SNEAK PEEK Maria Grazia Swan’s “Love Thy Sister”

IMG_4791I am thrilled to have been invited to participate in the “Death & Damages” box set anthology with a stable of talented bestselling authors like the one you are about to meet.

These amazing writers have graciously agreed to let my blog readers share in an exclusive interview AND get a sneak peek at the book they have contributed to the Death & Damages box set – 25 stories for 99 cents!

Today, we sit down with Maria Grazia Swan, author of “Love Thy Sister”


DAN: Tell my readers briefly about the story you are contributing to the Death & Damages anthology. What inspired your story?

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author Maria Grazia Swan

MARIA GRAZIA SWAN: I wrote Love Thy Sister as a stand-alone and that’s the way it was originally sold/published. Once I had the rights back I began to think how Mina’s story wasn’t complete yet. So Love Thy Sister became book 1 of the Mina adventures series.

What inspired this story?

The disintegration of my marriage. That’s the truth—allegedly.

How long of a piece is it?

306 pages

Tell me a little bit about you. Where do you do your writing?

I’m a very predictable being. And since I like to move around a lot, I have long periods without new releases due to—moving. But once my little private corner is set up, I’m good to go. Except for this time. I barely got my desk situated and it’s time to pack and fly to Italy to see my sisters. Yes, my real sisters.

What does writing success look like to you?

As my Facebook profile says, I sell real estate to fill my stomach, I write to fill my soul.

Do you ever collaborate with others?

I would love to, but I’m Italian and I write with an accent. Don’t believe me? Read a few pages from any one of my books..All my series have a female Italian born main character…who speaks with an accent.

Tell me a little bit about your process. What is the path from idea to finished story? Do you use critique partners? Do you have a favorite editor?

LTS 532 x 800I try to use a very distinct voice for each of my series (have 3 at the moment), I use a different editor for each series so there is no mingling of voices…hope this makes sense. Most of my stories are inspired by real events. I always have a title first, and I know my main character. The rest I create as I write. I no longer belong to critique groups/partners. I did way back…and let me tell you, I’ll be always thankful for it.

What do you do for your cover?

It’s always hard to find a good cover. How do you find yours, or the artwork? Covers, like everything else, evolve. At the moment my cover artist is a friend who makes the big bucks designing commercial stuff for mega fulfillment companies. My covers are her way of unleashing her fictional creative talents. I still have to pay with real money.

What about your blurb and tagline? What is your process for arriving at a really killer tagline and then a blurb that makes readers want to buy the book?

Who said I arrived at a really killer tagline? Oh, I get it…you sure know how to write flattering fiction. Thanks for the vote of confidence.


* EXCLUSIVE SNEAK PREVIEW *

Love Thy Sister

Maria Grazia Swan

PROLOGUE

Crawling away from the pain. She had to get up from the floor. Her mouth foamed. She felt like her chest was exploding.

“One big explosion, followed by a smaller one. Just as pleasurable but not as powerful,” the man had said last night in the bonding anonymity of the dark motel room, his voice an oily whisper.

What was that smell? Maybe decaying food the other girls left behind. She concentrated on the noises from below. A door slammed somewhere in the building. She didn’t care who saw her, she needed help.

Air, she had to get some air. She grasped the front of her smock until it ripped. Her long black hair fell over her breasts.

“One big explosion….”

Was it last night or just a few hours ago?

Footsteps on the stairs, measured steps, getting louder. Her head jerked up. The thumping grew louder, quicker. No, it was her own heartbeat. Now her whole body was one pounding muscle. Her skin could no longer contain it.

She struggled to stand, wobbled on her stiletto heels. Last night. The music, the writhing bodies….

Her ankle gave way. She lurched for the top of the stairs, grabbed the handrail. Her foot tore free, and she pitched down the stairwell.

That noise again. Her heart, she thought, as the bridge of her nose cracked on the edge of the concrete step. Strange, no pain, no resistance.

Her body slowed as it tumbled down, thoughts fled past her, faces of strangers lying in sheeted battlefields.

Tumbling, remembering, whipping the last with the first, mi querido.

She inhaled the smell of her blood and the dust from the concrete. No longer would she wage nocturnal wars to keep morning dreams alive. Nor would she hide in the musty darkness, waiting for a secret rendezvous.

Her fingers relaxed, letting go. The marks impressed by her fingernails looked like tiny half-moons on her colorless palms.

