In spite of Julia’s objections, the doctor, a soft-spoken Pakistani man, insisted that she remain in the hospital overnight. It was for her own good, he had said. Julia had grumbled and complained, but eventually she had relented, mostly because Maggie had offered to keep her company. That was an offer she couldn’t turn down.
Eyeing the door anxiously, Julia chewed on the clear plastic straw sticking out of her water cup. By her estimation, fifteen minutes had passed since Maggie had excused herself in search of coffee. Julia hated hospitals, especially the sterile, antiseptic smell, and, again, she wondered what was keeping Maggie. She scowled irritably at the closed door, and her eyebrows knit together, tugging at the stitches in her temple. She had hit her head when she fell, opening an inch-long gash above her left eye. Just before Maggie had stepped out, a severe, no-nonsense nurse had come in and forced Julia to swallow a painkiller the size of a horse tranquilizer.
The silence in the room was getting on her nerves, and she reached for the television remote on the small bedside table. She aimed it at the ceiling-mounted monitor and clicked a button. It was well after midnight, and her viewing options were slim, she noted sourly as she flipped through the channels. Nothing but infomercials and silly talk shows. Julia paused as a man and women screamed bleeped obscenities at each other as the host shook his head in mock concern.
“My husband cheated on me with my gay lover,” she snorted, reading the caption out loud.
“Really? That must suck.” Maggie was leaning casually in the doorway, a steaming styrofoam cup in her hand.
“Took you long enough. What did you do, pick the beans yourself?” Julia grinned, nodding at the cup. Her spirits perked up immediately at the sight of the blonde reporter.
Maggie grinned back as she reclaimed her spot next to Julia’s bed. “You’re just jealous ‘cause the doctor said you couldn’t have any.” She took a long sip, holding the hot liquid in her mouth for a moment before swallowing. “Actually, I smuggled this out of the staff lounge. I figured it had to be better than the stuff that comes out of those vending machines.”
“Mmm. You’re probably right about that,” Julia agreed. She inhaled deeply, savoring the rich, pungent scent of the coffee. She was dying for a cup, but the doctor had forbidden her from anything caffeinated, and she had glared at him evilly when he had suggested switching to decaf for the next couple of days. What was the point of coffee without caffeine? Sulking, she noisily slurped water through her straw.
Maggie was absorbed in the drama unfolding on the TV screen, and Julia used the moment to silently observe her new friend. She was watching the talk show intently, a faint crease wrinkling her forehead. Warm intelligence shone from those jade green eyes, and Julia had the feeling that the young reporter didn’t miss much. Maggie took another swallow of her coffee as she tucked a few strands of hair behind her right ear. She froze, feeling Julia’s gaze on her, and she turned to the dark-haired woman, both fair eyebrows raised in question. Caught, Julia smiled sheepishly and shrugged.
“Any word from your brother?” Julia asked, smoothly shifting gears.
Maggie shook her head sadly. “Nothing yet. He’ll turn up, though. He always does.”
Julia heard the note of doubt in her voice and realized that Maggie was more concerned than she was letting on.
“Yeah. I’m sure he’ll be fine,” she tried to reassure the young woman.
Maggie shifted in her chair, turning so that she was facing Julia directly. Those blue eyes drew her into their depths, and she had to shake herself to keep from getting lost in them.
“So, do you want to tell me why someone would want to hurt you?” she asked, slamming the door shut on the subject of her brother.
Julia bit her lower lip as she considered the question. She had a pretty good idea that the attack had been prompted by her inquiry into the Netsports burglary. The last thing she wanted to do, though, was get Maggie mixed up in the situation. Not if it was going to turn dangerous. She hesitated, wondering where that surge of protectiveness had come from. Maggie was waiting for an answer, tapping her fingers on her armrest, a little impatiently. Julia sighed. Lying to her probably wouldn’t be the best way to start off their relationship. If that was where they were heading, she amended quickly.
“I’m not entirely sure, but I think someone’s trying to warn me away from that Netsports thing,” Julia began. “That’s the only explanation that makes sense to me. Most of my cases are pretty routine. Cheating spouses, background checks, that sort of thing.”
Maggie’s reporter instincts perked up. “Hmm. So what’s so important about Netsports, then?”
Mentally, she reviewed what she knew about the earlier break-in. The police believed that it was a simple burglary. She recalled Inspector Chow’s words. . . . kids or an addict looking for a fix, he had said. Briefly, her thoughts turned to Patrick, and she wondered if her brother would ever sink that low. Maybe he already had, she conceded reluctantly, thinking about her stolen earrings.
“Embezzlement?” Maggie threw out a suggestion.
Julia pursed her lips and tilted her head to one side. “Possibility,” she replied thoughtfully. If someone was stealing from the company, that might give him a strong enough motive to have her roughed up a little. Still, something about that didn’t feel right. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it yet, but she had the distinct feeling that there was something more going on. Absently, she rubbed the back of her hand across her tired, burning eyes.
“Okay, I think that’s enough private investigating for now,” Maggie said lightly, noticing Julia’s drooping eyelids. “You should get some rest.”
Julia made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “I’m fine. It’s the damn pills that
sadistic nurse made me take,” she retorted grumpily. “Besides, you’re the one who brought the subject up.”
“Yeah, well, now I’m closing the subject,” Maggie replied calmly. She gave her friend a fond, amused look. “The nurse wasn’t that bad. She was a little abrupt, but hardly sadistic.”
Julia glared at her stubbornly, looking like a petulant child. She folded her arms across her chest. “Did you ever see One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”
Maggie burst out laughing. “She was not that bad!”
“Go to sleep, Julia. I’ll protect you from Nurse Ratchet.”
Grumbling, Julia settled back against her pillows and pulled the blanket up to her chin. The room was cool, and the thin hospital gown didn’t provide much warmth. She was glad she didn’t have to go to the bathroom or anything, since there was no way she was going to go traipsing across the room with her butt flapping in the breeze. Not until they knew each other better, anyway. She bit back a wicked grin as her eyes slid closed. She heard Maggie get up and amble over towards the window. Carefully, she cracked one eye open and peeked at the blonde.
