There comes a day in a man’s life when he enters a room with hope in his heart and a ring in his pocket, fully prepared to get down on one knee. To pledge his eternal devotion. To take his soul mate’s hand in his and pop the question, promising to love, honor, and cherish her forever and ever, until death do them part, amen.
This was not that day.
However, I did have a ring in my pocket—a very nice one-point-four carat diamond solitaire on a gold band. I’d gotten a great deal on it because my cousin Paulie worked at the jewelry store, and some poor guy had just returned it. Sure, it was engraved with someone else’s name, but Paulie had assured me that could be removed.
In hindsight, I probably should have done that before I proposed. But I wasn’t thinking straight—I needed a wife, and I needed one fast.
It was all because of this ridiculous tradition in my family. In order to inherit the family construction business, Moretti & Sons, the oldest son has to be “settled down” with a wife and preferably a kid or two by the time he’s thirty-five. My father, who was sixty-eight years old and ready to retire, had been threatening to leave the business to my younger brother Pietro for years now.
He might be thirty-two and married with his third bambino on the way, but he was never on time, he was always disorganized, and he was way too easygoing to be an effective manager. Contractors, suppliers, and clients were constantly walking all over him because he hated confrontation.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s my kid brother and I fucking love the guy—and my niece and nephew are awesome—but he’s not the one you want running your multi-million-dollar firm.
Me? I loved confrontation. I wasn’t afraid to tell someone when they were fucking up or remind them of the price they’d quoted or the deadlines they’d agreed to. I knew when to be charming and when to be a dickhead. I knew when to be a charming dickhead. And I knew how to close a deal.
At least, I thought I did.
But that was before I proposed.
I’d been seeing Reina for about three months, which I thought was a pretty decent amount of time to spend with someone, although I might not be the best judge of that since long-term commitment has never been my thing. Not that I was a jerk about it—I always made sure a woman understood exactly what I could offer her (one hell of a good time), and what I couldn’t (anything resembling a relationship).
But as thirty-five closed in on me and my father’s threats started to get more real, I realized it was time to man up and put a ring on someone’s finger.
Reina seemed as good a candidate for Mrs. Moretti as anyone. She was a little young—she’d just turned twenty-one yesterday, in fact—a little too attached to her phone, and sometimes I had no fucking idea what she was talking about, but she checked all the other boxes for me. She was beautiful, she wasn’t crazy, she got along with her family, and her mother was in her late forties and still looked good. What more could I ask for?
She checked my parents’ boxes too: Catholic. Italian. My Nonna knew her Nonna.
Was I in love with her? No. But love was something that developed over time, wasn’t it? I wasn’t exactly sure, since I’d never been in love, but it seemed to me like something you settled into, like a couch that’s a little stiff at first but grows more comfortable the more you sit on it. I figured we’d get there eventually.
The important thing right now was to secure my place at the top of Moretti & Sons, where I’d worked every damn day of my life since I was fourteen years old. I hadn’t put all that blood, sweat, and tears into growing the business just to see it go to Pietro, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to be the only oldest son in five generations who failed to inherit. If I had to get a wife and kid to do it, I’d get myself a wife and kid.
How hard could it be?
Turns out, a little harder than I thought.
To celebrate Reina’s birthday, I’d taken her to dinner at DiFiore’s, which was the nicest Italian restaurant in town and owned by my mom’s cousin Big Tony. We were seated in the best booth in the place. Candles on the table. Soft music playing. As for me, I was wearing a new suit and tie. I’d gotten a haircut and trimmed my scruff. I smelled fucking fantastic, my wavy hair was doing that thing in the front, and I was wearing my lucky underwear.
It was on.
I waited for the server, my cousin Lara, to take away our dessert plates, and then I sat up taller and cleared my throat. My gut was clenching up a little, but I ignored it. “So how’s your birthday so far?”
Reina smiled at me and tossed her long, straight dark hair. “It’s great. Thanks for dinner. The ravioli was yummy.”
“You’re welcome.” I glanced at her wine glass and noticed it was still pretty full. I’d splurged on a pricey bottle of Barolo, which I’d thought was worth every penny. “Didn’t you like the wine?”
“Truth?” She shrugged. “I’m not a huge red wine person. But I didn’t want to be rude.”
“It’s not rude to ask for what you want,” I said. “Let’s get you what you want.”
“Can I just have a Diet Coke?”
