(Unedited early sneak peek)
I was dying for a cigarette.
But the senator standing before me in his tuxedo droned on about his pancreatitis and how he could only drink top shelf Bourbon or he’d end up in the hospital or something.
I tried not be obvious as I glanced over his shoulder at the rest of the chandelier lit room. The backdrop on four sides was the San Francisco skyline at night—one of my favorite views in the world.
Although the music at the gala was low and sultry, the clink of Champagne glasses and rustle of silk and taffeta and murmur of drunken voices made it difficult for me to hear what the senator was saying.
And that was just fine by me.
I was sort of zoning out, thinking that maybe instead of a cigarette I could rustle up a joint from one of the cute waiters. I tried to make eye contact with one who looked like he might have some weed on him. He was dressed in the required black button down shirt and black slacks, but something about him was laissez faire. Maybe it was his hair, longer than the other waiters, or the slight scruff under his lower lip, or the tattoo that snaked around his wrist that gave him such a bad boy air.
I caught his eye as he headed to the kitchen with a tray full of empty glasses. He did a double take and then slowly looked me up and down before smiling.
It made me feel like a pervert.
Was he even 18?
I knew I didn’t look my age in my black dress and stilettos, but even if I knocked off a few years, I could possibly be his mother.
I silently sent him a message: I’m not trying to fuck you, I just want your drugs.
At that point, I became obsessed with getting high to make it through this evening, so I wasn’t really very focused when the senator leaned in and repeated a question I apparently hadn’t heard.
I backed up. His breath was atrocious.
Over his shoulder, I saw another VIP making a beeline for me.
Everyone wanted to talk to me tonight.
The senator was the fourth dignitary to waylay me.
For the millionth time, I tried to catch Dante’s eye, but he was deep in conversation with the head of the chamber of commerce. Shit. It was all Dante’s fault I was here. He owed me big time.
My scalp tingled a little bit and I turned to see Nicoletta Marchese looking at me. She tossed her strawberry blonde hair and gave me a smile before turning away, leaning down toward James’ wheelchair to whisper something in his ear.
My face burned.
Obviously, she’d wanted me to see.
I swallowed back the lump of jealousy. That ship had sailed years ago. He was no longer mine and never would be again. Despite what had happened.
But he was too good for her.
There was something about the willowy opera singer that made me wary.
It wasn’t her fake as fuckness. It was something else. Something darker and more sinister.
Oliver Kingsley Hollingsworth, one of the richest men in San Francisco—and frankly one of the oldest—sidled up to her with his boy toy. Both men were gay, but that didn’t stop the old geezer from caressing Nicoletta’s shiny taffeta-clad ass as he went in for hugs and cheek kisses. Who knew? Old boy was ACDC?
Then the boy toy, Charles Wellington, whispered something in Nicoletta’s ear. She laughed and then leaned over and kissed Old Oliver smack dab on the mouth. He gave a gruff laugh but reached out and groped her waist, pressing her up against him. What the fuck?
Were they propositioning her? Come to think of it, Dante had mentioned Hollingsworth was into some kinky shit. Dude was rich enough to pay for any depraved sex act he wanted. There were some crazy stories about the things he liked to stick his dick into. Whatever. To each his own. I just wondered if James knew what his girlfriend was up to.
I shook my head. Poor James. His wheelchair had been turned away during the whole encounter. He didn’t have a clue. If that dumb bitch broke his heart, I’d kill her.
But right now, he wasn’t my problem. And she wasn’t worth my time or energy.
After tonight, I hoped to never see her again.
In fact, I’d hoped to never see 99 percent of the people in this room again. But that was just a pipe dream.
As another waiter passed, I scooped another glass of champagne off his tray and downed it.
Beatrice Stanford, a retired opera singer who liked to regale everyone with stories of her glory days, was at my side.
I gave up.
“Just call me Gia.”
She cleared her throat and started over.
“Miss Gia, where is your partner, Dante?” She was looking over my shoulder. “I thought we had agreed that the salmon canapes wouldn’t contain capers. They keep rolling off onto the floor.”
She’d been on the board for the gala, but as far as I knew hadn’t done a damn thing except give her opinion about everything and anything.