Maggie had pried apart two of the blinds with her fingers, and she was staring outside, a sad, wistful expression on her face. As Julia watched, Maggie stifled a yawn and arched her back to stretch the stiff muscles.
“You don’t have to stay, you know,” Julia said, clearing her throat softly.
“I know. I want to.” Maggie responded without turning around.
Unseen, Julia smiled up at the ceiling, savoring those simple, straightforward words. She couldn’t remember anyone ever wanting to stay with her before, at least not without some ulterior motive. Even during the rare times she’d been sick as a child, her father had usually left her alone in her room, sending the servants to check on her occasionally. She shut her eyes again, exhaustion pressing down on her.
“Thanks,” she mumbled.
Maggie didn’t reply. She turned, watching quietly as Julia’s breathing became deep and even. Once she was sure that her friend was asleep, she resumed her seat by her bedside. She pulled her jacket tighter around her thin shoulders as she searched for a comfortable position in the hard, unyielding chair. Leaning forward, she brushed a lock of dark hair away from Julia’s face, letting her fingertips linger on the soft skin a bit longer than necessary. Maggie took a deep breath as she studied her new friend’s sleeping countenance. The high cheekbones. The smooth, tanned skin. The full, sensual lips. A familiar flutter of excitement raced through Maggie’s stomach, and she shook her head. She’s gorgeous. She’s dated supermodels, for god’s sake. What would someone like that want with someone as ordinary as me? Sighing, Maggie closed her eyes firmly. Stretching her legs out in front of her, she slumped down further in her chair and tried to sleep.
Julia’s brow wrinkled as she tried to identify the unfamiliar sounds. Her eyes were still shut, but she knew she was lying on her back with her head propped up slightly more than usual. The pillows behind her were firmer than the soft feathers she was used to. On the edges of her hearing, muffled voices conversed, and she could make out the whisper of soft-soled shoes scuffing across the floor. Slowly, she opened one eye, her vision adjusting to the darkened room. The hospital. She opened the other eye and cautiously moved her head from side to side. It still hurt, but not with the intense pain of the night before. She took that as a good sign. A soft hiss escaped her as she propped herself up on her elbows. Bruised ribs, right. Forgot about that. Julia turned her head and smiled at the sight of Maggie, still fast asleep in the chair. The blonde was turned almost sideways in her seat, her legs tucked up beneath her and her cheek pressed against the back of the chair. Julia squinted, trying to make out the time on Maggie’s silver wristwatch. It was almost 8 a.m. She hoped the reporter wasn’t supposed to be at work.
The door swung open and the same dour nurse from the previous night bustled in. She grunted at Julia as she passed by the bed, barely glancing at the patient in it. With a sharp jerk of the cord, the nurse yanked the blinds open, letting in the weak morning light. Maggie stirred at the noise.
“The doctor will be in shortly,” the nurse announced curtly. She checked Julia’s temperature and blood pressure, scribbling notes on a clipboard. Without another word, she marched out of the room, leaving the two women staring after her.
Maggie started to giggle, covering a yawn with her hand. “Good morning to you, too, Nurse Ratchet,” she called out after the nurse left. “I guess she missed class the day they gave the bedside manner lecture.”
Julia chuckled. “I guess so.”
Maggie stood, groaning at her aching back. She twisted her upper body, wincing at the audible cracking as she worked the kinks out of her spine. She yawned again and sent a silent thank you to her editor, Sam, for allowing her to work from home today. Lacing her fingers together, she stretched her arms above her head. The movement pulled her long-sleeved t-shirt out of the waistband of her jeans, momentarily exposing her navel. Julia blinked twice and quickly found something else to look at.
“Think we’ll get out of here before they serve breakfast?” Maggie asked.
Julia made a face. “I hope so. With my luck, it’ll be oatmeal.”
Maggie laughed and summoned up her best impression of her mother, shaking her finger at Julia. “There’s nothing wrong with oatmeal, young lady. It’s a fine, healthy way to start your morning, and there are children all over the world who would love to have just a little of what the good Lord has provided you.”
“Let me guess, your mother?” Julia lifted both eyebrows.
Maggie nodded. “Yep. I don’t think a single day started without some variation on that speech. With six kids, there was always something that one of us didn’t like. My oldest brother, Steven, hated oatmeal. With me, it was raisin toast.”
Julia’s gaze went very distant, and Maggie thought she could see an aching sadness in her eyes. “No one ever cared what I ate for breakfast. Or if I even ate breakfast at all,” Julia revealed softly, not really aware that she was speaking out loud.
Maggie stared at her in dismay. “I’m sorry, I. . .” she trailed off, not knowing what to say.
Expressionless blue eyes met hers. “It’s okay. My father was a busy man. He really didn’t have the time to fix me breakfast every morning.”
The doctor walked in before Maggie could respond. He checked Julia over thoroughly, peering into her eyes to check the response of her pupils. He scratched the end of his neat moustache as he reviewed her chart.
“Well, Ms. Cassinelli, you seem to be recovering nicely. I believe I will send you home, but you must promise me that you will take it easy for a few days. No strenuous activities,” he said sternly. “You may take over-the-counter ibuprofen for pain, if you wish. If you have any vision problems, dizziness, or shooting pain, you must call me at once.”
“Yes, doctor. I understand completely.” Julia nodded solemnly.
He scrawled his name across the bottom of her chart and carefully placed the silver-plated pen back in the pocket of his immaculate white coat. “Very well, then. Please make an appointment with your regular doctor to have those stitches removed in two weeks. I will have a nurse return with your discharge papers.” He smiled kindly at her as he exited.