Blood slowly soaked the black mane covering her once-pretty face.

All was quiet now around the low mound on the landing.

Quiet and dark, yet the stillness had no threat. And the only possession she left behind was the red shoe at the top of the stairs.

CHAPTER 1

November 1989

Six years. Dio mio. Six years since her parents’ deaths.

From under thick brown bangs, Mina stared at a blank spot on the wall. A calendar used to hang there. A pretty calendar with pictures of flowers. Not just flowers, flora. Si that was the word, flora from various regions of the United States of America. Her mother had a calendar like that, with flowers, or flora, from Italian regions.

LTS 532 x 800Mina tried to focus, remembering the kind of flowers. Memories came hurling back, gnawing at her soul. She shook her head to rid herself of the disturbance, then went back to stare at the wall. Whatever happened to her mother’s calendar? She knew what had happened to her mother; she lay next to her father, below thick quarry slabs.

Mina closed her eyes, clearly picturing in her mind’s eye the flowers from her mother’s calendar, yet not her mother’s face. It wasn’t the first time, either. She would try to recall the smile, the color of her eyes, the tenderness of her hand holding hers. Time after time, she could only recapture her mother’s image as she appeared in the framed photograph on the night table. The calendar would be six years old now, hardly useful. A tear sneaked from her eyes, landed on her hand. Mina glimpsed at the round, wet spot, and then quickly wiped it against her jeans. She was barely sixteen with little knowledge of English when she arrived in Southern California.

If they could see me now—they who? She hadn’t kept in touch with any of her friends back home. Sort of a blessing really. She was almost twenty-three and although older, as the saying goes, she wasn’t much wiser. Had she changed? Her fingernails were as stubby as ever, her hair the same shoulder length. Okay, her jeans were genuine Levi’s, the kind hard to find in Italy. She still wore the same size clothes, five junior, on top too, disgusting. According to her sister Paola, maybe her brain kept pace with her body, stayed junior, that is.

Huddled in the faded Naugahyde chair, absently studying the reception room of her sister’s software company, Mina hated life in general and this place in particular. Such a depressing sight! Drab walls and second-hand office furniture. Paola described West Coast Software’s decor as ‘Spartan but functional.’ Spartan? To Mina, the word brought images of glistening bodies, athletic prowess of glorious heroes from the past. Sort of a “Mount Olympus Male Sampler.” Not some beat-up furniture from the pages of the local Penny Saver.

How could anyone function in such a depressing environment? Like a bee in a silk flower shop. But no one asked her, the younger sister, about decorating ideas. Ideas, the one thing she had abbondanza of. And dreams, yes, dreams, too.

What she hated most about the place was the silence, the dead silence of this office on weekends. It reminded her of other silences, other places. Old terrors crept up her spine; she instinctively turned to look behind her. No watching eyes, no threatening stares, only silence.

The phone rang and Mina nearly fell off the receptionist’s chair. She stared at the red light blinking on the switchboard. It was Michael Davies’ line. On a Saturday? It had to be Paola.

Mina picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Who the hell is this?”

She recognized Michael’s voice.

“It’s me, your favorite sister-in-law.”

“You mean my only sister-in-law. Why the hell are you answering the phone? Where is Paola?” He pronounced it Paula.

Mispronouncing your spouse’s name should be grounds for divorce, Mina thought, as if anyone cared about her opinion.

“Home in bed. It’s her back, as usual. She sent me to get some papers.”

“From my office?”

She sensed fear in his voice. Why? “I’m not in your office. Never mind. When are you coming back?”

“Tonight. I don’t need a ride. Tell Paola.”

“You tell her.” Why was she being so nasty to him? “Do you have a cold?” His voice did sound raspy.

“What do you expect? It’s another goddamn November in goddamn Chicago.” He hung up without a good-bye.

What a jerk. Mina didn’t understand how her sister could still love him. They hardly talked any more. The less Paola talked, the more Michael cursed. Was there a common denominator? And why was Michael flying to the windy city so often? On business or pleasure? That would explain why he didn’t want to be picked up at LAX. Husband-stealing Rachel Fernandez probably went to Chicago with him.

What time was it anyway? A hideous clock hung on the gray wall, its electronic buzz, like a nest of wasps, set her on edge. Twelve-thirty. How long had she been daydreaming?

Her sister must be furious by now. Mina could almost hear Paola’s perfectly manicured nails tapping away on the nightstand, one tap for each minute she’d been gone.

