Excerpt from Wicked Obsessions
"You'll get your money. The gallery just sold another one of the bitch's new paintings. Ya gotta give me more time," Rico Gambini pleaded into the telephone. "Wait. Just listen a minute." He paused as he was the one made to listen. "Okay, okay. Two weeks then. You'll see. I'll get the money out of her. One way or another."
The "bitch" halted abruptly outside the bedroom door as she heard her husband's voice. Teri Carmichael Gambini had been working in her studio over the garage when she spilled coffee on her blouse and decided to change. Closing her mind to the possibilities Rico's final words suggested, the petite brunette stealthily retreated. She knew from past experience that confronting him would only waste energy she couldn't afford to lose today. Their arguments, which had increased in number the past few months, always left her vibrating with anger and frustration, not exactly a state conducive to creativity.
Obviously, Rico was in trouble again—gambling trouble—and he expected to convince her to bail him out... again. At least now she understood what was behind his recent efforts to charm her. If she hadn't overheard him just now, it probably would have worked too. But it was all a lie... again.
The difference this time was that he'd used up his second and a third chance with her. She was done bailing him out. She was done walking on eggshells around his hot temper. She was finally done with him. All that was left was the paperwork.
She paused outside the detached garage of their White Plains home. Selena, the sole model for her current project, was already in the studio and Teri wanted to compose herself before going up there.
She felt a soft pressure against her calf and glanced down. "Well, hello there." Kneeling, she stroked the unfamiliar cat's gray and black fur and frowned when her fingers detected rib bones too close to the surface. "Poor baby. You've been wandering a long time, haven't you?" The stray looked directly into her eyes, cocked its head and let out a loud meow. "You're lucky summer came early this year. I suppose the others told you where you could find a free meal."
The response was a shy purr that made her smile. "Well, you seem polite enough, but we have rules here. No digging in the garden and stay away from the bird feeders in the backyard. If I find out you're bothering my birds, you won't be welcome back for breakfast. Got it?"
With a graceful arch of its back, the cat nuzzled Teri's palm once more, then took off around the side of the garage where cat food was always set out. Because of Rico's allergies, she couldn't have animals in the house, but there were plenty outside that had grown accustomed to her attention.
Substitute children. For the thousandth time she wondered if it would have made a difference if she and Rico had been able to have a baby. Her inability to conceive was only one of the thorns that had pricked his male ego, but it was a sizable one. Regardless of the fact that the doctors she went to gave her a clean bill of health, Rico blamed her. He refused to be tested since he had no doubts about his manhood. And he wouldn't consider adoption as an alternative. And now, at thirty-seven, her options were drifting away.
With an audible sigh, she turned her thoughts to the young woman waiting upstairs, another lonely stray. Teri had chosen her six months back based on an agency comp card and was thrilled when she met her in person. Five foot eleven, with a voluptuous body and straight, waist-length, platinum hair, Selena's skin was the most flawless and palest she'd ever seen. The only characteristic that kept her from looking like an albino were her catlike green-blue eyes, but even that touch of color was strangely translucent. Overall she had a haunted, mysterious look that Teri had taken advantage of in her last project.
She had used Selena as a ghostly apparition in the background of each of her ten Women in History paintings currently being exhibited by the Forsythe Gallery in Manhattan. Her new project was even more daring as she intended to use pieces of Selena disguised in various everyday settings. Her plan was to combine photography and oils but so far she hadn't managed to get the idea out of her head and properly onto canvas in a satisfactory way.
Between the History series and the new idea, she and Selena had been spending a lot of time together. She was sweet and easy to work with, and they developed a comfortable, personal relationship, even though Teri was sixteen years older. Or perhaps the relationship blossomed because of that age difference.
As Teri expected, Selena's exotic features bore a worried look when she reentered the studio. She didn't care for being left alone.
"I thought you were changing. What happened?"
Teri grimaced at the dried beige stain on her white shirt, then fussed with the short ponytail at the base of her neck. "Oh, yes. I, uh, got distracted and forgot all about it."
"That's not like you. Rico's home today, isn't he? What did he do, pick another fight?"
