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A Weekend of Misbehaving
Time to Misbehave
By Carmen Falcone, Karen Grove
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Carmen Falcone
All rights reserved.
Alice Sommers slammed the door of her red Ford Focus. Did her AC seriously have to break again, on the hottest Texas summer night? She locked the car, even though no one in this area would be interested in it or its contents.
Grabbing an elastic band from her pocket, she pulled her hair up in a high ponytail. Sucks to be me. She turned to cross the street to Lorenzo Baldi's exclusive building when she was thrown against her car.
An ache shot up her spine as her back slammed across the metal. She squinted at a tall bald man with a neck tattoo. "What the hell?" she managed past her parted lips.
"You can't ignore me anymore. I want my money, bitch," he said, and she recognized his raspy voice.
A bone-chilling cold spilled into her veins and stilled her blood. For a moment, she wasn't even sure her heart was beating. As the man clamped his slimy hands around her arm, her heart thumped with a vengeance.
She pushed past the fear lodged in her dry throat. Suddenly the speeding ticket she got earlier and sweating like a whore in church while she drove weren't the worst parts of her day anymore. The man whose hands kept her from moving, and whose body was too close to hers for comfort, was Buck — the loan shark she had avoided like the flu for the past three days.
She tried to disentangle herself from him. "Listen, I was going to call you ... I don't have the money right now, but I swear if we can come up with some sort of payment plan — "
"Payment plan?" He let out a hearty chuckle, then snorted. "There ain't none in this business. I'm giving you seven days to come up with the money."
Was he crazy? "That's impossible. How can I get fifteen thousand dollars in a week?"
"Hey, wait a minute. No. You told me my sister owed you — "
He tightened his grip, and she gasped. "Sweetheart, I usually give a lot less time. Since Rachel is a nut job, I'm cutting you some slack. But I'm in this for profit. So twenty it is."
"Oh yeah? What are you going to do if I'm a day late?" She injected some confidence in her voice, even though her palms were slick with cold sweat.
He let go of her arms. She took a deep breath and motioned to push him away, making complete use of her newfound freedom. The bastard, however, outmaneuvered her and pushed her against the car again. "I know where you and your fucked-up sister and niece live. I even know where your mother lives. Not to mention where you work."
A shiver zapped down her spine. "Leave them out of this."
"That's up to you, ain't it?" He loosened his grip, but the evil in his black eyes kept her locked in place. How could she move when her entire body was one big knot of trembling tension? Her blood thrummed in her veins. "If you tell anyone about this little warning, you're dead meat. If you don't bring me the money in one week, you're dead meat. If you don't answer your fucking cell phone when I call — "
"I'm prosciutto. Got it."
He narrowed his eyes. "Good." He stroked her cheek, and she jerked away from him. "Wouldn't want anything to happen to this pretty face."
She shot him a look of disgust, and he winked at her. Unfazed, he got in his car, which she realized was parked behind hers. A vintage white Cadillac. Did Buck moonlight as a pimp? Jeez.
She drew in a deep breath. Speculating about that creep's after-hours activities wasn't going to help her come up with a solution.
It took her longer than usual to move her wobbly legs and walk across the street once he was gone.
With trembling fingers, she grabbed her cell phone from her bag and called Georgia, who was vacationing in the Caribbean with her boyfriend Brent and their kids. She hadn't yet told her best friend about Rachel's latest stunt, quite aware Georgia would tell her off for being a pushover. Easy for her to say.
Shit, what could Alice do? With her mom, bipolar sister, and six-year-old niece Brenda, she didn't have much choice. Especially after she'd promised Dad, before he died in the hospital following a car accident, that she would watch over them. Why didn't he specify a time frame? The rest of her life seemed like a long freaking time.
"Hi, Alice!" Georgia answered after the third ring, her voice perkier than usual. "I'm so happy you called. I was just telling Brent and the girls I had to call you." She giggled.
Alice sucked in her breath. How long was it socially acceptable to listen to someone's happy vacation stories before venting about your miserable day and the threat against your life? Worse, against your family? She mouthed a greeting to the doorman as he opened the door to the imposing lobby. "Really?"
"Guess what?" Georgia squealed. "Brent proposed to me last night! We're getting married."
"Wow," Alice exclaimed, the genuine happiness for her friend wrestling against her need to share her craptastic day. Could she still tell Georgia about her speeding ticket, and how this crazy man threatened to kill her if she didn't come up with twenty thousand dollars? "That's amazing! Congratulations." She managed to sound cheerful and got into the elevator, pressing in the password for access to the lavish penthouse.
"Thank you. You know who's going to be my fabulous maid of honor, right?"
