She was lying on her back in the middle of a field of strawberries. The sun was warm on her skin, and the sky overhead was cloudless and blue. Soft blades of lush, green grass tickled her, and she laughed. She was happy and relaxed, in spite of the enormous strawberry sitting on her chest. Breathing in deeply, she savored the fruity smell and she longed to have its sweet juice running over her tongue. The strawberrys eyes opened, and they were the clearest, deepest green she had ever seen.
Julia frowned in her sleep. Strawberries didnt have eyes. Slowly, she began to wake up, leaving the dream behind. She stared groggily at her ceiling. There was definitely something heavy on her chest, and whatever it was smelled like strawberries. Looking down, Julia smiled at the top of the blonde head that rose and fell in rhythm with her own breathing. Her arms tightened around Maggies body. Asleep, she looked soft and vulnerable, and Julia was filled with an overwhelming desire to keep her safe.
"I love you, Maggie McKinnon," she whispered, liking the feel of the words as they rolled off her tongue.
Julia glanced at the window. Twilight had fallen while they slept, and her bedroom was bathed in shadows. She let her eyes drift shut again as she buried her nose in Maggies hair. The reporters brush with danger had terrified her more than she cared to admit. Lightly, she ran her fingertips across Maggies wounded ear, and she felt an irrational spark of anger growing inside. Someone had tried to kill the woman she loved. Julia stared up at the ceiling again, her eyes turning to two chips of blue ice. She would find out who was responsible, and then she was going to rip that someones throat out.
Maggie whimpered aloud, and her body stiffened. Julia could feel the young womans pulse racing frantically, and she rubbed Maggies back soothingly, trying to calm her. After a moment, Maggie relaxed and unconsciously wriggled closer, seizing a fistful of Julias t-shirt. Julia chuckled softly as she peered at the alarm clock on the nightstand. She never ate at regular hours and only bothered to grab a bite when it occurred to her, but she was painfully aware that she had skipped lunch. Breakfast had consisted of three spoonfuls of vanilla yogurt, and now her stomach was insistently reminding her of its emptiness.
"Well, lets see. We had pizza last night, so thats out. I could order Chinese, I guess. Or maybe we can go out. Technically, we havent had our first date yet."
"Julia?" A sleepy voice mumbled, cutting through her thoughts. "Who are you talking to?"
Julia winced, mentally slapping herself in the head for waking Maggie. "Nobody. I didnt mean to wake you. Go back to sleep."
Still using Julias chest for a pillow, Maggie shook her head, and the friction made Julias breath catch in her throat. Maggie yawned, grimacing at the audible pop in her jaw. She flopped over onto her back, folding her hands over her stomach.
"I dont want to go back to sleep." Turning her head to the side, she examined the clear blue eyes that were just inches away from her own. "You have the best eyes. Like the ocean on a clear day."
A dark eyebrow lifted and Julia shrugged, unimpressed with her own features. Reaching over, she caressed Maggies face, running her thumb across the young womans cheekbone.
"Hmmm. I prefer yours, actually. Theyre like the bay. Deep, mysterious, all sorts of life just beneath the surface."
Deep, mysterious green eyes widened in amazement. "Julia Cassinelli, that was almost poetic!" She gave her lover a light poke with her elbow.
Julia snorted and her lips twitched into a sardonic, self-deprecating grin. "Poetic? Me? You must still be in shock."
Maggie rolled over to her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows. She gave Julia her best attempt at an intimidating glare.
"Are you arguing with me?"
Julia bit down on her lower lip to keep from laughing and she shook her head. "Of course not. I wouldnt dare."
"Good," Maggie declared, maintaining her mock-seriousness. She leaned down and planted a kiss on Julias lips. "Besides, I thought it was beautiful. Just like you." That earned her another kiss and a pair of wandering hands that traveled leisurely up her sides.
Maggie nestled her head against Julias shoulder and curled one arm gently around her lovers abdomen. She kissed the warm collarbone peeking out from the neck of Julias t-shirt.
"How are you feeling, anyway? Still sore?"
Julia stretched, testing her arms and legs carefully as she considered the question. She was pleased to discover that, despite a few nagging aches, she felt much better. She wasnt ready for another desperate sprint across two steep city blocks, but perhaps some lighter activity would be acceptable. Her eyes twinkled suggestively at the thought.
"Uh-oh. I think I recognize that look," Maggie teased.
"Oh, really," Julia drawled, sliding one hand down Maggies hip. "Got me figured out already?"
"Ha! I doubt if Ill ever have you completely figured out."
Julia scooted closer and nuzzled Maggies throat, paying particular attention to the small hollow at its base.
"Know what Im thinking right now?"
Maggie tried to ignore the nibbling and sucking going on below her chin, and the sensations that it was causing elsewhere in her body. She pressed her fingers to her temples and squeezed her eyes shut, pretending to be deep in concentration.
"You are thinking, I hate to tear myself away from my sexy new girlfriend, but if I dont get something to eat, I just might starve to death. Hows that?"
"What?" Julia sputtered, laughing. The girlfriend reference sent a warm, happy glow radiating through her body, and she was vaguely conscious of the big, goofy smile plastered on her face. "How did you know that?"