I shifted to look past her. Sure, enough there were little green balls on the carpet. Oops.
“Not sure,” I said. “But I don’t think Dante was in charge of the food, was he?”
I plastered a smile on my face.
As I looked over her shoulder I made eye contact with the mayor. He was heading my way, trying to make his way through the crowd.
The mayor had a hot nut for me since we met. We’d been on one date. It was fine. Not even a kiss goodnight. It was for the best.
In the old days, I would’ve fucked him in a heartbeat. But now, he made me want to run far and fast away. He was good looking, intelligent, powerful, compassionate, and funny.
In other words, dangerous as fuck.
“Excuse me!” I said to Beatrice Stanford and fled toward the kitchen.
I rushed through the swinging double doors and let out a huge over-the-top sigh.
The staff, a cook, and a few waiters looked startled.
“Sorry,” I said, looking for the dark-haired waiter.
He was in the back, slouched against the wall near two other waiters. They were smoking vapes. I knew what was inside the cartridges. My instincts had been right.
I pointed my finger at him and crooked it.
He pushed himself off the wall and his friends shoved him and made snide comments.
When he got in front of me, he gave me a cocky grin.
To my surprise, he was taller than me. And even better looking close up. He exuded an animalistic sensuality. His eyes bored through me.
“At your service, Ms. Santella.”
I was a little surprised he knew who I was, but didn’t say anything.
Instead, I met his eyes. He licked his lips. I stared at his lips. Fuck. He was a baby. How could I look at him that way? I quickly looked away.
“I need your vape.”
He grinned. “Oh, yeah.”
“Well, I only brought enough to get me and my boys through this night. It’s all gone.”
Oh, he was a cocky one, wasn’t he?
“I’ll make it worth your while,” I said, my eyes narrowing.
“How you gonna do that?” he said and his eyes roamed my body. “I don’t need your money.”
I met his eyes.
“You like your job here?” I cocked my head.
Shit. I’d pissed him off.
“Listen. I’m just asking for a favor here. If you could hook me up with something to get me through this god-awful night, I’d appreciate it. I’d owe you. I’d owe you a favor. I don’t give favors lightly.”
“Is it that bad out there?” he said jutting his chin toward the ball room.
I sighed. “What do you think? I’ve got a bunch of rich fucks who think because they paid a small fortune to be here they get to tell me about their fucking bunions and stomach ulcers. Normally I would tell them to fuck off, but since I’m on the board—and it’s for a good cause,” I pause. “I have to at least be polite. It’s killing me.”
“I need to go get my stash. It’s in the car. Meet me on the roof in fifteen minutes.”
The last time I’d arranged to meet someone on the roof, I’d arrived to find him dead.
“Fine,” I said reluctantly.
I watched him go and despite myself, admired his long, lean body and his muscled forearms. At the last minute, he turned and caught me checking him out. My cheeks grew hot. I felt like a fucking pervert. Ugh.
As soon as I stepped out of the kitchen, I saw Dante across the room.
He was talking to James.
That’s when I had to admit to myself the real reason I wanted to be drunk and high. I didn’t want to face James.
Not after what had happened.
On the plane back to San Francisco from Indonesia two weeks ago, I had thought about all the people I loved who I might see again. When I had thought of James I had felt a warm, nostalgic feeling. I had thought my feelings for him were gone. After all, we had broken up so very long ago. He had a new life with a wife and kids.
I would always love him, but it would no longer hurt to see him.
Oh, how wrong I had been.
I had been away a long time. And a lot had changed.
He was now a widower. And someone’s boyfriend.
Now, seeing him talking to Dante was like a knife in the heart.
I was regressing. Then both men stopped talking and looked over at me. My heart stopped. Then they said something and laughed.
I heard a voice say, “Gia Santella! There you are. I’ve been looking for you for the past hour.”
Of course, he had.
It was another dude from the gala board who always stared at my tits.
But instead of wanting to run away I now felt relief.
I turned and gave him a brilliant smile, turning toward him and placing him in front of me so he blocked my view of Dante and James.
The last thing I saw before his big head blocked my view was Nicoletta in her white dress with the ugly ass mermaid tail hem sidling up to James and putting a protective hand on the back of his wheelchair. She was staring at me with a smug fucking look the entire time.
