Golden Gate, part 1

  By Erin Jennifer



Disclaimers: These characters are my own, though they do bear a certain resemblance to

                      a couple of ancient Greek heroines. 


Violence/Language:  Bloodletting is kept to a minimum, but the characters will utter a

                                  few naughty words on occasion.


Subtext:  Yep.  Definitely a same-sex attraction thing going on here, and there will be

descriptions of physical intimacy.  So if you are underage, or you’re not comfortable reading that sort of thing, then please don’t.


Any and all feedback is appreciated.  Please send any comments to





The fog rolled in from the bay and hung heavy and low over the city, obscuring the skyline and making visibility difficult for the driver of a black Toyota Corolla.  Maggie McKinnon leaned forward over the steering wheel and peered through the thick blanket of greyish-white mist.  No matter how long she lived in San Francisco, she swore she would never get used to this.  An old Depeche Mode song blared through the speakers of her car stereo, and Maggie reached over to turn the volume down, as if that would somehow help her see better. The soft blue light of the digital clock told her that it was 1:13 a.m. She cursed under her breath as she strained to make out the numbers on the fog-enshrouded piers.


Lights glowed ahead, and the mist turned a ruddy orange.  Maggie slowed her car as she passed a row of emergency vehicles, red and blue lights strobing rhythmically.  A uniformed policeman stepped in front of her car, holding his hands up to block her path.  She stopped and rolled down her window, putting on her most friendly Midwestern smile as he approached.  He leaned down, all business.


“Sorry, ma’am.  This area is off limits,” he said, sounding bored.


Maggie grabbed her plastic ID card off the dash and held it up.  “I’m with the Chronicle.”


The young officer groaned and rolled his eyes.  He’d been wondering how long it would take for the media vultures to show up.  The call had come in twenty minutes before about a warehouse fire on the pier.  It was the third suspicious fire in as many weeks, and the local media had been running all sorts of lurid stories about a serial arsonist.


“Great,” the officer muttered.  “Ok, you can go through.  Just stay out of the way.”


He waved her forward, and Maggie slowly pulled her car up next to a row of unmarked police vehicles.  She got out, shivering at the damp, chilly air and berated herself for forgetting her jacket at her desk.  Ahead, flames shot out of the roof of an empty warehouse, lighting up the night sky, while dozens of firefighters grimly fought the blaze.  She edged closer to a pair of official-looking men who appeared to be arguing with each other.


“I don’t care.  I want this son of a bitch caught,” A tall, handsome man with silver-streaked brown hair was waving his finger in the face of a shorter, heavier man.


“Look, we’re working on it.  This guy doesn’t give us much to go on,” the other man said defensively.


Maggie dug her slim, well-used reporter’s notebook out of the back pocket of her jeans and flipped it open to an empty page.  Taking a deep breath, she started towards the two men.  She nearly jumped out of her skin when a hand grabbed her elbow.  Biting back a yelp, she turned to face the tall, dark-haired woman that had restrained her.


“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.  They don’t like reporters.” the woman said.


She had a low, rich voice that rumbled pleasantly in Maggie’s ears.  A pair of startlingly blue eyes stared out of a face framed by perfect, high cheekbones, and dark hair fell past her shoulders, pulled back in a loose ponytail.


“Really?  And who are you?” Maggie asked, pen poised above her notepad.


The woman chuckled, tickling the young reporter’s senses.  “Nobody you’re gonna want to write down.”  She held her hand out.  “Julia Cassinelli.”


Switching her pen to her other hand, Maggie took the offered hand and found it warm and incredibly strong.  A flutter of excitement raced through her stomach, but she shook it off, determined to keep her mind on business.


“Nice to meet you, Ms. Cassinelli. I’m Maggie McKinnon and I work for the Chronicle,” she introduced herself.  “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”


Julia cocked her head to one side and observed the determined, professional young woman in front of her.  The reporter was a good six inches shorter than Julia’s own 5’9” stature, but she seemed strong and athletic.  The taller woman eyed the nicely toned arms that protruded from Maggie’s short-sleeved, white linen shirt.  Sun-bleached blonde hair stopped an inch above her collar and covered the tips of her ears, and green eyes that matched the color of the Bay on a sunny day stared at her expectantly.


Julia’s lips curled into a faint grin, and she folded her arms across her chest.  “Fire away.”


“Um, okay.  What can you tell me about this fire?”


“That warehouse over there,” Julia pointed at the blazing structure.  “It’s burning.”


Maggie stared at her, slightly flustered.  Why did Californians have such weird senses of humor? 


“Right.  I can pretty much see that for myself,” Maggie returned dryly.  “I meant, do you have any idea how the fire started.”


“Nope,” Julia replied.


“Well, then why are you here?” Maggie asked, exasperated by the tall woman’s infuriating, faintly smug attitude.


Julia shrugged casually.  “My office is near here.  I heard the sirens and came over to see what was going on.  The warehouse was pretty much gutted when I got here.”


Maggie sighed, obviously she was wasting her time with this woman.  She capped her pen and glanced around, looking for someone else to talk to.  The two men she’d been heading towards earlier had disappeared, but there were plenty of cops and firemen milling about.  Other media people were arriving on the scene too, and Maggie knew she ought to start interviewing real witnesses before someone else beat her to them, but somehow, she just couldn’t seem to tear herself away from Julia Cassinelli.


A silver Mercedes zoomed in, forcing several policemen to nimbly leap out of its way, and they glared at the tall, extremely thin redhead who emerged from the driver’s seat.  Maggie’s eyes widened and she ducked behind Julia’s taller frame, eliciting a puzzled grin from the woman.


“Problem?” Julia asked, eyebrows quirking.


“That’s Catherine Richards.  She, uh, she works for the Chronicle too.”


“Let me guess.  You’re stepping on her beat?” Julia grinned.


Green eyes peered at her abashedly and Maggie’s face reddened.  “Something like that.  I heard the call on the police scanner, and. . . .I’ve got to get out of here before she sees me.”


Catherine Richards was a star at the newspaper, but not because she was a good reporter.  Frankly, Maggie thought the vain redhead basically sucked.  But Catherine was the grandniece of the publisher, so the editors treated her like a goddess.  Maggie shook her head in disgust as she watched Catherine work, oozing her seductive charm as she questioned an overweight cop who was clearly attracted to her. 


“God, look at the way she’s coming on to that guy!” Maggie said, obviously annoyed.  “That’s not how a good reporter gets a story.”


She darted a quick glance at the hypnotic blue eyes that were gazing at her placidly.  The tall, dark-haired woman seemed vaguely amused by her outburst, and Maggie wasn’t sure what to make of her.  She frowned slightly; she was usually so good at reading people, but Julia was a complete mystery.


“Ok, well. . .I guess I’m gonna go,” she looked past the silent woman in front of her.  “Looks like the fire’s almost out, anyway.”


