Graduate student Raina Sun thought she knew what she was getting herself into when she volunteered to take the new foreign exchange student shopping on the last weekend before Christmas. But between a riot for the last hot toy of the season and an abandoned baby, the holiday is a season for mayhem, and sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a Good Samaritan.
She wants to reunite the infant with his family, but calling the mysterious phone number in the diaper bag leads to more questions than answers. A strange man claims to be the child’s father, and his alleged mother turns up dead.
Raina summons her sleuthing skills to protect this baby and soon discovers everyone has a few skeletons in their closets. With her pimp-cane-toting grandma, she faces an ex-boyfriend bringing sexy back as well as a murderer determined to hide the truth. For readers who like fun cozy mysteries, quirky characters, and a dash of humor.
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CHAPTER ONE – BABY ON BOARD
Raina was smart enough to know a Jiggle Me doll for the baby of the family wasn’t enough to ease her cousins’ animosity over the lawsuit contesting their grandfather’s will. After all, it wasn’t her fault the cousins only got one dollar each, and she got three million, but she had to try. For her grandma’s sake.
She glanced at the sliding glass doors to the entrance of Bullseye. The Christmas music piped through hidden speakers grated on her nerves as she waited by the display case between the restrooms and Starbucks cafe. The yuletide song didn’t appear to make the shoppers any less desperate for the hot gift of the season. In fact, it probably just reminded everyone this was the last shopping weekend before D-day.
“Oh, Raina, you don’t have to. It’s not our tradition to give presents, and money is tight for you,” said Cassie over the phone.
“I have this housekeeping gig at a fancy resort for winter break. I’ll be fine. Besides, Lila is my only niece. I’m here shopping with the foreign exchange student anyway. Or I will be when she gets here.”
“Alright, but that’s it. She has more than enough toys. See you at the Christmas dinner.”
Raina hung up and glanced at the entrance of the store again. She normally wasn’t a stickler for punctuality, but Fanny was forty minutes late and hadn’t even bothered sending a text message. Raina had given up Saturday morning brunch with her grandma to take the foreign exchange student shopping.
So a trip to the big box retail store wasn’t exactly “shopping,” but it was more convenient than traipsing through the mom-and-pop stores in downtown Gold Springs or driving to Sacramento. Either option would have taken up her entire afternoon. It wasn't like Fanny would know any different. Or at least Raina hoped she didn’t.
“Excuse me,” said a thickly accented voice from behind her.
Raina turned. “Yes?”
The pixie-faced Chinese woman bit her lower lip. Her eyes darted nervously over Raina’s shoulder. The baby cradled in her arms slept as only an infant could with all the noise in the store.
Raina glanced over her shoulder but couldn’t tell what the young mom was looking at. She squinted at the another Chinese woman exiting the store. Did the woman have pink highlights like the foreign exchange student? “Fanny!” She waved an arm. “Hey, Fanny! Over here!” The woman didn't turn around. Oops, wrong person.
Something soft and warm pressed against her other arm. She whipped her head around to stare at the stranger who held out her baby with both hands.
“Can you hold baby for me? I need use potty. No place put baby inside.”
Raina took a step back, her arms held out automatically to ward off the intrusion into her personal space. “Have we met?”
This was the strangest proposition she’d gotten in a while. Didn’t this woman know she shouldn’t trust a stranger with her child?
The woman pointed at the short hall next to them. “Potty.” She shook her head and made a buckling motion as if putting on a seat belt. “No place for baby.”
Raina assumed she meant there wasn’t a working baby changing station in a restroom stall. Cassie had often complained how difficult it was to pee while juggling a baby in a public restroom the few times she ran out of the house for quick trips without her stroller.
The woman’s tailored clothes and Coach purse suggested she should have money to buy a stroller. Even the baby was clad in an expensive blue cashmere one-piece. Or they could be knock-offs? Not that Raina could tell otherwise.
“I trust you with most precious gift: my son.” Her eyes widened as if she just had an important thought. “My name Sui Yuk Liang. What your name, please?” She dropped the huge diaper bag next to Raina’s feet.
The conversation was beginning to have a surreal quality to it. “Raina Sun.” She glanced at the automatic sliding glass doors at the front of the store. Still no Fanny.
Sui Yuk nodded as if the exchange of their names solidified her trust. “Rain Water. You Chinese like me. You take care baby.” She thrust the child into Raina’s arms and released her hold.
Raina caught the infant. It was either this or the child would kiss the floor. Before she could utter a word, Sui Yuk disappeared into the hallway toward the women’s restroom. Raina tucked the infant against her shoulder, cradling his head. How did she get herself into these situations? First Fanny and now this.
