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Peaches and the Gambler 3


  “Fine. She’s tenured now. About to get married, too. Some rich German guy. He worships her. Almost makes me believe in love. Almost.”

  “Maybe one day.”

  “Maybe. How’s Vernon?”

  “Screw him.”

  “Damn.” She didn’t bother asking any questions. She knew the details. “What else have you been up to, Peaches?”

  She filled her in on the juicy details of her current unemployment. Besides that, there really wasn’t much happening in her life.

  “Wow.”

  “I know.”

  They stopped in the feminine products aisle. A guy appeared, sort of good-looking in a preppy, college boy kind of way. He incongruously picked up a box of tampons, pretending to read the back of the box, all the while throwing furtive glances in Charm’s direction.

  They moved. He moved.

  He trailed them to the speedy check-out where Charm coolly turned on him.

  “Fuck off,” she said, calmly sticking a tab of mint chewing gum in her mouth.

  The poor guy threw one last chagrined look at Charm before scurrying off, the box of tampons he had distractedly carried to the register falling to the floor in his haste.

  Charm picked them up, tossing the package in with the rest of her things. “Perfect. My favorite brand and absorbency.”

  She watched with interest as Peaches placed the cabbage, green onions and water on the conveyor belt.

  “Lynn putting you on another diet?”

  “Lynn did not put me on a diet,” she testily denied. “I’m just trying something new and it calls for a lot of cabbage.”

  “Hmm.”

  They air-kissed, something Peaches only ever did with Charm, promising to get together some time over the next few weeks.

  As Charm swayed her way through the parking lot toward her lipstick red convertible, all the while accosted by hopeful men, Peaches wondered why her life couldn’t be a fraction as carefree and fabulous as hers.

  **

  Nina Monica Kelly Donnelly-Chalmette was officially a woman.

  Sliding into a darkened apartment at 9:30 that evening, she was relieved to see her mother had retired early.

  Nina leaned against the door, playing with the necklace Monte had given her and dreamily reliving the days events.

  From the arrival at Monte’s friend Ricky Johnson’s house, to hot kisses, to falling into each others arms and making love, it had all been so perfect. Well, all save the emergency text from Monte’s mother telling him to get home ASAP. But even that had been perfect. How many guy’s were as quick as he’d been to be by their mother’s side? None that she knew of.

  “How was work today?”

  Nina shrieked, abruptly returning to the present. Sly, grey eyes narrowed, was standing in the shadows by the window.

  “Why you sneaking around like that?”

  “Why are you sneaking around?”

  “What are you talking about?” Nina’s heartbeat quickened. The nosy brat was on to her!

  “I saw you leave with some guy, Ni-Ni.”

  “You better not dare tell--!” Nina started, menacingly advancing towards Sly.

  “I won’t tell a thing ‘cause you’re gonna do my chores starting tomorrow. Goodnight, Ni-Ni.”

  Nina stopped dead in her tracks, mouth tightly pursed, as Sly blithely strolled past with a tiny, know-it-all, Cheshire Cat smile.

  Chapter 4

  Someone was hammering at the door. Why wouldn’t everybody just leave her alone?

  After bumping into Charm in the grocery store, upon leaving the safety and security of her high-powered, positive presence, Peaches returned home, promptly falling right back into an emotional funk.

  Those three cabbages were still sitting, innocent and untouched, in her vegetable crisper.

  It was Monday. The girls were thankfully in school. Peaches was tired of their constantly disapproving looks and futile attempts to get her out of the apartment. Both Sly and Nina were in year-round schools. They would be going on a two week intercession break the following Friday. During which time Peaches and The Ex would make one of the much dreaded custody exchanges that went with divorce territory. She didn’t hate sharing custody so much as she hated The Ex.

  Their school break couldn’t have come at a better time. With the girl’s constant bickering shredding her nerves, she could really use a vacation from the heavy burden of child rearing.

  Nine whole days into her newly minted status as one of the many millions of unemployed across the country, she wanted to enjoy that status buried as deep under the blanket on her king-sized bed as possible.