Sidestepping Julia’s tall, lean body, she started towards her car.  Impulsively, she stopped and turned back, eyeing the dark-haired woman with a mixture of apprehension and veiled interest.


“Is your car here?” Maggie asked, pausing for a breath when Julia shook her head.  “It’s awfully late.  Can I give you a ride somewhere?”


Julia looked at her with that maddeningly cool gaze, and one dark eyebrow lifted a fraction of an inch.  Idly, she wondered if Maggie McKinnon, cub reporter, was trying to pick her up.  Nah, she told herself, she’s probably just one of those sickeningly nice people.  The kid’s definitely not from around here.  Julia shrugged; it wouldn’t hurt and she really didn’t feel like walking back to her office in the fog.


“Sure, why not?” she answered, following Maggie to her black Corolla. 


Julia trailed a few steps behind the smaller blonde, and her gaze traveled slowly down the young woman’s body, admiring the fit of her faded blue jeans.  Then again, it might not hurt to see where this led, either.  Noiselessly, she slid into the passenger seat.  In a low voice, she gave Maggie an address, and the blonde nodded.  The engine roared to life as the Corolla cautiously eased out into the dark street and disappeared into the fog.





“Take a left at the light up here,” Julia directed, her voice sounding unnaturally loud in the quiet.  “It’s the second building on the left.”


Maggie made the turn smoothly, and since there was no other traffic on the street, she made a hasty u-turn and pulled up alongside the curb in front of the building Julia had indicated.  It was a one-story, crumbling stone structure.  The blinds were closed in the single window facing the empty street, but she could see the pale blue glow of a computer monitor shining through the slats.  In the dark, she couldn’t read the name on the sturdy wooden door.  For the first time, it occurred to her to wonder what Julia Cassinelli did for a living.


The passenger door opened, letting in a chilly blast of night air, and Maggie made a face.  Even in early October, San Francisco was freezing once the sun went down.  She glanced at Julia as she exited, noting that, unlike her, the tall woman was dressed for the cool weather.  She looked positively toasty in her khakis, black v-necked pullover and black leather jacket.


Julia knew that Maggie was looking her up and down, but she attributed it to a reporter’s penchant for observation.  Still, she couldn’t deny that there was a crackling current of energy running between them, and she wondered if she should take a chance.  What’s the worst thing that could happen?  The kid says she’s not interested and you never see her again, she reasoned with herself.


“I was gonna put on some coffee,” Julia began, not quite believing she was doing this.  “Why don’t you come in for a cup?”


Maggie blinked at her, surprised and slightly uncomfortable.  It wasn’t every day that a woman she had just met invited her in for coffee at, she checked the time on the digital display, 1:55 in the morning.  Julia saw the uncertainty on the young woman’s face, and she mentally slapped herself in the head.  She was about to rescind the offer when Maggie spoke up.


“Sure, I’d love some coffee.” 


Alarm bells went off in Maggie’s head as she removed her key from the ignition and opened her door.  What was she doing?  She didn’t know anything about this woman.  Julia Cassinelli could be a serial killer, for all she knew.  Except that the tall, striking woman looked more like a J. Crew model than a murderer.  Megan Elaine McKinnon, stop that right now, Maggie chastised herself.  Just before leaving Ohio six months earlier, she had come to terms with the realization that she was attracted to women.  It was one of the reasons she had applied at the Chronicle, figuring the climate would be a lot more accepting than her small hometown.  But she hadn’t actually acted on that attraction.  Yet.  Sitting there with her car keys in her hand, Maggie gradually became aware that Julia was watching her with a bemused expression.  She blushed furiously.


“Sorry, I got lost for a second there,” she mumbled.


Julia’s lips quirked into a lopsided half-grin.  “Obviously.”


Embarrassed, Maggie got out of the car and slammed the door a little harder than she had intended.  A soft beep told her that the alarm was on, and she shoved her keys into her hip pocket as she followed Julia to the door.  Curiously, she read the plate out loud.


“JT Cassinelli Investigations.  You’re a p.i.?”


Julia glanced over her shoulder as she unlocked the door and ushered the blonde woman inside her cluttered office. 


“Yeah.  Does that surprise you?”


“A little,” Maggie admitted as she surveyed the small office. “So where are the rest of the Angels?”


Julia stared at her blankly and Maggie laughed nervously.  “Oh, come on.  Charlie’s Angels?  It was a bad joke, forget it.”


As decrepit as the exterior of the building was, Maggie hadn’t been expecting much and she was surprised by the interior.   Dark wood floors gleamed where they could be seen under a scattering of papers and file folders.  A polished, expensive-looking cherry desk sat against most of one wall, and plush leather chairs waited on either side of it.  Two black file cabinets rested along another wall, drawers open and papers spilling out haphazardly.  A half-open door led to a tiny bathroom, and Julia grabbed the coffee pot off her desk and headed for it.  After a moment, Maggie heard the sound of running water.  She continued her exploration.


The desk, she noticed was the only thing in the small office that was relatively neat.  A recent-model PC hummed faintly as tropical fish floated by on the monitor.  Other than that, all that sat on the desk was a coffee pot, a Hard Rock Café mug, and a multi-line telephone.  Maggie’s gaze fell on a large, framed poster of The Boulevard of Broken Dreams hanging on the wall behind the desk.  She had always liked that image of James Dean, brooding and moody, strolling down a lonely street.  A smaller frame caught her eye, and she moved around the desk to examine it more closely.  She looked up as Julia returned with the water.


“You graduated from Stanford?”


Julia shrugged as she carefully measured the coffee grounds.  “Yeah.”


Maggie blinked at her, waiting for an explanation that evidently wasn’t coming.  She glanced at the diploma again.  Most Stanford graduates with degrees in political science didn’t wind up as private investigators.  She looked around again at the expensive furniture and technology that didn’t seem to mesh with the crumbling building.  For a split second, an odd image formed in her mind, and she pictured Julia as some kind of undercover secret agent.  She struggled to keep a straight face.  Okay, Maggie, you’ve been watching too many Bond movies on cable.


“Something funny?” Julia asked, watching her curiously.


“No, it’s just that. . . your office is not what I expected.”  Suddenly, her brain made a connection.  Cassinelli.  “You’re not related to Joseph Cassinelli, are you?”


Julia’s angular face turned to stone, and Maggie realized that she had hit a nerve.  Joseph Cassinelli was the city’s most prominent criminal defense attorneys. Though she didn’t know exactly how much he was worth, Maggie knew that he was a millionaire who lived on a vineyard in the Napa Valley.  Last year, he had represented a pro football player accused of a series of sexual assaults, and thanks to his legal wizardry, the guy had been found not guilty.  After that case, a columnist for the Chronicle had called Joseph Cassinelli a cancer on the American justice system.


“He’s my father,” Julia said flatly.


