The color scheme and furnishings were… unexpected. She’d finished putting away the few things she’d packed for the days she would be spending at the Ravensdown home, and now she just stood, taking in the room where Harley grew up.
It was red.
Fire engine red.
Turn of the century, brothel red, with a queen sized brass bed as its focal point. Not that curley-que, lyrical, fleur de lis brass either, these were heavy rods of real brass at each corner and smaller ones in between with another bar surmounting them at the head and footboards.
No accent colors disturbed the scheme. The windows were covered in wooden blinds to match the floor and the few pieces of necessary furniture. All were in a rich golden oak and nearly matched the brass in hue value. No brick a brack or memorabilia on the walls or the clean surfaces of the desk or dresser, and no cozy throws over the wooden rocker next to the window gave a hint as to the state of mind of the girl who grew up here.
According to Twyla, with the exception of removing her clothing, tapes, CD’s and books, her room was just as she left it when she moved out and for all the years she lived here.
Red. Now, what does that say about you Harley? She tried to form a picture of a younger Harley in her mind. From what Twyla said she was logical, smart, stubborn and volatile. Remembering her own teen years and the emotional roller coaster she rode and put everyone around her on, maybe red was appropriate. Nonetheless, she still wasn’t quite clear in her mind about what this said about the Sheriff. She was so complicated. Remembering the soft, natural shades of the woman’s living area and the muted, almost redundant neutrals of her bedroom and bath in comparison to this room made her surer than ever that there were many more of those hidden doors leading to sides of her friend she had yet to discover.
The ride to the Ravensdown home had been informative and aggravating. She was angry when she was informed that Stephanie had phoned ahead and told all her relatives to "watch out for her" when she arrived.
The comment about her being a ‘trouble magnet’ didn’t go over very well and her sense of independence bristled at having total strangers asked to keep an eye on her.
It only lasted a moment however, when she realized that in this instance, Stephanie had been right. When Twyla told her about being asked to keep their relationship to the publisher quiet, she didn’t have to be told the reason. She knew, that Stephanie knew, she would be furious.
She was glad, after thinking it over for a minute, that she hadn’t been told. Her temper and her own over blown sense of independence would have made her avoid these people, and that would have been a tragedy.
The Home Ravensdown was, like Harley’s, set on a dirt road away from the town proper. Twyla told her that Josh had designed it and oversaw every aspect of its construction. She was delighted to see it come into view at the end of a long winding driveway. The place was huge. It looked like an antebellum plantation had been uprooted and plunked down in the middle of the California Mountains.
The trees in the back and on the farthest fringes were native to the area, but the obvious Magnolia’s flanking the wide porch steps had to be introduced to it. The only thing missing here was the Spanish moss and the smell of swamp gas.
Emily’s first impression was of Tara from Gone With The Wind. She was just about to speak of it, when Twyla told her that it was as close to a replica of the house in the movie as Josh could build it. It was his favorite movie and he’d always dreamed of living in a house like it. He’d gone so far as to use his contacts in the film industry to track down the original stills of the mansion, inside and out.
She had the impression from all that Harley and Cole told her that Josh made a good living. After all, he sent six kids to college, but it wasn’t until she stepped into this house that she really put it together. They were rich! Big time rich. Very, very well to do. Emily had grown up surrounded by people her family would classify as ‘well to do’ but she hadn’t had a lot of exposure to the really rich and famous until her books began to sell.
Hitting the best sellers list and having the attending notoriety it afforded, offered a free pass to the houses of the people whom the rest of the world envied. She acquired an education of a different kind then. Now she knew how to tell the imitation from the original.
This place was all originals. That wasn’t veneer on the floors here; that was real tongue in groove oak. The antiques scattered throughout the lower floor were just that, and not reproductions. She couldn’t wait to meet this man.
Somehow, Twyla gave her the impression that having this house and all it contained was commonplace to her, but she was glad for it because it made Josh happy. She wondered if Harley’s complexity was a genetic inheritance from her mother.
She was really glad, however, to know, that Stephanie and Harley were cousins. She almost took a breath in relief when she heard it, seeing the tall dark haired woman and the shorter, lovely auburn haired editor in her minds eye. Getting just a little possessive now, aren’t we, Emily? She asked herself, and after just a moment more, yeah, I sure am. I admit it freely. I want that woman… on a whole lot of different levels.
She took a few more minutes to record some of her thoughts about the house and the news about her publisher’s relationship with the family, and then headed downstairs to see if she could help Twyla out.
She deliberately put aside any thoughts about the knife in her bed and who put it there. She knew she just wasn’t ready to go there yet.
She didn’t even realize she was singing part of a song from The Unsinkable Molly Brown as she made her way down the staircase.
"And if that room is red
And has a big brass bed,
I’m living there"
Gunny left just minutes ago and Harley was still staring at the inside of the alarm control panel.
His usual jovial banter was missing and the all business attitude he presented matched her own. He was mad and he was determined to find the person who did this. Gunny hated bullies, too. He collected all the fingerprint evidence and the film from the camera and then sat with the officers to fill in the blanks.
"I know it’s procedure. That’s why we did it, but I’ll tell you now, you won’t find anyone’s prints on those but Emily’s, Rita’s, Mom’s and mine."
"Who’s Rita?" the trooper asked as he finished his coffee.
The sheriff finished her fourth cup and answered, "She takes care of the place while Stephanie is gone. Keeps the yard mowed and dusts, vacuums and feeds the plants, you know, that kind of stuff. She is by no means a suspect. She’s the McKinnon’ss middle daughter. She lives down the road and she’s only fourteen."
"Okay. Got anyone else in mind as the perp on this one?"
Cole just looked at his sister and waited. If anyone could figure this out, it would be her. Just look at that face. She’s got her teeth in it already. She never was one to let anything go until she got a handle on it. He remembered when he got that Rubik’s cube for his birthday. He left it on the table with the rest of the gifts and came back an hour later to find it solved. He didn’t have to ask who did it. He just had to look at her face.
"Maybe an idea of where to find one. I’m gonna go and talk to my friends at The Village." She smiled and narrowed her eyes as another thought occurred to her. "There’s only one permanent resident of Bramble I wouldn’t put this past, but there is one semi-permanent one I want to find out about." She paused and tilted her head. "The stumper is the reason why. It can’t be Emily, but I’m sure there was a purpose behind it. I’m betting good money right now that whoever did this wasn’t betting on getting this kind of a reaction."
After he left she resumed her study of the interior circuitry of the alarm panel. To the best of her knowledge, only five people on the planet knew the code. The interior of the box was pristine and working just fine, so no tampering with it occurred. That only meant that one of the other four beside herself had given the code to someone or that Emily was wrong when she said she remembered setting it. Harley wasn’t willing to believe that. The woman was upset this morning, but her certainty about her actions after locking the door seemed genuine.
"Well, there’s nothing for it but to start asking." She closed the panel and picked up the phone. Pushing the buttons from memory she waited for the call to be answered.
Emily found her way to the kitchen just as Twyla was putting a covered roasting pan into one of the three ovens. She started to say something then just stopped and twirled around.
This was every cook’s dream kitchen. There was everything in here. She noted a pastry station complete with a marble counter for piecrusts and three separate sink and counter stations, not to mention the ovens, and an eight burner professional stove, with grill and rotisserie. There were warming drawers and bins and baskets. There were professional French copper skillets and pots hanging from racks overhead. There was… everything.
This time, Twyla gently lifted her chin to close her mouth.
"I know it’s a little bit much, especially now that the kids are gone, but Josh bothered me and bothered me until I told him everything I ever wanted in a kitchen. I didn’t tell him all of this, though. He did his research and spoke to several chefs who are friends of ours, and this" she twirled around and held out her arms, "is the result. I have to admit it’s my favorite room in the house."
Before the writer could begin to gush about it, Twyla continued. "Feel free to use anything in the house, including the kitchen. I’m not proprietary about it unless I’m cooking at the time. That means anything, Emily. You’re our guest."
She started to leave the same way Emily entered and said, "I’ll give you a proper tour when we get back, but just now I have to run some errands. Can I ask for your company while I do?"
"Ah, yeah." She tried to stop staring and had to shake herself to follow the woman.
So far, they’d been to the gas station, where Emily met the Bramble version of Romeo and Juliet’s Capulet the father.
She was predisposed to dislike Carl Rimshaw due to Harley’s description of him trying to thwart the true love of his daughter, Sadie, for Hank Stevens. Also, truth be known, because Emily was at heart, a confirmed romantic; it was a deep, dark secret she was sure no one else knew about her.
She had pictured him as a sour faced curmudgeon and was a little disappointed to see a gentle looking man in his mid fifties, with soft, brown hair going to gray here and there, and quiet brown eyes. He greeted Twyla by name with a huge smile, and told Emily that he was very glad to meet her. She had to believe he meant it. Oh well, I can always give him a pointed chin and squinty eyes in my story. I need a villain, and so far, he’s the closest I’ve got.
Next they stopped at the Food Emporium where Emily made sure to buy a carton of cigarettes while Twyla picked up some fresh fruit and vegetables. She was again introduced to several people and remembered a few from Twyla’s early morning exposé on the residents. She was glad to finally meet Ellie Gravitz and to manage, in her own charming way, to wrangle an invitation to drop by for tea "any afternoon next week". She was already making a list of questions for the former aircraft plant worker and trying to find a way to question her about the grapevine presumption Harley gave her.
As they exited, they nearly, literally, ran into a woman who seemed to be just about running into the store.
Emily felt the older woman tense beside her. She eyed her briefly before returning her attention to the woman in front of her.
She was taller than Emily by a few inches, very well dressed in an expensive black suit and silk blouse and her short, very blonde hair, was spiked with little curls of it falling around the corners of her eyes. She had three piercings in each ear containing graduated black pearl earrings that got larger from top to bottom. Every finger and both thumbs sported large heavy rings. The eyes were odd. They were a rich, deep brown like a fawn’s but what should have made her feel warm, due to their color, left her feeling very cold and a little frightened. They seemed vacant and preoccupied. Madness. That must be what it looks like to see insanity in someone’s eyes. Before she had the opportunity to study that immediate and visceral response the woman spoke, and her words and tone of voice made the impression she had even stronger.
"I beg your pardon… Mizz. Ravensdown. I hope your weren’t…injured." The voice was lilting and cold and the look in her eyes belied any sense of sincerity her words intimated.
"We’re fine, … Darla."
The writer was shocked at the tone of voice the woman she liked so much was using. Until now, she had never heard her speak to, or about anyone without kindness. She knew the words may have been accurate and that she hadn’t said anything wrong, but she could swear what she was really saying was ‘Drop dead, bitch.’
She suddenly recognized that tone and remembered how Harley spoke to the man who attacked her. Her words too had been polite and informative, but they were threaded though with enmity.
"I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t know who you are."
There was that tone again. Although the words could have been more polite, they were true and it was the tone that said more than anything that the spiked haired blonde wanted to chastise Twyla for her lack of courtesy in not making an introduction.
It appeared however, that the older woman had herself firmly in hand and refused to rise to the bait.
"Emily Cutter, this is Darla Dunhem." Twyla’s words were flat and without expression and for the first time, without her companionable smile accompanying them.
Emily took her cue from that, and with as much demure reserve as she could, she said, "How do you do, Ms. Dunhem"?
"Well, I do just fine, Dearie. What a pleasant accident running into you has been." She looked pointedly at the cast on the writer’s arm and the smile on her face was nothing less than vicious. She turned to Twyla and kept the smile on her face as she said, "Always a pleasure to see you again, Mizz. Ravensdown." She tilted her head to the right just a bit and slipped around them and into the store, trilling out a too-jovial "TTFN", and then she was gone.
Harley made a point to circle the parking lot and look for the black Masserarati she knew belonged to Valerie, before she pulled to a stop in front of The Village’s main doors.
Her calls confirmed what she felt, and none of the other people who had the code to the alarm panel had given it away. At least not voluntarily. She wasn’t quite so sure about Rita McKinnon; she was very vocal in denying it, but that by itself, made her a little suspicious. She didn’t want to scare the girl, so she just dropped it for the time being. She knew she’d get back to her if nothing else turned up.
During the drive to The Village her mind wouldn’t rest trying to determine the reason. That was the key to the ‘who’ of it. If she could figure out the ‘why’, she’d be more than halfway home. It can’t be Emily. She has no one here who wants to see her hurt, unless…Since she and Valerie "broke up", there hadn’t been anyone in her life romantically. At least not here. The woman was just vindictive enough to have seen them together and made assumptions. It was a long shot, but she had to be sure.
Not finding the Masserati didn’t put her mind to rest as she entered the building. She had to talk to her friends for the real story.
She brought her head up and saw Paris behind the desk and started to smile until she took in the bloody bandage on her temple and her gray skin.
They pulled away from the parking lot and turned down Bender. Emily really wanted to ask about the woman she just met, but something told her to let Twyla bring it up on her own.
So, the village has a villain after all. Trying to put together the pieces she already knew, she remained quiet as Twyla drove them to their next stop.
She isn’t much older than I am, maybe around Harley’s age. The only other time I saw that kind of reaction from Twyla was when she was telling me about the kids. She said "…but I can only be grateful that we never had to pay for any broken bones. Well, except for that one time. Of course, that had nothing to do with name calling. Nope, different matter altogether." She remembered watching the woman’s jaw clench, very much like it did today, and she saw the same instant anger in her eyes. If it wasn’t the same woman who caused both reactions, I’d be surprised. Which means, she wasn’t a visitor but a permanent resident. She was well dressed and well groomed. That haircut may be a little outré for the residents here, but it was a fabulous cut and the suit was expensive and well tailored. Well, that shouldn’t surprise me. So far everyone I’ve met here over the age of twenty-one has a college degree, some of them two or three. The animosity was clearly mutual and that was odd. The Ravensdown’s practically own this town and the residents seem to universally love them. Hating one of the primary pillars of the community must put you in a kind of awkward situation. Why does she stay?
Before she could continue the thought they arrived at the Ravens Nest and Twyla asked her to come inside for minute.
As before, she took Emily on a quick tour of the place and introduced her to all the staff, then escorted her to a table in the bar and brought her coffee.
"I need to do a quick inventory and give the cook his instructions for tonight’s special. Just have a little rest and read the menu and when I get back we’ll have lunch, okay?"
"I’ll be fine Twyla, just take your time. I’ll be here when you’re ready."
The restaurant just opened minutes before and only a very few customers were seated at the small tables in the lounge. The writer took a few minutes to decide on lunch and then sat back to sip her coffee and look around.
Suddenly, she knew she was being watched. She felt the hairs on her neck rise and shuddered. Trying to remain as calm as possible she turned casually and laid a hand on the back of the chair, ostensibly just taking in the furnishings and décor.
Her eyes slid past his table as though it wasn’t of any importance and he never lifted his eyes to make contact with her, but she knew it was his eyes that had been boring into her back. She knew, as well, from the intensity of the feeling, that it was more than just a casual observation of a stranger to town.
She had a sudden intense wish that Harley was there, as she tried to slow her breathing and catch the bartender’s eye.
The sunlight shining in behind her, silhouetted the tall figure in the doorway and there was no mistaking who it was.
Emily wondered briefly if she had willed the woman into being there, but she was grateful for it, however it happened.
She stood to try to get Harley’s attention when they both heard a crash and a scream coming from the kitchen.
Emily started for the room immediately, but even being half a room closer didn’t help, as she watched the tall long legged Sheriff fly past her.
By the time, the writer pushed though the swinging double doors to the kitchen, the scream was replaced by a low keening sound. She saw Twyla using the main dishwasher’s hose attachment to spray cold water on the left arm and torso of the tall young man she’d met earlier.
Billy, Twyla told her was the prep cook. He was taller than Harley by an inch or two and big boned with a small paunchy tummy. He appeared to be in his early twenties but there was something in his face then and in his eyes now, which made him look like a very small child. His was the voice she heard keening as the spray hit him and Harley held onto his right arm, keeping him in place. She came over to the group, avoiding the path of the water and was about to ask if she could do anything to help, when Harley saw her and asked, "Emily, pick up the phone and dial memory two, that’s Hobie. Tell him I’ll be over with Billy from the Nest and he’s been burned by hot liquid."
The woman moved as fast as she could to the phone on the wall and continued to watch the painful scene while she gave Hobie the news.
"Billy Boy, listen to me." Harley said, but the young man couldn’t seem to do anything but keen and rock on his feet and try to keep his head up away from the splashing water.
"Billy!" she spoke louder this time, almost angrily, "Attend." That seemed to get his attention finally as he moved his head to look at her and his eyes opened wider, almost as though he could hear her better if he could see her better.
"Good boy. Now listen to me, okay?" Her voice softened a little as he shook his head and said, "Okay."
"I know it hurts, Billy boy. I know it does, but I’m going to take you over to see Doc Hobie and he’ll make it feel better, okay?"
The young man nodded, bit his lip and nearly whispered, "okay" as Twyla stopped the water and told a waitress to run for a table cloth
Emily hung up the phone and came back to the Sheriff’s side as the young waitress handed the large white cloth to Twyla. "Okay, done. He’s expecting you. Is there anything I can do to help?"
Harley was just about to tell her no, that she would take it from here when Twyla stepped in.
"Emily. Why don’t you help Harley with Billy here? Since I’ve just lost my prep cook, I’m gonna have to stay here at least through lunch to help Jessie with the orders. You’d just have to sit and wait for me. At least this way you’ll have something useful to do." She turned her attention to her daughter, "Is that okay with you, honey? I know I didn’t ask if you were busy or.."
