Beneath The Brambles, Chapter 23

Well, it wasn’t that bad, at least not now. Now that her eyes had stopped tearing up and she could sip a little water and she didn’t feel like she needed to puke.

Of course, none of that had an impact on how embarrassed Harley felt. True, there was, to go along with all the bad stuff, that really nice moment of having Emily wrapped around her, with the writer’s hair so close she could smell it. The blonde’s cheek was so very soft…but, Harley was sure she’d have a bruise from where Emily’s cast hit just below her ribcage as the young woman performed the technique on her. The sheriff’s eyes next fell on the piece of bacon, which until just a couple of minutes ago was intent on taking her out. It was half chewed, wet and grotesquely plastered on the sliding glass doors in front of her. Okay, if I haven’t died of humiliation by now, it looks like I’m going to have to live through this. That means thinking of something to say. Harley glanced up then, at the very wide and very concerned eyes of her hostess and realized that whatever she decided to say would have to serve to remove that look of near terror in those pretty irises.

She cleared her throat for the hundredth time and said with a small smile, "I’m sorry. You must be very special. I usually don’t projectile vomit till the second date."

It must have worked because even though her voice had the obvious rasp of hoarseness from her choking, the words made Emily lose that tight look of worry and a small grin formed.

"Ah. Well, I was really only expecting you to juggle or something considering we’ve only known each other five days. I guess I’ll have to take it as a compliment and just list it among your many…talents."

The sunlight shining through the sliding glass doors brushed a path of fire across the red highlights on the blonde strands that fell over Emily’s shoulder and when Harley saw it, the witty comment that was right on the tip of her tongue just disappeared. Quite without her permission, she found herself locking onto those same green eyes and falling forward until she felt the warmth of the lips beneath her own. She briefly closed her eyes as the realization of it hit her and she sank a little deeper into those wondrously soft lips. Then, for no reason she could identify, she pulled back. Looking back at her were those same eyes from just a moment ago, only now the lids were half closed and the desire in them came close to making her lose her balance. The blonde’s lips were half opened and just a little gleam of moisture glistened over them. She pushed down a little harder on the arm she was leaning on and took a small breath to calm herself, that’s when she realized her lips were half opened too and the cool breeze that met the liquid on her own lips surprised her. It didn’t work too well, as she still felt her heart racing and the unmistakable pulling in her groin, but it did serve to strengthen the muscles in her arm enough to keep her from leaning in again.

"Thanks for saving me." The words were soft and sincere and the meaning ambiguous. Even she wasn’t sure exactly what she meant by them. They just popped out and the Sheriff left them there, between them, hoping the other woman would understand something Harley wasn’t able or willing to say.

Before Emily could respond, the unmistakable and at least to Emily, irritating sound of Harley’s cell phone broke the moment.

She took the opportunity to sit back just a bit as Harley pulled out her phone and answered.

Whoa. That was nice. Short. Way too short but very nice. As Emily relived the kiss, her eyes drifted to the water and her breath became short. The moment just kept replaying in her head over and over again. Her only regret was that she’d had no warning it was coming. If she’d had even the mildest hint it might happen, she would have taken steps immediately to prolong it, but it happened so suddenly that just as it registered as more than wishful thinking, it was ending. But it was really wonderful, all the same.

All of it was not lost on the sheriff. With only a part of her concentration on the call, she was still surreptitiously studying the beautiful woman next to her. As she watched Emily sit back, that same ray of sunshine caught her face full on and made the Sheriff swallow hard. Emily’s lips were still half open and the light that glistened on their pink depths was heart palpitatingly beautiful. She noted the woman’s pulse pick up and her chest straining against her increased breathing. She almost, almost closed the phone in preparation of pulling the writer into her arms when that small part of her that was listening to J.D. heard the words she was half expecting and half dreading.

"…so, if she works for the CEO, then her boss is Valerie Drayden. Took me a hell of a lot of calls to track it though. Looks as if she doesn’t want the whole world to know about it." When he didn’t hear what he expected, he spoke up again. "Harley? You still there?"

Harley realized suddenly she’d been holding her breath and released it with an audible whoosh as she picked up the train wreck of her thoughts and spoke. "Yeah, I heard you. Sorry, even though I half expected it, I was still surprised. Do you have anything else for me, like Nancy’s latest address."

