Chapter One

FALLING FOR CASANOVA fallingforcasanova_w11274_750

Joy clenched the black ballpoint pen, her clammy hand trembling as she filled in the narrow blank spaces on the job application—the first of such forms in almost a decade. It was stupid to let the simple action of printing her name intimidate her, but it did, so she moved on to the next question, saving that bit of pertinent information for last.

The job-hunt didn’t knot her nerves as much as the embarrassing grapevine chitchat sure to follow once the neighborhood found out she was living in Scenic View again, with her parents no less, after she’d made a clamor about getting out of this one-traffic light town as soon as she graduated high school.

Now look at me, on a barstool in Mr. Lucky’s pub of all places. Where everyone knew her by her maiden name. The only reason she’d kept her ex-husband’s last name was for the sake of their two young sons, figuring she could always change it later.

Later. She snorted at the worthless word. That uncertain pushpin in life’s perpetual calendar. A distant time when the things she hadn’t done, but should’ve, wound up in a procrastinated pile of forgotten stuff she’d never do. When was later anyway? Whenever she’d scribble her signature, she swore to change her name sooner rather than later, alleviating the agonizing memory of being Mrs. Victor Weeks forevermore.

Imagine if Victor knew she answered a Help Wanted sign in a pub. The mother of his children slinging beer mugs and hot wings in a too-tight tank top like the women he was notorious for hooking up with during liquid lunch staff meetings, according to the rampant rumors. He’d laugh out loud until he burst a blood vessel, if only she were so lucky.

Screw Victor Weeks. He was the louse that put her in this predicament by destroying the illusion of the happy family-life she’d struggled to create.

The moment their divorce was official, two excruciating years ago, things changed for the worst— at least for Joy.

For Victor, life seemed better than ever after stirring the shit-pot. Who would’ve expected the philanderer to settle down again? Certainly not Joy. But history has an amusing way of repeating itself. The jerk had the audacity to move his pregnant fiancée-slash-secretary into the contemporary McMansion Joy had singlehandedly decorated with a meticulous touch, prettier than a Beautiful Homes magazine cover, which meant it was time for Joy to evacuate the studio apartment she’d created in the maid’s quarters, where she wallowed-slash-played live-in nanny to her own children.

Child support would cover some of the necessities, but how the hell did he expect her to get by on the puny alimony support? What a clever devil he was, having her sign a pre-nuptial agreement after getting her whacked out of her wits on tequila shots the eve of their elopement, once the doctor confirmed the miscarriage the week prior. She should’ve called the whole thing off, but the overload of irrational emotions had her forging ahead despite the omen.

Lost in the memory of her private hell, Joy carved a vicious hole in the job application to get the ink flowing. Determined to pull herself out of this pitfall, she took a deep breath in four counts, held on tight for seven, then released it on eight. Her former cardio-kickboxing instructor had called her a resilient fighter. That’s just what she needed to be if she were going to get her life back in order. It was time to tap into the reserve of inner strength her ex-husband kept tamped down for too long.

Forget Victor the Dick-tator. He’s not worth the tears, not that she had any left.

She shook the pen hard then printed her name. Joy. If only she could do it like Prince, Bono, Madonna, or Shakira—be mononymous. But she was no rock star. Just plain old Joy, doing her best to make ends meet. With a reluctant hand, she scribbled Weeks so it was illegible. And after a wavering heartbeat, she tacked on hyphen-Barbieri.

“There.” With her chin low, she pushed the completed paperwork across the lacquered counter separating her and her prospective employer, Curt “Cal” Calderone, Scenic View High School’s legendary super-stud whose bad-boy reputation trickled down the grades to Joy’s graduating class.

She felt him staring her way from the corner of his eye. No doubt he’d recognize her but probably hadn’t placed her face yet. Then again the last time he would have seen her she’d been fifty pounds heavier and wore her then-jet-black hair in an asymmetrical pixie-cut during her Punk-Chic period.

“You haven’t done much waitressing, huh?” Cal hunched over, leaning his elbows on the bar to study the sparse information on the page.