"No problem, Mom. That’s fine," Harley interrupted. "I’d love the company and I could use the help." She turned to the small blonde, "I’ll start getting Billy into the car, and you catch up as soon as you can."
The tall brunette started to walk out with the shaken young man as Twyla covered him loosely with the tablecloth. As they went though the doors, she turned to the injured woman. Putting her hands on her shoulders she said, "I’m sorry about this Emily. I’ll have someone in here to help for dinner, so you be sure to get something to eat with Harley and Cole when you get back to the station, understand?"
The blonde just smiled at the woman and patted her hand where it rested on her shoulder. "Oh, I will, I will, never fear. I’ll make sure that they eat too. But, uhm, Twyla" she paused, uncertain how to ask what she wanted to know without giving offense or seeming too nosey. She tried again "Uhm, Billy he, uh, what happened?"
The older woman dropped her hands and sighed. She pointed to a little girl standing in the corner behind the writer. Emily hadn’t even noticed her when she came in. She judged her to be about seven or eight and looking at her, she remembered the adage that spoke of ‘guilt being written all over her face’ was in this instance, just as true as could be.
"Rosey happened." The older woman said. Her voice rose and even though she was talking to the blonde, Emily knew her words were intended for the little girl. "She’s been told over and over not to run into the kitchen because someone could get hurt, and now they have."
The little girl couldn’t take any more and burst into tears, slid down the wall and sat on the floor. Just then, the pretty young woman Twyla introduced as Teresa, the hostess, entered the kitchen, followed the cries and came to stand over the child.
"So, what do you have to say for yourself Rosalina? Hmmn? Didn’t Daddy and Twyla and Mommy all tell you not to run into the kitchen?" Before the little girl could speak, the woman continued. "Didn’t we tell you someone would get hurt? Now that’s just what happened, isn’t it? Because of you, one of your best friends is hurt. How does that make you feel, little one?"
The little girl burst from her place on the floor and threw herself around the woman’s legs. "I’m sorry, Momma. I’m really, really sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t want Billy to get hurt, Momma and I’m so sorry."
Emily couldn’t help it. Her heart was just breaking for the little one. Her remorse was so genuine and heartfelt, it was all she could do not to go to her and give her a hug. Gratefully, her mother did just that.
Bending down to pick up the child, she patted her on the back and carried her out telling her again and again, "I know, sweetheart, Momma knows you didn’t mean it."
Twyla had been watching the expression of compassion on the blonde’s face as she watched the child and mother. She was glad her first impression of the woman hadn’t been wrong. Seeing the look of sadness on Emily’s face as she turned back to the restaurant owner made a smile of approval flare on her own.
"Don’t worry. She’ll be fine, but she did learn a lesson today and I don’t expect to see her running into the kitchen anymore. Anyway, that’s what happened. Rosey, even though she knows better, came running though the doors just as Billy was moving the soup kettle. She stopped right in front of him and in order to keep from pouring the soup on her, he pulled the kettle back and it splashed all over him."
A quick gasp escaped Emily’s lips as she pictured the accident. It made her think of the poor man who must be waiting in the car for her. "Oh, Twyla that’s awful. Look, I don’t want him to suffer by waiting for me, I’ll get out there now and call you later." She said as she quickly made her way out of the kitchen and to the parking lot.
She met the sheriff just as she was coming around to get into the driver’s side of the patrol car. "Try to keep talking to him to keep his mind off it" She said quietly as she opened the door. Quickly nodding to her, she hurried to the other side as Harley opened the door for her from the inside.
As they drove away from Hobie’s the writer said, "I take it that Billy is…" she stopped and tried to remember what the latest politically correct buzzword for mentally handicapped was, but Harley saved her from the need.
"Billy is autistic. Are you familiar with autism?"
Emily turned a bit in her seat and paid attention for the explanation as she answered. "Only vaguely. Can you tell me about it… and about Billy?"
"I’m by no means an expert on it, but as I understand it in Billy’s case, it’s mostly a communication problem. He’s twenty but emotionally and mentally he’s about eight. There are a great many things he does just like anyone else, but his biggest problem is his inability to understand or verbalize abstract concepts. His speech is very elementary and complicated words are hard for him to understand. He’s always loved to cook and he does a great job at it so when he got old enough, Mom hired him as the prep cook. I’ve never met anyone who worked harder or loved his job more. In the four years he’s worked for Mom he’s never been late or taken a day off." She paused and blew out a breath. "He’s sure not going to like not being able to work for a few days."
As they were speaking Emily assumed that the Sheriff was headed back to the office, but just as she finished, she noticed they were turning off Bender down a side street.
"Where are we headed?"
"I need to stop by Toni’s shop and let them know about Billy." She turned into another side street and suddenly Emily realized they were now almost directly behind the Raven’s Nest on the next street over. Just then, Harley pulled the car into a small parking lot. A curving sign over the font door written in rainbow colors on a yellow background read, Oz and Ends, Collectibles and Treasures. Harley helped her out of the car and they made their way though the gated fence and up the curving pathway of yellow brick to the front of the large old house.
The bell above the large door tinkled as they stepped inside and Emily’s eyes were everywhere at once.
Every table, shelf, and counter was filled to over flowing with things that caught the eye and held it. There were crystals, geodes, brass bells, incense and holders, statues and sculptures everywhere. Candles in all colors and shapes lined one wall’s shelves and above them on the wall were plaques with bits of poetry or words of wisdom printed on naturescapes, shiny with decoupage.
The place smelled divine. Better than any of the shops in L.A. that tried to take your money for new age, occult paraphernalia. Those stores had always left her feeling somehow left out. On the fringes, like she wasn’t sharing the secret somehow…and they always smelled of incense that tried to be a knock off of Obsession or Opium perfumes. This place smelled clean and calm. She moved her eyes again and saw, for the first time, the woman sitting behind a counter near the back. She had a small pair of needle nose pliers and was stringing some tiny crystals onto a silver chain underneath a magnifying light in front of her.
The very small woman had luminous white hair pulled back from her face and braided down her back. Her skin was pale and only a touch of color came from her cheeks and lips. The lashes that shadowed her eyes were dark, half closed over pure gray irises. Although the hands that held the tool and chain were aged, they were rock steady as she deftly threaded the tiny crystal onto the filament and twisted it closed. She brought her head up when she finished and smiled winningly at the Sheriff. "Harley ,child. It’s good to see you. What can I do for you?" She placed the items she was holding onto the counter top and pulled the heavy pale blue and yellow plaid throw resting on her shoulders a bit closer for warmth.
"Hi Toni" she returned the smile and gestured for Emily to proceed her to the counter. "Antoinette Devery, this is Emily Cutter. Emily, this is Antoinette, the co-owner of this place that has you so fascinated." The smile slid into a grin as she noticed the mild blush on her friends face.
The writer moved in front of the seated woman and said, "She’s right, this place is wonderful. It’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Devery," extending her had to the older woman.
"Now, just call me Toni, Ms. Cutter, everyone does."
"Everyone but me."
The voice belonged to another elderly woman who entered though a side door from the yard. She removed leather work gloves and tossed them on a small table as she walked to them. She looked much taller than her companion and though, older, she was more robust. Her hair was short and a salt and pepper gray. She wore silver wire glasses, a small brimmed cloth hat and denim overalls over a muted-green, long sleeved collarless shirt. Her smile got even bigger when she saw Harley.
"Hey there, stranger. What brings you out our way today and who’s your friend?"
As she was talking, she made her way behind the smaller woman and absent-mindedly pulled the throw up around her shoulders a touch more. Then she rested both hands on her shoulders and gave a small squeeze.
"This is Emily Cutter. She‘s staying at Stephanie’s for a few days. Emily, this is Constance Abbott, the other owner of Oz." Without even realizing she was doing it, she moved a half step closer to the small blonde and their sides touched from the length of their arms to their hips. She noted that Emily leaned into her at the same time.
Both women were reacting to it and so caught up in the feeling that neither noticed the brief glance the older women gave each other as they watched them.
The seated woman, wishing to save them an embarrassing moment gave a significant look to her standing friend. "It’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Cutter. Please call me Connie." She extended her hand and it broke the reactive spell she was feeling to Harley’s unexpected touch. She began to reply and then had to clear her throat to do it.
"Hi, Connie. I was telling your partner here how wonderful this place is. Where do you find all these things?"
As the older woman was about to reply, Emily suddenly realized the reason why they were here and stopped. "I’m sorry. Uhm, Harley brought us here for a reason and here I go chatting away." She looked up at the Sheriff next to her with apology in her eyes and saw that she was not bothered by her lapse.
"Actually, she’s right. We came here to tell you that there was an accident at the Nest and Billy was hurt." She saw the instant anxiety come over their faces and hurried to reassure them. "He’s going to be just fine. He’s at Hobie’s now and he’s being fixed up. Some hot soup he was carrying burned him. Mom got him under cold water right away and I’m sure that he’ll be fine in a few days. It splashed onto his chest and stomach and his left arm, but I’d guess the area is no worse than sore and red. No permanent damage, just good and painful." She watched as both of the older women took in a relieved breath.
Emily watched their reactions too and noticed how the older woman instantly brought her hands down to her friends arms and began to rub them soothingly up and down in an attempt to calm her. It was a movement both tender and unconscious, and for the first time in years, it reminded her of her parents. They shared a love like that. Every moment they were together you could see how they cared for each other. Always having each other on their minds and reacting to each other on a level so deep that comfort or communication was instinctive. She suddenly missed them all over again. Wow. It has been a long time since I thought of them. I’m sorry mom and dad. I know I haven’t thought of you as much as I should have, it just always hurts so much. I know you know that, too. Although this time is different. Watching them reminds me so much of you and though I still miss you as much as ever, they make me feel a little better. It’s like finally seeing that that kind of love didn’t leave the world when you did.
She realized that her musings caused her to miss some of the conversation and just hoped that no one had noticed, as she brought her attention back to it.
Someone had noticed though. The small woman sitting behind the counter was watching her. Once Harley assured them that their Billy was alright, she let her partner get the particulars about the accident and concentrated her attention on the pretty young woman who seemed a little lost in her own thoughts. She watched the play of emotions wash over that lovely face and saw the flash of deep pain and remorse in her green eyes, and then she saw them lighten as a wistful kind of peace settled over her.
"… a real hero. If he hadn’t reacted as quickly as he did, little Rosey Ruiz would be at Hobie’s now. You can be very proud of him," Harley finished.
"Always have been. He’s a good boy," Connie said as she unconsciously rubbed small circles on the back of her sitting friend.
Emily watched that, while Toni watched the unconscious body language of the two women in front of her. The attraction to each other was obvious to anyone who had eyes, but she knew that kind of thing was always easier to see if you weren’t one of the participants. She was trying to find a way to have a few words with Harley when the Sheriff inadvertently gave Toni her wish.
"Yesterday, Emily you asked if we have a florist in town. Well, Connie here fills that need for us. She’s got the best flowers in the country outside that door and if you ask nicely, I’m sure she’d let you have a tour." The brunette smiled down at the younger woman and once again, shifted to rub her hip against her just a bit.
Emily caught herself just before she gasped at the touch and found a way to make her mouth work. Tearing her eyes away from the blue ones above her, she forced out, "I would love that, if that’s okay with you, Connie."
"Sure. It would be my pleasure." She gave a quick squeeze to her sitting partner’s upper arms and then gestured to the smaller woman to follow her out to the garden. Harley was about to follow them when Toni stopped her.
"Harley, could you help me here for a minute?"
"Annie? What do you need…?" Her partner stopped and began to retrace her steps as the seated woman interrupted her.
"Nothing that Harley can’t take care of Abby. Now, you just take Ms. Cutter to see your garden and I’ll be fine." She waved her hand at the two of them and indicated they should go on out the back door.
Emily noted the small frown and furrowing over the brow of the older woman beside her as she let out a breath and continued. She was not happy to have been dismissed, but she did it anyway. The writer couldn’t help but smile a bit at the look of frustration the older woman couldn’t seem to hide.
The door closed behind them as Emily asked, "Is something wrong, Connie?"
The older woman looked to her and then looked out at the garden as they walked. "Nothing, really. I just worry about her. She’s so darned independent and she’s no spring chicken, ya know. I just wish…" She faded out at the end and then started with more vigor.
"Well, let me show you what we came out here for. My pride and joy."
"What can I do for you, Toni?" The sheriff walked to the seated woman behind the counter.
"It’s just this throw again. It’s caught in my wheels and I can’t get it loose." She gathered up the bulk of the soft chenille throw into her lap showing Harley where it had wrapped around the wheel of her chair.
It took Harley only a moment to untangle it and the older woman pushed the wheels forward and around the counter until she was headed into the back of the house. "Thanks, Harley, I knew you’d take of it. Now come with me and I’ll put some tea on."
The younger woman followed the wheelchair through the swinging door that led into the living space of the home. She filled the kettle for her friend and helped her to arrange cups and utensils on a tray.
"So, tell me about Ms. Cutter. She’s the poor thing who was hurt at the Nest the other night, isn’t she?"
"Yeah, she is. She’s staying at Stephanie’s for a while and just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. We got the guy and he’s in jail awaiting justice for this and a couple more successful attacks between here and New Mexico."
"That’s good!" The older woman’s voice was stern and harsh. Given what she’d been through, Harley couldn’t blame her.
"Now," She continued, her tone a bit lighter, "tell me about Ms. Cutter." She cocked her head and just looked at the Sheriff.
Dammit all to hell. She should have been a detective and not a crafter. She’s been able to see inside me since I was a kid. I wish I’d thought about this before I brought Emily here with me.
She knew it was probably useless, but she tried to play dumb anyway, hoping to stall for time. Hoping before she had to answer the questions she knew were coming that Connie and Emily would get back here and save her from spilling her guts. Even my Mom can’t get things out of me the way Toni can.
"Well, she’s a writer for Plume. She’s had several of her books on the best sellers list. You might have heard of her since you’re so fond of mysteries. She writes under the name of Shasta Cutter." She hoped she could steer her into a discussion of Emily in safer waters, but she wasn’t hopeful it would work.
"Oh, my yes." Toni smiled and glided her chair around the end of the counter and into the living room. She pushed forward until she was in front of a wide bookshelf and pulled several books out, laying them on her lap.
"I thought she looked familiar." She said as she returned to the kitchen. "My, her picture sure doesn’t do her justice, does it?" She handed the book on top to the sheriff and turned to grab the kettle just as it began to whistle.
Harley just looked at the black and white photo on the book jacket and realized it most certainly didn’t do the young author justice. "No, it sure doesn’t. " She didn’t realize how closely she was being observed as she continued to speak. "She shouldn’t have pictures taken without color. You can’t see how clear and smooth her skin is, or tell the peach tone of her cheeks and her lips. You can’t even see her eyes are green, or notice that thin line of warm brown just around her pupils." Harley suddenly regained herself and saw the small grin on the older woman’s face. Quite without her permission, she felt a huge blush overtake her neck and cheeks and felt like a kid again.
Laughing just a little at herself, she shook her head. Toni always knew. It was like she had X-ray vision, the way she could just look at her and tell what was gong on inside her. Like she had no skin! "Okay, I’ve always wanted to know. Is this some kind of magic? Are you really a witch like we all thought when we were kids, or what? Out with it now, woman! What is it about you that always makes me feel like I’m covered with Saran Wrap, huh?"
Toni had the good grace to blush a bit herself. "I don’t know, dear. People just have a hard time tying to lie to me, I guess. Abby says it’s because I was born under a good sign." She took a deep breath and said, "Whatever it is, I’m glad for it, cause it kept mischievous kids like you from getting away with things, and it helps me to understand my friends and neighbors a bit more. Now. Stop stalling and tell me about Ms. Cutter and you know what I mean by that, so no more beating around the bush!"
Harley’s shoulders slumped and she hung her head a bit and finally gave in.
"This is just marvelous!" The author was turning around in circles in the middle of the small spot left un-planted in the palatial garden. Her grin was broad and her eyes were sparkling. "It’s like a fairy land. I have never seen a garden more beautiful." The place was a riot of color. Blooming plants were everywhere. Bushes simply dripped with blossoms that nearly touched the smaller plants with different blooms below them and some even reached to the flowering trees above them. Some of these she had only ever seen in books. The aroma in the air was alive and the foliage ran from pale gold and white, through every shade of green to deep russet.
"You are truly gifted, Connie. I’ve never seen nature so beautifully manipulated before. It’s like Wonderland!" Emily couldn’t stop herself from bending down to inhale the fragrance from another shade of lilac than the other three she’d already sniffed.
The older woman just rocked on her heels and nodded her head. "It takes a lot of work, but I really love it. You came at the right time. In another month or so many of these will be gone for the year and I’ll be planting for the winter. Maybe you could stick around a few months and see the bulbs come up. Now that’s really something to see. It’s Annie’s favorite time of the year and she just can’t wait for the narcissus and jonquils to bloom. "Her eyes took on a kind of dreamy glow as she thought about the look on her partners face every year when the blooms opened.
You didn’t need to be an over observant writer to notice the look and understand its meaning as the older woman spoke. She smiled herself for them, and the obvious love they shared. She thought of her parents again and felt that same warm feeling she’d felt in the store. That’s the way love should look. You should wear it on your face like that, so that everyone around you can see it and share it with you.
