Childhood is what you spend the rest of your life overcoming.
"Broke, busted, disgusted, parents can't be trusted And Mia wants to go to the sea . . ."
Holding the firm banana that she'd brought for her lunch like a microphone, Mia DeNero belted out "Creeque Alley" at the top of her lungs, accompanying the Mamas and the Papas, whose '60s song blared from the boom box in the corner, while changing the lyrics slightly to suit her miserable state.
Actually, her state wasn't really all that miserable, just disappointing. The kind of disappointment that gives you that funny little sick ache in the pit of your stomach each time you think you might fail.
She'd finally opened her protective services business, The Guardian Angel, despite major protests from her parents, and had set up business in an old, smelly vacant storefront on Eastern Avenue; the place used to be a fish and chips restaurant and still reeked of old grease and vinegar. But the rent was cheap, and right now she needed cheap.
"Greasin' on American Express cards . . ."
Ha! Wasn't that the truth? Soon her credit cards would be maxed, and then she'd be in major deep doo-doo. And she was determined not to borrow a cent from her parents, or from Angela, though her big sister had offered to help numerous times. But Mia was too proud to accept a handout, and determined to make it on her own.
Failure was not an option.
Been there, done that!
Surely there had to be someone who wanted to hire her. Being new to the area, and not having the advantage of referrals, she'd placed an ad in the local newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, more than two weeks ago, and had even passed out flyers to all of the local businesses in her area, hoping someone might need her services, or could recommend a friend who did.
Of course, Little Italy wasn't exactly the crime capital of the world. And there might not be too many people in need of protection. But she needed only one.
Plopping down in the rickety old swivel chair she had purchased at Carboni's Used Furniture, Mia propped her feet up on the equally battered gray metal desk and peeled her banana. No longer in the mood for singing, she took a bite out of her "microphone" and chewed.
Glancing around the small office, she grimaced at the badly dented metal filing cabinet, the ugly chair that fronted her desk, and the hideous bent-out-of-shape Venetian blinds covering the front window which she'd tried to clean before moving in and had ended up ruining in the process.
All in all, it was not a place to inspire prospective clients, unless, of course, they were Jack the Ripper. Though her diploma hanging on the wall behind her desk did certify that she had passed a bodyguard training course at the Serve and Protect Bodyguard School in Towson, Maryland. It was signed by Mike Hammersmith, her instructor, the man she'd nearly killed at the shooting range one day.
Mia had been a bit nearsighted-okay, a lot nearsighted-which made shooting a gun at any distance a bit problematic. But she wasn't about to let that little detail deter her. She now had contacts, though she didn't like to wear them.
Munching on her so-called lunch, which her mother would have found lacking-Rosalie DeNero was of the opinion that everyone should consume at least ten thousand calories per day-Mia focused all of her attention on the front door, willing someone to appear.
At this point, she didn't much care if it was a client. Sitting in her tiny office day after day, waiting for the phone to ring, or a living entity to visit, was not only lonely, it was damn boring, depressing, and totally disheartening.
Did she mention boring?
So when the front door opened, Mia was so startled that she shifted in her chair a little too quickly, trying to move her feet off the desk at the same time, hoping to present the best appearance to whomever it was that was calling. But she ended up pushing back on the old chair too hard, causing it to topple over backward.
Which was how Niccolò Caruso found her.
Nick leaned over the desk to make sure the woman who'd suddenly disappeared from sight was okay. One minute she was eating a banana and the next . . . Boom! Gone.
"Are you all right?" He pushed his glasses back up his nose and extended a hand, biting back a smile. Mia DeNero, with her Orphan Annie brown curly locks, was fifteen shades of red, but seemed otherwise unhurt.
"Yes, thanks. I was just daydreaming, and you caught me off guard. Let me assure you that I'm not usually so clumsy," she said, trying to right her chair and brush off her jeans at the same time. "How can I help you?"