If I'm still alive. She clenched the phone in her hand, her knuckles whitening. "Listen, Georgia — "
"Nope. I won't take no for an answer. Today is the happiest day of my life, and don't you dare ruin it." Georgia chuckled.
At that point, Alice didn't need to glance at her reflection in the majestic mirror in the hallway leading to Lorenzo's penthouse to know she was super pale. There was no way she would ruin her BFF's happy day with her problems. She had to give her at least twenty-four hours, or wait a couple days for her to come back from vacation.
"I'll be happy to be your maid of honor, but I need seventy-five percent decision power when it comes to my dress," she said, the amateur stylist inside her screaming for some wiggle room.
"How about fifty-fifty?"
Happiest day of her life or not, Georgia was still a fierce negotiator. Alice bit back a smile — and never missed her friend like she did now. "Deal. Hey, can I call you back later? My phone is about to die." And so am I, she added inwardly.
"Sure. Call me when you get a chance. Love you. Bye."
Alice ended the call and was about to shove the cell in her pocket when it buzzed in her palm. She closed her eyes, took a long, deep breath, and opened them. A text.
I forgot to tell you. I was able to make an appointment for your sister with the new doctor. Love, Mom.
Seriously, why did her mother have to get a smartphone? Moments of complete peace of mind were so few and far between that going over to her boss's place to feed the bird while he and his daughter were out of town was her pathetic little getaway.
She strolled into the ginormous living area. Ms. Suarez, the housekeeper, had cleaned before leaving on a well-deserved one-month vacation in Mexico.
The scent of the leather furniture mixed with hardwood flooring teased her nostrils. Another fragrance swirled in the air, one that was as tantalizing as the man who wore it. A hint of nutmeg and mandarin, with a dash of cucumber.
Lorenzo Baldi. A thrill of excitement coursed through her, and she quivered as if someone had poked her with a feather. His trademark scent clung to the curved chairs scattered in the open living area. Artwork worth millions hung on the walls.
Alice slid her fingers along a glass lamp, the texture under her touch rich and rough. Just like the man who had bought it. Twelve months she had worked for him, and during that time she had fantasized about all the wicked ways she could bring a smile to his face. The thought alone sent a rumble through her body.
Forget it. She would never ever witness Mr. B's sexual skills. Why not? She went through the list in her brain, like she did every morning to keep her in her place. One: She was still recovering from a breakup. Did she really need to set herself up for failure again? Had she learned nothing from trying to turn her relationship with Joshua into something that it wasn't? Two: Losing this gig was not an option, not with the amazing family health insurance he provided, which guaranteed her sister's treatment for the most part. Three: He was Cara's dad, and she loved the little nine-year-old too much to mess with her head.
Besides, Lorenzo never gave her a lingering glance or engaged in any kind of suggestive behavior. Nope. Nada. He was all business.
She would be better off stalking James Franco on Instagram. Yep. James's posts were a lot more personable than Lorenzo's tight half smiles or curt nods.
Nibbles squeaked, and she spun around to face the large wrought-iron cage. "Hi, little fellow." He squeaked again, and she grabbed a handful of bird food pellets and threw them in his bowl. She headed to the outdoor area. A gentle breeze curled the tips of her hair. Her cell phone buzzed again. Another text from her mom.
He doesn't take insurance, but he's been highly recommended. Love, Mom.
Well, of course he doesn't.
Alice typed, then turned off her cell phone and tossed it on the lounge chair. The lights from downtown Austin, only a few miles away, skipped through the manicured bushes of the penthouse. The set of outdoor furniture still had tags on it. She eyed the kidney-shaped pool on the rooftop terrace, the water so still and lifeless it could have been a painting like those inside.
She removed her shoes and dropped them on the natural stone tiles. Her dress clung to her sweaty body. She would give anything to plunge into that pool and, just for a moment, forget about all her problems.
Why not? Mr. B was away on a business trip, and Cara was at a girl's leadership camp an hour away. No one would ever know.
Reaching for the zipper at her back, she swallowed. She'd been fantasizing about skinny-dipping in that pool for months. After the day she had, wasn't she entitled to an itty-bitty indulgence?
Yes. Hell to the yes. Giggling like a schoolgirl who had just ditched class, she let her worries roll down her back. Shaking her shoulders, she walked to the edge of the pool, entranced by the tranquility of her surroundings.
Sure, she had swum here with Cara a couple times, but watching over a nine-year-old was quite different than indulging in a nice, relaxing swim with no one around. She slipped one bare toe into the water, and the mild temperature prickled her skin. Tonight, this is my alcohol. My chocolate. My cigarette.
She unzipped her dress, and the jersey fabric slid down her body like it was luxurious silk. Chuckling, she removed her multicolored bra, tossing it on the stone floor. When her panties pooled at her feet, a smile formed on her lips. The cool evening air caused a goose-bump effect throughout her body. Her toes curled against the border of the pristine pool.
