The phone was ringing.  Prying open one groggy eye, the young man sprawled on the couch stared up at the ceiling, momentarily disoriented.  He rubbed the sleep from his eyes with the heel of his hand as he remembered where he was.  San Francisco. His sister’s apartment.  The shrill ringing of the telephone drilled into his aching head, and Patrick scowled irritably at it, wondering if he should answer it.  Then the answering machine on the kitchen counter clicked on.


“Patrick?  Are you there?  If you’re there, pick up the phone.” Maggie’s disembodied voice floated across to the living room.


Patrick groaned and threw his arms across his face.  If he answered her, he knew Maggie would just lecture him about going home.  And Ohio was about the last place he wanted to be.  He buried his head beneath a pillow and waited.


“Okay.  Listen; if you get this message, I’m at work if you need me.  That number and my cell number are in the address book by the phone,” Maggie continued.  “And just so you know, I’m calling Mom and Dad.  I’ll try to be home early.  Bye.”


When he was sure that Maggie had hung up, Patrick sat up on the couch and stared blankly at the opposite wall.  The swirling colors in a framed print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night  made him dizzy, and he shut his eyes.  The previous night’s events were fuzzy and jumbled in his mind.  He remembered being in the park, and forking over the last of his cash for some truly spectacular heroin.  And he recalled telling Maggie that he had been mugged, so that she wouldn’t suspect that he was high.  But from the look on her face when she had come home, he realized that his sister knew the truth.


Patrick’s head throbbed painfully, and he squeezed his eyes more tightly shut, trying to block out the afternoon sunlight streaming through the window.  The dealer from the night before had mentioned something about a party.  Frowning, Patrick thrust his hand into the pocket of his rumpled jeans and dug out two quarters and a bus ticket stub.  He turned the ticket over and read the hastily scribbled address on the back, the location of the party.  According to the note, it was in SoMa, wherever that was, Patrick mused as he shoved the scrap back into his pocket.


He stood, rubbing at the back of his neck where a night on the couch had left a nagging soreness.  Moving into the kitchen, Patrick opened the woefully under-stocked refrigerator and let the cold air blast over him, prodding him further towards alertness.  Other than the coffee pot and the microwave, it didn’t look like Maggie’s kitchen had seen much use.  Patrick laughed softly, shaking his spiky blond head.  His sister had never been much of a cook.  In fact, Maggie was the only person he knew who could consistently burn scrambled eggs.  A bottle of aspirin sat next to the coffee pot, and Patrick grabbed it, shaking three of the white pills into his hand.  He popped them into his mouth, grimacing at the bitter taste, and washed them down with a mouthful of orange juice straight from the carton.  Patrick closed the refrigerator and rested his forehead against the door, letting the cool metal soothe his aching skull.  A thought occurred to him.


“I wonder if Mags has any cash around here,” he croaked, poking through the drawers in the kitchen.


He would need more money if he was going to get high again later that night.  He continued to rummage through drawers and cabinets, finding nothing useful as he worked his way down the hall towards his sister’s bedroom.  A brief surge of guilt tugged at him as Patrick pushed open the door to Maggie’s room, but he shook the feeling off and stepped across the threshold.


A few crumpled dollars and some loose change littered the top of the dresser, and he quickly swept the money into his pocket.  It wasn’t even enough for a cab ride.  He needed more.  Shame burned his cheeks, but the craving for his next fix was stronger, and he pawed hurriedly through the black lacquered jewelry box sitting on top of the dresser.  He had given it to Maggie for Christmas several years before; he was surprised she had kept it.  Patrick found what he was looking for nestled inside the box….the diamond studs that had been a present from their parents when Maggie had graduated from Ohio State.  With shaking hands, he scooped them up from their red velvet cushion and stared at them, glittering brightly in his palm.  He would pay her back as soon as he could, he promised himself.  Clutching the earrings tightly in his fist, Patrick left the apartment and headed for the park.