"So, Harley said you needed some flowers?" Connie asked gently. She’d been watching the look on the young woman’s face and didn’t want to jar her or embarrass her.
"Oh, yes, I did, but I can’t take these. They’re your garden. I just wanted to find a florist so I could send some flowers to Twyla. She’s been taking care of me since the uhm… since I broke my wrist and, uhm… I just wanted to get her something to say thank you, but…"
"That’s easy, Twyla has been a customer of mine forever. I know just what she likes." She walked over to a group of baskets hanging from the garden wall and took down one. She looked around for minute and then stopped. "I left my gloves inside. I’ll just get them and be right back." She was on her way before Emily could think of a polite way to stop her.
Mighty spry old girl, that one. I hope I’m in as good a shape when I’m her age. She looked around at the garden again and thought about all the work it must require. Things were pruned and tied up and back to perfection. There wasn’t a weed to be seen.
"Here we are now," Connie said as she returned to her side. "Twyla loves the ones with fragrance, so we’ll just give her some of the last of the roses and a few sprigs of…"
"Wait!" The blonde said, trying to interpose herself between the older woman and the last of the lovely pink roses on the bush. "I can’t take these from you. You obviously work so hard here; I know it takes a lot to do this. God knows, I can’t keep a fichus alive, but they’re yours and Toni’s and I can find something else to give to…"
The woman just shook her head and smiled a little sadly. "Honey, you just listen a minute. I do this for just this reason." She stopped and took the younger woman by the hand and led her to a wrought iron bench a few steps away. "You sit down and I’ll tell you a little story." Taking a seat next to the younger woman she looked out on her garden and began,
"Many years ago when Annie and I…"
"Annie?" Emily interrupted.
She smiled a little shyly at that. "That’s my name for Toni. Everyone else calls her Toni but I call her Annie and she calls me Abby. You see when Annie and I met and fell in love with each other it was the 1950’s. Not a very enlightened age." She huffed out a little breath and went on. "Some very bad things had happened to her just before we met and she was very sad. Then, like the miracle it always is, we found we were in love with each other. Abby was very young and still under her family’s control, but we knew we couldn’t live with out each other so, we took off. We ended up here after a few months and tried to find a way to make a living. The old man who owned this land needed help with his yard and well, Abby couldn’t work just then so I had to make enough to keep us on. We tried to keep our relationship hidden because we couldn’t afford to leave for a while and felt if the neighbors knew about us, they’d make our lives miserable. Since it was very hard to do that we found a way to call each other all the endearing things we couldn’t say in public. Antoinette became Toni to everyone but me. To me she was my Annie. She knew when I said it I was really saying, ‘Sweetheart or Darling or Beloved. We made sure that no one else called us by anything else but Toni and Connie, but when she called me Abby, I knew she was telling me she loved me and when I called her Annie, she knew I was doing the same. Even now, when the town knows about us and pretty much accepts us as we are, that hasn’t changed." She smiled a bit at the memory of it and went on.
"Anyway, when Annie and I bought this land and built this house we wanted to give something back to the place that had sheltered us and kept us from the world out there that wouldn’t accept how we felt for each other. Annie had always been good with her hands and started making, finding and selling her crystals and geodes and such and I started to build this garden. I planned it out for the four seasons we have up here and used it provide the flowers and fresh herbs for the town. Even though we have no sign on the door, this is where Bramble comes for their flowers. I’m proud that they do.
Besides, I couldn’t in good conscience keep this kind of bounty just for me and mine. Nature provides it and I just nurture it, but it’s meant to be shared and enjoyed and give pleasure. If it just stays on the bush or in the ground it eventually dies and no one has the good of it, see?" She turned to the young woman and patted her hand. "It’s for that very reason I do work this hard, and it’s because people like you appreciate what I help to grow, that I get so much joy in doing it." She stood up slowly and continued, "Now, as I said, Twyla just loves fragrance. Let’s go get her some beauties, shall we?"
Emily was very moved. The people here just never ceased to amaze her. The generosity of spirit and the kindness was a thing very new to her and she just couldn’t seem to stop being surprised by it. She could only nod her head and follow Connie to the rose bush, where the woman began to clip the long stemmed, fat pink blooms.
After putting the huge bouquet of pink roses, pink, lavender and purple, lilacs and sprigs of white baby’s breath into the back seat, the sheriff and her passenger pulled out of the parking lot of Oz and Ends in a silence thicker than they’d ever shared.
Jesus, if even Connie could tell how I felt about Emily, it won’t be long before everyone else can see it too. I expected that Toni would figure it out. She always knows everything going on with me, but Connie has to be hit in the head with stuff. Just how do I handle this? Maybe we should talk about what’s happening between us. She let out a sad little sigh. At least that way we could discuss it before one of my loud mouth brothers make assumptions and blurts something out.
She replayed her conversation with Toni in her mind. "She’s more than just a tourist to you, isn’t she, Harley? I mean-it’s obvious with everything your body says when you’re next to her. Even Connie noticed it. So, why don’t you just tell me what’s going on?
The sheriff thought it over. She’d been concentrating so hard on this whole attack at Stephanie’s house that she’d let her usual guard down a bit. She really didn’t realize how she had been silently communicating her feelings for the small woman, but now that Toni pointed it out, she saw it. How do I answer that? I really don’t know what I’m feeling. It’s just so intense and concentrated and it’s all about her.
"I don’t know how to tell you what’s going on. I have no clue myself. All I know is since the moment I met her, I can’t stop thinking about her. I feel special and… oh, hell, I don’t know how to explain myself. This has never happened to me before. I just met the woman a couple of days ago, for the Gods sakes," she finished and let out an exasperated sigh. She leaned against the counter and rubbed her ear lobe.
"Well, let’s just take it one step at a time. You obviously have some feelings for her that go beyond simple physical attraction. I’ve known you all your life and I’ve seen you attracted to other women. You never share their personal space in public. This one is different. She obviously feels something too. I don’t know her like I know you, but I’d be willing to wager that her feelings go a bit deeper than simple attraction. You say you only met her a couple of days ago, right?"
"Yeah," she grinned a little at the memory, "I had to give her a speeding ticket."
Toni returned the grin, and then turned serious. "So tell me how far this has gone between you."
"It hasn’t. Not really, anyway. We’ve come real close to kissing each other a couple of times, and that’s part of what has me confused. That’s just not like me. I don’t do one-night stands and I don’t get involved with people intimately when I’ve only just met them. But with her, its like, I dunno, like wildfire. Every time I’m near her, I can’t seem to get close enough. I can see myself holding her and touching her and I have these little flashes of us being together somewhere down the line, ya know? It’s just so weird. Like this morning when she called me about the knife in her pillow…’
"About the WHAT?"
"Oh, sorry, some new stuff you haven’t heard about yet. I forgot the store only just opened a few minutes before we walked in, so the grapevine wouldn’t have reached you yet."
She related the happenings at Stephanie’s early that morning and saw the deep concern etched on the older woman’s brow. Before she could volunteer to take care of Emily, as she knew her friend was about to, she told her that the writer agreed to stay with Twyla for a while.
"Well, that’s good then. Now, you mentioned how you were feeling this morning."
"Oh, yeah," she started to blush again and found she couldn’t stop it. "When she called and told me and she sounded so frightened about it, I rushed out and while I was driving over there, this thought flashed though my head. I thought if she’d just been home where she belonged, then none of this would have happened. She’d be safe, cause no one could have gotten into our house. And you see, I was thinking of ‘home’ and ‘our house’ as my house. It was like in my head, she should have been there where she belonged instead of visiting at Stephanie’s, you know." She grinned deprecatingly and shook her head, expecting the woman to look at her as if she was the nut she knew she felt like.
The crafter just smiled gently at her and said, "No. Not weird. However, knowing you as I do, I expect you to think of it that way. I’ll tell you a little secret. I felt the same way about Abby. Shortly after we met, she came down with a terrible cold after having given me her jacket when we were out late one cool evening in autumn. I was so angry with her and I couldn’t figure out why. Neither could she, until she asked me straight out what made me so mad. I just blurted out if she’d just let me take care of her like she ought to, she wouldn’t have gotten sick. We both just shut up and looked at each other like we’d both been punched in the gut."
She smiled a little at her own sweet memory. "Then, after that it just became easier between us. By the end of the month we knew we were together, even if it did take the better part of a year for us to admit it to each other." She ran her hands over the front of her throw and looked intently at the Sheriff. "Don’t dismiss this. You know in your heart you feel differently for her than anyone else. Don’t just pretend its simple attraction and don’t fool yourself into thinking it’ll go away if she leaves. It won’t and you better figure out just what you’re gonna do about it." She cocked her head and smiled very sweetly at her younger friend. "And, if you do the right thing, you’re going to end up happy. Now, that’s not such a bad thing to aspire to, is it?"
Just then, the door opened and they heard Connie and Emily return.
Happy isn’t a bad thing. I want to be happy. I want Emily to be happy. I’m pretty sure I’d like us to be happy, together. Now, all I have to figure out is, just what in the hell is the right thing to do?
Emily’s thoughts were running in similar directions. She was remembering what Connie told her when they were picking Twyla’s bouquet.
The older woman informed her in bursts of conversation, between concentrating on choosing the blooms and making just the right cut that she and Toni, or Annie, as Connie called her, had been together for over forty-six years. They met after Connie finished college and moved to Toni’s hometown. Even though the woman used an economy of words to describe it, with long pauses between sentences, her writer’s natural talent and that secret romantic she buried down deep were moved deeply by the story. She saw it clearly as the woman related it.
"Annie was standing at the bus stop. I’d just left the county offices after being assigned my new job. Went outside to get in my car and get back to my new apartment to unpack. I often wondered if that little bitch was born just for the purpose of drawing my attention to Annie standing there on that day. I heard her and three of her friends giggle and point at this girl at the bus stop. I didn’t know what they were saying, but by the nasty looks on their faces; just full of disgust and reproach, and the way they kept pointing at her behind her back, I knew it was nothing good. Anyway, she was standing in front of the bench, holding on to a dress bag and her fingers were so tightly wrapped around it I knew it would be wrinkled. Her posture was stiff and very erect, but I could see her eyes were full and she was going to cry any minute. Before I could think it through and stop myself, I walked up to her and said, "I’ve been looking all over for you. Are you ready to go, my car’s right there."
She just looked at me and after a very long second, pulled herself together and said, "Sure, let’s go."
I was so proud of her and I didn’t even know her name. We walked past the girls who had done the damage and I just glared at them for all I was worth. All but the one who giggled, got a real guilty look on their faces and started to walk away.
To make a long story short, I drove us out of the city limits and parked at a roadside drive-thru. We got a couple of sodas and then we started talking. I didn’t know till much later that Annie hadn’t told anyone the whole story of what she told me that day. The gist of it was, the mayor’s son raped her after the last day of her first year at college.
Her father was the minister of the town and they were very dependant on the mayor and his group of friends for their very existence. He told her he didn’t believe her. He said that she must have seduced the boy and not to mention it again. Then, a week before I met her, she found out she was pregnant. Her parents decided she was to marry one of the boys who’d been courting her for the last several years. She didn’t want to do it. Not to someone she didn’t love, and they refused to allow her to tell this boy that she was pregnant.
Right then and there I knew I had to help her out of this. We met again everyday she could make an excuse to get out of the house, and finally the night before the wedding, we admitted that neither one of us was going to let this happen, so with no viable alternative, we decided to just leave town. We ended up here. We figured it was as far away from Tennessee as we could get. Always thought it was kind of funny that we left a town called Briar to end up in a town called Bramble, but the difference in the two towns couldn’t have been greater.
We settled in and a few months later, Annie gave birth to our Crystal Rose." Her narrative stopped then and she looked heartbroken for a minute. Before Emily could decide what to say to comfort the woman, she had herself back in hand. Clearing her throat a bit, she continued. "Little Billy was less than a year old when his Daddy died. I don’t think Crys ever recovered from it. Less than a year later we lost her too, same way, damn drunk driver. Only blessing was that we had Billy up here with us when she was hit."
Suddenly, without any warning, the conversation was thrown in a new direction. "You know, Crys used to sit the Ravensdown kids. Every time she came home she had a new Harley story to tell. Even as a baby, that kid was so smart. It used to be something we all looked forward to. She’d have us laughing so hard telling tales about how that kid got one over on her." She stopped arranging the ferns around the bouquet and just looked at the younger woman. "I guess that hasn’t changed, seeing as how she picked you."
The jaw dropped again and Emily was seriously considering seeing a dentist to replace the joint in it, as Connie pushed her mouth closed. She was formulating her sentence carefully. Trying, as she always tried, not to give too much of herself away in it, when she stopped to think about that very thing. Jesus, I DO do that, don’t I? Just when did I start to be so careful? When did I begin to think defensively all the time? Why do I worry about letting people see what I really think and feel? Before she could answer any of her own questions, Connie continued.
"I know it’s none of my business but I can’t help but notice how the two of you relate to each other. If you haven’t done anything about it, it’s only a matter of time." She stopped and pulled her gloves off and picked up the bouquet with one hand, crooking her head in the direction of the door they came out of. She finished with, "It’s so much easier than everyone thinks, letting go and letting love in. Don’t over analyze it, Honey; just go with it. If not, I can guarantee you’ll look back on this and either hate yourself for being a coward, or laugh with her, years down the road, at all the stupid reasons you waited so long to admit it." She laughed a little and said, "Abby and I are lucky enough to get to laugh about it." She patted the younger woman on her shoulder as they entered the shop. "Don’t live your whole life regretting the one time in your life you just didn’t have the balls to take what you wanted."
That remark made her angry, and had they not been in the company of Toni and Harley, she would have said something rude and caustic to the older woman. What was all this talk about love and cowardice? For heaven’s sake, she hardly knew the woman. She didn’t know what Connie thought Harley and she meant to each other, but they were nothing like ‘in love’. She would have told her too. Until, she looked into Harley’s eyes and realized that Connie was right. She was scared.
I’m a mess. I haven’t had this much confusion rattling around my head since I was kid. I’ve always known what I was doing and where I was going. She realized she didn’t have that anymore. Ever since she arrived here she’d been running on presumption, assumption and the status quo, as if here was just like any other place, and all the people here were just like all the others she’d ever met, and that was patently wrong.
She’d been wrong a lot since that first day. Wrong about the people and wrong about herself. The only ‘right’ thing in my life is the way Harley makes me feel. Now I just have to spend a little time trying to figure out what to do about it.
The deepening silence was broken when Harley asked her if she minded if they had fast food for lunch.
"No, that’d be fine." She was surprised that her voice sounded so loud.
"In the mood for burgers, chicken or Mexican food?" She smiled and hoped that the younger woman would make the choice for her. Food was the last thing on her mind right now, and the only reason she said anything was remembering the writer’s need to eat so that she could take her pain pill.
Amazingly, Emily found herself without an appetite. She couldn’t remember the last time that happened, and so, she was unable to make a decision about where to eat. She threw it back in Harley’s court. "No preference here. Whatever you feel like is fine with me." She hoped she was sounding as perky and non committal as she was pretending, but her mind was just so preoccupied with conflicting thoughts, she wasn’t sure if she pulled it off.
Damn. All right, when in doubt, let someone else choose. That’s safe. She picked up her radio and called Cole, asking him to decide. The minute she did it she knew she made a mistake. She forgot that Cole always waited for her to decide and then had whatever she was having. He’d been doing it ever since her first year in college. It was a superstition for him. She was the one who introduced him to his wife, her college dorm roommate. After that, he always avowed that her taste in everything was better than his. Shit. This is getting us nowhere. On the verge of losing her temper, Harley made a quick right turn and pulled into the Burger King.
Both women were grateful that Cole was willing to pick up the conversational ball when they got back to the station.
"Hobie called and said Billy will be fine in a couple of days, nothing more than first degree burns. He said that Mom, getting that water on him right away, did the trick. He should be back at work by day after tomorrow."
Both women made quiet ‘that’s good’ and ‘thank goodness’ and glad to hear it’ murmurs while pretending to eat. Cole realized something was up and just kept trying to lighten the atmosphere by keeping up his end of the conversation.
"He also said that Paris came in to see him and she’s fine." He grinned at his sister and chucked her on the arm. "He said her head is almost as hard as yours, and he sent her home after changing her bandage.
That got the blondes attention. "Paris? Do you mean Paris Long Arrow? From the Village?" When Cole just nodded while he chewed, she turned to Harley. "What happened to her?"
Damn, this day just gets better and better. Now, how do I tell her about this without freaking her out?
Her head hurt from the stress. Her thoughts were in an uproar since she spoke to Toni. She still wasn’t quite over that spectacular spurt of arousal she felt when she’d almost kissed the blonde this morning, and she hadn’t been able to positively decide who was to blame for the knife in Emily’s bed or the blow to Paris’s head.
Christ Almighty, I wish someone else were sheriff for a day here.
"What do you mean she thought she was helping? Who told her she was allowed to think?" The voice yelling on the phone came close to shrieking next. "God Dammit, if you can’t keep a handle on your little protégé, then get rid of her. Just what did she think would happen after she pulled that little stunt, huh? Was she expecting the woman to just run screaming into the night and never return?" Before any answer could be given, the voice dropped to its lowest register and the malice in it was chilling to hear. "You just keep her in line or I will." The tirade ended finally, followed by a deep inhalation. "I’ll handle the rest of this mess myself. You concentrate on the other target, and keep your assistant out of it, cause if she thinks again without permission, I’ll make sure it’s the last thing she does. Clear?" With a calmness that belied obvious agitation, the call was ended before any words in rebuttal could be uttered
At the click of the phone disconnecting, the recipient of the call redirected the full force of anger at the verbal abuse and humiliation, uttering only one word.