“Of course.” After signaling to Lara, I ordered Reina a Diet Coke, and once it arrived, I watched her take a sip from the straw and started over. “So. It’s your birthday.”
“Yes.” She glanced at her phone, which was out on the table.
“Do you want your present?”
She beamed like a kid who’d just been offered a piece of candy. “You got me a present?”
“I might have.” I tilted my head, giving her my best smolder.
“Enzo, you didn’t have to get me anything. You took me out to dinner tonight.”
“Listen, you only turn twenty-one once. I wanted to make it memorable.”
“Awww. That’s so sweet.”
I reached inside my jacket pocket and took out the box. Opening it up, I flashed the ring toward her and cocked one eyebrow. “Well? What do you say?”
Her mouth fell open. She stared at the diamond like it was a giant spider she was afraid might attack. “What is that?”
“It’s an engagement ring.” I glanced inside the box, just to make sure it was actually in there.
“I—I can see that. But why are you showing me an engagement ring right now?”
“Well . . . because.” Hot and sweaty all of a sudden, I loosened the knot in my tie. “I want to be engaged.”
“Yes.” I cleared my throat. “To you.”
“But . . . you didn’t even propose.”
“Yes, I did.”
“No, you didn’t. You just showed me the ring.”
“Oh. I guess I should propose, then.” But first, I stuck two fingers in the collar of my white dress shirt and tugged. “So will you marry me?”
She stared at me for a moment and pressed her lips together. “Um, this is awkward. But no.”
“What?” I blinked at her. “What do you mean, no?”
“I mean, no, I won’t marry you. We’ve only been dating for three months, Enzo.”
“I know, but time flies, and—and—soon it will be four months.”
She looked confused. “Huh?”
“Look, I know this might seem a little . . . sudden,” I said, tugging at my collar again. “But I really like you.”
Folding her arms over her chest, Reina eyeballed me suspiciously. “Then how come you haven’t tried anything?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you’ve kissed me, but that’s about it. And the few times I tried to initiate something more, you backed off.”
“I was trying to respect you.” I grabbed my ice water and chugged it. “I wanted you to know I was willing to wait.”
She shook her head, like she didn’t get it. “I know, but . . . it’s weird to me. I actually thought maybe you were gay.”
“Just because someone doesn’t want to have sex with you doesn’t mean he’s gay,” I said, annoyed. “And what’s so weird about wanting to respect the girl you’re going to marry?”
She rolled her eyes. “Enzo, for God’s sake. We’re not getting married.”
“To start, I’m only twenty-one. I’ve got things I want to do with my life. And when I get married—if I get married—I want my husband to be someone who respects me but also can’t keep his hands off me. Someone in love with me.”
“Love,” I scoffed, frowning. “What is that, anyway?”
“It’s a thing you should feel for the person you’re proposing to. And . . . and what is that engraved on the band?” She plucked the ring from the velvet cushion before I could stop her. “It says ‘Love Always, Ricky.’”
“Um . . .”
“Are you . . .” She glanced down at the ring and then up at me incredulously. “Are you proposing to me with someone else’s ring?”
“I can explain,” I said, although I realized that any explanation for that engraving was going to sound terrible.
“Don’t bother.” Sighing, she stuck the ring back in the slot and pushed the box toward me. “It doesn’t matter, anyway.”
Humiliated, I snapped the ring box shut. “Wow. I really fucked this up, didn’t I?”
“Yeah. You did. But it’s not the ring that’s the problem.” Reina leaned forward, reaching across the table to touch my forearm. “I’m not in love with you, Enzo. And you’re not in love with me, are you?”
Staring at the tablecloth, I shook my head.
“And actually . . .” She took her hand back and sighed. “I don’t think this is going to work. You’re a little bit . . . old for me.”
My head snapped up. “Huh?”
“Not that you’re oldin general,” she said quickly. “You’re just old for me.”
I totally agreed with her, of course, but I didn’t like hearing it. Reaching for my wine glass, I took a couple expensive gulps.
Reina checked her phone. “Listen, thanks for dinner, and—and everything, but I think it’s best if we stop seeing each other.”
“Fine,” I said, guzzling more Barolo.
“My friends are across the street at The Tipsy Canoe,” she said, naming a bar that had recently opened in Bellamy Creek and was popular with the younger crowd. “So I think I’m just going to walk over there.”