Sighing heavily, Maggie leaned back in her chair and stared at her monitor, going over the rough draft of her story as she replayed the recent phone conversation in her mind.  As she suspected, her parents had no idea that Patrick had gone to San Francisco.  Her mother had been practically frantic with worry, until Maggie had assured her that the youngest McKinnon sibling was safe and sound in her apartment.  Then she had spent the next ten minutes listening to her mother bemoan the fact that her daughter was living amongst a bunch of immoral, liberal degenerates.  In Eileen McKinnon’s world, that pretty much covered the entire population of California.  It had taken all the self-control Maggie could muster to keep from hanging up.  Instead, she had simply tuned her mother out, as usual, and spent the time transforming the day’s notes into a coherent story.  Their one-sided conversation had ended with Maggie promising to look after her brother and to try to convince him to go home.


Maggie sensed a presence behind her, and a long shadow fell over her computer.  She spun around in her chair and found Catherine Richards glaring at her.  If looks really could kill, Maggie probably would have burst into flames on the spot, and she steeled herself for the inevitable confrontation.


The thin redhead moved closer, effectively pinning the back of Maggie’s chair against her desk.  Her face was set in a mask of icy anger.


“So, what did you do for Sam to get him to give you a story?  Got rug burns on your knees yet?” Catherine’s voice rose so that everyone around them could hear.


The words stung, and Maggie fought to keep the lid on her temper.  Her fingers twitched on her armrests as she considered slapping the arrogant smirk off the other woman’s face.  That wouldn’t get her anywhere, she realized, so she plastered an innocent smile on her face instead.


“That’s not really my style, Catherine,” she replied calmly.  “But if  I ever need any pointers, I’ll be sure to let you know.”


Behind her, someone snorted with laughter.  Catherine’s eyes shot daggers past her shoulder, and the transgressor fell silent.  She leaned closer, and Maggie nearly gagged on the redhead’s cloying perfume.


“Don’t screw with me, Mary-Ann.  I can make life miserable for you here.  When I’m through with you, you’ll wish you were back on Daddy’s farm.”  With that, Catherine whirled and stormed out of the newsroom, the doors banging shut behind her.


Maggie ran her fingers through her hair and let out a shaky breath.  “For the last time, I have never, ever lived on a farm,” she muttered.


“Don’t let her get to you, Maggie.  Everyone knows she’s just a spoiled, rich bitch who couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag.”  Jessica Sato appeared at Maggie’s elbow, sticking her tongue out in the direction of Catherine’s departure.


Maggie laughed, letting the tension seep out of her body.  “Come on, Jess, she’s not that bad.” She tried to be diplomatic.


Jessica rolled her eyes and readjusted her thick glasses. “Please.  I just proofed her arson piece.  I had to fix so many errors that the story should have my by-line instead of hers.”


The diminutive copy editor perched on the edge of Maggie’s desk, grinning wickedly at her friend.  She tapped the plain white business card left carelessly atop a stack of papers.


“JT Cassinelli, huh?” She read the name on the card, poking Maggie’s arm playfully.  “Where’d ya get that from?”


Maggie blushed, in spite of herself, and she lowered her voice.  “I sort of had lunch with her today.”


Jessica squealed with excitement and scooted closer, ignoring Maggie’s frantic shushing motions.  “Ooh!  I want details!”


“Would you keep it down?” Maggie laughed helplessly.  “It just so happened that she was out at the Netsports thing.  She helped get me an inside look at the crime scene and then we went to lunch.  No big deal.” Maggie told her eagerly listening friend.  “Oh, and we’re sort of going to some parade this weekend and having dinner.”


Jessica’s dark eyes widened in amazement.  “No big deal, huh?  You’ve got a date with Julia Cassinelli and you’re telling me that it’s ‘no big deal’?”


Maggie frowned slightly.  “It’s not a date, exactly.  I mean, I guess it is, sort of.  Look, we’re just two people having dinner together, okay?  I don’t even know for sure if she’s… know.”