Her growling stomach reminded her of the missed breakfast, and now a postponed lunch, just to run errands for her sister. Better get going. She swiveled in the chair. Let’s see, Paola said the folder was in her in-box, on the file cabinet behind the desk.

Something glittered on top of the white folder. A chocolate-covered cherry in gold foil, Paola’s favorite candy. Mina’s, too. Michael must have put it there before he left for Chicago. One of their stupid love rituals, maybe the only one left. To hell with Paola, Michael, and their love games. Her mouth watering, she stripped the wrapper off the candy and lifted the mound of dark chocolate to her lips. Somewhere in the warehouse, a door slammed. She jumped and the motion sent her chair wheeling. It hit the full wastebasket, which toppled and spilled everything under the desk.

Maledizione!” Six years in America and she still responded in Italian to every unexpected event. Mina put down the chocolate and crawled under the desk to pick up the trash. Good thing Paola couldn’t see her scrunched under the desk collecting garbage. Definitely not ladylike behavior.

Sounds came from the direction of the warehouse, sharp little noises, like high heels tapping on a tile floor. The sound reminded her of a late, late-night TV movie—sinister footsteps right before an ax murderer surprised the naive heroine.

Mina ordered her heart to stop the impromptu tarantella. How stupid. It was probably Elena, coming to clean the office like she did every Saturday. Someone entered the reception area.

“Hey, Elena? It’s me, Mina. I’m under the desk.”

No answer, no more footsteps. Only silence. But in the few inches between the desk’s modesty panel and the floor she could see a pair of pointed red patent pumps.

Relieved, Mina whistled. “Mamma mia, dancing shoes to clean the office? Bet you didn’t go home last night.”

The shoes moved, beating a staccato rhythm across the tile floor.

“Hey, wait, I was only kidding.” Mina crawled out from under the desk, hitting her head on the top corner in the process. “Ouch!” She got up, rubbing her scalp. The office was empty.

“Fine, I’m going home.” Mina grabbed her purse. “Stop hiding, Elena, I’m out of here, you can pick up the rest yourself, I’ve had enough of this.” No answer. “Ask Paco to lock up when you’re through. He’s in the back, doing inventory. Ciao.”

She was halfway around the desk when her stomach rumbled loudly. She looked for the chocolate-covered cherry. Gone.

“Okay, Elena, where are you? And where’s my chocolate?”

The door to the restroom opened and Elena stepped out. Like Mina she was in her early twenties, petite and slim. Elena’s black hair was short and curly, while Mina wore her brown hair shoulder length.

Buenos dias, Mina.”

“Did you take the chocolate that was on the desk?”

“Chocolate? No comprendo.”

“Come on, cut it out, we both know you comprendo.” Mina looked down at Elena’s feet. “Hey, what happened to your red shoes?”

“No chocolate, no red shoes.” Elena tapped her forehead. “Maybe Mina loca today.”

Mina stared at Elena’s white Reeboks and shook her head. “Maybe I am. Oh well, this loca’s going home.” She hoisted her purse back onto her shoulder and pointed a finger at Elena. “I’ll bet you have chocolate breath.”

Paola’s folder under her arm, Mina left through the front entrance.

Before coming to California, Mina had pictured West Coast Software as a tall, shimmering glass building, with elevators, marble floors, and all kinds of ultra-modern gizmos that opened and closed doors, greeted visitors—the works. Another fantasy from watching too many American movies.

Instead, West Coast Software’s squat one-story building was as gray and unattractive on the outside as inside. Hard to think of her silk-stockinged, pearl-wearing sister working there, yet Paola owned and operated the whole business.

Mina got into her yellow ragtop VW Bug, drove out of the business complex’s empty parking lot and onto an almost deserted Harbor Boulevard. This short stretch of road was actually less traveled on weekends—while ten miles to the north, buses and vans with license plates from every state of the Union filled Disneyland’s parking lot to the limit.

Here, business parks similar to the one occupied by her sister’s company lined both sides of the wide road. Most of the buildings were built long before the little Orange County Airport became the glitzy John Wayne Airport.

“The rent’s right and there’s plenty of blue collar help,” Paola had said.

Blue collar, white collar, the kind of Americanisms that drove Mina crazy. As if you could categorize workers by the color of their shirts.

Driving past the three-story high Marriott Suites, Mina thought of another three-story place, the one where she lived for the first sixteen years of her life. The casa her great-great-grandfather had built stone by stone at the foot of the Italian Alps.

