Danny shivered as the cool night air blew in through the open balcony doors. Goosebumps prickled his skin, though he wasn't sure if they were caused by the chill or by his own fear. He checked his watch again, squinting to read the numbers in the moonlight. Beside him, Allison stirred in her sleep and her hand fell across his bare chest. He froze. His heart thumped wildly and he wondered if she could feel it.
A fraction of an inch at a time, he lifted her arm and slid out of bed. She did not wake, and Danny breathed a quiet sigh of relief. He grabbed his clothes from the floor and crept out of the bedroom, buttoning his shirt as he descended the stairs. He was supposed to meet Julia at dawn. Allison usually slept late and Danny hoped to be back before she woke. A pang of guilt tugged at him as he made his way through the living room.
I'm sorry, Allison, he whispered mentally as he reached for the car keys on the coffee table. There's just no other way, and I'm not letting you drag me down with you.
Over the past few weeks, Allison's drug use had escalated dramatically and her behavior had become even more erratic than usual. Danny was worried. The police were too close. Julia was even closer. He knew it was only a matter of time before everything fell apart. Anger rising, he wiped a bead of nervous sweat away. None of this was his fault. Not really. True, running drugs had been his idea. It had seemed like an easy way to pay off his huge gambling debts. Allison had been eager to go along, offering to let him use her family's warehouses. No one was ever supposed to get hurt. Then Allison's father had discovered their activities and everything had started going straight to Hell.
Still bemoaning his situation, Danny padded quietly towards the front door. Above him, the floorboards creaked. He stopped in his tracks, scarcely daring to breathe. He imagined Allison up there, watching him, plotting against him just as he was plotting against her. Another droplet of sweat rolled down his temple as he waited. The house stayed silent, and he relaxed. It was a false alarm. Taking his shoes in his hand, he slipped out the door. As he headed for the driveway, he risked a glance up at the second story bedroom window. There was no one there. He smiled to himself; Allison was still asleep. She never had to know that he had betrayed her.
They rose well before dawn, awakened by the insistent beep of the alarm clock. Maggie sat on the edge of the bed and watched while Julia laced her boots. After her nightmare, she had managed to fall asleep again, but her body protested as if it had been up for days. Her back and shoulders ached, and her eyes felt like she had rubbed them with sand.
Julia probably felt even worse, she realized. Maggie doubted that she had been able to close her eyes again after being awakened by her screams. Outwardly, Julia appeared composed, but a tiny twitch of her shoulder blades betrayed her. Though she was doing her best not to show it, Maggie could tell that she was just as anxious as the rest of them.
"I'm going to walk over to the office and drop off the room key." Julia rose and pulled on her jacket.
"Is that such a good idea?" Maggie asked.
Julia gave her a casual shrug. "Why not? It gives me a chance to take a look around before we leave. Make sure there's no one lurking out there."
"And if there is? What are you gonna do? Glare them to death?" Patrick asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Maggie grimaced, bracing herself for Julia's scathing reply. She had been hoping that Julia and Patrick would get along better in the morning. Evidently, that would not be the case. She sighed. She would have to work on both of them, and it wasn't a task that she was looking forward to. To her surprise, the corner of Julia's lips lifted into a wry grin.
"Are you worried about me, Patrick? I'm touched. I can take care of myself, though. Thanks."
Patrick rolled his eyes. "I'm gonna go wash up."
The bathroom door slammed shut, leaving Julia and Maggie alone for a moment. They regarded each other in the quiet of the room. Maggie stood and slipped her arms around Julia's waist, pulling her close. The memory of her nightmare was still far too vivid, and she hated the idea of Julia going outside alone. A finger under her chin tilted her head back, and Maggie smiled up into a pair of dazzling blue eyes.
"I'll be fine," Julia said, reading her mind.
"I know you will," Maggie replied, leaning in for a quick kiss. "Be careful."
Julia nodded and took a step backwards, disentangling herself from the embrace. Smiling, she gave Maggie a saucy wink before heading out the door.
Maggie tried to ignore the churning in her gut that started the second Julia left her sight. She turned on the television to keep her mind occupied. Pulling the armchair in front of the small set, she sat down and flipped channels until she found the early morning news. She heard Patrick shut the water off, and she looked up as he came out of the bathroom. His hair was limp and dull. Dark purple shadows beneath his eyes stood out in stark contrast to his pale skin. His uncontrollable trembling seemed to have abated for the moment, and Maggie hoped that was a good sign.
He met her eyes for a moment, and she thought she saw regret there. There were so many things that she wanted to talk to Patrick about, but it didn't seem like the right time. Instead, she smiled at him.
"It's supposed to rain later," he said, thrusting his chin towards the television.
Maggie turned back to the screen. According to the weather report, a storm front was moving in. She shuddered as a dark sense of foreboding washed over her. Patrick sprawled out on the floor beside her, resting his back against the edge of the bed. Together, they watched the rest of the news in silence. During the night, police had pulled a man's body out of the Bay. So far, he was still unidentified.
"Poor guy," Maggie murmured.
Patrick eyed her curiously. "Why?"
Maggie twisted her upper body so she could face him directly. "He died all alone. He probably has a family out there, somewhere. Somebody has to be missing him or worrying about him."
She hoped Patrick would get the hint. A fleeting shadow of guilt flickered across his face, and he dropped his gaze. He shrugged.
"You care too much, Maggie." He fiddled with the frayed end of his shoelace. "Maybe that guy isnt worth your concern. Maybe he's just some punk that got drunk or wasted and fell in."
"Maybe." Maggie acknowledged the possibility. "But even punks have loved ones."
A light tap on the door interrupted their conversation. Maggie hastily turned off the television and swallowed her fear. She motioned to Patrick to stay down. Careful to minimize her sounds, she moved towards the door. Her eyes swept the small room, looking for something to use as a weapon. Swiftly, she grabbed the small lamp on the nightstand and yanked the cord out of the wall. She hefted it in her hand, testing its weight.
"Maggie, open the door. It's just me."
Maggie let out the breath she had been holding. She opened the door and stood aside to let Julia in. Julia glanced at the lamp in Maggie's hand, and a dark eyebrow lifted. She shook her head as Maggie grinned at her sheepishly and set the lamp on the dresser.
"Okay. Everything looks pretty quiet out there. Are we ready to go?" Julia asked.
Maggie glanced back at her brother and he nodded. She gave Julia a resolute smile. Taking a deep breath to settle her fluttering stomach, Maggie started towards the door. She let out a small, startled yelp as Julia seized the tail of her shirt and hauled her back.
"Hey! Hold on a minute, Hotshot. Nobody's going anywhere until we get a couple of things clear."
"First, when we get outside, stay quiet and stick close to me. Like I said, it doesnt look like anyone found us, but it's better to be safe." Julia gave them instructions in a clipped, no-nonsense tone. "Second, when we get where we're going, the two of you stay in the truck. No matter what happens, don't get out."
Maggie nodded briskly, rubbing her hands together. She wondered if she looked as nervous as she felt.
"Where are we going, anyway?" Patrick asked.
Maggie frowned. She wondered why it had not occurred to her to ask that question. Silently, she scolded herself for her inattention. She stiffened her resolve. If Julia was going to insist upon taking the risks, then Maggie was going to do whatever she could to watch her back. Her reporter skills would come in handy. She would be Julia's eyes and ears, observing the little things that the private investigator might miss.
Gradually, Maggie became aware that Julia and Patrick were staring at her with odd expressions on their faces. She blinked at them.
"Were you talking to yourself just now?" Julia asked, a faintly amused twinkle in her eyes.
Maggie felt the flush start just beneath her collar. "Why?"
"Because your lips were moving." Patrick supplied.
Maggie's blush deepened. She glared at them both. "Whatever. Are we getting out of here or not?"
"Yes, we are." Julia confirmed, opening the door.
Summoning her courage, Maggie stepped through first. She turned back to watch as Julia carefully shut the door behind them.
"So where ARE we going, anyway?" Maggie echoed her brother's earlier question.
She winced as her whisper seemed to reverberate through the dark, desolate parking lot. Julia shot her a warning look and pointed to a new SUV parked a few spaces from Maggie's car. Maggie barely heard the quiet reply.
"We're supposed to meet Danny near the Golden Gate Bridge."
Maggie digested that tidbit of information. A pedestrian walkway ran alongside the bridge, separated from vehicular traffic, so sightseers and photographers could enjoy the view of the Bay. Julia wasn't offering any more details, so Maggie assumed that was where the rendezvous would take place. Before dawn, traffic on the bridge would most likely be light. The lanes probably wouldn't be clogged with commuters for another hour or two.
Was that good or bad? Maggie wondered. At such an early hour, they would be less likely to be seen. On the other hand, there would be fewer potential witnesses if Danny or Allison decided to murder them and pitch their lifeless bodies into the Bay. Maggie made a face as she pictured the scene.
The soft chirp of a car alarm brought her back to reality, and she blinked. They had stopped at Julia's new truck. Maggie stood back, nudging Patrick out of the way as Julia opened the door.
"Patrick, climb all the way into the back. When we get close to the bridge, keep your head down. I don't want Danny to know that you're back there," Julia said as she tossed her backpack on the seat.
Patrick grunted in acknowledgment and climbed in. He landed with a clumsy thud. Maggie handed her shoulder bag to him before pulling herself into the front seat. She inhaled deeply, breathing in the new car smell. Julia slid in beside her and flashed her a tense grin.
Maggie nodded, trying to dismiss the uneasiness gnawing at her insides. Random images from her nightmare flew through her mind, adding to her discomfort with this plan. She pushed the negative thoughts away. Swallowing hard, she gave Julia a trembling smile.
"Lets do this."