“Are you serious?  Maggie, everybody knows that!  She’s always been pretty open about being gay.  And her having dinner with you is a big deal.  She was living with this model a few years back, and the break-up was really ugly.  There were all kinds of accusations and a lawsuit.  It was big local news.  She dropped out of the spotlight after that.”


Maggie’s brow furrowed as she thought about what Jessica had just told her.  When she had looked Julia up in the archives earlier that day, she hadn’t seen anything about a lawsuit.  Then again, Jessica had interrupted her before she had gone through everything.  She would have to check again later.  Suddenly, chubby fingers snapped in front of her nose.


“Hello?  Earth to Maggie, anyone in there?”  Jessica waved her hand in front of her friend’s face.


“Sorry.  I was thinking about something.” Maggie saw the knowing look on Jessica’s face and she slapped her friend’s knee.  “Nothing like that!”


“Okay, okay,” Jessica laughed and changed the subject.  “So how’s the story coming along?  I heard Sam finally gave you a break.”


Maggie grinned happily.  “Yeah, it’s not much, but it’s better than what I’ve been doing so far.  I’m trying to get a quote from Daniel Webber.  His secretary said he would call me back, so I’m just waiting for that.”


Jessica slid off the desk and straightened her clothes.  “Okay, well, I’ll be here pretty late tonight.  So send the story to my inbox when you’re done and I’ll take a look at it for you.” She paused, shooting a meaningful look at Catherine’s empty desk.  “Not like you need much editing.  Not like some people.”


Maggie shook her head.  “You’re terrible,” she scolded her friend.  “I’ll send the story over later.  Thanks, Jess.”


After Jessica left, Maggie returned her attention to her computer screen.  She scrolled down, skimming through her work again.  The Netsports story was basically ready, but she really wanted to get something more from Daniel Webber.  She glanced at the phone, trying to will it to ring.  Her gaze fell on Julia’s business card, and she flipped it over, reading the neat, precise handwriting on the back.  Julia’s home telephone number.  The tall private investigator had said that she was Danny Webber’s friend, and for a split second, Maggie considered calling and asking her to use her influence.  Maggie shook her head and tucked the card into the pocket of her jacket.  She didn’t want to ask Julia to intervene on her behalf, didn’t want to take advantage of their budding friendship.


Maggie started to delve into the newspaper’s archives again, but she stopped herself just before hitting the submit button.  Julia had reacted rather badly to her first innocent background check.  She didn’t think she wanted to risk that again, so it would probably be better to ask Julia about her past directly, she decided.  Wrestling with her curiosity, she exited out of the paper’s morgue and drummed her fingers impatiently on her desk.  It was after 4:00, and she had promised Patrick that she would try to be home early.  She chewed her lower lip thoughtfully and reached a decision.  Maggie called the paper’s central operator and requested to have her calls forwarded to her cell phone.  It was just as easy to finish the story and send it from her laptop at home.


She pushed her chair back from her desk and stood, arching her back to stretch the stiff muscles.  She shoved a few loose sheets of paper into her shoulder bag and left the newsroom, ignoring the surreptitious looks from her co-workers, who were still curious about the spat between her and Catherine.


The drive home seemed to take forever as she fought her way through the downtown traffic.  At a particularly long red light, Maggie pulled her phone out of her bag and tried to call her brother again.  Still no answer.  Frustrated, she tossed the phone back on the seat, wondering where Patrick had disappeared to and how much trouble he was getting into. 


The sky was just beginning to turn a warm orange as Maggie pulled into her parking space.  The complex was quiet; most of her neighbors wouldn’t be home for another hour or so.  Her only witness as she walked up to her front door was a lazy grey cat sunning himself on the concrete walkway.  He darted away into the bushes as she approached, and she smiled at him as he eyed her suspiciously.


“Relax, Oscar.  I’m not gonna bother you.” 