An awkward silence fell over them as Maggie tried to think of something to say.  Gee, sorry my paper compared your dad to a disease, just didn’t seem to cut it.  Thankfully, Julia spoke first.


“Let’s not talk about him, okay?”  She sat down in the big leather chair behind the desk and gestured for Maggie to sit in the other chair.  Opening a drawer, she produced a second coffee mug and slid it across the polished surface to her guest.  Carefully, Julia poured the hot, pungent liquid into both mugs.


“Cream or sugar?” Julia asked.


Maggie shook her head.  She liked her coffee as black as possible without it turning to goo, and as she tasted the beverage in her mug, she noticed that Julia seemed to like it the same way.  She smiled and examined the Rocky Horror lips on the side of her mug.


“So, do you always invite strange women to your office in the middle of the night?” Maggie asked, surprised at her own directness.  This wasn’t at all like her small town, midwestern upbringing.


Julia seemed a bit taken aback, as well, and she bought herself some time by taking a long sip from her mug.  The super-hot liquid scalded her tongue, and she cursed softly.

She leaned back in her chair and regarded the woman sitting across from her, an amused glint shining in her eyes.


“Not usually,” she replied.  “Do you always offer rides to strange woman in the middle of the night?”


Maggie snorted, nearly spilling her coffee.  “Hardly.”


She gazed across the desk at blue eyes that were burning into her with vivid intensity, and her stomach fluttered as she recognized the undisguised interest in the other woman’s expression.  Maggie’s throat went dry and her breathing quickened as she realized that she was dancing dangerously close to a line that she wasn’t sure she was ready to cross. 


A thin, high-pitched ringing disturbed the electric silence between them, and Maggie jumped slightly in her chair.  With a sheepish grin, she dug her pager out of her pocket and stared at the display, slightly annoyed by the interruption.  She sucked in a sharp breath.  It was her home number on the screen.  Who on earth is paging me from my apartment? She glanced up at the curiously watching dark-haired woman.


“Do you mind if I use your phone?  It’s a local call.” 

Wordlessly, Julia nudged the phone towards the blonde and swiveled around to gaze out the window, giving Maggie a bit of privacy.  Barely aware that she was holding her breath, Maggie punched her own number into the receiver.  She was caught off guard when a familiar, male voice answered on the first ring.


“Patrick?  What are you doing in my apartment?”  Maggie paused, listening to the voice on the other end.  “Okay, calm down.  I’m on my way.”


Sighing, she replaced the receiver in its cradle and glanced at Julia, who was gamely pretending not to be listening.  She smiled ruefully at the tall woman, regret clearly stamped on her features.


“I have to go,” she said, setting her mug on the desk and rising from the comfortable leather chair.


Julia stood also.  “It’s okay.  It’s getting awfully late, anyway.”


Who the hell was Patrick?  A boyfriend maybe?  Julia frowned slightly.  She thought she’d been getting fairly strong signals from the blonde reporter.  She could be wrong, she admitted to herself reluctantly.  She’d been out of the game for quite some time now.


Maggie moved towards the door with Julia following her quietly.  The fog had thickened considerably in the early morning gloom, and Julia scowled at it darkly.  She loved the city, but sometimes she could live without the damned fog.  She escorted the blonde reporter to her car and waited while Maggie buckled herself in.  Leaning against the open driver’s side door, she bestowed one of her most charming grins on the young woman.


“Thanks for the ride.”


Maggie smiled back, feeling a pang of disappointment at the fact that their evening, or early morning actually, had been cut short. 


“Sure, no problem.  Thanks for the coffee.”


Julia inclined her head slightly.  “Anytime.  Drive carefully, Ms. McKinnon.” 


She shut the car door and stepped back as the Corolla pulled away from the curb.  Standing on the sidewalk, she watched until the fog swallowed the glowing taillights, then she turned and went back to her office.  A moment later, she reemerged, her briefcase slung over her shoulder.  Moving purposefully, she got into a dark green Jeep Cherokee and drove away into the pre-dawn darkness.  With one finger, she punched the power button on the stereo and filled the vehicle with the raw guitars of the Smashing Pumpkins.  Julia listened as Billy Corgan sang about his rage, then her thoughts drifted back to Maggie McKinnon.  Deep in her gut, she had a feeling that their paths would cross again.


Maggie drummed her fingers nervously against the steering wheel as she drove west across the city, towards her Richmond apartment. The fog was still very thick, and she navigated mostly by intstinct. There were very few other cars on the street, so she pushed the speed limit as far as she dared.  Her stomach was tied into knots.  Why was Patrick here?  Why wasn’t he in Ohio?  She zoomed past the Presidio, slowing dramatically when she spotted the flashing lights of a patrol car half a block ahead.  Luckily, the officer inside seemed to have better things to do than chase every speeding car that came along.


Several minutes later, Maggie pulled into the driveway of her small apartment complex.  She parked her car in her assigned space and hopped out.  The light was on in her living room, and as she came up the walkway, the front door flew open and a tall, thin man bounded out and grabbed her in a bear hug.


“Hey, Maggie!  I thought you’d never get here,” he greeted her enthusiastically.


“Shhh!  You’ll wake up my neighbors,” Maggie shushed him and pushed him back towards her open door.


She eyed him critically in the light from her entryway.  Patrick had lost weight since she’d seen him last.  He was pale, and he looked tired.  His spiky blond hair was uncombed and his clothes were rumpled, as if he’d been sleeping in them.  Maggie shook her head at him and pointed to the couch.  He complied obediently as she detoured into the small kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator.  She took a long swallow, putting off the inevitable conversation for a few more seconds. 


“What are you doing here, Patrick?  Does anyone know that you’re here?” Maggie turned to face the disheveled man on her couch.


Patrick blinked at her, slightly hurt by her attitude.  “Jeez, sis.  Is that any way to treat your baby brother?  I thought you’d be glad to see me.”


Maggie sighed and sat down on the couch next to her younger brother.  “I am glad to see you.  But you should have called to tell me you were coming.  Now, what’s this about you getting mugged?”


Patrick shifted uncomfortably and tugged at the scraggly goatee that covered his chin.  Brown eyes glanced at her and then nervously darted away, and Maggie knew instantly that he was lying. 


“Well, see, I got into the city yesterday afternoon, but it took me awhile to find your place.  So I just sort of wandered around,” he hesitated, working out the details of the story in his head.  “Anyway, I was crossing through that big park when two guys jumped out of the bushes and took all my money.  Honestly, Mag, I thought they were gonna kill me.”


Maggie shut her eyes and rubbed the back of her extremely stiff neck.  It had been a very long, unproductive day, and now she had to deal with her troubled brother on top of it all. 

