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Peaches and the Gambler 4


  Studying Nina’s profile, it was quite clear to Peaches that she was lying. Tears, stress, erratic driving. Only one thing caused this level of anxiety: boys.

  Her heart palpitated. God—hopefully not a pregnancy. One of her girlfriends from New Jersey was the very reluctant grandmother of a brand new baby boy. Her daughter was also fifteen. Peaches shivered at the thought. There was no getting any of information out of her at the moment. She could only wait and hope she either chose to talk or that it wasn’t quite as serious as any of the aforementioned problems.

  So she did what most parents did in similar situations: let the matter drop.

  **

  Nina, lying in bed later on that evening, was far from okay. She was stressed.

  If she didn’t know better she would think Monte was avoiding her. She hadn’t seen him in class and he hadn’t hit her up on Facebook. But maybe she was jumping to conclusions. He was a senior and seniors had a lot of stuff to do before the big day.

  Breaking one of her own cardinal rules when dating a new guy, she sent him a second message before he had answered the first.

  ‘I missed you today. Hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow…’

  **

  Trying to relax in a hot bubble bath later that evening, Peaches thoughts sourly turned to her younger sister, sure that where ever she was; life was all diamonds and pearls.

  Chapter 5

  Rome, Italy

  Viviana Donnelly was furious.

  “What do you mean you’re not going to fucking leave your wife?” she shrilled in angry Italian at the man standing—no, cowering—against the wall in the far corner of her dressing room.

  Ignoring the large, expensive bouquet of calla lilies and orange roses he had just given her, she halted, powder brush mid-way to her cheek, turning to glare at the man behind her. How dare he come into her dressing room with this news right before she was to perform.

  Times like this, Jersey City, blue collar roots she worked hard to conceal, really made a spectacular appearance.

  “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to leave her,” Augostino Conti said, warily eyeing the quivering woman seated before her dressing mirror. “I said that now was not the right time.” Particularly with fragile business negotiations taking place with his company.

  ContiCom was forming a powerful merger with another telecommunications corporation. The last thing they needed was the uncertainty of the majority owner and CEO leaving his wife of thirty years for a young, beautiful opera singer from America. It would send stock prices plunging straight into the sewer.

  Even though Italians were notoriously liberal on the subject of infidelity and it was fairly well-known that he was involved with Viviana, it wouldn’t be taken well if he were to actually leave his wife. So though the hugely popular opera singer kept Italian wives happily flapping their gums while performing their housework, he would need to hold off on any permanent changes in his marital status for a good while longer.

  “When will it be the right time, Augostino?” Viviana demanded, fighting to keep both her temper and accent under control. “You’ve been making promises for too long.”

  She gazed sullenly at the good-looking, middle-aged man she had fallen for on their first date more than a dozen years before. Thick, black hair fell over a prominent forehead and sharp, black eyes appraised her with caution. He had been charming. Sleeping with him addictive. Now here they were, at an impasse.

  He didn’t answer her right away. Instead, he smiled, privately amused at Viviana’s struggle to control her accent. She had no idea that Augostino knew everything about her background. From her glamorous absentee mother, to her decidedly unsophisticated upbringing in working class neighborhoods in both Jersey City, New Jersey and Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, to her acceptance at a prestigious school of the performing arts in New York. He performed discreet background checks on anyone he was involved with. When you were the wealthy owner of a lucrative corporation, you could not be too careful.

  Viviana, taking his smile to be one of condescension, exploded. With a tiny scream, she lifted the heavy vase of flowers with both hands, throwing it with all her might. Augostino ducked, moving to the side just in time. A shower of glass, water and flowers rained to the floor. His trouser leg got soaked.

  “E tutto ok?”

  The dressing room door was gingerly opened by Augostino’s bodyguard, Bruno. A large, formidable looking Sardinian with dark olive skin, smallish eyes and a crew-cut, he was accustomed to Viviana’s fits of rages.