The woman heard the tone, and though it was quiet and questioning, she wasn’t fooled. She’d heard that voice before. She knew she was about to be punished. She gave a momentary thought to running, but realized she’d never make it. She stood from her desk in the outer office and slowly made her way into the larger room.
"Shut the door, Nancy."
The woman did as she was bid and tried hard to remember when this voice, saying those same words used to be a thing of anticipation. Back when they used to excite and arouse her, but she couldn’t, and despite all of her best efforts, the fear won out. She doubled over and threw up.
"Now you know that’s just going to make it worse, don’t you?"
The last thing she remembered clearly before the pain began was shaking so hard she couldn’t stand up anymore and falling to her knees in her own vomit.
Harley held up her hands in a gesture to indicate she needed a minute, then got up and opened the first aid kit on the wall, removed three pills, and downed them with the last of her coffee. She started walking quietly around the room.
"I don’t have any answers for you, Emily. I only have more questions and a couple of suppositions, but no proof to back them up."
Suddenly Emily knew exactly what the officer was feeling and without thinking, she blurted it out. "I’ll bet you hate that, don’t you? I know I would. I can’t stand that feeling. The minute I confront a problem or a puzzle all my energy goes into solving it. The ‘need to know’ becomes my only focus."
"Oh, that’s Harley all right. Even as a kid she ruined all of her toys by taking them apart the minute Mom and Dad weren’t looking, just to see how they worked."
A look of quiet embarrassment crossed the dark haired woman’s face, but she nodded. "I’ll admit to it."
"Oh boy, me too," Emily added with a laugh. "My dad used to call me Riki Tiki Tavi when I was little. I think my folks stopped buying me things that could be dismantled fairly early on. The last toys I remember getting before they stopped altogether and just bought me books and computer programs were things like balls and jump ropes."
They all laughed at that and then Cole said, "This one, too," pointing to Harley, he continued, "except, Dad called her Mongoose."
"He still does," the sheriff added, shaking her head a little.
"Okay, let’s go with that. I know there’s very little I can do that you can’t or haven’t already done, but I’m, kind of out of a job here, until I can type again and I love a good puzzle. Why not let me help. Just tell me what you’ve got and what you think and, if nothing else, you’ll get another perspective out of it. I really am good at this sort of thing. People really seem to be able to talk to me. I bet I could get things out of anyone you’re interrogating much easier than they would speak to a lawyer," she said making a face. "I’ve got an excellent memory and I can remember long streams of conversations verbatim." She smiled a little and cocked her head. "You’ve got nothing to lose, and we do sort of seem to get along all right."
Harley thought it over. On the one hand, anything that kept the young woman interested enough to stick around Bramble was a good thing. Okay, so that’s a selfish motive, totally irrelevant to the logic of the question. On the other hand, whoever did this for whatever reason was smart and dangerous. On the other hand again, having the woman with her most of the time while she investigated, would afford the writer a measure of security. She knew she wouldn’t let anything happen to Emily while she was with her. Plus, she’d get to spend more time with her. That was also a good thing. Irrelevant, immaterial and self-serving. Stop that! Okay, I obviously am not going to think about this logically or impartially here. I know the con to this whole business is putting Emily in harm’s way, but my gut tells me she’s safer with me than on her own. And if she truly is anything like I am, she’ll go ahead and start her own investigation as soon as she’s out of my sight. Sooooo.
"Okay. I suppose it can’t hurt." She saw the green eyes before her twinkle with anticipation. "BUT!" Her voice was loud and forceful, causing Emily to flinch just a bit. "I’m going to lay down some ground rules. For your own safety, I want you to promise you will abide by them." She closed the distance between them as she began to tick them off on her fingers.
"One." Emily never saw this serious of a look in Harley’s eyes before. It was riveting and she couldn’t look away from it. She wasn’t afraid, as much as fascinated, by the power the woman projected. She knew if she had any sense at all, she ought to be frightened by it, but, oddly, she felt… turned on. She suppressed the little smile that wanted to pop out and gave her attention over to those eyes and that voice that held her in thrall.
"You will follow my lead in all things. If I tell you to stay somewhere, that’s where you stay. If I tell you not to do something, don’t do it. If I say jump, I want you to ask how high on your way up.
Two. You will be assisting the Sheriff’s office in this. That’s all. At no time will you be investigating or following up any leads on your own. You will wait for either me or Cole and inform us of any new evidence you may have uncovered or been privy to, or suspicions you may have, or feel may need to be checked out.
Three. If I say, at any time during all of this, that it’s become too dangerous for you to be involved anymore, you are out of it! No arguments, no pleadings and no rebuttals. Is all that perfectly clear?"
The writer looked her straight in the eyes and said, "Perfectly clear."
Satisfied, the officer turned away and was formulating the best way to lay all the bits of evidence and conjecture out when she had a thought. That was too easy. If it had been me, I would have said the same thing. Then, later if I broke the rules I would have the argument that I only agreed to understanding them, not to complying with them.
She turned back around and kneeled directly in front of the blonde, as she said in even, low tones, "Say it, Emily."
"Say what?" She really hoped her little evasion went unnoticed, but was sure now that it hadn’t. This woman couldn’t know her as well as Stephanie and she wasn’t telling a lie. She knew she’d never get away with that, but she’d been hopeful that this little non-disclosure might be missed. Still, she pretended ignorance of what the Sheriff wanted. But, Goddess, I love smart women. As peeved as she was to be caught in her little ploy, she was also thunderstruck by the heat of arousal pulled out of her by the brain and the body kneeling before her.
A slow smile and a burgeoning respect for the little writer’s attempt to evade her could be seen clearly on Harley’s face as she answered, "Say the words, or no deal."
Emily allowed her sight to lift only enough to see Cole’s look of confusion as he watched them. It’s a damn shame he wasn’t Sheriff this month. Him, I might have been able to snow. Oh, crap! She took in a disgusted breath of air and said very quietly, "I promise. Okay, are you happy now, Sheriff?"
Harley stood and let a delighted grin show and replied, "It’ll do. Of course, a promise is only as good as the word of the person who gives it. Are you a woman of integrity Ms. Cutter? Can you be trusted?" The teasing lilt in her voice and her left brow lifting in question skewed the words into an obvious flirtation and before Emily had the time to get mad about it, she caught on.
Emily returned the look to the Sheriff. "Cross my heart, "she said, slowly, as she ran her left index finger above her left breast marking an invisible X there and ending quite deliberately, with her finger directly over her nipple. An instant later it was gone.
Harley had to swallow twice to empty her mouth of the rush of saliva, before she could begin to speak. She prudently turned away and starting talking, trying mightily to keep her voice even and her tone neutral. It wasn’t easy.
An hour later they were on their way back to The Village as Emily summed up the information Harley gathered and shared with her at the station. "So, we have a person or person’s unknown who snuck into Stephanie’s and put a knife into the pillow next to my head. Our supposition is that, one, it was meant to either scare me into leaving or, two, warn me in some way, or three, the perpetrator had no idea I would be there, and assumed it would be Stephanie who got the surprise for any of the same reasons or others we haven’t thought about yet.
"Right. And whoever it was, knew the code for the alarm system."
"Okay. Now, add to that, you think it ties in with The Village and Paris’s injury, correct?"
"Yeah. The knife is the same brand and model that they use in their woodcraft classes. Add to that, someone hit Paris over the head last night as she was making her rounds to lock up, not ten feet from the armory room where they’re kept."
"But you said they did an inventory after you spoke with her and all the knives were accounted for."
"True." The sheriff made the turn into the driveway of the Village. "The idea of a red herring here did enter my mind. I think someone here wanted to make us believe it had something to do with the Village or its residents. I think whatever we find here we need to look at with that idea at the forefront. Let’s assume it’s a ploy and try to listen around any evidence, until it’s proven without a doubt that this is a part of it. My instinct says it’s not one of these people, but I’m willing to bet we find something here, probably planted, to make us assume that it is."
She stopped the car and pulled her gun from the holster next to her seat and slipped it under her jacket and into the waistband at the back of her jeans. "Dani and Paris are good at what they do, and they have a real feel for weeding out the women they feel are just a little too mental to learn this stuff. Neither one of them wants to end up in a lawsuit for having taught some psycho how to shoot straight. They interview them and ask some pretty telling questions. If either one of them suspects that the applicant is a little wobbly emotionally, they tell her no."
"I’m assuming here that one or both of them really know what to look for. I mean, I’ve met some ostensibly totally together people who have turned out to be really nuts."
The blonde suddenly had a brief flash of memory from her sophomore year of college. Tiffany seemed totally together when we met. Calm, logical, quiet and seemingly happy. Who knew on summer break she would go home and shoot both her parents, and herself?
It was her complete misreading of her dorm mate that caused Emily to take three advanced psychology courses the following year, and even at that, she never knew why Tiffany did it. No note, no friends or counselors who knew anything about it, no clue at as to why she simply snapped. Not knowing the answer to that puzzle was one of the reasons she finished that first novel. The ‘not knowing’ was driving her crazy and she had to channel that energy into something. In a way, Tiffany was responsible for her success. Is that the most sick and morbid thought I’ve ever had, or what?
"Dani has a Masters in Psychology and Paris spent five years with the LAPD. They know what they’re doing."
Five minutes later found them sharing a couch in the living quarters of the two owners. Harley ran down for Dani all of the evidence, supposition and conjecture they had and told her flatly that she was convinced that the attack on Paris was planned to bring attention to The Village. Then she asked if she and Paris found anything in the casual search of the guest’s rooms that she asked them to conduct.
"Yeah, we did. But I’m inclined to agree with you that it was a pretty weak attempt to incriminate a guest." She brought out a folded piece of paper from her back pocket and handed it to the Sheriff. Emily scooted a little closer to the officer to see it.
"We found this under the mattress of one of our regulars. Beth has come out for two weeks every year for the past four years. She has no problem with anyone and is in a stable relationship with a man she’s been living with for the last nine years. She’s easygoing and likeable and I’ve never heard her say one nasty word about anyone else here. We found that under her mattress." She just looked at them and rolled her eyes.
The paper was a crudely hand drawn map of the area around the school and a large red ‘X’ was penciled in over Stephanie’s house with the words, KILL THE EVIL THAT LIVES WITHIN scrawled dramatically on the side.
"Ah, geez. Even my little sister could write a more believable threat than that, and she has no imagination at all." Emily said, and then tapped her chin. "Wait a minute, that rings a bell. Give me a second to remember where I heard it. Just carry on; it’ll come to me. "She got up and began pacing the room.
Harley folded the paper back up and then spoke, "Well, this settles one issue. Anyone dumb enough to plant this note and hit Paris on the head would not be smart enough to figure out how to disarm the alarm panel. Which means, someone gave the code away."
As Dani was about to speak, the door opened and Paris walked in. "Hi all. Sorry I took so long, but I had to get Missy out of her damn office to lead the nature walk." She smiled devilishly, "She just had her nails done for her sister’s wedding and didn’t want to chip anything."
"Ah Paris, that was mean. You know she hates the nature walks anyway, and those acrylics cost her two hundred dollars. Couldn’t you have gotten Mickey to do it?" The sound of reproach Dani was trying for, lost a little of its impact as she couldn’t stop the smile that kept twitching at the edges of her mouth.
"Nope. It was Missy’s turn. Ever since she got that new computer program in, all she does is work out new combat scenarios. It’s good for her to get a little dirt under her nails for a change." The satisfied smirk on her face had only the barest hint of evil as she sat on the arm of the chair next to her partner. "Besides, if you want to go on that cruise you booked, she better get used to doing some of your jobs, or we’re never gonna get away."
She turned her attention to Harley. "So, what’s up? Anything new on who I get to kill for knocking me out last night?" Absent-mindedly she rubbed the knuckles of one hand in the palm of the other.
"VAMPYRIANA. DAUGHTER OF THE DEAD." Emily shouted.
Three sets of eyes looked at her as though she’d just yelled FIRE in a crowded theatre.
Harley was the first to recover. She opened her mouth, formed a perfect ‘O’, closed her mouth, shook her head as though to clear it and said, finally, "Wh… what?"
Emily looked at her as if the sheriff had sustained a head injury. "KILL THE EVIL THAT LIVES WITHIN," she said, in her best, deep voiced, horror picture narrator impersonation. Seeing the still vacant expression on the three faces in front of her, she took her seat again next to Harley, and let out a little sigh of disgust. "That’s where it came from. The movie was called, "Vampyriana. Daughter of The Dead." I knew I remembered that line from somewhere. Not only is the person who wrote this stupid, they have terrible taste in movies."
Harley let a small grin appear, "If the movie was so awful, how is it that you remember it so well?"
"Easy." Emily answered lightly and a full blown smile crossed her face, "That movie got me twenty-five points in the club and the prequel to it allowed me to clinch the national championships."
The seriously confused look was back on the faces of all the women listening to her so Emily decided a brief explanation was in order. "When I was in college, I joined an internet club. The object of the club was to ferret out the worst movies of all times. A board was selected from the oldest members and you could submit your nomination for ‘worst movie’ of the month. The board would watch it and determine its point value. Twenty-five points was the most you could get. The month I submitted it, the board found it to be worse than any of the other contenders and I won. I also used the prequel in the sorority charades national championship. I won, because no one could name the movie I was acting out."
Once again, Harley found herself charmed and fascinated by the small woman. She sat enraptured by this out of the way explanation and the way the writer was telling it. She had to ask. "Okay, I’ll bite. What was the name of the prequel that a nation of sorority house charade champions couldn’t guess?"
"The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies," she said and waited for the reaction. Surprisingly, she didn’t get one from Harley.
"You made that up." Paris said quickly. Her partner mirrored the look of disbelief on her face.
"No, she didn’t." Harley answered before Emily could open her mouth. "It’s a real movie." She turned to the writer. "I’ve won myself with it at Charades, although I didn’t know it had a sequel." They smiled at each other. This obscure piece of trivia adding a new dimension to the attraction they shared for one another.
Pulling herself back to the discussion, Harley asked Paris, "Did you check on that thing for me?"
"Yep. Never happened, or if it did, no one saw anything."
"Okay, thanks." Noticing the look of confusion on Emily’s face she knew she had to get them out of here before she explained. She rose abruptly and told her friends to keep them advised if anything else should happen around here, and taking the writer by the arm, they left as quickly as Harley could manage.
They were almost to Bender Road before Emily asked. "Something you want to share with me, Sheriff?"
"I tried to consider who might have wanted to hurt you. You haven’t been here long enough to have gotten on anyone’s bad side so it had to be either where you were or who you were with." She cleared her throat. Gods, I really don’t want to say this.
As though the smaller woman could read her mind, Emily gave her a brief reprieve when she offered lightly, "I dunno. Maybe it was a literary critic. Did you read my last book? Not good, Harley. Not good at all." She shook her head slowly and scowled.
Harley was glad they had the little tension breaker before she had to talk about Valerie and her suspicions. She was however, not going to let this issue go without responding. "Yes, I did read it," Without turning her head, she could see the writer whip her head around in shock.
Quite suddenly and for the first time, Emily was embarrassed. Up to now, when thinking about her bad reviews or the criticism Stephanie gave her about her last book, she’d been universally unaffected. Almost as though she thought it was a minor problem and with a good re-write she could fix it. When she first read the reviews she was defensive, acting as though the reviewers just didn’t understand her properly, but she was never embarrassed or ashamed of her work. Not until now and she had no idea how to handle it.
"What did you think of it?" Christ, why did I ask that? That was the last thing I wanted to say. Now she’s gonna tell me and I don’t known what to say to her.
Harley cleared her throat and said gently, "It wasn’t your best work. I liked the others better." She really hoped she didn’t hurt the writer with that. It was the most diplomatic thing she could say and still tell the truth. Ah damn, look at that face. She’s really embarrassed now. Change the subject. Better me than her.
"So anyway, what I asked Paris to do for me, was to check with everyone at
The Village to see if Valerie was in town yesterday. She might have been the one who broke in to Stephanie’s."
Emily was torn between gratitude for the subject change and annoyance. She felt the annoyance clearly, but couldn’t figure out its cause. "Why Valerie? I don’t even know her."
"I know, but you did spend the day with me yesterday and Valerie seems to have some issues with my spending time with any other woman but her." She kept her eyes on the road and didn’t give in to that part of her that wanted to see the writer’s expression. She realized she was afraid of it.
"Isn’t that just a little tiny bit arrogant? I mean I don’t know you very well, and I don’t know this Valerie at all, but to think she would break into someone else’s house and plant a knife in the bed of a total stranger just because she saw me with you, is a little… extreme don’t you think?"
"As a matter of fact, I did. That’s why I asked for another opinion. I spoke to both Dani and Paris. They know Valerie better than I do and they both agreed it was something she’d do. Dani said she’s totally irrational where I’m concerned. Since I broke up with her, they found out that no one ever did that to her before. She was always the one in control of the relationship. She had all the power. I don’t think it’s because of any deep and abiding love she feels for me. Paris told me she’s a real control freak." Yeah. Like I didn’t find that out for myself. Crazy bitch! "She says that her whole problem with me is that I was the one to end the ‘thing’ between us. I can’t even call it a relationship; it was too shallow for that. She’d been playing a role for weeks with me and it took time to find out what she was really like. When I did, I ended it and she’s never forgiven that." She ran her hand over her forehead and blew out a breath. "Anyway, it looks like she was nowhere around last night and this morning. At least not where anyone at The Village saw her. I’m still not convinced she wasn’t the one who did this. She’s plenty smart enough to have gotten that code some how, and she’s more than mean enough to have thought this was good idea."