Selena's breathy voice was gentle, but the way she straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin made her look as though she was prepared to knock a few teeth out of the man if asked. Teri shook her head and changed the subject. "It wasn't important. Anyway, I wanted to tell you about something I'm going to try. I have a photographer coming to take some pictures of you."
"A photographer? I don't understand. You've been taking lots of pictures for weeks. I thought it was only supposed to be the two of us."
Selena's whispery voice had altered to a girlish whine, a sure sign the change of plans did not sit well with her. Her whine was the only thing about Selena that was truly annoying to Teri.
"You're right. That was the plan. But photography isn't my forte and I just haven't been able to get the look I was going for. This man is new, but he was highly recommended by Ann, the manager at the Forsythe Gallery."
Selena made a little pout. "Male photographers make me uncomfortable. They all have this kinky idea that female models should think of the camera as a sex organ. If you really need to bring someone in, can't you find a female?"
Teri knew Selena wouldn't be happy about the new arrangement. It was why she hadn't told her about the photographer in advance. Selena's agent had told her that when the girl first arrived in New York City a year ago, her exceptional looks had caused a flurry of excitement at the agencies. Unfortunately, although she had moved to the big city to seek a career in modeling, she was intimidated by the hustle and demands of the business. She had also had several incidents while working with some of the men.
Once she modeled for Teri a few times, she stopped accepting assignments elsewhere. Apparently, money wasn't an issue, because Teri only needed her a few hours a week and only paid scale. Yet Selena was renting an expensive apartment in Manhattan, as well as garage space for her Cadillac, which she insisted on keeping for the drive back and forth to White Plains.
Teri stepped closer and placed her hand on Selena's shoulder. "Look, I promise to keep your feelings in mind, but try to understand my side of it. I really want to do this new series with you. And to do it right, I think I need someone else to do the photographic part. But I promise, if he makes one wrong move around you, I'll fire him and look for a female."
Selena brightened immediately, but before she could say anything, there was a knock at the door.
Teri quickly opened the door but it took her a moment to get over the surprise of the man standing there. From a black cowboy hat to worn, gray snakeskin boots, he had the western look down pat. The thing was, it didn't look like a look. On him, it looked... sexy as hell. Noting the expensive camera around his neck and the leather photographer's case slung over his shoulder, Teri ended her nearly rude appraisal. "You must be Drew Marshall."
He touched the brim of his hat. "Ma'am."
"I'm Teri Carmichael. Come in, please." As soon as she introduced him to Selena, she noted the unsmiling glance Selena spared the photographer and prayed that she would not choose this session to start being uncooperative.
To Drew she said, "I understand you've never done this type of photo shoot before, so I hope you won't object to a few suggestions."
He smiled, a genuinely nice smile that revealed straight white teeth. "Not at all, ma'am. In fact, I was countin' on it."
His voice had a deep pitch and hint of a drawl that suggested his home state flag had a lone star on it. As Teri began explaining her concept and what she wanted him to do, he removed his hat and ran his fingers through his thick hair. The streaks of salt in the ground pepper color and the creases at the corners of his brown eyes gave evidence of a man who'd seen his fortieth birthday or had a rough time of what years he did have behind him.
A few of the male models Teri worked with, had such perfect features, they could be described as beautiful. They were always careful not to smile too broadly for fear of creating a wrinkle in their boyish complexions.
She found herself appraising Drew again as he walked around the room, checking the lighting from different angles. As attractive as she found him, he would never make it as a model—his features were a bit too harsh for the camera. But he had an interesting face, one she'd like to paint... or get to know. As if he sensed her thoughts, he glanced over at her and grinned.
"I've got to tell you, Miz Carmichael, I was fascinated with your exhibition."
Teri raised her eyebrows and ignored Selena's little snort. "Please call me Teri. You went by the gallery?"
His grin slanted a bit. "I thought it might help if I had an idea of your style. The article in New York Weekly called you one of the most talented artists of the century."
"She's also an excellent photographer," Selena added proudly, "Which is why she's never bothered to use outsiders before."
Drew appeared not to have noticed the contempt in Selena's voice and simply told Teri, "As I said before, I welcome any advice you might have. Ann told me you could teach me a few things."
"You must be better acquainted with her than she let on."
He gave a small shrug. "We're cousins. She also told me to be on my best behavior because you were a very nice lady."