At 22, he was her junior by four years, the youngest of the six McKinnon siblings. Patrick had a drug problem that had steadily escalated since his girlfriend had left him two years ago.  Maggie’s parents had somehow scraped together the money to send him to a clinic after he nearly overdosed on a cocktail of speed and alcohol eight months previously.  The family had hoped that he would straighten out, but Maggie took one look at his slightly glassy stare and knew that he was getting high again.


Patrick fidgeted, unable to keep himself still for very long, and he tapped the end of a pencil relentlessly against a small end table.  The sound was getting on her nerves, and Maggie ground her teeth, forcing herself to stay calm.  He sniffed the air and made a face.


“You smell like smoke, sis,” he commented.


Maggie lifted the collar of her shirt to her nose and inhaled.  She did, indeed, reek of smoke.  She sighed as she stood and headed for her bedroom.


“I was at a fire,” she explained.  “I’m gonna take a quick shower, and then we’ll talk some more, if you want.”


She poked her head back out of the doorway.  Patrick had risen and he was roaming restlessly around her living room, examining various knick-knacks.  He took a ceramic figurine of one of the dancing crocodiles from Fantasia off her bookshelf and tossed it casually into the air.


“Don’t break anything,” she warned him.  “And call Mom and Dad.  They’re probably worried sick about you by now.”


She ducked back into her bedroom and grabbed her pajama pants and a faded Ohio State t-shirt from her unmade bed.  Kicking off her shoes, she headed for the bathroom and turned the shower on, examining her reflection in the mirror while she waited for the water to heat.  She looked almost as tired as she felt.  Her eyes were bloodshot, probably from the smoke, she mused, shaking her head as steam began to fog the surface of the mirror. 


Maggie tossed her clothes into a pile on the floor and stepped into the shower.  She closed her eyes and simply stood under the spray for several long moments, letting the stream massage some of the tension from her shoulders.  Unbidden, an image of Julia Cassinelli smiling at her rose to her mind, and she felt that flutter of excitement run through her stomach again.  She opened her eyes, blinking rapidly as water hit her eyelashes, and she seized the bar of soap from its dish and began scrubbing her arms vigorously.  God, Maggie, get a hold of yourself.  You’re acting like a schoolgirl with an adolescent crush. 


When she emerged ten minutes later, Patrick was sitting on the floor, flipping through cable channels on her television.  He stopped on an infomercial and watched intently as a man demonstrated the power of a particular cleaning product.  He looked up and grinned at his sister as she approached. 


“Hey, have you ever wondered how you can use the same thing to scrub your barbecue grill as you can to wash your clothes?” Patrick pointed at the screen.


Maggie didn’t respond.  She was too tired to deal with him, especially since he was still clearly wired on whatever he had taken before showing up at her apartment.


“Did you call Mom and Dad?” She felt more like his babysitter than his sister.


His face fell, and he shook his head.  “Naw.  It’s still too early there.  I don’t want to wake them up.  I’ll call later, I promise.”


Maggie glanced at the clock.  It was just after 3:00, which meant that it was 6:00 in Ohio, and her father would definitely be up and preparing for another day of teaching history at Warren G. Harding High School.  She sighed and decided not to press the issue.


“Okay.  I need to grab a couple hours of sleep before I have to go back to work,” she said.  “Will you be alright on the couch?”


Patrick nodded enthusiastically.  “Yeah.  I’m good with the couch.”


Briefly, Maggie showed him where the extra blankets were in the hall closet.  She retreated to the solitude of her own bedroom, leaving her brother engrossed in a bad science fiction movie starring Drew Barrymore in a dual role.  Maggie checked to make sure that her alarm was set, and then she crawled gratefully beneath her cool cotton sheets.  Within minutes, she was fast asleep.


The electronic braying of an alarm clock shattered the pre-dawn stillness, and a single green eye opened, peering resentfully at the device.  Maggie reached out and slapped the off button, groaning as she rolled over and kicked the covers off her bed.  She sat up, shivering in the crisp morning air.  Her head ached dully, her punishment for too many nights with far too little sleep.


“I really don’t want to go to work today,” she muttered hoarsely as she headed for the bathroom.


The tile warmed beneath her bare feet, and she wiggled her toes against it as she washed her face.  Maggie stared at herself in the mirror, dismayed by the worst case of bed head she’d ever seen.  It looked like a blonde porcupine had died on her head.  She retrieved her brush from a drawer and tried to restore some semblance of order to her unruly locks.


Still brushing her teeth, Maggie wandered back into her bedroom, kicking the previous night’s discarded clothes out of the way as she headed for her closet.  She surveyed her wardrobe, finally deciding on a pair of neatly ironed khaki pants and a button-down, royal blue shirt.  The best thing about being a newspaper reporter was the casual dress code.  Unless a reporter was covering the political scene, pretty much anything went. 


Maggie dressed quickly and moved out into the hall.  Patrick was asleep on the couch, his long legs hanging over the end.  The television, though muted, was still on, and Maggie sighed as she looked for the remote.  Giving up the search, she walked over and hit the power button, making the screen go dark.  She checked her watch.  Almost 6:30.  Quietly, she slipped out the door, grabbing her keys and her shoulder bag as she left.


Twenty minutes later, Maggie was walking into the newsroom, juggling a tall cup of coffee in one hand and a chocolate croissant in the other.  It was still relatively quiet; things wouldn’t really start picking up for another half hour, but Maggie liked to be there early, before the craziness started.  She sat down at her small desk and hit the space bar on her computer to clear the monitor of her screensaver.


 Taking a long swallow of coffee, she checked her e-mail.  Nothing interesting, other than a response to a query she had sent out the day before.  She had the unenviable assignment of the annual “Things to do for Halloween” story.  A brain-dead monkey could write that story, she thought bitterly, since it was basically just a listing of local haunted houses and pumpkin patches.


Someone mumbled a sleepy greeting in her direction, and Maggie looked up.  Chris Garcia, one of the sportswriters waved to her as he entered the glass double doors leading into the newsroom.  He was a nice-looking guy, tall and tanned, with thick, wavy black hair and perfect white teeth.  Chris had asked her out twice, but she had politely declined both times, and they had mutually agreed to just be friends.  Maggie returned her attention to her monitor.  Impulsively, she connected to the paper’s massive archives and typed in a search request for information about Julia Cassinelli. 


“Hmm.  Daughter of Joseph Cassinelli, okay, I knew that already.  Mother committed suicide when she was three.  Wow, that’s pretty awful.  Father remarried two years later, divorced three years after that. She has a half-brother.” Maggie read the bio with interest and she scrolled down further.