Maggie exhaled slowly as the door swung shut. In a few minutes, Julia would be released and they would probably go their separate ways. It was a disappointing thought since she was enjoying the other woman’s company more and more. Oh well, it’s just two more days until Saturday. Maggie rolled her eyes and slapped herself in the head. She’s just getting out of the hospital, you idiot. She’s probably not gonna want to have dinner with you.
A muffled groan caught her attention, and she spun towards the sound. Julia was sitting on the edge of the bed, her bare feet on the floor. One hand was pressed to her left side, and she was grimacing in obvious pain. Three quick steps, and Maggie was at her side, gently touching her shoulder.
“Julia? Are you okay? Should I call the doctor back in here?” Maggie asked, her voice tinged with concern.
Biting her lower lip, Julia shook her head. Rueful blue eyes glanced up. “No, no. I’m fine. Just a little sore.” She managed a weak smile.
Maggie was acutely aware of the warm skin beneath her hand. Her eyes traveled downward, across the lean, powerful body that was mere inches from her own. The translucent hospital gown left little to the imagination, and the room was on the chilly side, and. . . .Maggie swallowed hard, her throat suddenly dry as all the moisture in her body seemed to be flooding elsewhere.
“Uh, Maggie?” Julia’s voice broke through her haze and Maggie looked up to find Julia regarding her curiously. “Do me a favor and hand me my clothes?”
A deep blush heated Maggie’s face and neck as she hurriedly retrieved the requested items. She handed the neatly folded clothing to Julia and backed away hastily, unable to meet the other woman’s gaze.
“I’ll, um. . .I’ll be outside. I need to make some phone calls, anyway,” Maggie mumbled as she slipped out of the room.
She paused just outside the door and leaned back against the wall while she waited for her heartbeat to slow. She’d never had such an intense respone to anyone before, and the experience had left her somewhat shaken. A nurse passed by, glancing at her curiously. Maggie ran her fingers through her disheveled hair as she pushed off from the wall and headed for the waiting area.
Julia stared after her departing friend speculatively. The reporter’s reaction to her had been. . .interesting, and it helped confirm her suspicion that the attraction she felt for Maggie was mutual. A slow grin tugged at her lips as she began to get dressed.
Maggie put her cell phone away with a sigh. Patrick still hadn’t returned, and there was no word from him on her answering machine either. He was in trouble again; that much was obvious. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. It was time to call the police, she decided. A loud, belligerent voice interrupted her thoughts and brought a tiny smile to her face. Patrick and the cops would have to wait.
“I don’t need to be trucked around like some goddamn invalid!” Julia’s voice rose until the last two words were practically bellowed.
A tired-looking orderly in blue hospital scrubs sighed heavily. “I told you, Ms. Cassinelli, it’s hospital policy. You have to sit in this wheelchair until I put you in a cab. You don’t want me to lose my job, do you?”
Maggie stepped in, rescuing the orderly from Julia’s sarcastic retort. “No, she doesn’t want that. That’s why she’s going to be a good girl and let you do your job, Seth,” she said, reading the young man’s name off his ID badge. She gave him a sympathetic smile, which he returned gratefully.
Julia’s dark eyebrows were hiked practically into her hairline. “A good girl? Me?” she snorted. “You really don’t know me very well.”
It was Maggie’s turn to raise a blonde eyebrow. “Well, I guess we’ll just have to work on that, won’t we?” She turned to Seth without waiting for a response. “Follow me. I’ll save the poor cabdriver the headache and drive her home myself.”
Seth laughed. “Sounds like a plan.” Ignoring Julia’s protests, he expertly spun her around and followed the small blonde towards the exit.
With the heel of his hand, Patrick rubbed the crusty gunk out of the corners of his tired, red-rimmed eyes. He had been walking since dawn. With all of its hills, San Francisco wasn’t an easy city to walk in, and Patrick’s calves ached from the exertion. Sweat darkened the back of his threadbare grey t-shirt, in spite of the chilly morning air. He jammed his fists into the hip pockets of his faded, olive green pants. Nothing. Not even the change for a phone call. His stomach rumbled insistently, reminding him that it had been a long time since he had eaten. In fact, Patrick couldn’t even remember his last meal. Veering to his left, he approached an officious-looking man in a crisp, navy blue suit. The man eyed him suspiciously, disdain evident in his sneering gaze.
“Hey, man. Do you think you can spare a couple bucks for some food?” Patrick mumbled, swallowing the last shreds of his dignity.
“Get a job, loser,” the man spat, brushing by him without a second glance.
Patrick spun around, anger twisting his features. “Oh yeah? Well, fuck you too!”
He scrubbed his face with his hand again and resumed walking. Other people on the street gave him a wide berth, shooting fearful glances at him as they passed. Patrick ignored them all. He kept plodding forward mechanically, his eyes focused on his scuffed, dirty running shoes. His throat was dry and he swallowed around a tongue that felt far too thick for his mouth. The little plastic baggie inside his shoe beckoned to him, but he ignored that too. Not yet, he told himself. Cars crawled past him, stuck in the morning commute, and Patrick wondered if his sister was in any of them. He turned a corner, bumping into a tall, imperious redhead in a tailored grey skirt and jacket. Coffee splashed to the sidewalk, and she cursed loudly at him. He didn’t even hear her venomous insults as he stared up at the large building that loomed before him. Tilting his head back, he read the sign on the front. The San Francisco Chronicle. Patrick smiled in relief. Maggie would be here. He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
“I don’t need any help.” Julia swatted the offered hand away irritably as she emerged from the passenger seat of a black Corolla. A mild wave of dizziness forced her to grip the top of the doorframe until she was sure that her knees wouldn’t buckle.
Maggie sighed and put a steadying hand on Julia’s elbow. She held her other hand out, palm up. “Okay, give me your keys. Let’s get you inside.”
Deaf to Julia’s protests, Maggie slid her arm around her friend’s waist and supported her as they made their way towards the front door. She had half-expected Julia Cassinelli to live in one of the multi-million dollar mansions in the uppercrust Nob Hill area. Instead, she was pleasantly surprised to discover that her new friend resided in a relatively modest two-story Victorian in Pacific Heights. Expensive, yes, but not as imposing as the mansion she’d been anticipating. Cautiously, they navigated the narrow steps leading up to the wooden porch, and Julia leaned against the rail as Maggie fumbled with the door.