"Your stomach is rumbling." Maggie patted the offending body part affectionately. "Mine is too," she admitted ruefully. "Now, what do you have to eat in this place?"
Julia took a quick inventory of her kitchen and found the results to be rather depressing. She grinned sheepishly.
"I have half a container of vanilla yogurt and some bread that may or may not have green fuzzy things growing on it."
Maggie sighed, struggling to keep a straight face. "Well, I guess were gonna be eating out a lot." She rolled out of bed, her feet hitting the floor with a solid thump.
"You dont cook either, huh?" Julia watched as Maggie half-skipped across the floor. "What in the world are you doing? Not that I mind watching you hop up and down, of course."
Maggie turned and stuck her tongue out at the comment. "Smartass. Your floors are damned cold. And no, I dont cook. Not unless you want to be poisoned, anyway."
Maggie rummaged through Julias drawers until she found what she was looking for. She held up a pair of socks triumphantly and bounded back to the bed. Sighing contentedly, she pulled the socks over her cold feet and wiggled her toes. Satisfied, she turned back to Julia, who was watching her with an amused look.
"Okay. Obviously we cant really go out, since I dont have anything clean to wear. And I look like a smurf in your clothes," she held her arms out, letting her borrowed clothes hang from her frame.
"But youre an adorable smurf," Julia interjected, suppressing a snicker.
"Sshhh. Dont interrupt." Maggie swatted her playfully. "I say we pick something up and go back to my place."
"Why dont we just have something delivered here?"
"Because I would like to wear my own clothes. Dont get me wrong, I love wearing your stuff, but I have a favorite pair of pajama pants. They have polar bears on them. And dont you want to see my apartment?"
Julia slid out of bed and willed herself not to shiver as her bare feet touched the icy floor. She loved her polished wood floors, but maybe a rug for the bedroom would be a good idea. Opening her armoire, she pulled out a clean pair of jeans and a thick, cable-knit fishermans sweater.
"I would love to see your apartment and your polar bears. Just give me a minute to get dressed."
Maggie watched as she changed, admiring the long, athletic body. The bruise across Julias ribs had faded considerably, and Maggie could tell that the injury wasnt bothering her as much anymore. The creamy fishermans sweater contrasted nicely with Julias tanned skin and dark hair, and her blue jeans fit her perfectly, clinging to her legs and hips without being too tight. Maggie hated it when people looked like they had stuffed themselves into their clothes.
Julia pulled her hair out from under the collar of her sweater and settled the long locks around her shoulders. She ran her fingers through the dark mane a few times to order it. She could feel Maggie watching her every move, and her neck began to burn as an embarrassed flush crept up from her collar.
"Okay. Ready to go?" Julia smiled awkwardly.
"Yep. Im driving," Maggie replied, holding up her car keys. In her other hand, she carried her still-damp clothes from before.
As Julia followed her down the stairs, a troubling thought entered her mind. Maggie seemed to be rebounding much too quickly from the days trauma. She was still reeling inside, though she was doing her best not to show it, for Maggies sake. It seemed to her that the reporter ought to be even more shaken, and she wondered if Maggie was really all right, or if she was repressing her emotions. Julia made a mental note to try asking her about it later.
They stepped out onto the front porch, and Maggie paused while Julia carefully locked the door. The air smelled fresh and clean, the pollutants washed away by the storm. Branches and leaves, deposited by the gusting winds, were scattered all across the walkway and lawn, and they stepped around the larger ones carefully on their way to Maggies car.
"So, what do you feel like eating?" Maggie asked as she pulled away from the curb.
Julia settled back in her seat, adjusting the shoulder strap of her seatbelt. She smiled at Maggie, who really did look slightly ridiculous in her clothes.
"I dont care. Surprise me."
They ended up picking up a bucket of spicy fried chicken, complete with biscuits, mashed potatoes with gravy and two large sodas. Julia juggled the food in her hands as they walked up to Maggies apartment. The reporter hesitated outside the door.
"Just so you know, its nothing fancy. Not at all like your house."
"Maggie, just open the door. This stuff is getting heavy."
They stepped inside, and Julia quickly set their dinner on the kitchen table before she dropped it all. Maggies apartment was small, but it was clean and obviously well kept, though Julia could tell she hadnt been in it for long. It didnt have that sense of permanence about it that true homes did. A worn duffel bag peeked out from behind the couch. Patricks stuff. Julia had a lot of questions about Maggies younger brother, but they would keep for a different time, she decided.
"Why dont you go change, and Ill get the food set up?" Julia suggested.
"Oh, okay. Plates and stuff are in there," Maggie pointed at the upper cabinet. "And there should be some silverware in that drawer. Ill be right back."
Maggie headed for her bedroom and hurriedly changed into her polar bear pants and her Ohio State t-shirt. The blue pants didnt match the red shirt, but she didnt care and she doubted that Julia would either. She was surprised at how nervous she felt about Julia being in her apartment. Julia Cassinelli was the first rich person she had ever known, except for Billy Bailey, whos father owned the car dealership back in Marion. She wondered what Julia thought about her clear lack of money.