The cat belonged to a couple that lived two doors down from her.  Even though it had been six months since Maggie moved in, he still wasn’t quite used to the reporter’s presence.  Maggie stopped abruptly, a wave of fear surging through her.  The door to her apartment was ajar.  Licking her lips nervously, she let her shoulder bag slide to the ground and she cautiously pushed the door open.


“Patrick?” Maggie called out.  There was no answer.


She stepped inside, her eyes sweeping the living room for signs of an intruder. With her foot, she dragged her shoulder bag into the entryway and shut the door behind her, trying to make as much noise as possible.  Hopefully if there was someone in her apartment, he would hear her and jump out a window or something.  She looked around again. Nothing appeared to be missing or out of place; the television and VCR were still in their normal positions, and Patrick’s duffel bag was still on the floor next to the couch.  Maggie crossed to the kitchen and grabbed a frying pan out of a cabinet, hefting it in her hand, testing its weight.  It wouldn’t hurt to be safe, she thought, as she moved down the hall.  She poked her head into the bathroom, but again, nothing seemed to be amiss, and she continued towards her bedroom.  The door was open, even though she distinctly remembered closing it before she left for work.  She slipped inside, tightening her grip on the frying pan as she checked the closet and her bathroom.  Still nothing. 


Maggie dropped her makeshift weapon on her bed and sank down on the mattress.  Running both hands through her hair, she let out a shaky, relieved breath.  The phone on her nightstand rang, and Maggie let out a startled yelp. 


“Hello?” she barked into the receiver.


A brief pause.  “Maggie?”  It was Julia on the other end of the line.  She heard the tension in the reporter’s voice and immediately became concerned.  “Is everything okay?”


Maggie emitted a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob.  “Julia.  Hi.  I’m fine, the phone just scared the hell out of me.”


Julia was in her office, her feet crossed at the ankles and propped up on her desk.  She twirled a pen between her fingers and listened as Maggie explained what had happened.  She had called the reporter mostly just to see if the phone number that Maggie had given her worked.  She hadn’t actually expected the blonde woman to be home.


“Are you sure nothing is missing?  No sign of a break-in?”  Julia asked after Maggie finished her story.


“Yeah, I’m sure. I. . .” Maggie broke off as her gaze fell on the open jewelry box on her dresser.  “Son of a . . . .damn you, Patrick!”


“Maggie?  What is it?” Julia was worried now.  She found herself fighting the urge to jump in her jeep and drive to Richmond.  Then she remembered that she didn’t actually know Maggie’s address.


Maggie examined the contents of her jewelry box.  The diamond earrings from her parents were gone.  She thought she recalled leaving a few dollars on her dresser, but that was gone too.  It wasn’t hard to guess that Patrick had taken the money and the earrings.


“Sorry, Julia.  It looks like my brother took something from my room.  A pair of diamond studs that my parents gave me after I graduated from college.”


Julia stayed silent.  She didn’t want to pry into Maggie’s personal life, especially since she had jumped all over the reporter for doing the same thing to her.  Besides, she suspected she knew why Patrick was stealing from his sister.


“He’s an addict,” Maggie blurted out.  She surprised herself; she had never told anyone about Patrick’s drug problem.  Not even her friends back in Ohio, even though most of them had known anyway.


She heard Julia exhale softly.  “I’m sorry.” Julia said quietly.  “Is there anything I can do?”


Maggie sighed bitterly.  Was there anything that Julia could do?  Not really.  Then why was she tempted to ask the dark-haired woman to come over?  Maggie shook her head.  This wasn’t the time.


“No, thanks for asking, though.  I guess I’m just gonna hang out here and wait for him to come back.”


Julia tapped the end of her pen against her keyboard, an idea forming in her mind.  “What does your brother look like?  I’ll make a few calls, and maybe we can find him before he gets himself into too much trouble.”  She waited, watching the seconds tick by on her watch.  She was beginning to think that Maggie was going to refuse her offer, when the reporter spoke up.


“That would be really great.  Thank you.”