Mina loved to brag to her American friends about the three-story-house she left behind. Of course, she never mentioned that it consisted of three square rooms stacked one on top of the other. Her great-great-grandfather was no architect, yet the stone walls of that house had exuded a sense of stability and continuity. Even after her parents died and she knew she would have to leave, she looked upon the casa as her link to her past, to her roots.

The house had outside walls so thick, the window formed a niche wide enough for her to sit on. In the summer months, late at night, Mina would curl up on the windowsill of her bedroom, to dream and to wait. She waited for the night breeze to come and blow away l’afa, the hot, humid air blanketing the valley from mid-July to September.

From her third-floor perch, the surroundings below took on a whole new look in the night stillness. The tall trees became Ulysses, Hercules, her sentinels lying in wait for the armies of fireflies, tiny soldiers invading their branches. And the sweet-smelling wisteria became Medusa’s hair, creeping toward Mina’s window.

An occasional motorino disturbed the nocturnal peace. A young man and his noisy scooter back from a late date. Then all would be quiet again. Quiet, not silent. She missed all that. Sadness came from deep inside, the longing, the memories.

Mina slowed down at the last intersection before the freeway. Just in time too. Ignoring the changing light, a red Thunderbird turned left onto Harbor with a squeal of tires. Whoa, that was close! She shrugged, released the tension of her hands on the steering wheel. Some people liked to fly low. She glared after the vanishing car and its driver, a woman with long, tangled— Wait a minute. That looked like Paola’s dark mane.

Nah, Paola was in bed with a bad back. Too late to try to see the license plate. Still, how many red Thunderbirds…

The light changed. Mina headed for the San Diego Freeway south, and home.

Mina parked on the quiet Mission Viejo street and headed straight for the mailbox, piled magazines, junk and personal mail on top of her folder. Maybe there was a letter from Patrick. She unlocked the side door and threw it open. “Paola, I’m back. I have your papers.”

The automatic icemaker was the only sound she heard. Her arms still filled with mail, Mina climbed the stairs to her sister’s room.

“Paola, did you hear from Michael? He called the office.”

The double doors to Paola’s room were open, the huge bed neatly made up. Boucheron, Paola’s favorite perfume, lingered in the air. Mina dropped the load of mail on the white silk moiré coverlet and went to the closed bathroom door.

“Paola, are you in there?”

She opened the door. More floral French fragrance filled her nostrils. Neatly displayed cobalt bottles of perfume were the only bright spot on the white marble countertop. They looked like enormous rings, made for a giant’s hand, and through the skylight above, the shy November sun set their golden caps ablaze. But the bathroom was empty.

Mina ran downstairs to the garage. The red Thunderbird wasn’t there; but the front end of Michael’s gleaming black Corvette seemed to sneer at her.

She kicked one of the tires.

“Maledizione!” She had to stop cursing. She’d promised Paola. To hell with promises. She slammed the garage door and went back into the kitchen to check the notepad by the phone. No messages, nothing tacked on the refrigerator door. This wasn’t like Paola.

Maybe Michael called and she had to run an errand for him. Or maybe she went to the doctor. Hmm, either way, she’d have left a note.

Her rumbling stomach reminded Mina she hadn’t eaten lunch. She slapped some peanut butter on a slice of bread. Well, Paola would show up. And she’d better have a good excuse.

As usual, when the smell of peanuts reached her nose, Mina wondered how she could have lived the first sixteen years of her life without peanut butter and sliced bread. She took a bite of the sandwich, leaned back against the kitchen counter with a sigh of pleasure. And pleasure reminded her of Patrick.

She ran back upstairs to her room, elbowed the books off the night table to make space for her lunch, then went back to Paola’s room and rifled through the mail. With a small cry of triumph she carried Patrick’s long, lavender envelope with its U.K. postage to her bedroom. The familiar handwriting made her forget everything else.

“. . . The hours on the beach are past. Was there an ocean? Did the sand support us? I remember only you . . .”

She lay on the bed, eyes closed, and let the letter drift to her lap. Patrick… His words brought him close, so close she could almost feel his fingers stroking, stirring the heat within her. She missed his hands, the scent of his skin that lingered on her body after—

“Mina, I’m home!”

“Where have you been? I’m in my room. Come talk to me.”

Her sister stopped at the open door, probably to survey the clutter level. Framed by the doorway, she reminded Mina of a fascinating blend of famous women, the beauty of a younger Elizabeth Taylor, the spunkiness and grooming of the everlasting Cher.