Teri laughed and was very tempted to keep up the light banter. It felt so good to relax for a moment, but there was something about the way he was looking at her that set off a distant alarm in her mind. Instead of responding, she turned toward Selena. "I don't want you to pose. Just relax, sit, stand, walk around, examine things. Drew, since I'm not entirely sure what I'm looking for until I see it, how about if you just snap anything your eye finds interesting today?"
Teri rolled her padded stool to a corner and sat down to watch the two of them. Ann had been right. Drew did impress her. He might not have done this sort of thing before, but his experience with a camera showed.
Selena had dressed as Teri requested—with minimal coverage. She didn't want clothing in any of the shots and, although she knew Selena had no problem walking around nude for her, she didn't think that was best for this first shoot with a male photographer. So she was wearing extremely small shorts and a fitted tank top that didn't quite reach her navel. Since they were both a pale shade of pink, she practically looked naked anyway.
She hadn't needed to be concerned about how the photographer would react to such a stunning and sexy beauty. The only time Drew looked at her was through his camera.
Every so often Teri thought she saw Selena flash him a dirty look, but she figured Selena would come around if he continued to be a gentleman and she encouraged her to give the man a break. No sooner did that thought occur than Drew upset the calm.
"Freeze," he ordered Selena abruptly. She was professional enough to obey. "I apologize, but right there, with the light coming through that window... Do you see it, Miz, uh, Teri?"
Teri stared at Selena but saw nothing unusual. "See what?"
"C'mere. Quick." Without removing the camera strap from his neck, he held it away from his chest for Teri to look into.
One moment she was concentrating on finding what he saw, and the next she was aware only of the man next to her. His hand rested lightly on her lower back and, as his head dipped to align his sight with hers, warm breath caressed her cheek. Swallowing hard, she forced herself not to jump away. It had been so long since any man, including Rico, had lit a spark within her. It had been even longer since a man looked at her the way Drew had when he was complimenting her work earlier. Curious. Interested. Attracted.
And she had checked him out without realizing that was what she was doing. Good Lord. Another man was the last thing she needed. Allowing mindless hormones to screw up her life once was more than enough. She was thinking this would have to be a one-time hire when she saw what he had wanted to show her.
Teri stepped away as smoothly as she could. "It looked like a laser beam was coming out of her eye. That was an incredible catch."
His smile showed how much he appreciated her praise. "You could probably do something similar with computer graphics but—"
"Not me. The computer and I are not friends. I'm very old-fashioned about my art."
His smile went a little crooked as he met her gaze in a more personal way. "Aah, an old-fashioned girl, just—"
"Ahem," Selena cut in loudly. "Can I move yet?"
"Oh, of course," Drew said quickly. "Sorry."
Teri returned to her post as they got back to the shoot. She felt anxious, in a teenage girl twittery sort of way. Her thoughts went back to replacing Drew after today, but if what she just saw in his camera's eye was a sample of the shots he was getting, she wouldn't find someone better. Surely there would be no harm in doing one more session together. In the meantime, she would be certain to mention her marital status and take care not to stare at him too openly.
At the end of the session, Teri maintained an aloof, professional manner as they made an appointment for him to bring prints for her to see on Wednesday. As soon as he left, Teri decided to have a talk with Selena right away. "Now, was that so bad?"
Selena shrugged. "No, I guess not, but probably because you were here."
"I really don't think he's the type that would suggest you have sex with his camera." Teri smiled, but it was obvious Selena wasn't convinced. "Look, he's definitely got talent. I think he's going to get the pictures I need to move forward with the new project."
Selena exhaled heavily. "Fine. Did you like him?"
Teri felt her cheeks warm and turned away under the pretext of getting two cups from the cupboard. "I liked the way he worked. How about a cup of tea?"
"Sure. He liked you. I could tell. And I don't mean professionally. I wasn't so sure about you."
Teri would have let it go if she hadn't caught the hint of a whine. Selena seemed to be asking for another kind of reassurance... but about what?
She was aware of a childlike dependency Selena occasionally demonstrated toward her, and she understood the cause. At twenty-one, Selena had already suffered the death of her father, her stepfather and her mother. Teri's parents had also passed away, but she was much older than Selena had been when she lost them. Under the circumstances, she had no objection to being Selena's surrogate mother figure.