The sky was just beginning to turn a pale shade of pink when the end of the Golden Gate Bridge appeared before them. Low-lying fog clung to its underside, obscuring the view of the Bay. Julia eased her foot off the accelerator as she scanned the bridge. Traffic was light, but steady, even at this early hour. The constant stream of vehicles eased her anxiety a bit.
She spotted Danny's bright red sports car in a parking lot that led to one of the pedestrian walkways along the bridge. He appeared to be alone. A quick glance in the rearview mirror revealed nothing. As far as Julia could tell, no one had followed them from the inn. She made sure that Patrick had his head down like she had instructed. Reaching over, she found Maggie's hand and squeezed it.
"Here we go," she said.
The tension was thick inside Julia's truck as she smoothly parked next to Danny's car. As they had agreed, he got out of his vehicle when she pulled up. He held his hands out to show that he was unarmed, and Julia thought he looked as nervous as she felt. So far, everything was going according to plan. She shook off the uneasiness that had been plaguing her since the previous night. Maggie's nightmare had unnerved her more than she wanted to admit. Before getting out of the truck, Julia turned to Maggie to give her some last-minute directions.
"This shouldn't take too long," she said as she shut off the engine, leaving the keys in the ignition. "Remember. Stay inside the truck."
Their eyes locked, and Julia saw the fear on Maggie's face. She wanted to take the terrified blonde into her arms and reassure her, but there was no time. Instead, she took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Reaching for the door handle, she hesitated.
"When I get out, slide over. If something goes wrong, get the Hell out of here. Go to Henry. He'll know what to do. Understand?"
Julia could read the conflicting emotions flickering across Maggie's face. For a moment, she was certain that Maggie was going to refuse. If their positions were reversed, Julia knew that nothing would make her leave the woman she loved behind. Finally, Maggie gave her a tiny nod.
"I love you." Maggie's whisper barely reached her ears as Julia opened the door and stepped out.
"I love you, too. It'll be okay."
Julia smiled at her and winked as she slammed the door shut. She waited until Maggie locked it. Before turning away, she kissed her fingertips and pressed them to the window where Maggie was watching anxiously.
Danny had walked several feet away from his car. He was standing on the sidewalk, near the railing and staring out at the mist. Every nerve ending in her body was on alert as Julia headed towards him. With each step, her back straightened and her scowl deepened. She thought of the fear she had seen in Maggie's eyes and let her anger build. By the time she reached Danny's side, she was in full intimidation mode. Julia folded her arms across her chest and stared at him, waiting for him to speak first. Danny continued to gaze out at the fog, as if the sluggishly moving mist had hypnotized him.
"Do you know who Tom Becker is?" He asked, breaking the silence abruptly.
Icy blue eyes narrowed as Julia considered the odd question. This was not how she had envisioned the beginning of their conversation. With slow and deliberate movements, Danny turned his head to look at her. She held his gaze calmly. Though her face remained expressionless, Julia was taken aback by the despair and resignation haunting his dark grey eyes.
"He's dead." Danny continued without waiting for her answer. He let out a short, barking laugh and resumed his contemplation of the fog.
"They found him floating in the Bay last night. I heard it on the radio this morning."
Julia studied him carefully, noting the defeated slump of his shoulders. Daniel Webber was a man who believed he had nothing left to lose. Julia wasn't sure if that made him an ally or an even more dangerous opponent. If Danny was telling her the truth, and Tom Becker was dead, then someone was growing desperate.
Danny laughed again, a hollow, broken sound. "Allison's father killed him. I know he did. And guess what, Jules? I'm gonna be next."
"What makes you think that?"
He shrugged. "It's obvious. They're cleaning up after themselves. First Eddie, now Tom. It's only a matter of time before they find you and Maggie. Patrick. Even that other reporter. And me."
"Listen to me, Danny. They can't get all of us. Not if we work together. If you help me out, maybe I'll be able to do something for you."
"Work together?" Danny echoed in a faraway voice.
Julia grabbed his upper arm and shook him, trying to focus his attention. She needed to snap him out of this daze. A car slowed as it passed them, and she tensed. The car went by without incident; its driver gave them little more than a cursory glance. Julia exhaled slowly.
"Danny, I need you to give me something I can work with. Something that I can use to bring Allison and her father down."
Danny leaned out so far over the rail that Julia feared he might jump. Keeping a firm hold on his arm, she gently eased him away from the edge. More cars were crossing over the bridge now as commuters made their way into the city. With each passing vehicle, Julia's anxiety grew. Sooner or later, Allison was going to realize that Danny was gone, and Julia did not want to be trapped on the bridge when that happened. She took a deep breath and put on her most intimidating scowl, determined to scare the truth out of Danny if necessary. Grabbing his shoulders, she spun him around to face her. Sparks crackled in her eyes, and he flinched.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered. She could barely hear him over the rush of traffic. "I never meant for anyone to get hurt."
"I don't have time for your regrets!" Julia snapped at him. Her irritation and impatience were rising quickly. "People I love are in danger because of you. Now, did you come here to help me, or not?"
Danny closed his eyes and brushed away a lone tear that trickled down his cheek. He sniffed quietly and rubbed his sleeve across his face. He looked so lost and dejected that Julia felt a momentary twinge of sympathy for him. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Maggie watching her from the truck. Though Julia could not see her face clearly, she could still sense Maggie's fear. Her resolve hardened. She had seen fear in those eyes far too often, and Danny was partially responsible for that. Any shred of compassion she had felt for him vanished.
"Now, Danny. Or I'm out of here." She threatened him.
Opening his eyes, he looked at her, and a chill crawled down her spine. An image flew through her mind, and she remembered the first time she had seen a corpse. She had been participating in a drug raid and a shoot-out with the police had ensued. In the aftermath, she remembered looking down at the body of a young drug dealer. His blank, lifeless eyes had stared up at her, chilling her to the core. Julia suppressed a shudder. Looking into Danny's eyes was like looking into the eyes of a dead man.
"The drug-trafficking was my idea." Danny began his confession. "I had racked up some pretty hefty gambling debts, and this guy in San Diego offered me a lot of money. All I had to do was receive the shipments, store them for a while, then transport them further up the coast. He let me keep a certain amount each month."
"Allison got one of her father's old warehouses for us to use. She was the one who first suggested that we should sell some of the stuff ourselves." He paused, clearing his throat.
"Go on." Julia prompted him to continue.
"Allison's father found out what we were doing. He went nuts and ordered us to get out of it and destroy all the evidence. He said it would ruin him if anyone ever found out. Allison came up with the plan to burn down the warehouse. We figured the police would think it was that arsonist guy." He shrugged. "It seemed like a good plan at the time."
Julia snorted in cold disdain. "Was murdering the security guard part of your great plan? How about trying to kill Maggie and me? Did that seem like a good idea at the time, too?"
Danny sighed. "Of course not. Nobody was supposed to get hurt. Things just got so out of control. When Allison and Tom went to set the fire, some homeless guy saw her running away. We weren't that worried about it. He was a lunatic. Even if he told his story to the cops, they probably wouldn't listen to him."
"No, but a hungry, young reporter might." Julia filled in the blanks.
"Right. When they realized that the press was sniffing around, Tom and Eddie went back to the warehouse to take care of the guy. Tom saw him talking to Maggie, and he overreacted, I guess."
"You guess?" Julia shouted at him, her anger spilling over. "Your hired thug gunned a man down in front of her. He damn near killed her too! More than once. She didn't know anything, Danny! Nothing!"
"I'm sorry, Jules. It wasn't supposed to happen like this." He reiterated, backing away from her.
Julia raked her fingers through her hair and glowered at him. She couldn't afford to yell at him too much. She still needed more information from him. She ground her teeth and gestured for him to continue.
"Getting rid of Maggie was Allison's obsession, I swear," Danny said. "Allison fixated on her. Especially after we discovered that Patrick was her brother. Allison and her father thought it was too dangerous to let Maggie go. They were worried that Patrick would contact her and spill everything he knew. Which wasn't much, but it was probably enough to get people asking questions about us."
"Where does Patrick fit into all this? Why him?"
Danny shrugged. "He was an easy target. Eddie found him in the park one night, looking to score drugs. He brought Patrick to me. I flashed a wad of money in front of him and offered him a job. Simple." He shrugged again. "Patrick was our insurance policy. If we had to, we could pin the fire on him. Once the cops and the media hear the word 'junkie,' they don't look too hard for another motive."
"Can you prove any of this?"
He nodded and pointed to his car. "My laptop is in the trunk. There are copies of e-mail messages between Allison and me. She mentions the fire in one of them, and says something about 'taking care of the reporter'. That should be enough to take to the cops."
"I tried to get into your laptop at the house yesterday," Julia said. "I couldn't get past your password."
Danny gave her a sad smile. "You didn't think about it hard enough then. It's 'cardinal'."
Julia shook her head, unable to believe she had not thought of that. It made perfect sense. The Stanford graduate, whose athletic dreams were dashed by a bad knee, had chosen the university mascot as his password. Julia wanted to slap herself in the head for not figuring it out sooner.
"I'll get the laptop," Danny said.
He started to walk away, and Julia followed him back into the parking lot. The sun had risen in front of him, and she squinted into the glare, momentarily blinded by the light. She wanted to ask him why he had decided to help her. So far, he hadn't asked for anything in return, and that bothered her. As Julia opened her mouth to speak, a blur of motion caught her eye. Fear crawled down her throat and settled in the pit of her stomach as she spotted a car that was bearing down on them much too fast. She watched, paralyzed, unable to make a sound. At the last second, she realized that the driver intended to run them both down.
"Oh, shit!" She cried out.