Tall and perfect, but not very happy judging by the frown on her face.

Mina waited. Would it be the speech about tidiness, the one about discipline, or the one about taking charge of your life? She could almost recite them from memory. Did all older sisters preach so much, or just the Italian-born?

“At least no one will ever attack you in the middle of the night.” Paola said. “They’d trip and break their neck before they ever got to you.” Her eyes fell on the letter. “Don’t tell me. The purple poet strikes again.”

“It’s not purple, it’s lavender—soft, romantic lavender.”

Paola leaned against the doorframe and crossed her arms. “Mina, are you in love with this man?”

“In love?” Passion, yes. Excitement, definitely. But love? Tough question. “I don’t know. Maybe.” Right now the only thing she knew she wanted for sure was for Paola to leave her alone.

“If you don’t know, then you’re not.” Paola picked her way across the room as if she were negotiating a minefield. She sat on the edge of the bed, pushed her tight gabardine skirt up so as not to wrinkle it. “And a good thing, too. Men are all the same—selfish, uncaring.”

“One of those days, is it? What happened to your bad back?”

Impeccable Paola. Mina didn’t know anyone else who spent hours combing her hair to make it look, well…uncombed.

“So,” Paola tapped the letter with a glistening red nail, “how goes the romance with your French traveling salesman?”

“Patrick isn’t a salesman; he’s a marketing genius. He scouts the best locations for the chain of trendy restaurants he—”

“Never mind the reasons, the man travels. Probably has a girl in every city. Bet he inputs those flowery letters into his computer, then all he has to do is add the woman’s name and pronto, the printer spits out half a dozen every minute.”

“This isn’t printed, look.” Mina wet a finger in her mouth and smeared Patrick’s signature. “See? Plain ink from an old-fashioned fountain pen, a family heirloom. I’ve seen it. Are you happy now?”

“And you are not in love?”

Mina sighed. “What were you doing in Santa Ana? Your back sure got better fast.”

“Did you find the papers?” Paola fingered the single strand of pearls she always wore. They shimmered against her silk blouse, the same shade of violet as her eyes. That color must have come from the father’s side, Paola’s father of course. Paola and Mina were half-sisters, sharing the same mother, and Mamma had brown eyes.

Mina envied her sister’s eyes. Once she tried on colored contact lenses that, according to the ad, were guaranteed to make her generic brown eyes blue. Instead, they looked like the reflection of a dark sky in a puddle.

Right now her sister’s eyes looked far away. “The papers, right.” Mina paused. “I flushed them down the toilet.”

Paola didn’t flinch. “Fine. I’ll look at them later.”

“By the way,” Mina picked up Patrick’s letter. “I think Elena ate your chocolate. Actually, I unwrapped it, but she ate it. I’m telling you now so you don’t raise hell on Monday morning.”

“What?” Paola’s hand hit the lavender paper, sent it flying.

“Calm down, will you? Maybe it fell on the floor when I knocked over the trash. It’s just a damn candy, Paola, I’ll buy you a box at the store.”

“Is she all right?”

“Who?”

“Elena.”

“Of course she’s all right. What do you think I did, beat her up?” She smoothed out Patrick’s letter, now crisscrossed with wrinkles. “Not that I wasn’t tempted.”

“Mina, listen to me. After Elena ate the chocolate, what happened?”

“How would I know? She hid in the ladies room, hope she got Montezuma’s revenge.” She caught a glimpse of Paola’s expression. “I didn’t mean it. Anyway, when she came out she said I was loca. Why? Is she allergic to chocolate or something?”

Paola’s eyes glittered. “I’m sorry. I’m overreacting. It’s this whole mess with Michael and the business.”

“You sure don’t have much luck when it comes to husbands.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. They were both college graduates. Mamma approved.” Paola gave a rueful laugh. “Povera Mamma, impressed with a lousy piece of paper and a black robe.”

“Or a wimple,” Mina said. “She actually wanted me to be a nun.”

Paola grinned.

“Don’t laugh,” Mina said. “In her mind it was the ideal occupation. It would have kept me out of trouble and on that side of the Atlantic. She couldn’t stand the idea of me leaving home to join you.”

Paola reached over and stroked Mina’s cheek.

“Do you miss her?” Mina asked.

