Authors: Karen Erickson
She had no business being here. The hushed elegance of the small café cocooned her yet reminded her of her place with these people, the wealthy elite of Manhattan society. Sitting in their designer clothing, drinking their expensive caffeinated drinks and murmuring among themselves.
Paige Stewart drew her finger along the rim of her stark white coffee cup, contemplating if she should go to the counter and ask for a refill. She had every right to. They were free, after all. The giant chalkboard sign filled with menu items that hung on the wall behind the counter stated so.
But in her mind, it felt like charity, since she had so very little money. Two twenties and a handful of ones sat in her wallet, a scattering of change lined the bottom of her purse.
Clutching her sweater closed, she shivered, glanced about the crowded café. The walls were a dark, espresso-colored paneled wood, the lighting a warm, flattering shade of gold. Outside, the wind shrieked, the rain poured, and she knew the minute she ventured through those doors, the downpour would soak her clothing to the bone.
Reaching for her purse, she pulled out her old, battered cell phone, staring at it. She could call her parents. They would wire money to her so she could get home via Greyhound, no questions asked. They would be relieved to have her home. They’d never agreed with her going to New York City. Thought her big-city dreams were too scary for a naïve, small-town girl. They’d worried she would be crushed, ruined.
They’d been right. Though she wasn’t crushed or ruined, she’d come close. Could still imagine her former boss’s hands on her, his lips pressed to hers, his tongue trying its best to thrust inside her mouth…
Shivering, she dropped the phone back into her purse, her gaze caught on the most adorable dark-haired boy she’d ever seen. He sat at the table next to her with a beautiful older woman, bouncing in his chair, his giant brown eyes imploring the woman, most likely trying to get out of her whatever he could.
“Drink your hot chocolate,” the woman said softly, her voice thick with an unfamiliar accent. “Go on, Matty. Only one more meeting and then we can go home, though she’s late. I bet she won’t show.”
“I want to go home now.” He pouted, and Paige couldn’t help but smile. “I want a cookie!”
The woman shot him a stern look, but it did nothing to intimidate him. Most likely she was his mother or even possibly his grandmother. She was gorgeous.
“I want a cookie! Chocolate chip!” He hopped off his chair and started for the glass display cases at the order counter, his little legs moving fast.
“Oh Matty, no. Come back here.” The woman chased after him, grabbing him around the waist, her fingers digging into his belly, and he burst into uncontrollable giggles. She plopped him back into his chair, waved a red-nailed finger in his face. “Don’t move a muscle,
He giggled and blinked. “I moved my eyelashes, Nonna!”
Paige grinned. The obvious love between the two was sweet. Reminded her of why she came to New York in the first place. To be a nanny, to work with children and give them that extra bit of affection they needed when their parents were too busy working. She’d had such a wonderful job with the Leonards, had enjoyed taking care of their three young children.
Until Paul Leonard ruined everything and tried to rape her…
“You have pretty hair.”
Paige startled, turned to find the adorable imp staring up at her, his gaze locked on her curly red hair. “Why thank you,” she said with a faint smile. “You have pretty hair too.”
“Handsome,” he corrected with all the authority a young boy could muster. “Not pretty. Girls are pretty.”
She’d beg to differ but decided starting an argument with him wouldn’t be prudent. And he was terribly pretty, with his gorgeous brown eyes and rich dark brown hair, his cheeks like a cherub’s. “Handsome, then,” she agreed. “Very handsome.”
“And you’re very pretty.” He stepped closer to her. “I like your eyes.”
They were her favorite feature, a bluish green that changed color depending on her mood. “Thank you.”
“You have dots on your nose,” he continued.
“They’re called freckles.” She used to hate them, now was merely resigned that they were a part of her. Never liked her hair much either, though she’d grown used to it over the years. Red and curly when she’d always wished for blonde and straight, so typical.
“Leave the lady alone, Matty,” the woman chastised. “Come back and sit.”
“He’s no bother,” Paige said, smiling at the woman. “Really.”
The woman observed her quietly, her dark gaze penetrating, her eyebrows scrunched in seeming concentration. “My grandson seems to like you.”
“I like him.” He sidled closer to Paige, sent her an adoring look beneath a luxurious curl of thick eyelashes. When he grew up, he’d be devastating to the ladies. “I didn’t mean to intrude on your time with your grandson.”
“You’re not intruding.” The woman waved a hand at one of the empty chairs at their table. “Please. Come sit with us.”
“Oh, I don’t think—”
“Please,” the woman repeated insistently. “I’d like to talk to you, if you don’t mind.”
Feeling silly for arguing, Paige grabbed her purse and stood, rounding the table to sit between them. She set her purse on the ground at her feet. “What do you wish to talk about?”
“Do you want something to drink?”
Paige shook her head. “I already had a cup of coffee.”
“Something to eat, then.”
“Oh, I’m not hungry…” Her stomach chose that precise moment to rumble so loudly it sounded like the thunder that had rattled the windows earlier.
“I heard your tummy!” Matty cried with glee. “You should have a cookie.”
Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. “I’ll be fine. Really.”
“How about I buy us some lunch?” The woman shot a stern glance in Matty’s direction. “You eat a sandwich, then you can have a cookie.”
“Okay,” Matty agreed with a miserable sigh.