"Nope, sorry. All I have is a P.O. box in Malibu. I’ll keep working on it though. Could be that Emerson can track that down faster than I can. He’s working on it and says if he finds anything he’ll call."

"Thanks, J.D., you’ve been a big help."

"It’s nada. Lucky for you it’s a slow news day." He chuckled a bit and, said a brief, "Later" and hung up.

Valerie. How does she figure into this? I was so sure about Darla I kind of put Valerie on the back burner. Stupid, Harley. Stupid and dangerous. Before the mental self-flagellation could continue, Emily spoke.

"Any news?" The blonde was just sitting down again and Harley realized she was so preoccupied she hadn’t even seen her get up. She watched as the woman refilled their coffee cups and set the pot on a trivet Harley hadn’t noticed before. Wow. Must have been lost in thought longer than I realized.

"Yeah. It’s not good either. I just can’t figure it out though. It seems that Nancy works for Valerie Drayden." She left it at that and watched as the smaller woman asked the obvious question.

"That the same Valerie that owns part of The Village?"

"Yep." The dark woman sipped her coffee and watched the blonde. She was expecting any number of things. She expected to see, confusion, anger or fear, but what she saw instead surprised her. The woman was elated. The smile that broke across her face and the sparkle in her eyes were confirmed when she spoke.

"That’s wonderful!" the blonde took a sip of her coffee and looked blissfully out at the ocean.

Harley couldn’t help herself and said, "What?"

Emily realized the woman had no clue what she was thinking and began to explain.

She took a deep breath and turned more fully facing her. "Look, if Valerie is her boss, this had to have been done on her orders. You told me yourself that Nancy wasn’t bright enough or vindictive enough to have thought this out. You also told me Valerie is. Besides which, until we know otherwise, Nancy has no motive. The way I see it, is this. For whatever reason Valerie had Nancy get that alarm code. Now I don’t know if it was Valerie or Nancy who actually used it, but it’s a safe bet that one of them did. Whoever it was, is actually kind of irrelevant. The point is Valerie was and is in charge. That makes her, the ultimate bad guy here, and since were the obvious good guys it’s our job to get the bad guys. You obviously don’t like Valerie and I detest her on your behalf, as lousy as that sounds. I know I’ve never met her, but I do know you." Here she stopped and looked sincerely at the sheriff and reached out to touch her hand. "True, I don’t know you as well as I’d like, but that will come in time. I do, however, know enough of you to know if you dislike someone as much as you dislike her, there’s a very good reason for it. I trust that." She took another breath and continued, never even realizing that her hand had started to pet the one beneath it. "The point is, she’s the culprit, and if she’s as smart and nasty as you think she is, there’s probably a whole lot more to this than just wanting to scare the bejesus out of some houseguest. She’s a very rich woman and a very mean one and she’s personally pissed at you, but what does that have to do with Stephanie?" She shook her head. "No. It’s something else. Something meaner or more profitable. A smart woman would not have set this up. I think Nancy did it and I think she did it on her own, probably to score points with the boss. We just have to figure out what Valerie really wants and then" she slammed her hand down on the table loud enough to make the flatware ring, "we nail her sorry ass." The look on the pretty blondes face was nothing less than feral and Harley reminded herself again of her personal memo not to get the writer mad at her.

The phone ringing broke up their conversation and Harley answered it with more enthusiasm this time.

A minute later Harley asked Emily for a paper and pen and when she hung up, she spoke.

"Let’s clean up these dishes and take a drive." She was smiling now too, and as with Emily, the grin looked decidedly unfriendly. Emily told herself to make sure to stay on the right side of the lawyer. She never wanted that look aimed at her.