“Just a little.” It wasn’t a lie; however, she’d bet her bottom dollar waiting tables at Yummy-Cone’s Ice Cream Palace over a decade ago wasn’t the experience he had in mind.

“I’m looking for a girl to fill in on Mondays for now. Noon ’til nine. Unless it’s jammin’, then I may need you to stay ’til closing. Seven bucks an hour off the books. Plus whatever tips you hustle up, you keep.”

“That’s fine.” She hid her face behind a long wave of sun-bleached hair. “I just need something part-time.” With any luck, the weeknight crowd tipped well enough to supplement Victor’s irregular payments so she could afford a decent roof over her head. It wasn’t worth getting her hopes up by counting dollar signs just yet when she needed to land the job first. She crossed her fingers as Cal perused the form.

“Hmmm.” He made the thoughtful sound as his eyes bounced from her face, to the paper, back to her face. “No. Friggin’. Way. I thought it was you. Joy Barbieri. How the hell’ve you been? Your mom said you’re living in Florida, married to some rich dude. What on God’s green earth brings you back to Long Island?” His booming voice carried across the hollow space, turning the heads of the lunchtime crowd in her direction.

“I’m, umm, relocating,” was all she could say while praying the ambient glow of the pendant lighting hid her flaming-hot cheeks.

“Is that so?” Cal folded the page into quarters and stuck it in his back pocket. “Can you start tomorrow?”

Cha-ching. Already guesstimating her first day’s pay, she tried not to sound over-ambitious. “St. Paddy’s Day?”

“It’ll be hectic as hell. We’re gonna need the extra help. Think you can handle it?” Cal tilted his head in deliberation.

How hard could it be? If she could dish out three square meals a day to her two high-maintenance kids, she could tackle this task. “Sure.”

“Hang on just a sec, darlin’.” Cal put up his index finger. Jutting his chin toward the chilled breeze and sunlight filtering in through the swinging door, he said, “Well, hello there, Casanova. Early, aren’t ya? Where’s your partner in crime?”

Casanova? Joy resisted the urge to crank her neck a hundred-eighty degrees just to get a load of this so-called Casanova. What grown man refers to another grown man as Casanova? Unless the guy’s a total player? Of all people, Cal would be the one to know another player in the infamous game.

“He’s runnin’ late,” Casanova drawled in a working class New York accent. He slid onto the barstool beside Joy, bringing a wave of cool air with him.

She kept her head straight and expelled a contemptuous snort. For the love of God, any guy who answers to the name Casanova must have an ego bigger than Jupiter. 

“I’ll check out the blueprints over a beer. We can talk about ’em when Nicholas shows up,” Casanova said in a rich, honey-thick baritone that rubbed Joy the right way in all the right places, putting a hairline crack of curiosity in her willpower.

She inhaled a potent whiff of his musky testosterone-laden pheromones, enough to make her ovaries tingle and her perception change. Damn her starving sex drive kicking into gear at the worst time. It took all her self-discipline not to sneak a peek at the face belonging to that raw scent. That rugged sound.

Instead, she drummed the tip of the pen on the countertop, diverting her inquiring eyes toward the mirrored wall behind the bar, but Cal’s wide body blocked her glimpse of this so-called Casanova.

“Wanna work the door tomorrow?” Cal asked him. “Check IDs. Keep the peace with the patrons. We could use a backup bouncer.”

“No, thanks. Those days are over for me. I’ll take swinging a hammer over swinging a nightstick any day.”

“I know a fella wanting to do some remodeling. Should they call you or your partner?” Cal popped the cap off a beer and set the bottle on a coaster. “Sorry, darlin’, d’ja want one?” he said to Joy, but she shook her head.

Casanova chuckled. “Nick and I ain’t partners. It’s his business. I’m working for him until I figure things out. But if the job is small enough, send it my way. I can handle it without wasting his time. Lemme give you my number.” He plucked a clean white napkin from the stack. “Excuse me, miss. Can I borrow your pen?”

Joy froze but her heartbeat quickened. “Huh?”

“The thing you write with. In your hand.” Casanova’s breath rustled her hair as he leaned closer. “Mind if I use it?”

“Oh. Umm. Sure.” She blinked hard to clear the confused haze before sliding the pen toward him.