“Let me drive you, at least.” Setting my empty wine glass down, I took out my wallet and looked around for Lara so I could get the bill.
“No, really, you stay and finish the wine. I’d rather walk.” She slid out of the booth and tucked her purse under her arm. “No hard feelings, right?”
I tried to smile, but it was a half-assed effort. “No hard feelings.”
“Great,” she said, looking down at her phone again. “See ya.” She was typing something as she walked away.
Scowling, I shoved the ring box back in my jacket pocket and was pouring more wine in my glass when Lara appeared at the table.
“Hey,” she said, looking surprised. “I just saw your date go out the door. She ditch you or what?”
“We mutually decided to go our separate ways,” I lied.
“Tonight? Or in general?”
“Ah.” She paused. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” But I wasn’t fine. My plans for the future had just been eviscerated, and it was my own fucking fault.
“You want the bill so you can get out of here?” Lara asked sympathetically.
I shrugged. “Nah. I don’t have anywhere to go. Unless you need the table, I’ll just sit here like an old man and drink wine by myself. This is probably what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life, anyway. Might as well get used to it.”
“Oh, come on. You know you won’t be alone for long.” Lara nudged my shoulder. “But stay as long as you like. If I need to kick you out, I’ll tell you.”
“Thanks. I’ll leave you a good tip.”
She winked at me. “I know you will.”
Alone again, I drank my wine and stared at the flickering candle, wondering where the hell I’d gone wrong. Was it my fault I hadn’t been in love with Reina? Should I have faked it? Should I have slept with her to “prove” it? This was a perfect example of why I’d steered clear of relationships.
Women were confusing, infuriating, moody, and temperamental. They said one thing and did another. They expected you to know exactly how to act and what to say without actually telling you. They wanted mind readers, not men. And then when you did or said the wrong thing, or failed to do or say the right thing, they flew into a rage and threw plates at your head or else they gave you the silent treatment for days. My parents had just celebrated their thirty-sixth anniversary, so I knew firsthand how marriage worked. My mother’s mood swings and hair-trigger temper drove my father up a wall, and he could be a real stubborn, belligerent asshole sometimes. I’m talking thirty-six years of screaming fights and slamming doors and threats to leave or change the locks.
Not that they’d ever followed through. For fuck’s sake, I had five younger siblings—two brothers and three sisters. And when our folks weren’t fighting, all six of us agreed it was embarrassing how they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. But it was always one extreme or the other—how the hell could anyone live like that? What was the appeal?
“Hey you. This seat taken?”
As if tonight couldn’t have gotten worse, I looked up to see Bianca DeRossi—just about my least favorite person on Earth—standing next to the table, glass of wine in her hand.
“Doesn’t look like it,” I snapped.
She smiled and slid in across from me. “Thanks, I’d love to join you.”
Frowning, I finished what was left in my glass and poured myself the rest. Normally I’d never be so rude to a woman, but Bianca wasn’t a regular woman. I’d known her since we were kids—our families were friends—but she’d always been a snotty little bookworm who thought she was too smart for me. Any time I tried talking to her, she clammed up and walked away. My parents forced me to take her to a dance at her all-girls Catholic high school once—didn’t surprise me she couldn’t get her own date—and she brought a fucking paperback book in her purse and kept her nose in it the entire time. So I amused myself by asking other girls to dance. How the hell was I supposed to know it would make her mad enough to tell her friends I had a small dick? She’d never gotten anywhere near it!
I only realized what she’d done a few years later when I hooked up with one of her classmates, who professed pleasant surprise at the generous size of my package. When I asked her why she’d thought I might be anything less than well-endowed, she told me what Bianca had said.
I was still mad about it.
Bianca had been living in Chicago since college, but a couple years ago she’d moved back to Bellamy Creek and had picked up aggravating me right where she’d left off. She was an interior designer and liked to buy and flip houses on the side just like I did, and somehow she managed to outbid me on every listing we competed for, all while acting sweet as pie, like we were old pals.
We weren’t. I couldn’t stand her. She wasn’t a snotty little bookworm anymore, but she still knew exactly how to get under my skin.
Even more annoying?
She was fucking hot.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded.
“My family was here having dinner for my dad’s birthday. But our family functions are short and sweet because Grandma Vinnie is ninety-six. She starts to fall asleep after an hour or so.”