Nick gazed at the pint-sized woman before him and wondered the same thing. She couldn't have been more than five feet, three inches in her stocking feet. His idea to hire Mia DeNero as a bodyguard might have been a little too rash.
Rash, hell! It was downright insane!
But he had a job to do, and she was going to help him do it.
"I'm in need of protection, Miss DeNero. I found one of your flyers and it was like an answer to my prayer." Nick hoped he sounded nerdy enough. He was certainly making himself sick.
Folding her hands atop the desk, Mia DeNero tried her damnedest to look professional and totally together. Unfortunately, there was a blob of banana clinging to the end of her pert little nose. Leaning toward her, he proffered his handkerchief. "Allow me. It seems you're still wearing your lunch."
"Oh, Jesus!" She shook her head, swiping her nose with the back of her hand, and then wiping the blob on her jeans.
Nick stared in amusement.
"I'm sure you think I'm a complete moron, but let me assure you that I'm a trained professional and very good in my field." Well, she was pretty sure that she would be good, if she just had a client to practice on.
Taking a seat, he arched a disbelieving brow and crossed muscular arms over his chest. "Really? And how many clients have you protected this past year, Miss DeNero? Can you provide references?"
She shook her head, her cheeks filling with color. "Well, no. You're my first one, actually. I've just opened for business, you see. But that means you're in luck, because I can give you our special introductory rate, and my complete attention." She hoped he was impressed. He didn't look very impressed. Maybe she should throw in a free pizza, or something.
He rubbed his chin. "I see."
Yanking a yellow legal pad across the desk, Mia picked up her pen, unwilling to let her first client slip away. "Let's start with your name, and the reason you need a bodyguard."
"My name is Niccolò Caruso. Perhaps you've heard of me? I'm an author."
An author! Now that was impressive. Mia should have guessed from the thick-framed glasses and ugly tweed jacket he wore. Tweed! She wrinkled her nose. Even the name was horrific, conjuring up old Sherlock Holmes movies.
"Afraid not. I don't have much time to read." A flaw she intended to correct. Someday. Maybe. Mia had made procrastination into an art form. "What kind of books do you write?"
"Mostly nonfiction. I've dabbled in true crime from time to time. And it's no wonder you haven't read any of my work. My books are out of print, unfortunately. But I'm presently working on an exposé of the Mafia, and I have great faith that it's going to recharge my career."
Mia's dark eyes widened. "Really? Aren't you afraid?"
"Well, yes, actually I am. I've had threats made on my life."
She gasped. "They're trying to silence you."
"That's right. But I won't be deterred. I intend to fin-ish my book, and the consequences be damned. That's why I'm here, Miss DeNero. I'm hoping you'll be able to help me."
Mia's heart was beating so fast she felt like a hummingbird on speed. The Mafia was big-time stuff. If she could pull this off-okay, the odds were slim, but her motto had always been "no pain, no gain." "Of course, I'll help you. I can offer you twenty-four-hour protection; that's twenty-four/seven, until you finish your book. Do you live here in Baltimore?"
"Yes, I do. What's the usual procedure in these matters? I've never hired a bodyguard before."
"Normally, the way it works is that I move onto your premises and live with you."
"Hmmm. Well, that's fine, if you're willing to put up with my elderly aunt. She's rather a cantankerous old bird, and well . . . I'm embarrassed to say that the house smells a bit odd. Of course, you'll get used to the odor in time."
"Odd? How do you mean?"
"Aunt Bertrice is quite fond of Vick's VapoRub, and the house reeks of it. Then there's the other-"
Mia held up her hand, fearful she would barf if he continued. She had a feeling she knew what the "other" entailed. "Never mind. I get the picture."
Hell! What was she going to do now? No way was she moving into some smelly old lady's house. But she abhorred having a roommate. Her last two had been disastrous. No privacy, no food left in the fridge. No way!
"We could get adjoining hotel rooms? I'm sure that would work."
Excerpted from Mad about Mia by Millie Criswell. Copyright © 2004 by Millie Criswell. Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.