Allison Davis paced impatiently across the balcony of her father's retreat. Nestled amongst the evergreens, the house sat high on a sheer cliff, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Waves crashed rhythmically against the rocks below, invisible in the inky darkness. Behind her, Allison could hear her fiancÚ clicking away on his laptop.
"Danny, stop that. It's giving me a headache," she said without turning.
Pausing, Daniel Webber looked up at her, silhouetted in the sliding glass doorway that led from the master bedroom to the balcony. Allison had always been excitable, even in college, but tonight she appeared even more agitated than normal. She was full of nervous energy and her dark, unreadable eyes were far too bright.
Allison had been edgy since her father had ordered them out of town early that morning. For the past few days, Danny had been hiding at the Davis estate while the police searched his home and his business. The cops had found nothing. The councilman had made sure of that, but Danny was drawing too much attention and people were beginning to ask questions about Allison and her father, as well. His solution had been to send his daughter and his future son-in-law to his coastal retreat. Few people knew he owned the beach house, and no one would look for them there.
Gradually, Danny became aware that Allison had turned around. She was staring at him expectantly, waiting for a response to her directive.
"Stop what?" He asked cautiously, trying not to trigger her explosive temper.
She snarled, glaring at him, and he shrank back on the bed. In a few long strides, she closed the distance between them and swept the laptop off the black satin sheets, knocking it to the floor with a clatter.
"That incessant click, click, click," she said, pretending to type on an imaginary keyboard. "I can't think clearly with all that damn noise!"
Danny reached out to her, but she pushed him away savagely, nearly throwing him off the edge of the bed. He watched her as she resumed pacing, her hands gesturing spasmodically as she carried on a private conversation with herself. Slowly, he rose and moved toward the open bathroom door. As he expected, a small paper envelope had been discarded on the floor in front of the sink. Kneeling, Danny checked the contents and discovered that it was empty, except for a few granules of powdery residue. He licked his finger and his tongue immediately went numb.
"Allison, I thought we agreed you would lay off this stuff for a while." Danny stood, holding up the envelope for her to see.
She giggled and covered her mouth with her hand. "That was supposed to be a secret."
Danny sighed and tossed the empty envelope into the wastebasket. Allison pouted, poking her lower lip out as she glided towards him on bare feet. Throwing her arms around his neck, she nibbled his ear.
"It was just a little bit," she murmured. "I was so tired earlier. I needed a little something to keep me going. That's all."
Her mood changed again and she pushed him away. "Daddy said he would call as soon as he was done with the police. Why hasn't he called yet?"
Danny followed her back out to the balcony, where she was leaning precariously over the rail. Gently, he put his hands around her waist and pulled her back.
"I don't know, baby. Maybe the cops are still talking to him. I'm sure he'll call soon and everything will be just fine."
"Hmmm. Maybe you're right." Allison's face brightened and she moved past him, back into the bedroom.
"I think I'll go down to the pool." She gave him a sly glance. "Join me?"
Danny smiled at her indulgently. "Sure. Go on down. I'll grab the towels and the wine and meet you in a few minutes."
"Bring the phone with you. Can't miss Daddy's call." She gave him a hard, steely grin and he thought he detected a threat lurking behind her impossibly dark eyes.
"Oh, and Danny? Don't keep me waiting."
She brushed past him and left the room, humming airily as she descended the stairs. A spacious living room stretched out below her on the first floor. The entire rear wall consisted of plate glass and a sliding door that opened onto a wide redwood deck. A few steps down, a swimming pool and a connecting hot tub waited.
As Allison strolled through the living room, a soft thump alerted her. She stopped, cocking her head to the side, listening. It had sounded like it had come from the front steps, and her eyes narrowed as she padded towards the door. She pressed her ear against it but heard nothing further.
"Fuck this," she muttered under her breath, yanking the front door wide open.
There was no one there and not a car in sight as far as she could see in either direction. Allison stepped out onto the front patio, shivering a bit in the cool night air. A brisk sea breeze rustled through the dense evergreen branches, but other than that, everything was still and quiet. As she turned to reenter the house, her bare foot brushed against something hard and prickly. She looked down at the small pinecone that rested near the door.
She kicked the offending object into the darkness, grunting in satisfaction as something skittered away into the night. Her high was wearing off and she could feel the headache building behind her right eye. The pain would be blinding soon, unless she did something about it. Heading back into the house, she paused at the foot of the stairs.
"Danny? Be a dear and bring me one of my migraine pills too." She shut the door behind her and continued out to the pool.
Once the footsteps had receded from earshot, a tall figure materialized out of the dark recesses to the side of the house. Julia heaved a sigh of relief. While checking the lock on the front door, her small flashlight had slipped out of her hand. There had been just enough time to grab it and duck out of sight before Allison ripped the door open. Moving carefully to avoid making any more noise, Julia crossed the front patio. She tested the knob again, hoping that Allison had forgotten to lock up. It would not turn.