She blinked, surprised, and she traced the headline on the screen with her finger.  The year before, Julia had helped the SFPD crack a drug-smuggling ring operating from one of the piers.  According to a police spokesman, Ms. Cassinelli had provided vital information and had even participated in the raid, itself.  Maggie’s eyebrows rose as she continued to scan the article and found references to four other instances where Julia had helped the police.  Twice, she had turned over information on the Asian youth gangs that were exploding throughout the city.  Once, she had snapped photos of a local politician taking bribes from a well-known developer.  And then, just three weeks earlier, Julia had chased and apprehended a purse-snatcher who had been preying on elderly women walking through Washington Square.  According to the story, Julia pursued the man for two blocks before catching him and holding him for the police, breaking the guy’s nose in the process.


“Okay, so she’s not James Bond, but she just might be Batman.”


“Who might be Batman?”  A voice over her shoulder made Maggie jump.


A pair of dark eyes regarded her curiously.  Jessica Sato was one of the junior copy editors, and one of Maggie’s few friends in the city.  Jessica was tiny, even shorter than Maggie, and she had a roundish face framed by wire-rimmed glasses that were constantly slipping down her pug nose.  Shoulder-length black hair was pulled into a neat French braid.


“Morning, Jess.  You scared the crap out of me just now.” Maggie greeted her friend cheerfully.


“Sorry.  Didn’t realize you were so absorbed in this,”  Jessica leaned closer, peering at the monitor as she pushed up her glasses with one finger.  “Hey, is that Joe Cassinelli’s daughter?”


Maggie flushed slightly, wondering how she was going to explain this.  “Uh, yeah.  I met her last night, and I was just curious, I guess.  I don’t know a whole lot about the Cassinelli’s.”


Jessica’s cherubic face split into a wide grin and she tapped the file photo on the screen with the end of her pencil.  The picture showed Julia, arriving alone at the city’s famous Black and White Ball in 1998.  She was dressed in a simple, but elegant, sleeveless black evening dress.  A teardrop-shaped sapphire necklace rested just above her cleavage, and matching earrings dangled from her ears.


“She’s kinda hot.”  Jessica was one of the few people that Maggie had confided in about her emerging sexuality.  “No, actually, she’s really hot.”


Maggie made a face and slapped her friend’s hand playfully.  “It’s not like that!  We met and I just wanted to know more about her.  End of story.”


Jessica laughed and ducked to avoid another swat.  She backed away, still giggling.


“If you say so, Maggie.  I gotta get back to work.  Barrett just sent his story over.” Jessica and Maggie exchanged a knowing glance.  Mark Barrett covered the local music scene, and his stories were notorious for their errors.  “Come find me around lunch time, if you’re free.”


Jessica disappeared.  The newsroom was filling up as more people started to trickle in., all of them appearing harried and highly-caffeinated.  The clacking of keys and the shuffling of papers created a familiar hum that buzzed through the large room.  Two desks behind her, Maggie heard one of the city reporters pleading with a source that was refusing to go on the record.  She shook her head sympathetically.  Been there, done that, buddy.


The glass double doors flew open with an attention-getting bang.  Heads came up and turned toward the noise as Catherine Richards swept into the room, obviously enjoying the fact that all eyes were on her.  She pinned Maggie with a cold stare and grinned mercilessly just before she stormed, unannounced, into her editor’s office.

Maggie flushed and slid down in her chair as everyone’s eyes turned to her.  She knew they were all wondering what she had done to piss off the HellCat, as Catherine was unaffectionately called behind her back.  Great.  She must have seen me last night, after all.  And now she can’t wait to tell on me. 


 Maggie exited out of the newspaper’s archives and glanced at the row of clocks on the wall.  Each clock was set to a different time zone.  Chicago, New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, etc.  She focused on the one in the center that was actually displaying San Francisco time.  Surprisingly, it was almost 8:30 already.  She wondered if she should call to check on Patrick.  Nah.  He was probably still sleeping it off on her couch.

She cast a surreptitious glance at the closed door to her editor’s office.  Sighing, she started to work on her assigned story, compiling her list of Halloween attractions in the Bay Area.  Hmm….a vampire tour.  That actually sounds kinda interesting.


Two hours later, the mahogany door to Sam Vogelsang’s office swung open and Catherine emerged, a look of smug triumph on her face.  Without looking at anyone, the redhaired reporter marched to her desk and sat down.  Sam, a tall, stocky man with the build of an aging football player, leaned in the doorway for a moment.  He scratched his balding, grey head and loosened his dark blue tie.


“McKinnon.  Get in here.”  Maggie winced at the irritation in his voice.  She scooted her chair back and stood, smoothing the wrinkles from her pants.  Taking a deep breath to steel herself, she eased past her bulky editor and waited as he shut the door behind her.


“Have a seat, McKinnon.”  Sam nodded at an empty chair, rubbing his jowly chin as he stared at her with watery blue eyes.


Gingerly, Maggie sat down, waiting for the hammer to fall.  It didn’t take long.  Sam was famous for his quick temper, but in the six months that Maggie had been with the paper, she had learned not to take him too seriously.  His short fuse was matched by his equally short memory.


Sam perched on the edge of his paper-strewn desk and stared at her, exasperated. 


“I’m betting you already know why I called you in here.”  Sam paused, but Maggie kept her eyes firmly fixed on her hands.  He grunted.


 “Damn it, Maggie!  How many times do I have to tell you to work the stories you’re given?  I don’t care what you did back in your little farm town! You’re in the big leagues now and you sure as hell better do what you’re told!  If you can’t handle that, then I’ll buy you a one-way bus ticket back to Smallsville, or wherever the hell you’re from, and you can go back to covering bake sales and quilting bees!”  He stopped to take a breath.


Serious green eyes lifted to meet his.  “It wasn’t a farm town.”  Maggie told him quietly.


“What?” Sam blinked at her.  This wasn’t exactly the reaction he’d been expecting. He was used to people quivering in fear when he blustered at them.


“My hometown.  There weren’t really that many farms in the area.  Just because I’m from a small town in the Midwest doesn’t mean that I learned to milk a cow before I could walk,” Maggie said.  “Just like I’ll bet that not all Californians know how to surf.”


Sam shook his head slowly.  He liked this one.  Out of all the reporters under his supervision, Maggie was just about the only one who would stand up to him.  She had good instincts, too, he mused, recalling the portfolio she had sent with her resume.  And she really was wasting her talents on that stupid Halloween story.  Still, it was unwritten policy at the paper that newcomers had to work their way up the pecking order, unless they came from another established, metropolitan newspaper.  He looked at Maggie thoughtfully, noting the resolve in those deep green eyes, and he found himself wanting to give her a chance.  Aw, what the hell.


“Okay, McKinnon.  First, you are going to stay out of Catherine’s way.  No more warehouse fires for you, or I swear I will personally eat your liver for lunch.  Second, you are going to finish that goddamn Halloween piece-of-crap story, and it had better be the best one I’ve ever seen.  You got that?”  Sam leaned forward until he was almost in her face, but her gaze never wavered.  Inwardly, he grinned, impressed.  Damn, this kid might have a bigger pair than I do.