She threw Danny to her left and dove in the opposite direction. She landed on the asphalt with a bone-rattling crash and rolled towards the sidewalk. The car screeched to a halt a few feet away. Ignoring the hot, coppery taste of blood that filled her mouth, Julia scrambled to her knees. The palms of her hands were scraped raw, and she winced in pain. She couldn't see Danny from her current angle, and she wondered if he was all right. It hadn't sounded like the car had hit anything. Julia heard Maggie calling her name and realized that she had ignored directions and left the truck. From her position, she couldn't see Maggie either. The car stood between them.
Four car doors flew open simultaneously. As she struggled to rise, Julia heard Maggie's strangled cry. The next sound she heard was an ominous click as someone cocked back the hammer of a gun. Three-inch heels stopped in front of her, and she looked up to find Allison Davis standing over her. Allison smiled and pressed the barrel of her gun against Julia's forehead.
"Get up." She commanded.
Julia stood slowly. A brief wave of dizziness engulfed her, but she clenched her teeth and fought through it. She could see her truck over the roof of Allison's car. Her heart sank. As she had suspected, Maggie was not in the driver's seat. Instead, she was standing halfway between the truck and the car. One of Allison's beefy goons had his arm around her throat.
"Julia?" Maggie called out, struggling against her captor.
"It's okay, Maggie. I'm fine." Julia replied, trying to stay calm.
Allison laughed. "Oh, that is just so sweet!"
With difficulty, Julia tore her gaze away from Maggie and glared at her own tormentor. Allison's eyes were glassy and bright. She seemed oblivious to the electric blue daggers shooting from her captive's eyes. Julia let a low growl escape from her throat.
"Stop that." Allison wagged a finger at her. "You don't scare me, Julia. As long as poor, little Maggie is in danger, you're going to do exactly as I say."
Allison was right. Julia fumed as she tried to come up with a plan. A pained groan to her left grabbed her attention, and she focused her gaze on a scene over Allison's shoulder. Two other men were roughly hauling Danny to his feet and dragging him towards the car. Danny was bruised and bleeding from a gash on his cheek, but he did not appear seriously injured. The men threw him to the ground beside Julia, and she heard a sharp crack as his wrist snapped. He whimpered, cradling his hand against his chest. Allison pushed Julia back a step and leveled her gun at both of them.
"You've been a naughty boy. Haven't you, Danny?" She gave him a cold smile.
Julia's hands twitched, and Allison's gaze instantly flicked toward her. "I wouldn't try it, if I were you." She confided, speaking in a conspiratorial whisper. "You'll be dead before you take a step."
"What do you want, Allison?" Julia demanded, trying to buy some time.
"Don't be dense, Julia." Allison shook her head. "You know what I want."
Cars slowed as they drove past, and drivers peered at them curiously. Julia wondered if any of them had a clear view of what was going on. She hoped at least one of them had the sense to call the police. So far, Patrick had not been discovered in the back of her truck, and she wondered if she could use that to her advantage somehow. She prayed he wasn't stupid enough to try something on his own.
Allison snapped her fingers in front of Julia's nose. Irritated, she flung a lock of long, blonde hair away from her face.
"Hey! Pay attention!" Allison smiled when she realized she had Julia's attention again. "That's better. Now, where were we?"
"Oh, yeah." The smile disappeared. "Rumor has it that someone gave you a file filled with all sorts of nasty lies about me. I want it."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
In a heartbeat, Allison closed the distance between them. She seized a handful of Julia's hair and yanked her head back. She shoved the gun beneath Julia's chin. Her eyes flashed dangerously.
"Don't play games with me, Julia." Allison warned her. "Give me what I want. Or my friend will rip your girlfriend's pretty blonde head off. And we wouldn't want that, now would we?"
"No. We wouldn't." Julia answered through clenched teeth.
Allison released her hair and patted the top of her head. "Good girl."
"Julia, don't give her anything." Danny spat, his voice laced with pain. One of Allison's men kicked him in the ribs, and he groaned.
"She's going to kill us all, anyway. Don't give it to her." He repeated.
A mad giggle leaked out from between Allison's parted lips. She shrugged at Julia and grinned.
"He's right, you know. You're all going to die. But if you don't give me that file, I will make sure that Maggie has a slow, painful death. And you'll get a front row seat."
Julia's muscles twitched as a surge of adrenaline rushed through her. She had to make a move soon, or she would lose the chance. Could she overpower Allison before she had time to fire the gun? Julia considered the odds. It was a huge gamble, but she didn't see another option. Allison's thugs would jump in to help her. Maggie was smart and stronger than she looked, and there was a chance that Maggie could get away from her captor in the chaos. All she had to do was break free long enough to make a dash for the truck. Briefly, Julia's eyes darted to the two men looming over Danny. Neither of them appeared to be armed, and judging from their considerable bulk, she was fairly certain that she could outrun them, if things got that far.
It wasn't a good plan. Julia knew that. It was a plan that would almost certainly end in her death. However, it was the only plan she had. Looking past Allison, she caught Maggie's eye. Instead of the expected fear, she saw anger and fierce determination there. Julia smiled, filled with quiet pride. Maggie was tough. She would survive.
The green eyes widened, and Julia sensed that Maggie knew what she was planning. She gave her lover a miniscule shrug and a quirky, lopsided grin. Love poured from her eyes as she mouthed a silent "I love you." Maggie shook her head and struggled to free herself.
When Julia returned her attention to Allison, the loving grin had been replaced by a cocky, ferocious smirk. Allison's eyes narrowed. Julia was poised for the attack. She envisioned her muscles coiling up, ready to spring into action. A deep, humorless chuckle bubbled up from her throat.
"What the fuck are you laughing at?" Allison demanded.
Julia grinned at her, baring her teeth. "You," she replied.
She kept her vision focused on the gun. Get the gun. Keep Allison and her goons occupied long enough to give Maggie a chance. Those were her goals. She exhaled, letting the nervousness seep from her body. She started to move.
The wind had picked up, blowing a thick blanket of clouds across the sun. A low rumble of rolled in from the Pacific, heralding yet another rare thunderstorm. Fat raindrops darkened the concrete, sporadically at first, then steadily as the downpour intensified. The stiff ocean breeze thinned the fog and sent wispy tendrils swirling around the legs of the people standing on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Julia had been about to pounce on her captor when an unexpected noise stopped her. Horrified, she watched as Patrick McKinnon barreled around the back of her truck. A rabid yell tore loose from his throat as he flung himself at the man holding his sister hostage. Julia tried to call out a warning, but the words got stuck. A feeling of helplessness washed over her as Allison whirled around, gun in hand, and took aim.
In the mere seconds that Allison's back was turned, Julia realized that this was the opportunity she had been waiting for. Her vision tunneled until all she could see was the murderous blonde socialite in front of her. Gathering her resolve, Julia lunged forward and seized Allison's arm. The gun fired, and a booming thunderclap nearly drowned out the sound of the shot. The two women tumbled to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. Julia's hand was clamped around Allison's slim wrist, and she viciously slammed the other woman's hand against the asphalt. Shouts of alarm mingled with Maggie's scream, though Julia scarcely heard any of it. Everything sounded as if it were being filtered through a thick layer of cotton.
Allison's thugs regained their senses and reacted to their employer's plight. Julia heard an angry snarl, and she kicked out instinctively as rough hands grabbed at her. Her assailant crumpled with a groan after she landed a hard blow to his midsection. She had no time to wonder where her other attackers were. Allison's long fingernails were digging into her back, and the blonde's shrill, piercing shrieks assaulted her ears.
"You are so fucking dead!" Allison screamed as she tried to free herself. "All of you are so fucking dead!"
The sound of a nearby struggle captured Julia's attention, and grunts and groans told her that Danny was fighting with a second goon. A thousand thoughts competed for dominance in her mind. She wanted to help Danny, but she already had her hands full with the writhing, squirming woman pinned beneath her. Julia's hand was growing slick with sweat and rain, and the muscles in her arms and shoulders trembled from the strain. Her concentration was starting to slip. Then, Maggie's voice cut through the haze. She was yelling wildly, though she sounded more enraged than frightened. That was all Julia needed to regain her focus.
A primal growl started deep in her chest. With a full-throated roar, Julia hammered the heel of her free hand against Allison's nose. She grunted in satisfaction at the wet crunch. Allison howled in pain, and her grip on the gun loosened. Crying out in triumph, Julia ripped the weapon free and rolled out of reach. Keeping the gun trained on Allison, she bounded to her feet.
"Maggie?" She called out anxiously, fearing the worst.
Her eyes widened in shock. Several yards away, Maggie had somehow managed to overpower her captor, and she was pummeling him like a woman possessed. Fire blazed from her eyes as blow after blow rained down upon the semi-conscious man. Nearby, Patrick was lying in a slowly growing pool of blood.
"Oh my God." Julia took a tentative step towards them.
"Maggie? You can stop now. It's over. He's not going anywhere."
Maggie's head turned at the sound of Julia's voice. She met Julia with a blank, uncomprehending stare. She looked down at the man at her feet and blinked slowly, as if she didn't understand what was happening. A few feet away, Patrick twitched. Maggie's gaze flew to her fallen brother, and the color drained from her face as comprehension overwhelmed her.
"Patrick's hurt," she said in a small voice. She took a faltering step towards her brother.
Julia was torn by indecision. Maggie needed her, but she knew that she could not turn her back on Allison. The blonde was still writhing on the ground and clutching at her broken nose.
"Julia, give me the gun. I'll keep an eye on them."
A soft voice to her left startled her. Despite his fractured arm, Danny had been able to subdue their other assailant. He stood off to the side, his wide eyes fixed on Patrick's still form. Without looking at Julia, he held his hand out.
Blue eyes narrowed into thin slits as Julia debated whether or not to trust him. A flicker of motion drew her gaze away. Maggie had stumbled to her brother's side and dropped to her knees next to him. She cradled his head in her lap and desperately searched for the source of the blood. Julia made her decision. She handed the gun to Danny.
"Don't even think about trying anything." She wasn't sure if her growled warning was for him or for Allison.