“I—I don’t have much money,” Paige mumbled, embarrassment making her wish she could disappear.
” She settled her hand over Paige’s and gave it a squeeze. “Though I should introduce myself before I buy you lunch. My name is Claudia Renaldi.”
The woman smiled, her brown eyes, much like Matty’s, soft with affection. “A pleasure to meet you. So tell me. Have you ever worked with children?”
Matteo Renaldi glared at his ringing cell phone, growling when he saw his mother’s name flash across the screen. He should take it. Knew she’d been working hard for him all morning, and hopefully she had good news.
Glancing about his office, he was thankful the advertising team had already left. He needed some time alone. To think, to digest all of their ideas for the new jewelry line his sister was designing. But he needed to talk to his mother first…
“Did you find someone?” he asked without preamble, turning his chair so he could stare out at the Manhattan skyline. The rain had stopped an hour ago, the sky still heavy with dark clouds. It was a Friday afternoon—he should leave so he could spend time with his son, but the weekend loomed. Two full days of no work, no commitments beyond his son Matty, whom he loved above anyone else in the world.
But he was lonely. Alone. And an empty weekend without a sweet woman to fill it was a constant reminder.
His mother laughed. “So eager to find out the news? No, ‘Hello, Mother, how are you? How is my son?’”
He loved his mother, but much of the time, she drove him insane. “I don’t doubt for a minute you’re perfectly fine, as is Matty.”
“You would be correct. Your son is in the best mood I’ve seen in a long time.”
“And why is that? Did you spoil him? Take him toy shopping again?” The child had more toys then he could ever, ever need. He was no better, indulging his only son far too often.
“As a matter of fact, I did not. But I found him something much better than a passel of toys he would grow bored with in days.” His mother’s voice lowered as if she were about to tell him a great secret. “I found a nanny.”
Relief flooded him. The last nanny hadn’t worked out, the old witch, hence his mother staying with them in the interim while they tried to find one. “Perfect. When does she start?”
“She’s already here.”
“What do you mean, she’s already there? As in at my house?” Anger replaced relief in a swift instant. “Did you do a background check? Get references? Conduct an extensive interview?”
“I know she will work out. She’s perfect.”
“Are you basing your hiring of this nanny on instinct? Because that’s a horrible use of judgment, I must say.”
“You are so serious, Matteo. Too serious sometimes. Don’t worry about background checks and references. She’s a delightful girl.”
Matteo closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose. “Mama, we are worth billions. What if this woman knows exactly who we are and planned to somehow insinuate herself into our house? What if she tries to sue us or blackmail us? Or worse?” Images of Matty being abducted and held for ransom flashed through his mind, sending an icy cold shiver of fear down his spine.
“You are so dramatic.” She muttered something else under her breath in unintelligible Italian. “Where does that come from?”
“You,” he said. “You’re just as dramatic.” Matty was the only precious thing left in his world. He’d lost his wife Lucia almost two years ago…not that he could consider her precious. Their marriage had hit a long rough turn before her death.
Something he couldn’t quite forgive himself for.
“Well, come home and meet her. She’s a lovely girl. So sweet and so good to Matty—he absolutely adores her.”
That caught Matteo’s attention. None of the nannies they’d hired so far had pleased Matty. They were either too cloying, too stern, too easy, too…everything. They’d gone through five of them in the last year, since he’d moved them permanently to the States.
After everything that had happened, he’d left Italy. He didn’t know if he could ever go back on a permanent basis. For work and to visit family, of course, though most of his immediate family had moved to New York as well. His sister Stasia lived with her husband Gavin not too far from his building. Both of his younger brothers had moved here as well, though they both tended to divide their time fairly equally between New York and Milan.
“It’s Friday afternoon,” his mother continued. “What sort of pressing tasks do you have on your desk? I can tell you—none. We both know the fashion industry likes to take their Friday afternoons and spend them out of the office.”
She was right. But the idea of a long, empty weekend stretched ahead of him hurt more than he cared to admit.
“Come home, Matteo. Come meet Paige.”
He blew out an irritated breath. “I’ll be home in an hour.”
Matteo hung up on her before she could say another word, tossing his phone so it landed with a crack onto his desk. He resumed his study of the Manhattan skyline, noted the clouds had receded. A trace of blue sky appeared in the distance, dampening his mood.
He’d hoped for a dark, dreary weekend so he could brood. Moody bastard that he was, he wasn’t looking forward to the spring, which was just around the corner. Sunny, longer days, pleasant breezes and blooming flowers made him angry.
Everything seemed to make him angry. Except for Matty.
Breathing deeply, he leaned against the back of his chair, casually curling the end of his silk tie around his finger. Would he ever forgive himself for Lucia’s death? They’d grown so distant. He hadn’t realized she was self-medicating to ease her supposed pain. He’d given her everything. All the jewels and clothes and purses his money could buy, a gorgeous house, a beautiful son who’d loved his mother with a fierceness that had been breathtaking.
She’d ignored him, ignored the both of them. That was the reason his poor son had tried so hard to garner her attention. His mother was too wrapped up in her own little world to take care of anyone else. Eventually, she hadn’t been able to take care of herself either.
Sighing irritably, he stood. Sitting around thinking of Lucia would not ease his pain. Would not bring her back.