"Oh, stop that, Maggie. She doesnt care about things like that," she told herself sternly.
She jumped at the soft knock on her bedroom door. Julia poked her head in cautiously, concern showing in her eyes.
"The food is ready. Is everything okay?"
Maggie forced a smile. "Everythings fine. Im starving. Lets go eat."
They were both even hungrier than they had realized, and the food was consumed quickly. The topic of conversation had stayed fairly light while they ate, and Julia had learned more about Maggies childhood. She had been quizzed until she could recite the names of the six McKinnon children in chronological order, Steven, Kimberly, Kenneth, Jack, Maggie and Patrick. She also learned that Maggie had graduated from her Catholic high school at the top of her class, and that she had attended Ohio State on a partial scholarship. Even as they chatted though, Julia could sense a faint undercurrent of tension between them. Up until now, she had always felt at ease with Maggie, and the sudden change bothered her.
Julia stood, helping to clear away the plates. Her confusion grew as she noticed that Maggie wasnt meeting her eyes. She took Maggies arm gently and turned her away from the sink. Reaching behind the reporter, she shut off the faucet.
"Hey. Talk to me. Whats going on?"
"Nothings going on. Why dont you see whats on TV while I finish cleaning up?" Maggie twisted free and resumed rinsing the dishes.
Completely dumbfounded, Julia stared at her back. Suddenly, Maggie was shutting her out, and she didnt like the feeling one bit. Hurt, she backed away and sat down at the kitchen table again. A few minutes later, Maggie had finished with the dishes, and she observed Julia quietly while she dried her hands. Julia was staring at the table, her eyes dark and troubled.
"I thought you were going to turn on the TV," Maggie said, smiling gamely.
Julia didnt look up. Instead, she took a long, deep breath and straightened her shoulders as if bracing herself for an impact.
"Maggie, whats wrong? Did I do something? Is it what happened earlier today? Talk to me. Please." Her plea was met with frozen silence.
"You didnt do anything. How could you think that?" Maggie replied finally. "Oh, shit. The paper. I need to call my editor." She started for the phone.
Julia stood abruptly, nearly knocking over her chair in her haste. Quickly, she stepped in front of Maggie, blocking her path, and she grabbed the blondes shoulders gently.
"Forget the paper for a second," she began.
Maggie bristled at the remark and jerked herself free from Julias grasp. Her eyes flashed angrily as all of the days stress chose that moment to boil over.
"Forget the paper? That paper is my fucking job! I had a huge chance today and I blew it! Besides, I didnt ask you to forget your case after you got bashed in the head!"
"Maggie, thats not what I meant " Julia tried to explain, stunned by Maggies outburst.
"Forget the paper," Maggie repeated scornfully. "Sorry, babe. Cant do that. Not all of us are spoiled little rich girls living off Daddys money while we play private detective."
Maggie regretted the words even before they tumbled from her mouth. One look at the shocked look on Julias face told her that the words had hit home. Hard. Julia stopped breathing. It felt like someone had punched her in the stomach with an iron fist.
"Julia, I didnt mean that. Oh my god. Im so sorry." Maggie took a step toward her, but Julia backed away.
"Its okay. I should go."
"Please dont go. Please," Maggie implored as the back of her throat constricted and salty tears stung her eyes. "Im so sorry. Please dont leave me."
Julia stopped, her hand on the doorknob. She desperately wanted to stay. Slowly, she turned around, and with one look into those pleading, achingly sad green eyes, she melted. Closing her eyes, she swallowed her pride and reached out to Maggie. With a wrenching sob, Maggie stepped into Julias arms.
"Its okay, Maggie. I wont ever leave you." She guided Maggie over to the couch and sat down with her, never letting go as Maggie cried against her chest.
"When I thought you were in danger .god, Maggie, Ive never been so scared in my life. I cant stand the thought of not having you in my life."
"Someone tried to kill me," Maggie hiccuped through her tears. "Why would someone try to kill me?"
"I dont know, sweetheart." Julia tilted Maggies chin up and gazed deeply into her red, puffy eyes. Tenderly, she kissed away the tears, tasting the salt on her lips.
"I dont know," she repeated. "But I swear to you, were going to find out."
Maggie was quiet for a long time. She felt safe and protected in Julias arms, and she was reluctant to let that feeling slip away. Finally, she lifted her head and smiled sadly.
"I didnt mean those things I said."
"Its fine. Forget about it." Julia kissed the tip of her nose.
"I really do need to call the paper."
Julia let out a resigned laugh and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand.
"Okay. Go call them."
"Youll be here when I get back?"
"Ill always be right here."
Maggie gave Julia a grateful squeeze before she retreated into her bedroom to use the phone. Alone, Julia leaned her head back against the couch as Maggies angry words chased themselves around in her brain. Spoiled little rich girl. Quit it, Julia, she didnt mean it, she told herself. Still, the nagging doubts persisted, but she buried them quickly as she heard Maggies footsteps returning.
"Everything okay at the paper?" Julia smiled at her.