She should be more gracious and welcoming toward the foreign exchange student, but the couple of times she’d spent in Fanny’s company hadn’t left her with warm fuzzy feelings. This favor was for her friend Brenda, who was too busy dealing with the Christmas orders for pies and cakes at the Venus Cafe.
As the host family, Brenda or her husband, Joe, should be the ones helping Fanny with her shopping. But when Brenda asked if Raina could help out since she was close in age to Fanny, she had to say yes. She couldn’t jeopardize her special status as a friend of the owners. The food was that good. And so was the discount.
Did ten o'clock mean something different in China? Not that Raina would know. The bus ride to Bullseye was straightforward and only took twenty minutes. She wouldn’t have agreed to meet Fanny at the store otherwise. If Fanny didn’t show up soon, Raina would have to spend her lunch trying to track down the foreign exchange student. What was that Chinese proverb? Duty was heavier than a mountain.
She glanced at the hall. Five more minutes and then she’d pop her head in the restroom. Did Sui Yuk have a diarrhea attack? She didn’t want to embarrass the young mom, but this would explain her desperate willingness to trust a stranger to watch her baby while she did the dirty deed.
“I was here first,” said an irritated male voice.
Raina glanced at the mile-long line at Starbucks.
A middle-aged man with a receding hairline glared at the barista behind the counter. “I have been waiting for the last fifteen minutes.” He pointed a tapered finger at the young woman stirring sugar into her cup. “She was behind me. Why did she get her coffee before me?”
Raina rolled her eyes. The holidays brought out everyone's best behavior.
The baby grunted and wiggled. Time to find the baby's mama.
She hooked the diaper bag on one shoulder and made her way into the women's restroom. The diaper bag was heavier than Atlas’s burden and just as bulky. Her left shoulder already ached from carrying it. “Deck the Halls” echoed between the stalls. She sidestepped around the two women waiting in line and ignored their frowns.
“Sui Yuk,” Raina whispered into the first stall. “Are you almost done? The baby is waking up.”
She repeated her performance at the next stall.
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” Raina muttered.
The woman in the next stall answered with a curt, “Not here.”
Raina knocked on the last stall. Sweat beaded on the small of her back as an uneasy feeling twisted in her gut. “Sui Yuk, are you in here? The baby is waking up.”
“Wrong stall, hon,” the woman called out.
Raina must have crossed paths with Sui Yuk somehow. She hustled back to the front of the store. Her eyes scanned the area, but she didn’t see the mother anywhere. The baby started to root at her shoulder, making small ah-ah grunts. She patted his small back and prayed he would go back to sleep.
She trotted over to Guest Services and asked him to page Sui Yuk.
The sleepy-eyed teenage guy shrugged. “Okay, madam.” He made the announcement over the P.A. system and turned to help another customer.
The baby pumped his fists as he opened his mouth and wailed. A loud squawk as if he knew a stranger held him. Other customers were now staring openly as they walked by.
Food. The baby must need food. Raina dropped the diaper bag on the floor and dug around for a bottle. No milk. Her armpits dampened as a hot flash of anxiety ran through her. What mother would leave home without a bottle? Geez, even if Sui Yuk was nursing, she should come back before her baby needed to eat.
Raina fumbled to unzip a small side pocket and pulled out a sheet of wrinkled notebook paper. Her eyes widened at the words.
Please call 758-1889 if something happens to Sui Yuk Liang
What a strange note, she thought. Bouncing the baby, she dialed the number, but it went straight to voicemail with a generic message to leave a callback number. Her message came out in a rush about Sui Yuk’s failure to reappear after using the restroom. She left her name and both her home and cell phone numbers, wincing at the panic in her voice.
She clutched her phone and stared at the display. Please call back.
The baby’s shriek pierced the area as if Raina held him over a boiling cauldron. She cradled his body and stuck her pinkie in his mouth. He sucked eagerly, but his tiny face crumbled as he realized her pinkie held no sustenance.
Maybe he didn't need food. Raina pulled the child closer and sniffed his diaper. Powder fresh. Her breath came out in a rush, grateful for the small favor.
Raina scanned the crowd again. No Sui Yuk appeared to claim her baby. Surely, a mother wouldn't just abandon her baby with a stranger.
She pressed her cell phone between her ear and shoulder as she bounced the child on her other shoulder. “Matthew, I’m holding a wailing baby, and I seem to have lost his mother.” She ignored the pointed looks from the other shoppers and explained the situation.
Matthew Louie was a homicide detective, but she didn’t know who else to call. And with a police force of only ten people, including the chief, it really didn’t matter who she called. This would eventually make its way to the officer in charge of child abandonment cases.
The baby wiggled, and her phone slipped from her shoulder. It smashed onto the floor, and the back cover popped off. The battery slid across the white tiled floor and under the rows of shopping carts in front of her.
“Great!” she said to no one in particular.