Deep in thought, Julia chewed on her thumbnail as she planned her next move. For two days she had skulked outside the Davis estate, trying to figure out a way to get past the guards and get inside. Martin Davis had more security than she had expected, and there had been several close calls as she eluded them. Finally, just after dawn that morning, her luck had turned. The gates had opened and Danny's shiny red sports car had emerged. It had sped away, but not before Julia had caught a glimpse of his passenger. Her suspicions had been confirmed. There was something going on between Danny Webber and Allison Davis.
In her brand-new Toyota 4-Runner, Julia had followed, taking care to stay several car lengths behind them as they fled San Francisco. They had led her to the councilman's retreat overlooking the southern edge of Stinson Beach. She had driven past the house at first, then doubled back once she was sure that Danny and Allison were inside. After leaving her vehicle out of sight around a sharp curve, Julia had hiked back to the house, taking cover amidst the dense thicket of trees that surrounded it. When night had fallen, she had begun trying to devise a way to get inside.
Scowling in frustration, Julia took a step back and stared up at the house. Okay, Julia. Think this through, she reasoned with herself. You get into the house and then what? Walk up to them and say 'tell me what's going on, or else'? A heavier set of footsteps descended the stairs, and she prepared to hide again. Danny's footsteps, she surmised, listening as they moved away from the front door. There was a splash, followed by a pair of low voices.
The pool, Julia thought. This was the perfect opportunity to get into the house and have a look around. She was positive that there would be something inside to connect Danny and Allison to the attacks on Maggie. Perhaps she would even find evidence to help clear her lover's good-for-nothing brother, though Julia wasn't as convinced of that. She still believed that Patrick was, at least, peripherally involved in whatever game Danny and Allison were running. Julia didn't understand her lover's loyalty to her brother, but she had decided to do what she could to help him. For Maggie's sake.
Their argument had bothered her more than she cared to admit. When Maggie had walked out of the apartment that night, Julia had been positive that they were over. Everyone she had ever remotely cared about walked out on her eventually. Kirsten. Her mother. Why should Maggie be any different? Besides, Julia knew that she made a mistake by blurting out the information about Patrick without discussing it with Maggie first. She had known it the second the words had tumbled out of her mouth. It was a realization that came too late, and she couldn't blame the reporter for being angry. She would not be surprised if Maggie never forgave her.
Henry had driven her home and stayed the night on the couch, watching over her while she drank herself into a stupor. He had tried several times to talk to her, but she had been beyond listening. She had destroyed the best thing in her life. Maggie was gone. Nothing else mattered. When she woke up the next morning, alone, she made a decision. Even if Maggie didn't want her anymore, Julia vowed to solve the case and make sure that the reporter stayed safe. It was the least she could do.
There was another loud splash, and laughter cut through the night, reminding Julia of her purpose. Come on, Julia. Focus, she chastised herself mentally. There was a good chance that the answers to her questions were in that house, and she was determined to do whatever it took to find them.
Flattening herself against the side of the house, she edged around to the back. Carefully, she poked her head around the corner until she could see Danny and Allison lounging in the hot tub and sipping from wineglasses. They had their backs to her, and more importantly, they had their backs to the house. Sizing up her chances, Julia calculated the distance between herself and the half-open sliding glass door. She would have to move quickly and silently, but she thought she could cover the ground and slip inside the house without being seen. It was risky, but it was worth a shot.
"What the hell," she whispered. "What have I got to lose?"
She clenched her fists, her fingernails leaving deep crescents embedded into her palms. She would only have one shot at this. One chance to get inside the secluded beach house without being seen by the couple relaxing in the hot tub just yards away. Julia could feel her heart rate quickening and she forced herself to take slow, deep breaths. Bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet, like a boxer sizing up his opponent, she gauged the distance between her hiding place and the back door. Ten seconds. Maybe fifteen. That was all she would need.
On noiseless feet, she moved, staying in the shadows, keeping her back pressed flat against the side of the house. She placed each step with the utmost care, knowing that the crack of a twig underfoot could be her undoing. All the while, her eyes never left the man and woman in the steaming hot tub. As she inched toward the redwood deck, the theme to Mission: Impossible resounded through her head in an endless loop, and she almost laughed at the absurdity of her situation. Then she remembered the sound of gunfire ripping through metal mingling with Maggie's screams, and all traces of humor vanished. This was no game.
Julia paused at the edge of the deck. This was the tricky part. Once she stepped up onto the deck, she would be completely exposed until she was inside the house. It would only take a few seconds, but if Danny turned his head a fraction of an inch to the left, he would see her.
With exaggerated slowness, she placed her boot on the edge of the deck. The wood creaked beneath her weight, and she tensed, expecting to hear shouts of alarm. When none came, she continued, covering the space in four long strides. Turning sideways, she slid through the partially open door, the frame brushing against her soft leather jacket.
Quickly, Julia ducked behind the curtains and risked a glance outside. Allison still had her back turned, but Danny's position appeared to have changed. Julia's stomach tightened and she wiped her damp palms on her jeans as she tried to recall exactly which way he had been facing.
"Be reasonable," she said under her breath. "If he had seen you, he would have said something and it would be all over."