“I miss the person she was before…”

“Go ahead. Say it—before she married my father. As if I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. Besides, I was already fourteen by then, almost ready to leave the nest.” Paola hugged her younger sister.

“Help, help!”

“I wish you’d stop that childish nonsense.” Paola said. “You’re old enough to face your emotions instead of hiding behind jokes. Is that what you say to your Frenchman in tender moments? Help?”

Mina gave her a wicked grin. Tutto bene. “We don’t spend our tender moments talking.”

“I know you. That’s impossible.”

“You’re right, Paola. We exchange recipes while taking off our clothes.”

“Mina! What ever happened to acting like a lady?”

“You mean like this?” Mina stuck out her tongue and flapped her hands next to her ears. “Good,” Mina said. “That got you laughing.” She patted her sister’s head.

“Watch it, you’re ruining my hair!”

“You call that ruining your hair? Wrong. This is ruining your hair.” Mina pushed her fingers into Paola’s mane, rumpled it, then sprang off the bed and ran for the door.

Paola hopped after her, brandishing her sandal. “I’ll get you for this!”

The telephone rang.

“I’ll take it in my room,” Paola said, still laughing. She hobbled toward her bedroom. Mina headed downstairs. Almost three p.m., could it be Patrick?

“Is it for me?” Mina called, halfway down.

No answer. She hurried back upstairs to find Paola standing pale-faced in the doorway of her bedroom, the sandal still in her hand. “Michael wasn’t on the plane,” she whispered.

CHAPTER 2

“Mina, would you kindly remove your feet from the dashboard?” Paola weaved in and out of traffic, a flashy red shark in a pool of guppies.

Mina hoped there were no cops on the freeway tonight. “Okay, va bene.” Mina’s feet dropped to the plush tan carpet with a thud. “God, you can be a pain! What’s the big deal? Michael has missed planes before.”

“You don’t understand. He didn’t miss the plane. He disappeared at the boarding gate. He must have noticed Brian following him.”

Mina snickered. Brian Starrs, would-be detective. She could hardly believe her sister had hired a college kid to follow her sneaky husband. “Where did you find this guy, anyway?”

Paola’s eyes were glued to the freeway, but a muscle twitched at the corner of her bright red lips. Bathed in the amber glow from the dashboard, her perfect profile was highlighted against the flash of city lights.

For years, Mina had asked her mirror the same question; why was Paola the one with the face, the body, the class? Their mother never said it out loud. There were times when Mina had felt her mother staring at her. She’d ask why, but Mother would shake her head and turn away. Yet, the silences left no doubt.

Mina had no inclination for complicated cosmetic routines. She figured what you saw was what you got. After she moved to America, her sister taught her the one and only makeup habit she practiced. Mina and her black mascara were inseparable. She kept her face natural, but thickened her long eyelashes with Rimmel, the mascara that gave her large, round eyes a sensual kind of secrecy. At least, that’s what she told herself.

“I can’t believe this traffic. Where is everybody going?” Paola said.

“We’ll get there. The restaurant isn’t going anywhere, and your private eye is on the meter.” She carefully avoided saying sleuth, which, with her lingering accent, always came out slut. “He won’t care if we’re late. How did you hook up with him, anyhow?”

Paola switched lanes again. “Adams, my lawyer, introduced us. And please, don’t call him a private eye—he’s just a nice young man trying to earn extra money to finish school.”

Mina shrugged. “Why go through all this trouble to prove Michael’s been unfaithful? Doesn’t California have a no-fault divorce law?”

Paola’s voice dropped an octave. “This has nothing to do with infidelity.”

“Really? Then what’s going on? Why did Michael go to Chicago? I’m your sister, you know. You could let me in on what’s happening.”

“That works both ways, signorina,” Paola said. “You never told me you quit your job. The third one in six weeks.” Paola called her signorina, only when she was really ticked off.

Mina shrank down in the seat. “This time it wasn’t my fault.” Some choice they gave her: Work on Halloween night or be fired. Working meant missing the ultimate costume party. She knew she could get another waitressing job anytime. It occurred to her that, like Thanksgiving, Halloween didn’t figure into Italian calendars. Neither did the Fourth of July.

“Watch it,” Mina sat up as the sign whizzed by them. “You’ll miss the exit. Brookhurst is next. So, how can the snoop—”

“I wish you’d stayed home!” Paola whipped off the exit and through a green light.

“Well, I didn’t. How can your nice-young-man-earning-extra-money phone you from Chicago at two-thirty in the afternoon and be in Orange County the same evening? Slow down, I see the Coco’s sign. No, no, left!”