She tucked the crying baby firmly into her arm and dropped to her knees. As she patted the space underneath the shopping carts, she was conscious of her butt-in-the-air pose.
“Rainy, why aren’t you wearing the new underwear I got you? Your old ones leave too many panty lines,” a familiar voice said from behind her.
Raina straightened and shifted the baby to her other shoulder to even out the ringing in her ears. “Ha-ha, Grandma.”
Po Po glanced at the wailing infant. She smiled at the child, her face becoming a roadmap of laugh lines in a cloud of silver hair. The baby’s mouth opened and closed like a fish.
“You do know a baby is not like a cute dog. He’s not going to be a conversation starter with men,” her grandma said.
“I could use a hand here.”
As soon as he heard Raina’s voice, the baby started crying again. Her body tensed, and heat rushed to her face.
“Let me have the little one.” Her grandma held the infant against one shoulder, shushing and swaying her body from side to side. The child relaxed and a finger found its way to his mouth.
Raina's eyes widened at the sight, but she didn’t waste an extra second to stare at the contrast between the pink-faced baby and the white-haired elderly Chinese woman. She shoved the shopping carts aside to rescue her elusive battery.
The screen on her phone had a large crack across one corner. Her heart sank at the damage. She'd replaced her phone only a few months ago. Assembling the phone was a breeze, but the screen remained stubbornly black when she powered it on.
“Here. Use my smarty-pants phone,” said Po Po.
Raina called Matthew again but got his voicemail this time. She left a brief message with her location and handed the phone back to her grandma.
“Keep it for now in case he calls back,” said Po Po.
“What are you doing here? Miss spending your Saturday mornings with your favorite granddaughter?”
“My grandkids are like my toes. It’s kind of hard to pick one to chop off.” Po Po shifted the baby to her other shoulder. “So where is the famous foreign exchange student? I figured you’d bring her here since Sacramento is a little out of the way. I thought we could still have lunch after you’re done.” Po Po glanced at the baby. “But I didn’t realize you would acquire a baby. Rainy, you’re supposed to find a husband first. The baby comes later.”
“Ha-ha. You’re a riot. She’s a no-show. Right now, I have more important things to worry about, like finding out what happened to the baby’s mother.” Raina told her grandma what happened with Sui Yuk Liang.
“Why did you accept the baby? He’s cute and all, but if you had said no, then you wouldn’t be in this predicament.”
Raina sighed. “Because he reminds me of Lila. I would hope if Cassie were ever in a similar situation, someone would help her like I helped Sui Yuk Liang. What would you have done?”
“Exactly what you did. Come on, Rainy. Let me buy you a drink.”
The knot in Raina’s stomach loosened, and the tension drained from her body. “Think I can have some alcohol in it?”
“Sure. I have a flask of vodka in my purse.”
Raina gave her grandma a peck on the cheek. “Love you.”
Po Po handed her a ten. “Why don’t I go buy some formula and a bottle while you wait in the Starbucks line with the baby? I’d take the baby with me, except”—she lowered her voice to a whisper—“it’s dangerous where I’m going.”
“Um, sure.” The baby had fallen asleep by this time.
A few minutes later, Raina sipped an iced caramel macchiato at a small table. The baby still slept blissfully in her arm. The Saturday morning shoppers barely spared a glance at the two. Anonymity was a wonderful thing.
She tried the number in the diaper bag again, leaving another message and her grandma’s cell number.
“Let’s go. We need to get out of here. Now!” Po Po said when she came back. “We’ll call Matthew to come get the baby at your place once we’re on the road.”
“Matthew might be on his way already. He’s not going to be happy if we send him on a wild goose chase. And it’s raining like crazy. We shouldn’t take the baby outside.”
Po Po glanced behind her. Her knuckles whitened around the handle of the plastic bags she carried.
Raina followed her grandma’s gaze. Two men shouted at each other by the clothes department. A store associate tried to calm the men down. The taller man pointed at Po Po and spoke animatedly. The three of them started walking toward Starbucks.
“Yo! The old Chinese woman. Where’s my Jiggle Me doll?” the taller man shouted.
“It’s the only one left in the area,” said the shorter man. “And it’s mine. I called the store to have them put it on hold for me.”
A woman stopped in her tracks. She turned to study Po Po. “How much do you want for the Jiggle Me doll?” She whipped out a fifty-dollar bill from her purse. “I must have it for my daughter.”
The cell phone in Raina’s hands vibrated. She glanced at the new text message.
Meet me outside old bookstore. Parking Bullseye nightmare. Have info on Sui Yuk.
Raina stood, swinging the diaper bag onto her shoulder. The men looked ready to wrestle her grandma. “Let’s roll.”
The taller man broke away and ran toward Po Po. “Stop.”