Danny adjusted his grip on the gun and shifted to a better position. He kept Allison and her two employees in front of him, and his finger twitched nervously on the trigger. Julia hesitated just long enough to make sure that he had the situation under control. Danny gave her a grim smile and nodded.
Satisfied, Julia dashed around them and stumbled to a halt at Maggie's side. Her throat constricted painfully at the sight of Maggie's tear-streaked face. Swallowing her own tears, Julia crouched and took Patrick's wrist in her hand. She closed her eyes and sighed in relief. His pulse still throbbed weakly beneath her fingertips.
"I can't stop the bleeding," Maggie said, her voice hollow.
Gently, Julia pried her hands away. She shuddered as she tried not to look at the blood that stained them. Maggie made a tiny, mewling sound of protest, but Julia shushed her quietly as she examined the Patrick's wound. The bullet had struck him in th chest, and he was bleeding profusely. She turned him over carefully and checked his back. She found the exit wound and nodded to herself. She was fairly sure that was good. Patrick's eyes fluttered open.
"Ouch." He struggled to rise, but Julia held him down firmly.
"Keep still. You're gonna be fine."
Dazed, he blinked at her. "Maggie?"
"It's okay, Patrick. I'm right here. Everything is okay." Maggie soothed him.
Leaning down, she kissed the top of his head. The simple, heartfelt gesture made Julia's heart ache. Though she didn't much care for her lover's younger brother, she knew that Maggie loved him deeply. In spite of everything he had put them through, forgiveness and worry shone from green eyes that sparkled with tears. Maggie smoothed his damp hair back with the palm of her hand, leaving reddish-brown streaks behind.
"What did you think you were doing, anyway?" She asked him.
He shrugged. "I couldn't let them hurt you."
He coughed weakly. Maggie's eyes widened in fear, and she touched her fingertips to his lips. Julia's breath caught as Maggie held her fingers out. Spots of blood coated the tips. She swore internally. Patrick's injury was more severe than she had originally thought. The bullet must have nicked a lung, she realized. They had to get him to a hospital as quickly as possible.
"I couldn't forgive myself if anything happened to you, Mags." He wheezed, his breath coming in short gasps.
Maggie shook her head at him as tears rolled down her cheeks. "Hush. We'll talk later. Just rest for now."
A harsher coughing spasm seized him. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he fell unconscious again.
Sirens wailed in the distance, their screams growing nearer by the second, and Julia hoped that the police were on the way. She was dimly aware of the traffic slowing on the bridge as drivers slowed to gawk at them. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder to check on Danny. She frowned, and dark eyebrows knit together in concern.
Allison had regained her feet and she seemed to be whispering to Danny. Julia was too far away to hear the words, but she could tell that they were agitating him. As she watched, his angry scowl deepened. He swung the gun back and forth in a wide arc, covering all three of his charges. Allison threw her head back and laughed. The harsh, grating sound chilled Julia's blood, and the hairs on the back of her neck prickled. Her stomach churned and tightened. She stood slowly.
"Julia? What's wrong?" Maggie asked, looking up at her quizzically.
Julia cast a troubled glance at her. "I'm not sure. I'm getting a very bad feeling about this."
Chaos broke loose as soon as the words left her mouth. Julia felt like she was watching a movie unfold in extreme slow motion. She shouted a warning, but it was too late. Acting in unison, both of Allison's thugs lunged at Danny. He stumbled backwards, and his finger jerked reflexively on the trigger. The gun fired harmlessly into the air. The two hulking men fell on him, and he lost his grip on the weapon. It tumbled from his hand and skittered across the pavement, finally coming to rest against the front tire of Allison's car. Allison's gaze followed its path, and her eyes glowed brightly.
Julia cursed under her breath and sprinted towards the scene. She flew around the front of the car and tackled Allison as she reached for the gun. This time, Allison was ready for her. She stumbled but did not fall. Julia sucked in a sharp breath. Allison looked nothing like the haughty socialite that she remembered. Dried blood encrusted her upper lip, and her nose was purple and swollen. Another dark bruise marred her pale cheek. Her sunken, glassy eyes were evidence of her drug abuse. Allison's gaze darted back and forth from Julia to the gun at her feet. The sirens were drawing ever closer, and Julia could see the first set of flashing lights in the distance.
Behind Allison, the two thugs were beating Danny into a bloody pulp. Julia winced in sympathy as one landed a savage blow to her old friend's kidneys. She couldnt help him at the moment. She kept her attention focused on the twitching blonde in front of her. Allison seemed to have realized that the police were quickly closing in. Her head whipped around wildly as she searched for an escape route. For a moment, Julia thought she was going to try to run. She shook her dark head. There was nowhere for Allison to go.
"Forget it, Allison. It's over. You lost," she said.
The sirens were deafening now. Two squad cars screeched to a halt on the bridge, while three others sped into the parking lot from the other direction. Car doors flew open, and uniformed officers crouched behind them with their guns drawn.
"Nobody move! Everyone get your hands up!" An officer shouted through a bullhorn.
Julia complied, lifting her hands to shoulder-height to prove that she was unarmed. The two goons that were pounding Danny stopped, as well. They backed away, leaving him unconscious on the ground. Julia darted a quick glance over her shoulder. Maggie still had Patrick cradled in her lap, and she seemed oblivious to the police officers that surrounded them.
A soft laugh from Allison recaptured her attention. She met the blonde woman's eyes and noted the hunted look in them. Julia frowned at her, wondering what was going through Allison's head.
"Daddy's going to be very angry with me." Allison confided in her. She giggled quietly and pressed her finger to her lips.
"Shhh. Don't tell him. I've been a bad girl."
"Allison," Julia began. She was cut off before she could finish.
Ignoring the shouted warnings from the police, Allison took a step towards Julia. She leaned in closer and lowered her voice to a mere whisper. Julia could see the madness that glinted in her eyes, and she felt a momentary pang of sympathy.
"I have to hide so he won't find me. So he cant punish me."
Before anyone could stop her, Allison turned and bolted for the side of the bridge. Julia grabbed for her arm. Her fingertips brushed the edge of Allison's sleeve, but she could not maintain her grip. Sickened, she watched as Allison dashed towards the edge. A warning shot rang out, but the blonde ignored it as she picked up speed. Two police officers were pursuing her now, but she had too much of a head start. As she neared the rail, she shouted over her shoulder. The wind carried her voice across the bridge.
"You're wrong, Julia! I win!"
She was still laughing as she threw herself over the side. For a brief instant, she hung, suspended in mid-air. Her arms and legs flailed, and her long blonde hair swirled around her face. Then she was gone, plummeting into the Bay below.
Julia squeezed her eyes shut. This was not how she had wanted things to end. She wondered if she had done the right thing by coming out here without back up. If she had called Henry and told him everything, it might have turned out differently. She knew she would never forget the look in Allison Davis's eyes just before her mad dash towards her death. Nor would she ever forget the sight of blood covering Maggie's hands. Bloodshed that might have been avoided if she hadn't been so stubborn, she realized bitterly.
Fingers snapped abruptly in front of her face. Julia's eyes flew open, and she found herself staring at a concerned young officer. He scanned her carefully, looking for signs of injury.
"Are you all right, ma'am?" He asked again.
Julia nodded slowly. "I'm fine."
An ambulance had arrived on the scene, and two paramedics were tending to Patrick. He slipped in and out of consciousness as they loaded him into the vehicle. Maggie hesitated, looking back at Julia. 'Go.' Julia mouthed to her. She would follow Maggie to the hospital as soon as she could. Maggie gave her a sad, grateful smile as she climbed into the back of the ambulance. A police officer shut the rear doors, and the vehicle sped away.
The young officer was talking to her again, and Julia blinked. She tried to listen to what he was saying. He mentioned Henry's name, and that got her attention. She shook her head.
"Wait. What was that?" She asked.
The officer sighed impatiently. "Inspector Chow got an anonymous tip. Someone called to warn him about a threat against your life. When we got the call about an incident on the bridge, somehow he knew it was you."
"Oh." It was all she could think to say.
"We need to ask you a few questions about what happened here," the officer said.
A scowl darkened Julia's face. The shock was fading and she was beginning to feel like herself again. Maggie would need her, and she didn't feel like wasting her time answering a bunch of pointless questions. Behind her, Danny moaned. She turned in time to witness a pair of officers gingerly tending to his wounds. A third policeman stood over them and read Danny his Miranda rights.
"Is he going to be okay?" She called out.
One of the officers looked up at her. "We think so," he answered. "Another ambulance is on its way for him."
"Good. I have a few things to settle with him, too."
Slowly and deliberately, Julia turned her head and pinned the young officer with a piercing stare. She gave him a fierce grin and chuckled silently at his hard, nervous swallow.
"Don't call me that," she said.
"I need to meet my friend at the hospital. Once we get there, you can ask all the questions you want."
Since Maggie had the keys to her truck, Julia took a few steps towards one of the parked patrol cars. Backpedaling furiously, the officer stayed in front of her. He held his hands out.
"Wait! You can't just "
His protests died in his throat as she fixed him with an even harder glare. She arched an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue his argument. Nothing was going to stop her from meeting up with Maggie.
"Never mind," he muttered.
He waved at one of his fellow officers and pointed to Julia's back. "I'm going to escort her to the hospital."
They arrived at the emergency room in record time, and Julia jumped out of the car before it had stopped moving. Breathlessly, she dashed through the doors and searched the crowded waiting room for a familiar face. Relief flooded over her as she spotted two. In the far corner, Henry and Maggie were sitting together. Henry saw her first. He nudged the exhausted woman beside him and pointed. Maggie's eyes lit up and she met Julia halfway across the room.