Dismissing the roiling in her gut as mere paranoia, she turned to survey the living room. The sparse, precisely arranged furniture made her feel like she was standing in the pages of a magazine. Her instincts told her that the information she sought was elsewhere and she headed for the stairs, taking care not to disturb anything. Danny wouldn't notice if the throw rug had moved a quarter of an inch, but Allison might.
The polished banister was slick and cool beneath her hand as she climbed to the second floor. Every nerve ending in her body stood at attention and she started at every tiny sound. Her own breathing sounded too loud in her ears. She had to admit that in all her years as a private investigator, she had never been this nervous. The stakes had never been this high. Julia wondered again if leaving Maggie behind had been the best idea. It had been one of the most difficult decisions she had ever made, and she hoped that her brother was keeping a close eye on the reporter, as he had promised.
With a little luck, the whole ugly mess would be over soon, she told herself as she entered the master bedroom. Various articles of clothing spilled out of two open suitcases resting on the floor, and she started toward them. At the last moment, she swerved over to the bed as something more interesting caught her eye. Cocking her head to one side, she examined the closed laptop balanced at the foot of the bed. She opened it and cursed in frustration when it prompted her for a password. Typing in words at random got her nowhere, and Julia searched her mind for a clue that would point her towards the right password. Face it, her inner voice mocked her, you don't even know who this thing belongs to. You could sit here all night and still not come up with the right word.
Though she hated to admit it, the voice was right. Julia put the computer back on the bed and stood, smoothing away the wrinkles she left on the satin sheets. She returned her attention to the open suitcases and began to sift through the contents. Danny's contained nothing of interest. As she dug beneath Allison's hastily folded clothes, Julia's hopes were fading.
"There has to be something here," she said, her desperation growing.
She searched the walk-in closet and rifled through the dresser drawers, finding nothing out of the ordinary. She was running out of time and she knew it. Her gaze was drawn to the thin sliver of light shining through the crack at the bottom of the bathroom door. Julia moved toward it hopefully. She nudged the door open and stepped inside the glossy black tiled room. There was nothing on the counter or in the sink. A quick glance inside the sunken bathtub revealed nothing there either. Julia spun in a slow circle, searching for something, anything that would help her crack this case. Downstairs, the sliding door opened.
"Oh, shit." She breathed, heading for the bathroom door.
Her instincts screamed at her. Get out or find a place to hide. At the edge of her vision, she caught sight of a scrap of paper poking out from behind the wastebasket. Julia snatched the small white envelope between her thumb and index finger and shoved it into her pocket. She would examine it more closely later. If she managed to escape without being detected.
Returning to the bedroom, Julia paused, listening. Every muscle in her body tensed, waiting for a confrontation. She expected to hear footsteps on the stairs at any moment. Instead, the faint clinking of dishes told her that someone was in the kitchen. Keeping her guard up, she eased out into the hallway.
"Allison, where's the bottle opener?" Danny's voice floated up to her.
There was a short pause, then a muffled reply. Julia listened as Danny opened drawers and rummaged through their contents. He emerged from the kitchen with two beer bottles in one hand and a bottle opener in the other. Julia stepped away from the railing, back into the shadows. She sighed in relief, allowing herself to relax when he returned to the swimming pool without looking in her direction. It was time for her to get the hell out of the house.
Patience had never been one of her virtues, but Julia forced herself to wait. After counting to twenty, she started down the stairs, keeping an eye on the back door with every step. As she reached the bottom, the phone rang. She froze, panic rising. She was completely vulnerable. There was nowhere to hide if Danny or Allison came back into the house. On the second ring, Allison answered the call outside, her voice drifting through the half-open door.
"Daddy! It's about time. I was getting worried."
Julia knew she should get out while Allison was occupied, but the opportunity to eavesdrop on this conversation was one she could not pass up. She crept into the living room and ducked down behind the corner of the sofa. She strained her ears, trying to hear more of the phone call.
Judging by Allison's reactions, Julia surmised that the councilman was giving her a list of instructions. Allison objected vehemently, but she was overruled. She and Danny were to stay at the house, out of sight, until further notice. Julia could almost picture Allison's sullen, child-like pout. A long stretch of silence followed, and Julia's anxiety rose. Her heart nearly stopped at the sudden mention of Maggie's name.
"What about those reporters, Richards and McKinnon?" Allison asked. "What are you going to do about them?"
A delighted squeal turned Julia's blood to ice. Ignoring the risk, she edged closer, needing to hear more of the details. Peeking through the curtains, she watched as Allison finished the exchange with her father and replaced the cordless phone on the deck.
"Well, well." Allison turned to Danny gleefully. "It seems Maggie McKinnon lost her great protector. Daddy says no one has seen your friend Julia in days. He's sending people to take care of both of our reporter problems."