“It’s mine!” The shorter man grabbed the back of the taller man’s jacket and yanked him up short. They grappled, and the two fell to the ground.
The woman pulled out another fifty. She shoved the money in Po Po’s face and grabbed the shopping bags. “Here. Let me have the doll.”
Po Po slapped away the woman’s hand. Raina and her grandma rushed out of the store to the sound of pounding footsteps and strains of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
CHAPTER TWO – LET's DANCE
Raina unlocked her faded red Honda Accord, and they piled in. She handed the baby to her grandma and started the engine.
Po Po pulled a blanket out of the diaper bag and swaddled the child. “Where are we going?”
“The other side of the shopping plaza,” Raina said as she backed out of her parking spot. “I got a text from someone who claims to have info on Sui Yuk Liang.”
“At the empty storefront? What about the police?”
“It’s not like we’re running off with the baby. We’re just following up on a lead while it’s still hot.”
“If you think about it, we’re actually saving him,” Po Po said. “If we’d stayed, he might get trampled at the store. And we could always go back once things die down at Bullseye.”
Raina gave Po Po a sideways glance. Her grandma’s logic was unconventional at best, but downright dubious when she fished for excitement. Was this what she had to look forward to when she turned seventy-five? She parked and reached for the baby. “Can you send Matthew a text to let him know we’re here? I’m going outside with the baby.”
She got out, juggling the diaper bag and the baby. There was no sign of Sui Yuk Liang. The baby grabbed a strand of her curly black hair and stuffed it into his mouth, drooling all over her shoulder in the process. “Good thing you’re a cutie.”
The mega bookstore had left a year ago, but the town hadn’t been able to lure another big box store into the retail space. The windows of the empty building gaped at the shoppers across the parking lot like a toothless crone.
Raina took shelter under the overhanging canopy. Her curly hair responded to the drizzle like an angry cat, spreading itself like a wild halo around her head. Asian Carrot Top on the go. This was the reason she didn’t date much in the winter.
“Psst. Over here,” a voice said over her left shoulder.
Raina swung around and frowned at the man hidden in the shadow of the building. He beckoned for her to come closer even as he crossed the space between them. The man appeared to be in his early fifties with a touch of gray in his brown hair that would have been distinguished on anyone else. But his squinty brown eyes made the hair on the back of Raina’s neck stand to attention. She tightened her grip on the baby as she sneaked a glance at her car.
“Aaron Wheeler, madam,” the man said, holding out a hand. The wind shifted and the acrid stench of cigarettes from his worn parka wafted like a dust cloud around her.
She gave him a fake apologetic smile, but she was secretly glad she could use the baby and diaper bag as an excuse not to shake Aaron’s hand. “I’ve already called the police. They are on their way.”
“Oh, there is no need for that. I’m here to pick up my son. The wife probably forgot her medication. It’s postpartum depression.” He sighed with a weariness that irritated Raina, as if he were a saint for putting up with his wife. “I’ll strap junior in his car seat and take a drive to see if I can find Sui Yuk. It’s the second time she’s wandered off this month.”
Raina patted the baby’s small back and studied Aaron. He looked old enough to be Sui Yuk’s father rather than the baby’s. Sure there were December-May relationships, but the child didn’t look bi-racial. “Where is his birthmark located?”
Aaron stiffened as if he were offended. “What is this? A test?”
“Why isn’t Sui Yuk here with you?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but she’s having a hard time adjusting to motherhood. She wanders off sometimes.” He stepped closer, looming over her. His face tensed and his eyes tightened into a scowl. “The baby is mine. I'm not wading though bureaucratic red tape to get him back.”
Raina straightened, hoping her five feet three inches appeared to take up physical space like a puffed-up angry cat. Her heart raced at the veiled threat, but she wasn’t going to let him see her fear. “You need to talk to social services or the police. I called the number in the diaper bag because I hoped whoever answered would tell Sui Yuk to contact me.”
He took a deep breath, visibly forcing himself to relax. “Can I hold him? I haven’t seen my baby in a couple of days. The ex wouldn’t let me see him as much as I would like.”
“How did you get divorced in the last five minutes?”
“Just give me the baby,” he said through gritted teeth.
Raina held the baby closer against her chest. Despite the cold, a bead of sweat rolled down the small of her back. A car rumbled past, blaring a few strands of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” She swallowed the knot in her throat and opened her mouth. “When you can prove—”
His hand snaked out, grabbing a corner of the blanket.
Raina twisted, using her body as a shield. “Stop it. You’re going to make me drop him.” She tightened her grip on the baby. He squirmed and let out a cry.
Aaron tugged at the blanket until a chubby leg was exposed. He grabbed the leg and pulled. The child’s cry grew more piercing.
She clawed at his hands with her nails. “You’re hurting him!”
His arm curled around her waist, but he didn’t let go. “He's mine!”