“The lock sticks sometimes. Just jiggle the key a little,” Julia advised.
Maggie did as she was instructed, grinning triumphantly as the door swung open. “Tricky. Just like its owner,” she shot a sly glance at the taller woman.
Julia managed a wry grin in return. Her head was beginning to pound again, and all she wanted was a handful of painkillers and a nice, cool glass of water. Maggie seemed to sense her discomfort, and she gently took Julia’s arm and led her inside.
All of the drapes were closed, casting the house into near total darkness. After taking a moment to let her eyes adjust, Maggie helped Julia into the living room and sat her down on the rich leather sofa. She reached for a lamp, but Julia shook her head.
“No. Leave it off, please.”
Maggie nodded in understanding. “Okay, sure. Can I get you anything? Some aspirin, maybe?”
Slumping down on the sofa, Julia let her headrest against the cool leather. She closed her eyes, trying to will away the nausea that was accompanying her headache.
“Yeah, that would be great. There’s a bottle of Advil on the kitchen counter, near the phone.” Julia gestured towards the back of the house.
“Okay. I’ll be right back.” Maggie picked her way through the darkness, the heels of her loafers clacking against the hardwood floor.
She found the kitchen without much trouble. The blinds were open on the small window above the sink, and the weak sunlight streamed through, throwing patterned shadows across the counters and floor. The Advil was right where Julia had said it would be, and Maggie popped the top of the bottle off with her thumb and shook two of the pills out into her palm. She replaced the bottle and started opening cabinets at random until she found one containing neatly ordered glasses. She stuck a glass under the dispenser in the refrigerator door and filled it with water.
From the living room, Julia could hear Maggie rooting around in the kitchen. It was a strangely comforting sound. It had been such a long time since there had been anyone else in her house. Keeping her eyes closed, she listened as Maggie made her way back down the hall. The soft creak of leather told her that the blonde was sitting on the sofa’s armrest, and she opened one blue eye. Sure enough, Maggie was perched next to her, studying her intently. A warm smile spread across the reporter’s face as their eyes met.
“I thought you fell asleep,” she said.
Julia rolled her head to the left. “Nope. Not quite.”
Maggie held out the pills and the water, watching as Julia swallowed both. “You should probably get some rest now.”
“Mmm. Probably,” Julia agreed. “Thanks for bringing me home, but you can go now. I’m sure you have better things to do.”
Maggie’s face fell and she fought to keep the disappointment out of her voice. “Oh, well, okay. If that’s what you want.”
Damn. Julia’s dark eyebrows met as she scowled. Admit it, you want her to stay. Julia sighed and ran both hands through her hair.
“Well, I mean, you’re welcome to stay. If you want to, that is,” she amended hastily.
Maggie’s smile returned immediately. “I think I should. For a little while, anyway….just to make sure you’re really okay.”
“Okay. I guess I’ll just stretch out here, then,” Julia said, indicating the sofa. “There’s a computer and a TV in my office upstairs. First door on the right. Make yourself at home.”
Julia reached down to unlace her boots, grimacing as the motion caused her head to throb even worse. Maggie swiftly moved to help her, removing Julia’s boots and setting them aside. She helped the injured woman lie back and covered her with the chenille blanket that was draped over the back of the sofa. Julia smiled at her gratefully and let her eyelids droop shut.
wanting to disturb the dozing woman, Maggie kicked off her loafers and placed
them neatly by the front door. She climbed the stairs to the second floor and found the door
to Julia’s office open. A black
leather loveseat, matching the sofa downstairs, sat against the wall, facing a
large television with a built-in VCR. A
video game system rested on the floor, the worn controller showing signs of
frequent use. Maggie opened the
tray and examined the game inside, one of those tournament-fighting games.
She chuckled softly as she flopped down on the loveseat.
The soft, supple leather warmed quickly to her body, a welcome change
after a night spent in a hard plastic hospital chair. She shut her eyes.
I should check in at work.
I’ll just rest my eyes for a second.
Thirty minutes later, a ringing phone awakened her. Dazed green eyes looked around blankly, trying to locate the source of the noise. It was her cell phone, she realized suddenly, extracting the small phone from the pocket of her jacket.
“Is this Maggie McKinnon?” a woman asked pleasantly.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“Hi, Maggie. This is Carol at the Chronicle.”
Maggie thought for a moment. Carol was the receptionist at the front desk, she recalled finally.
“Listen, Maggie. We have a situation. There’s a guy in the lobby, demanding to see you. He claims to be your brother.” Carol lowered her voice to a whisper. “I think he’s on something.”
Maggie groaned inwardly. At least Patrick was safe. “Can you put him on the phone, please?” She could hear muffled voices in the background. A few seconds later, Patrick’s voice boomed through the phone.
“Hey, Mags! Where the heck are you? I was hoping you could give me a ride back to your place.”
Maggie ground her teeth, fighting to keep the lid on her temper. She counted to ten and exhaled slowly. “Stay there, Patrick. I’m on my way.” She hung up the phone, cutting off his response. Damn him. I swear, one of these days, I’m just gonna strangle him.
Still muttering curses under her breath, Maggie made her way back downstairs. She detoured into the living room to check on Julia, who was still sleeping soundly. She didn’t want to leave, torn between her loyalty to her younger brother and her growing interest in her new friend. She pulled the ever-present notepad out of her pocket and scribbled a hasty note to explain her departure. Grabbing Julia’s keys, she picked up her shoes and quietly slipped out the front door, making sure it was tightly locked behind her.