  Peaches burrowed deeper beneath her comforter. The maddening hammering continued.

  Angry, Peaches popped up, head aching from too much sleep. She dragged herself out of bed, storming down the hall and stopping in front of the door.

  “Go away!” she hollered.

  “Can’t. Your daddy sent me,” a deep voice said on the other side.

  “Stick?”

  “The one and only.”

  “Shit. Now I gotta open up, don’t I?”

  “Yup.”

  An amused Chris ‘Stick’ Hawkins smiled at her from the other side of the door. Dimples, brown skin and taut muscle were all Peaches was aware of as he slid past. The delicious odor of some subtle cologne hung tantalizingly in his wake.

  He was fine as ever.

  She suddenly remembered she wasn’t wearing a bra and hadn’t showered in three days.

  “Daddy’s playin’ dirty,” she grumbled, self-consciously crossing her arms over her unharnessed breasts. Since she hadn’t been answering the phone, her father had sent in the heavy artillery.

  Her old college sweetheart regarded her with a glint in his eye. Her father knew she still had a sweet spot for Stick after all these years. They, at least for a time, had a thing.

  They met while they were in college in DC through a North Carolina Student Club meeting during her sophomore year. He was from Durham. She was sort of from Roanoke Rapids by way of New Jersey. They were inseparable.

  Then, in a fit of youthful impetuousness, she got angry with his refusal to settle down, foolishly ran off, got married, had a kid and got divorced less than three years later. Sly was the result of a post-marital slip-up with The Ex.

  Stick, alternatively, got rich, never got married, had no kids and had too many women. They, however, had remained friends. She somewhat tortured herself by living vicariously through all of his adventures.

  A treacherous part of her brain often jealously thought Stick and Charm would make a striking couple. Thank goodness neither was the other’s type.

  Plus…she still had a teensy-weensy thing for him.

  “How’d daddy know you were around?” Peaches asked.

  “You know me and your pops are buddies, Peaches.” He folded his body into a floral print recliner too small for his frame. “Plus, we talk on Facebook all the time.”

  “Since when does daddy have a Facebook?” she asked, surprised.

  “Says he’s been a member since sometime last year. You mean to tell me he hasn’t friended you?”

  “No, he hasn’t. I need to talk to that man,” she muttered. “When’d you get back into town?”

  “Few weeks ago. Mom was complaining about my absence. Said I was being a bad son and a ho to boot,” he said, chuckling. “So I came back.”

  “Oh? You bring that girl you were hugged up with in your photos?” she asked, lightly.

  He grinned a slow, infuriating grin and didn’t say a word.

  “Anyway,” she breathed. Peaches felt a sudden and unwelcome stab of horniness. He always had that effect on her and she hated it. “Did you get tired of Panama after being there for six months?”

  “Seven,” he corrected. “And definitely not. The weather’s great. People are friendly. The price of living is low. It’s beautiful and the women are very…accommodating.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  She ig
nored the light stirrings of jealousy his casual talk of other women always provoked.

  “When’s the last time you and your sister spoke?”

  “Viviana?” Peaches scowled.

  “You do only have the one sister, right?”

  “Thank God,” Peaches said, grimacing. “It’s been a while and hopefully it’ll be a while longer.”

  Her younger sister was an international opera star. Their break had occurred during Viviana’s scandalous involvement with an older, married Italian man. As was Viviana’s selfish way, she had decided that breezily dropping her two girls off with their dad with no prior warning was the call of the day in order to wrest the wealthy geriatric from his wife.

  Failing to break up her lover’s marriage, she’d furiously swept back into town three weeks later, plucked her resentful brood from their father’s house and left almost as soon as she’d arrived. The only clue to her presence was the empty bottles of expensive, imported water lolling about and the lingering fragrance of exotic perfume.

  This cavalier behavior had angered Peaches. The two had argued and they hadn’t spoken since.

  That was nine months ago.

  The expression on Peaches face halted any further questioning on the subject.

  “So, look--,” Stick said, suddenly all business. “Your dad sent me here because a friend of yours was murdered.”