Maggie was suddenly very tired.  She laid back on her bed and closed her eyes, trying to picture her brother in her head.  Patrick was just over six feet and rail-thin, though she didn’t know exactly how much he weighed.  He had blond hair, a little darker than her own, and muddy brown eyes.  She related this information to Julia, along with a description of what Patrick had been wearing the night before.


Julia jotted all of this down on a notepad.  She hesitated, uncertain of how to ask the next question.  After all, she still barely knew this woman and now she was about to ask for all kinds of intimate details about her family.  She made a face, catching her reflection in her computer monitor as she did so.  Tact had never been one of her strong points.


“What’s his thing?  His drug, I mean.”  Julia asked, writing Maggie’s response down in perfect block letters.  Patrick was a speed freak, at least as far as his sister knew.  That might narrow things down a bit, Julia mused, speed was usually the most plentiful in the heavy clubbing areas like SoMa or. . . .


“Is your brother straight?” Julia asked bluntly.  Shocked silence met her on the other end, and she winced, worried that she had offended the young reporter.  Biting her thumbnail, she wondered if she should apologize.


“Yes.  He’s straight,” Maggie answered finally.


Julia let out a long breath.  “Okay.  Look, I didn’t mean to offend you or anything.  It’s just. . .if he’s straight, then he’s probably not in the Castro.”


“No, probably not,” Maggie agreed, thinking about the city’s well-known gay district. “And you didn’t offend me.  You just caught me off-guard.”


“Oh.  Good.  Okay, well, I guess I’ll make some calls then.  I’ll let you know if I find him.”  Julia paused.  “Are you sure you’re alright?”


“I’m fine.  Thank you. . .for everything.”


They said their good-byes and Maggie punched the off button on her phone.  She curled up on her side and pressed her face into her pillow, choking back tears.  She was worried about her brother, sure, but she was also furious with him for mixing her up in his problems.  In the living room, her cell phone rang, and Maggie groaned and launched herself off the bed.  She dashed down the hallway and grabbed the phone out of her bag.  It was Daniel Webber, the president of Netsports.  Hastily, Maggie scrambled for a pencil and a piece of paper, using the few seconds to compose herself as she deliberately put her brother out of her mind and concentrated on the interview at hand.  She glanced at the clock on the VCR.  There was plenty of time before her 7:00 deadline.


After hanging up with Maggie, Julia called one of her contacts at the S.F. police department and asked him to have the night shift keep an eye out for someone fitting Patrick McKinnon’s description. The officer owed her a favor, and he agreed to have someone call her if they picked up Patrick. Restlessly, Julia roamed around her office, trying to bring some order to a long-neglected stack of old case files.  Her thoughts kept drifting back to Maggie, and she wondered again if the young woman was alright.  It was ridiculous, she told herself, they’d known each other for less than 24 hours.  She couldn’t possibly be this attached to the reporter yet. Muttering to herself, Julia shoved a handful of folders into her overflowing file cabinet, which she regarded disgustedly.


“I’ve really got to clean this thing out one of these days,” she announced to no one in particular.


Behind her, she heard a soft whoosh of air as the door opened.  Footsteps clacked against the wood floor as someone stepped into her office, not saying a word.  The door swung shut again.


“Can I help you?” Julia started to turn around, but rough, gloved hands seized her shoulders and shoved her up against the file cabinet.


A drawer handle dug painfully into one of her ribs.  Anger building in her, Julia tried to twist free, but her attacker tightened his grip and slammed her into the file cabinet again.  She winced and sucked in a sharp breath.  It was definitely a man; she vaguely recognized the scent of his expensive aftershave.  A deep, sandpapery voice whispered into her ear, and she could feel his hot breath on her skin.


“Stay out of things that don’t concern you.  If you don’t, it could be bad for your health.”


Julia almost laughed out loud at the threat, and she bit her tongue just in time.  This guy had been watching too many bad gangster movies, or something.  Several sarcastic retorts rolled through her mind, but she wisely decided to stay silent, since there was no sense in antagonizing the guy.  He seemed a bit surprised by her complacency, like he had been expecting her to fight back.  He squeezed her upper arms, and she grimaced in pain, realizing that he was going to leave bruises.


