Settings

Peaches and the Gambler 17


  Cosimo looked up blearily as two beautiful visions in white bore down on him. Had he died and gone to Heaven? Because certainly the two lovely women above him made him believe so.

  The sharp nudge in the ribs from the taller ones shoe bought him crashing back to reality.

  “Ow! Take it easy. Cosimo doesn’t feel so well.”

  He rolled over, staring up at the women from where he was laying on the sticky hotel room carpet. He hadn’t slept in the bed since arriving from Italy. Not because he didn’t want to, but because he hadn’t been able to balance himself well enough to get up there.

  Becoming aware of the cold, moist patch he was laying on, he remembered with unsettling clarity that he had believed he was in the bathroom and in his drunken stupor had peed on the carpet. How had he fallen so far? A slight turn of his head allowed him to gaze upon the medley of vodka bottles lolling about in various corners. There was the culprit.

  He tried to frown. The effort caused him to grimace in pain.

  “What did he just say?” the taller one asked, placing a hand on her hip.

  “He says he doesn’t feel well and to take it easy.”

  “Oh, really?” There was a decidedly cruel glint in her eye as she nudged him with her shoe again, harder this time.

  He groaned, sitting up. “Why are you so mean, my Goddess?”

  “Translate.”

  “He called you a Goddess and asked why you were so mean.” The shorter one was starting to look impatient about having to translate.

  “Huh. I like the name Goddess.” She smiled, looking down at him. She nudged him for a third time, more mischief than malice in her actions. “Why’s he naked, Viviana?”

  “He says it’s too hot for clothes.”

  Peaches shook her head. The entire situation was surreal. Was she really standing in a hotel room with her sister and a nude B rated Italian actor? Lynn definitely wouldn’t believe this.

  Upon arriving in Roanoke Rapids, she had forced the whole sordid story out of Viviana, much as she had forced the truth out of Nina. It was laughable and foolish and Peaches had questioned Viviana’s sanity when she had revealed her plot. She also secretly gave her kudos for being a master manipulator and man handler.

  She herself could never have even imagined trying such a thing. Maybe she should. Maybe if she were more like Viviana, Vernon and she would have married and she would be living snug as a bug in matrimonial harmony as opposed to nosing around in murders and helping dig Viviana out of another jam.

  Even as she thought this she knew it to be a lie. She and Vernon’s relationship had run its course. Any remaining feelings she had for him were simply because of the long history they had together. Hell, over the past few days she had barely even thought of him except in passing. No, better to let things fade gently into the sunset and move on.

  She looked down at the naked man now tucked in the fetal position and moaning softly. He reeked of cheap liquor.

  “Vi-Vi why couldn’t he buy good liquor? Why’d he get the cheapest stuff money could buy?” Peaches toed a bottle of Cochran’s Island Gin aside, the picture of a small island paradise printed in garish colors on the label of the plastic pint bottle a complete lie. A rendering of a horned man with a pitchfork would have been much more accurate.

  “He claimed drinking the cheap stuff was penance for breaking his ninety-three days of sobriety.”

  “Vi-Vi--,” Peaches said, shocked. “You sent this man running back to the bottle?”

  “I did not!” she exclaimed, indignantly. “He made that choice all on his own.”

  Peaches merely tsked in disapproval, shaking her head again. Now she actually felt a little sorry for the guy. Viviana was enough to drive anyone to drink.

  Viviana eyed Cosimo with disgust, more than a little embarrassed that Peaches had caught her in this situation. She had practically begged Peaches for help. Well, it wasn’t really her fault. How was she to have known Cosimo was a complete lush?

  This was all Peaches fault. If she had been the good, solid older sister she needed while growing up, she would never have done such a thing to begin with. Somewhat mollified, she squared her shoulders, almost sold on this shaky reasoning.

  “So--,” Peaches was saying. “—to rehash your plan, you wanna just force him into some clothes, bundle him up in your limo--,” Peaches couldn’t prevent a note of censure from entering her voice when she said ‘limo’. “—and send him on his way to the airport?”

  “That sounds about right,” Viviana said, carelessly.