“What is going on here?” called Po Po from behind her.
Raina’s heart stopped at the thought of Aaron knocking over her seventy-five-year-old grandma. She opened her mouth and screamed. A blood curling sound that matched the infant’s.
Po Po swung her beach bag-sized purse and smacked it against Aaron’s head. Pain spread across his face and he spun around. “What the fu—”
Raina staggered backward. Her gaze scanned the area, looking for a safe place to set the baby. She wedged the child in the space between the communal mailbox and the empty building. The mailbox should prevent anyone from accidentally stepping on him.
As Aaron advanced toward her, Po Po stepped back, clutching her purse.
His fingers curled into fists. “Listen, you old bat—”
Po Po whipped out her pepper spray and blasted him.
Aaron jerked and covered his face with his hands. He screamed like a girly man.
Raina smacked him with the diaper bag. It ricocheted off his shoulders and smashed onto her nose. She yelped in pain and stumbled against Aaron, knocking both of them onto the wet concrete sidewalk.
As he picked himself up, her grandma slapped him with her purse. She sprayed him again. Another quick blast that even made Raina’s eyes sting. “Come on, baby, let’s dance.”
He hunched his shoulders and fumbled sideways, almost falling again in his haste to leave. “Keep the baby! The money isn’t worth this.”
Po Po swung her purse above her head and threw it against his back. He yelped, grabbed his back, and scrambled away.
Raina’s jaw dropped. Forget flies. She could catch hummingbirds with her mouth. She turned her head slowly to stare at her grandma. What was that? She’d always known Po Po to be a fighter, but she’d never thought it was literal.
Po Po held out her hand for a high five. “Show me some love.”
Raina patted her grandma’s hand dutifully. Her heart was still participating in a race she didn’t want to be in.
Po Po was literally bouncing from the adrenaline. “Where’s the baby?”
Raina rushed to the mailbox, fearing the worst, but the baby sucked his finger as he stared at a spider wrapping his lunch. She scooped the child into her arms and inspected his leg. It was slightly red around the ankle, but there was no bruise. She rubbed it gently. “Poor baby,” she murmured.
“Is the little guy okay?” Po Po asked.
Raina nodded. “Where are the police? I thought you said they’re on their way.”
Po Po shrugged. “Let’s go to your apartment. He might show up with friends next time.”
After they piled into her car, Raina hit the locks. It took her two tries to insert the key in the ignition. By the time she pulled out from the driveway, the familiar citrus air freshener and the warmth from the heater helped slow her heart rate. After several rattled breaths, the jittery feeling disappeared.
Raina drove as if she had a car full of eggs. She hoped the one time she drove a child around without a car seat wouldn’t be the first time she got a ticket. The other drivers must have thought they were sharing the road with a new student driver. The baby slept in Po Po’s arms without a care in the world.
The earlier drizzle became a downpour as if a water tower were cracked in half. The twinkling Christmas lights and large wreaths adorning the lampposts in the downtown area became a blur.
“Please call Matthew to let him know that we are heading back to my apartment with the baby,” Raina said.
She hoped she wouldn’t get in trouble for leaving, but what choice did she have? If they had stayed outside the store, the three of them would be soaked and Aaron might return. Neither was returning to Bullseye an option. There was no telling if the other shoppers would continue to harass them over the Jiggle Me doll.
Instead of calling Matthew, Po Po called Donna, the front desk clerk who also worked as the dispatcher. It looked like her grandma wasn’t too keen on facing his annoyance either.
Did she make the right decision by calling Aaron Wheeler? Was she over analyzing this? Sure, Sui Yuk Liang could have put the baby on top of the diaper bag in the restroom. But the floors were disgusting when Raina had used the restroom prior to her encounter with the young mom. Crumpled paper towels and unidentifiable wet spots on the floors. Yuck. Management should have increased the cleaning schedule with so many shoppers in the store.
She pulled into the parking lot at the back of her small apartment complex. The eight units were divided into two strips and faced one another over a courtyard like the green houses on a Monopoly game.
“When are the police going to get here?” Raina asked as she opened the front door.
She grimaced at the soreness in her shoulder as she dropped the three-ton diaper bag on the living room floor. And here she thought her grandma’s beach bag-size purse was a pain to lug around. As she turned on the lamp next to the new-to-me sofa, she rubbed her aching shoulder.
“Maybe another hour? Donna said things”—Po Po averted her gaze—“got out of hand after we left the store. Matthew and Officer Hopper are busy taking statements right now.”
Oh great. They were going to be in an awesome mood when they finally showed up. “What happened?”
“The usual Christmas stuff. A shoving match. A broken window. Oh, a riot that shut down the store for the day.”