Maggie resumed her seat and rested her head on Julias shoulder. "Yeah. More or less. Its odd to be the subject of a news story instead of the reporter. I had to answer a few questions."
They sat in a long, awkward silence until Maggie broke the tension.
"Hey, you know what? We just survived our first fight."
"Hmm. I guess we did."
Maggies hands slid underneath Julias sweater and she felt Julias stomach muscles tense. "Ive heard that make-up sex is supposed to be pretty amazing. Wanna try it?"
Julia shook her head doubtfully. "Maggie, I dont know "
Maggie put a finger against Julias lips, silencing her. "Julia, Im fine. I mean, Im scared, yes. But I feel safer with you than I do anywhere else, and I just really want to feel close to you right now."
Julia thought for a moment as her reservations slipped away. Finally, she smiled and relaxed, enjoying the feel of Maggies hands against her skin. Maggie rose, pulling Julia down the hall with her, sliding the sweater up over her head as they moved.
"Amazing make-up sex, huh? Yeah, I think I could give that a try."
Maggie laughed, pushing Julia into her bedroom. Julia joined in as the backs of her knees hit the edge of the bed and she tumbled onto the mattress, pulling Maggie down with her.
Putting his hands against the small of his back, Patrick arched backwards, trying to ease the nagging ache that had settled there. He had spent a full day unloading heavy barrels from a seemingly endless stream of trucks, and it was more physical labor than he had ever done in his life. Standing at the end of the loading dock, he squinted into the darkness, looking for the driver that would take him back to his new home. The rain had stopped earlier that afternoon, but dark, swollen clouds still loomed overhead, threatening a new downpour. Patrick wanted to be indoors before the next storm struck.
Examining his hands, he winced at the blisters that had popped up on the soft flesh, in spite of the heavy leather work gloves he had worn. His foreman had laughed and informed him that his hands would toughen up soon enough. Patrick rubbed his jaw, running his fingers across the prickly stubble. The foreman had seemed like a nice man, and so had the rest of the men he had worked with that day. Still, Patrick couldnt shake the bad feeling that had crept over him the night before, when he had been locked inside his room.
He had spent most of the night pacing around the room, and it was well after midnight when he had finally stretched out for a few hours of sleep. Rough hands had shaken him awake, and Patrick had rolled over to find Tom Becker towering over him, contempt clearly burning in his eyes. Without a word, Tom had exited from the room, leaving Patrick alone to ready himself for his new job. Fifteen minutes later, another man escorted him to a car and drove him to work.
Patrick jammed his hands deep into his hip pockets, his fingers curling around the wad of money stuffed there. He smiled, enjoying the feel of the crisp bills. His driver was still nowhere in sight and Patrick considered walking. There was always the possibility of scoring a hit somewhere along the way. He started to turn away from the edge of the dock when he heard a car in the distance. The sound of the engine grew steadily closer, and tires squealed as a red sports car careened around the corner of the building. The car stopped with a screech at the bottom of the loading dock, and the driver poked his head out of the window.
"Come on, dude. Lets go."
Grinning, Patrick jumped off the edge, ignoring the old, battered ladder that was bolted into the concrete. He barely had time to buckle his seatbelt before Eddie threw the car in reverse and zoomed back up the ramp.
"Hey, whats up?" Patrick greeted Eddie enthusiastically. "I was expecting that other guy. The one who dropped me off this morning."
Eddie glanced at him sideways, though Patrick couldnt see his eyes behind the sunglasses. He narrowly missed hitting a bicyclist, and he laughed at the angry curses shouted in his direction. His day with Tom had blackened his mood, and Eddie was ready to have a little fun. He wasnt supposed to be the one picking Patrick up, but at the last minute, Eddie had called the real driver and told him that he would be taking the guys place. DC would be furious once he found out, but Eddie figured that as long as no harm was done, everything would be okay.
"Dude, I think we are both in need of some serious relaxing. I know this club over by North Beach where the honeys will be all over us, you know what Im sayin?" Eddie grinned at him and turned up the radio until the bass made the entire car vibrate.
"Im there, man," Patrick agreed readily.
Eddie tore through a red light, and the Camaro was momentarily airborne as he hit one of the citys steep hills. The car came down with a crash that rocked both men in their seats. They looked at each other and started to laugh hysterically.
"Shit, yeah!" Patrick echoed as they sped towards North Beach.
"What do you mean he told he was picking Patrick up?" DC screamed at the man standing across from him. "Who the fuck do you work for, huh? You work for me or for Eddie?"
"I work for you, DC."
"Fucking right, you do!" DCs face was flushed dark red with fury and flecks of foam dotted his lips. He loosened the collar of his shirt. He glared at the man before him.
"DC, Im sorry. Eddie said the orders came from you."
"Do I look like I give a fuck what Eddie said?" DCs voice rose again, and veins pulsed angrily on his forehead. "Get the hell out!"
Once he was alone, DC picked up the exquisite crystal decanter on the desk and hurled it against the wall. It shattered with a satisfyingly loud smash, spraying liquid all over the wall and floor. The door opened and a woman entered, slinking in like a cat. She looked first at DC, fuming behind the desk, then at the broken glass on the floor.