His thick fingers brushed hers in passing, sending a shock rippling through her system, and she yanked her hand away on impulse.

After jotting down the information, Casanova returned the pen with a guttural “Thank you” that made Joy’s toes curl.

“You’re welcome,” she exhaled, taking it from his fist, careful to avoid touching him this time.

Cal pinned the napkin to the corkboard behind the cash register, out of Joy’s view. “The blueprints are in my office. I’ll be right back.” He smacked the countertop on his way around. “Don’t leave, Joy,” he added, “I’m not finished with you yet.”

With Cal out of the way, she had a clear shot of the mirror, and the reflection of the man beside her. She might have been out of the Scenic View circle for a while, but she’d recognize a familiar face. Especially a good-looking one. Good thing Casanova was busy texting on his cellphone to notice her staring.

While her libido did a backflip, her brain dissected the man’s bits and pieces, searching for a flaw. The dense layer of facial hair didn’t detract from his wow-factor at all. In fact, it excited Joy even more, although it could use a bit of a manicure. She’d always had a secret thing for manly men. Men who weren’t afraid of getting dirty, sweaty, injured. Even with the lumberjack beard, Casanova was handsome as hell and totally unfamiliar—a winning combination. An interesting specimen who looked like a fine fixer-upper; the kind of man who cleaned up well.

Without making direct contact, there was no way to tell the exact color of his light eyes under the dim bulb, but they were narrow and hooded. Bedroom eyes, hidden by the fringe of dark mussed up waves that brushed the collar of his faded denim jacket.

On the surface, Casanova was the polar-opposite of the metro-sexual, refined waif of a man her ex-husband had morphed into once his parents dangled the car dealership in his face in exchange for growing up and ditching the grunge lifestyle. What did she ever see in Victor worth marrying? Joy couldn’t recall. Right now she couldn’t concentrate on anything other than this mountain of a man seated beside her. There was something intrinsically sexy about a burly man. Powerful. Virile. Fearless. This Casanova was the dictionary-definition of rugged.

Geez, he must be a beast in the bedroom. 

Cal returned too soon for any further ogling, which was a good thing for her pounding heart. He handed a cylinder to Casanova. Then to Joy, he said, “I’ll see you at noon tomorrow.” He gave her a business card that matched the Mr. Lucky’s Pub shamrock logo on his black T-shirt, along with a flimsy mint-green tank top. “Wear that. And call me if you’re running late. Or just call me.” He winked. “Whenever.”

Whatever, Joy thought, ignoring Cal’s overt pass as she slid off the barstool and into her long black coat.

After stealing a glance at Casanova’s left hand, relieved his ring finger was void of a gold band, she tried to snag his attention with some meaningful eye contact, but the guy was already engrossed in the blueprints stretched out on the bar.

Oh, well. The last thing she needed in her life right now was to fall for the first eligible Casanova to cross her path. At least she could walk out of Mr. Lucky’s having accomplished the number one thing on her To- Do list: find a job.

Now all she had to do was find a place to live and she could cross off the top two items.

Shacking up with her parents in the short-term proved to be a massive mistake. Joy wasn’t in town for forty-eight hours yet and already dreaded the road head. Sleeping on their living room couch wasn’t what she expected. If she’d had the nerve to warn her folks she was planning a permanent vacation on Long Island, rather than just surprise them at the front door, maybe they wouldn’t have assigned their spare room to her cousin Bruno, who’d taken over the brunt of the family barbershop since her father’s heart attack a few months ago.

Joy scoured the community bulletin board at the firehouse for local rentals, desperate for anything promising. Some place suitable for her, two rambunctious boys, and a dog the size of a large squirrel.

Most ads were for things she didn’t need or couldn’t afford. Adopt kittens. Estate sale. Beach house for sale. Car for sale. Motorcycle for sale. Boat for sale. Lost dog. Lost earrings. Clown for hire.

Then on a slip of loose-leaf paper, she spied a handwritten ad for an attic loft apartment for rent. One bedroom. Living room/kitchen combo. Electric and cable included. Nine-hundred bucks a month. As close to perfect as she could find in a pinch, it was worth a shot.