“We’re in deep sh—”
“Language, Rainy. Little ears are listening.” Po Po glanced at the infant in her arms. “There’s no proof the riot has anything to do with us.”
Raina looked pointedly at the Jiggle Me doll sticking out of the plastic bag next to the diaper bag.
“Finders keepers. Whiners weepers. It wasn’t my fault the two men would rather argue with each other than hustle to the checkout line. I paid for it. It’s mine,” Po Po said. “Any who. I can’t wait to see Lila’s face when she opens her present. I’m winning the best great-gran award.”
Raina sighed and dropped the subject. She didn’t want to lose the chance to put her name on the gift tag. Mercenary? Yes, but it was for a good cause. She needed to get back in to the rest of the family’s good graces without seeming like she was groveling.
Life was sure more exciting with her grandma around. Her growling stomach told her it was late afternoon. A quick glance at the clock with gilded koi fishes swimming around the dial confirmed what her body already knew. Two o’clock. Time to wolf down some food before the cops got here.
Po Po held out the baby. “Why don’t I get the mail for you?”
For a moment, Raina experienced a sense of déjà vu. It was like her morning with Sui Yuk all over again. She grabbed the child. “The mail can wait. We should eat before the cops get here.”
Po Po snatched the keys from the narrow table next to her front door. “No, I insist. I want to see the ads for this week. Only a few more shopping days left before Christmas.”
“Don’t you want to leave your purse—”
Her grandma hustled out of the apartment as if she were using a “get out of jail free” card.
The baby's face scrunched up and his little arms windmilled. Her niece Lila had the same expression right before she exploded into her diaper. No wonder her grandma was hiding out until the cleanup was done.
Raina gently placed the baby on the beige carpet. He was still young enough that she didn’t have to worry about him rolling anywhere. She headed to her shoebox of a kitchen for another cup of coffee to give the baby time to finish his business. The scent of brewing coffee almost masked the smell of poo filling the small apartment. The knot between her shoulder blades loosened as the tension oozed out of her body.
Everything turned out okay. The police would pick up the baby, and being stood up was the perfect excuse to ward off any future duties with the foreign exchange student. Life was good.
After a quick diaper change, Raina was cooing to the baby when her grandma returned with the mail. “Aaron said the baby is his.”
They both stared at the almond-shaped brown eyes and downy black hair on the baby.
“Adoption?” Po Po said doubtfully. “But that wouldn’t explain Sui Yuk Liang. Why do you think he wants the baby?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Do you think we should do a reverse lookup on the phone number in the diaper bag?”
“It's not a bad idea. That way we would at least know which part of town to avoid until this dies down.”
“Isn’t it odd Aaron mentioned money? Do you think he’s being paid to retrieve the child?”
“For who? Sui Yuk?”
“Now that is the million-dollar question.”
Raina’s pulse jumped. She wasn’t sure how much more excitement she could take. Today was supposed to be a mundane Saturday morning. Aaron couldn’t have followed her home.
She squinted in her peephole. E. Matthew Louie. Her breath rushed out in relief. The police finally arrived. As usual, her ex-boyfriend always managed to show up after the action was over.
CHAPTER THREE – BRINGING SEXY BACK
Droplets of rain clung to Matthew’s black hair. His navy-blue sweater looked damp, as if he hadn’t bothered with an umbrella for the short distance from his police cruiser to her apartment. The warmth radiated off him, raising the humidity in the space between them. His body always ran warmer than hers—the perfect bedmate for a long winter night.
Matthew leaned down as if to kiss her. “Hi, Rainy.”
Raina inhaled his citrus and sage scent, but shifted so his lips grazed her cheek. “Boy, am I glad to see you.” She stepped aside so he could come in.
He smiled as if he heard an offer he couldn’t resist. When he saw Po Po sitting on the sofa with the baby, he straightened. His gold-flecked brown eyes lost their come-hither sultry gaze.
“So you’re bringing sexy back, huh?” Po Po asked.
He flushed as if he were caught with his hands in the honey pot. “No, madam.”
“I wouldn’t want to see my Rainy upset again.”
Raina held up her hands. “Whoa! I’m not—”
“Of course not. I wouldn’t want to see her upset either,” he said.
“She tells me it’s over. I’m assuming you’re not one of those stalker types,” Po Po continued, ignoring Raina.
Matthew winced. “Yes. I mean no. I’m not a stalker.”
Raina glanced down to hide her grin. A flustered Matthew was a rare sight. His grandma, Maggie Louie, and Po Po were best friends for the last fifty-five years. Po Po had been like another grandparent to him, just as Maggie Louie had been to Raina. But there was no hint of this now. Po Po was a mother bear protecting her cub.
“Several officers are at Bullseye doing crowd control and taking statements,” Matthew said. “It’s the reason I’m here instead of an officer.”