Maggie pulled into the parking lot of the newspaper and slammed her car door. Anger was evident in the tense set of her shoulders and the uncharacteristic scowl on her face. She stormed through the doors to the lobby. Patrick was sitting in a chair, nervously tapping his foot against the marble floor. He bounded to his feet at Maggie’s entrance, his happy smile fading quickly as he noticed the fire blazing in her green eyes. Maggie studied her brother critically.
He looked terrible. His hair was greasy and unkempt; stubble dotted his cheeks. Bloodshot eyes stared at her. He was drawn and pale, practically shaking from the drugs or the exhaustion. Probably a little of both. His clothes were rumpled and stained with sweat and other stuff that she really didn’t want to know about. She wasn’t sure if she should shake him or hug him as he stared at her with those wounded puppy dog eyes.
“Damn it, Patrick,” she whispered, stepping forward to pull her brother into a fierce hug. “Come on, let’s get you out of here.”
He followed her meekly to her car. Patrick knew his sister was extremely angry with him, and he wisely kept his mouth shut. He couldn’t keep still on the drive to Maggie’s apartment, and he fiddled with the radio, flipping through the preset stations. While they were stopped at a red light, he started playing with the automatic windows. Up. Down. Up. Down. Without saying a word, Maggie glared at him, and Patrick’s hand fell away from the button.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, drumming his fingers on his knee. She didn’t respond.
They pulled into Maggie’s apartment complex, and his face brightened. A shower and a hot meal sounded like a really good idea. He jumped out of the car, almost before it had stopped moving, oblivious to Maggie’s startled warning.
“Hello, cat,” he solemnly greeted the grey cat glaring at him through narrowed yellow eyes.
Maggie grabbed his upper arm and dragged him towards her apartment. She unlocked the door and roughly shoved him inside. She pushed him over to the couch.
“Where the hell have you been?”
The tone of her voice warned him that he was in deep trouble. His shoulders dropped and he stuck his hands in his pockets. Staring at the floor, he shrugged.
“You don’t know where you’ve been?” Maggie asked skeptically.
Patrick shrugged again, defeated. He tried to press his body further back into the corner of the couch. His eyes, downcast, darted back and forth, and Maggie knew he was trying to come up with a story to tell her. She sighed and sat down next to him, putting her arm around his thin, trembling shoulders.
“Patrick, you know I love you, right?” She paused, but Patrick remained quiet. “Well, I do. But this can’t go on. You’ve got to get your life together.”
Patrick sniffled loudly and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I know. That’s. . . partly why I came out here. To try and start over.”
Maggie watched him carefully, trying to gauge his sincerity. As far as she could tell, he was telling her the truth. She stood and held out her hand. Patrick blinked at her uncertainly.
“Give them to me,” she said quietly.
Maggie sighed impatiently. “The rest of the drugs. If you’re really serious about starting over, then give them to me.”
Patrick hesitated. He’d spent a small fortune the previous night, and it was some really good stuff. If he handed it over to Maggie, she would just get rid of it, and what was the point of that? He would quit when his current supply ran out, he promised himself. He put on his most innocent expression and gazed up at his sister.
“It’s all gone, Mags. I did the last of it earlier this morning, I swear.” He picked at a hangnail on his index finger. “I’m, uh, I’m really sorry about your earrings. I’ll pay you back, I promise.”
Maggie wasn’t sure if he was lying to her about the drugs or not. She’d always been able to read him, but lately, she just didn’t know how to reach him anymore. She didn’t have the time or the energy to deal with Patrick’s self-destruction. Instantly, Maggie felt guilty for not being the supporting, understanding sister that she thought she should be. She could hear her mother’s voice echoing inside her head, and if she closed her eyes, she could actually picture the pleading look on her mother’s face. Megan Elaine, what is the matter with you? Can’t you see that your brother needs you? You’ve moved out to California and now you’re too good for your family, is that it? Please, Maggie. You’re the only one he listens to. It wasn’t true, exactly. Patrick didn’t listen to any of them and he never had. But he was closer to Maggie than he was to anyone else in the family.
“Go take a shower and get cleaned up. I’ll fix us some breakfast, okay?” Maggie headed for the kitchen.
“But you can’t cook,” Patrick reminded her.
She shot him a dirty look over her shoulder. “I think I can manage eggs and toast,” she replied dryly.
He gave her a weak grin and grabbed his duffel bag. Moments later, Maggie could hear the water running and her brother’s warbling tenor as he sang along to her shower radio. She smiled, in spite of herself. Reaching into the refrigerator, she took out a carton of eggs and began to methodically crack them into a large glass bowl. Her thoughts drifted and she found herself wondering if Julia was still asleep.
Julia sat up groggily, rubbing the back of her neck. The house was silent and still, and disappointment crashed down on her as she realized that she was alone. Squinting, she looked at the clock on the fireplace mantle and discovered that she’d been asleep for nearly two hours. That was surprising, since she wasn’t usually prone to naps. There was a piece of paper on the coffee table, its stark whiteness standing out against the dark wood. Julia picked it up and reached over to turn on a lamp, wincing as the bright light stabbed at her aching head.
I didn’t want to wake you. I
had to go take care of something.
I’ll be back as soon as I can. Hopefully
before you wake up.
Julia snorted softly. Yeah, right. She probably just got sick of babysitting you. She swallowed the bitterness rising in her throat and pushed herself up from the couch. No dizziness this time, just the same dull ache. That was a good sign, she mused. I guess my brains didn’t turn to Jell-O after all. She was still abnormally tired, though, and the idea of her bed upstairs suddenly seemed very inviting. Moving carefully across the slippery hardwood floor, she made her way to the foot of the stairs. Gripping the banister for support, she climbed the steps, stopping at the top to catch her breath.
“I must be even more wiped out than I thought,” she said. Julia prided herself on being in excellent physical condition, and the trip up the stairs shouldn’t have been enough to wind her.