A red haze filled Julia's mind and a steady stream of profanity swirled endlessly in her head. Struggling to control her blinding rage, she suppressed the urge to storm outside and throttle the gloating socialite. She clenched her fists reflexively, imagining the feel of Allison's throat beneath her fingers. This wasn't the time, she told herself. First, she had to make sure that Maggie, and Catherine, stayed safe. Swift, silent and resolute, she exited the house. As soon as she was out of earshot, she broke into a run, dashing down the road to the spot where she had left her truck.
Back in the hot tub, Danny smiled vacantly while Allison filled him in on the plan. In her excitement, she failed to notice that he wasn't looking at her. Instead, Danny's eyes were focused on the house. He wondered if Julia had found anything useful. If she had, it would not take her long to act on the information. He had to make a decision. Soon.
Maggie parked across the street from Julia's Victorian and left the engine idling while she surveyed the neighborhood. Everything looked normal. There were no unfamiliar vehicles on the curb or sinister figures lurking in the shadows. During the drive over, she had checked frequently to ensure they were not followed. Even so, she could not shake the almost palpable feeling of dread that had settled over her since finding Patrick outside the coffee shop. She had a whole slate of questions for him, but she had been too tense during the drive to ask them. Maggie exchanged a glance with Drew, and she could see the same concerns written in the deep creases on his brow. A voice from the backseat made them both jump.
"What are we waiting for?" Patrick wondered.
"Nothing. Let's get inside." Maggie shut off the engine and led the way toward Julia's house.
She kept her eyes moving, flicking from side to side as they headed up the walkway. There would be no surprises. Behind her, Patrick stepped on a dry twig, and the snap seemed to echo up and down the quiet street. Both Maggie and Drew turned, fixing him with a reproachful glare.
"Sorry." He muttered, shoving his hands deep in his pockets.
Maggie was familiar with both the attitude and the gesture. She had seen and heard Patrick's halfhearted apologies hundreds of times before. She sighed, relenting.
"It's okay. We're all a little on edge, I think."
"Hey, do you have a key to this place? Because I don't," Drew said as they reached the door. "How are we gonna get inside? Is there a spare hidden under the doormat?"
Maggie gave him a thin smile as an answer. She knelt in front of the door and probed the edges of the porch floorboards with her fingertips. A splinter jabbed the fleshy pad of her thumb, and she let out a pained yelp. The injured part went directly to her mouth, a childhood habit she had never been able to break. She continued her search with her other hand until she found the loose board. As Drew and Patrick looked on, Maggie pried one end of the board up and retrieved the spare key taped to its underside. She stood, holding up her prize triumphantly.
"You know, youd think a private investigator would think of a better place to hide a key." Drew commented as Maggie unlocked the door.
"Your friend is a private investigator?" Patrick asked, following his sister into the house.
Maggie nodded and directed the others into the living room. She locked the front door behind them, testing the knob twice to make sure it was secure. Drew had taken a seat on Julia's sofa, while Patrick stood in front of the fireplace, examining the photograph on the mantle. Maggie crossed the room and pulled the drapes shut. Once she was sure that no one could spy on them, she turned her attention to the two waiting men.
"Is this your friend?" Patrick removed the framed picture and held it out towards his sister.
"No. That's Julia's mother," Maggie said.
"Huh. She's hot."
Maggie's frayed nerves snapped. "Patrick, put that back and get serious for once! You're wanted for murder. People keep trying to kill me. I want to know why!"
Patrick shrank back against the fireplace, startled by Maggie's outburst. He replaced the picture on the mantle and scratched at the three-day growth that covered his jaw. With a helpless shrug, he jammed his hands into his pockets again.
"What do you want me to say, Mags?" He asked.
Maggie stared at him incredulously. "What do I want you to say? How about telling me why the police think you shot one of my co-workers? Let's start there!"
The blood drained from Patrick's face and his eyes grew wide. "I didn't shoot anybody! I swear, Maggie! I didn't shoot that woman!"
His eyes darted around the room, like he was looking for someplace to hide. Maggie had never seen him look so afraid. She moved towards him and placed her hands on his shoulders, trying to calm him.
"It's okay, Patrick. I believe you," she said, soothing him. "But I need you to tell me everything so we can clear you. Do you understand?"
Patrick nodded. He took a deep, hitching breath and wiped the back of his hand across his nose. Maggie glanced over to Drew.
"Drew, could you get us some water or something?" She asked.
"Uh, yeah. Sure." Drew agreed, sensing that Maggie needed a private moment with her brother. "I'll be right back."
Once the siblings were left alone, Maggie guided Patrick over to the sofa. Gently, she sat him down, seating herself on the edge of the coffee table across from him. She took both of his shaking hands between hers.
"Tell me everything."
In a faltering monotone, Patrick revealed everything he knew. He told her about D.C., the drugs, Eddie, Tom, everything. Maggie seemed particularly interested in the warehouse that he had been working at. Patrick wondered about that. To him, it seemed like the least significant part of his story. He was about to explain what had happened with Catherine when Maggie interrupted him.
"Wait. About this warehouse that D.C. had you working at. Do you remember where it was?"
Patrick shrugged. "Not really. Eddie or Tom drove me back and forth. I didn't really pay that much attention to where we were going. What difference does it make?"