  He took note of his employer’s wet trouser leg and the mess of flowers and glass on the floor, then quickly darted a glance at Viviana’s magnificent heaving bosom, full parted lips and flushed face. ‘Another lovers quarrel. Why does she always go for the flowers? Don’t know how he does it. These artist types are beautiful. But too high maintenance. I’ll take a hooker any day. Least that way they know their place.’

  About to close the door, Bruno was stopped by his employer’s brusque: “Don’t. I was just about to leave.”

  “Good.” Viviana abruptly returned to dusting her face with powder. “I have a show to get ready for.”

  “I have to leave town for a few weeks on business.” Pausing, he looked at her reflection in the mirror. A lovely light-skinned woman with flashing eyes and creamy, lightly freckled shoulders moodily gazed back at him. “I’ll see you when I return.”

  Gingerly stepping over shards of glass and strewn flower petals, he quietly made his exit.

  Viviana, infuriated, tossed her powder brush to the dressing table with aggravated abandon, staring unseeingly at her reflection in the mirror.

  Maybe, just maybe, Augostino wouldn’t have her when he got back.

  **

  Viviana had just gotten off the phone with her father.

  He had blathered on about some neighbor’s son she couldn’t remember being murdered in Durham. He was probably just some no-account who had it coming anyway. That’s why as soon as she’d had the opportunity; she had escaped to New York to study opera singing as a career.

  Black people in the states were so…limited. In the South most of them still lived like it was pre-desegregation. She’d had no intentions of getting saddled down with some good-for-nothing man who could barely pay his rent, let alone pay for her. Viviana was too good for late child support payments. Watching as many of her less fortunate girlfriends went down the same dead end, baby-daddy road, she climbed the very highest ladders of artistic success.

  As it stood, the funeral her father had requested she attend couldn’t have come at a better time. The show in which she had performed for a grueling twenty-five weeks had just ended. She was between contracts and at odds with her current lover. She could easily take Adriana and Paris out of school. The headmaster allowed her special privileges because of her celebrity status.

  Only one thing made her hesitate in her decision: Peaches.

  The two of them were like oil and water. Her older sister was forever stuck in surrogate mommy role. But Viviana had never needed, nor wanted a replacement mother. Fate had seen fit to remove her biological mother, so she figured that was the way it was supposed to be.

  Whatever. She would deal with Peaches when the time came.

  Decision made, she picked up the phone.

  “Edith,” she said, after dialing her travel agent in London. “Book three round trip tickets to North Carolina. No—make the return date open-ended. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”

  Chapter 6

  Daddy, why aren’t you ready yet? I called you four hours ago!” Peaches asked, exasperated. She impatiently tapped freshly manicured nails on the frame of the doorway leading into her father’s modest three bedroom bungalow.

  She had driven for an hour and a half on three hours of restless sleep to Roanoke Rapids. They were supposed to be at Booker Baptist Church for Lenny’s funeral in the next twenty minutes and here her father was still in his robe.

  Watery, early afternoo
n sunlight slanted into a neatly furnished living room with shining hardwoods. A fading floral patterned living room suite and a quartet of instruments including a saxophone, a trumpet, an acoustic and an electric guitar, were neatly arranged before an unused fireplace. Her father was a semi-retired musician. When the mood struck him, or the money was irresistible, he still occasionally played on the road.

  “Did you know a lot of that land around Gaston Lake was owned by black families before the Klan came in and stole it from under them?”

  “Daddy—I don’t care.”

  Mitch Donnelly often spouted historical facts. He had always been interested in history, but since he had mostly retired from road shows, he had become a fanatic. Right now he was on a North Carolina history kick.

  The eighth of twelve children that lived all over the continental United States, her father often said his attention to style in his old age had to do with his not being allowed to have any clothes while he was young. Poor, with a large family, her deceased grandparent’s hadn’t had the money to indulge their brood. Thus, even in his house clothes, the man looked sharp. His mostly black hair had a tight edge up, his face was baby smooth and for reasons that eluded her, he’d felt it was a good idea to wear a pair of dress shoes under his robe.