 He went on, lowering his voice to a deep growl.  “And third, a little over on Van Ness got broken into early this morning.” Sam handed her a scrap of paper with an address on it.  “Go see what you can find out.”  He straightened up and moved around his desk, collapsing in his chair.


Maggie sat there in frozen silence, stunned.  Had she heard right?  Had Sam just given her a real story? Something other than holiday fun and home and garden shows? A burglary at a small business wasn’t exactly earth-shattering news, but it was better than anything she’d been assigned so far. Blinking, she stared at the piece of paper in her hand.  Netsports 1801 Van Ness.  She vaguely recalled hearing Chris mention the company once.  It was a local business that sold sporting equipment and memorabilia over the Internet.  Daniel Webber, a former Bay Area college sports star owned and operated it.


Sam looked up from the stack of papers he was sifting through.  “McKinnon,” he barked.  “Get the hell out of my office!”


Maggie grinned at him gratefully as she rushed back out to the now bustling newsroom.  As the heavy door swung shut behind her, she was fairly certain that she was still grinning like an idiot.  Running her fingers through her short blonde hair in amazement, she headed for her desk to grab her keys and her ID.


“Hey, girlfriend.  Where are you heading?  I thought Sam was gonna have you for breakfast.”  One of the photographers, a small, wiry Latino named Rudy stopped by her desk.


“Yeah, me too.  I sort of screwed up last night.  But then he did the most incredible thing.  He gave me an actual news story,” Maggie said, loud enough for Catherine to hear.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the look of disgust on the redhead’s face, and she fought down the urge to burst out laughing.  “Gotta go.”


As an afterthought, she grabbed her jacket from the back of her chair, even though the forecast promised a nice, sunny day.  She wasn’t about to get caught out in the cold again.  Hurrying down to the parking garage, she fumbled in her bag for her cell phone, locating it as she reached her car.  She drove with one hand and dialed with the other, waiting as the line connected with a barely audible click.


“Hi, Chris, it’s Maggie.  Listen I need to know everything you can tell me about in the next fifteen minutes.”


She fought her way up and down the narrow, hilly streets.  It still made her nervous every time she had to stop at a light on one of the steep inclines.  She had nightmares about her brakes failing and her car rolling helplessly into heavy traffic.  It took her slightly more than fifteen minutes to reach the Netsports offices.  Maggie parked across the street and darted across the busy lanes of traffic, ignoring the angry shouts as drivers slowed to avoid her.  As usual, a uniformed police officer tried to stop her, but Maggie flashed her credentials at the severe-looking woman and ducked under her outstretched arm.  She skidded to a halt at the door.


The glass door had been completely shattered, and shards of glass littered the sidewalk and the entryway.  Inside, furniture was overturned, and receipts and invoices fluttered on the floor, stirred by the light breeze.  Off to one side, police inspectors were questioning a young man and woman, both of them clearly shaken.  Probably employees, Maggie noted, intending to talk to them later.  She started to slide under the yellow police tape when a short, well-muscled Asian man with a close crew cut stopped her.


“Where do you think you’re going?”  He glared at her, only an inch or two taller than the small reporter.  Maggie caught sight of the badge attached to his belt.


“It’s okay, Henry.  She’s a friend of mine.”  A low, warm voice vibrated to Maggie’s left.


Julia Cassinelli picked her way through the crowd of police investigators and curious bystanders.  She grinned and winked at the young blonde, sending an unexpected wave of giddiness surging through the reporter.  Julia shook the hand of the Asian cop and exchanged a pleasant greeting with him.  She turned to Maggie.


“Inspector Henry Chow, this is Maggie McKinnon.  She’s a reporter.”  Julia made the formal introduction.


“A reporter?” The inspector eyed the dark-haired woman in surprise.  “I thought you didn’t talk to reporters, Jules.”


Julia shrugged, humor glinting in her brilliant blue eyes.  “It’s not a rule, or anything.  Usually all they want to talk about is my father.  You’re not here to ask me about Daddy, are you Ms. McKinnon?”


Maggie stuttered a negative reply.  She was uncharacteristically tongue-tied by the presence of the enigmatic woman.  It was weird, running into Julia twice at crime scenes like this.  It was almost like. . .fate.


A white news truck from one of the local television stations double-parked next to the two police cars in front of the building.  Maggie saw them out of the corner of her eye, and she sidled towards the two distraught Netsports workers, wanting to get to them before the TV crew did. 


“Alright, Ms. McKinnon.  Come with me,”  Inspector Chow beckoned to her with an impatient finger.


Maggie glanced at the Netsports employees and then back at the waiting inspector.  Julia’s towering presence stood just behind the policeman’s right shoulder and she tilted her head slightly, inviting the reporter over.  Maggie sighed and walked towards them, irritation building in her.


“Look, the press has every right to be here. . .” she began indignantly.


Inspector Chow held his hands up.  “Whoa, hey.  I didn’t say you didn’t!  Actually, I was going to say that if you’ll follow me, I’ll fill you in on what we know, so far.”


He and Julia ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and waited for her to follow.  Very aware of the flush heating her face and neck, and of the faintly amused expression in Julia’s face, Maggie joined them inside the ransacked office. 


“No one else comes through here,” the inspector told the uniformed officer at the door. 


He led the two women to a door at the rear of the office that opened onto a smaller room. This door had been forced open, as well, and judging by the dents, Maggie guessed that it had been kicked.  She walked into the private office and recorded everything in her notebook.  Like the outer room, all the desk drawers had been emptied and overturned.


“At this time, we believe that this was a simple burglary,” Inspector Chow said in an official voice.  “The method of entry was pretty unsophisticated.  Whoever did this used a blunt instrument to get through the outer door.  Probably a bat, or something like that.  Then, as you can see, the inner door appears to have been kicked open.”


Maggie scribbled furiously, her fair head bent over her notebook in concentration.  “Do you have any suspects?  Was anything valuable taken?”  She asked the standard questions.


Julia walked slowly around the perimeter of the room, sharp blue eyes examining everything.  Absently, she listened while the inspector told Maggie that he thought the break-in was the work of kids, or an addict looking for money to get high.  In her peripheral vision, Julia thought she saw Maggie flinch slightly at the mention of an addict, and she carefully filed the information away for later. 


“We’re still doing an inventory, so I can’t tell you for sure if anything valuable was removed from the scene,” the inspector answered Maggie’s queries.


Julia paused in the corner of the room and cocked her head thoughtfully.  She knelt, running her fingers across four deep indentations on the light grey carpet.


“Henry, what was here?” she glanced up at her friend, one finger tracing the marks on the floor.


He jammed his hands in the pockets of his slacks and cleared his throat.  “Uh, a small safe.”


Maggie moved over to stand next to Julia, and she peered interestedly at the markings.  She looked questioningly at the inspector.


“Do you know what was in the safe?”