"I see." Emily said quietly. She was trying very hard not to show the anger she was feeling. Thinking of the misery that this woman subjected Harley to and realizing that it still wasn’t over made her more than mad. She was fighting mad.
On the other side of the seat, the Sheriff was flipping a mental coin. Heads she would turn and look at Emily’s face and if she saw the fear she expected, she would end any and all thoughts of a future with the woman, instantly, or tails, she would just keep her eyes straight ahead and wait for Emily to tell her she was frightened and didn’t want to have anything to do with her and this lunatic who was capable of this kind of terror. Stop it right now! Daddy would be so ashamed of you. You do what’s right this minute and give this woman an out. It’s not her fault and you can’t expect her to deal with your mess.
She pulled the car into the parking lot of the high school and put it in park. Steeling herself, she turned to look at the writer and spoke. "Emily, I understand if you…"
Unfortunately, at that precise moment, Emily lost the hold on her anger and started to speak herself, "How dare she treat you like this…"
"What?" They said in unison.
"You first," Harley said, confused at finding anger in the blonde, instead of the expected fear.
"What I said was, how dare she treat you this way. You’re a lawyer: can’t you get an injunction against her or something? She’s obviously threatening you and making you go out of your way to avoid her in your own hometown. What about Dani and Paris, can’t they buy her share of the business out or something, so she has no reason to be here at all?" She ran her hand through her hair and shook her head. "There has to be something someone can do to get the bitch out of your life once and for all."
Harley couldn’t help the smile that grew as the woman spoke. It just got bigger and bigger as the woman talked. Finally, Emily wound down enough to notice it and asked, "What? Why are you smiling?"
Without any conscious permission the words just slipped out. "You are just wonderful."
Their eyes locked and the silence was absolute. As the writer tried to find her tongue to respond, they heard the bell ring and class loads of teenagers began to bear down on them.
The moment was over.
Once again, reality reared its head and the moment was lost. Still smiling at the unexpected and moving words the Sheriff said, the writer felt the need to bring up the mundane, rather than blurt out her thoughts.
"So, why are we here?"
"We’re here to see Rita McKinnon." She answered, as she shifted her gaze to watch for the girl.
""And she is…?"
"Oh yeah. Sorry. She’s the girl Steph has take care of her house when she’s gone. Rita’s one of the few people with the code for the alarm, and I’m not sure she told me the whole truth when I asked her if she’d given the code to anyone else. "The skin around her eyes crinkled into small hard lines and before her eyes, Emily saw the lawyer emerge. She remembered being young herself and thought that if she was pushed into an interrogation by this women, she’d have just shut up. At that age, I was as stubborn as an ink stain on white silk, and if I thought I was being pushed they would have needed a laxative to get me to move. Then she had another thought.
"Harley, why don’t you let me handle her?" She could see the woman begin to form an immediate objection to the idea, and rushed to supply her reasoning behind the request.
"Wait a minute, before you say no just hear me out, okay?"
Feeling as though she had nothing to lose and knowing she held the reigns of decision, Harley acquiesced. "Okay, shoot."
"First, she doesn’t know me and has no preconceived notion of what I want from her. I can approach this from the house guest-who-needs-some help from the resident expert on Steph’s place and you can’t. Next, I get people to tell me stuff they don’t know they’re telling me all the time. Third, I remember vividly what it felt like to be a teenager and I can relate to her." She smiled a bit at Harley’s look of indignation and quickly followed with, "I’m not saying you’re an old woman Harley, just that you have a fairly overwhelming presence." Noting the look of surprise on the woman’s face she added, "Oh don’t tell me you’ve never been told that before, and that has a tendency to… put people on the defensive. Finally, I’ll be coming at her from a blind corner. She won’t know to be on the defensive with me, because she’ll think I’m after something else altogether." She paused and assessed the officer. Feeling the need to add one more argument, she said. "Come on, Harley, what can it hurt? If I don’t get what you need, you can always talk to her later. I’ll even hold the spotlight on her while you use the rubber hose." She grinned and hoped a little charm would sway the woman.
It did. "Okay, writer, you’re on. She’s coming out of that room over there in a few minutes. She stays after on Thursday as an aid to the teacher. If you want to play it like you said, you’d best get out of this car and find a way to make your pitch." She started the car as the blonde, removed her seat belt and tried to open the door with her left arm. Harley leaned her long body over her and pulled the handle for her. "You’re on your own, then. This," she pointed at the street they pulled off of to enter the lot of the school, "is Prospector. Just follow it back down the road to Bender and turn left. That’s where the Bulletin’s office is. I’ll be inside waiting for you. I need to speak to JD anyway." Without another word, she took off and left the writer in the school parking lot, trying to decide on the right approach.
Then, realizing she had no idea what this girl even looked like, she stepped forward.
"Well, I better get over there before she’s leaves and I don’t even know I’ve missed her."
The look and smell of the classroom brought back distinct memories for the writer and she was pleased to see that one wall was lined with tables of computers. Above the wall was page after page of typed papers with ‘A+’ boldly displayed in red ink. They seemed to be short stories or articles as each had a title and the closest ones showed quotation marks in many places. Maybe a writer will get a better audience than a houseguest. Let’s see.
She saw a gray haired woman standing next to a young girl on a ladder who was stapling a jack-o-lantern banner above the blackboard. At the end where the banner began, she saw a large color picture of three witches stirring a caldron. Feeling around for an opening line, she stepped into the room and quietly cleared her throat.
The sheriff’s car was parked directly in front of the front door to the small newspaper office. Harley grabbed her hat, went up the two old brick steps and smiled to herself at the smell of the place. Since she was little this was always one of her favorite places in town. She instantly recognized the sound of the old paper press in the back room. JD could have replaced it long ago, but he felt, as she did, that it was a part of the town, and so he just kept maintaining it.
She followed the sound and found her brother wiping his hands and staring intently at the drum as copies of newsprint disgorged from its end.
"So, have you stared it down yet? Personally, if it was me, I’d be cowed into performing by now." The wide-eyed look of innocence was completely wasted on her brother, who knew both sarcasm, and his sister, very well.
Without making eye contact and still staring hard at the machinery in front of him, he said, "Go away, Harley, if you didn’t bring me news or food, I don’t have to talk to you until Sunday at dinner. Mom said so."
"Well now, if you aren’t the grumpiest editor I’ve ever met. A person comes in to see you and compliments your obvious intimidation skills and all she gets is the brush off. You better be nice or I’ll tell Daddy."
He finally deigned to look at her, noticed a tiny tension around her eyes that told him this was more than a social call and acted on it. "Let’s step into my office and talk."
The woman and girl turned from their decorations and looked her way. Emily was glad beyond measure that this was a creative writing class as it gave her an automatic pass. As they turned and Emily got her first good look at the young girl she was to interrogate, she spotted her ‘in’ and had a moment’s epiphany as it all came together for her. Plan your work and work your plan. This is gonna be easy.
"Hi. My name is Shasta Cutter and I was looking for Rita…" That’s as far as she got before the older woman interrupted her.
"Oh, my, Miss. Cutter it is an honor to meet you. I’ve been such a fan of your work. I have every thing you’ve written. Please come in and have a seat." The woman hurried over and pulled the large chair from behind her desk to the area in front of the black board.
Like taking candy from a baby. She noticed the slack jawed stare and the nervous fidgeting of the younger girl and realized that, in this instance, her fame was going to do half the job for her.
"Thanks, Uh, Miss.?"
"Oh, my, I am sorry. How rude of me. I’m Mrs. Johansson, English and Creative Writing." The older woman extended her hand as Emily approached the chair. As the author got closer she realized what she was doing and quickly switched hands to offer the woman her left in deference to the cast on the right one. She remembered somewhere in the back of mind, that her mother had told her years ago that offering your left hand was considered rude and she didn’t want to offend the woman. Having another second thought she partially dropped her hand and looked at the writer with the flush of embarrassed confusion on her face.
After the introductions, it was easy. Shasta insisted that Mrs. Johansson take the chair and she sat in a front row desk, facing her. She allowed the woman to go on and on about her and her books and discussed plotline and character development with her much longer than she normally would have. She was setting the stage so to speak, and it was working fine. She kept her attention seemingly on the teacher but her real concentration was on the developing look of adulation on the girls face. Rita continued to stand at Mrs. Johansson’s side, only moving when her teacher asked her to retrieve two of the author’s book from the small bookcase behind the large desk. Shasta obediently signed the copies, adding an appropriately sweet tag and then felt the time was right and her victim primed enough to make her move.
Shasta started to rise and said, "Mrs. Johansen, it was a pleasure to meet you and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed talking with you, but I came here to talk to Rita for a few minutes, if that’s okay." She stopped and gave her most winning smile to the teenager who found herself blushing in response.
"Not at all, Miss. Cutter. It was my pleasure, I assure you. Thanks for the autographs and the wonderful conversation and please, if you find yourself free of an afternoon while you’re staying here, do drop in again anytime. I would love for my class to have a chance to ask a few questions of such a fine writer."
"Well, if that isn’t one of the nicest invitations I’ve ever had. You can count on it, Mrs. Johansen. I’ll be sure to give you a call one day soon and we’ll arrange it, alright?"
"Now, if I can borrow your helper for a few minutes…" She turned to Rita and indicated they should step outside.
When they were out the door, Shasta turned to the girl and said, "I hope I didn’t take you away from anything important. I promise I’ll only keep you a few minutes." Her smile was still there and she could tell it was having an impact on the teenager.
"NO." Rita cleared her throat and looked down, totally abashed that she had all but shouted her response to the celebrity. "I mean, uhm, no, you… ah,… you weren’t interrupting anything." She gave her own brief smile to the author and then continued to walk slowly beside her.
"Thanks a lot, Rita, May I call you Rita?" The blonde put on her most charming look. The one she knew always got the old ladies and the young people to smile back.
"Oh, yeah. Sure." The small brunette pushed a small lock of hair back over one ear and stammered as she smiled back quickly. Then she ducked her head again to stare at the ground as the lock fell away and once more covered her face from view.
"Thanks. Anyway, I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve been staying at Stephanie Croft’s place for a few days." She was fairly sure that no rumors of the incident this morning had made their way to the young girl. The only ones who knew were the Ravensdown’s and Connie and Toni. Her attention was now completely focused on the young woman. She was watching everything about her but the young girl had no idea she was being so keenly watched.
"Oh. So you’re the guest she told me about. She called and said she was expecting company and to leave the alarm off when I came by to water the plants on Tuesday. I didn’t know it was going to be you. She said I should just take a vacation until further notice because she didn’t want you disturbed. Is there something you need?"
They stopped next to the bicycle rack at the front of the school. The writer hoped her intuition was right and just decided to follow her plan. "Well, as you can see, I had a little accident the other night." She brought her right arm up and watched the teenager look at her cast, and make the connection. She saw it in her eyes when the light went off.
"Oh my god! You’re the one that was attacked at the Nest, huh?"
Before she had a chance to do more than nod, the girl hurried on.
"Gosh, I’m so sorry. That really sucks. Are you all right? Is there anything I can do to help?"
It took her just a moment to get back in the game and recover from once again, being surprised by the willingness of the Bramble citizens to put themselves out for a total stranger. She couldn’t, however, keep the grin from her face as she realized it was a characteristic of even the youngest residents. I wonder if it’s something in the water.
"Well, yeah. Kinda. That is if you wouldn’t mind. I do kind of need some help."
"Well… sure. What can I do?" Rita leaned into a new looking blue bike and waited.
"Well, you see it’s like this. Since my, uh, accident, I don’t really have two arms anymore. Stephanie called and she’s planning on coming up this weekend for a visit and normally, that would be no problem. But right now, I’m using her bedroom and I’d like to move my things into the guest room and change the bed linens before she gets there. I was just uh, hoping that maybe you could give me a little help. I’m not normally this bad a guest but I’m not really" she lifted her sling again, "equipped for housekeeping just now, if you know what I mean."
The girl laughed and said, "I see what you mean."
"I’d be more than willing to pay you for your time. Whatever you think is appropriate, is fine with me."
"No, that’s okay. Miss. Croft pays me to do things for her like that every month."
"Uh uh. I insist. Now, how about you meet me at the house a little later and we’ll get ourselves started to put things in order. Does that sound all right? Do you have plans for tonight?"
"Nah. Nothing going on tonight. How about we make it, say around six. Would that be okay?"
"Sounds fine with me. I’ll see you then, Rita. Thanks."
"Hey, no problem, really. I’m uhm, glad to do it." She smiled shyly and pushed that same strand of dark brown hair behind her ear again.
They waved at each other as Emily started back down the street and Rita began to unlock her bike from the rack. Less than a minute later, they waved again as the teenager passed her by on the way home.
As she watched the girl pass her by, she eyed the backpack she wore and compared it to the T-shirt the girl had on. Her smile grew as she realized she had just the right bait for this. With any luck by seven tonight, Rita would have her reward, Harley would have her answer, and she would have a grateful Sheriff on her hands.
The editor stopped by the old-fashioned soda machine on the way to his office. He gave the machine the obligatory two punches just above the Coca-
Cola logo and waited for it to discharge the small bottle of soda. He retrieved it, repeated his actions, and entered his office where Harley had already taken a seat in front of his desk.
Opening the first bottle with the wall mounted bottle opener under his window, he handed it to his sister and then sat as he opened his own.
He waited a moment until they both had time to take a few sips before he opened the conversation. "Okay, spill it. What’s got you so tense?"
The woman took a deep breath and slouched down a little in the large comfortable leather chair. She crossed her legs at the ankles and stared at the toes of her boots as she formulated what to say to that.
"I take it you heard about what happened at Stephanie’s this morning?"
J.D. just nodded and waited for her to go on.
"I need you to do a little investigative reporting. Only I need you to do the reporting to me alone. You up for it?"
"You know I am. Silly question. What do you need and when do you need it?"
She had to smile at that. Of course he was. She knew it and he knew she knew it.
"I need to know everything I can about a couple of people. People I would ordinarily, not give a rat’s ass about, but I think I can’t afford to feel that way anymore. Someone pulled that stunt with Emily this morning, and I need to know who and why and there’s only two people I can think of who would get a kick out of it." She drew in and let out a deep breath. "I think the why will tell me the who, but that means I need to know what they’ve got going on. Everything. Financial records, police files, real estate holdings, business permits. Absolutely everything, like they were applying for a top-secret clearance. The only reason either one of them have for doing this is revenge, profit or power."
J.D. knew instantly to whom she was referring and agreed whole-heartedly. "Or ‘D’, all of the above or any combination thereof. How soon do you need it?"
Harley finished her Coke and leaned forward to place the empty on the editor’s desk. "Soon. Right now, Emily’s staying with Mom, but Stephanie will be up this week-end and Emily will probably go back to staying with her for a couple of days. If this wasn’t directed at Emily, than one of the alternatives is that it was a personal attack on me through Emily." She leaned further over and rested her elbows on her knees. "I just don’t know enough to keep her safe right now, and it bothers me."
Yeah, it does, doesn’t it Harley? It’s a lot more than just a puzzle to solve this time, isn’t it Mongoose. Well, only one way to know with her and that’s to ask. "
"Okay, fair enough, but now are you going to tell me what has you so bugged, because it’s more than this, isn’t it?" The editor pinned his sister with his most uncompromising look.
If she had been nearly anyone else, it might have worked, but she wasn’t. Her first inclination was to brush it off with an excuse about her being tired or concerned about a visitor to Bramble, but J.D. and she had always enjoyed a really close relationship and she rethought it.
The walk up Prospector to Bender gave the small woman a few minutes to let her mind wander, and, as was usual for the last couple of days, it wondered in the Sheriff’s direction.
I’ve really got to stop this. How can I even begin to consider how I feel about her until I start to figure out just what’s been going on with me. I haven’t been myself since that first night here and I don’t know if it’s because I’m trying to be something I’m not or because… and this thought disturbed greatly, it’s because this is the real me… the one I always should have been. Have I been living a lie so long that I never really gave a thought to it?
The ringing of her cell phone interrupted her musing. She awkwardly retrieved it from her right jacket pocket and answered. It wasn’t until the voice replied that she regretted not having checked the caller ID to see who it was.
"Shasta, sweetie, where have you been? Derek, Tony and Giselle have been beside themselves with worry. They had to recruit some tourist to finish the match at the club, and Dolly was livid when you didn’t attend her opening." The well-modulated voice was underplayed with just a touch of the Boston upper crust accent the woman had, and the petulance at having to remind the author of her social responsibilities.
Suddenly, the author was annoyed that this supposed friend of hers hadn’t even opened the conversation with a simple, "How are you?" before she began to berate her. She suddenly remembered all those people here she’d met who wouldn’t have dreamed of behaving that way and her annoyance began to morph into irritation. Allowing it to show in her voice she answered, "Teddy, I’m fine. I have a broken wrist but other than that, I’m just fine. How are you?"
"That’s good dear." She replied absently. Emily could tell by the sounds in the background that Teddy, AKA Theodora Cunningham-Foxxe, was in her well appointed home gym on her treadmill. She always listened to the Beastie Boys when she exercised, and they were playing as loudly as ever in the background.
