She crossed the room to the windows quickly and made a great show of admiring the view, while she tried to quit thinking about the woman, and think of something to say to her. Finally settling on a safe subject, she turned to speak and found herself alone.
Damn. Now where did she go? It upset her for some reason to think that this house and all that it represented had not factored in to her construction of the beautiful woman. And why should it, Emily? There you were, deciding in advance what she was like and how she lived and thought and... Shit! What is that about? Since when do you start to judge people by where they live or what they do for a living? But she knew. Since her books had started selling and she found herself on the 'A' list for all the right parties and premiers and awards shows, that's when. When I started to equate people's value with their net worth and their popularity quotient. Well wake up and smell the bullshit, baby. You've become one of those people you make fun of in your books. I think I owe Harley and everyone in this town an apology. In fact, I know I do. Can you spell, snob, Emily? Sure, it's easy. S H A S T A. Now she had to undo the damage, even if the very kind woman she was getting to know didn't know she had been insulted. Emily knew, and her conscience was biting her in the butt.
Before she could decide to look for her or to stay and wait, a portion of the mirror she faced opened soundlessly and seamlessly, and Harley entered.
The sheriff was beginning to get used to that slack jawed stare on her companion's face, but felt compelled to cure it.
She crossed the room and handed the smaller woman a palm sized cassette recorder and said, "I'm sorry I left without warning you, but I just remembered I left this in the living room." She pointed to the mirror. "That is the quickest way to get there, from here."
The blonde closed her mouth. Again. And asked, "Is there anything else here that might surprise me?" She shook her head a little and glanced down at the floor. "I seem to be making a remarkable fool of myself lately. I really don't know why I seem to be so dense." A look of near disgust crossed her face. She returned her gaze to the taller woman and stared straight into her eyes. " I'm really considered fairly bright, generally, and I don't usually think of myself as the kind of person who subscribes to stereotypes, but I guess I don't know myself, as well as I think I do. I'm sorry."
"For making assumptions about you and the people in this town." She inhaled deeply and straightened her shoulders. "I'll try to do better."
Harley was moved by the younger woman's confession. She was used to the attitude that most of the big city dwellers displayed towards the people here, but it never made her happy. Emily's obvious disappointment in herself, showed her to be a woman of integrity and introspection. In an odd way, she was very proud of her. Now, just where in the hell did that come from. Where do I get off being proud of her? She's not my family. She's not 'mine' to be proud of. We hardly know each other. In spite of that, the feeling remained. She smiled warmly at her and said, simply, "Thank you."
Needing in some way to let the writer know that everything was fine between them, she offered, "Would you like to finish the tour?"
Giving back a small smile of her own, the writer nodded.
Harley showed her the place to press above the mirror to get the door open and they walked through it and back into the living room. From that side she showed her the same spot on the wood paneling to get her back into the gym, and from there, they went though another concealed door, opposite the first one they entered, that led to a small hall.
This hall had five doors, including the one from which they entered. The others led to a steam room, a full bath, another door to the back of the kitchen, which opened to the pantry at its end, and the door to the garage.
Emily was very impressed with the structure. She had been to mansions that weren't as cleverly designed. From the front of the house, it was very unassuming. It looked like a standard 'A' frame house. Harley explained to her was, that it was indeed, just that. Except there were two of them, built together, back to back, and modified, of course.
When they returned to the car and started back to town, Harley showed her how to work the machine and told her it had a blank tape she could use already installed.
Holding it on her lap, the writer knew she couldn't contain her curiosity any longer and asked, "Okay, you know I have to know. What's with all the concealed doors? Why all the apparent secrecy with the house? What are you into, some secret spy stuff or something?"
The sheriff laughed good-naturedly and answered. "No, nothing like that. I just like it. I like the idea of denying access to certain parts of my home to casual friends or acquaintances. I like puzzles, secrets, and gothic design, but I can't have that in the middle of California. Well, I could, but I didn't want it to look like Hearst Castle. I'd feel silly about it." That got her a broad grin from the blonde.
"Actually, I just thought it would look best this way, mostly. It allows the living room to appear seamless, the gym to afford me less distractions while I work out, and absolute privacy in my office if I need it."
She noticed that no reason was given for the lack of doorknob in her bedroom, but decided not to push it. It would make a nice puzzle to work out for herself, and it would give her even more incentive to get to know this complicated and beautiful woman better. Not like I need that.
Instead of heading back the way they came, Harley turned left at the Burger King and then right on Eureka the street off of which Old Orchard was found. For just a moment, Emily thought Harley was taking her home, and her heart sank. They passed Old Orchard and headed up the mountain.
"Part of the rounds we make includes checking out the road up to The Village."