“Wow. Ninety-six.” I took a break from being annoyed to appreciate a long life.
“Yes. And hitched when she was twenty-one, had five kids before she was thirty, and was married to my Grandpa Jack for seventy years before he died. Which she loves to tell me every single time I see her, right before she asks why I’m still single.” Bianca took a sip of her wine.
“I’ve got some ideas on that.”
Beneath the table, she nudged my foot with hers. “So what’s with you? I thought I saw you with a date earlier. Either that or you were babysitting.”
I glared at her. “Funny.”
She grinned. “So who was she? Your girlfriend?”
“No. We broke up.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh. Sorry to hear that.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Enzo, this might come as a surprise to you, but I am not your enemy. I don’t even dislike you—much.”
“Oh yeah? Since when?”
She shrugged. “Since we’re not immature and awkward kids anymore, who didn’t know how to be friends with someone of the opposite sex?”
“Speak for yourself. I had plenty of friends who were girls.”
Her blue eyes gleamed in the candlelight. “True. You always were a ladies’ man.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. I’m here alone, aren’t I?”
“Wait, are you expecting me to feel sorry for you? Like you couldn’t walk right out of here and pick up the next girl you see? There’s not a woman alive who can resist your charms, Enzo. Those dark eyes? That wavy hair? The Moretti swagger?”
“Apparently, I’ve lost my touch,” I muttered, pouring the rest of Reina’s Barolo in my glass.
She tipped her head to one side. “Eh, I doubt that. You weren’t really into that girl, anyway, were you?”
I shrugged. “She was okay.”
“You can do better.”
“Better isn’t the issue.”
“What’s the issue?”
“Why?” She laughed. “Are you going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight?”
“No, I’m going to lose Moretti & Sons to my brother Pietro if I don’t get married before I’m thirty-five.”
Her jaw dropped. “Seriously?”
Instead of answering, I polished off the last few sips of Barolo and set down the glass with a clunk. “I need another drink. Something stronger.”
“Me too,” she said, finishing the wine in her glass.
I flagged Lara down, and we ordered cocktails—a dirty vodka martini for Bianca, and bourbon on the rocks for me. Once she’d brought them, I took a sip and studied the woman across from me. Was it the wine, or was she even cuter than the last time I’d seen her?
She had skin so fair she practically glowed in the dark, bright red hair that skimmed her shoulders and glinted with gold in the candlelight, blue eyes that never missed a trick behind black-framed glasses, and a wide, lush mouth painted fire-engine red. Her nose and ears were small—actually everything about her was small, and if I remembered correctly, she hated being teased about it.
“What?” she said, growing self-conscious under my stare. She touched her hair. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I’m wondering what your parents fed you that stunted your growth.”
Her crimson lips pursed and she sat up taller. “I am average height, thank you very much.”
“Average for what, a chipmunk?”
She took a sip of her martini and clucked her tongue. “Always so obsessed with size. What are we to make of that, Dr. Freud? Is he worried he doesn’t measure up?”
“Hey, that was you who started the rumor about the size of my—my stuff,” I said angrily, puffing out my chest. “Totally unfounded, I might add.”
“Okay, okay.” She set her glass down and held up her palms. “It’s time for me to apologize for that.”
“I’m not sure I accept,” I said stubbornly. “You can’t insult a guy’s manhood like that—without even seeing it—and just expect him to say it’s no big deal. You besmirched the family jewels.”
Laughing, she tucked her hair back behind one ear. “I’m truly sorry for what I said, and I shall never besmirch your jewels again.”
“Why’d you do that anyway?”
She picked up her glass again and took a dainty sip. “To get back at you for asking every girl to dance but me, of course.”
“What?” I snorted. “That’s ridiculous. You didn’t want to dance with me.”
“How do you know? You never asked.”
“Bianca, you brought a fucking book with you and read it the entire time.”
She clutched at her chest. “Twilight isn’t just a book to me, Enzo. It’s a whole world. I still reread it every year.”
“Twilight? Isn’t that about a teenage vampire?”
“At least that vampire was a gentleman.”
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. You refused to even talk to me, and I was bored, so I asked some other girls to dance. I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
“Well, it hurt my feelings,” she said, pointing her pert little nose at me. “I was already aware you didn’t want to be there—I knew your parents made you take me. And I felt horrible about it, so I copped the bad attitude to hide my humiliation.”