Teddy had music for everything and she kept them separate. The Beastie Boys were exercise music. She dressed and made up to Enya. She said it made her calm and kept her from perspiring. "Well, I’ll tell you. I’m furious. I was never so insulted in my life! Did you read that snide little comment about my party last week in the columns? They said…"
That’s where Shasta’s attention to Teddy left off. Her emotions were rolling over her like rain and she wasn’t sure which one to hang onto. The strongest one was anger. She wasn’t as sure about who she should direct it to. She was angry with Teddy for dismissing her injury so out of hand, but she felt equally angry for realizing it was something she had come to expect of her. Teddy was egotistical and vain and it was something for which she made no apology. The anger she felt at herself was because she put up with that from her so-called friend for so long. Why did I? This isn’t what friendship is all about. Then she began to remember all the times she and Teddy spent together. Every one, she realized had been social. They were ‘seen’ together. They stroked each other’s egos. She the celebrated author was often in the company of the eastern debutante and it served both of their purposes. She gave the stuffy family names of Cunngham-Foxxe a certain edge of racy rebelliousness due to her novels, and Teddy gave her an unauthorized entree to the acceptance of the ‘old money’ families who pretended to read nothing racier than Balzac. The other emotion she felt underlying the anger was hurt, and that surprised her. She was hurt that her injury was not only dismissed by her ‘friend’ but also eclipsed in Teddy’s mind by the insult done to her by one of the society columnists. Funny. A week ago if I was asked to name who, beyond my sister, was my best friend; I probably would have said Teddy. That brought her up short and she stopped walking all together as she realized how far from what she knew now, was the woman she knew herself to be just a week ago.
Interrupting Teddy’s diatribe of the abuse she suffered was never easy, but this time she did it without the slightest hesitation, not even bothering to pretend to be polite. "Teddy, I have to go. I won’t be in touch for a while. I’ll let you know when I get back to town. Good bye." She clicked the ‘end’ button on the phone and snapped it shut.
Her emotions were still racing along and she flip-flopped around in the current of them. Anger, Hurt, Fear. Then the one thing that seemed to calm them was the thought of Harley. Suddenly that long conversation she meant to have with herself for the last two days became crucial. She determined to reclaim the Sheriff and ask her to take her…someplace… where she could just sit and think for a while. I have no idea who I am and I have no idea what I want. She remembered what Stephanie told her on the phone. "Just calm down a little and see where you’re going, cause girl, just between you and me, where you’ve been lately is ugly." She was right. She set her resolve in stone and started walking again. This time with a purpose that included more than just solving the puzzle of the person who invaded her bedroom; she needed to find herself.
When Harley said nothing beyond "It’s Emily", the editor tried to prompt her. "Emily?"
Harley got up from the chair and started to pace slowly back and forth in front of his desk. The office wasn’t large and she would stop each time she got to the window next to the chair and look out. She opened her mouth to say something several times, but then thought better of it. She knew J.D. was the right one to talk to about this. She had a good relationship with all of her brothers, but each of them had their own strengths and weaknesses. Cole was just not people oriented. He had great compassion and that need that all healers had to help was strong within him, but he just couldn’t relate well to person-to-person interactions. Hobie, also a doctor, had that. As well as compassion and understanding and vast amounts of patience, but he also saw Harley as his personal hero and as such, she knew he would find a hard time thinking anybody was worthy of her. Emerson was far too pragmatic. He’d carefully list for her all of her options and then ask the question she didn’t want to face yet, "Have you talked to Emily about it?" Wilson was the real problem solver in the family. He took after her Dad so much that it was easy to see him following him in the business. He would list all the pros and cons in the situation and then tell her, if it looked like it would be ‘good deal’ or not. Nope. J.D. was the one. His natural penchant for journalism left him with all the right questions to ask and the ability to look at the issue inside and out, but the writer in him, the one who created with words would see the danger and the romance in it, and give her his best opinion.
"She… I…I’m very attracted to her." She said quietly.
He very nearly gave into his habit of teasing her with a comment about that, but held his tongue when he saw the look of confusion and intensity on her face.
She blew out a long breath and it all seemed to tumble over itself in a rush to get out. "I can’t stop thinking about her. I think about her all the time. I miss her when she isn’t with me. I keep having theses little flashes of us together in the future. They seem so real and clear. I almost kissed her, twice now. You know me J.D., that’s just not like me. I’ve only known the woman for three days now and she’s all I can think about. I don’t know what to do. She’s just a tourist. She’s going to have her little holiday and go back to her life in L.A. and I can’t see myself living anywhere but here. I know that long distance romances have hardly any chance of working. I don’t know what to do. I just…. I’ve never felt this way before and I’m confused and I just don’t know what to do." She stopped and plopped back down into the chair; leaning forward she put her elbows to her knees and held her head.
J.D. was pole axed. He’d never seen his eloquent and brilliant sister in such an obvious dither before. It shook him a bit. Harley was always so on top of things and the thing she was the most on top of, was herself. She never seemed flustered or surprised or worried. She was all of that and more now. He wished he’d had a few more minutes to get to know the small woman that had his sister in such a state when they’d met the other night. She must really be something to have Harley so bent out of shape. Since it didn’t look like that was going to happen just now, he felt he’d better say something to her to find out why this woman was getting to her so much. Maybe it was just lust.
As he opened his mouth to speak, he heard the bell chime on the front door and saw Harley shoot to her feet and look through the window in his door toward the front of the building.
"It’s Emily. Let’s talk about this later, okay? Maybe I’ll call you, or you can call me or something, ya know? "She took a deep breath and tried to assume a look of only polite interest as Emily appeared at the window in the door and knocked quietly.
Emily got a smile and a waving hand that indicated she should come in from both the brother and sister. As she opened the door, Harley was on her feet offering her the chair and gracefully closing the door behind her.
"J.D., you remember Miss. Cutter, right?" Harley said as she leaned casually against the door.
"Of course, how could I forget?" The smile he gave the injured woman was the spitting image of the one she had learned to adore from the Sheriff and she instantly rewarded him with one of her own. "How could I forget meeting one of the loveliest women to ever grace this town, let alone one of my favorite authors?" His smile became a grin with just a touch of teasing in it, as he continued, "Not to mention the only victim of a felony in Bramble for the last five years."
Harley stiffened at that and was just about to apologize for her brother’s rude behavior when she heard the small woman laugh and its sound relaxed her.
"Well, I’ve always tried to be a woman of distinction. Who knew I’d be famous for this? Say, do you think I could work it into my bio for the book jackets, ya know, right after all that drivel about graduated Duke University and best-selling author and all?"
"Nah," J.D. replied, giving a little shake of his head, "I’d save the room for ‘Winner of The Pulitzer Prize for Literature’. You can just use this as chat on the talk shows promoting your next book." The grin returned and he looked at the lovely woman in front of him and realized how much he’d missed seeing in that dark parking lot. Well, I can sure see the attraction, Harley. You’d have to blind as well as stupid to miss it.
"Well, as Stephanie would say, if there is trouble to be found, I’ll go out of my way to find it. Although, oddly enough, I haven’t had to work very hard at it since I’ve been here." She grinned and the next words came out of her mouth without any thought behind them. "Maybe I better get out of town before things get worse." She couldn’t understand the way her throat closed and her heart clenched as she uttered it, and she was so preoccupied with her own reaction she missed the stricken look on the face of the Sheriff, but J.D. didn’t.
The tall woman leaning casually against the office door seemed to slump and for a few seconds she thought her knees would give out. This was the nightmare behind every thought of the smaller woman from the moment they met. She racked her brain frantically to find something to say that would make that idea disappear from the author’s thoughts but her fear and agony wouldn’t allow any logical thought process through.
Thankfully J.D. came in for the save. "Not a bit of it Miss. Cutter. What would fiction be without conflict? Here you have the perfect opportunity to find story ideas and you don’t even have to work at it. I’ll bet you’re already mapping your next few books out in your mind, huh? I wouldn’t be offended if you happened to add in a small town newspaper editor either. I see the character as" he leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling while he visualized, "tall, dark, wise and devastatingly handsome. A part-time lawman and full time hero. A man who works to better his community and bring to light the issues that impact the lives of the citizens for whom he serves. A man…."
His sister’s voice cut the air interrupting his lofty ramblings. The words she said however didn’t hold in them the gratitude she felt toward him. She knew her brother could feel it even if she didn’t say it.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Get over yourself J.D. Emily is used to having her books sell.
The author too was grateful for the ready-made excuse he provided to stick around. Even as confused and overwhelmed by her own self-realizations as she was, the last thing she wanted to do was leave.
"I couldn’t agree with you more J.D., and please call me Emily. I have at least four new stories running around in my brain and they can all trace their origins to Bramble and the people in it. I have to stick around just to see where my muse will take me." She leaned forward and lowered her voice conspiratorially. "Besides, I promised I’d help the Sheriff figure out this little problem. You know these lawyer types have trouble thinking three dimensionally."
He leaned forward as well and matched her low tone. "I know. I blame it on all that Latin. Too regimented. No chance to think creatively."
The author shook her head in agreement. "Exactly! That whole ‘Just the fact’s ma’am’ mentality can really hinder a person’s perspective, so I feel that’s it’s, well, my duty, to kind of guide her in the right direction, if you know what I mean."
The editor couldn’t help the small grin he was trying to suppress while bantering with the small woman. He saw now a good deal of what his sister must have seen in her. He was impressed with her wit and charm and found himself liking her a lot. Good girl, Emily. You just stick around. I think you two will be good for each other, and I’m going to help in any way I can.
"I do Emily. I really do. These legal types just can’t seem to loosen up enough to see the possibilities. Why, I remember this one time…"
"Alright, alright" The sheriff’s voice fairly dripped with disgust, but her smile gave her away. "That’s enough. You "Creative" types," she used both hands to make quotation marks in the air, "can continue your diatribe about us rational types later. Right now I have a case to solve." She opened the door and continued. "Let’s go Emily. Let’s leave William Randolph Hearst here to his business." She stepped out and listened as her brother’s parting shot rang though the building.
"It was great talking to you Emily and if you ever need someone, well, let’s say, more well-rounded to talk to, you know where you can find me." He rose and walked her to his office door seeing Harley at the door to the street holding it open for the blonde. In a stage whisper he was sure would carry to the sheriff he said, "It’s not really her fault. She was spoiled as a child. You know, Daddy’s girl?"
Emily giggled and responded in kind. "In that case, I’ll cut her some slack." She smiled as she started to walk toward the woman holding the door. Her voice at normal pitch again, she threw over her shoulder, "Great talking to you, J.D. See you later."
As they walked toward the patrol car Harley asked, "So, what did you find out from Rita, Miss Creativity?" She leaned on the front bumper and crossed her arms waiting for the woman standing next to her to respond.
Emily rested her weight on one hip and said. "Nothing, yet."
"Ah ha! All that creativity at your disposal and you get bupkas, eh? Well, never mind, I’ll talk to her and we’ll…"
"Wait a minute. I said nothing yet. The bait is set and the trap gets sprung tonight at six o’clock." The small triumphant smile Emily wore as she spoke made the Sheriff a little nervous.
She cleared her throat and said simply. "Explain."
"Sure, but in the mean time I was wondering if we could go someplace." The smile left her face and a look of trepidation replaced it. Harley had no idea what the reason for it was, only that she wanted it to go away. Now. "What is it Emily. What’s wrong?"
The writer looked at her loafers and took a deep breath. Now that she was here and had to ask for it, she didn’t know how. Usually, she had to consider the angle to use to get what she wanted from someone. She’d been doing it so long it took her a bit to realize she didn’t need to do that here and certainly not with her. She decided maybe just being honest with the facts would work and went with that.
"I need a place to think for a while." She tilted her head at the sheriff and shyly continued. "A lot has happened to me in the last couple of days and I need some time to sit quietly and think it through. Do you know what I mean? I mean, I just need a little space to put my thoughts in order and think about things."
Yeah I know exactly what you mean. More lately than ever. I’ve got to make some time to do that too, and very soon."Yeah, I do know," she said. She tried to think of a good place to leave the writer alone for a while, somewhere quiet and most of all, safe.
"Well, when you feel this way at home, where do you usually go?"
The author laughed deprecatingly as she said. "My living room." She smiled and continued. "I have this great view of the ocean from my living room windows and since I live alone I just put a cushion on the floor, put the phone on mute, put in some quiet classical music and do a little meditation. By the time the CD ends I can just open my eyes and stare at the ocean and clear my head." Thinking about it and the equivalent possibilities found in Bramble produced an image of a large floor to ceiling window facing the woods at Harley’s house. It would be perfect, but she knew she could never ask for it.
"How about my house?" The minute she heard Emily describe what she needed she saw the woman seated before the window at her house, facing west as the sun set through the trees.
"Perfect." The word just jumped out of her mouth before she could censor herself. Feeling a little embarrassed by her eagerness, she tried to cover it by more conversation. She reached for the handle on the car as she said, "Great, why don’t we drive there and I’ll tell you about my talk with Rita and what’s happening tonight."
The sheriff nodded and moved to get in the car. As they turned around and headed to Harley’s the writer started revealing her plans.
"When I walked into that classroom I realized it was a creative writing class. I assumed that Rita was helping the teacher because she wanted to and not because she had to. Am I right?"
"Yeah. She’s always been one of you ‘creative types’ and even though she’s only fourteen, she takes her last two classes at the high school with Mrs. Johansson because she’s so bright, they ran out of things for her to do in the elementary school. She wants to be a writer." The sheriff smiled at her and could see the immediate advantage Emily would have with the girl.
"I thought so. I kind of hit them over the head with my pen name and the rest was pretty easy. After her teacher and I talked for a while we left and I asked her to help me at Stephanie’s tonight. I told her I needed help moving my things to the guest room and changing the bed linens before Stephanie comes and she agreed to come over at six and help me out. When she gets there, I plan to take it to the next level and use some of her hero worship and a little bribery to get the information."
"Yeah. I caught a clue as soon as I saw her turn around and then when I got a look at her backpack I knew I had my hook. I’ll bet she’s the middle child, right?"
"Yeah, how’d you know?" Harley’s respect for the woman’s insight was clear in her eyes as she spoke.
"She had written a quote by Rufus Choate in magic marker on the front of her back pack." She could see it clearly as she spoke of it, black calligraphy against the bright yellow backpack. "It said, "A book is the only immortality." For someone that young to feel the need to remind herself of that says that she feels the need to standout. Make her mark, so to speak. It’s typical of the middle child, and their need to be noticed; distinctive."
Harley was impressed with the woman’s knowledge of human nature and her ability to read people so quickly. She still wasn’t sure what the plan for tonight was though.
"And you are going to use this knowledge, how?"
"Well, she obviously wants to be a writer and being one myself will make her more likely to go out of her way to please me. It’s what I would have done at her age. I’d have made myself as indispensable as possible hoping to learn everything I could and make that person I idealized my friend, maybe my mentor. However, that’s not all I have up my sleeve." Her smile turned a bit evil as she stared through the windshield.
"Okay, what else have you dreamed up in that oh so creative brain of yours?" The dark haired woman was intrigued by that little smile the author wore. I can see now it might be a really bad mistake to misjudge the convolutions of that mind. Note to self: Never underestimate the bard. Second note to self: Try to stay on her good side!
"Well, as I remember myself at that age two things about being fourteen stand clearly forth. One, I was an absolute slave to fashion. Whatever was hot and happening had me by the short hairs. If it was popular, I did it." She laughed a little remembering some of the awful things she wore at that age just because ‘everyone else was wearing it.’ The image of a younger, shorter, less developed, less confidant self, dressed in spandex shorts on those skinny legs, with the pink tank over the rose T-shirt tied beneath her non-existent bust and that terrible hair assaulted her. "The sadist who created hair crimpers should be forced inside a giant one and crimped to death." She murmured.
"Two, I was addicted to popular music. I carried it with me wherever I went. It was the background to everything I did, including sleeping, and that’s where I’ll win Rita over.’ She turned her head and gifted the sheriff with a confidant smile.
"What? Don’t tell me you’re in a rock band too? I know you’re gifted and very smart but I really didn’t think your talent extended to electric guitar and lyric writing." The sheriff smirked and lifted her brows inquisitively. "Sing something for me, come on. How about eight bars of Melissa’s ‘I’m the Only One’?" The smirk became a grin and the seduction was on again full force. What in the hell am I saying? I just can’t seem to stop myself. Well, she seems okay with it, let’s see how far I can push it. "Ah, the visual of you up on the stage, Fender in hand, belting out hard candy rock and roll, shaking your head, sweating and grinding your hips… whooee, lady." Harley stopped to register Emily’s look of shock and decided to let her off the hook. "See. And you thought I couldn’t be creative!" She stuck the tip of her tongue out at the younger woman before resuming her watch of the road before her.
"I … you…" Emily’s sputtering came to a halt when she realized she had no idea how to resond. She was torn in so many directions. She was impressed that the sheriff could paint such a picture of her, and even more, that the visual she painted for her seemed to be something the dark woman would like to see. She was reeling from the obvious flirtation and her libido made an appearance out of the blue, and she was miffed because no one, NO ONE had ever left her a stuttering, speechless, mess the way this woman had.