Oblivious to the crowd around them, they embraced. A lump rose in Julia's throat as she pressed her cheek against the top of Maggie's head. She wrapped her arms around the trembling blonde and held her tightly. Maggie choked back a sob, and Julia felt hot tears stinging her own eyes.
"Are you okay?" She asked.
Maggie nodded. "I'm fine."
"God, Maggie. When I heard that shot, I thought "
"Don't Julia. Not right now. Please."
Julia sighed. They would have plenty of time to talk later. Right now, she realized, Maggie was desperately worried about her brother.
"How is he?" Julia asked.
"They're working on him now. I don't know." Maggie buried her face into Julia's shoulder.
Julia guided her back over to the corner, and Henry scooted over to make room on the worn couch. She sank down on it. The events of the morning had drained her physically, mentally and emotionally. She caught the stern look in Henry's eyes and shook her head at him. The lecture could wait until later. He nodded and unwrapped a stick of gum.
Maggie was leaning against her heavily, and Julia kept her arm securely around her shoulders. She was glad to see that Maggie had washed the worst of the blood from her hands, though rust-colored stains still streaked her clothing. They sat together in silence. Both Julia and Maggie were too tired and emotional to speak, and Henry had enough sense not to pester them. Twenty minutes passed before a doctor came out to speak with them. Patrick was on his way to surgery, but the prognosis looked good.
"See? I told you everything would be all right," Henry said after the doctor had left.
"I guess I should have listened you." Maggie smiled at him through tears of relief. She stood. "I need to go wash my face. I must look awful."
Julia rose as well. "Do you want me to go with you?"
Maggie caught the almost imperceptible shake of Henry's head. She smiled at Julia and patted her arm.
"Thanks, but I think I can manage. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Julia watched as Maggie disappeared down the corridor. She turned to Henry and waited expectantly.
"Well what?" Henry echoed her.
She glared at him. She was at the edges of her patience and she had no desire to play games with him. Henry seemed to sense her growing irritation and he relented. He stood and pointed to a door that led out to a small balcony.
"Let's go outside. We need to talk, and I'm dying for a cigarette."
Wordlessly, Julia followed him outside and waited while he fumbled through his pockets. They kept their backs pressed to the wall, careful to stay beneath the overhang. Silently, the watched the rain continue to pour from the sky. Henry took a long drag on his cigarette.
"I thought you quit smoking," Julia said, breaking the silence.
"I did." Henry returned. He rubbed his palm across his bristling scalp.
"Councilman Davis is gone."
Julia blinked, letting the words penetrate her brain. A dozen different emotions, ranging from rage to relief, washed over her. She raked her fingers through her damp, tangled hair.
"We sent a car to his house and to his office," Henry continued. "Both came up empty. He's probably halfway to Mexico by now."
He paused and cleared his throat delicately. "Jules, I don't exactly know how to say this. I think that someone tipped him off and he ran."
"And you think it was my father." Julia finished for him.
"Yeah, I do. What do you want me to do, Julia? Should I bring him in for questioning?"
Julia thought for a moment, remembering her promise to her father. She doubted that he had warned the councilman. When they had last spoken, he had seemed eager to get as far away from this situation as he could. It was more likely that Martin Davis had seen the signs, and he had simply disappeared before he could be held accountable. Shrugging her shoulders, she glanced sideways at her waiting friend.
"Leave my dad alone. He isn't involved in this."
Both of Henry's eyebrows shot up in surprise. He dropped his cigarette and crushed it out beneath his shoe. Finally, he nodded.
"Okay. If that's what you want. I'll probably still have to ask him a few basic questions, but I'll keep the gloves on." He hesitated, searching Julia's face. "I hope you know what you're doing. Martin Davis could still be a dangerous man."
Julia had no response. Henry was right; the councilman was still a threat. She suspected that he had already killed to protect his daughter. What would his reaction to Allisons death be? Julia suppressed a tiny shudder. Would she and Maggie ever truly feel safe as long as he was out there somewhere? A light tap on the door rescued her and she turned. Maggie had returned from the bathroom. Julia smiled at her through the glass and reached for the door handle.
"Hey, Jules." Henry stopped her. He grinned at her and nodded towards Maggie. "Hang on to this one. She's good for you."
Julia laughed softly. "Thanks. I intend to."
She went back into the waiting room and smiled as Maggie took her hand. They resumed their seat on the worn, faded couch. While they waited for Patrick to come out of the operating room, Henry took their official statements. When he was done, he excused himself and went to the nurse's station to use the phone.
Maggie squeezed Julia's hand gently. "It's hard to believe that it's all finally over."
Uncertainty gnawed at Julia. She didn't want to keep secrets from Maggie, but she didn't want to give her anything else to worry about, either. With Patrick wounded, she had enough to worry about. Her discomfort must have showed on her face, because Maggie's eyes narrowed. Julia knew that she realized something was wrong. She decided to tell her everything.
"Maggie, I have bad news. Martin Davis is missing."
Maggie was quiet for a moment as she absorbed the information. "Do you think he'll come after us?"
Julia sighed. "Ordinarily, I would say no. If he's smart, he'll just get out of the country."
"But?" Maggie prompted her.
"But I'm not sure we're dealing with a rational man. Henry will have every cop in the city keeping his eyes open for him, but he could still be a threat."
Maggie nodded and snuggled closer. "Okay. Then we'll be careful for a little while longer. We're going to get through this, and then we're going to live a normal life together."
Julia smiled faintly. "We are, huh?"
"Yep. I'm tired of all the intrigue and excitement. I just want to have a nice, normal, uneventful life with you."
The words tugged at Julia's heart. She realized that she never wanted to be alone again. Taking a deep breath, she plunged forward and hoped that she wasn't moving too fast. She twisted around so she was looking directly into Maggie's eyes, and she took both of the other woman's hands into her own.
"I never thought I would say this again, but I want that too. I want to spend the rest of my life getting to know you better. Move in with me."
A slow smile lit up Maggie's eyes. "Really?"
Julia smiled back at her. "Really. That way I can keep you out of trouble."
Maggie snorted softly and backhanded Julia in the stomach. "Very funny, Cassinelli. You get into plenty of trouble all by yourself. I should be the one keeping you in line."
"Is that a yes?" Julia asked, hope coloring her voice.
"Yes. Of course. Absolutely. How soon can we start moving my stuff in?"
Julia laughed and pulled her closer. Leaning down, she stole a leisurely kiss. Their bodies melded together, and she nearly forgot they were in the middle of a crowded hospital waiting room.
"Is tomorrow soon enough?" She was dizzy from the combination of euphoria and exhaustion.
"I think I'm free tomorrow," Maggie said.
Her voice sounded drowsy, and Julia noticed that she was struggling to keep her eyes open. She slid her arm around Maggie's shoulders and settled back against the couch. Although it was only mid-morning, it had already been a long day. They were both running on sheer stubbornness and willpower.
"Get some rest, okay?"
"You'll wake me when the doctor comes back, right?"
"Of course I will."
Maggie sighed and fell asleep to the sound of Julia's faint humming. Henry was still leaning against the desk at the nurse's station, and Julia met his gaze. She was more concerned about Martin Davis's whereabouts than she had let on. She had a sinking feeling that they weren't through with this game yet. Maggie murmured something in her sleep, and Julia tightened her arms around her protectively. 'Take your best shot, Davis,' she whispered silently. 'I'm ready for you this time.'
"Maggie, wake up. We're home." Julia reached across the front seat to shake her dozing passenger.
Home. Julia rolled the word around on her tongue. It had been a long time since she had thought of her dark, empty house as a home. For years, her house had simply been a place for her to sleep and change her clothes occasionally. Maggie's presence would change all of that, and finally bring some much-needed light into her gloomy residence. Julia allowed herself a tiny, hopeful grin as she parked her truck alongside the curb. She nudged Maggie again.
"C'mon, Maggie. Wake up."
Maggie swatted her hand away and let out a sleepy sigh. "I'm awake already. Quit poking me."
They were both exhausted. All Julia wanted to do was take a long, hot bath and crawl into bed for at least a week. She made a face as she climbed out of her truck. She would be lucky if she managed to sleep for more than a few hours. Maggie would want to be back at the hospital first thing in the morning.
They had spent most of the morning waiting for Patrick to come out of surgery. Maggie had been frantic with worry, and Julia had provided moral support while she called her family and broke the news about Patrick's situation. That had been interesting. After ten minutes of listening to Eileen McKinnon's shrill, accusatory shrieks, Julia had begun to understand why Maggie was reluctant to call her parents.
A few hours later, the doctor had come to inform them that the operation had been successful. Maggie had sobbed with relief. She had insisted upon waiting with Patrick in recovery until he regained consciousness. Finally, late that evening, Julia managed to convince her to leave for a little while. The lure of a hot shower and a soft bed had been more than Maggie could resist. They had promised Patrick that they would return in the morning. To ensure Patrick's safety, Henry had posted two guards outside his room and vowed to stay the night there himself. Julia doubted that Martin Davis would be foolish enough to show up at the hospital, and even if he did, she was confident that Patrick was secure under Henry's watchful eye. The drive to Julia's house had been uneventful, and Maggie had fallen into a light doze almost as soon as the truck started moving.
As she led Maggie up the steps to her front door, Julia glanced over her shoulder at the police escort that had accompanied them home. Despite her half-hearted objections, Henry had insisted upon it. One of the officers waved at her, and Julia lifted a hand to acknowledge him. She was forced to admit that she felt safer knowing that two armed police officers were parked across the street. Fumbling with her keys, she turned back to the door.
"I've got first dibs on the shower." Maggie yawned as she entered the darkened house.
Julia chuckled as she turned on the lamp in the living room. "Fine. Go take your shower. I'm hungry. I think I'll order a pizza."
"Don't forget the extra mushrooms," Maggie called over her shoulder.
"Yeah, yeah. Extra mushrooms," Julia muttered under her breath.