"I'm not quite sure yet." Maggie frowned, thinking. "What did you do there?"
Drew returned, carrying a glass of water in each hand. He gave one to Maggie and offered the other to Patrick. Sensing the tension in the room, he excused himself and headed upstairs. Maybe while Maggie and her brother were talking, he would be able to figure out where Julia had disappeared to.
Patrick was growing tired of the questioning. "I dunno. I did warehouse stuff, I guess. Loading and unloading trucks."
The pieces were starting to fit together. The warehouse. The drugs. A dealer named D.C. with a hired thug named Tom. There had to be a connection. She just had to figure out what it was. Maggie gasped as a memory flashed through her mind. The man she had bumped into at the hospital early that day fit the description that Patrick had just given her. Could that have been Tom? Was he there to finish the job on Catherine? And what about the man who had attacked Julia just after they met? Was that him too? Maggie jumped up and practically ran into the kitchen.
"I have to make a call. Don't move." She shouted over her shoulder.
Julia's address book was on the counter beside the phone, and Maggie pawed through it frantically. The pages mocked her, sticking together until she was ready to scream in frustration. Finally, she found what she was looking for. She dialed Henry Chow's cell number and waited, heart pounding, for him to answer it.
"Chow." The terse growl boomed through the receiver.
"Henry, it's me. Maggie."
"Maggie? What the hell is going on?"
Maggie could hear a muted public address system in the background, along with a steady hum of activity. She nearly sobbed in relief. Henry was already at the emergency room. She gave him Patrick's description of Tom, without telling him that she had found her brother. Henry was a friend, but he was still a cop. If he knew where Patrick was, he would feel compelled to make the arrest.
"I can't explain right now, but I think Catherine's life is in danger. Please, Henry. I need you to keep an eye on her. My friend Jessica, too, if she's still there."
She could hear the confusion and exasperation in Henry's voice. "Yeah, she's still here. She won't go away. Said something about a promise she made to you. Come on, Maggie. Let me help you. Don't be like your stubborn-as-hell girlfriend. Tell me what's going on."
"I can't. I'm sorry. Just keep them safe, okay?" Maggie pleaded.
"You know I will. Where are you? Let me send a car to get you or something."
"I'm sorry, Henry." Maggie repeated before hanging up on the perplexed police inspector.
She felt horrible for keeping Henry in the dark. Right now, though, she had to protect her brother. That had to be her top priority. Maggie returned to the living room and found Patrick where she had left him, sitting on the sofa with his head buried in his hands. She sat beside him and slid an arm around his thin shoulders.
"It'll be okay, Patrick. I promise. I'll take care of everything."
It was such a familiar refrain. She had been taking care of Patrick forever. Since they were kids, every time he got into trouble, she had been there to bail him out. When the rest of the family had been on the verge of giving up on him, she had been his staunchest defender. Even after the incident in college, she hadn't turned her back on him. She had made sure that no charges were filed against him, even though his behavior had begun to frighten her. When he had gone into rehab the last time, Maggie had left for California, hoping to build her own life. She wondered now if she would ever truly be free from Patrick and his problems.
"I didn't shoot that woman. It was Tom." Patrick told her, repeating his earlier claim. "I thought for sure he was going to kill me too."
Maggie shook her head. "They set you up. They thought I was going to be in that elevator, and they wanted it to look like you had killed me."
Patrick's head shot up and he stared at her, horrified. His lips moved, but no sounds came out. With a calmness she didn't really feel, Maggie held the glass of water to his mouth and steadied it while he took a sip. Patrick wiped his lips with his sleeve and tried again.
"Tom was trying to kill you? Why?" Patrick stood, agitated, and began to pace around the room. "Maggie, if I had known he was after you "
Maggie shushed him with a wave of her hand. "I know. It's a long story. They seem to think I know something, but I don't. Not really. I mean, I'm starting to put things together now, but there are still a lot of pieces missing."
"Does somebody want to tell me who "they" are?" Drew stood at the bottom of the stairs, eyeing them both curiously.
"Did you find anything upstairs?" Maggie ignored his question, hoping he wouldn't notice.
Drew shook his head. He had checked Julia's bedroom and her office, but he hadn't found anything to point to her whereabouts. He was about to suggest searching downstairs when they were interrupted by Maggie's cell phone.
Maggie dug the phone out of her coat pocket and checked the display. Her heart leapt into her throat. It was Julia. She struggled to keep her voice even.
"Maggie? What's wrong? Is everything okay? Did something happen?"
Tears filled Maggie's eyes at the sound of the rapid-fire questions. She could hear traffic in the background, through the occasional crackle of static. Julia was on the road somewhere, but at least she was all right.
"No, nothing's wrong. I'm just so happy to hear your voice. Where are you?"
"I'm out near Stinson Beach. I followed Danny and Allison here." Julia told her. "Is Drew with you? Put him on the phone if he's there."
Maggie was surprised and a little disappointed that Julia wanted to talk to her brother instead. Mutely, she held the phone out to Drew.
"Jules? What's up?" Drew asked, his brow furrowing as he listened to his sister's reply.