“Well, I didn’t know any of that, because you never said anything. But I’m . . . I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
“Your apology is accepted,” she said. “Now are you going to accept mine?”
“I guess,” I grumbled, taking another drink.
She lit up with a smile. “Thank you. So can we be friends now?”
“I suppose we can try,” I said, “although I still don’t understand why you were so stuck-up back then, always too good to talk to me.”
“I wasn’t stuck-up, Enzo, I was shy!” she exclaimed, like I should have known. “And you were always surrounded by girls batting their lashes and tossing their long blond hair and giggling like idiots at everything you said. Just because I wasn’t one of them doesn’t mean I thought I was too good for you. Frankly, I’m shocked you even remember me from back then. It’s not like you ever noticed when I was in the room, what with your ego taking up all the space around you.”
“Okay, maybe we should leave the past alone,” I said, remembering why I didn’t like her much. “Clearly, we are always going to disagree.”
“Fine with me.” She pulled the pick from her martini and ate one of the olives from it. “So how’s your ego tonight? A little bruised, huh?”
“It’s fine,” I said, tightening the knot in my tie. “Reina obviously wasn’t the right choice for a wife. I’m glad she said no.”
Bianca started to choke on her olive. “Wait a minute.” She fanned her face and managed to swallow. “You proposed to—to—what was the little girl’s name?”
“Reina. And you’ve got no room to call someone little, Tiny.”
As I’d hoped, the old nickname drew a brief scowl from her. “We’re talking about you right now. Did you actually propose tonight? Like with a ring?”
I exhaled, regretting I’d mentioned it. “Yeah. I did.”
Her eyes lit up. “Let me see it.”
“Because you just want to rub salt in my wound.”
“For fuck’s sake, Enzo. You’re not wounded. You don’t even love this girl, you just needed to put a ring on her finger so your dad would put your name on the company letterhead.” She held out her hand. “Now give it here.”
Something told me I was going to be sorry, but I reached into my jacket and pulled out the ring box.
She took it from me and opened it up. “It’s pretty,” she said with grudging admiration. Then she squinted at it, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Did you have it engraved?”
I picked up my bourbon and took a hefty swallow. “No.”
“But it says . . .” She set the box down and pulled the ring from the velvet to examine it closer. Then she started laughing. “‘Love Always, Ricky?’”
“Give me that.” Leaning forward, I tried to swipe the ring from her hand, but she held it out of my reach.
“Just a second! I want to try it on.”
I thumped against the back of the booth, picking up my drink again and tossing back the rest of it. Could this night get any worse?
Bianca slipped the ring on her finger—it fit—and held out her hand, studying it. “So what did you say?”
“But how? Like, did you say, ‘You’re the love of my life and I want to be with you forever’ kind of thing?”
“Uh, not exactly. I didn’t want to lie to her. I just, you know, gave her the ring.” I made a grand, sweeping gesture with one hand.
“But you must have said something.”
“What difference does it make?” I asked irritably.
“Look, I’m only trying to help you. You obviously blew it tonight, and by your own admission, you need to find a Lucy for your Ricky sooner rather than later, right?”
I looked around for Lara. I needed another drink. And then a ride home.
“Right?” Bianca prodded me with her foot under the table again. “So let me help you.”
“The only way you could help me is to marry me,” I grumbled, waving Lara over. “And since that’s out of the question, this discussion is over.”
“Well, wait a minute. Who said it’s out of the question?”
I stared at her like she’d sprouted horns. “Huh?”
Bianca continued to study the ring on her finger. “I’m just thinking out loud here. But it seems to me we each have a goal, and they could both be accomplished with one simple—fake—relationship.”
I shook my head, as if to clear it, but the fog remained. “I know I’m drunk, but what the hell are you talking about?”
She sighed and picked up her martini for a sip. “I’m talking about the fact that you need a wife to get what you want. I’mwilling to be that wife—temporarily, and under the strictest of conditions—if you’ll agree to give me what I want.”
I shook my head. “Oh, no. No fucking way. I see what you’re doing here. I’m not paying you to fake being my wife.”
Bianca rolled her eyes. “Give me a break, Enzo. I don’t want your money. Nor do I need it.”
“Then I don’t understand,” I said, feeling—once again—completely baffled by a woman. “What could you possibly want that I could give you?”
The smile that crept over those hellfire lips should have been a warning. “A baby.”