Teri carried the two cups to the small dinette set and motioned for Selena to sit down with her. "If you're asking if I found him attractive, I did, but not to the point I would do anything about it. Believe me, I've got my hands full with Rico."
That was all Selena needed to hear to shift her concern away from Drew Marshall. "I knew something happened before. Tell me. Talking it out might help."
Sighing deeply, Teri let her shoulders sag a bit. Maybe Selena was right. As young as Selena acted some of the time, she could also be very level-headed and she was discreet. A few of her and Rico's arguments had been within Selena's hearing, and no one else ever found out about them. "Rico and I have had our problems in the past, but I kept hoping... Anyway I can't take any more."
"I thought you said he was being all romantic and thoughtful?"
"An act. All of it's been an act. I have been such a fool. Over and over." She felt tears well up and fought them back. "Ah, damn. It probably would do me some good to talk about it. And as long as you're willing to listen, I may as well get it out of my system."
Teri had been keeping her problems to herself for so long, it took her a moment to decide where to start. "About a year ago, I asked Rico for a deposit slip for our joint savings account and his reaction was so defensive I just knew something was wrong. I tried checking the account on line—you know I avoid the computer if at all possible—but I couldn't access it. My password was invalid.
"Rather than ask him about it, I went by the bank and had them reset my password for me. While I was there, I asked for a current statement. I was positive they'd made a mistake when it showed a balance almost thirty thousand dollars less than I thought we had."
Teri's lashes lowered with remembered embarrassment. "I had them print out a copy of all the transactions for the previous two years. It was unbelievable. Money had been going in and out of that account as if it were an active business. Unfortunately, the balance column showed that whatever the business was, it was a losing one.
"All that time I would give Rico a check and he would take care of depositing it because it was on his route. He always brought me back a deposit slip. I just didn't know about the withdrawals he made in between. He always said he liked taking care of the family bookkeeping and I was glad not to have to deal with it. Stupid, I know." She paused to take a sip of tea in an attempt to ward off the sudden chill she felt.
"When I questioned Rico, he confessed—a real heart-wrenching, Academy Award confession. As he put it, my success made him feel unmanly. Since I wouldn't quit, he wanted to bring more money into the house. He thought gambling was the answer. He never meant to let it get out of control, but he kept thinking he could make it all back on the next race or the next number or whatever. He promised he was done with it as soon as he paid off the last losses."
Selena leaned forward and covered Teri's hand. "I've heard gambling can be as bad of an addiction as drugs and alcohol. There's even a Gamblers' Anonymous."
"Yes I know, but the addict has to want to help himself. I thought I was helping by putting my earnings in a separate account he couldn't access."
"What did he do when he found out?"
Teri sighed. "He went berserk. Mind you, he never laid a hand on me, but he smashed every piece of our good china before he calmed down. Afterward he was all apologies and promises again. That lasted about a month. Then he didn't deposit his check into our house account on payday."
"So you had it out again."
"You got it," Teri confirmed, making a disgusted face. "That time he threw a lamp through a window. He promised to get help, if I would just bail him out once more to the tune of twenty-five hundred dollars. I gave it to him, but with the warning that it was the last time. I thought he was doing okay, until three weeks ago." She shook her head still having trouble believing how easily he had fooled her. "I found out he had stolen a check from my business account and forged my signature."
Selena's mouth dropped open. "This sounds more like a nightmare than a marriage. Can't you have him arrested for that?"
"I don't know. After everything he's put me through, I don't love him anymore, but I don't have it in me to put him behind bars for something he obviously can't help. That night I asked for a divorce. He pulled out all the stops. The macho-man cried like a baby. He reminded me that our religion prohibited divorce, not that we've been especially devout Catholics all these years. He swore he loved me too much to ever let me go, and starting from that minute, he was going to prove it by being the best husband a wife ever had. But first, he needed a little financial assistance." Recalling how shocked she had been at his incredible nerve, she rolled her eyes and gave a dry laugh.
"I agreed to give our marriage one last chance but I refused to give him any more money. He told me he had gotten in over his head with some very nasty people. I saw real fear in his eyes, but I still said no. I was through bailing him out.