Paola made the turn on two wheels. Brakes screeched from the oncoming traffic.

“You’re getting really good at this,” Mina said. “Ever consider racing professionally?”

Her sister didn’t answer. She parked the Thunderbird, checked her makeup in the rearview mirror and, pointing a finger in Mina’s direction, said, “Remember, you promised to behave.”

“Yes, Mother.”

Paola, halfway out of the car, turned and gave her a strange look. “Just don’t embarrass me in there.” They entered the restaurant. Paola ran her fingers through her hair. “Maybe I’ll go freshen up,” she said. “I think we beat Brian here. I didn’t see his car in the parking lot.”

She turned to go when a man in his late twenties, wearing jeans and a bulky sweater over a denim shirt, rushed from one of the telephone booths off to the side of the waiting area.

“Paula! I was about to call you.” He took Paola’s hand in his. “Where is your car?”

Mina resented the way he pronounced her sister’s name. “We parked in the broom closet.”

Still holding Paola’s hand, he seemed to notice Mina for the first time.

Paola introduced them. “Brian, this is my sister, Mina.”

Mina looked pointedly at their hands touching. Paola quickly let go and, flushing, asked the hostess to seat them.

Following her sister and Brian to the table, Mina felt like a child trailing along behind the “big people.” She always seemed to get swept along in Paola’s wake.

At least the view was good. Brian’s buns were bound to garner him more than a mere honorable mention in the Levi’s Hall of Fame. He was the same height as Paola, but then she was wearing heels. That would make him about five ten. His blond hair, straight and thick, came to a point in the back of his neck, low enough to meet his shirt collar. Mina wondered what it would feel like to run her fingers through it. Slowly, all the way to where the last strand of hair met the warmth of his skin. And for no reason whatsoever, the word Spartan crossed her mind. He flashed a quick smile as he slid into the booth across from her. Sorriso Durbans, she thought, remembering the popular slogan for the Italian toothpaste, marketed as the one America likes best, although she never found that specific brand in Californian supermarkets. Brian’s smile would be perfect for the toothpaste ad. His smile had the openness she so often found in certain types of American men, the kind her friends called WASP. Yes, he was definitely worth un peccatino, a trip to the confessional.

After they ordered, Brian said, “Michael went through the security check, then grabbed his briefcase and carry-on, and practically sprinted to the gate. The flight was already boarding. My turn came and, of course, the buzzer went off. I took the keys out of my pocket and tried again. No go. Next I tried the watch. The thing still went off. By then I was—”

“The gun!” Mina interrupted.

“What gun?”

“Your gun. You know, that’s what set off the alarm.”

“Why would I have a gun?”

Mina opened her mouth, but a sharp kick from under the table changed her mind. “Never mind,” Mina mumbled. “Paola just explained it to me, grazie.”

A yawning waitress brought their order. Only Brian had ordered food. Mina had a chocolate milkshake, her sister, iced tea.

“You were saying, Brian?” Paola smiled.

Mina took a sip of milkshake, latte sbattuto, in Italian it sounded like milk from an abused cow. Speaking of abuse, Mina reached down and massaged her sore ankle. It didn’t look bruised—yet.

When she looked up, Brian’s head was bent close to Paola’s. “Is your iced tea okay?” he asked. Next to her sister’s dark hair, his was so light it almost looked bleached.

Could he be any more protective? Mina wanted to throw up.

“Fine,” Paola said.

“My milkshake’s a little runny,” Mina volunteered.

Paola ignored her. “So, tell me, what happened next?”

“We finally figured it out. It was the souvenir spoon I bought for my mother.”

“How sweet,” Paola said.

“Are you kidding?” Mina moved her leg out of her sister’s range.

Brian glanced over at her. Their eyes caught, held. Mamma mia! They were the bluest eyes she had ever seen.

“Are you wearing colored contacts?” she blurted.

He smiled.

“Brian.” Paola’s voice held irritation. “About my husband?”

“Oh yes, Michael. I stepped into the plane and they shut the doors behind me. I went to my seat. By the time I realized he wasn’t on board, we were airborne. I phoned you from Houston during a stopover.” He sipped from his soda. “Did you hear from him?”

Paola shook her head: “He called the office this morning, but that was before the flight took off. Where do we go from here?”

“Not too far, if I’m driving. My car broke down on the freeway.”