He nodded a few times, then glanced at Maggie and pantomimed writing. She took the hint and got him a piece of paper and a pen. Still listening, he tucked the phone between his shoulder and his ear and began to scrawl a series of directions on the sheet.
"Okay. I got it." He paused, a smile spreading across his face. "Don't worry. I'll take care of her. Hang on."
Turning back to Maggie, he winked and handed the phone to her again. "She wants to talk to you again."
Maggie smiled at him gratefully. "Julia? I'm here."
An awkward silence met her. She was starting to wonder if she had lost the connection when Julia finally spoke.
"Listen, I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to tell you what I was doing. It all happened sort of fast, and I wasn't really sure you wanted to hear from me, anyway. After what I said, I get why you left me."
Maggie closed her eyes as a wave of sadness passed over her. She could almost picture the dejected look on Julia's face.
"How could you think I wouldn't want to talk to you? Because we had a fight? Julia, couples fight. It happens. It doesn't mean that I don't still love you."
"You still love me?" The whispered question was almost lost in a burst of static.
"Of course I do, you great, big goof. You're not getting rid of me that easily."
Another loud burst of static squawked in Maggie's ear, and she had to hold the phone away for a moment. She realized that she hadn't told Julia about Patrick yet.
"Julia? Are you still there? I have to tell you something."
She received no answer. She waited for a few seconds to see if the interference would clear. When it didn't, she hung up and let out a frustrated sigh. She glanced a Drew and made a face.
"Lost the connection." She explained.
"Damn cell phones," Drew replied with a wry grin.
They both turned at a noise behind them. Patrick was gaping at his sister, his eyes nearly popping out of his head. Maggie almost laughed. Instead, she led him back into the living room and sat him down on the sofa again.
"Okay, I guess there are a couple of things I need to tell you," she said.
Martin Davis leaned back in the leather chair and surveyed the view from the office window. He watched the tour boats carrying gawking sightseers beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. He should have had an office like this one. He had been destined to be a much more powerful man. He knew that. He should have been a senator, at least. Sighing, he fiddled with the crystal paperweight on the polished cherry desk. The fates had conspired against him, saddling him with a mentally unbalanced daughter. If word of Allison's problems ever leaked out, it would ruin the family name. He couldn't let that happen. No matter what the cost.
A knock at the door drew his attention away from the window, and he swiveled around in the chair. His attorney, Joseph Cassinelli, stood in the doorway. It had been a long day for both of them. The police had grilled him for hours, though Joe had smoothly deflected most of the more distressing questions. The councilman reminded himself to give his attorney a sizable bonus this year.
"Is everything okay, Martin?"
Joe glanced meaningfully at the telephone. He had left his friend alone in his office for a few minutes, letting Martin speak to his daughter in private. He didn't want to know the details of the conversation. In his profession, the truth tended to complicate things.
Martin stood, vacating his friend's chair. "Everything's fine. Just fine."
"Good." Joe rubbed his hands together. "Well, unless there's something else I can do for you tonight, I think I'll head home. I have some briefs to look through before morning."
Martin nodded slowly. He started to leave his attorney's office, but stopped in the doorway. Without turning, he spoke.
"Do you love your children, Joe?"
He could feel the other man's eyes burning into the back of his head. An uncomfortable silence hung between them. Martin exhaled, letting the tension seep from his body. This mood wasn't helping anything. He had to snap out of it. There was too much work to be done. Without waiting for answer to his question, he left.
From the hallway, Joseph Cassinelli watched the councilman march down the corridor. A soft ping announced the arrival of the elevator, and the brass door slid open. Martin Davis straightened his tie as he stepped into the newly cleaned car where a woman had been shot just days before. As the doors closed, he lifted his chin and gazed directly at his friend and confidant. An icy finger touched the watching attorney's heart. The councilman's eyes held a bleak coldness that he had never seen before.
Once the elevator had gone, Joe returned to his office. He sat behind his desk and stared out at the same scene the councilman had been surveying earlier. His friend's odd question nagged at him. Did he love his children? Of course he did. Hadn't he given them both the best that money could buy? He shrugged. Martin had been behaving strangely for weeks. The councilman was clearly under too much stress, and Allison wasn't helping the matter any.
Joe recalled his recent conversation with his own daughter. Even then, Julia had suspected that Allison was involved in something illegal. For a moment, he wondered if she had been right. No. He shook his head firmly. He could not allow himself to think like that. A good lawyer maintained his client's innocence until the end. Even if it required him to lie to himself. Pushing his questions from his mind, he gathered his papers and left the office.
Standing on the curb outside the tall building, Martin Davis watched his friend and attorney drive away. He hoped that Joe had understood his warning and would tell his nosy daughter to stay out of this case. Fathers should protect their children at all costs. The councilman did not want to hurt Julia Cassinelli, but he would do whatever he had to, in order to keep his own daughter out of trouble.