  “What? Who?” she breathed. So that’s why her father had called again and again.

  “Guy named Lenny.”

  “Oh my God! Lenny? Lenny Richards?” she exclaimed. Stick shrugged, pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, then nodded his head. “Well, what the hell happened?”

  Momentarily forgetting about her bralessness, she dropped her arms, slowly sinking onto the sofa opposite him.

  She was in shock. This was unreal. In high school, Lenny had been like a brother to her. Now he was dead?

  At fourteen when her father had moved she and Viviana to Roanoke Rapids from New Jersey, Lenny had been the boy-next-door and her first real friend in town. Sweet, smart and awkward, he hadn’t had many friends of his own, mostly preferring the library to socializing or hanging out at football or basketball games.

  As two outsiders, the two of them had stuck like glue, instantly falling into the easy camaraderie of old friend’s. His mother Ms. Penny, a widow and at the time, an assistant manager at the local grocery store, had taken Peaches under her wing, giving her advice on everything from her first boyfriend, to the best college to attend after graduation. She had helped heal many of the scars left over from her own mother’s abandonment of she and Viviana when they were little girl’s.

  They were like family. If it hadn’t been for Lenny going to the military, she had no doubt they would have still been close. But his stint with the War in Iraq had left him a broken man. Barely recognizable when he returned, he had started hitting the bottle hard and they had eventually grown apart. But she was still close to his mother and her heart went out to the warm-hearted woman who had been so unselfish to Peaches over the years.

  “The news said he got shot in the head. Sounds like he was into something serious.”

  “Lenny? No. Not Lenny. After the military he started drinking, but he always had a good heart.”

  “If you say so,” he said, eyebrow raised. “But I’ve come to the realization that you never know what someone’s into. Even people you think you know.” His gaze was intense.

  “Well--,” she said, looking away guiltily. It was a gentle reminder of their history.

  He was referring to her rash decision to run off and get married at the tender age of twenty-one. But that was all water under the bridge now. Albeit deep water, but water nonetheless. “I know I hadn’t seen Lenny in a while, but he wasn’t a thug. Where was he found?”

  “Behind the Old Durham Bulls Ballpark,” Stick said.

  “But a lot of people walk around that area!”

  “Yeah, but the police theorize it happened sometime in the early morning hours. You know it gets pretty vacant out there around that time,” Stick said.

  “I wish he had called,” she said, sadly, eyes filling with tears.

  But that wasn’t really true. She had known Lenny moved to Durham less than a year ago, but they hadn’t walked in the same circles. Knowing someone that had been like a brother to her had been murdered made her feel very guilty about not having made more of an effort. She had been so busy with her own life she hadn’t known how much trouble he was really in.

  As if reading her thoughts, Stick said, “Wasn’t a thing you could have done for him, Peaches.”

  “I know,” she said, wiping her tears away. “It’s just so screwed up.”

  “Ain’t it though?” He stood up, stretching. Muscles rippled subtly beneath his shirt. Peaches felt the lust monster rear its ugly head up again. “The funeral’s this coming Wednesday. Your daddy told me he’d kick my ass if I didn’t make sure you showed up.”

  “I’ll be there.” She stood up, following him to the door.

  “The girls are looking good by the way.”

  “I know. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” she asked, smiling and looking at the large family portrait she, Nina and Sly had taken a couple of months ago.

  “I was talking about those girls.”

  He allowed his gaze to travel lazily down her shirt, landing on the dark outline of hard nipples.

  Growing hot beneath his scrutiny, she jammed her arms firmly across her chest to prevent further visual exploration.

  He tilted his head back, laughing out loud.

  “I’ve seen it all before, girl.”

  “Umm-hmm. But not lately,” she said, tartly. She pointedly opened the door, pretending to be far more nonchalant than she actually was.

  Ignoring her, he went in for a hug.

  “No!” she said, alarmed. She held a palm up. Her fingertips came up against the results of daily pull-ups, push-ups and any other kind of up that made a man this hard. “I haven’t showered.”

  “Don’t act like you forgot that’s just how I like it.”