Time to bail.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I have to use the ladies room.” I headed for the exit.
“Wait,” I heard him say behind me. “The restrooms are the other way.”
But then I had slipped outside and was opening the door to the stairs with my employee key card.
I opened the door to the roof with my employee key card.
At the top of the stairs, the door to the roof was propped open. As I neared it, the first thing I saw was a midnight blue sky full or twinkling stars—a rare sight in San Francisco, which often had a glowing orange night sky.
I stepped out and inhaled deeply. The air smelled like a combination of salt from the ocean breeze and also the freshness greenness of forest, maybe blown over from Marin County.
Suddenly the waiter was in front of me.
Thank God. I was done with finding dead bodies for a lifetime.
He grabbed me and kissed me, pressing me back against the wall. I planted my palms on his chest and pushed him away. Hard. He was lucky I hadn’t demolished his balls with my knee.
“What the fuck?” I said.
“I saw the way you looked at me.”
“You’re just a kid,” I said, not denying his words.
“Like I said, ‘a kid.’” But he was older than I’d thought. He actually couldn’t be my son. Thank god. I’d been feeling like a pervert for the way I looked at him earlier.
“You’re so sexy,” he said, his hands on my waist, drawing me closer. “Let me show you how sexy I think you are.”
“Where’s your vape? I asked. But inwardly I groaned. His lower body was pressed against mine and I could feel his hardness and it made any resolve I had melt away.
I hadn’t had sex for a long time. Since Ryder in Barcelona. That seemed like a lifetime ago. And before that, when Nico was still alive but in the care home, I went without sex for years. It was ridiculous. Sex was healthy.
I loved sex. I wanted sex. Once upon a time I didn’t even think twice about having sex with a stranger. In fact, I took pride in it.
We took turns smoking his vape. It was some damn good weed. Top notch stuff.
He handed me a joint. “You can have this for later. To remember me.”
Aw, he was cute.
He leaned back toward me, his face before mine, his eyes trained on my mouth. Then his lips were on my neck.
“I think this is a bad idea,” I said. Even I recognized it as the feeble protest it was.
“I don’t believe you,” he said in a low, husky voice. “I don’t believe for one second you buy into that sexist double standard. Men can be with younger women, but women can’t be with a younger guy? That’s total crap.”
He had a point.
His mouth was working its way up my neck now. One of his hands was still firm on my waist. His other hand wrapped around the back of my neck, tangled in my hair. His breath was heavy now and I matched it. The anticipation of another kiss was irresistible. All logic and reason fled my mind. My body took over.
I could feel the heat coming off his body in waves. He leaned forward and his mouth was on mine and despite myself I groaned in pleasure. And it just got better from there.
After, I pulled the hem of my dress back down as he buttoned up his pants.
“Holy shit,” he said, still breathless.
I exhaled loudly. “Okay, maybe it actually was a really good idea.”
He pulled me close and kissed me again. I let him.
Then he drew back.
“I gotta go,” he said, looking over his shoulder, but still holding onto my waist. “Do you think maybe one day…”
He trailed off. He already knew the answer.
I shook my head.
Then he was gone, back down the stairs.
I walked over to the edge of the roof and looked down at the city below me.
I’d lived around the world, but this city would always be my compass point, my ground zero, my homing beacon.
Even though I’d grown up in Monterey, I hadn’t felt like myself until I’d moved to San Francisco after my parent’s murder.
It would always be home.
I rummaged around in my bag and found my cigarettes and gunmetal Zippo lighter.
I lit the joint he’d given me and inhaled deeply, savoring the flavor and instant feeling of mellow gold that suffused my entire body.
At first, I was more annoyed than anything when I heard voices and the door open up behind me.
I didn’t turn around. I hoped if I ignored whomever it was, they’d go away.
Then I heard the squawk of a police radio. I couldn’t make it what it said.
‘Gia Santella?” a deep voice said.
Cold fear trickled through me. “Yes?”
“You’re under arrest.”
At first, it didn’t register. Then I thought about the boy I’d been with only moments before. He’d told me he was 23. And pot was legal now in California?
It took a second for me to register the rest of what the police officer had said.
“You’re under arrest for murder.”