Words were what she did. She’d never been left groping for a response and she didn’t like the feeling. She felt like an adolescent and she hadn’t liked that the first time around. What you do to me Harley. I don’t know whether I’m coming or going with you and the only constant is my need to have you near. I have got to get a hold of myself. Just the thought of the unintentional double entendre made her smile and frown in quick succession. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe I’ve just been "lonely" too long and I’m just reacting to the stimulus of a beautiful woman paying me attention. A frown accompanied the thought that self-abuse with one arm in a cast was going to be difficult and unwieldy. Accepting that this line of thinking was getting her nowhere, she took a quick breath and tried to formulate words into coherent sentences.
"No way. I only do personal appearances one on one." Ha! Take that. And this… "I’ll just let The Boys take care of her."
The Boys? No matter who they are, I don’t like the sound of that. Particularly that she knew whoever they were well enough to call them ‘The Boys.’ Drat! Having had the bait flung in her teeth, she was left with no recourse but to open her mouth. "Okay, I’m all a quiver with anticipation. Now, just who are The Boys?" She couldn’t help the disdain that dripped from her voice when mouthing the last two words. Whoever they were, they should get boils on their butt’s.
"Yeah, The Boys. Kevin, A.J., B-Rok, Nick and Howie D. The Backstreet Boys. She was wearing their T-shirt when I met her. Now as I remember me at that age, I wasn’t just a fan of rock and roll groups, I was a fanatic. So this should work out nicely, since they happen to be friends of mine."
The sheriff’s rueful smile and nodding head gave instant approval to the author’s idea.
"Oh yeah, she’s really hot for them. She was close to clinically depressed at the beginning of last month when her folks said she was too young to go see them in concert. They were doing a charity gig in Santa Barbara for one night only and when her folks told her she couldn’t go, she decided to go live with her big sister in L.A. I found her where Bender turns onto the highway at ten-thirty at night. She was going to hitch a ride." Harley gave a little laugh. "You’re right though. I remember how I felt at that age. There is nothing more foolish than a girl/woman in flux." She blew out a short breath. "All that estrogen and no idea what to do with it. I don’t know why my mother just didn’t kill me outright. I put that woman through hell."
As much as Emily would have liked to pursue that last remark and find out more about the woman she was so fascinated by, something else the sheriff said had her attention. "So what happened after you found her? Did you just bring her back home?"
"Eventually. We talked for a while and she told me how she felt they were being unfair to her." Harley gave a knowing smile to Emily who nodded back, "Then she told me how all her friends were going." The author groaned at the phrase every teen-age girl in history must have used at one point as the sheriff nodded and said "I know, then I suggested maybe going to see her big sister for a couple of days would be a good idea. She idolizes her, and always has. I figured at least she wouldn’t be here to hear about her friends doing what she wasn’t allowed to do, and then we went and talked to her Mom and Dad. Next day her sister picked her up for a few days and when she came back, she was fine."
That’s the clincher. Only three possible scenarios will fit. Thank you Harley! "Her sister lives in L.A.?"
"Yeah. She always hated it here. Couldn’t wait to leave." Harley’s voice was even but the author could tell that she felt sad about it. "She works in some big office for some kind of executive. She hardly ever gets back here and when she does, all she can do is put down small town living and compare it to the fast life style she has in L.A."
Emily held her next question for later as they pulled into Harley’s driveway. First things first, if I’m going to do this I have to clear my head.
They went inside and Harley showed her where to find her CD’s and how to operate her stereo, brought over a couple of large cushions and placed them on the floor in front of the window and told her she’d be back at a quarter of five to get her for dinner and then left her alone with her thoughts.
The sheriff didn’t drive far, just up the road, around a small thicket of trees and about a quarter of a mile in, she stopped and got out. She thought she’d take a few minutes to clear her own head and this is where she always came to do that.
The hike up the barely visible trail to the summit of the hill would have been overlooked if you weren’t specifically looking for one. She took her accustomed seat on the large flat rock overlooking the gorge and smaller hill on the opposite side. Just barely visible in the distance was a small plume of smoke from the ancient cabin of the hermit who’d lived there for the last eleven years. The sheriff had wondered about him often and tried to garner as much information as she could before her father told her flatly, to drop the issue. "He’s not hurting anybody and some people just need to be alone. Now you give him his privacy and let him be!" If it was anyone else but her father saying that, she’d have ignored it, but it wasn’t and she agreed, grudgingly, to let the man alone.
Often when she came here though she wondered about him and gave herself over to creating a reason for his seclusion and withdrawal. It was calming, because she never had to verify it or worry if her theory was wrong and by the time she quit her contemplation, whatever was troubling her was reduced to manageability. But not today. Today she needed to really give some thought to how she was feeling and what, if anything to do about it.
Emily. What in the world do I do?
Mozart had just finished and her breathing was almost non-discernable as she sat in the full lotus posture and tried to allow her thoughts to center. She switched to a different breathing technique and told herself to find the answers. After a few more minutes, she opened her eyes and took a deep cleansing breath, focusing on the light of the sunset in just one spot as it poked through the trees in front of her.
Who are you Emily?
The image of herself as a child before her parent’s death came to her and alongside that, an image of herself a month ago and one of this morning. She noted the differences in appearance from her childhood to now and let that go. Then she tried to feel the differences in the way she felt and thought.
The first thing that became clear to her was that today’s image was much closer emotionally; to the child she used to be, than the person she was a month ago. It was a more honest her.
The next was that, the feeling of who she was a month ago was much safer than the woman who woke up this morning. Casual and detached were much easier things to be. There was no risk in that.
I guess one answer is that who I am, or who I have been up until now is… a fraud.
And WHAT I am mostly is … afraid.
By the time Harley came back to pick her up, Emily had answers to some of her questions.
She knew that she liked who she was, here, today, much better than who she used to be back in L.A.
She knew if she acted the way she acted here back in L.A., she’d get eaten alive.
She realized that the people she socialized with at home, outside of her sister either used her for her celebrity, sex or their own ego.
She realized she used all of them the same way. That wounded her. What she still hadn’t quite gotten a handle on was the why of her feelings for Harley. The obvious was discarded instantly. Her beauty, her intelligence and her charm were things she’d found before in others. Well, maybe not her beauty. And maybe not in just Harley’s unique combination, still it was more than that. Of that, she was sure. That still couldn’t account for the reason she felt so… safe, so at ease with her.
Safe? What is that about? Since when do I need to feel protected by someone else? Always, well not always, but since she was fifteen and her parents died she took great pride in caring for herself, even in caring for her sister. After her aunt and uncle adopted them she put all of her energy into studying and trying to be too strong to need anyone again the way she had her parents. To be so suddenly orphaned from her best friends had left a huge hole and she felt totally adrift for a few months. When she finally made the connection that being dependant on someone else for your emotional well being put you in danger of that feeling, she resolved to be completely independent and self-sufficient.
She wasn’t foolish enough to lose her belief in love and relationships, but she knew as well as she knew her own name, that she would never succumb to that sappy ideal of believing that anyone else was responsible for her own happiness. She was responsible for that. Which was the reason she couldn’t quite get why the feeling of being safe when Harley was near, was so very comforting. Resolving to let it go for a while, she reflected then on what she wanted to do about the woman. Her only answer fairly screamed at her. Make her mine and hold on. That would have to be enough… for now.
Harley felt she was worse off than she was before she sat to think. She tried to think of the writer rationally and objectively, but she couldn’t and that never happened before. She was always able to call up her own inner jury, as she thought of it, and to lay forth in calm and clear words the case for or against and accept the obvious verdict. With Emily it just didn’t happen. She kept getting these little tugs at her heart and her breath kept catching as she remembered how she looked or what she said at one time or another. As she tried to determine her best course of action, knowing that the woman was bound to leave her in the end, she kept feeling her heartbeat pick up and found her throat filled with misery. She tried to see herself leaving Bramble to be with her and before she could stop it her eyes filled with liquid and her chest ached.
By the end of her time on the ledge, she felt like she’d been wrestling with the devil. She was emotionally drained and her body actually ached from all the time she held her muscles so rigid.
Maybe, just this once, nothing is the best thing to do. Just let it run its course and live with the outcome. Get back to your job and get to the bottom of it. That way, the end of this whole issue with Emily will come sooner and that has to be better. The more I’m with her the less I want to let her go and she’s probably going to go, so just deal with it at the time and stop suffering in advance. She took a couple of deep cleansing breaths and tightened and relaxed her muscles all over before making her way back to the car.
She buckled the seat belt and backed out for a U-turn before her rebellious emotions hit her like a tidal wave and she thought only, She can’t go. She belongs here. She belongs with me!
"That seems like a whole lot of money for this old place. Are you sure this is…okay?" the elderly woman furrowed her forehead and shook it slightly. No doubt the offer was attractive and she could sure use the money, but it just seemed wrong somehow. She didn’t want to feel she was taking advantage of anyone. "You know the plumbing here has been going bad recently and I think I need the cesspool drained and then there’s the fencing out back. I’m sure I don’t know how that whole stretch of fence came down but it’s gonna cost a bit to have it put right. Then there’s the electricity. Lately it’s been just going out on me and I never know when I’ll…"
"Don’t you worry, Mrs. Pechter, my buyer is aware of all of that. The offer still stands. You just think of yourself now Dear, and what you would do with all that money." There was a short pause and then the old woman heard a noise in the background. "I have to go now, but I’ll be sure to call you later today or tomorrow morning and we’ll get this all settled. As I said before, please don’t worry Mrs. Pechter, my buyer is happy and you should be too. Bye bye now."
Polly Pechter returned the handset to the cradle of the phone and stared out her kitchen window to the front of the house she’d lived in for forty-seven years. Two hundred fifty thousand dollars is a LOT of money. Delvin and I only paid eighteen thousand for the house and the eight acres it rested on when we bought it back in ‘52. That, along with what is left of Delvin’s pension as well as my own and my social security would mean I’d never be a burden to Livie and Daniel. Now, with Edna gone and the Jacoby’s moved, it’s so lonely. The money could solve all that. I could move to Jacksonville and not have to worry about needing help from Livie and Daniel. Lord knows with two little ones to care for, they can’t afford to be taking care of an old woman too, and maybe if I’m smart I’ll have a little to leave them when I go. Can’t be too far down the road. Suddenly she heard her Mother’s voice clear and sharp in her head. "Pollyanna Vivien! This is nothing less than highway robbery. How can you think of swindling someone like that? You know this place isn’t worth that kind of money. It’s just unchristian to consider taking it. Is that what the Lord would want to see you do?"
Polly was so conflicted and with Edna’s death last May, she had no one to discuss this with. She and Edna had been best friends for forty years and with her gone and her nearest neighbors, the Jacoby’s, moved to Merced last month, she felt alone and abandoned. Of course she knew everyone in town, after all she was the Post Master for Bramble for over twenty years till she retired twelve years ago, but since then she’d been happy to keep pretty much to herself and tend to her garden and her orchard and spend time with Edna three or four times a week, at least until Edna passed on last May. Now she knew how it felt to feel truly alone. Delvin’s death seven years ago wasn’t unexpected. The cancer held him for close to four years before he passed and she was glad for him to be in heaven and out of pain. She knew he was waiting for her there when it was her time. Only now she worried if he’d be glad to see her if she took the deal she’d been offered.
She blew a breath of air out and decided to pray on it and sleep on it and hope she got her answer in the morning. Then, she got up and started supper feeling a little better that she was going to put the matter in the hands of the Lord.
"What are you doing here? I thought you understood my instructions not to deviate from your normal routine."
"I understood. It’s only one day early and I wanted some company." The tall shapely redhead slid sensuously down in the imitation leather chair and made a point of crossing her legs at the knee. The short brown skirt slid up her thighs revealing several more inches of toned flesh as she rested her arms on the armrest and watched the eyes behind the desk look at her legs. To add a bit more visual interest she allowed one spiked-heel alligator pump from her top most foot to slip off to the floor. She pointed her toes and watched as the eyes across from her followed her calf and thigh muscles as they flexed.
"What happened to your toy?" The tone of voice was uninterested and casual but the eyes never left her legs.
"I broke it."
She leaned forward and crossed her arms over her knee lifting her chin and inhaling hard to allow the eyes a new view. The soft brown cashmere stretched across what wasn’t exposed of her breasts. The deep scoop of the neckline revealed just a hint of chocolate colored lace edging the demi-cups that spilled over with tan flesh.
"Ah." The voice remained casual as the eyes lifted to the sweater and what was exposed above it, but only for a second. Then they darkened as they lifted to the face. "We can let this little discrepancy go… just this once, then."
The redhead smiled and took a breath to speak but was cut off when the other voice continued.
"However," the voice hardened even as it quieted to a near whisper, "we need to discuss the amount of discretion you have in altering our understanding, and we need to clarify just who is in charge here." The eyes deepened again and the room got suddenly colder. "We’ll begin now."
The drive back to the Nest was fairly quiet. Since returning to her house to pick up the writer their only conversation was a simple exchange of banal pleasantries.
"Do you feel better now?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Did you have enough time?"
"Yes. Did you?"
"Oh yeah. Would you like something to drink before we go or would you like to just head out?"
"Either way is fine with me. Whatever you want to do."
It didn’t really matter who asked or answered the questions. They were simply courteous conversation. Nothing more personal than a sales clerk talking to a customer-and it all seemed very stilted and wrong.
Try as she might, Harley couldn’t think of anything to say to break the oppressive silence. Every thought she had of anything to say came out sounding way too personal and concerned, and that would never do. She made the decision to simply put her mind on the case and try to keep everything between them as superficial and remote as possible. It was the only way she could see to protect herself from the misery she knew would come when the small woman resumed her former life.
Emily was aware that the silence was becoming almost a palpable thing between them and it made her very uncomfortable. Always before the silences between them had either, tinges of sexual tension or felt tranquil. This one was not and she didn’t know how to break it. She still felt the frission of that fear she realized was the most obvious of her feelings where the Sheriff was concerned and she was at a complete loss as to what to do about it. It was bound up in layers, like a quilt. Fear of risking her emotional stability if she gave into her feelings. Fear of failing if she attempted to change her life and wasn’t good enough or strong enough or genuine enough to fit in here. Fear that her feelings for Harley ran deeper and stronger than the Sheriff’s did for her. Since she didn’t know how to fight the feeling and she didn’t know if she was strong enough to fix it, she floundered. Wanting the dream was all well and good, but how do you catch it? She only knew what she wrote about relationships, and she made that up.
Arriving at the Raven’s Nest and pulling into the parking lot prompted Harley to speak.
"I…umh, I have some business to take care of, so I’ll just drop you off." She pointed to a blue van and said, "Rory, the night prep cook is in so Mom will be free to leave anytime." She deliberately avoided looking at the writer while she spoke and tried hard to keep her voice casual and businesslike. What she really needed to do was get away from the temptation the woman was for a while. The whole situation was hard for her. Reticence was not a normal state of being and she found it hard to keep herself at arms length like this. She found she had to keep biting her tongue to keep from saying what was on her mind and as a result, her discomfort increased exponentially.
The realization that Harley was leaving her behind struck her. Suddenly that fear quilt gained another layer when she realized the woman wouldn’t be with her. All the other fears seemed to fade away leaving her with the most poignant one staring her in the face. Forgetting every other reasonable, rational thought and concentrating only on stopping her, Emily blurted out "What about tonight? What about Rita? How do I get to Stephanie’s and uhm, when she caves and tells me she gave the alarm combination to someone, what do I do then? Do you want to talk to her or should I just, uhm, pretend it was unimportant, or what?" She realized then her words were spoken way too fast and that the obvious sound of fear was threaded though them and worried that Harley would remark on it.
Christ! If nothing else proves I’m in trouble that just did. What was I thinking? Obviously not about the case I’m on. I have got to pull myself together and stop fretting about this. She could have been killed this morning alone in that house and I need to make sure that doesn’t happen. Thinking of where the writer had to go she realized what a dangerous situation she was putting her in.
"Okay, this is what we’ll do. You give me a call on my cell phone as soon as you finish eating and I’ll drop you off at Stephanie’s no later than ten till six. I’ll park the car on the street behind you and be concealed in the trees in the backyard. If you see anything out of the ordinary or feel anything isn’t right, call out or get out the back door or flip the lights on and off and I’ll be there in a second." She paused and thought for moment. "I don’t think I’ll need to talk to Rita right away. I do need to know who she gave the numbers to and when she did it. Come out to the deck as soon as you’re sure she’s gone and we’ll go from there. " She turned slightly to the other woman. "I don’t like having you go into that house alone. I’m pretty sure what happened this morning won’t happen again, but I want you to instantly open the blinds in the living room and stay there until Rita shows up before you go into the bedroom. I want to be able to see you at all times. When she gets there, open the curtains to the bedroom deck and try and stay in front of it."
Emily nodded and calmed a bit when she realized Harley would be there for her. Would be there with her. Underneath her other emotions she felt the Sheriff drawing back, seemingly, drawing away from her and she was only relatively reassured by her offer to be with her tonight, even if she would be outside. She nodded again and turned to try to open her door with her left hand when, once again Harley reached across her to open it for her. The whiff of that unidentifiable scent the woman used and the smell of outdoors that permeated her hair and clothes caused her to inhale deeply. She made a little more noise than she wanted to and received a ‘what is it’ kind of look from the Sheriff as she sat back up again. Not ready to talk about it and a little embarrassed by her own lack of control, she made her way out of the car as quickly as her limited movement would allow. Walking toward the back entrance to the Raven’s Nest she turned her head briefly over her shoulder and smiled, waving slightly with her left hand as Harley left.
The sweat had begun to dry on her steaming skin and the chafing from the leather straps around her wrists was sore.