  “That sounds about wrong,” Peaches said, her tone clipped. She used her fingers to enunciate exactly why the plan was foolhardy and unworkable. “First off, drunk as he is and drunk as he smells,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “There’s a good chance he’ll be arrested right away on public drunkenness charges. Second off, he’s a foreign national and may be held for an additional amount of time because of that distinction. And he looks about Middle Eastern and you know the country is Al Qaeda happy right now.”

  “Well, what do you suggest?” Viviana asked, feeling peeved about Peaches superior take on the task ahead.

  “I suggest we get him sober.”

  **

  If you’ve never tried forcing a drunk, short, very strong Italian man in the shower, you shouldn’t.

  “Say in there!” Peaches shouted, holding the door closed with both hands, one foot against the wall to add a bit of leverage. A low, guttural groan followed her demand.

  Viviana, as was her way, had been no help at all. At the moment, she was roosting on the edge of the bed, picking at her immaculate manicure.

  Hustling the squat, bull of a man into the bathroom with the very marginal help of Viviana had been easy enough. He had been more than happy to be sandwiched between what he kept drunkenly referring to as the bella dea nera, or beautiful black goddesses, a watery smile on his face.

  But the moment the cold needle spray of water had struck his skin, he became like a raging animal, jumping out of the shower and running/stumbling back into he room, shivering dramatically and whimpering: ‘Cosimo hates cold water!’ like a fucking two-year-old child.

  On the third try, she and Viviana had been forced to expose their twin cleavages in an attempt to lure him back into the bathroom. The sight of the double sets of D cups drove him to the brink. He had leapt at the two of them with more nimbleness than Peaches had been expecting from an inebriated individual who had, just moments before, been struggling to sit upright. After nearly pinning her to the wall, Peaches had gotten him under control in the only way a woman could under such circumstances: she had grabbed him, very firmly, by the nuts.

  He had screeched and cried for mercy to no avail, even attempting to get on his knees and pray. This ill conceived movement had resulted in the slight twisting of his left testicle. His scream had been piercing. Peaches had ignored him, hand remaining firmly attached to his balls, even as she forced him into the shower. The result being her shirt, hair and face were soaked by the time she finished wrestling him into him tub.

  Feeling she had him safely where she wanted him, she had released her strangle hold, grabbing a hand towel and cautiously backing out as he had sunk, defeated, beneath the onslaught of frigid water.

  “Can you help a little?” Peaches demanded, still holding on to the door.

  “What do you want me to do?” Viviana asked, standing up. “Only once of us can hold the door at a time.”

  “Okay. Then clearly that should be you since this guy is your guest.”

  “Fine. When I get back I’ll guard the door, okay?” She swished to the door, purse in hand.

  “Where’re you going?” Peaches asked, piqued.

  “To get some ice. Be right back.”

  Before Peaches could utter a word of protest the door had opened and closed with a click.

  That ungrateful little…! It was her fault for ever having agreed to help her to begin with.

  All had gone quiet behind th
e bathroom door. Peaches could hear slight whimpers and splashing water. Taking a chance, she cautiously un-tensed her muscles, releasing her hold on the door and dropping her leg.

  Drying her half-soaked hair and blouse with the towel she had thrown over her shoulder, she had half a mind to leave Viviana to her mess and hustle it back to Durham. It would serve her right to be left holding the reins on this runaway train. But some deep sense of maternal obligation for her baby sister stayed her feet. She cursed herself for her feelings of responsibility. Viviana was a grown woman more than capable of fixing her own problems.

  A short while later Peaches saw the bathroom door open. She stood up warily from her seat, watching a much more civilized man emerge than had gone into the bathroom. He was fully dressed in the slightly damp clothing Peaches had tossed inside. She never wanted to see this man naked again.

  “I am so sorry,” he said, smiling sheepishly. He had combed his hair into a semblance of decency and while he still smelled faintly of alcohol, it was nothing like before.

  “You speak English?” Peaches asked.