DC relaxed slightly and stepped around the desk to greet her. He walked with a faint limp, and he favored his left leg. He smiled at her and pulled her into a hug.
"Nothing I cant handle," he assured her.
She looked at him skeptically as she pulled the cascading mass of blonde curls back from her face. She eyed the shards of glass again.
"Hmm. So, you broke my daddys decanter because theres nothing wrong that you cant handle?"
Sighing heavily, DC released her and leaned back against the edge of the desk. He stared past her, his gaze focused on a spot somewhere behind her head. Telling her the truth meant risking her volatile temper, but lying to her would be even worse. She moved closer, straddling his lap and locking her long fingers behind his neck. He nibbled at her throat, breathing in the light, delicate scent of her perfume. It always intoxicated him.
"Poor baby," she purred, stroking his sandy hair. "Tell Allison all about it."
Instantly, the room turned to ice. Placing both hands flat against his chest, Allison wrenched herself free from DCs embrace. Dark eyes flashed and the corner of her mouth curled downward in a derisive sneer.
"Eddie. Its always Eddie," she spat. "Explain to me why you put up with that worthless, irritating screw-up? No, wait. Dont bother. I dont want to hear it again. Just tell me what he did this time."
DC shrugged, feigning indifference. "Its probably nothing. Apparently he picked up the McKinnon guy from the warehouse today. Nobody seems to know exactly where they are."
He braced himself for the explosion, but surprisingly, Allison started to laugh softly. After a moments confusion, he joined in nervously. Smiling, she moved closer to him again, pressing her body against his, and he responded eagerly. With an almost violent tug, she yanked his zipper down and thrust her hand inside the front of his pants. His ecstatic groan turned to a horrified squeak as, without warning, Allison seized hold of him and twisted. Leaning close, she whispered into his ear.
"McKinnon was supposed to stay out of sight. If he and Eddie screw this up for us, I will hold you personally responsible. Do you understand? Nod if you understand."
Pained tears brimmed in his eyes, and DC nodded vigorously. Allison released him and took a step back, examining her fingernails carefully. With a relieved sigh, DC slumped back against the desk. He took several slow, deep breaths as he waited for the nausea to subside.
"Damn. Chipped the polish." Allison pouted, holding up her damaged index finger. "I want this little problem taken care of. Got it?"
Still not trusting himself to speak, DC nodded again. Allison smiled at him and started to turn away.
"Oh, one more thing. Theres a reporter poking around where she doesnt belong. A little blonde at the Chronicle. Do something about that too. Okay, Danny?"
A reporter. Danny wondered if it was the same one who had interviewed him about the Netsports break-in. Frowning, he ransacked his brain, trying to remember her name. He shrugged. All he had to do was find a copy of the newspaper. Her name would be on the story. Long fingers snapped impatiently in front of his nose, and he blinked rapidly, jerking his head back out of reach.
"Hey, Danny! Did you hear me?"
Daniel C. Webber smiled at his fiancée. "Dont worry. Ill handle it."
Allison rewarded him with a pat on the cheek. "Good boy."
Julia awoke to the odd sensation of sunlight hitting her face. Her own bedroom faced away from the sun, and she still had not grown accustomed to waking up in Maggies apartment. Nearly a week had passed since their night of amazing make-up sex, and they had been together every night since then.
Carefully, she opened one eye, wincing as the bright light pierced her eyeball and drilled into her brain. Groaning, she pulled the pillow over her face, welcoming the darkness. She had spent the previous night showing Maggie the wide variety of bars and clubs in the Castro, and now she was paying for that last margarita.
The shower was running, and Julia could hear Maggies slightly off-key alto as she sang along with the radio on the bathroom counter. Before she could change her mind, Julia rolled out of bed and padded on bare feet into the warm, steamy bathroom. She paused, admiring Maggies outline through the frosted glass door to the shower stall. She opened the door and stepped inside, pulling Maggie close for a kiss.
"Well, good morning to you, too," Maggie greeted her breathlessly after they parted.
"Morning," Julia replied, sticking her head under the water and letting the strong jets massage her scalp.
"Headache?" Maggie asked, recalling that Julia had been quite tipsy when they had finally tumbled into bed the night before.
Keeping her eyes closed, Julia nodded. She sighed happily as Maggie lightly rubbed her temples, easing the painful throbbing in her head. Julia hugged her lover close, enjoying the feel of their bodies pressed together. Reaching behind Maggie, she took the bottle of shower gel from the shelf and squeezed a healthy amount into the palm of her hand. Grinning devilishly, she began to spread the gel across Maggies body, starting with her shoulders.
"I already did that," Maggie informed her.
"You can never be too clean," Julia replied, sliding her hands down to Maggies breasts and working the gel into a thick, slippery lather.
Maggie let her head fall forward against Julias shoulder and licked droplets of water from the tanned skin. She groaned, biting down on her lower lip as a soapy hand moved between her legs.
"Keep that up and Im never gonna make it to work." Maggie teased.
"And that would be bad?"
"My boss wouldnt like it."