“We can give you a ride home,” Paola said.

“It’ll be a crowded broom,” Mina mumbled.

The waitress appeared just in time to divert the under-the-table kicker.

“Aside from the airport, what else went on?” Paola asked.

“Paula, this may sound strange.” Brian spoke between bites of fish and chips. “But everything went according to the schedule you gave me. I can read you my notes.” He began to search his pockets.

“Later,” Paola idly stirred the tea. “I wonder where he is. Maybe we should stop by the office on the way home. I’d love to give Michael a little surprise.”

Mina finished the shake and wondered who would pick up the tab. On cue, the waitress came by and dropped the bill on the table. Amused, Mina watched them reach for it at the same time.

LTS 532 x 800“I’m your boss, remember?” Paola took the check. Brian smiled, laid his napkin on the table and got up. He helped Paola from her chair, and then turned toward Mina, who was already on her feet.

Outside, a strong wind blew through the moonless night. Brian sat in the front with Paola. Mina, in back, leaned forward and propped herself between the seats, determined not to miss a word.

It was after nine, and, instead of taking the freeway, Paola drove on surface streets.

“So, you’re a friend of Adams?” Mina asked Brian.

He half turned in the seat. In the fleeting carousel of streetlights, his eyes were bright as lapis lazuli. “Actually,” he said, “I’m a friend of his daughter.”

“You go to college with her?”

He hesitated. “No.”

“Oh, I get it. You go with her.”

Signorina, would you kindly sit back, buckle your seat belt and shut your mouth?” Paola said.

Mina sank back in the seat. “Yes, Mother dearest.”

Brian chuckled, a friendly sort of sound, not mocking in the least. Well, not friendly, exactly. Tolerant maybe, or at least comfortable, unfazed by her attempts to shock him.

Mina knew something was wrong when they pulled onto Harbor Boulevard. She saw the blaze of lights through the trees, and scooted forward on her seat again. “Look,” she said. “The cops must have nabbed somebody.”

Paola turned left into the business complex. West Coast Software’s parking lot looked like a carnival gone mad. Flashing lights—red, blue, white—greeted them from the dozen Santa Ana Police cars parked at odd angles in front of the entrance.

“Paola, do you think you’ve been robbed?” Mina asked.

Pulling as far as she could into the lot, Paola turned off the engine. People—cops and, behind the barricades, onlookers—crowded West Coast Software’s entrance.

Paola got out and hurried toward the building without even closing the car door. Brian followed her. Mina crawled out of the back and locked the car.

She couldn’t believe she was being the model of caution while her sister rushed ahead, but then it wasn’t her company. Mina ran to the entrance. She lifted the yellow police tape, tried to slip under it. A uniformed policeman stopped her.

“Sorry, Miss. You have to back up, please.”

“I’m with them,” she pointed toward West Coast Software. “That’s my sister’s company.”

“Well, right now you must move back, make room.”

“Make room for what?” She stood on tiptoe to look over his shoulder. Two white-coated men were pushing a gurney. As they came closer, she saw that a body lay on the gurney, shrouded in a white sheet.

She backed up, stiff as a marionette.

A voice behind her said, “Move to the side, please, out of the way.”

Mina turned. The coroner’s white wagon was backing up to the entrance, its back door yawned wide. Panic hit her. She tried to get away, but the crowd pressed her back against one of the policemen. The gurney came closer and, wheeling past her, hit a speed bump. Wedged between the policeman and a barricade, Mina had a clear view.

She shuddered; the sheet covered everything but one red patent leather shoe.


About The Author

gemini aAward-winning author Maria Grazia Swan was born in Italy. She’s lived in Belgium, France, Germany, Southern California and Arizona — all juicy places that fuel her stories and characters. She won her first literary award, in Belgium, when she was fourteen. As a young woman Maria Grazia designed haute couture clothes in Italy, and then she took the leap and moved to America where she raised her family.
These days, Maria Grazia volunteers at the animal shelter seeking the perfect family for homeless pets. Her deepest passions? Writing and being the matchmaker for people and pets who are waiting to find each other.
Maria loves travel, opera, good books, hiking, and intelligent movies. Her idea of a perfect evening? Stimulating conversation, Northern Italian food, and chilled Prosecco.

Connect with Maria

She loves to hear from her readers! Feel free to contact her through her website:
www.mariagraziaswan.com


Gang, please join me in thanking Maria for sharing these authorly insights with us.

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