Raina stared at the koi clock above her TV. She bit her lip to hide her smile. Even flustered, Matthew handled her grandma like an old pro.
Po Po stood with the baby. “Boy, do I need a nap. Wake me up when it’s my turn.” She went into the bedroom and closed the door.
Matthew sighed. “Is there any way you could control her?”
“With what? A tranquilizer dart in her butt?”
“You’ll need a dose that could drop an elephant,” he mumbled, pulling a notebook from his back pocket. “Tell me what happened.”
Raina told him everything that happened after Sui Yuk’s disappearance from Bullseye. He made notes and asked her the same questions in several creative ways as if to trip her up. “What happens now?”
“I need to get Wong Po Po’s statement,” he said, flipping to a blank page on his notebook.
“No. I mean what happens after this.”
“The social worker picks up the baby. And we’ll try to find the mother and Aaron Wheeler.”
“Oh, I don’t get to keep the baby for a bit?”
He narrowed his eyes as if studying her. “Is your biological clock speeding up?”
Raina flushed but lifted her chin. “Those are fighting words. They sound as bad as asking if I’m on my period. But I’m going to be the bigger person here and ignore them.”
“Why would you want a baby hanging around here?”
“Why not? It’s Christmas—the season to apply for sainthood. I feel a certain responsibility toward the little guy.”
“Ah,” he said. “Your mother’s Chinese superstition.”
Raina stiffened and gave him the evil eye. He was probably right. Her mom’s teachings came out at the oddest moments. It was strange how her grandma embraced all things American while her mom seemed to continually search for her roots.
“You really don’t want to get involved in this. Sometimes we find the mother, and sometimes we don’t. I know you’re looking for a project to get over us, but this is not it.”
“I’m surprise your head doesn’t pop off at times. Not everything is about you.” Raina grabbed the diaper bag and stalked into her bedroom.
Po Po handed her the baby. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. It’s your turn,” Raina said.
Po Po opened her mouth but changed her mind and left, closing the bedroom door behind her.
Raina cuddled the soft body close. All milk and innocence. The baby’s little hand grabbed a strand of her hair and stuffed it into his mouth. She was a sucker for round chubby cheeks and crankles.
They needed to give the child a temporary name. It was awkward using baby or infant when addressing him. Maybe Baby Liang. Or BL. She shook her head. No, naming him would be like feeding a stray kitten. Once she named him, he’d keep reappearing in her life.
She checked his diaper, but he was still dry. He gave her a gummy smile, drool trickling off the side of his mouth. She wiped it with her finger and wiped it on her shirt.
With BL resting on her shoulders, she went back to the living room and handed him to her grandma. Po Po was in the middle of describing her fight with her hand poised in front of Matthew as if she were about to blast him with an imaginary pepper spray.
“Sorry for interrupting, but does anyone want any Ramen?” Raina asked. “I haven’t had lunch yet.”
Po Po made a face and shook her head. Matthew also declined.
Raina shrugged. More food for her. These two would come sniffing around like stray cats once she got around to filling her pantry. While she waited for the water to boil, she made up a bottle of formula and handed it to her grandma. On the way back into the kitchen, she grabbed her cell phone.
It powered on and the screen lit up. Woo-hoo! She found the recent call list and studied Aaron’s phone number. It looked familiar, but she couldn’t place where she’d seen it before. A few minutes later she was on her Goodwill dining room table, slurping noodles and searching for a reverse phone number site on her laptop.
Matthew finished up his statement with Po Po and joined her. He turned a chair around and straddled it. “Still not touching the inheritance from your grandfather?”
Raina shook her head. “He wanted to use the money to support his other family in China. Until I figure out if I want to honor his wishes, the money is off-limits.”
“At least your cousins are no longer contesting the will. What are their opinions of the situation?”
Raina glanced at the living room. Her grandma bounced BL on her lap, cooing at him as if he were one of her grandsons. “Po Po wants to keep Ah Gong’s disgrace from the rest of the family a little longer.”
“But that’s not fair to you. Everyone thinks you influenced your granddad to disinherit them.”
Raina shrugged with a nonchalance she didn’t feel. As long as her grandma wasn’t weeping from the discovery that her marriage was a sham, what did it matter how her cousins treated her? “They’ll apologize when they find out.”
Matthew gave her a doubtful look but smiled to lighten the mood. “A lot of women would be embarrassed to be chowing noodles like this in front of a man.”
Raina attempted to roll her eyes at his bantering to show her appreciation, but only managed to blink instead. “We’ve known each other too long for me to care. Besides, we’re not together anymore. You should be happy I’m not picking my nose.”
“Now that’s an attractive image.”
Raina swiped at the soup dripping down her chin with the back of her hand. “I’m glad you approve. You treat your buddies better than you do your girlfriend.” Too bad it took her ten years to figure this out.