Julia ducked her head, nibbling on a pink earlobe. "Your boss isnt here," she murmured.
"Eww. I hope not." Maggie screwed up her face at the mental image of her editor in the shower. "I definitely wouldnt want to see him naked."
Laughing, Julia relented and pulled Maggie in for a hug. She rested her chin on top of the damp blonde head.
"You crack me up sometimes, Maggie," she chuckled fondly. "Okay, no more shower games."
"Hey, I didnt say that," Maggie protested. "Maybe later, when we have time to play them properly " Stretching her arm around Julia, she turned the water off. "I really do have to get to work, though."
Stepping out of the shower, they dried and dressed each other, making the task take much longer than it should have. As they headed into the kitchen, Julia inhaled deeply, breathing in the welcome aroma of freshly brewed coffee. She filled two large mugs while Maggie toasted bagels.
"So, whats going on at the paper today?" Julia asked between swallows of the strong black coffee.
"The usual stuff, I suppose. Deadline for my Halloween story is Wednesday, so Ill probably work on that today."
Julia lifted an eyebrow. "Thats the day after tomorrow. Have you even started on it yet?"
Maggie shrugged, taking a bite of her whole-wheat bagel. "Technically, no. But I have all the information. I just have to write it all out." She grinned at the reproachful look her lover was giving her. "Besides, I work better under pressure anyway."
Julia sighed, shaking her head in mock-disapproval. "Maggie McKinnon, world-class procrastinator."
"Thats me," Maggie agreed solemnly.
She hesitated, debating with herself for a moment before opening one of the kitchen drawers. She extracted a shiny silver key and took a deep breath as she turned to face Julia. Maggie could feel her cheeks growing hot, and she wondered why in the world she was so nervous. She held the key out to Julia.
"Here. I, uh .I thought you should have this." She continued as Julia blinked at her in surprise. "I mean, it sort of makes sense, doesnt it? Youre here half the time anyway."
"This is the key to your apartment?" Julia asked. Her hand trembled as she took the key from Maggies outstretched hand.
"Well, yeah," Maggie replied, slightly confused by the stunned look on Julias face. "Oh god. Its too soon, isnt it? Im sorry. I just thought " A pair of warm lips pressing against hers silenced her, and she relaxed into the kiss.
"Sshh. Its not too soon," Julia reassured her. "Thank you. Actually, um, I have one for you at home. Ive been trying to figure out the best time to give it to you."
Maggie grinned at her as a warm, contented glow spread through her stomach. "Oh. Cool." She glanced at the clock on the microwave and frowned. "Damn. I really have to go."
"Okay. Youre meeting me at Marios for lunch, right?" Julia handed Maggie her briefcase and escorted her to the door.
"Absolutely. Ill see you at noon. Lock up when you leave, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah. Go on. Youre gonna be late." Julia shooed her out the door.
Closing the door, she tightened her fist around the cool metal key in her hand. She smiled as she went into the bedroom to retrieve her own key ring. Neither she nor Maggie paid any attention to the red Camaro parked across the street from the apartment complex.
Eddie Machado slouched further down in his seat as he watched Maggie emerge from her unit and get into her car. He noted the time on the expensive Swiss watch strapped to his wrist. He waited until Maggie had passed him before pulling his car into the street. Making sure to adhere to Toms instructions, he stayed two car lengths behind the black Corolla as he followed Maggie to work, mentally mapping out her route. DC had been furious with him for taking Patrick on a tour of old North Beachs strip clubs, and Eddie knew that this was his last chance to redeem himself.
The task he had been given was simple. Follow the reporter for a couple of days and learn her routine. Eddie was sure he couldnt screw this one up. He tailed the Corolla until Maggie pulled into the parking garage. Eddie noted the time again as he circled the block, looking for a place on the street to park. He zoomed into a tight space, nearly hitting a group of tourists. Slumping down in his seat, he adjusted the rearview mirror until he could see the Chronicle building. He lit a cigarette and settled in to wait until Maggie reappeared.
Maggie reached the newsroom at the same time as Catherine Richards, and the temperature plummeted immediately. Her relationship with the Hellcat had become even chillier after she had started working on the serial arson story, and the friction between them had started to affect the rest of the staff. As they walked into the room, every pair of eyes instantly found something fascinating to look at on the floor.
Sighing, Maggie sat down at her desk and sifted through the small stack of pink phone messages. The one on the bottom grabbed her attention. Patrick had called the day before. There was no personal message, just the date and time of the call. Maggie stared at the slip of paper and wondered what he had wanted. She still hadnt called her family and told them about her brothers latest disappearance. She would call them later that night, when her father would be home from work, she promised herself.
"Halloween piece is due on my desk, day after tomorrow, McKinnon," Maggies editor tapped the top of her monitor with his pencil as he walked past her desk.
"Youll have it first thing Wednesday morning," she assured him.
"Hey, speaking of Halloween "
Maggie jumped as Jessica appeared at her elbow. "How do you do that?"
Jessica stared at her through her wire-rimmed glasses. "Do what?"
"Appear out of nowhere like that! Im starting to think youre some kind of mischievous elf, or something."
