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The graveyard was my sanctuary.
With nearly everyone I loved dead, it was the one place I felt at home. The only place I truly felt comfortable in my skin.
Today, I was visiting my friend Ethel Swanson’s grave. I made the trip across the Bay to the Berkeley cemetery every few weeks so I wouldn’t forget that she had died because of me. I had vowed—well, made a promise at her grave—that I would make sure she was never forgotten.
My favorite time to visit Ethel was at sunset, when the dipping sun made the Golden Gate bridge glow and turned the waves of the bay into sparkling silvery shimmers of light.
Yesterday, I’d driven to Monterey to put flowers on my family’s graves. Pink roses for my mother. Sunflowers for my father. Nothing for my brother. I often found others had left flowers on my parents’ plots. My brother’s grave remained barren. His was closer to the fence and set apart from the other family plots. The grass around it was less green, more overgrown with weeds, as if even the caretakers were wont to neglect his final resting place.
His murder was still unsolved. And I didn’t care.
The man who killed my parents had died at my hands. That was all that mattered.
After a cursory glance at Christopher’s grave, I’d crossed my legs and sat on the grass to talk to my mother and father about my life. It was pretty much the same script every month: I told them that I was a failure, that I had moments of clarity when I stopped drinking and doing drugs, and sleeping around, but that I was still a hot mess. I told them about Bobby and our long-distance relationship. About how he seemed wonderful and how that scared the hell out of me.
Of course, I never shared like that with Ethel.
Today, I stood at her gravestone and rearranged the red roses I had delivered there every week. Once upon a time, Ethel had confessed to me how she ended up on the streets. Her jerk husband used to beat her nearly to death and then in typical abuser-fashion would beg her forgiveness by offering red roses and empty promises.
The only thing that stopped his abuse was a knife to the heart one night when he was sleeping. Years later, when Ethel was released from prison, she couldn’t find work and turned to drinking. Soon, she ended up on the streets begging.
We’d become pals when I moved into the Tenderloin neighborhood and she camped outside my building.
And then, a few months ago, she’d ended up dead. Strangled with a playing card, the one-eyed jack, stuffed down her throat.
The Tenderloin newspaper ran a brief obituary.
ETHEL SWANSON had dreamed of being an actress ever since she was a little girl. She certainly had the personality and name for it. However, when she fell in love with the wrong man, her dreams were shattered, said friend Gia Santella. She never quite recovered from her abusive marriage and ended up on the streets of the Tenderloin where she was beloved by all. She died violently, but she will never be forgotten. She is buried underneath a flowering tree in the Oakland hills and has red roses delivered to her grave every week. “Because she mattered,” Santella said. Ethel Swanson was 70.
As the sun set and the stars rose above, I traced my fingers over Ethel’s gravestone.
“I’m sorry, Miss Ethel. I’m so goddamn sorry you’re there and I’m here. It’s all my fault. I wish I could make it up to you.”
The next morning, Dante side-eyed me as I stepped out of the elevator into the penthouse lobby of my father’s company. Instead of his usual brilliant white smile, Dante frowned.
“What?” I asked, scowling. I was in a bad mood. Getting up at the freaking crack of dawn—okay before noon—did not suit me. The fog hadn’t even lifted from my San Francisco neighborhood yet.
And meeting with stuffy board members was high on my list of things I never wanted to do in my lifetime.
But now that my father, brother, and godfather were dead, I’d been left in charge. For whatever reason, I was now the CEO. Something I had never wanted and still didn’t.
The penthouse lobby looked nothing like it had when my dad was alive. It now had plush red carpet and was scattered with black onyx pedestals holding oddly familiar-shaped obelisks nearly as big as me. Two walls were covered in mirrors. I drew my gaze back to my agitated friend. While his silky black hair swept back from his face like the Italian Stallion he was, his olive skin was slightly ashen.
“What’s wrong? Are you feeling okay? You look a little pale.” I reached over and felt his forehead. “Yeah, you’re a little clammy.”
Dante let out an exasperated sigh and as always, perfectly enunciated his words. “That is what you are wearing?”
Spoken like a ridiculously stylish gay man. I gaped at him. Then realized he was serious.
“Sure.” I knew I sounded defensive. “Why not?”
I tried not to notice the contrast between my outfit and his exquisite, custom-fit Italian suit.
Dante waited to speak until a woman in an old-fashioned black-and-white maid uniform finished dusting the obnoxious white marble sculpture near us.
“You’re going to introduce yourself to the board wearing black leather pants?”
“At least I wore my nicest pair.” I was starting to get angry.
He closed his eyes, clearly frustrated beyond words.
I took another look at Dante, a little worried. He had felt clammy. And now his face was contorted. His mouth opened and closed and his nostrils flared. Was he doing deep breathing? Counting to ten?
“And that … that shirt,” he finally said, opening his eyes. “You know they can fire you.”
Good, I thought, but bit my tongue.
“Fine. I’ll put on my jacket.” I shrugged on my black blazer. It partially concealed my white T-shirt that said “Fuck Authority” below a picture of a skull and crossbones.
The woman was now dusting an enormous white phallic symbol right beside me.
Dante looked pained. “What about the three Armani suits I bought for you last week?”
Is that what all this was about? I’d pay him back. But I knew it wasn’t that. His feelings were hurt. His unerring sense of style was offended.
I shrugged. “They’re cute.” If you want to look like you have a stick up your ass.
