by KG MacGregor
A workplace rampage leaves Ellis Rowanbury grieving her husband of twenty-six years and feeling more adrift than she ever thought possible. Her finances in shambles, she gratefully accepts a junior-level job at a magazine in Sacramento and wills herself to move on.
Summer Winslow has pieces of her own to pick up, pieces that were scattered when her partner began drinking again. Fighting pressure from all directions to patch things up, she finds a welcome break from the drama in Ellis, her mysterious new neighbor. Happy to have a friend on her side, Summer is caught off-guard when her feelings for Ellis take a romantic turn.
With the tragedy fading behind her, Ellis too entertains the possibility of romance. A handsome coworker is eager to fill the void in her heart, and it’s clear he can give her a life much like the one she lost. Only now she’s paralyzed by a stunning discovery—she’s fallen for a woman.
Lambda Literary Award Winner—KG MacGregor
GCLS Goldie Awards
The Touch of a Woman—Finalist, Lesbian Traditional Contemporary Romance.
Lesbian Reading Room
What makes this an interesting read beyond the standard plotline are unusual back-histories. The characters are well drawn, complex women, who will resonate with many. And their tender attraction is a reminder that real life isn't always about the grand passion, but a gentle falling.
More Praise for KG MacGregor
GCLS Goldie Awards
Anyone But You—Finalist, Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award, GCLS Goldie Finalist, Lesbian Romantic Suspense/Intrigue/Adventure.
"Readers have come to expect great reading material from a KG MacGregor novel..." —Frivolous Views
"Well-written, solid stories..." —Just About Write
"Winner, Romance! Winner, Romantic Intrigue!" —Lambda Literary Awards, Golden Crown Literary Society
Ellis Rowanbury snatched the leather folio from the waiter’s hand before he could drop it on the knotty pine table. “Don’t even think about it, Roxanne.”
Her friend leaned back and folded her arms. “My, my. When did you get so aggressive?”
“You left me no choice. You’ve paid…what? Three months in a row?”
“If you say so. I certainly don’t keep track.” Roxanne pulled a compact from her purse and touched up her lips with pink gloss that gave the outward impression she was soft. Nothing could be further from the truth. “They probably wouldn’t appreciate a wrestling match over the bill in the middle of their dining room.”
On the contrary, Ellis thought. Who wouldn’t enjoy watching a pair of women in high heels get down in a hair-pulling catfight? Smart money would be on Roxanne because her hair wasn’t long enough to pull. And because she’d cheat.
Ellis fished a small stack of bills from her wallet and tucked them inside the folio, smiling with the knowledge that it was her money, not part of what Bruce gave her for the household budget. “Did you catch my feature last month on chiropractors? I was amazed at what they’re treating these days with spine adjustments.” She ticked the ailments off on her fingers: “Obesity…depression…addiction. I had no idea.”
“I have a copy of Vista on my credenza. I’ll check it out when I get back to my office.”
As if someone in Roxanne Sternberg’s position had an extra minute in her busy day to peruse a city magazine. It was a testament to their thirty-year friendship that she still made time once a month to meet at Buck’s in Woodside, halfway between her Silicon Valley office and Ellis’s home in San Francisco.
Ellis looked forward to their monthly dates, relishing the chance to step out in a stylish business dress or suit, something she didn’t often have occasion to do. Her part-time work for the magazine was freelance. There was no reason to dress up when she worked at home, but she knew Roxanne would be decked out as usual in something that said power.
“Your assignments always sound so interesting, Ellis.” This coming from a woman whose job title was Vice President of Leisure Innovations at a dot-com company. “I’d give anything to have the freedom you have. Other than a frantic trip to Beijing, I haven’t been out of my office in a month.”
It was hard to feel sorry for Roxanne. At forty-seven, she was a millionaire several times over, thanks to timely career moves that always included stock options. Petite with dark hair and brown eyes, she hardly looked her years. Plus she had perks that added to her cosmopolitan image—a personal shopper who dressed her in the finest career wear, a trainer who came to her house, even a woman who did her nails in her office while she busied herself with conference calls.
A glamorous, high-powered career had been one of Ellis’s dreams too, but she wouldn’t have lasted a year in a pressure-cooker job like Roxanne’s. Deadlines didn’t bother her. Nor did she mind taking on intellectual challenges. Where she would have struggled was with demanding personalities. Too easily intimidated, too quick to defer—the total opposite of Roxanne, who took on everyone in her path.
Ellis was better suited to freelance work, where she rarely encountered office politics or power struggles. Still, she could have had a successful career at Vista. With easygoing publisher Gil Martino on her side, she could have been editor by now had she not stepped away to raise her children.
“Less than a year to go, Roxie. Then Allison’s off to college and I go back to full-time at the magazine. Gil’s been begging me to do that for years but I promised myself I’d wait till my last one finished high school.”
“You should go for it. Allison will be fine. She’s a tough cookie…like her Aunt Roxie.”
In many ways, that was true. Allison had long looked up to Roxanne as a prime example of how women could rule the workplace.