  Usually, she was interested in his stories. But today, she just wanted to go.

  “You need to care about your history, gal. And how you know I ain’t ready?” he asked, a mischievous grin dancing on his handsome, unlined face. Her father, at sixty-three, still had all his own teeth and used them to full, annoying advantage during moments like this.

  “Cause you’re not dressed,” she said, pointedly gazing at his striped robe.

  Sighing loudly, she stalked the rest of the way into the house, walking to the kitchen and opening the fridge. Spying a half-empty bottle of the Manischewitz kosher grape wine her father always kept an abundance of, she took a glass out of the overly full dishwasher, pouring a generous measure.

  “You need to put these dishes away,” she said, as her father followed her into the kitchen.

  “Those dishes are fine right where they are. Now--,” her father said, frowning as she sipped at her wine. “You more than welcome to put ‘em away for your old man.”

  “You’re not that old yet,” she said, taking another sip of wine.

  “Peaches,” her father said, frowning slightly. “You not only drivin’, you drivin’ me. You shouldn’t be doin’ no drinkin’. Specially not before a funeral. Ain’t respectable.”

  “We are in the South. The last I remembered drinking before a funereal is not only respectable it’s expected. So if we die,” Peaches said, taking a fortifying sip. “Know you pushed me to drink. And besides--,” she smiled, tapping the glass. “--this is nothing more than glorified grape juice. At least that’s what you always told me and Viviana.”

  “I ain’t never said that--,” her father sputtered.

  “Ya did. So--,” she said, smacking her lips and taking another defiant sip. She reveled in the mild warmth spreading through her limbs. “—I am drinking grape juice. And it’s damn good.”

  “What’s wrong with you?”

  “Nothing,” she growled.

  “Stick. It was Stick,” her father said, shrewdly. “Knew I shouldn’t have sent that fool over there. But he insisted. Said he tried to call you but your number had changed.”

  He had insisted on seeing her? That revelation sent a warm frisson coursing through her body that had nothing to do with the wine. She had thought about Stick off and on all night and didn’t want to think about him right now. Besides, going down that road was nothing but trouble.

  “My number has not changed.” She grimly set the cup down, half full. She supposed if she killed herself, she’d rather it be in a more spectacular way than an ignoble drunk driving accident. “Can you go on and finish getting ready? At the rate we’re going we’ll be lucky to get there at all.”

  “You won’t have to wait ‘cause,” He whipped off his robe with a dramatic flourish, revealing his favorite pin-striped suit. “I am already dressed.”

  “Why you always playin’, daddy?” she asked, fighting to keep a smile off her face.

  “Because I was put on this earth to put a little more sunshine in your life.”

  He guffawed, kissed Peaches cheek and strutted out the door.

  **

  “Ooowee! I do love a funeral!” Her father was gazing unashamedly at the firm rear ends and resplendent dress of a pair of women at least twenty years younger than himself.

  “Daddy, you oughta be ashamed of yourself,” Peaches chided as she pulled into a parking space between a late model Caddy and a late model Camry.

  “What? This is one of the few opportunities for a man my age to meet decent, God-fearing women who still like to get down and dirty.”

  “Daddy, behave yourself. Besides--,” she said, eyeing the two ladies as they drew up behind them. “Those women look like they might kill you, old man.”

  “Even better!” he cackled.

  Throwing him a dirty look, they continued on towards the small brick building that was Booker Baptist Church, joining small throngs of people walking to the entrance.

  When they entered the church, it was Peaches opinion that the atmosphere was far too jovial for a funereal. Folk were laughing and greeting one another with small squeals of delight. Felt more like a family reunion.

  “Are you with the family?” a small, prune-faced usher asked, appearing by her father’s side.

  “Yes.”

  “Come with me then,” the usher, ordered. She hurriedly seated them in the pews reserved for family and friends, fussily moving on to the people behind them.

  “It’s been so long, Peaches!”