She was getting better at this. She’d managed to hold it together long enough for Eli to be able to report to Valerie that her assistant had eaten. She’d waited until he was gone and the door locked behind him before the memory of his body on her and his dick in her mouth sent her rushing painfully into the bathroom. Now she had an empty stomach again and the pain from her stomach convulsing against her bruised torso was back with a vengeance. If I had any brains at all, I’d get the hell out of here right now, before she gets home. She sighed deeply and realized that was a lie. It wasn’t a matter of brains. It was courage she was lacking. Lack of courage and that sick, twisted feeling she still had, despite everything, for the woman who owned her. Even she was bright enough to admit that Valerie didn’t love her. Not really, anyway. That was a knowledge she’d come to long ago, but it still didn’t allow her to leave. It’s like being an addict. She thought. Like knowing it’s costing you and killing you, but not being able to walk away. I’m really pathetic. She remembered the names her mistress had used to humiliate her and even that didn’t help. She didn’t seem to have any dignity left, any sense of herself beyond that of Valerie’s property. She really was her whore.

She took in a shaky breath as far as she could and then grabbed hold of the vanity to lift herself to her feet. She tried not to look, but being the masochist that she was, she failed. The pale grayish skin offset the dark circles under her watery eyes and she could do nothing but close them against the reflection. She had to think. It was Friday and Valerie was due back by Monday. She had to be better by then. Valerie wouldn’t stand for it if she couldn’t service her, and she just knew she wouldn’t have the energy to fight to come back again. One more beating like this and she was just going to let go and die. She knew it could be done. She’d come so close to doing it before.

She made her way, painfully back to the dining room and sat down. As soon as she could feel somewhat sure to keep it down, she finished what was left of the Chinese food Eli brought and sipped her cold tea and tried to think of anything but what had just happened and what was going to happen. She’d been doing it for so long now, it was easy.


After getting in the car and asking Emily for the quickest way to the area she wanted, she revealed what Emerson found for her.

"He couldn’t track down an address for Nancy but one of the few people from Bramble who still keep in touch with her is a good friend of Martha’s. Clancy lives in Santa Barbara now with her husband, but she and Martha get together once in a while. They’re both elementary school principals and met at a convention. Anyway, Clancy said she last saw Nancy by accident when she was at her in-laws in Malibu. Her husband is a teacher too, but his family are all in the entertainment business and have a house on the beach. She was at the nearest grocery store getting more ice for a party that night, when she ran into her, I guess literally with her shopping cart. They talked for a while and caught up on things. Seems Nancy did her level best to let her old high school buddy know how very well she was doing. She dropped a lot of names and then when they were about to leave, Clancy asked her where she was living now. She said she was living at her bosses house." Harley stopped and raised an eyebrow at that.

Emily said, "I’m missing something, aren’t I?"

The sheriff nodded broadly. "Eeeyeah. What you don’t know is the way Nancy McKinney was raised." She made the last turn and started to look for a place to park on the beach side of the road. When she found it and parked, she turned in her seat and continued. "The McKinney’s are one of the few families in Bramble left who are truly homophobic. We had something happen when I was in high school." Although she tried to contain it, Emily saw the flash of pain deep in the sheriff’s eyes as she spoke. "It was an ugly little incident and it kind of separated the men from the boys, so to speak. After that, the lines were drawn between those who didn’t care and those who hated homosexuality. The McKinney’s could have led the group who thought everyone who wasn’t straight should be put on a island somewhere." She took in a calming breath and looked out the windshield as she continued.

"After the incident, both the older McKinney girls, Nancy and Jenna retreated behind the party lines. They never associated again with anyone of questionable sexuality."

She wanted to say more. For some reason she couldn’t understand, she wanted to tell this woman the whole story of one of the most painful experiences of her young life, but she didn’t. It was a watershed event in her youth and marked her in ways she would only see years down the road, but she felt the time was wrong for the telling of it. That thought suddenly stopped her, and she realized she was thinking again that they had a future together. That somewhere in their future, she’d tell this story to the writer and that the woman would be in her life intimately enough to do that. Cut it out and get on with it. Just the relevant facts and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

She cleared her throat and said, "Anyway, up until last night, I never really gave their opinions much thought, but they really are very much against the lifestyle and to hear that Nancy is living with Valerie more than surprises me. Valerie is very ‘out.’ I also found out after we severed our-, whatever we had-, that she’s very proactive about it. According to Steph and Paris, when Valerie’s not trying to seduce the women at The Village, it’s only because she’s too tired from the flavor of the week she brought with her. Although, according to Paris, the two are not mutually exclusive. If Nancy is living in her house, she has to be exposed to that at the least and at most, a participant." As she finished her brow furrowed and the grim set of her lips left no doubt there was something else on her mind.