  He crushed her to his chest and she gave in with a weak little sigh. No man has any right feeling and smelling this good.

  She was well into a moisture inducing fantasy, when a door opened, a cackling voice saying: “Ya’ll need to stop with all of that!” And in the next moment: “Oh, I’m sorry,” the voice dripped saccharine. “I thought you were Vernon, her man.”

  Peaches eyes popped open and she scowled at her nosy next door neighbor, Mrs. Kendall. An emaciated looking widow in her late sixties, her catty comments kept many neighbors at bay. Peaches couldn’t stand her and she was pretty sure the dried up old hag had been stealing her Sunday paper. She innocently smiled at Peaches before slamming her door, dyed red curls bouncing.

  “You have a man?” Stick asked, lightly, eyes cool as they searched her face for a reply.

  “Not really,” Peaches said, reluctantly.

  “Not really, huh?”

  “Yeah, not really.” She defiantly crossed her arms. They didn’t owe one another any more information than either of them wanted to give.

  “Cool. It was good seeing you, Peaches. I’ll see you around.” He waved curtly, disappearing down the stairwell, back stiff.

  Well. I’ll see you, too!

  **

  “Slow down, Ni-Ni,” Peaches said. She gritted her teeth, helplessly bouncing up and down in the passenger seat when Nina ran full throttle over one of the many potholes liberally dotting the streets of downtown Durham. There goes the alignment and tire rotation she had recently paid for.

  “Mummy. I’m driving the speed limit. Calm down.”

  “Don’t tell me to calm down,” she retorted, irritably. “I’m looking at the speedometer and it says you’re going five miles an hour faster than you should be.”

  After seeing Stick, Peaches showered, straightened up the house, did something to her hair and made an appointment for the following day wit
h her nail technician. Her nails, since being fired, had fallen into a sad state of disrepair and it was long past the time when they should’ve been refreshed.

  She spent most of the day switching between watching court TV and reading a hot and heavy romance novel filled with stultifying amounts of gratuitous sex.

  After fetching Nina from school, she’d allowed her to take over the driving. She figured it was her motherly duty to ensure Nina got plenty of driving experience before the big licensing day looming up in just a few short weeks.

  She was regretting that decision now.

  “Don’t know what the problem is. Those signs are just a suggestion anyway,” Nina muttered under her breath.

  “What?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Don’t forget. I’m the person that stands between you and that license you want.”

  “How could I with you always reminding me?” she asked, heavy on the attitude.

  “Nina—don’t get on my nerves. I’m not in the mood,” she snapped. “And what’s that necklace you’re wearing? I’ve never seen it before. Looks like something a man would wear.”

  “No--,” she said a little too quickly. “I—I’ve had it for a while. This is just the first time I’ve worn it.”

  Peaches glared at Nina suspiciously, smelling a lie.

  After narrowly avoiding hitting a couple of geese and their brood, Nina, moments later swerved around a motorcyclist. Angry honking and rude gestures ensued.

  “Is everything okay, Ni-Ni? You sure you don’t have a little man hiding in school somewhere?”

  “I don’t have a boyfriend, mummy. Everything’s fine,” she said, shaking colorfully manicured nails in a ‘pooh-pooh’ gesture.

  She paid for the cavalier movement with the slight swerving of the car into the adjacent lane. The driver beside them honked a warning, then sped up, giving them a nasty look before leaving them in the wake of his billowing exhaust fumes.

  A gust of wind blew in from the open windows, blowing Nina’s braids away from her face. For a brief moment, Peaches thought she saw the glint of tears, before Nina quickly shook the curtain of braids back over her face.

  “You and Leslie getting along alright?”

  “We’re getting along fine, Mummy. Don’t worry, if I need some therapy I’ll watch Dr. Phil, okay?”

  Peaches sighed. Teenagers were so difficult to communicate with. It was nothing like books or magazines led you to believe. You raise your child with open dialogue, openly discuss sex and the need for safety in said arena and the minute they hit puberty, all bets were off. Their mouths snapped shut like clam shells and wouldn’t reopen until they got into trouble or were over the age of thirty.