  Peaches was enveloped in a soft perfumed hug, the large bosom of Lenny’s mother, Penny Alston, pressed against her own as she stood up.

  “Lenny was a sweet man,” Peaches said, awkwardly. What else do you say about a person you haven’t seen in years?

  “Thank you, Peaches. I appreciate that. How you doin Mitch? Enjoying the view?” she asked, smiling at Peaches father.

  “Doin’ good, Penny. You alright?” Peaches father asked, guiltily tearing his eyes from the overly exposed bosom of the woman seated in front of him.

  “I’m hanging in there.”

  “You know you can call if you ever need anything?” her father said.

  “I know and thank you.”

  Ms. Penny, as Peaches called her, still looked the same. Same round smiling face, wide body and ample hips. She had a few more creases around her eyes, and her expression seemed haunted. But she supposed that was to be expected when you were attending the funereal of your only child.

  “I don’t know how this could’ve happened to my baby,” Ms. Penny choked, turning back to Peaches. “I know he made some bad choices. But don’t nobody deserve to die like this.”

  “I’m so sorry, Ms. Penny,” she said, softly, her own eyes watering up. “I am so—

  Peaches final ‘sorry’ was disrupted by the bustling arrival of a very tall woman. Dressed in a loud shade of purple that matched the lilac and white colored weave drifting down massive shoulders, her carriage and disposition were plain old nasty. Purple rhinestones set in silver and white polish, sparkled with the brilliance of a thousand suns as she flung a strand of hair over her shoulder.

  Her small eyes were at the moment, focused unpleasantly on Peaches. She was flanked by two very fat children, whom, weather deliberately or not, were dressed in the same shade of purple as, Peaches assumed, their mother. Either that or they were her private security.

  “Penny—what’s takin’ you so long?” the vision demanded. Her voice was all smoke and liquor. “Got some family I wanna introduce you to.”

  “Peaches--,” Ms. Penny said, her eyes growing cool. “This is my daughter-in-law Cynthia and her two children Jay-Jay and Lionel. Cynthia, this is Peaches, a childhood friend of Lenny’s.”
r />  Lenny had been married to this woman? He really had taken a long, hard fall to the bottom of the barrel.

  “Hey,” Cynthia opened then closed her palm in a type of greeting, raking hard eyes up and down Peaches figure and giving a little ‘humph!’ before turning back to Ms. Penny. The two children stood by menacingly, saying nothing.

  “So, my Uncle Corn and my Aunt Sugar wanna meet you,” she said, ignoring Peaches.

  “Well, I’m talking to Peaches right now. Can’t it wait?”

  “No,” she replied, flatly “They told me they gotta get back home right after they eat.”

  She firmly took hold of the much shorter woman’s arm. For a moment Ms. Penny looked defiant. Then her face cleared and she allowed the horrible Cynthia to have her way.

  “I’ll see you at the reception after the funeral?” Ms. Penny asked.

  “I’ll be there.”

  Cynthia gave her a final nasty look, then marched Ms. Penny off, her two minions/offspring following in her wake.

  “Can you believe that?” Peaches breathed at her father, outraged.

  “Penny gotta stiffen that backbone. Can’t let your daughter-in-law manhandle you. Just ain’t right.”

  “Crazy is what it is.”

  She watched as the woman, strident and arrogant, bossed Ms. Penny around the church, bouncing her from family member to family member. Where ever the woman’s family came from, they dressed horribly. One man was wearing a suit that looked like a checkered NASCAR flag.

  “Oh, I meant to tell you. Spoke to your sister a few days ago,” her father said, casually. He opened one of the mints he always carried, popping it in his mouth.

  “Is that right?” Peaches said, suspiciously.

  “She said she’d be here today.”

  “What?”

  “I asked her to come to the funereal. I figured it would be a good time for you girls to mend fences.”

  “I don’t need to mend fences. She needs to mend fences,” she grumbled, stubbornly. “She’s selfish and immature and I’m tired of her always taking advantage of us.”