She reached for the phone and called in an order to her favorite pizza place. Upstairs, she could hear the water running, and she considered joining Maggie in the shower. Shaking her head, she dismissed the idea. She needed to listen in case Henry or the hospital called.
Bathed in the warm, muted glow of the lamp, her sofa looked particularly soft and inviting. With a weary groan, Julia collapsed on the buttery leather and threw her arm over her eyes. In the darkness of her mind, she saw Allison, laughing at her. Julia squeezed her eyes shut tighter, but she could not rid herself of the images that played over and over in her head. In excruciating slow motion, she saw Allison running for the edge of the bridge. Her throat constricted as she recalled the soundless way that Allison had plunged to her death. Hot tears burned the backs of her eyelids. Determined not to cry, she clenched her teeth until her jaw trembled. Again, she saw herself reaching for Allison's arm and felt the fabric as it slipped through her outstretched fingers.
Self-doubt seized her and Julia wondered if she had tried hard enough to save her. She rubbed her eyes angrily. 'Stop that,' she told herself. 'Allison Davis was a lunatic. She tried to kill Maggie, and you didn't owe her anything.' The doubts persisted, so Julia turned the television on to silence them. It was time for the evening news, and every channel she flipped through seemed to be showing her picture or Allison's. Groaning, she hit the mute button.
Outside, the wind was picking up again. Julia went to the window and peered out, scowling at the darkness. She could barely make out the silhouettes of the two figures across the street. Martin Davis wasn't foolish enough to show up at her house, she reminded herself. The police surveillance was just a precaution.
Julia watched as a flurry of dried leaves blew across her walkway. A tree branch scraped against the kitchen window, and she flinched at the unexpected sound. 'Paranoid, much?' She let out a soft, self-disgusted laugh. She tilted her head up towards the second floor and listened. The shower had stopped, and she smiled, anticipating her turn. Before Maggie returned downstairs, Julia wanted to be certain that the house was secure. She checked the locks on the front door. Both were solid. The back door was bolted, as well, and all of the windows on the first floor were tightly shut. She nodded in satisfaction.
"So, are we all locked in?" Maggie's voice behind her made her jump.
Maggie grinned and reached out to steady her. "Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you like that."
Julia swallowed hard as her pulse thundered in her ears. She didnt want Maggie to sense her nervousness. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Julia arched and eyebrow and plastered a cocky half-grin across her lips. She gave Maggie a casual shrug.
"You didn't scare me," she insisted. "I just didn't hear you come in. That's all."
"Sorry," Maggie repeated, softly stroking Julia's arm.
Julia gave her a saucy wink. "Don't worry about it. I'll just put a bell around your neck next time." She ducked her head and lightly planted a kiss on the bridge of Maggie's nose. "My turn in the shower."
Maggie accompanied her to the foot of the stairs, and Julia turned, her face serious. She glanced at the door, visually inspecting the locks again. A nagging feeling of uneasiness gnawed at her, and she didn't like leaving Maggie by herself.
"I'll be quick," Julia promised. "I ordered a pizza, but I should be out of the shower before it gets here."
Maggie gave her an understanding smile and gently pushed her towards the stairs. "I'll be fine. Don't worry."
Julia nodded. "I know." She hesitated. "I checked all the locks downstairs. Nobody can get in. Still, if you see or hear anything weird "
"I'll call the police and come get you," Maggie interrupted.
"Right. Okay." Julia smiled at her. Maggie's calm outer demeanor was helping to soothe her own fears.
Maggie squeezed her hand reassuringly before wandering into the living room. Julia stood in the entryway, watching her for a moment as Maggie began flipping through the television channels. Maggie seemed to sense the attention, and she looked up quizzically. At a loss for words, Julia struggled to find something to say. The memory of Patrick in a pool of blood popped into her mind. It easily could have been Maggie lying there, she realized. Grimly, she forced the disturbing image out of her head. Maggie had enough to worry about without dealing with her trauma on top of it, Julia thought.
"I love you," she said.
"I love you too, Julia." Maggie stopped and peered at her more closely. Her forehead wrinkled in concern. "Is everything okay? Did something happen while I was upstairs?"
Julia shook her head and gave her a weak smile. "No. Everything's fine. I'm just tired, I guess."
Maggie frowned and took a step forward. "Are you sure?"
Julia waved her off and started climbing the stairs. "Positive. I'll be back in a few
Pretending not to notice the deep concern in Maggie's eyes, Julia continued up the stairs and into her bedroom. She paused in the darkness, gathering herself while she kicked off her shoes. She was not going to have a nervous breakdown. Not now, when Maggie still needed her to be strong. Resolutely, Julia pushed her own doubts and fears aside. She would deal with all of that later, she promised herself. She crossed the bedroom to her half-open armoire and began pulling out a fresh set of clothes. As she rummaged through a drawer and searched for a pair of matching socks, a cold breeze hit the back of her neck. She straightened, her shoulders stiffening.
Julia whirled around. Her bedroom window was open, and the curtains were fluttering in the wind. Her stomach tightened and every nerve ending stood at attention as she approached the open window. She knew that she hadn't left it ajar, and she wondered if Maggie had opened it while she was upstairs. Carefully, Julia parted the curtains and poked her head outside. She scanned the ground below, paying particular interest to the thick hedges that separated her house from her neighbor's. A man could easily hide in the dense growth unnoticed. She saw nothing. She was just being overly paranoid, she told herself. She glanced at the tall oak outside her window. It was a difficult tree to climb, but not impossible. A thick, sturdy branch stretched along the side of the house --- just close enough to possibly provide access to her window.
The back of her neck prickled, and she was sure that a pair of malevolent eyes was boring into her. Slowly, she turned. The empty bedroom mocked her, and she frowned. She moved out to the hallway and started towards the door to her office. It was closed, which was odd. Julia rarely kept her office door closed unless she had company. She glanced over the rail and saw Maggie, sitting on the sofa, absorbed in a television show. Maggie didn't see her, and Julia didn't want to draw her attention yet. She thought about the police across the street and wondered how quickly they could respond, if needed.
On bare feet, Julia silently crept towards her office. She turned the knob slowly and pushed the door open a tiny crack. She waited for several long heartbeats, half-expecting someone to yank the door open from the other side. She was met by silence. Steeling herself, she widened the crack until she could peek inside the room. Inky blackness enveloped her as she took a step inside the office. Her fingers scrabbled along the wall as she felt for the light switch, and she wondered what had possessed her to adorn every window in her house with such heavy drapes. Finally, she felt the cool plastic switch beneath her fingertips, and she flipped it up with a flick of her wrist. The room stayed dark. The soft creak of leather alerted her that someone had just risen from her chair.
"Oh, shit," Julia breathed.
She half-turned, intending to warn Maggie. In the darkness, she heard her chair rolling across the floor. Unseen, someone was rushing at her, and she had little time to react before Councilman Martin Davis charged into view. His face was twisted into a hateful mask, and Julia braced herself for the impact as he slammed into her. She tumbled backwards to the hardwood floor with a loud crash. The jarring blow forced the air from her lungs and lights exploded in front of her eyes. Julia blinked rapidly to focus her vision. She had to tell Maggie to get out of the house.
The snarling councilman threw himself upon her. Seizing her collar, he lifted her head and slammed her back down against the floor. Julia pushed the heel of her hand beneath his chin and tried to shove him away, but he was too heavy. He straddled her, pinning her down, and wrapped his massive hands around her throat. Leaning down, he whispered into her ear, his voice dripping with venom.
"You murdered my daughter, you little bitch! Did you really think I would let you get away with that?"
He pounded her against the floor again, and Julia saw the madness dancing in his eyes. "I won't let you ruin me! I'll kill you! You and your little whore!"
Julia felt like her head was a balloon that was about to pop, and her chest burned from lack of oxygen. Desperate, she raked her fingernails across the councilman's cheek. He hissed in pain as she drew blood, but his grip on her did not loosen. Julia turned her head to the side as her vision began to dim. Her eyes widened. Maggie was standing halfway up the stairs, staring at them in horror. Julia tried to call out to her and tell her to run, but she couldn't utter a sound through the councilman's stranglehold.
Maggie seemed to snap out of her trance, and she raced up the stairs toward them. Fury shone in her eyes, and Julia recognized the look. Maggie had that on the bridge, after Patrick was shot. The same animal intensity had burned in her eyes when she attacked the thug who had been holding her hostage.
"Get your hands off her, you son of a bitch!" Maggie screamed.
Martin looked up at the sound of her cry. His lips twisted into a vicious sneer and a chilling laugh burst forth from his throat. Hatred and anger seemed to flow from every pore as he stared at her. He trembled with rage, and Julia could see the vein pulsating in his forehead. She focused on it and willed herself to stay conscious.
"You." Martin growled at Maggie through clenched teeth. "I'll make you wish you had never laid eyes on my Allison."
His crushing grip on Julia's throat slackened slightly. It was enough. Julia felt a fresh surge of adrenaline rush through her bloodstream. She kicked out with her legs, throwing the councilman off balance. She closed her hand into a tight fist and jabbed hard, aiming for the base of his throat. Choking and gagging, he fell away. Julia scrambled out from beneath him and stood, using the wall to support her. Her head spun, but she shook the dizziness away.
Maggie was hesitating on the landing. Julia saw the look in Martin's eyes, and she knew that he was going after Maggie next. With a roar, he lunged for the paralyzed blonde. Julia caught him around his waist and pushed him sideways, ignoring the painful wrench in her shoulder. Martin grabbed hold of her wrist and dragged her with him as he stumbled toward the railing. Surprise and sudden comprehension dawned on his face as he tumbled backwards over the top of the rail. His fingers were still clamped around Julia's wrist, and she felt like her arm was about to be ripped off. She braced her other arm against the rail and felt the wood pressing into her ribs as she was pulled forward. She was losing her balance. Grimly, she dug her nails into Martin's hand, forcing him to let go. With an agonized cry, he fell. He hit the floor below with a loud thud.