  “Yes. Very well. But not so well when I am--,” He flicked his wrist in a very Italian way that Peaches assumed meant drunk. “I am so embarrassed for my actions. Please forgive me.” He made as if he were going to drop to one knee and Peaches quickly shook her head.

  “Please don’t do that. It’s not necessary,” she said, quickly.

  “Who are you?” he asked, standing up.

  “Viviana’s sister.”

  He nodded his head, as though this confirmed what he already knew. “And where is the beautiful Viviana?”

  “She went out to get some ice. She should be right back.”

  He began cleaning, plucking empty bottles from the floor and tossing them in the garbage, picking up clothes which were haphazardly strewn about and placing them in his suitcase.

  “Cosimo has no chance with Viviana now, does he?” he asked, sitting down on the bed. His broad face, puckered with worry, made him look like a docile bulldog. Peaches found herself again feeling sorry for him.

  “I don’t know,” Peaches lied, shrugging. He had never had any chance with her. He was just being used, like they all were, as pawns in Viviana’s games.

  Peaches looked at the time on her phone. Her sister had been gone for nearly thirty minutes. It didn’t take that long to get a bucket of ice.

  Where the hell was Viviana?

  It was at that moment that Peaches spied the ice bucket sitting serene as could be on the bedside table and knew that she had been duped.

  **

  Thirty Minutes Earlier

  Viviana allowed the door to close on any further words Peaches might have to say. She would be back in moments. No need for her to get her panties in a bunch.

  The phone Augostino gave her trilled softly. Viviana had not taken any of his calls so far, but she could only leave him hanging out on a limb for so long.

  She picked up.

  “I am parked in front of the hotel. Come out now if you ever want to see me again.”

  He hung up. There was a cold note of finality in his tone which brooked neither excuses nor denials.

  Viviana, smart enough to know when she was beat at her own game, didn’t give his words a second thought. She rushed in the direction of the parking lot, more anxious than she realized to see her man.

  **

  “What the hell are you playing at Viviana?”

  In Augostino’s hand was a copy of the Italian tabloid he had bought all the way from Italy, the sizzling images of his beloved emerging from a hotel room with another man, seared into his brain matter.

  After being subjected to an overnight layover in New York and a missed plane the following day, Augostino was thoroughly annoyed when he arrived in North Carolina at eleven forty-three pm two days after flying out of Italy. He and Bruno had rested up until the following morning, gotten up bright and early and gone from hotel to hotel until Bruno had—after paying a maid fifty bucks—succeeded in placing Viviana at Hotel Excalibur. The hotel was seedy and distasteful. He had watched as a young lady in bright neon leggings invited two different men inside in less than twenty minutes.

  “It’s not what you think, sweetheart,” Viviana cooed, pressing herself invitingly against his arm.

  Bruno grunted disbelievingly from just outside the open window of the chauffeured car service Augostino had hired.

  Viviana glared at him, then firmly pressed the window button up. Unfortunately, not quick enough to miss the smirk meant just for her.

  “Do you have to keep him on, Augostino? I’m sure you could find better help than him,” Viviana suggested.

  “I have told you many times that Bruno’s family has worked for my family going back more than one hundred and fifty years,” he said, his tone impassive. “You don’t end relationships that important because he doesn’t get along with your badly behaved girlfriend. Now what is going on, Viviana? I won’t ask again.”

  She pouted momentarily, eyeing him through her lashes for effect. Augostino’s face remained stone cold.

  Thinking quickly she said: “You do not understand, my love,” she said throatily. “That guy was someone I was trying to fix Peaches up with. Her boyfriend found out and I had to play it close to the middle. Unfortunately, that photographer was there and it all got completely out of control. I am so sorry you had to find out like this.”

  She pressed herself even closer, watching emotions race across Augostino’s face like shadows on a wall. When it came to the boardroom, Augostino was one of the most fierce competitors one would come across. But when it came to love, Viviana had him pressed beneath her thumb and poor Augostino had no hope.

  Viviana felt his body relax against hers. She hid her smile of triumph by quickly averting her face to look out the window, knowing she had won.

