Chapter 20

She 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.

"Shit."

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 the 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 for yet again at the stiff back of the young woman as she 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?"

"Sure."

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 lossening 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."

"Wh╔what?"

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 the 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 dunno. 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 toeing 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."

"Who?"

"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. Dunham 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 she'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 notpretty 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.

TBC in Part 21


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