Julia was dimly aware of the strong arms around her waist, anchoring her. Gasping for air, she slumped to the floor. Her vision flickered and she blinked dazedly as Maggie hovered over her. She felt a gentle hand tilt her chin up, then worried green eyes were peering into hers.
"Julia? Are you okay?" Maggie asked. Her voice sounded very far away.
"I thought I was going over, too," Julia croaked.
"I wasn't going to let you fall," Maggie said.
Hot tears splashed on her face, and she realized that Maggie was crying. She reached up to caress Maggie's cheek.
"I'm okay," she said. She gave Maggie a weak grin. "Think we should go tell the cops we took care of everything?"
Maggie smiled back at her. "Probably."
Julia started to rise, but Maggie pushed her back down. "Shhh. Stay there. I'll get the police."
Julia cast a doubtful glance over her shoulder. Martin Davis had landed on his back and his leg was bent at an unnatural angle. He appeared to be unconscious, and Julia couldn't tell if he had survived the fall. She narrowed her eyes until she could see the faint rise and fall of his chest.
"He's still alive." Julia jerked her head toward him.
Maggie glanced at him. "He's not going anywhere. Don't move. I'll go yell for the cops."
Maggie kissed her lightly before hurrying down the stairs. Julia heard her open the door, and she tried not to laugh at the indignation in Maggie's voice as she summoned the officers across the street. Julia leaned her head back against the rail and shut her eyes. She was strangely light-headed --- almost giddy with relief. Allison was dead. Martin was lying unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. It was all finally over.
Maggie was scolding the inattentive police officers as they hurried over to the house, and Julia smiled. When she had answered Danny's call about a break-in at his business, she'd had no idea that her life was about to change forever. Julia opened her eyes again as Maggie dashed back up the stairs to her side.
"An ambulance is on the way. I'm going to call Henry and have him get you a room in between Catherine and Patrick," Maggie joked lightly.
"I wouldn't change a thing," Julia mumbled.
Maggie tilted her head in confusion. "What?"
"If we had the chance to go back and do this all again, I wouldn't change a thing."
"Oh." Maggie sat down next to her. She slipped her arm around Julia's shoulders and pulled the dark head towards her. "I wouldn't change anything either."
"Really?" Julia asked in wonder.
Maggie paused. "Well, maybe I would change a few things. But definitely not the part when I met you."
Julia was silent. She heard the police moving about downstairs, and an unfamiliar voice asked her if she was all right. She mumbled an incoherent answer. She was too tired to think. She didn't know how many minutes passed before she heard the ambulance wailing in the distance. It was a sound she'd heard too many times in the last few weeks, and one she never wanted to hear again. Suddenly, Julia realized that the siren's scream had been replaced by another slightly off-key sound.
"My head hurts. Please don't sing."
Maggie laughed, and Julia felt the vibration beneath her cheek. She smiled. The rest of the world fell away as Julia listened to the sound of Maggie's heart beating beneath her ear. A last thought drifted through her exhausted mind before she fell asleep. Maggie loved her, and everything was going to be just fine.
Two weeks later, Julia stood on her front porch and watched while Maggie and Henry loaded two sets of duffel bags into the back of her truck. Indolently, she leaned against the doorframe and stuck her tongue out at Henry as he shot her a dirty look. He rolled his eyes in her direction.
"It's been two weeks, Jules." Henry reminded her. "I think you're perfectly capable of loading your own luggage. How long are you planning on milking this concussion thing?"
Julia shrugged and grinned at him. She refused to admit it out loud, but she was enjoying being pampered. Maggie came around the back of the truck and backhanded Henry in the stomach.
"Leave her alone. She's still recovering," Maggie said. She winked at him as she headed up the walkway to join Julia on the porch.
Henry rolled his eyes again and shook his head. "Whatever."
He settled the small ice chest in the back of the truck and slammed the hatch shut. Turning, he leaned against the rear bumper and watched the two women in front of the house. Julia had her back against the doorframe and her arms wrapped around the waist of the smaller blonde. They both looked more relaxed than he had ever seen them. He let out an envious sigh. Henry was happy for them, and he had to admit that they deserved a long weekend away after everything they had been through.
Both Catherine and Patrick had been released from the hospital. They were expected to make full physical recoveries. Patrick was temporarily living with Henry until Councilman Davis's trial was over. The district attorney still hadn't decided whether or not to file charges against Maggie's younger brother. Henry suspected that Patrick would be allowed to return home to Ohio, as long as he promised to complete a rehabilitation program. To his credit, Patrick seemed to be serious about putting his life back together, and Henry hoped that would hold true, for Maggie's sake.
Martin Davis was still in the hospital, recuperating from his injuries. Danny Webber was cooperating with the D.A.'s office, and he had cut himself a deal to reduce his jail time. With his testimony, plus the physical evidence, Henry was certain that the councilman would be going away for a very long time. He had already volunteered to drive Martin up to the state prison in Sacramento himself.
"I don't think this is fair," Henry declared. "I still have to go to work while the two of you head off for a beach vacation."
"It's one of the benefits of being your own boss." Julia told him.
"Whatever," he repeated. "Maybe I should become a private investigator. How about it, Jules? Are you looking for a partner?"
Without looking at him, Julia shook her head. She was lost in the jade green depths in front of her. "Nah. I've already got a partner."
Maggie turned around and giggled at him. "Besides, it's not like you're going to be working every second. Jessica told me that you guys hit it off. She said something about a date, too. That's tonight, isn't it?"
Henry flushed, turning beet red to the roots of his crew cut. "Maybe."
Chuckling deep in her chest, Julia shut the front door and locked it. She took Maggie's hand and led the way down to the curb. Smirking wickedly, she playfully punched her oldest friend in the shoulder.
"Behave yourself tonight," she advised him.
Henry's blush deepened, and he cleared his throat awkwardly. "I'll try to remember that. Get out of here, would ya? Have a good time."
"We will." Julia's smirk broadened. She sobered and handed him a piece of paper with a phone number written on it. "That's where you can reach us. If anything goes wrong with Davis or Patrick, or anything "
"I'll call you." Henry assured her. "But I doubt that I'll have to. Everything is gonna be fine. Dont worry about us."
Julia nodded. "Okay, then."
She moved around to the driver's side of the truck while Maggie climbed into her seat. Henry stepped back from the curb as they pulled away. He lifted his hand to wave as Maggie rolled down her window and poked her head out.
"See ya in a few days, Henry. Say hi to Jess for me."
Henry waited until they had turned the corner and driven out of sight. He checked his watch. His lunch hour was over, and he sighed as he headed to his car and went back to work.
As it traveled along a winding, treacherous stretch of Highway 101, the metallic blue SUV hugged the tight curve. In some areas, tall eucalyptus trees lined the road. In others, there was nothing but a sheer cliff between the vehicle and the rocky coast far below.
The warm November sun shone in a bright blue sky, and a cool autumn breeze drifted through the open windows and sunroof, ruffling the hair of the vehicle's two occupants. The driver navigated a blind turn, moving with the easy confidence of someone who had traveled this road many times before. The passenger reached over and cranked up the volume on the radio.
"I love this song." She sighed happily, resting her forearm on the doorframe. She began to sing at the top of her lungs. "All the leaves are brown. And the sky is gray..."
"You love this song?" Julia interrupted, a faint note of surprise in her voice.
"Mmhmm." Maggie replied, alternating between humming and singing. "Come on, sing it with me. California girl like you must know the words."
Laughing, Julia shook her head. "Oh, no. I couldn't carry a tune if it had a handle."
Maggie looked at her skeptically. "What do you mean? I've heard you hum."
"Humming and singing are two entirely separate skills. Besides, we wouldn't want to scare the local wildlife."
Maggie whipped her head around and peered curiously into the dense forest. "What kind of wildlife?"
A grazing doe stepped out from behind a tree and gazed at them placidly with her big brown eyes as they drove past.
"Hey! Deer!" Maggie exclaimed.
"Yes, honey?" Julia returned absently, concentrating on the highway ahead.
"Not you, silly. There was a deer in the forest." Maggie swatted Julia's denim-clad thigh with the back of her hand.
"Oh. That kind of deer." Julia grinned sheepishly at her mistake as she checked her rearview mirror. Nothing behind them. No oncoming traffic in sight either, at least as far as she could see. Quickly, she leaned over and planted a kiss on her startled partner.
"Hey, take it easy, Speed Racer. Keep those blue eyes on the road," Maggie scolded her playfully.
She licked her lips, tasting the cherry slurpee that Julia had picked up at the gas station earlier. The truck still had that distinctive new car smell, and Maggie inhaled it deeply as she leaned back in her plush seat. Her eyes wandered, drinking in the sight of the breathtaking woman beside her.
Cut-off denim shorts covered Julia to mid-thigh, leaving the rest of her long, bronzed legs bare. A snug black t-shirt teased the reporter with a deep v-neck that revealed a healthy glimpse of cleavage. Glossy black hair was pulled back in a ponytail, much like it had been the first time they met. A few wispy tendrils had come loose, and Maggie resisted the urge to tuck them behind her lovers ear. Even in profile, she saw the dark eyebrow arch in amusement.
"Youre staring at me," Julia said matter-of-factly.
"Yep. I sure am."
"Because youre beautiful and sexy, and Im having a hard time keeping my hands off of you."
Julia chuckled deep in her throat, and the sound sent a warm, sensual jolt through Maggies entire body.
"I can pull over and let you have your way with me, if you want," Julia suggested, grinning wickedly.
"Dont tempt me. I just might take you up on that," Maggie replied, returning the grin. "How much longer until we reach this beach of yours?"