“I can’t. I promised myself to be there for her. Every volleyball match, every drama club skit. I did it for the boys, so it wouldn’t be fair to bail on her.”
“Who do you think you’re kidding, Ellis? You’re only following her around so she won’t sneak off and get anything else pierced.”
The studs in her daughter’s chin and brow had horrified her, but at least the holes would close once she outgrew her rebellious phase. “Believe it or not, I can handle her putting holes in her body. It’s the tattoos I’m worried about. I’ve put my foot down over that one but she’s counting the days till she turns eighteen. That happens in May.”
“Just don’t let them spell something wrong. She’ll end up going viral in one of those Internet memes everybody posts on Facebook.”
Ellis groaned with exasperation. “Let’s just hope she doesn’t try to outdo Jeremy.” Her son’s neck and left arm looked like someone had left their crayons on a hot sidewalk.
“At least you have one child who hasn’t defiled his body.”
That would be Jonathan, Jeremy’s fraternal twin, younger by eighteen minutes and his polar opposite in every way imaginable. A political science major at Stanford, he was bent on getting into law school.
Roxanne stood and straightened her gray sheath dress, then swung a blazer around her shoulders. “I’d give anything to stay and hang out, but I have a call this afternoon with the Tokyo office.” She dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the table. “You can give this to Pete for me.”
Ellis collected their leftovers in a cardboard container the waiter had left behind. For the past several years, she’d been feeding Pete Proctor, the homeless man who’d claimed the corner of Diamond Heights Boulevard and Gold Mine Drive.
As they left, she returned the polite smiles of two middle-aged men, appreciating the fact that, even as she and her friend neared the half-century mark, they still turned heads.
“Our time always goes by so fast, Roxie. What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”
“Mom wants me to come to Palm Springs, but I don’t think I can stand being with Arthur all day. He’ll have Fox News blaring in the background.”
“Ugh. I don’t blame you. Jonathan’s started watching that crap too. We make him go to his room and close the door.”
“Amazing. You and Bruce are about the most liberal rich people I know. I can’t imagine how that nonsense crept into his head in the first place.”
Their liberal roots had been planted as students at Cal-Berkeley in the early nineteen-eighties. The rich part came much later through Bruce’s work as an investment planner. Still, they were hardly rich by Bay Area standards, not with all the dot-com billionaires buying up San Francisco’s real estate.
Ellis donned her sunglasses as they stepped outside. “Come to the City. I’m doing a big turkey. We can hide in the kitchen and drink wine.”
“Now you’re talking. Let me look at my calendar and make sure I don’t have a call to Mumbai or something. They don’t celebrate the Pilgrims, you know.”
Walking through the parking lot arm in arm, they reached Ellis’s car first, a black Lexus SUV.
“Is this new?”
“You know how Bruce is about buying cars, whether we need one or not. I’d just gotten used to which button did what on the Escalade.”
“Hard to begrudge a husband who spoils you like that.” They shared a final hug, and as Roxanne walked away, she shouted over her shoulder, “If there were more Bruces in the world, I might have gotten married too.”
Roxanne was already married—to her job. Yet another reason Ellis couldn’t handle having such an ambitious career. Bruce wasn’t perfect, but he’d always supported everything she did job-wise, including her decision to turn the sitting room in their master suite into a home office. She was happy with her life just the way it was.
As the driver’s seat hummed to her programmed position, she lowered the mirror on her visor to check her appearance. No wonder the men had smiled. Like Roxanne, she wore her years well. Though she had to work at it—facials, waxing, moisturizers…whatever it took to keep her skin looking young. She’d been blessed with thick dark hair, which Antoine had tinted with auburn highlights and cut in a long bob that curled into a point below her chin. She still was a woman men noticed.
With a touch to her steering console, she activated her phone. “Call Bruce.” He’d like hearing that Roxanne was considering joining them for Thanksgiving. As regional manager for investment giant Kerner-Swift, he found her expertise on the world market for technology invaluable.
Four rings, then voice mail. Probably in a meeting.
The ride home was gorgeous along Interstate 280. Hills and meadows on both sides, green from the autumn rain. The Crystal Springs Reservoir sparkling in the sun, the San Francisco International Airport peeking through the trees from Millbrae. As far as she was concerned, the Peninsula was the most beautiful place on earth—except for the traffic, which was building as she approached the City.
Another button on her wheel turned on the AM radio, set to a local news channel with traffic reports every ten minutes.
“…dozens of emergency vehicles swarming the area. No other traffic is being allowed in at this time.”
Jolted by the urgency in the announcer’s tone, she turned up the volume.
“If you’re just joining us, police are on the scene of what they’re calling an office shooting in the Financial District. Witnesses report hearing shots inside the Transamerica Pyramid, but it’s unclear at this time exactly which floors are involved. Tenants of the Pyramid include Merrill Lynch, URS Corporation, Kerner-Swift…”
In a panic, she redialed Bruce, only to get his voice mail again. “Bruce, I’m just hearing the news. Call me the second you get this. I mean it!”
Traffic had slowed to a crawl, pinning her on the freeway more than half a mile before an exit that could take her close to downtown.