The doorway at the end of the hall led to her bedroom. It was large and spacious, mostly due to the lack of furniture. A mahogany four-poster bed loomed against one wall, a matching night table next to it. A tall armoire was the only other piece of furniture in the room. In her socks, Julia glided across the floor and sat down on the edge of her bed. She unbuttoned her olive green shirt and slid it off her shoulders, leaving herself in just her jeans and a black cotton bra. Gingerly, she probed at her injured ribs with her fingers, grimacing a little at the tenderness. A wave of lethargy passed over her, and she laid back on top of her sheets, too tired to finish undressing. Almost instantly, she was asleep again.
Patrick stepped out of the shower and dressed himself in a pair of clean boxer shorts and red sweatpants that hung from his gaunt frame. Toweling his spiky hair dry, he headed for the kitchen, chuckling, as he smelled the familiar aroma of burnt eggs. Maggie looked up as he approached.
“I burned the eggs a little bit,” she informed him ruefully as he took a seat at the small table.
She set a plate of toast and scrambled eggs, well-done, in front of him. She took two mugs from their hooks above the counter and filled them with coffee, handing one to her brother. Nibbling on a piece of wheat toast, Maggie watched as Patrick ravenously wolfed down his breakfast.
“Just like when we were kids,” he grinned at her around a mouthful of eggs.
“Patrick, can I trust you to stay here for the rest of the day?”
Maggie sat down across from him and stared at him intently. “I mean it. I need you to stay here and stay out of trouble. I’m supposed to be looking after a sick friend, and I need to get back there.”
Patrick’s eyebrows shot up and he folded his arms across his bare chest. “Oh yeah? And what’s this ‘friend’s’ name?”
Maggie gave him a withering look as she sipped her coffee. “None of your business.”
He laughed. “So it’s a guy friend, huh?”
Maggie rolled her eyes, choosing not to answer him. She stood. “You have my cell number if you need anything.” Surprising him, she leaned over and kissed his forehead. “Please try not to get into any more trouble.”
It was late morning when she walked up to Julia’s front door again. She considered knocking, but she didn’t want to wake Julia if she was still asleep. Instead, she pulled her friend’s keys out of her pocket and opened the door herself. The drapes were still shut, and she had to pause in the foyer to let her eyes adjust to the dim light. Julia wasn’t on the sofa anymore. Maggie cocked her head to one side, listening, lines of worry creasing her brow. All sorts of wild scenarios raced through her mind. What if Julia had woken up and her head had gotten worse? She could be passed out in one of the rooms. Or even worse, what if the man who had attacked her had returned?
Maggie searched the bottom floor first, her shoes sounding abnormally loud on the floor. There was no sign of Julia. Fear grew in the pit of her stomach as she cautiously climbed the stairs. She poked her head into Julia’s office first, finding it exactly as she had left it. The door at the end of the hall was open. It hadn’t been open earlier, had it? Maggie frowned, trying to remember. She froze in the doorway.
In the middle of the bed, Julia was lying on her back. Shirtless. Maggie watched, fascinated, as her tanned, flat stomach rose and fell with her steady breathing. On unsteady feet, barely aware of what she was doing, she moved towards the bed. Asleep, Julia looked peaceful and relaxed. The bruises on her face and side already appeared to be fading. Slowly, Maggie’s gaze traveled down the woman’s long body.
Green eyes widened in horror and blood rushed to her cheeks. She tore her gaze away from Julia’s navel and met a pair of curious blue eyes. Taking a step backwards, Maggie stammered nervously.
“I…I’m sorry. I came back and you weren’t downstairs and, and I got worried….”
Julia sat up, smiling. “It’s okay, Maggie. I’m glad you came back.” She frowned, noticing that the blonde’s eyes were firmly focused on the floor. “Is something wrong?”
Maggie glanced up shyly, blushing an even deeper shade of pink. She swallowed hard.
“You’re, uh, you’re not wearing a shirt,” she mumbled.
Julia blinked and looked down at herself. She was, indeed, sitting there in her bra. Good going, Julia. No wonder she’s so freaked out. She probably thinks you’re trying to seduce her. Aren’t you? A tiny voice inside her head asked. Julia ignored it.
“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting you to come back,” she reached down for her discarded shirt, hissing in pain as she pulled at her injured side.
Maggie lunged forward, grabbing the tall woman’s arm. Through clenched teeth, Julia gave her a wry grin.
“I’m okay. . . just twisted the wrong way.”
Maggie didn’t answer. She stared at her hand, conscious of the expanse of warm, bare skin beneath her fingertips. Slowly, she slid her fingers up to Julia’s shoulder. Julia sucked in a breath as her skin tingled at the contact. Reaching out, she touched Maggie’s face, tilting her chin up until their eyes met. She expected to find confusion, maybe even a hint of fear. Instead, Maggie’s eyes shone with warmth and desire. The hand on Julia’s shoulder moved up the side of her neck, making her shiver. Careful not to touch the fading bruises, Maggie took Julia’s face between her hands and leaned closer as Julia’s hands found her waist.
Their lips met, gently at first, barely making contact. Caught off-guard, Julia let Maggie take the lead as the blonde eased herself onto the bed beside her. Thoroughly enjoying herself as the kiss intensified, she accepted Maggie’s tentatively exploring tongue, tasting it with her own. She shivered again as hands glided past her shoulders, brushing past the curves of her breasts. Reluctantly, Julia pulled back. She searched the green eyes, just inches from her own.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” Her question was met by a dazzling smile.
“I’m sure,” Maggie replied confidently. She’d never wanted anything more. “Are you sure you’re up to it? The doctor said to avoid strenuous activities,” she teased.
Julia’s lips curled into a sultry, predatory grin and her blue eyes twinkled wickedly.
“Well, then, I guess we’ll just have to take this really slow.”