Henry Chow rubbed at his bristling crew cut and shifted his weight uncomfortably. He hated talking to reporters.  His discomfort grew as Julia slowly rose to her full height and intense blue eyes seemed to bore right through him.  He coughed into his fist.


“Um, well, we’re still waiting for confirmation on that.”


Julia’s eyebrows rose. She pulled a tiny phone from the inner pocket of her jacket and flipped it open with a snap of her wrist.  She dialed from memory and waited as the phone rang four times before a man’s voice answered.


“Hi, Danny, it’s me.  The safe is missing.  I need to know what was in it and who knew the combination to the lock.”


Julia listened intently, nodding occasionally.  Danny Webber was the owner and president of Netsports.  Finished with the brief conversation, Julia hung up and deposited the phone back in her pocket. 


“The safe contained a hard copy of all their credit card transactions for the current quarter, $5, 000 in petty cash, and a .45 caliber handgun registered to Daniel C. Webber.”  Julia informed them smugly, taking a perverse delight in the thoroughly disgusted look Henry was giving her.  She glanced over at Maggie and found that she liked the awestruck expression on the blonde woman’s face even better.


“Jesus, Jules.  Is there anyone in this whole city that you don’t know?” Inspector Chow shook his head.


Julia shrugged modestly.  “Oh, also, besides Danny, only one person knew the combo to the safe.  His VP, Allison Davis.  She’s supposedly vacationing in Seattle at the moment.”


She waited while both Henry and Maggie scribbled the information down in their notebooks.  A very young, fresh out of the academy, officer poked his head through the doorway.


“Inspector, the TV crews out here are starting to get a little antsy,” he said.


Henry Chow rolled his eyes and grimaced.  He glanced at the two women.  “You know, the only thing I hate worse than talking to print reporters, is talking to TV reporters,” he commented dryly.  He nodded at the waiting officer.  “Tell them I’ll be right there.”


“Thanks for the tour, Henry.”  Julia clasped the man’s hand warmly.  “We’ll get out of your way.  I’m sure Ms. McKinnon wants to talk to the witnesses, anyway.”


Julia led the way out of the ransacked office and through the front door as Maggie trailed after her hesitantly.  An over-anxious cameraman jumped in front of the dark-haired woman, but she merely waved him aside and kept moving.  A moment later, the inspector emerged, and the eager crowd fell on him.  On the sidewalk, Julia nodded toward the two, slightly calmer, witnesses.


“You should get to work,” she told the reporter.


Maggie tugged at her earlobe nervously.  “Yeah, I should.  Are you leaving?”


Julia grinned and leaned back against a squad car, folding her arms across her chest. She gestured at the shouting mob of reporters accosting her friend. “Nah.  I’m gonna watch the circus for a while.  I like watching Henry sweat.”


Maggie traced an invisible circle on the sidewalk with the toe of her loafer.  She looked up at the taller woman shyly.  “Give me a few minutes with those two, and then maybe we can talk more?”


Julia arched a single dark eyebrow and let her lips curl into a lazy half-grin.  Maybe she hadn’t been wrong about the reporter, after all.  “Sure.  I’ll be here.”


Forty-five minutes later, Julia was sitting at a small table in a mostly empty Italian restaurant in North Beach.  Long fingers fiddled absently with the silverware, rearranging the utensils into a variety of patterns while blue eyes stared out the window, watching the endless hordes of people passing by on the busy sidewalks.  Even in the middle of the week, the city was packed with tourists and sightseers.  Julia checked her watch again.


It had taken Maggie about a half an hour to conduct brief interviews with the two Netsports employees.  Afterwards, she and Julia had agreed to have lunch together, which surprised the tall private investigator.  Julia rarely dated anymore, and even when she did, it wasn’t usually someone that she had just met the night before.  Of course, she still wasn’t entirely sure if this meeting could be considered a date or not.


 Julia took a sip from her water glass as she continued to scan the crowds outside.  The sea of humanity parted briefly, and a small blonde emerged from its midst, peering at the names of the restaurants and cafés that lined the street.  Unexpectedly, Julia felt a broad smile spread across her lips at the sight of the young reporter.  She waved through the window and a warm, happy sensation rolled through her gut as Maggie’s face lit up with a sunny grin.


Slightly out of breath, Maggie slipped through the door, squeaking past a pair of German tourists who were examining the menu in the entryway.  She waved the hostess off and slid into a chair across the table from Julia.


“Sorry.  Took me forever to find a parking place.” Maggie apologized as she took off her brown corduroy jacket and draped it over the back of her chair.


“Don’t worry about it.  Parking’s a real bitch around here,” Julia replied easily, handing Maggie a menu.


An awkward silence settled over them.  Maggie looked around the interior of the restaurant, which featured tall potted plants in the corners and reproductions of famous Renaissance paintings on the walls.  Besides the hostess, a single waiter and busboy appeared to be the only people working.  Luckily, it wasn’t crowded.  Only two other tables in the long, narrow room had occupants.


“So, this is North Beach, huh?  I’ve never actually made it over here before,” Maggie commented.  She glanced up at the pale, sullen busboy who placed a glass of water in front of her and she gave him a bright smile.  “Thanks.”  The busboy was unmoved by her polite friendliness, and he slunk back to the bar to resume dusting the bottles of wine behind the counter.


Julia rolled her eyes in disgust.  “He’s always like that.”  She nodded towards the surly young man.  “I usually come here in the evenings.  After his shift.”  She smiled as Maggie suppressed a laugh.  “You’ve really never been out here?  How long have you been in the city?”


Maggie looked up from the menu she’d been studying.  “Six months.  I know, it’s pathetic, but I haven’t really seen much of the city yet.  I’ve been to Golden Gate Park….I liked the tea gardens.  Oh, and Pier 39.  That’s about it, though.  I’ve been….busy.”  She didn’t feel comfortable admitting that she really didn’t have anyone to see the sights with.


Leaning back in her chair, Julia folded her hands on the table and regarded the blonde soberly.  A reproachful frown tugged at the corners of her mouth and the beginning of an idea took form in her mind.


 “Six months is too long to be in this city without actually seeing it.”


Maggie sighed and rested her chin in her hand.  “I know.”


They were interrupted by the appearance of their waiter, a tall, gangly young man with bushy brown hair that stuck out from his head in odd angles. He set a basket of warm bread in front of them, along with a plate of seasoned olive oil and then he asked for their orders.  Julia ordered the pizza quattro formaggi and the waiter scribbled her request on his pad before turning to Maggie expectantly.


The blonde woman glanced at her menu again.  “Um….I’ll have the prosciutto sandwich, please.  And an iced tea.”


Their waiter nodded and signaled to the decidedly unfriendly busboy behind the bar.  He disappeared toward the kitchen with their lunch order, leaving his cohort to wordlessly deposit a glass of iced tea in front of the blonde.