On the walk back to her car parallel parked along Main Street, Joy squinted in the window of the Violet’s Valise lingerie store. She wasn’t as interested in the slinky ensembles as much as the Help Wanted sign. Just in case her new career waitressing didn’t pan out, she ought to have a fallback.

“Welcome to Violet’s,” said a woman with silver streaked hair, folding panties onto a display table. “Can I help you?” By her crooked look, Joy calculated the woman’s thoughts, trying to place the long-lost familiar face.

“Hi, Marie. Remember me?”

“Oh, my goodness. Joy Barbieri. I haven’t seen you in ages.” Marie dropped the merchandise to give a hug. “I’m so glad your dad is doing well. Is that why you’re visiting?”

It was a better excuse than admitting divorce, failing at life, and running away from her grown-up home, so she went along with it. “Uh, yeah. Since Dad’s heart attack Mom’s been worried he’ll over-exert himself. My cousin and I are helping her keep an eye on him.”

“Oh, that Bruno. He’s an artist with scissors.” Marie fluffed her cropped hair. “Where are your sons?”

“Still in Florida with my, um, their dad. They’re coming up at the end of May, after school lets out for the summer.”

“How do they manage without their mother?” Marie sounded shocked.

“They’re fine.” Joy swallowed a downhearted sigh. As much as she missed her little boys, odds were they were loving life now that Mean Mommy was too far away to rule the roost. No doubt Victor and Felicity were serving cake for breakfast, candy for lunch, and ice cream for dinner. Allowing the boys to stay up past midnight on school days. Stuff that didn’t happen on her watch.

While browsing the frilly things, Joy dared to ask, “I was wondering about the Help Wanted sign.”

“I just need an extra gal on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the spring and summer. It’s my busy season,” Marie explained. “Why? Are you interested?”

“I’ll be sticking around town for a while, so I could use some part-time work.”

“Would you be available to start next week?”

“Sure. Do I have to fill out an application?” Joy dreaded the necessary evil.

“No,” Marie whispered with a wink. “Between you and me and the mannequins, it’s off the books. Ten dollars an hour.”

Relieved, Joy wrote down her cellphone number on a purple Post-It. Then, poised to leave, she backtracked. “Umm, Marie. Do you know anyone else looking for part-time work, off the books?”

“My sister needs someone to cover the store a few days a week.”

“Lorraine still owns Everyday’s Christmas?” It was good to know some things never change.

“I’ll give her your number.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

With her outlook improving, Joy cruised the coastal road toward the Honey Beach condominium complex, then squeezed her car between two motorcycles in the crowded parking plaza. If her folks hadn’t downsized from their small Cape to this retirement community, she and the boys could’ve moved into the basement, giving this single mom plenty of time to get her act together.

Joy rang the bell since her parents had given the spare key to Bruno.

Her mother opened the door, releasing the aroma of Sunday dinner: fried chicken cutlets and homemade tomato sauce. “Jeez, Joy. You have to do something about this monster.”

No, hello. No, how was your day. Just Sophia’s melodramatic sharp tongue complaining about the latest tragedy.

Uh-oh. “What’d he do?” Joy dropped her pocketbook on the hardwood floor to scoop up Rex, her three-year-old mischief-making fur-baby.

“What didn’t he do? He peed on my laundry basket full of clean sheets. I dropped a bobby pin, and before I could pick it up, he snatched it and ran away. I had to stick my whole hand in his mouth to find it before he swallowed it.”

“Sorry, Ma.”

“That’s not the worst of it.” Sophia closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “He destroyed your father’s slippers.”

Joy cringed, knowing their worth. “I’ll get him new ones.”

“They were his favorite pair.” Sophia blasted an exasperated breath through her nostrils. “He’s had them for years. Do you know how many I’ve bought and returned because he didn’t like them as much as that ratty, old pair? On top of his heart condition, then finding out his daughter is divorced two years after the fact, and his business slowing down—the man has had enough to deal with. Now I have to tell him his slippers are in the trash. I can’t handle all this aggravation, Joy. I just can’t.” She waved her hands in the air. It was no secret the influx of uninvited visitors invading the stringent woman’s sanctuary left her flustered.