"I really never expected him to live up to his promise. But he's been attending GA meetings for the last three weeks and basically, he's been an angel. We were almost like newlyweds again." She took another sip of tea, and Selena waited patiently for her to continue.
"I overheard him on the phone when I went back to the house earlier. He still owes somebody money—maybe the same nasties he told me about. It's all been an act to get me to pay off his debt. The worst part is, I finally realized the reason he doesn't want me to file for divorce has nothing to do with our religion or love. It's all about my money."
"Do you have a big life insurance policy?"
Teri looked at Selena in surprise. "What an awful thing to..." She stopped and recalled Rico's words over the telephone—I'll get the money out of her. One way or another. She shook her head slowly, thinking of Rico's explosive temper and the handgun he insisted on keeping in the nightstand drawer for protection.
"We both have life insurance policies. Of course his is just a small one through the post office, enough for funeral arrangements. Mine is for a hundred thousand... enough to cover the mortgage... unless I die in an accident. Then it's a million."
Selena whistled. "That's a very tempting reason to push you down a flight of stairs."
Teri's eyes widened. "No. He wouldn't do anything like that. He's a gambler and a liar, even a thief, but I don't believe he'd hurt me physically."
Selena shrugged. "I hope you're right. Keep your guard up, just in case. If he gets desperate enough, he's liable to graduate from breaking things to breaking bones. Don't look so skeptical—I know what I'm talking about. I've read a lot of true crime stories. And remember, if it looks like he's about to change tactics and try some rough stuff, you can always hang out at my apartment in town."
Teri forced herself to smile. "Thanks, hon, but I really don't think that'll be necessary. To be on the safe side, though, I'm not even going to confront him. Instead, I'm going to play along until I talk to an attorney. At least I should find out how hard it will be to get a divorce, knowing he'll contest it. Damn! I don't need this aggravation. How the hell am I supposed to be creative with this over my head?"
Another tear threatened to escape her eye, but she quickly swiped it away and smiled again when she saw how disturbed Selena was. "I'm sorry. It was really crappy of me to dump all this on you."
"Don't say that. What kind of friend would I be if you couldn't unload your problems on me?"
"I've only got one problem I'd like to unload. But he doesn't seem to be agreeable. You know what would be wonderful? If he met some hot-to-trot bimbette that got him so worked up, he decided to leave me on his own."
"Is there any chance he's fooling around? You could hire a detective to follow him."
"I wouldn't be surprised if he's cheated on me along with everything else. But since he's been on this good behavior kick, I can account for every hour of his day. I even went with him to his GA meeting one night. Of course, I suppose he could always fit in a quickie along his delivery route if he really wanted to." She meant it as a joke but Selena didn't laugh.
Selena got up and walked back and forth a few times. "I've been told I have a very analytical mind. There must be some way..." She paced a little more, then abruptly returned to her seat. Her eyes sparkled with excitement. "I've got it. I'll set Rico up. The way he slobbers over himself every time he sees me, seducing him should be a cinch. Once I've got him hooked, you'll hire a detective to take some incriminating pictures and, voilà, grounds for a divorce."
Teri let out a squeal. "You're too much. I think sacrificing yourself to my husband might be a bit beyond your job description." Picturing Rico and Selena together made her chuckle. Not only were they extreme opposites in coloring, Selena was about four inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than Rico, but Teri had seen his reaction to her, and slobbering pretty much covered it. When Teri vocalized her thoughts, Selena caught a case of the giggles. They were soon exchanging ideas about what Rico would do with so much woman after twelve years of sex with a pixie.
Selena amended her suggestion. "I was only thinking of leading him on, but you might have the key to a permanent solution. Sex with me would probably kill him, and then you wouldn't have to worry about how to get a divorce."
"But I'm not sure he deserves such a great goodbye gift!" A tear squeezed out of Teri's eye, but this one was from laughing so hard. "If I thought for one minute you could get Rico out of my life permanently by having sex with him, I'd not only give you my blessing, I'd double your next dozen paychecks!"
Selena arched her brows and pursed her lips. "Well now that you said that, I guess I'm going to have to get to work on it."