible for damaging someone else’s child.
How she would do that, she didn’t know, but it seemed inevitable. She was bound to feed it something it shouldn’t have, or screw up the whole diaper changing business. Gina was actually very good at motherhood, which had shocked everyone who knew her. But Paige was terrified of it.
Only it wasn’t an “it.” It was Justin, Gina’s one year old son fathered by her long-time boyfriend, Frank Macelli, who swore to Gina they’d get married any day now. Paige wasn’t holding her breath on that one.
“Where is your mother?” she demanded of the baby. “And why would she leave you with me when she knows I’ll probably kill you by accident?”
It wasn’t that she didn’t like kids. In fact, she thought babies were pretty darn adorable when they weren’t drooling. She wanted to have one of her own someday in about ten years after she read every book available on the subject and attended child rearing classes.
Taking care of one right now was not something she was qualified to do.
Justin, whose little face had gone red, suddenly waved his arms up and down as if he were shaking them in fury at her. He reminded her of the teacher she’d had in the fifth grade, Sister Mary Clarence. Same round head and screaming.
“I’m sorry! I don’t know what you want.” Maybe he wanted out of that strap thingie that was cutting across his gut. Sort of like pantyhose.
Paige poked around the baby’s middle, found the clasp and studied it a full minute before finally figuring out how to release the seat belt. When it popped free, Justin started to slide out of the seat.
“Whoa! Hang on there.” She picked him up and settled him on her hip. As Justin stopped crying, she noticed a piece of paper had fluttered down to the carpet.
“Hey, what’s this?” She was already starting to figure out that a baby was a great excuse for talking to herself out loud.
It was a yellow piece of paper ripped from a steno pad. She read, “Paigey.”
She stuck her tongue out in disgust. “I’ve been telling Gina to stop calling me that since we were eight.”
Justin blinked, a large tear still clinging to his eyelash.
Paige wiped it with her finger and smiled at him. He was cute. It wasn’t his fault his mother was insane. She continued with the note. “I need you to watch Justin for me for a few days. It’s an emergency. Love you, Gina.”
She crumpled the paper up and threw it towards the wastebasket. “Sheesh. How do you like that? No explanation, no number, no nothing.”
Starting towards her phone, she tripped over the wheel of the stroller and stumbled, nearly tumbling herself and Justin to the floor.
“See?” she said. “I told you I would cause bodily harm to you.”
Yet Justin was giggling, an earthy belly laugh, from having been bounced up and down in her arms when she stumbled.
She grinned at him. “Think I’m funny, do you?”
He let out a happy squeal. At least she thought it was happy. Either that or he was calling her an idiot in baby talk.
In rapid succession, she dialed every single number she could think of to get a hold of Gina. She didn’t answer her cell phone, her voice mail picked up at home and work, and Frank didn’t answer at his apartment.
She resorted to calling Gina’s mother.
“Hi, Mrs. Benedetto. This is Paige Lombardi.”
“Paige, honey, how are you? I saw your grandmother the other day. She says you moved out of Little Italy.”
Sinking onto her bed, Paige struggled not to sigh. Free of her arms, Justin crawled over her comforter and sprawled out on her pillow. It was a good idea considering it was six a.m. and by all rights she should still be sleeping now.
“Yes, I moved to University Heights.”
“Why?” Mrs. Benedetto expressed proper horror as had every single living member of Paige’s family when she had decided to move an entire whopping four miles away.
Gina’s mom went on. “You can’t get a decent meal there. Sure, they’ve got coffeehouses, but you can’t live on coffee.”
“I’m happy here.” And she was. At twenty-six she had been feeling strangled in Cleveland’s Little Italy, where everyone knew her parents, and intense records were kept of who went to church and who dated who.
She had needed to get her own life, and she had. Most of the time she was satisfied with that. After all, she did have access to great coffee.
But the real issue here was Gina and her “dump Justin with Paige” act. She wondered briefly if Gina and Frank had eloped, then dismissed it. Frank would have to be bribed with six figures to actually make a commitment to Gina.
“Have you seen Gina, Mrs. Benedetto? I’m trying to get a hold of her.”
Justin began sucking on her comforter, long gooey strands of saliva oozing from his mouth down over the fabric. Paige hated the laundromat. She gave another sigh and hoped Mrs. Benedetto would announce that Gina was sitting beside her in her kitchen.
“No, I haven’t talked to her at all this week. Try Frank’s.”
Darn it. “Okay, thanks.”