He sighed and pulled his overcoat tighter around his body. The wind had picked up and it stung his cheeks. He signaled to a parked car across the street and waited while the driver made a hasty U-turn and pulled up next to him. Without a word, Martin slid into the soft leather seat and slammed the door shut. He gave a slight nod to the driver. Leaning his head back, he lost himself in contemplation as Tom Becker merged into the busy city traffic. There was still so much he had to do. The reporter at the hospital was his most pressing concern. Once that mess was cleaned up, he would turn his attention to the troublesome McKinnon's.
Maggie shifted uncomfortably in the strained silence that filled the car. She wanted to turn around and check on her brother in the back seat, but she was afraid she would see the revulsion in his eyes again. Patrick had barely said two words to her since finding out about her relationship with Julia. Maggie had expected his reaction, though she had been hoping to avoid the inevitable for a bit longer. It would only get worse when the rest of her family learned the truth.
She sighed and slumped down further in the passenger seat. Before they left Julia's house, Drew had convinced her to let him drive. After a half-hearted protest, she had conceded, acknowledging that he knew the area better than she did. Maggie checked the handwritten directions again, though she knew that they were still miles away from their exit. Julia had checked into a small inn, and Drew seemed to know where it was. They were on their way to meet the private investigator.
"Why don't you try to take a quick nap?" Drew suggested.
His voice made Maggie jump. She shrugged listlessly. Patrick's obvious discomfort bothered her even more than she had thought it would. Out of all her siblings, she had believed that he would be most likely to understand.
"Come on, Maggie. You look exhausted. A nap might do you some good." Drew tried again.
"I'm not sleepy," Maggie said insistently.
She turned the radio on and fiddled with the stations until she found a song she liked. It was one of the few that she and Julia agreed upon. They were so different in so many ways, yet in others, they complemented each other perfectly. Maggie turned the radio volume up, drowning out the quiet. She closed her eyes and pictured a warm sapphire twinkle and a lazy, lopsided grin. She imagined Julia's arms wrapped around her, holding her tight. Within minutes, Maggie was asleep.
"It doesn't bother you? Knowing what your sister is?" Patrick spoke up.
"You're an idiot," Drew said quietly, darting a sideways glance at Maggie to make sure she was still sleeping.
Her breathing was slow and even. He returned his attention to Patrick.
"Maggie loves my sister, and Julia loves her back just as much. That's all I need to know."
Patrick leaned forward suddenly, putting his hand on the corner of the driver's seat. He refused to look at his sister and kept his gaze focused on the windshield in front of him. He completely missed the hard, warning look that Drew shot at him.
"It's unnatural." Patrick declared, pounding his fist against the seat for emphasis.
"Sit back and shut up." Drew tightened his grip on the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. "Because if you wake her up, I will pull this car over and beat the shit out of you on the side of the road."
After a moment's hesitation, Patrick leaned back, away from the young man behind the wheel. He stared moodily out the window, though he could not see much through the inky darkness. The moon was hidden from view, and Patrick could barely make out the shapes of the trees along the side of the road as they sped by.
"I should have never come to California," he muttered, his voice muffled by his hand.
Patrick plucked at the clean sweatpants and T-shirt that had replaced his own filthy clothes. His new garments belonged to Julia, and he hated wearing them. He had never met the private investigator, though according to his sister, she virtually walked on water. He snorted in disdain and cast a quick glance at Drew to make sure he hadn't been heard.
Another chill swept over him and his hands began to tremble. He started to shiver uncontrollably as withdrawal made its ugly presence known again. He had been suffering through the pain and cravings for two days, and it was only getting worse. Patrick wrapped his arms around his body and pressed himself as far back into the corner of the seat as he could. Closing his eyes, he tried to think of something other than the drugs he so desperately needed. Exhaustion settled over him, and soon, Patrick's light snoring mingled with his sister's.
Twenty minutes later, a gentle tap on her knee awakened Maggie. She blinked, momentarily disoriented until she remembered that she was in her car. Rubbing her stiff neck, she turned to Drew.
"Are we there?" She asked, peering through the windshield.
Drew shook his head, and she saw the tense, fearful look in his eyes as he checked the rearview mirror. She twisted around to look out the back window. A pair of bright headlights dazzled her eyes. A dark car was following behind them, about two car lengths back. Maggie's insides tightened into knots as she recalled the last time a car had been following her. An image of Julia's crumpled jeep flashed through her mind.
"It's been back there since we left the city limits." Drew told her. "I can't tell if it's following us or if it's just heading in the same direction we are."
Maggie nodded. She expected to hear gunfire ripping through her car at any moment. Julia would know how to react in this situation, but Julia was still miles away. Drew kept looking at her, waiting for instructions, and Maggie knew that it was up to her. She shut her eyes and tried to imagine Julia's comforting presence beside her, telling her what to do.
"Slow down a little. See what he does," Maggie said.
Drew eased his foot off the accelerator, slowing the car down. Two sets of eyes were fastened on the mirrors as they waited to see what the other driver would do. After a long, agonizing moment, the other car moved into the next lane and passed them. They watched until the night swallowed the vehicle, then both Maggie and Drew heaved a sigh of relief.