  “Fine,” he said. Cupping her head, he pulled her close, placing firm, warm lips against her own. She shivered when his tongue just barely touched her own, warmth coursing through her body and ending in dampness between her thighs. His effect on her was the same as it had been when they had first met more than a dozen years before. “We’re going to get your things. You and the girls are flying back to Italy with me tonight.”

  His tone was commanding. There wouldn’t be any denying his request.

  She thought uneasily of leaving her father and Peaches behind, but unless she wanted to end she and Augostino’s relationship, she didn’t have much of a choice.

  **

  Once Viviana and the girls were comfortably ensconced in First Class a few hours later, she felt another stronger pang of conscience. How could she just leave her sister in the lurch after she had literally and figuratively come to her rescue? And her father? What right did she have to treat him like his house was a motel she could check in and out of as it suited her?

  Maybe Peaches was right. Maybe she really was a self-centered, egotistical little bitch.

  Uncomfortable with these unusually introspective thoughts, Viviana went into overdrive trying to figure out how to fix this latest disaster.

  Money. Money fixed all problems.

  She would make sure Augostino gave them a little something for their worries. To assuage the guilt over Peaches comment about sending Cosimo back to the bottle, once back in Italy, she would make some calls to some of her contacts in the film industry and would also pay for any additional rehab he needed.

  Mind clear, she took another sip of her cherished, specialty mineral water and smiled over at Augostino, burying any additional guilt deep down in the nether regions of her consciousness where she wouldn’t have to be confronted with them again.

  **

  Back at her apartment, Peaches was shell shocked, for lack of a better word.

  Viviana had simply left. Peaches wasn’t sure where she was, but she was certain of one thing, she was no longer in Roanoke Rapids.

  Rushing Cosimo and his packing along, she had hastily checked him out of Hote
l Excalibur. Swinging by her father’s place in a fury, Cosimo practically cowering in the passenger seat, she had stalked throughout the silent house, already knowing Viviana had done one of her infamous disappearing acts. No Viviana and no girls. Of course not. What had she been expecting? Viviana was a keen purveyor of self preservation and she wouldn’t want Peaches rage raining down on her head.

  After dropping Cosimo off at RDU, a terse wave and a muttered good riddance his only going away gift, Peaches had arrived home in a funk.

  Upon seeing Peaches face when she walked in the door, her father had simply stated: ‘She gone?’

  She had given him a long, protracted look, walked to the freezer and removed a Dove bar.

  Screw the damn Cabbage Diet.

  Chapter 26

  They must’ve used stock photos.

  It was the day after the Viviana and the Italian Actor at the Hooker Hotel Incident, activity that while extremely vexing, had still not managed to beat out the number one place holder: The Disappearing for a Week at Myrtle Beach With a Guy She Didn’t Know Incident, which had occurred on Viviana’s seventeenth birthday. Even years later, nothing was able to top that drama.

  Gazing upon the bar Lenny had frequented from the safety of her car, Peaches felt real hesitation about strolling into such a low-life establishment.

  That Place was literally a shitty hole in the wall; the photos on their website clearly from the imagination of a person far more creative than herself. Where was the glitzy crowd, bright lights and well-marked parking?

  Carefully navigating the asphalt parking lot, Peaches gingerly drove over a surface riddled with cracks and potholes large enough to easily sink a small Japanese import such as her own. Parking haphazardly next to an old pick up truck with faded paint and expired tags, she strengthened her resolve and got out, happy she had worn running shoes and not her usual heels.

  Stepping onto a sidewalk that was as crevassed as the parking lot, Peaches sidestepped sprouts of crab grass and dandelions, making her way to the front door. Pushing it open, she surveyed the lay of the land.

  There were no tables, just a long wood-topped bar crisscrossed with scars and presided over by a rather surly looking woman who could have been aged anywhere between forty-five and eighty-five.

  It was packed. Loud eighties music blaring from outdated, overhead speakers. Talk was animated. So animated, two men looked like they were on the verge of brawling. The surly bartender, sensitive to potential violence, took out a flat, mean plank of wood which had been attached to what looked like the handle of a baseball bat.