Strong, sure hands tugged Maggie’s t-shirt loose from the waistband of her jeans, slipping beneath the cotton to caress the warm flesh. Her injuries temporarily forgotten, Julia kissed and nibbled her way down Maggie’s neck, her tongue tracing a lazy path across the blonde’s collarbone. A soft moan told her that her efforts were appreciated, and she smiled against the soft skin beneath her lips. Desire threatening to overwhelm her, she could feel her need growing as she captured Maggie’s lips again, crushing against them with her own. At the same time, Julia slowly slid her hand up Maggie’s spine, deft fingers unhooking her bra. The smaller woman’s breathing caught as Julia eased her thumbs beneath the cups and lightly stroked the hardening nipples. Julia broke the kiss and pulled her head back, blue eyes questioning.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
In response, Maggie threw her arms around Julia’s neck and gently nibbled on the nearest earlobe, getting an appreciative groan from its owner. Craving the contact, she pressed her body closer, and as her hips shifted, her jeans rubbed against her in interesting places. She shuddered.
“Oh god, yes,” she breathed into Julia’s ear.
Julia found the edge of Maggie’s shirt and lifted, pulling the fabric over the blonde’s head and discarding the white cotton bra, as well. Gently, she eased Maggie onto her back and stretched out beside her, ignoring the slight twinge in her side. Ducking her dark head, she began to place slow, teasing kisses around one of the blonde’s breasts.
Maggie’s eyes slid shut and a sound halfway between a squeak and a moan escaped her throat as lips closed over her nipple. She tangled her fingers in the long, dark hair, losing herself in the sensations coursing through her, while trembling hands fumbled with the clasp to Julia’s bra, wanting to feel the taller woman’s skin against hers.
“Here, let me help you with that.” Julia pushed herself up to a sitting position and hastily stripped away the rest of her clothes.
Naked, she stretched out on her side again, pressing herself against Maggie’s hip as trusting, desire-filled green eyes gazed at her. She smiled as Maggie’s hands began to wander across her bare body, never lingering in one place for very long.
“You can touch me, you know. I promise I won’t break,” she encouraged.
“I….I know. It’s just, I’ve never done this before. With a woman,” Maggie confessed. “I’m not sure I know what to do.”
Julia had suspected as much. “Ah. I’ll walk you through it, then” She winked, getting a grin from the blonde.
She unbuttoned Maggie’s jeans and slowly worked the zipper down. Slipping her fingers under the waistband, she peeled back the denim as Maggie raised her hips to help. White cotton panties quickly found their way to the floor next to the discarded jeans. Julia planted a line of kisses down the center of the blonde’s body, pausing to languidly circle her navel with her tongue, tasting the faint saltiness of her skin. She dipped lower and Maggie cried out, arching her back as her new lover found her target. One hand clutched at the sheets, the other entwined itself in Julia’s hair as the sensations built within her. She cried out again, and again, until she was left spent and shaking, wrapped in Julia’s strong embrace.
“Okay, I’ve got you. Breathe, Maggie.” Julia stroked her hair, pressing her lips against the blonde’s temple.
“Easy for you to say,” Maggie panted as she snuggled closer, reveling in the skin on skin contact.
Julia chuckled deep in her throat, the vibration tickling Maggie’s ear. The laugh quickly turned into a gasp as a teasing tongue snaked out and playfully flicked her nipple. She looked down to find a pair of green eyes gazing at her impishly.
“Now let’s see if I can take your breath away.” Maggie said with a smirk.
Much later, they slept, still entangled in each other’s arms. Julia rested flat on her back, her long arms securely folded around the small blonde nestled against her uninjured side. Even in sleep, a satisified smile was plastered to Maggie’s lips, her head pillowed on Julia’s chest.
It was nearly dark outside when Maggie finally woke. Without opening her eyes, she could tell that Julia was still asleep as she listened to her lover’s deep, even breathing. Her lover. She savored the words, rolling them around inside her mouth. Sighing happily, she wriggled closer to the warm, naked body wrapped around her own, simply enjoying the closeness. Julia mumbled something unintelligible in her sleep and tightened her hold on the blonde woman, but she didn’t wake up.
Maggie pulled the soft flannel sheet up to her chin, covering them both with its warmth. Turning her head a fraction, she placed a gentle kiss on the breast beneath her cheek, smiling at the crease that appeared on Julia’s forehead as she stirred. Still, she didn’t wake. It was probably for the best, Maggie realized. Julia needed the rest, especially after all the energy she’d expended that afternoon. Maggie licked her lips, tasting the faint evidence of their recent lovemaking. She laughed softly to herself. She had a lover. A gorgeous, intelligent, sexy-as-hell lover that she was absolutely crazy about. Maggie paused, frowning. Crazy about? Where did that come from? Don’t get too attached yet, Maggie, you barely even know each other. This could be an everyday occurrence for her. She didn’t think that was true. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but something about the way Julia looked at her suggested that this was more than some random fling. There was a deep longing in those blue eyes, and a strange familiarity that made Maggie forget that they’d only known each other for…..god, has it really only been two days?
“Has what only been two days?” A sleepy voice inquired.
Maggie raised her head and met a pair of drowsy blue eyes. She grinned, embarrassed. “Sorry. Did I say that out loud?”
Julia stretched, wiggling her toes. “Either that, or I read your mind.”
Laughing, Maggie leaned forward and pecked her lover on the lips. “You’re a very talented woman. I wouldn’t be surprised if you did.” She kissed her again, longer this time, though both of them were still pleasantly sated. “I was just realizing that we’ve only known each other for two days.”
“Best two days of my life,” Julia replied without thinking.
Maggie snorted, amused. “Yeah, right. I’ll bet you say that to all the girls.”
Her offhand comment had been meant as a joke, and she was surprised to feel Julia’s arms and shoulders stiffen around her. Disentangling an arm, she reached up to gently stroke her lover’s cheek as Julia stared sightlessly at the ceiling.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Julia exhaled slowly. She was being overly-sensitive, she knew. There was no way Maggie could have known how long it had been since anyone had shared her bed. Three years. More than one thousand long, lonely nights spent shutting out the rest of the world, teaching herself not to care about anyone or anything. The alternative was far too complicated, and Julia had vowed never to let anyone hurt her ever again. But then Maggie McKinnon had walked out of the fog and into her life, and she could feel even her last line of defense crumbling. It made no sense, Julia told herself. They’d known each other for two days….she couldn’t possibly be falling in love. Could she?