Jessica nearly doubled over with laughter. "Oh, thats a good one, Maggie. Mischievous elf," she snorted. "Have you been reading Tolkien again?"
"Anyway, like I was trying to say a second ago," Jessica continued. "Luke is having a party on Halloween. You and tall, dark and sexy are welcome to come, but you have to dress up."
Maggie frowned, searching her brain. "Luke?"
"Yeah, you know, the guy I told you about. The biology grad student at Berkeley." Jessica reminded her.
"Oh, him. Okay, I remember now. Ill check with Julia about the party."
"Do that. Luke is gonna dress up as Batman, and Im gonna be Catwoman. You dont want to miss out on that."
Maggie laughed, trying to picture her diminutive friend in a vinyl jumpsuit. She added whiskers and a whip to her mental picture and nearly fell out of her chair. She wiped the tears from her eyes.
"No, I definitely dont want to miss that," she said. "Im having lunch with Julia later. Ill ask her then."
Jessica gave her a knowing grin. "Ah, I get it. Hooking up later for a little noontime quickie?"
"Jess!" Maggie hissed, glancing around to see if anyone was listening. She could feel the blood rushing to her face.
"What?" Jessica asked innocently. "I figured the relationship is still young, so the sex is probably still pretty hot. Besides, theres nothing wrong with getting some on your lunch hour. I do it all the time."
"Oh, thats just what I wanted to know, Jessica. Thank you very much for that image," Maggie replied dryly. "And my relationship with Julia is based on more than hot sex."
"Aha! So you admit that the sex is hot, then?"
"I have no complaints." Maggie grinned smugly. "And this conversation is now over."
"Aw, come on, Maggie! We were just getting to the good stuff."
"Excuse me. I dont want to interrupt, but if recess is over, some of us have work to do," Catherine spoke from behind them, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Jessica glanced sideways at Maggie. "Later," she mouthed before hastily making her exit.
Maggie counted to ten, making sure she had control of her temper, before she swiveled around to face the other reporter. "What do you want, Catherine?"
"Give me your info on the Davis warehouse fire," Catherine demanded. "Im helping Graphics put together a timeline."
"Here," Maggie handed her a file from her briefcase. "Its not much, so I dont know how much help it will be. The family spokesman wasnt very forthcoming when I interviewed him. Im meeting with one of their attorneys later this afternoon. Ill let you know if I find out anything interesting."
"Whatever." Catherine snatched the folder out of Maggies hand. She started to leave. Suddenly she turned around, fixing Maggie with an icy stare. "You are so far out of your league with the Davis family. Try not to embarrass the rest of us when you make a complete idiot of yourself in front of their lawyer."
Catherine leaned down, bringing her mouth close to Maggies ear. The cloying scent of her perfume was suffocating, and Maggie nearly gagged. She could feel Catherines hot breath on her earlobe, and it was making her distinctly uncomfortable.
"By the way, I know all about you and your girlfriend. Congratulations. Julia Cassinelli is quite a catch, if you can hold on to her." Catherines thin lips twisted into a derisive sneer. "Just so you know, it doesnt matter how many of those high-society babes you fuck. You will never be one of them."
Catherines mocking laughter mingled with the clacking of her heels as she walked away. Maggies ears burned and she fought to keep tears of rage from spilling from her eyes. The smell of Catherines perfume lingered around her desk, and Maggie stood abruptly, in need of some fresh air. She could feel the curious eyes on her as she headed for the doors, and she knew that other people had heard Catherines words and that the whole newsroom would be buzzing about it by the end of the day. Would they all think the same thing the Catherine did? That she was only interested in Julia for her money?
Her ire rose as she approached the doors. She had nothing to be ashamed of, and she would be damned if she was going to act like she did. She turned around and waited until a hush settled over the rest of the staff and she had everyones attention.
"I know several of you heard what Catherine said to me just now," she started. "So let me confirm a couple of things before the rumors get totally out of hand. Yes, I am gay, and yes, I am dating Julia Cassinelli." Fiery green eyes swept across the room, daring anyone to make a comment. No one did.
Whirling, Maggie stomped out the door and through the outer lobby. She was standing outside on the curb for a full minute before she realized that she had forgotten her jacket at her desk and she was freezing.
"Stupid city with its stupid fog every morning," she grumbled, rubbing her arms.
Maggie took several deep breaths until she felt her anger begin to subside. Tentative footsteps approached behind her, and her jacket miraculously floated in the air in front of her. She smiled.
"I saw you go flying out of the newsroom without your jacket. Didn't want you to freeze to death out here," Jessica explained, shoving her hands deep inside her coat pockets to keep them warm. "So, I guess Hellcat strikes again, huh?"
"Ugh. You can say that again." Maggie made a disgusted face as she slipped her favorite corduroy jacket on and started walking down the street. "Let's just say that my relationship with Julia is out in the open now."
"That bitch!" Jessica's dark eyes flashed with sympathetic anger. "Are you okay? Do you want me to beat her up for you?"
Maggie laughed weakly. "I'm fine, Jess. Really. I don't want to talk about it anymore, okay?"