She hated playing the submissive but realized in this instance she had no choice. True, she had overstepped her restrictions by showing up early, but she knew that wasn’t the real reason for the punishment. She was paying for her subordinate’s mistakes. Shit may flow downstream, but the one in charge really paid the price for her wannabe soldier’s error. She was angry too at the way her body betrayed her. It rankled her that she’d gotten so excited… so aroused. In the power game they played only one could be in charge and she was determined once again that she would. They both wanted the same things in this game with the Ravensdown’s, but for her it was personal vindication and she was determined to make her victim pay, no matter what it took in the short term, it would be worth it to pull this off. She took in a deep breath and decided to forget about her treatment this afternoon. Rubbing her hands over the bite mark on her breast and willing the sting from the lash marks on her back and buttocks to quiet. It didn’t really matter. Not if she was the one holding all the cards in the end. She was sure that would be the case.
Harley drove back to the Sheriff’s station on autopilot, her brain processing all she needed to accomplish before meeting up with the writer again and her nerve endings sizzling with tension. As she put the old car into park, she pulled in a deep breath and that’s when she remembered them.
Turning to look over her shoulder, she confirmed what her nose told her. The flowers Emily had chosen for her mother were sitting on the back seat, forgotten by them both.
She just shook her head in wonder at the effects this small woman wrought in her. I’ve never been so scattered. This has to stop. The situation is too dangerous not to be in control of myself and I’m gonna screw it up if I can’t get a handle on this. She rubbed both temples and realized she hadn’t even noticed that the headache she had earlier had returned. Checking her watch, she made a decision and went in to inform Cole of the evening’s plan.
Thirty minutes later she was neck deep in the hottest water she could stand. The three ibuprofen were beginning to work and the smell of the carnation bath oil and the vanilla candles burning close by were calming her. The fifteen minutes she spent in her gym pounding her body to the beat of acid rock, and the quick cool shower had been intended to pull out some of the stress she carried in her muscles. The bath was supposed to do the rest. She took another sip of Chai tea, and let the steam from the cup carry the spices deep into her lungs. She closed her eyes and began slow deep abdominal breathing through her nose, holding it when she filled her lungs and then releasing it through her open mouth in one short and one long explosive breath. Counting the repetitions, she stopped at fifty and took the last few sips of her tea.
After a few more minutes of doing nothing but absorbing the heat of the water and the scent around her, she felt, for the first time all day, her normal sense of order and composure. She allowed herself only a few more minutes to determine what her actions would be this evening and pushed the drain handle down with her toes as she stood slowly and left the bath.
Pulling on black jeans and a black turtleneck, she hesitated as she thought about whether to wear the uniform shirt over it. The beige shirt might be seen a little too easily when she was hiding in Stephanie’s back yard. The moon tonight wasn’t quite full, but it would be bright enough, and she wasn’t willing to risk it. Finishing with her boots, she stood, transferred her badge to her sweater, took another quick swipe at her hair with her brush, and grabbed her black suede jacket as she firmly let go of any thought beyond her job.
It felt good to be in control of herself again. Her confidence returned as she made her way into the garage, started up the engine of her Expedition, and opened the automatic doors. She backed out, stopped to transfer the flowers from the Sheriff’s car to the front seat of the SUV, and went over her game plan once again.
Setting her jaw and rolling down the window, she put the truck in drive and headed out.
Twyla made one last check of the bird and basted it for the last time. She straightened and looked once again at the stiff back of the young woman as Emily finished setting the table. The tension she was feeling came directly from Emily and Twyla had every reason to believe her daughter was the cause of it. She wished again that she knew this young woman longer so she might be able to say what was on her mind. She bit her tongue and resolved to wait until Emily broached the subject. When the writer had entered the nest Twyla knew something was wrong. Forgetting herself and the fact that they were relative strangers she had blurted out her thoughts and asked her immediately what it was. When Emily answered too quickly that it was nothing, just her wrist hurting, she knew it for the lie it was but said nothing. Their conversation on the drive here was superficial and pleasant but the small furrow between the young woman’s eyes never disappeared. This was pain all right, she could see that, but it wasn’t because of a broken bone.
She busied herself with the rest of the items for dinner, as she wracked her brain to determine what to say to draw the young woman out. If she wouldn’t tell her the cause of her misery, Twyla at least wanted to relieve some of this silence.
She was about to give in to her instincts and just ask the writer again what had her so upset, when the doorbell rang.
She huffed out a disgusted breath knowing she’d have to leave her sauce as she bent to lower the flame when Emily spoke.
"If it’s alright Twyla, I’ll get the door. You’re busy and I know how crucial timing is to good Hollandaise."
A smile lit up the older woman’s face. She hated to be interrupted when she cooked. "Please, Emily, would you?"
Still lost in the mire of her thoughts about the Sheriff, Emily made her way to the front door and pulled it open absent-mindedly. Her head was down and it was the scent that clued her in before she took in the vision of the dark angel before her.
Sleek. Swathed in dark black. Muted by the material of denim and suede the only shine that reflected the porch light was caught in the toes of her polished leather boots and fall of heavy hair spilling like a pelt down her shoulders to well below her breasts. Except of course when she turned more fully to face the door and her eyes caught the light.
Suddenly her thoughts stilled. She couldn’t recall a one of them. Though up until a moment ago they had been dancing flamenco in her head and distracting her from all else, all she was doing now was reacting, viscerally, to the woman before her. Her breath caught and held as her nipples hardened. She felt a loosening in her knees and a gathering up in her lower abdomen. She leaned into the door she held open for all she was worth. It took a few more seconds to realize that the mouth she’d been fixating on was speaking words.
"…thought I’d bring them by now so you could get them in some water."
Harley saw the blonde’s vacant expression and the flush that bloomed on her cheeks when the eyes finally made their way up her body to her face.
She had a moment of satisfaction realizing what she saw as Emily gripped the door for support, but it left as she realized that the woman wasn’t even hearing her.
Furrowing her brow, she repeated. "The flowers? The ones you got for mother? We forgot them in the car. I brought them over thinking you would…"
"Right," Emily interrupted. She sucked in some air and shook her head. "Uhm, thanks. I’ll give them to her now. I completely forgot." That’s when the flamenco dancer returned and all the conflicting thoughts and feelings she’d been battling with since the Sheriff dropped her at the Nest came back to her.
"I’ll just bring them up." Harley turned and Emily followed her out to the SUV parked in front of the door.
Placing the bouquet in the bend of the blonde’s left arm, Harley closed the door and started to walk around the hood. She looked at her watch and made a point not to look at the writer as she said briefly, "I’ll be back in around fifty minutes to pick you up." Not waiting for a response, she pulled open the door and got inside.
Disappointed by the Sheriff’s abrupt dismissal, Emily could only say quietly, "Thanks, I’ll be ready," but the words were unheard as the door was already closed and the engine turned on. She stood there for another minute as the dark woman drove away, trying to figure out what she’d said or done to make this woman pull away from her.
Twyla was sipping her coffee as she watched the young woman push around what used to be a fudge brownie with ice cream and hot fudge. It now resembled a lumpy brown sludge. The beautiful bouquet of flowers the thoughtful young woman gave her smelled lovely resting in the large crystal vase that set next to them on the counter. Dinner turned out well, although from the writer’s appetite, you would never have known it. She made an effort and her praise of the meal was sincere. She just didn’t seem to be able to get much of it down. Conversation was confined to Twyla speaking, and Emily nodding and making an appreciative murmur occasionally. Now the meal was finished, and the blonde was staring at a spot on the tablecloth while stirring her spoon in her dessert absently. Twyla had had enough.
"You’re a grown woman and you’re allowed absolutely to tell me to mind my own business, but I like you very much, Emily, and I’d really like to help if I could. Won’t you please try to tell me what has you so upset?"
Emily’s first thought was to deny it. Twyla could see it in the clench of her jaw and the straightening of her shoulders. She was preparing to be disappointed when she saw the young woman relax, and release a deep and heartfelt sigh.
I can’t talk to her about this. I’ll tell her it’s my arm. Then she looked up, saw the tinge of sadness in the woman’s eyes, and realized this woman knew what she planned to do. Ah, hell, it’s not like I can get away with a lie anyway. She’s her mother for god’s sake, maybe she can give me some idea of what I did wrong.
"It’s,. uhm," she cleared her throat and started again, "It’s Harley. She seems… she’s acting like, I don’t know. She, well, suddenly this afternoon. Something’s wrong. It’s like she’s mad at me or something. I don’t know if I can explain it. Everything seemed fine and then later, when I saw her again she seemed so far away. But, that wasn’t it exactly." She blew out an exasperated breath. "It’s more like she’s distancing herself from me. On purpose. There’s nothing mean or obvious in how she’s acting or what she’s saying so I can’t bring it up to her, but I feel like for some reason she just doesn’t want to… I don’t know what I’m saying."
Twyla was about to respond when they heard the front door open. "Anybody here?"
"Kitchen, sweetheart." Twyla called out and lowering her voice again she watched as the young woman straightened and wiped her mouth and hands, she said, "We’ll talk tonight. Don’t worry, honey. We’ll get this fixed." She gave her most confidant smile to the woman and it seemed to help. She watched as Emily pushed her chair out from the table and smiled back. "Thanks."
When Harley left after dropping off the flowers she had to take herself in hand again briefly. She was ashamed of the deep seated, though short lived feeling of pleasure it gave her to see the attraction the younger woman felt for her. She’d just spent time trying to push the thought of anything having to do with the writer on a personal level out of her head, and there she was, gratified out of all proportion at the look of arousal in those deep green eyes. It sparked a sister feeling in herself and that was when she got abrupt. Gotta stop this now before it gets away from me. She pulled her thoughts from the blonde and set her course for the Bulletin.
J.D. wouldn’t be locking up for another hour or so and she was anxious to see if he had any information for her.
She parked in front, and found her brother in his office meeting with the two reporters and one photographer the paper employed full time. She made sure the editor saw her through the half wall of windows that surrounded his office, and then took a seat at Dawn’s desk. She made sure to button her jacket before she entered, covering her badge completely. She was hoping no one who saw her would remember she was Sheriff this month. As soon as the meeting ended, she knew she’d made one mistake. Dawn never forgot anything.
"Hey Sheriff. You forget to do the laundry or are you just trying out a new uniform?" She made a point of leering pointedly at the dark woman and sliding her eyes from bottom to top. "If it’s the latter, I’ll vote for it."
"No, just taking the evening off. I’ve got a business meeting down in Santa Barbara tonight so I asked JD if he’d sit in for me." She really hoped that off the cuff lie wouldn’t come back to bite her. The small blonde had just come out of a meeting with her brother and she had no idea if he gave away any plans he had for tonight.
The reporter just tipped her head to the side and began to reply when J.D. called for his sister to join her in the office.
"See ya, Dawn."
The reporter just nodded and began to gnaw on the earpiece of her glasses. She didn’t look at all convinced.
Harley closed the door behind her and asked. "Any news for me on those items I asked you to check out?" She leaned forward in her chair and continued. "Oh, and by the way, you’re playing sheriff for me tonight if anyone asks. If they ask, I’m in S.B. having a business dinner with an opposing attorney."
"Oookaaay?" He was about to ask her what was up when he took in what she was wearing and it clicked for him. While his gorgeous sister looked even more gorgeous in black, it was not something she wore a lot of, saving it for formal occasions or suitable solemn ones such as court or funerals. When she had her choice of dress, it was usually in the blue or green palette, even though that red dress she wore for New Year’s Eve had jaws dropping all over town. Nope, this outfit suggested stealth. "I take it you have to go somewhere and not be seen?"
"Yeah." She didn’t elaborate but asked again. "What have you got for me?"
"So far very little. I have some more coming in from friends who are looking into it. You know that Valerie’s rich. Between her own business and her stock holdings we figure somewhere in the area of eleven million. So far, she seems to be towing the company line her Dad left. No new acquisitions or sales of stores. No diversifying the company’s holdings." He leaned forward and handed her two pieces of paper from his hot file.
"However, Darla is just a tad confusing. According to the IRS, on her last tax report, she only made forty-one thousand last year running her real estate company. She shows no other source of income and has no stocks or bonds. She only has a little over five thousand in an IRA and the only real property she owns is the house her Dad left her." He sat back in his chair as he smiled at his sister. "Which leads one to wonder how she can afford to live as well as she does."
Harley raised an enquiring eyebrow at that and began to search the papers in her hand intently.
"Don’t bother, you won’t find that in there. This is from a couple of different sources."
"My wife, for one." His mouth quirked into a small grin as he explained. "According to Christi, the woman is walking around in designer clothes and that jewelry is the real McCoy, not costume stuff. She also, according to Smitty at Bramble Insurance, paid cash, or somebody did, for that new Lexus SUV she’s been driving around. Now, since the records show she hasn’t sold a property or received a commission on one for more than a month, and her last sale brought in less than $1000.00 when she sold the Jacoby’s place, where is she getting it? Now, I wouldn’t put it past her to be the love toy of some rich old man in S.B. or L.A. but I kind of always had the impression that she was oriented differently." He said this last very softly, remembering the nasty history the woman and his sister shared. "Of course, I know well that a lovesick fool and his money are soon parted but I just can’t see her playing adoring baby doll to some doddering old fool." He had to laugh a little at the visual of it.
Harley laughed right along with him. "Oh yeah. Like that would work." As amusing as the visual was, it was also just another reason the skinny blonde was one of her least favorite people. "If only her profound arrogance didn’t outshine her consuming avarice, we might have been rid of her long ago." This time the voice was filled with contempt, and J.D. knew she had a right to feel that way.
"Casting no aspersions on the lovely Christi’s abilities, I still don’t know how she managed to come to this conclusion. I mean they hardly run in the same circles, so how did she come to know this?" Harley knew that if anyone in town could identify a designer outfit from a distance it would be Christi. She had been a high fashion model for several years before she quit and went to college. She and J.D. met there and married right after graduation. It helped too, that her mother had been a buyer for Saks. That notwithstanding, she knew Darla never shopped in town if she didn’t have to, and spent as little time as she could here. Christi worked part time at the paper putting her journalism degree to good purpose, but the bulk of her time revolved around their four daughters. She was the president of the PTA at both the elementary and high school and her day was usually full to overflowing with her commitments to the girls and their special interests. Where she might have even run into Darla was the question.
"She took Tamara down to L.A. last weekend to Saks. Her winter ball is coming up and Christi’s mom promised to outfit her for it. They were in the salon looking at the gown’s Eve had picked out for her, when Ms. Dunhem exited a fitting room and proceeded to tell the saleswoman she would take all four suits she tried on, and to have them tailored to her usual measurements. She then told her she’d take the garnet bracelet, and the graduated black pearl earrings. Christi dug out her newshound persona and charmed the saleslady into all the dirt she could dig up. Evidently Darla’s been shopping there for the last three years and she always pays in cash." He said nothing then, but his look said everything.
"Fascinating little bit of business that is. Thanks, J.D., and thanks to the lovely Christi as well." She stood and stretched, "I have to run. Please let me know when you have anything else for me."
The drive back to her parents home was filled with memories of her childhood. The only ones she could recall that were not pretty good. They all had to do with Darla.
Which could account for her demeanor when she finally entered the kitchen in search of her charge for the evening.
Unfortunately, Emily didn’t know that.
The blonde took one look at the officer and realized, maybe she’d been mistaken. The anger written on the dark haired woman’s face was new. Whatever made her feel that way it couldn’t have been me? She just got here. There was no denying the unmistakable traces of fury written clearly in the furrowed brown and solid set of Harley’s jaw.
That look can’t be meant for Emily. It takes a lot to make her that mad. Twyla reflected that it wasn’t always so. This same woman as a child and adolescent was quick to anger and never tried to hide it, but that was when she was much younger.
Though they’d never discussed it in detail, something beyond simple maturity had happened to her daughter when she was in the Navy. Something profound that changed her from the child who let all her emotions show the minute she felt them to the capable and mature woman who stood before her. She hadn’t seen that look on her face for a long time. Not since…Darla! Oh dear.
It took a moment, but as soon as she registered the concern on her mothers face and the confusion on Emily’s Harley made a conscious decision to try to shake the residual feelings she’d carried into the kitchen with her. It’s over with. It was over with years ago and carrying it around with me won’t do anything to fix it. She replaced the clenched jaw she could feel making her face ache with the best smile she could muster up and made a point not to look at her mother for longer than a moment.
"If you’re ready, Emily, we should probably get going." She spared only a glance for her mother, but it was clear in that moment that Twyla knew what or rather, who she’d been thinking of. She saw the sympathy in her mother’s eyes as well as the confusion and knew the time would come when she’d ask about it. She just prayed it would be later rather than now, in front of the writer.
"Sure, let me get my coat." The blonde slid past her leaving her alone with her mother and the scent of the writer’s perfume, making the smile on her face more genuine. Harley glanced at her mother and said, "Please, not now. Later."
Twyla could only nod her head. She knew that what she saw was not due to Emily but the fact remained that there was something else going on, she could see it in the smile that became real when the blonde passed her daughter and the trace of melancholy behind it.
She couldn’t stop her self from saying something in Emily’s behalf, and she had no idea where the words come from. "Don’t let your fear of the past get in the way. You can’t afford to make a mistake this time. You’ll live to regret it."
In spite of her newly erected defenses, Harley was surprised by her mother’s insight and could only nod. Then she turned and followed the blonde to the door.
Continued - Chapters 21 - 30
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