“Julia?” Maggie’s concerned voice pulled her back to reality.
The blonde was staring at her, looking deeply worried, tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. A sad ghost of a smile flitted across Julia’s lips and she brushed her fingertips against Maggie’s lower eyelashes, capturing the salty tears. She hugged the young woman closer, burying her nose in her fair hair, and she let the thick walls around her heart collapse, toppled by the magnetic pull that Maggie had over her.
“I don’t say that to all the girls,” she said quietly. “In fact, there hasn’t been anyone else in a long time.”
“Really?” Maggie whispered.
“Really. And I meant what I said. These past couple of days have been….incredible.”
“For me, too.” Maggie concurred.
They both fell silent, savoring the moment. The spell was broken by a loud, gurgling growl that rose from somewhere beneath the flannel sheets. Maggie blushed, giggling helplessly.
“Was that your stomach?” Julia asked, struggling to keep a straight face.
“I’m hungry!” Maggie explained. “I had an unexpected workout this afternoon.”
Julia sighed good-naturedly, reaching for the phone on the nightstand. Without looking, she hit a button on the speed dial.
“Hi, it’s Julia Cassinelli. I need a medium combination pizza delivered,” she paused, listening to the person on the other end. “No, the home address. Twenty minutes, great. Thanks.”
She set the phone back on the mahogany nightstand, squawking as Maggie rolled halfway on top of her. Playful green eyes sparkled down at her.
“Twenty minutes, huh? Wonder what we can do to pass the time.”
Julia groaned as Maggie nuzzled the base of her throat. “Oh, I’m sure we’ll think of something.”
Patrick was sprawled on the floor of Maggie’s apartment, his chin propped up on an overstuffed couch cushion. On the television screen in front of him, an animated coyote was building a rocket, the latest in a series of dastardly plots to capture his arch-nemesis. As usual, the plan backfired and the cartoon roadrunner scooted away, unscathed. Patrick laughed, shoving a handful of microwaved popcorn into his mouth. It was about the only edible thing he could find in his sister’s kitchen, other than a fuzzy green block that might have been cheese at one time.
During a commercial break, he rolled over onto his back, trying not to think about the plastic baggie stuffed into the toe of one of his shoes. Dark blond eyebrows knit together and he chewed his lower lip anxiously. He’d promised Maggie that he would be good. Patrick scowled, his mood darkening. Who the hell did she think she was, anyway? He was tired of being treated like a naughty child. Or as an afterthought.
When Patrick was seven, his older brother Jack, in a fit of adolescent rage over a broken skateboard, had told him that he was an accident. That their parents hadn’t planned on having any more children after Maggie. The rest of his siblings had laughed, but Maggie had jumped to his defense, pummeling Jack with her 11-year old fists, forcing him to take it back. Patrick had known that it was true, though, and he had never forgotten it.
A loud knock on the front door startled him. Frowning, he scrambled to his feet, wondering if he should answer it. Maggie hadn’t mentioned any visitors. On bare feet, he padded noiselessly to the door and carefully placed his eye to the peephole. A short, tattooed man with bulging muscles was pacing in front of the door. His inky black hair was slicked back and he was wearing sunglasses, even though it was almost dark outside. Patrick tugged at his goatee thoughtfully. The guy looked vaguely familiar.
“Yo, Patrick! You in there, or what?”
At the sound of the street-tough voice, something clicked. This was the guy he’d scored off of the night before. Eddie something. Grinning, Patrick opened the door.
“Hey, what are you doing here, man?” Patrick nodded at him, shivering a bit as the crisp bay breeze touched his bare chest. With a jerk of his head, he invited the other man inside.
Eddie Machado sauntered through the door, fairly oozing oily charm. He removed his sunglasses and hung them from the front of his tight white t-shirt. A smile revealed a flash of white teeth, and Patrick noticed that one of the front ones was badly chipped.
“You gave me your address last night, remember? Said you might be interested in some more of that shit I hooked you up with. That was some gooood shit, right?”
Patrick thought furiously. His memories of the party were still fuzzy, but he thought he remembered music and dancing. It had been hot and crowded inside the darkened warehouse. He definitely recalled buying a baggie of some truly excellent stuff from Eddie. Then he had made out with some blonde chick on the dance floor, her hands sliding inside his pants. Patrick shook himself. Not the right time for that memory to surface. He regarded Eddie curiously and had the feeling the Eddie had introduced him to the blonde with the wandering hands. He didn’t remember giving out Maggie’s address, but it wouldn’t have been the first time he did something like that when he was high.
Fingers snapped impatiently in front of his face. “Hey! You in there?”
Patrick blinked. “Yeah. Sorry about that. Yeah, that was some really good shit.”
Eddie beamed at him, nodding. “Hell yeah, it was. Listen, I know this guy, DC. Lives down on Mission where all the yuppies are moving in. He can hook you up, if you’re interested.”
Patrick thought for a moment. He didn’t have any money left, though he wasn’t sure where it had all gone. He knew he hadn’t spent $350 on drugs. Someone had probably stolen the rest from him at the party. It wouldn’t have been the first time that had happened to him either. Eddie seemed to sense his indecision.
“Don’t worry about the cash, man. DC’s a fair guy. He’ll work something out for you.”
Patrick licked his cracked, dry lips, already thinking about his next hit. He nodded.
“Okay. Just lemme get dressed.”
Leaving Eddie prowling around the living room, Patrick pulled a set of fresh clothes out of his bag and disappeared into Maggie’s bedroom. It wouldn’t hurt to meet with this DC guy, he reasoned. If he didn’t like the terms, he could just say no. He emerged from the bedroom, dressed in a pair of worn khakis and an ancient Cleveland Browns sweatshirt. Eddie grinned at him as he put his sunglasses back on and led the way out the door.
Continue to part 4