“Did you hear what I said?  Keep your nose out of other people’s business.”


“I heard you!  I don’t know what you’re talking about!”  Julia snapped back.


She managed to turn her head slightly, and almost caught a glimpse of her attacker’s face before a hard elbow caught her across her temple.  She closed her eyes as stars exploded in her head, and she fought to stay conscious.  She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her pass out.  Her mind whirled as she tried to figure out what he was warning her away from.  It had to be the Netsports thing.  The only other open case she had was a basic cheating-husband thing. 


His lips unpleasantly close to her ear, her assailant laughed, a low, raspy chuckle that turned her blood to ice.  Julia’s breathing quickened, and a rush of adrenaline swept through her body.  She was getting a very bad feeling about this.  Propping her foot against the bottom of the file cabinet for leverage, Julia struggled to break free.  His hand slipped from her shoulder, just long enough for her to spin around, swinging at him wildly.  Pain jolted all the way up her arm as her fist connected with his shoulder, and he cursed loudly.  She got the briefest look at his face.  Square jaw, dark hair and eyes.  Then his fist was coming towards her, much too fast for her to duck.  Fireworks lit up the inside of her skull, then everything went dark.


“Bitch,” he spat at her unconscious form.  He kicked her once in the ribs as he stepped over her prone body and slipped out the door.


Whistling casually, he sauntered down the street, waiting until he was a block away before he pulled a small phone out of the pocket of his neat wool slacks.  He selected one of the preset numbers.


“Message delivered,” he growled.


Cocking his head to one side, he listened to the voice on the other end, nodding occasionally.


“I’ll take care of it,” he said.

Scowling darkly, he jammed his fists into the pockets of his slacks and continued down the street.  A bus pulled up to the curb next to him, and he hopped on it, glancing up at the marquee and noting that  it was heading in the right direction.  That was good.  He slumped into a seat and stared out the window.  His shoulder throbbed where that Cassinelli bitch had hit him, but he had gotten her back good.  He grinned and flexed his right hand, feeling the black leather glove tighten against his sore knuckles.  His good mood was returning and he started to whistle again as the bus pulled away from the curb and headed down the street.




Julia’s eyelids felt like they had been glued shut and she struggled to pry them apart.  Her vision blurred and dimmed around the edges as the stark fluorescent light sent bolts of pain shooting through her head.  With a hiss, she sucked in a sharp breath, her nose wrinkling in distaste at the antiseptic smell of the room.  She was aware of a presence to her right, and she tried to lift her head, but gentle hands pressed her back into the pillows.


Julia reacted instinctively, her body remembering the attack.  The muscles in her arms and shoulders went rigid, and she fought to break free from someone’s firm grip.  A low growl ripped its way loose from her throat.


“Whoa.  Take it easy.  You’re safe.  It’s just me.”  Maggie’s soft voice murmured in her ear.


Slowly, Julia’s vision cleared and she looked up into a pair of worried green eyes.  Still dazed, she blinked twice, making sure that she wasn’t seeing things.  Maggie smiled at her tentatively, the deep furrow in her brow giving away her concern. 


“Where?” Julia rasped, her throat horribly dry.


Maggie poured water into a plastic cup and handed it to Julia, putting a hand on her elbow to steady her as she sipped gratefully. 


“You’re in the hospital,” Maggie informed her quietly.  “The doctor said you have a concussion and a couple of bruised ribs, but you’re going to be just fine.”


Julia shut her eyes, trying to block out the nauseating throbbing in her head as she took all of this in.  She remembered being in her office.  Her back had been turned when a man had come through the door and grabbed her, throwing her against her file cabinet.  He had given her a warning, and then everything had gone black.  She thought she had seen his face, but her memory wasn’t cooperating and she couldn’t quite recall what he looked like.  Scowling in frustration, Julia shook her head, grimacing as the movement sent another wave of pain crashing against her skull.