"Sorry about that." Drew gave her an embarrassed grin. "I guess I'm a little paranoid."
"Don't worry about it," Maggie said, returning the smile. "I think we're all a little jumpy these days."
A flash of green caught her attention as they sped past. Maggie craned her neck around, trying to read the sign before it was lost from view. She double-checked the paper clutched in her hand and turned back to Drew. Her face lit up with anticipation.
"We need to take the next exit and turn left at the light."
"I know the way." Drew reassured her. "And I'm sure she'll be happy to see you too."
For a split second, Drew took his eyes off the freeway ahead and grinned at her. Neither of them saw the dark sedan waiting patiently on the side of the road. After the Corolla went by, the engine sprang to life and the driver carefully eased the car out into the empty lane. He hung as far back as could, keeping Maggie McKinnon's vehicle in his sight. He would not be spotted again. Too much was at stake.
The next ten minutes dragged on with excruciating slowness. Maggie's heartbeat quickened as each passing second brought her closer to a reunion with Julia. Each red traffic light was an obstacle standing between her and her stubborn private investigator. As they passed through a well-lit intersection, Patrick stirred. Maggie heard the loud yawn, indicating that he was awake. She tensed, waiting for him to say something.
"Where are we?" He asked, stretching his hands up to the roof of the car.
"San Rafael." Drew replied. "It's about another ten miles to the inn."
Patrick fell silent again. Though she wanted to straighten things out with her brother, Maggie was grateful for the quiet. She was not in the mood for another altercation with him. That would come soon enough, when he came face to face with Julia. She grimaced at the thought of the inevitable confrontation between her brother and her volatile lover. It would not be a pretty situation.
An eternity passed before Drew turned the car into the parking lot of the secluded inn. The small cluster of buildings was nestled back amongst the evergreen trees, and under other circumstances, Maggie would have found it incredibly romantic. She hopped out of the car almost before it had stopped moving, and she began to peer anxiously at the private cabins. The cold sea air bit at her exposed skin, but she was oblivious to the chill. Footsteps approached behind her as Drew and Patrick hurried to catch up. She didn't give them a second glance as she moved from building to building. Maggie's heart fluttered in her throat as she found the right door.
Before she could knock, the door flew open. A tall figure filled the entryway, bathed in the light from the room. With a soft cry, Maggie flung herself into the waiting arms. In spite of everything, a warm feeling of peace and happiness flooded her as she clung to Julia's embrace. She buried her face against a soft, flannel-covered shoulder and smiled as achingly familiar lips brushed the top of her head. She tightened her grip on Julia's midsection.
"I missed you so much," she mumbled into Julia's thick flannel shirt.
"I missed you too. More than I could stand."
A strong finger lifted Maggie's chin, tilting her head up until she was staring into a welcome pair of sparkling blue eyes. Julia smiled at her tenderly and brushed a teardrop from the reporter's lower lashes. Maggie leaned closer, anticipating the kiss. Behind her, Patrick cleared his throat loudly, interrupting the moment. Julia's gaze flicked to the gaunt young man with the haunted eyes, and Maggie reminded herself to strangle her brother later. For the moment, she simply met Julia's questioning look and shrugged.
"Julia, meet my brother, Patrick."
Julia disentangled herself from the reporter's embrace and took a step forward. She recognized the clothes that the young man was wearing and a dark eyebrow twitched in amusement. Patrick exuded a strange mixture of hostility and fear, shrinking away from her as she drew near. In actuality, she was less than an inch taller than he was, but she appeared to tower over him. She could tell she intimidated him, and a hard-edged smile played across her lips as she decided to use that to her advantage. Like twin daggers of ice, her eyes cut into him.
"So you're the one that has been causing us all this trouble," she said coolly. Her eyes darted to the second young man, and she nodded at him briefly. "Hello, Drew."
Fascinated, Drew watched the interaction between his sister and Maggie's brother. He had never seen Julia at work before. The cold glitter in her eyes sent a chill down his spine. Suddenly, he understood where her reputation came from and why so many were frightened by her. He hoped Patrick had enough sense not to antagonize her.
Julia saw the slight quiver of Patrick's shoulders as he flinched away from her. Inwardly she smiled, though her face remained an expressionless mask. She knew men like Patrick would back down as soon as they were challenged. Anxiety radiated from the reporter at her side, and Julia knew that she had been dreading this moment. Julia relaxed her stance slightly, relenting for Maggie's sake. Casually, she slipped her arm around the reporter's shoulders and jerked her dark head toward the open door.
"Let's get inside. We have a lot to talk about."
Without waiting, she turned and guided Maggie into the room, confidant that their brothers would follow. Drew, the last one inside, shut and locked the door behind them. Less than a minute later, a dark sedan turned into the small parking lot. The driver switched off the headlights and rolled to a stop two spaces away from Maggie's car. With a faint electric hum, the window lowered just enough to let a thin stream of cigarette smoke escape from the interior. Unseen by the group inside, a pair of dark eyes watched the building, waiting.
To be continued in Chapter 11
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