She glanced around.
The penthouse suite in the Austin skyscraper gave her an ironic sense of privacy. She had deactivated the alarm system, and the only artificial light glared from inside the pool, which was adorned with a selection of cool golden and orange tiles.
Embracing the serenity around her, she took the plunge. At least right now, nothing could go wrong.
Lorenzo Baldi gestured for Viola Campello to enter the elevator and followed suit. Viola. The woman who held the key to unlocking his deepest desire, the one he had craved forever.
The doors closed in front of them, and he bit back a smile. So. Close. "I'll make your time worthwhile, Ms. Campello."
The short woman's high heels tapped on the elevator floor, and she folded her arms. Even though the weather was rather warm, an oversize plaid trench coat snugged her petite frame. "I hope so. You are persistent, Lorenzo." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Persistence often annoys me, but I'm intrigued to see your art collection. I'm a sucker for nineteenth-century landscapes."
He'd guessed right that a glimpse at his collection would tickle her enough to detour her before she headed to the airport. She was a cold fish, this one, and he'd had to channel every ounce of charm to get her to agree. "I appreciate it. Will you have a drink while I tell you my plans for your husband's art collection?"
"Ex-husband." She straightened her spine and inhaled, and the little progress he thought he'd made vanished like powder against the wind. "And no alcohol for me."
"Of course." He cracked his knuckles. Don't screw this up. An invisible clock ticked inside him, his heart thumping with each passing second. "I'm surprised you are so attached to the paintings, what with the artist being fairly unknown."
"My ex-husband bought them from the man himself, and they bonded over weekends of debauchery back in the day. Carlo wanted to keep them very badly during the divorce negotiations." She cleared her throat. "So I fought for them, to teach him we can't have everything we want."
I can and I will. He'd heard Viola was going to give a lavish weekend-long party to celebrate the winnings of her divorce, and rumor had it she would also use the opportunity to find dealers to represent her in selling her ex's most beloved items. If he convinced her to sell him her paintings before the weekend, he would acquire the unseen early work of one of the most talented artists he'd ever known, Benicio Laron. Lorenzo's plan was to buy them and hide the artwork, instead of capitalizing on it. That way no one should find out Benicio's real name was Bernardo Baldi. His father.
There was too much at stake. As it stood, no one knew about Benicio's masterpieces. However, if Viola sold them or granted the commission of their paintings to anyone else, the world of fine arts would dig and discover the life of transgression his father led — including a trail of prostitutes, alcoholism, and riots against the Italian government. According to his lawyer, there were even rumors linking his late father to terrorism.
As a child, Lorenzo had been taken to meetings in destitute parts of town, having no idea what was being discussed. How would he maintain his place in society if people pegged him as the son of a terrorist? How could he protect Cara from the stigma that was associated with it? He couldn't risk it. If Viola, or anyone, discovered just how much that meant to him, his chances of acquiring the paintings were nil. Kristin, his late wife, had laughed at him countless times, saying no matter where he went, his shameful roots would always follow him. Only by purchasing the paintings would he prove her wrong once and for all.
"Make yourself at home," Lorenzo said as he opened the door for the sixty-year-old woman and motioned to the living room.
"You have kids?" She pointed at the picture of Cara, and at last he saw a genuine smile touch her lips. Phew.
"One. Cara is nine. She's at a camp now."
The parrot squeaked, and she strolled to the cage. She trailed the wrought-iron cage confining the bird, her fingers gliding over the metal. "It's a lovebird, isn't it?" Viola turned to him, her expression softening.
Was it? The only thing he knew was that Cara and her bubbly, chatty nanny had insisted he let them keep it, and he'd caved. "Nibbles." He stared at the subject of Viola's fascination.
She stretched her fingers into the large cage, and Nibbles flew to her, opening and closing his green wings, then shook his orange head.
If Lorenzo had known that a cheap bird was the path to her good graces, he'd have sent her the noisy thing months ago. First class.
"Would you like some tea or coffee?"
"Coffee. Do you mind if I look around?" She focused her attention on his art. A few oil canvases stretched over a sizable part of his living area wall, the strong yet subtle strokes of pastel colors portraying a remote landscape.
"Please do. I'll be right back."
Coffee. Coffee. He dashed for the kitchen and turned on the espresso machine. How lucky had he been to hear from his assistant that Viola Campello had popped up in Austin to close on a business deal? Lucky enough to hurry back from a business trip to New York City and torment her with emails until she agreed to meet him before taking off again.
A splashing sound got his attention. He pulled up the blinds.
Excerpted from A Weekend of Misbehaving by Carmen Falcone, Karen Grove. Copyright © 2016 Carmen Falcone. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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