Emily didn’t hesitate to bring it up. "Okay, so what else aren’t you telling me here? What has you looking so worried?"

Harley’s mind worked hard trying to find a way to explain Valerie and her tastes to Emily without getting too personally into her own experiences with it. The one that happened when she finally figured out what the woman wanted with her and the lengths to which she would go to get it. She wasn’t worried that the writer would be shocked, not with the fast lane lifestyle she led, however she was a little worried that, if she phrased it wrong, she could either give Emily the wrong impression about her own desires or… She didn’t want to think it too hard, but she was worried about the feisty woman’s own inclinations. That could be a definite, err, uhm, sticking point in moving along with this thing between us. Of course, if I don’t broach the subject, I might never know.

"Valerie’s proclivities run to the painful and sadistic. She’s, at least in her own mind, the quintessential Dominatrix. She likes inflicting pain, as any good Dom would." Here she gave a little grin. "But she doesn’t seem to care if her partner has agreed to do it or not." She looked again at the writer. "She’s very brutal."

Emily took it all in. All of it, and she didn’t have to ask the question to know to her bones, that this was what made the beautiful woman in the driver’s seat end her association with Valerie. Her only question might have been how Harley had known her for six weeks without knowing her as it were, and though she wanted the answer, hell, she wanted the whole incident, verbatim and blow-by-blow, she was smart and sensitive enough to know, now was not the time to ask.

"That being the case and assuming that Valerie hasn’t found religion in the last few months, I assume you believe that Nancy is acting as more than her Admin. Assit, right?" The blonde asked the question as matter-of-factly as possible, but the tell that gave her away was the way she grabbed a cigarette and lit it while asking.

"Eh." The brunette made a small grimace and moved her head and her hand from side to side. "I don’t know. That’s just the thing. True, I haven’t seen or spoken to Nancy in years and people do change, but she’d have to have changed a hell of a lot to go from virtuous straight girl to lesbian love slave. I’m not saying it didn’t happen or couldn’t happen; I just have no proof one way or the other. I hate all this empty speculation. On the one hand, it’s hard to see someone as uptight and persnickety as Nancy was in high school, turning into a pain slut, but on the other hand I’ve seen lots of things more surprising than that, and it does fit the scenario." She blew out a breath. "I want some answers." She turned to the writer. "And I’m not going to get them sitting in this car wishing for them. What do you say to a walk on the beach? Maybe we can get some idea of what goes on inside that house from the outside."

By the time Harley came around to open her door, Emily had an even better idea. Stepping out, she smiled her most winning smile and said, "Come with me." She walked briskly down the highway for three houses past the one they parked in front of and then made a left at the boardwalk toward the most flamboyant beach house for miles.

Harley could do little but follow and as they waited for the door to be answered, Emily volunteered, "My friend Naomi lives here, and she’s the best source I know of on who does what with whom. Dirt doesn’t stand a chance of being cleaned before Naomi knows about it. She’s a legend in three different beach cities as well as Hollywood and West Hollywood. When she decides to write her memoirs one day, and I know she will, the buried bodies in this town will turn so violently in their graves it will register on the Richter scale."

Just then the fuchsia door opened and the prettiest man Harley had ever seen flew from behind it to engulf her smaller companion in his arms.

"Girlfriend, it’s been forever. Where have you been and what did you do to yourself?" He gingerly petted the cast Emily wore and Harley swore she could see him tearing up.

"Something foolish and it might have been a lot worse if my hero here hadn’t come charging in to rescue me." She smiled prettily at the sheriff and as had happened from the day they met, it caused an answering smile to appear.

"Naomi, meet Harley Ravensdown, Esquire. Defender of the down trodden and hero to the common woman."

Then, before Harley could open her mouth, she too was engulfed in a massive hug from this beautiful 6’5", blonde Adonis.

"Babycakes, any hero of Shasta’s is a Goddess to me." He left her embrace and grabbed both of their hands, hauling them inside as he said. "I just got the tastiest stuff about what Babs and James ‘I-duh-man’ Brolin do in the hot tub at night."

The door closed behind them and Harley tried to decide just when she lost control of this investigation. She had a hunch it was born in a strawberry blonde with attitude.


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