After fielding invitations from Mrs. Benedetto that included pasta and her grandmother, Paige hung up.
It was time for something drastic. She was going to have to get in the car and find Gina. It was Tuesday. Gina had to go to work, right?
Paige would just surprise her there and return her bundle of joy.
The glitch in that plan was that Gina was an accountant for Benedetto Construction, the family business, and she worked in the company office.
As did Jeff. Gina’s older brother.
Who Paige had spent the better part of three years avoiding like fat grams.
“I don’t want to see your uncle,” she told Justin as she scooped him up and headed towards her closet. She would dress for work, drop Justin off, then still be on time for her nine o’clock appointment.
When you were investing a half of a million dollars for a client, they sort of liked you to be on time. It was a basic rule for being a good investment counselor. And Paige liked to be good at everything she did.
Justin looped his finger around a strand of her long hair and pulled. She grappled with his finger, trying to remove it, without much luck. He had a grip like a dog on a bone.
She said, “Ow. I’m serious. I don’t want to see Jeff. Ever again. I’ll die of humiliation if I have to see him.”
She pulled out a blue suit from the closet and wondered how in the world she was supposed to get into her clothes with a baby on her hip. Her appreciation for mothers rose, as did her determination to use birth control.
Of course, in order to use birth control, she was going to have to have sex, and that was nothing but a distant memory.
Justin grabbed the shoulder of the suit with his wet hand and squeezed, leaving a tiny slimy hand print on the dry clean only garment.
“Hey!” She threw the suit on the bed and starting shifting through the closet for another one, minus the drool. “If I do run into Jeff, you can bet I’m going to be looking good.”
After all, it wasn’t every day you ran into the man you had lost your virginity with.
The man who hadn’t bothered to call you ever again after the fact.
Jeff Benedetto didn’t appreciate having a gun waved in his face.
There was just no reason for that kind of overreaction.
“Look,” he told the brawny idiot in front of him, “I told you, I don’t know where Frank is. I don’t keep tabs on him.”
This guy was making him nervous. Jeff had doubts that this sweaty, breathless guy even knew how to fire the gun he was holding in his shaky hand. But accidents could happen.
He had no intention of taking a bullet sitting behind a desk in a construction trailer. Especially not in the name of someone as worthless as Frank Macelli, his sister’s freeloader boyfriend.
“I thought Frank works here.” The man wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his black silk shirt, leaving a wet stain on it.
Jeff shifted in his chair, trying to take his forehead out of line with the barrel of the gun. “He does work here.” When he bothered to show up. “But he doesn’t usually get in until after nine.”
“Well, you tell old Frank I’ve got a message for him.”
Jeff raised an eyebrow. This little scene was starting to sound like a high school production of The Godfather. “Yeah?”
“You tell Frank I’ve got his girlfriend, and if he wants to see her again he’d better stay away from Vinnie Cucuzza.”
Jeff went still, all amusing thoughts of telling his brothers Sam and Sal about his visitor over a beer fleeing his head. “What do you mean, you’ve got Gina?”
A nervous laugh left the man’s mouth, and spittle pooled in the corner of his lip. “That’s right. I’ve got Gina, and if Frank doesn’t watch it, I’ll grab his kid too.”
Jeff didn’t know what this guy wanted, but that was enough. There was no way he was going to just sit here and let this bozo threaten his nephew. And if he really did have Gina, he better hope he hadn’t hurt one hair on her overprocessed head.
The guy was shaking even harder now, the gun rattling back and forth in his hand. Jeff pushed his chair back, waiting for the right minute to spring forward and smack the gun away.
A knock came on the trailer door. “Jeff?” A female voice called in to him. “Is Gina with you? Sal told me she might be here…”
Hell. He recognized that voice. He would never forget that voice. That voice giving little gasps of pleasure in his ear still haunted his dreams.
Damn. That was Paige Lombardi, the last person he needed to see right now.
“Paige, don’t come in here,” he commanded in a firm voice.
The guy in front of him stood still, alert and looking ready to fire a few rounds into the intruder if necessary, from the grip he held on his gun.
Paige’s voice came through the door, sounding all in a snit. “Well, of all the nerve. Can you believe that? I told you I didn’t want to come here.”
“Who’s she talking to?” the guy asked in confusion.
“I don’t know.” He was wondering that himself. He was also starting to wonder how his day had gone south so fast.
Ten minutes ago he’d been eating an everything bagel and nursing his coffee. Now he was facing a gun and the only woman who had ever made him feel like a complete jerk.