"Are you sure?" Jessica persisted. "Because I really wouldn't mind beating her up for you."
"Yeah, and then who would have to bail you out of jail afterwards? Me."
"Hmm. You're probably right," Jessica agreed, struggling to keep up with Maggie's rapid strides. "Uh, Maggie? Where are we going?"
"I'm just gonna walk around the block or something. You can go back inside if you want."
"No, no," Jessica puffed. "The exercise will be good for me."
Halfway around the long block, Jessica slowed and tugged on Maggie's sleeve. She made a grand show of tying her shoelace, propping her foot up on a cement planter on the curb.
"Don't look, but I think a red car has been following us since we left the paper," she muttered out of the side of her mouth.
"What?" Maggie started to turn around, but Jessica yanked on her sleeve again.
"I said, don't look!" The tiny copy editor hissed as she adjusted her shoelaces.
Out of the corner of her eye, Maggie saw the red sports car as it slowly drove past them. She caught a quick glimpse of the heavily tattooed driver with the dark sunglasses and slicked-back hair. A chill shot up her spine and the fine hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
"What should we do?" Maggie whispered, her eyes darting around nervously.
"I don't know!" Jessica replied frantically. "Do you think it's the same guy who shot at you last week?"
Maggie fervently wished that Julia was with her. No, actually, she wished that she was with Julia, far away from the red car with its creepy driver. She glanced back over her shoulder, and suddenly everyone on the street looked threatening. Even the nice old man who sold flowers on the corner seemed to be watching her.
"Okay, calm down. Maybe we're just being paranoid." She chewed on her lower lip as she tried to decide her course of action. "Let's just get back inside."
Jessica nodded, her eyes wide with fear. She hooked her arm through Maggie's as they hurried back down the street towards their building. A few yards from the front doors, they saw the Camaro come around the corner. It parked a few doors down, and they could see the driver through the windshield as his head bobbed along to the loud music blaring from the stereo.
"Shit," they squeaked in unison.
Trying not to draw too much attention to themselves, they dashed inside. Carol, the receptionist, looked at them curiously as she answered the phones. Maggie peeked out the window. The car was still there.
"You should get out of here," Jessica advised. She dug in her coat pocket. "Here. Take my car. I'll get a ride home with someone."
Maggie shook her head. "This is ridiculous. We don't even know for sure that he's following me."
Jessica's eyes widened. "You don't think he's after me, do you?"
"No, of course not! Maybe he's not after either of us. Maybe he was just circling the block until he could find a parking space."
Flattening herself against the wall, Jessica carefully craned her neck around the corner until she could see out the window. The man with the tattoos was still sitting in the car, and now he was talking to someone on a cell phone. She wasn't sure, but she thought he seemed to be watching their building.
"Is he still there?" Maggie asked.
Jessica nodded. "He's on the phone."
"It could be nothing. Maybe he's just waiting for someone," Maggie theorized.
"Maybe," Jessica replied doubtfully. "Maybe you should call Julia."
Maggie shook her head emphatically. "No way. She would just get all upset. It's taken me this long to get her calmed down after what happened last week."
After Maggie's near miss with a bullet the week before, Julia had gone into insanely over-protective mode. She had insisted upon personally installing a new security system for the apartment. Though the reporter couldn't prove it, she also suspected that Julia had called in a few favors from the police department, since Maggie swore she had seen a patrol car cruising her street at regular intervals. Still, she couldn't really complain about all the attention, since it meant that she and Julia had spent every night together for the last week.
Gathering her courage, she peeked out the window again. The car was still there, and this time, the driver seemed to be looking directly at her. Logically, Maggie knew he couldn't see from so far away, especially since she was mostly hidden behind a corner. Her skin prickled anyway, as logic gave way to icy fear. She turned to Jessica.
"I think I'm gonna take you up on your offer."
Jessica pressed her car keys into Maggie's hand. "You know where it's parked, right?"
"Second level, by the elevator."
"Get out of here then. I'll cover for you. As far as I know, you went to meet with a source." Jessica pushed her towards the elevator.
"Thanks. I'll call you later." Maggie stepped inside and punched the number for the parking garage.
"Be careful," Jessica warned her earnestly.
Maggie put on a brave smile. "Don't worry. I'll be fine."
The elevator doors slid shut with a quiet hiss, and Maggie slumped back against the wall. She watched anxiously as each floor lit up with a soft ping as she descended towards the garage. She half expected to find the tattooed man waiting for her when she reached her destination, but the parking level was dim and deserted. The sound of her shoes on the concrete echoed through the cavernous structure as she hurried to Jessica's car. She needed to get to Julia. Then everything would be okay.
She should have turned right upon exiting the garage. Instead, Maggie cut across traffic and turned left, heading towards the red sports car. She held her breath as she passed it, but the driver wasn't looking in her direction. He was too busy flirting with a group of sightseeing women on the street. As she drove by, Maggie noted his license plate number. She would give that to Julia and see what the private investigator could find. Half a block later, when the Camaro was barely visible in the rearview mirror, Maggie exhaled in relief and turned the car towards Julia's office.
To be continued....Part 7
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