“I spent a month tracking down used car parts for your totaled car. I wouldn’t do that for a friend.”
Her father had taught her how to drive in the old Honda Accord. It was the only thing she’d inherited from him. Matthew was one of the few people who knew how much the car meant to her. “You just wanted to get in my pants again.”
“You’re giving me a bad rep here. After all I’ve done, that’s my agenda, huh?”
It might not be his agenda, but he was going to take a shot at it anyway. Typical.
She typed in Aaron’s phone number on the search bar. Not that she was bored with their conversation, but the comfortable familiarity made her heart ache. This was what happened when she’d spent her entire life chasing a man who didn’t want to be caught.
She glanced at Matthew. “Sorry, what did you say?”
“I’m your knight in shining armor. Don’t I deserve a kiss for fixing your car?”
“I would rather pick your belly lint. I made you dinner. We’re squared.”
Matthew threw back his head and laughed. “This is why I love you.”
Raina ignored his comment. She already knew he loved her. That wasn’t their problem. “Sui Yuk Liang had to be desperate if she was willing to leave her baby with a stranger.”
“You are over thinking this. Doesn’t postpartum depression make women do crazy things like howl at the moon?”
“You really don’t know anything about pregnancy or babies, do you?”
“So I’m a man.”
She sat back in her chair and studied him. “But don’t you want a baby and wife someday?”
He stared back into the living room where Po Po was now singing a Chinese lullaby to the child. The koi clock ticked, filling the silence between them. Raina held her breath, knowing what the answer would be, but hoping all the same.
After what seemed like an eternity, he glanced back at her. “No.”
His parents’ marriage was a series of slammed doors and fists on soft flesh. When his father finally left, his mother only hung around long enough to make sure her mom would take Matthew in. And then one day, poof, she was gone too. Though Matthew might love Raina in the best way he knew how, it wasn't enough anymore.
She swallowed her disappointment. “Then stop bringing sexy back. If you care for me, you should let me go.”
“Sorry. This is the first time we have spoken in months. I thought we were at the friends’ stage by now.”
Right. As if he flirted this outrageously with his buddies. “I’m not there yet. I need more space.”
“How about dinner tomorrow night? Entirely platonic. Just friends hanging out.”
“Changing subjects. Do you think Aaron had anything to do with Sui Yuk’s disappearance?”
He shook his head. “It’s probably the hormones.”
She gave him a disgusted look. “At least you’re not blaming her disappearance on PMS.”
“There’s no winning no matter what I say. I can't launch an investigation on nothing more substantial than your suspicion. She hasn’t even disappeared for more than twenty-four hours. For all we know, she could report a kidnapping later. Why don’t you just wait and see what turns up? I’ll run her name through the databases when I get a chance. Besides, I have more urgent cases on my desk right at the moment.”
Raina blushed. Of course he had other important cases. He was a grown-up with a career job while she was floundering as a pretend graduate student after giving up her promising career as a civil engineer.
She glanced at the laptop screen and her eyes widened. She gasped and sucked soup down the wrong pipe. Her eyes filled up with tears, and she couldn’t stop coughing. Matthew rushed around the table and patted her on the back.
“Are you okay, Rainy?” Po Po called out from the living room.
Raina waved and whispered, “Fine. I’m fine.” When she finally was able to talk without coughing, she pointed at her laptop screen. “Aaron called from the Gold Springs Birth Resort.”
Matthew glanced at the laptop and then back at her. “Didn’t I tell you to leave the detective work to me?”
Po Po rushed into the dining nook with the baby. “I don’t like the idea of you working at the resort with Aaron hanging around there.”
Matthew glanced from her grandma to Raina, understanding spread across his face. “No. No. You’re going to quit this job and find something else. There are plenty of places looking for holiday help.”
Raina stiffened at the tone of his voice. “Are you going to pay my bills?” She paused as if waiting for an answer. “I didn’t think so.”
He clenched his jaw as if realizing he’d taken the wrong tactic with her.
“That was the perfect thing to say to Rainy,” Po Po said. “Since you’re neither her boyfriend nor her husband.”
He held up both hands as if he were surrendering. “I’m just worried.”
“Your concern is noted,” Raina said through clenched teeth, “but I’m filling in for my friend Sonia. If I just bail, it’d jeopardize her job.” Did Matthew think he had a right to boss her around?
She had no intention of wrangling with Aaron again, at least not without her grandma at her side. If Aaron worked at the resort, he might have met Sui Yuk Liang there.
Raina should sneak a peek at the guest list tomorrow. Was Sui Yuk dealing with postpartum depression and forgot her baby? If this were the case, Raina had to at least let her know the social worker took temporary custody of BL. “Don’t worry. I’ll have pepper spray in my pocket the entire time.”
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