“Hey, stop that!”  Maggie’s voice jolted her back to the present.  “I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to move your head around like that.”

Julia’s dark eyebrows bunched together and a questioning look flickered across her face. 


“What are you doing here?” she asked.


The blonde woman squirmed slightly in her hard, standard-issue hospital chair.  Not quite able to meet Julia’s eyes, she examined her fingernails nervously.  A deep pink blush spread over her cheeks and the tips of her ears.


“I, um, sort of found you,” Maggie confessed.  “I tried calling you, but there was no answer at any of the numbers you gave me.  And, I don’t know….I just had this awful feeling that something was wrong.  So I went to your office.”  She paused, remembering the terrifying scene she had found.


“You were on the floor.  And there was blood,” she whispered, reliving the moment. 


Restless and tired of waiting by the phone for her missing brother to contact her, Maggie had decided to call her new friend and find out if the private investigator had heard anything.  She had tried Julia’s office first, but she had just gotten the dark-haired woman’s voice mail.  Calls to her home number and her cell phone had met with the same results, and Maggie had grown increasingly worried.  She couldn’t explain the uneasy feeling gnawing at her stomach.  Finally, she had decided to take a drive past Julia’s office.


Julia’s dark green jeep had been parked across the street, and the light was burning in her office when Maggie arrived.  She had opened the door to find Julia crumpled unconscious on the floor.  Dark red blood had dried on the side of her face.  An ugly gash marred her temple and a lurid purple bruise covered her left cheek.  Frantically, Maggie had called for an ambulance and she had been at Julia’s side since.


She shook herself, realizing that Julia was watching her with an odd expression. 


“Anyway, I followed you to the hospital.  And I figured I’d hang around until you woke up, at least.”  Maggie finished.  She hesitated.  “Do you….remember what happened?”


Julia considered the question and made a face.  “Vaguely.  A guy came into my office and told me to stay out of other people’s business, or something like that.  I took a swing at him and he hit me.  I can’t seem to remember what he looked like, though.”


Without thinking, Maggie laid a comforting hand on the other woman’s forearm, absently stroking the soft skin with her thumb.  Surprised, Julia inhaled sharply, but said nothing. 


“It doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that you’re okay,” Maggie declared. 


Suddenly, Maggie realized what she was doing, and green eyes widened in shock as she stared at her hand.  Stuttering an incoherent apology, she started to pull away.  Julia swiftly grabbed her hand and folded her fingers around Maggie’s, waiting until the reporter looked at her, a mixture of confusion and wonder in her expression.  Julia smiled at her reassuringly, the motion pulling against the swollen bruise on her cheek.


“It’s okay, Maggie,” she told her softly.  “I’m….glad you’re here.”


Her pulse raced and her heartbeat thundered in her ears as Julia waited anxiously for Maggie’s response.  It was all happening so fast.  She’d never bonded with anyone so quickly and so completely.  Not like this.  Cursing herself silently, Julia swallowed hard and began to loosen her grip on the reporter’s hand.  She was pushing too hard.  Her chin dropped towards her chest as she suddenly found something fascinating in the weave of her thin hospital blanket.


Gently, Maggie brushed the backs of her fingers across Julia’s uninjured cheek.  Her hands were trembling, and she knew that Julia could sense her nervousness.  She tilted Julia’s face up until she could see the faint misting of tears glittering in those brilliant blue eyes.  Julia blinked at her uncertainly.  A slow smile spread across Maggie’s lips, crinkling the bridge of her nose and lighting up her eyes.


“You know what?  Right now, there’s no place else I would rather be.”


A dark eyebrow twitched.  “Really?  So your ideal evening consists of sitting in a hospital room and watching me?”


Maggie noticed that Julia’s hand was still in hers, and she squeezed it lightly. She winked mischievously.  “Well, maybe I could do without the hospital part,” she drawled.



continue to part 3