 Idly, Maggie touched a fingertip to a dewy drop of condensation rolling down the outside of the glass.  Julia watched her as she tore a chunk of bread off and dipped it into the oil.  She was fascinated by the way the reporter alternated between flirtation and shy uncertainty.  It was….cute.  Cute?  Inwardly, Julia made a face.  Jesus, what is wrong with me?  She tilted her dark head to one side, noticing that the sunlight streaming through the window was falling on the blonde’s face, surrounding her with a warm glow.  A lock of golden hair fell across Maggie’s eyes, and Julia struggled against the urge to reach out and brush it away.  Get a grip, Jules.  You’ve been single too long, or something.


Maggie looked up quizzically, and their eyes locked.  Both women swore they heard a faintly audible click, as if two pieces of a puzzle were fitting together.  As a child, Maggie had been entranced by fairy tales and notions like love at first sight, but she had never dreamed that she would ever experience either one.  Now though, she felt an excited shiver travel down her spine.  Looking at Julia was like looking at the other half of herself.  It felt familiar, safe and inviting, and the feeling both thrilled and terrified the young woman.  Suddenly, Maggie dropped her gaze and plucked at the tablecloth, feeling the heat on her skin as blood rushed to her face.  She cleared her throat nervously.


“So, uh, what were you doing out at Netsports, anyway?” Maggie steered herself back towards neutral territory.  She grabbed a piece of bread and dunked in the oil.  “Oh, wow, this is really good.” She chewed thoughtfully, recognizing garlic and a hint of rosemary.


“Mmm.  Yeah,” Julia agreed.  “Anyway, to answer your question, Danny Webber is a friend of mine and he asked me to go check things out.  One of the perks of knowing a p.i., I guess.” She shrugged. 


“That makes sense, I suppose.”  Maggie kept her gaze firmly fixed on the window, anywhere except on the woman across the table from her.  One more look into those captivating blue eyes, and she knew there would be no turning back.  A middle-aged Chinese couple stopped on the sidewalk to argue with each other, and Maggie watched them gesticulate wildly as the rest of the passing pedestrians swerved around them.


The restaurant was starting to fill up with the lunch crowd, and voices buzzed around them, conversing in a multitude of different languages.  Julia swirled her water glass in her hand, listening to the soft clinking of the ice cubes against the glass.  Blue eyes quietly regarded the blonde, who was still refusing to meet her gaze.  She let out a small sigh; obviously she was going to have to take the lead now, and Julia searched her brain for something intelligent to say.


“Hey, I just remembered, there’s a parade through Chinatown this weekend.  On Saturday, I think,” Julia offered.


Maggie perked up and tore her attention away from the window.  “Really? That sounds like fun.”


Julia nodded vigorously.  “Yeah.  They’re usually pretty fun.”  Actually, she wasn’t that fond of the noisy parades that clogged the streets with even more people than usual.  Somehow, though, she found herself surprisingly willing to endure a minor annoyance, if it meant seeing Maggie again.


“Maybe I’ll check it out,” Maggie said, hoping that Julia would offer to accompany her.  She frowned slightly, her brow wrinkling as she remembered her brother.  “Unless Patrick is still here this weekend.”  Maggie reminded herself to call her parents and let them know where her wayward brother was.


Julia blinked.  Patrick, again. It felt like someone had just doused her with a pitcher of cold water.  “Is he your boyfriend?” Julia tried her best to sound casual.  Her eyes widened, startled, as Maggie burst out laughing.


“Oh god, no,” Maggie giggled helplessly.  “He’s my little brother.  I don’t even know what he’s doing here.  He just sort of showed up at my apartment last night.”


“Ah,” Julia managed, an embarrassed flush creeping up the back of her neck.


She was saved by the reappearance of their waiter, bearing their lunch orders.  He set their plates in front of them and gestured towards the surly busboy, pointing at Julia’s half-empty water glass. 


“Let me know if there’s anything else I can get for you,” he mumbled before hurrying off to the next table.


Maggie was busy examining Julia’s four-cheese pizza.  “The crust is different.  It looks like a cracker.”


“It is like a cracker.  Here. Try a piece.”  Julia transferred a generous slice, dripping with warm, gooey cheese, to Maggie’s plate.


They chatted amiably over lunch, mostly discussing more sights that Maggie needed to see.  Julia discovered that Maggie was originally from Marion, Ohio, a small town in the southern part of the state.  She let out a low whistle at the mention of the reporter’s five siblings.


“I can’t even imagine having a big family like that.  It was pretty much just me and my father, when I was growing up,” Julia admitted.


Maggie swallowed a bite of her sandwich.  “I thought you had a brother.”


Julia stiffened, her eyes narrowing, and Maggie sensed that she had crossed a line.  “You did your homework.” Julia’s voice dropped to a cold snarl.


Her jaw tightened and her shoulders tensed.  The reporter wasn’t interested in her at all, Julia thought bitterly.  At least, not on a personal level.  She was just digging for a story, looking to advance her career using the Cassinelli name and money, just like all the others.  Damn.  Julia swore to herself heatedly.  I thought this one was different. 


Maggie could feel the waves of anger radiating from the dark-haired woman.  Julia’s eyes had turned into a pair of icy chips.  Impulsively, Maggie reached across the table and laid her hand on the other woman’s wrist, feeling the muscles jerk beneath the skin.  Oddly enough, Julia didn’t pull away.


“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to pry into your personal life.  I was just curious about you,” Maggie explained quietly.


Tense silence fell between them for several long breaths.  Slowly, Maggie removed her hand and dropped it to her lap, her shoulders slumping in defeat.  She swallowed hard against the lump in her throat, and her eyes burned as she fought back tears.  Way to go, Maggie.  You really messed this one up.  Now she’ll never trust you. And there just might have been something there, too.


“Why?” Julia’s whispered question broke through her thoughts.


Maggie blinked, perplexed.  “Um, why what?”


“Why were you curious about me?”


“Oh.”  Maggie took a deep breath, wondering how to respond.  Because even though we’ve only known each other for less than twelve hours, I think I might be falling in love with you.  Yeah, tell her that and watch her run screaming into the street. 


“I thought you were interesting.” Maggie answered, finally.


Julia tilted her head to one side, considering Maggie’s response.  “Interesting,” she echoed thoughtfully.  “Is that a good thing?”


Maggie shrugged, a hesitant grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.  “I think so.”


The waiter returned, setting the bill on the table between the two women.  Julia reached for it automatically, but Maggie snatched it out from under her hand.  She glanced at the check briefly, and then pulled a credit card out of her pocket.


“I’ve got this,” she insisted, waving off Julia’s protest.  Maggie took another deep breath and decided to throw herself headfirst over the edge.  “You can buy me dinner on Saturday.  After the parade.”


Julia smiled, the sparkle returning to her eyes.  “Deal.”



Part 2