“Bad boy.” Joy scolded the Shih Tzu with a kiss on the head. “Don’t be naughty, or we’ll be sleeping in the street.”

“Just put him in the kennel?” Bruno paraded down the hallway, dressed in towels—one as a skirt, another draped over his shoulders framing his freshly shaven chest, and a terrycloth turban.

“Why don’t you put on a bathrobe?” Joy glared at the occupant of the bedroom that ought to be hers.

“Why don’t you worry about finding yourself a place to live and stop gallivanting around town, expecting me to babysit your gremlin,” Sophia snapped at her daughter, then bent to swipe Bruno’s wet footprints with a dishrag without a complaint.

“It’s gonna be hard as hell to find an affordable apartment that allows pets, you know.” Her cousin plopped on the lumpy couch where Joy rested her head for the past two sleepless nights and crossed his thick, hair-free legs like a Juliette Prowse L’eggs commercial. “It’s easier to score a hunky homeowner instead.”

“For you, maybe.” Joy snorted. “I’m doing fine on my own.” Or at least I will be, once I get out of this crazy house. 

“My mother always said there’s a lid for every pot.” Sophia wobbled around the counter separating the living room and kitchen to probe the pan of sizzling cutlets in spattering oil. Then sipped a wooden spoonful of tomato sauce before adding a dash of the missing ingredient.

Joy frowned at the long-lost quote. “I never heard Grandma say that.”

“Well, I sure did.” Bruno leaned over to snatch a nail file from the pencil cup Sophia kept next to her crossword puzzle books on the end table. “And it’s totally true. Like I tell the single ladies at the salon: There’s someone for everyone. You just have to know where to look.”

The last thing Joy needed was another guy to wreck her life. Speaking of finding a man, she derailed the conversation to a safer subject. “Where’s Daddy?”

After wiping her hands on a new dish towel, Sophia selected a nail file and joined Bruno on the couch. “Playing dominoes on the boardwalk.”

“It’s kinda cold, isn’t it?” After living in Florida for so long, anything under seventy-five felt like sub-degree temperatures. Today the thermometer reached a brisk fifty-five degrees with the sun shining, but it felt closer to freezing with the wind rolling off the Long Island Sound adding an extra bite to the damp air.

“Oh, please…” Sophia rolled her eyes. “Since his heart attack, nothing stops your father from getting out of the house. If it’s not dominoes, then he’s at the OTB, or the Knights of Columbus, or bowling. Where’ve you been all morning anyway?”

“Job hunting.”

Aaand?” Bruno probed as if he were an integral part of this conversation.

“And none of your business.”

“Well, you could be helping us at the shop,” Sophia added.

Joy shook her head. Living under the same roof was painful enough. Working together would be sheer torture. She wasn’t that desperate yet.

“Rex needs to go for a walk.” Joy wrestled the pooch into the sweater he hated and the new harness she forced him to wear since leaving the big backyard in Florida.

“If you see your father, tell him gravy will be ready in an hour. Are you eating with us?”

“You don’t have to wait for me.”

“Don’t give me that nonsense about not eating meat, Joy. You grew up eating meat. A person can’t live without eating meat.” Sophia paused her rant, inhaled, then added in a calmer tone, “We’re having macaroni too. And salad. I’ll leave out the pepperoni. Just make sure you’re home by three.”

Home? This condo wasn’t home.

The house in Florida never felt like home.

The one place Joy ever considered home was a zombie house, condemned by the town, or at least it was during her last trip to Scenic View for Thanksgiving. She’d cruised through the old neighborhood hoping to jostle some warm memories once she came clean to her parents about the divorce, after suffering through the third-degree of them wanting to know why Victor didn’t make the traditional holiday trek. The little house had been in worse shape than it was the previous trip, with generic gray boards covering the windows and doors. It was upsetting to witness, almost as disappointing as her divorce.

Joy hadn’t the heart to drive by again since arriving on Friday, but with the good fortune of finding two potential jobs, and possibly a third, she mustered up the courage to set out on foot, using Rex as the scapegoat to do a little inconspicuous trespassing on Hollyhock Hill.

 

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