He made a jerking motion to pop his wrist out of his sleeve. He looked at his TAG Heuer and then glanced over at the door leading to the boardroom.
“What now? Are we late, too?” I rolled my eyes and leaned back against the mirrored wall.
He met my eyes. “We might have time for you to change. I can run you back to your place. We can be a few minutes late.”
I smiled, pushed away from the wall and headed toward the boardroom door.
He winced. He knew he’d lost.
“What you don’t seem to get,” I said over my shoulder, “is that I don’t care what they think. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want anything to do with running this company or the stuffy old men on the board.” I knew I sounded like a pouty five-year-old and I didn’t care. It seemed like the woman in the maid outfit was looking for something to do closer to us. Eavesdropping. Fine by me. I didn’t care who knew what I thought.
Dante caught up to me. “Gia! You’ve never met any of them.”
“They all stood by and let my godfather drive my father’s business into the ground. They never said a word. They never reached out to me even once. And now that I’m in charge, I’m only sticking around long enough to replace every goddamn one of them.”
The woman audibly gasped. We both swiveled our heads toward her and she clamped her hand over her mouth.
“Excuse me,” I said, gesturing with one finger. “Come over here for a second.”
Her cheeks grew red.
I stuck out my hand. “I’m Gia. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Carmen. I got to ask you something,” I said. “Do you like wearing that outfit? Tell me the truth? I promise your job won’t be affected.”
“No.” Her voice was quiet.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t hear you.”
“No, I don’t like it.”
“I didn’t think you did. It’s like Gone with the Wind or something.”
She smiled, but still looked nervous.
“Do you like your job here?”
“Si. I mean yes.” She nodded fervently.
“I mean, would you rather work here or say at some apartment building in Russian Hill?” Like my building. “I could find you a job where you have less work and more money and don’t have to wear a stupid get up like that.”
“I like it here, really. The uniform, no? But I like working here.” She shrugged. “I do what I want. Nobody bothers me. Make my own hours.”
I bit my lip thinking about. “You’re being honest, right?”
“Okay. But the uniform has to go.” I squinted at her. “What are the stuffed shirts paying you?”
She named some absurdly pithy amount. “I’ll double that right now. And you can wear whatever the hell you want to work every day. If anyone says anything, tell them Gia Santella told you herself.”
“Okay.” She gave a small smile and slipped out a nearby door.
Dante touched my elbow. “Back to what we were talking about. You can’t fire them. They are elected by the stockholders. What if there are some good men on the board?”
“If I have to be the CEO—which apparently is what my father wanted—then I’ll damn well do whatever it takes to root out the rotten ones and make sure they get kicked off the board. Plus, your job is to help me do that.”
“What?” his eyes grew wide. I’d asked him to be my advisor, but had never elaborated on his job duties.
“You’re nice. You’re nonjudgmental. If anyone can determine who is worth keeping around and who isn’t, it’s you. Together, we can weed out the toxic ones.”
“Gia! I don’t want that responsibility. Good grief.”
He was so cute when he swore.
“I need your help.” This time my voice was quiet. It was true. I needed Dante. I didn’t want to face these men on my own.
Dante ran a hand through his hair and sighed, nodding. He was in.
But then he touched my elbow again and made a face. “Leather pants?”
“Yup.” I gave him another smile. “With these pants and a senator’s husband at my side, they wouldn’t dare fuck with me.”
“We are not married yet.”
“Speaking of that, are you sure you want to get married this young? I mean, I adore Matt, but, dude, you’re just a baby.”
“I’m nearly twenty-five.”
I put my finger on my chin. “Which means you’re twenty-four.”
But his twenty-four was probably like my forty. I didn’t want to admit it, but Dante had acted like a mature, responsible, adult since we were twelve-years-old. The opposite of me.
“Back to your outfit,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“I’d rather talk about you.” I gave him my sweetest smile. Which he ignored.
“What about the Armani? You realize they cost me a small fortune, Gia.”
Now, he was just griping. He thought nothing of dropping several grand on an outfit. In that way, we were alike.
“Like I said, they’re cute. I’ll wear the black one to the next board meeting.”
He sounded so damn happy.
I sighed. After all these years, he still believed my lies.
GIA AND THE FORGOTTEN ISLAND – BOOK TWO
A riveting new crime thriller in an exciting suspense series
Gia Santella is a fast-driving, hard-drinking, karate-trained free spirit, who is gorgeous, sexy, and a young heiress. She also has a fierce temper and zero tolerance for people in power preying on the vulnerable … especially when the injustice takes place in her neighborhood.
Late one Autumn night, violence breaks out in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, as a hate group and counter-protesters come face to face. Gia Santella rushes to the protest to help find her friend’s granddaughter. Sasha Kennedy is a student journalist at U.C. Berkeley covering the protest for the school paper.
But when Sasha mysteriously disappears at the protest, Gia learns that the young woman was on the brink of uncovering a story that would blow the whole city wide open.
In her efforts to find the girl, Gia finds herself investigating more mysterious disappearances and begins to unravel a string of dark secrets that lie below the surface of her beloved neighborhood, threatening to destroy it.
But then her plan goes terribly wrong.
When Gia receives a terrifying message, she is caught in a race against time to find the young journalist before it’s too late…
If she fails, more innocent people will die …
And it will all be her fault.
A page-turning dark and gritty thriller packed with edge-of-your-seat suspense. Gia and the Forgotten Island is perfect for fans of Lisa Gardner, Patricia Cornwell, and Gregg Hurwitz