The City had suffered this horror before, twenty-some years ago when Gian Ferri had killed eight people at the Pettit-Martin law firm. She and Bruce had been vacationing with their toddler twins at his mother’s house in Napa, and she’d felt no guilt at all for being grateful it was someone else and not Kerner-Swift.
The bulletins came quickly. Conflicting reports of casualties. Still nothing on the specific location inside the building.
At the risk of missing an update, she placed a third call, this time to the main number at Kerner-Swift. That too went to voice mail.
“Of course,” she said aloud. “They’ve probably evacuated the whole building.”
“The scene here is still tense, Marty. I’m calling from behind a police barricade that’s been set up on Jackson Street. What I can tell you is that heavily armed SWAT teams entered the building about ninety minutes ago. They’ve been clearing floors and evacuating the occupants through the emergency exits. I spoke moments ago with one of the workers who says she was trapped in her office for over an hour. She reported hearing sporadic bursts of gunfire…”
The sound of sirens in the background drowned out the reporter’s words.
“Tamara, did the woman you spoke with indicate which floor the shots were coming from? I know our listeners are anxious about loved ones who work in the Pyramid.”
“Excuse me, Marty…we’re just seeing several emergency medical teams rush inside the building. That would seem to indicate the shooting has stopped.”
“Goddammit! What floor?” Ellis screamed and pounded her steering wheel.
She was midway through another call to Bruce when she had a horrible thought: What if he’d been hiding from the shooter and his ringing cell phone had given his position away?
“Marty, police are now confirming that at least six people have been killed, but that number may go higher. Also, they’re saying the shooter is reportedly among the dead. No word yet on whether he was killed by police or took his own life. SWAT teams continue to sweep the building in search of victims and people who may have been hiding throughout this horrifying episode.”
Her hands shook so hard she could barely hold the wheel. Somehow she made it to the freeway exit and raced through the Mission District to Market Street. Too much traffic. A jog up Gough and she could take California all the way downtown.
With the assurance the shooting was over, she dialed again, and nearly cried with relief when the call connected after only two rings. “Bruce? Thank God! I’ve been listening to the news. Were you anywhere near the shooting?”
“Hello?” It was a woman’s voice, unfamiliar. “This is Sergeant Lynn McLeod of the San Francisco Police Department. To whom am I speaking?”
“Uh-oh.” The last thing Summer Winslow expected to see in her quiet apartment complex on a Sunday night was flashing blue lights. With above-average rents, River Woods was an enclave of young families saving for the down payment on their first home, white-collar professionals just starting out, and established singles like herself, stuck between relationships and not ready to commit to another mortgage.
So which of her neighbors also represented the criminal element?
Courtney Meyer stopped her car near the gate. “I’ll let you out here if that’s okay. I don’t want to get mixed up in that.”
“I hear you,” Summer said. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Thanks for the movie. Next time it’s my treat.”
She hobbled across the parking lot, careful not to put weight on her pinky toe, which she’d broken two weeks earlier in a game of Twister with her friends. The sidewalk in front of the adjacent building was blocked by the ramp of a moving truck. She noted dismally that her new neighbors, the ones unloading the truck, were young, early twenties. That likely would mean friends, parties, cars and noise.
The Sacramento Police Department cruiser was parked behind her car, but it was the sight of the familiar Jeep Cherokee in a nearby guest space that set her on edge. What did Rita hope to accomplish by showing up uninvited? She couldn’t possibly think she’d be welcome, not after their last confrontation.
Cringing at the obnoxious flashing lights, she continued gingerly toward her door. As she passed Rita’s car, she anticipated the face-off.
No, you can’t come in. No, I don’t want to talk.
A police officer intercepted her, shining a flashlight into her face. “Excuse me, are you Summer Winslow?”
She looked away to avoid the glare and only then noticed Rita sitting in the backseat of the cruiser. Shit. So that’s why he was here. What had she done? “I am.”
“And do you know Rita Finnegan?”
For an instant, she considered saying no. “I’m afraid so. What has she done?”
The muffled sound of Rita yelling interrupted his reply. Clearly she was under the mistaken impression they could hear her plainly through the rolled-up windows of the cruiser.
Summer knew in an instant she was drunk. Her wavy red hair had come loose from its tie and was hanging around her face, streaked with mascara from her tears.
The stone-faced officer drew her away from the car, ostensibly to get out of Rita’s earshot. “We got a complaint from one of your neighbors that she was banging on your door and yelling. Some pretty bad language, apparently. She told me she lived here and lost her key. Your neighbor didn’t think that was right.”
Oh, the temptation. If she told the truth—that Rita was her ex and was stalking her—then he might haul her to jail for the night, which would serve her right. As much as that would have pleased her, she couldn’t let it go that far. Rita worked as an auditor for the State of California, and an arrest could get her in a lot of trouble.
Still, a part of her wondered if it would take something as drastic as getting arrested for Rita to finally see herself as Summer did. After fifteen years of sobriety, she’d convinced herself her drinking was under control. It’s about moderation, Summer. Except moderate drinkers didn’t get rip-roaring drunk at least once a month, and they didn’t end up in the back of police cars.