Julia glanced at the odometer. "Just a few more miles."
Ten minutes later, Julia deftly turned into a parking lot and backed the truck into a space at the foot of a narrow trail. Since it was a weekday, there were very few other cars in the lot. Julia glanced at the new waterproof sports watch strapped to her wrist. It was almost noon. They would have to hurry if they were going to make it to her favorite spot before the tide came in. She hopped out and moved around to open the back hatch.
Maggie was already standing at the foot of the trail, eagerly sucking in a lungful of the crisp, salt-laden air. She bent down and picked up a handful of sand, letting the fine grains sift between her fingers. It was cool in the shade, and she shivered slightly.
She had spent hours that morning deciding what to wear for their trip to the beach. Finally, she had settled on khaki shorts, a tight-fitting white tank top and a white button-down shirt. While she waited for Julia, she ran her fingers through her hair, fluffing it out from under her collar. Without turning around, she sensed Julias presence behind her, and she smiled as long fingers brushed her hair out of the way and warm lips nibbled the back of her neck.
"Think anyone would notice if I dragged you into the bushes?" Julia whispered huskily, biting down lightly on Maggies earlobe.
Maggie laughed as a surge of desire rushed through her. "I think the birds might," she answered, listening to the chirping and rustling coming from deep within the lush, green foliage that lined both sides of the trail.
Julia let out an overexaggerated sigh. "Oh, all right then. Wouldnt want to disturb the poor birds."
She handed Maggie a purple nylon backpack and helped her slip it over her narrow shoulders. Her own pack, the heavier of the two, was already resting securely against her back. She took Maggies hand, interlacing their fingers.
"Absolutely. I want to see the ocean," Maggie replied.
Side by side, they walked up the trail, emerging at the top of a gentle slope. Maggie stopped in her tracks, awestruck. Pale sand stretched out before them, darkening as it met the foam-tipped waves that crashed against the beach. Miles of impossibly blue water reached as far as she could see. A light layer of fog still hung over the ocean, and the sun colored the mist a faint, burnt orange.
"Just wait. It gets better," Julia assured her.
Maggie hurriedly kicked off her shoes. She squealed in delight at the feel of the soft, sun-warmed sand between her toes. Picking up her shoes in one hand, she cast a mischievous look in Julias direction.
"Race you to the water?"
Julia grinned as she removed her own shoes. "Youre on."
"Ready, set " Maggie took off as fast as she could. "Go!" She shouted over her shoulder.
"You little brat!"
Running on the beach was much harder than she had anticipated, and Maggie quickly felt the burn in her calves. Footsteps pounded behind her, and she knew Julia was catching up. Putting her head down, she pumped her arms furiously as she sprinted to the waters edge. Julia shortened her strides, letting Maggie stay a few steps in front of her. They were both puffing and giggling madly. Maggie shrieked as the first wave crashed over her feet and foam swirled around her ankles.
"Argh! Why didnt you tell me the water was so cold?"
"You didnt ask," Julia replied, smirking at her flushed, out of breath lover.
Green eyes narrowed, and Julia started to back away as another wave hit them. Swiftly, Maggie bent down and flipped a double handful of water at the backpedaling woman, soaking the front of her t-shirt.
"Hey!" Julia sputtered, licking the tangy saltwater from her lips. "Youre getting me all wet!"
"Huh. You dont usually complain about that. In fact, I thought you kind of liked it."
Julia stared at her with a puzzled look. "Liked what?"
Maggie twitched an eyebrow at her saucily. "When I get you all wet."
"Oh." Julia blinked. "Oh! Yeah, I do. I like it a lot." She pulled Maggie into a hug, wrapping her arms tightly around the smaller womans waist.
"Here. Let me return the favor." An almost predatory gleam shone in her eyes as she began tugging Maggie deeper into the surf.
"Oh, no! Julia, dont you dare!" Maggie struggled frantically to break free from Julias firm grasp.
Julia stopped when they were knee-deep. "Relax. I wouldnt throw you in. I dont want to share you with the sharks."
In a flash, Maggie was back up on the beach, well out of reach from the waves. She eyed Julia and the ocean suspiciously.
"Are there really sharks out there?"
Julia waded out of the surf. She shrugged casually. "Sure. Thats why there arent many swimmers around here. Although the surfers at the other end of the beach dont seem to care about the warnings."
Taking Maggies hand again, Julia led the way down the beach. They stopped in front of a large cluster of jagged rocks, and she sat down on one.
"Put your shoes back on. We have to do a little rock-climbing now, and I dont want you cutting your feet," she directed.
"Where exactly are you taking me?"
Julia nodded at the rocks. "Theres another strip of beach a little ways beyond these rocks."
Maggie stared up at the towering wall. She glanced back over her shoulder at the perfectly good sand behind them. "Whats wrong with the beach were on?"
"Nothing. But youll like this one even better. Its very secluded. Romantic, even." Julia gave her a seductive grin.
"Oh yeah? How secluded?" Maggie asked as she tied her shoes.
Julia chuckled. "Lets just say that we wont have to worry about anyone seeing us."
Maggies grin broadened. She grabbed a firm handhold and boosted herself up onto the rocks. Placing her hands on her hips, she stared down at Julia.
"What are we waiting for, then? Lets go find your beach."
Twenty minutes later, they were standing at the top of the rock face. Maggies shoulders and thighs ached a bit from the strain of climbing up the wall. She wasnt accustomed to this kind of exercise. Julia, she noted enviously, had hardly broken a sweat. Maggie looked down at the steep, slippery pile of rocks below them.
"This part is a little tricky. You have to sit down and basically slide." Julia pointed to a narrow chute. "Ill go first so I can catch you."
Julia sat down, bracing herself. Carefully, she eased herself down the chute, gripping the sides with her hands to slow her momentum. She reached the bottom and stood.
"Okay. Your turn," she called up. "Try to go slow. Once you start to slip, its really hard to stop."
"Great," Maggie muttered as she got herself into position.
She tried to emulate Julias example, pressing the palms of her hands flat against the sides of the chute. Her arms trembled from the strain as she cautiously eased her way down. She was more than halfway down when one of her hands slipped and she started to slide out of control. Rock walls whipped by much too fast, and she squeezed her eyes shut, expecting a painful crash. Instead, she collided with a warm, strong body. Julia pulled her to her feet, and Maggie felt gently probing hands checking her over for cuts and bruises.
"Are you okay?" Julia tilted Maggies chin up and peered worriedly into her eyes.
Maggie grinned weakly as she waited for her heart to stop pounding. "Perfect. Piece of cake."
Julia kissed the top of her head. "Okay. This next part is all timing. See that clump of rocks there?" She indicated a massive rock formation that jutted out into the surf. "In between waves, we just have to dash around that. Dont worry. Its not very far."
Maggie nodded and followed Julia down to the base of the rocks. She waited while Julia watched the waves carefully, memorizing their pattern. Julias hand gripped hers tightly.
"Ready?" Julia asked. Maggie nodded back. The waves started to pull back. "Now!"
They ran through the ankle-deep water, and Maggie could feel the hungry wave trying to pull her out to sea with it. Her feet sank in the wet sand, but she plunged forward. They rounded the bend and found themselves in a small cove, nestled back amongst the rocks. Julia led Maggie up onto the beach, grinning at her proudly.
"See? Isnt this great?"
Maggie turned in a slow circle. It was absolutely perfect. Rocks surrounded them on three sides. Before them, an endless expanse of blue stretched out for miles. Two large, flat rocks partially blocked their view from the ocean.
"In another half an hour, it will be high tide. No one will be able to come in the way we did until it goes back down," Julia informed her.
Maggie nodded slowly as she tugged two brightly colored beach towels out of her backpack. She spread them out side by side on the warm sand.
"So, were all alone out here?"
"All alone," Julia confirmed, sliding her backpack off her shoulders and dropping it to the sand.
Maggie sat down on the towels and crooked a finger at her smirking lover. Julia knelt beside her, and goose bumps covered her arms as she stared into a pair of green eyes darkened with desire. She shivered in anticipation.
"This is good," Maggie said, grabbing a handful of Julias t-shirt and pulling her closer. "Ive been wanting to get you alone all day."
Without breaking eye contact, Maggie found the hem of Julias shirt and lifted. She pulled Julias head down and captured her lips eagerly, darting her tongue into her lovers open mouth. Julia let her take the lead, and Maggie gently pushed her to her back. Her hand drifted down to the waistband of Julia's shorts, and she fumbled with the metal buttons. In a few moments, their ecstatic moans were lost amid the crashing waves.
Maggie waited until the last shudder had traveled through Julias body. Placing one last tender kiss, she crawled up and stretched out beside Julia, resting her head on a sweat-dampened shoulder.
"You were right. I love this beach," she grinned, idly tracing patterns on Julias bare stomach as they both caught their breath.
Julia rolled over onto her side, propping herself up on an elbow. She gazed seriously down at Maggie as she gently stroked her lovers cheek.
"I love you, Maggie. More than I thought I was capable of. All of my life, I felt like I was nothing. When you look at me, you make me feel like Im worth something."
Tears glistened in Maggies eyes as she wrapped her fingers around Julias arm. "You are worth something. Youre worth far more than you will ever know. My god, Julia. You showed me what love is. No one has ever made me feel as safe or as wanted as you do. I dont know what I did to deserve you, but I will thank every god in the universe for sending you to me. I love you so much."
Julia grinned at her crookedly as a single tear slid down her cheek. "I love you too." She lowered her head to gently brush her lips against Maggies. "Now its my turn to show you how much."
Maggie shivered as Julias lips trailed down her shoulder. "How much time do we have until the tide goes back out?"
Julia chuckled as she kissed her way across the top of a firm breast. "Oh, dont worry. We have plenty of time," she drawled. "We have all the time in the world."
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