"Oh, that's the name of that women's survivalist school I told you about. They're fairly isolated up there and even though the owners of the school can certainly take care of themselves, we still check out the road and check in with them once a day." She cocked her head and grinned at the writer, "It's an, uh, interesting place."
Just the way she said that word, interesting, had Emily more than a little intrigued. She was looking forward to the visit.
Less than five minutes later, they pulled into a semicircular drive in front of The Village.
The building they faced could have been any number of ski lodges Shasta had been to. It was long and large, with wide windows and granite floors. Comfortable furniture was scattered to the right and the left of the doors and then grouped more closely around identical limestone fireplaces at either end. Across from the front doors was a semi-circular reception desk, and standing behind it, speaking to a middle aged woman, was a short, well built ash blonde with long, curly hair, wearing a green polo shirt with the name The Village embroidered on the right breast. The name on the badge on her left identified her as Danita Walters. As they approached, her gaze shifted from her client to the Sheriff and a smile broke out. She seemed to answer the woman, who then nodded and left toward the back doors.
"Hey ya, Harley. How goes it?"
"Good, Dani, and yourself? No problems, I hope." Harley answered, and extended her arm to the woman, who grasped it at the elbow and held it firmly.
As their arms released, she answered. "Nah, you know you'd be the first to know." She grinned with what she hoped was sincerity. She saw instantly the Sheriff wasn't buying it.
"Eyeah. Right." Harley answered, letting her head tilt to the left and her mouth twitch up on one side.
Emily had been watching closely since they entered. She was sure there was a great deal of sincere affection between the two women but the undercurrent of rivalry, left her a bit confused. Before she could ponder it fully, Harley was introducing her.
"Emily, this is Danita Walters, one of the owners and teachers here at The Village. Dani, this is Emily Cutter."
Without the slightest hint of self-consciousness, the curly haired blonde offered her left arm to her with a smile. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Without even thinking about it, Emily returned the gesture and they grasped forearms. She liked this woman instantly. Even though she had the feeling, the woman was somehow sizing her up. "Thank you, Danita. It's a pleasure to meet you too."
"Please, Dani is just fine, Ms Cutter. We're pretty informal around here."
The writer was a bit surprised at the thick feel of the muscle beneath her fingers. The woman was only an inch or two taller than she was, but she seemed to exude an aura of strength and competence. As they released their arms, she noticed the woman give a tiny glance to the Sheriff and nod her head almost imperceptibly. For some reason she felt she had passed some test. It made her feel good. Good, but confused. Why is that? Normally having someone else pass judgment on me or make an automatic appraisal of some kind would have left me bristling. Chances are, she would have leave them feeling like a truck ran over them for their impertinence. When you write for a living, you really learn quickly how to damage with words. If this had been someone else, I would have her, metaphorically, bleeding on the floor by now, for daring to judge me. This feels different. More like a vindication. Why is that, and who is she?
"Please then, call me Emily." She was just about to ask her about this place when the set of glass doors behind her opened and another woman came towards them. She was several inches taller than Dani with long straight black hair and a very dark tan. Even from this distance, you could see she had Native American roots. She took in the sight of the Sheriff and her face broke into a huge smile.
"How, Ravensdown." She said in a deep voice as she lifted her right arm up, palm out.
"How, Long Arrow." Harley answered, replicating the other woman's gesture.
The writer noticed a sudden straightening in her tall friends back and the feeling of strength and energy she got from her was like walking into a sauna. She could nearly smell it. What is going on here?
The smaller woman reached them extended her arm and hand as Dani had, and the Sheriff accepted it. For a second that look of confidence and self-assurance she noticed on the new woman was there in force. It was replaced a moment later by the barest hint of pain as she flinched for a second under the taller woman's crushing grip. Then they released each other.
She looked up as she heard Dani laugh. "One day, honey, you are gonna learn to just give it up." She slipped an arm over the counter and rubbed the Indian's right forearm.
"Never!" She answered, "One day old age is gonna get her and she'll be the one on the floor." She looked at the Sheriff and stuck her tongue out.
Harley just laughed. "In your dreams, Paris."
Suddenly, they all remembered the writer's presence. "Emily, this stubborn piece of used shoe leather is Paris Long Arrow, another of the owner/operators of The Village, and," with a small look at her old friend offered, "one of the toughest women I know." She gave out with a small grin to the dark haired woman. "This is Ms. Emily Cutter."
Warm, dark brown eyes looked more than a little surprised at the compliment and nodded in acknowledgement to the tall officer before turning on Emily with a huge grin, full of white perfect teeth. She did not offer her arm, but instead made a short bow to her and said. "How do you do, Ms Cutter?" Before Emily could respond, she continued, "Obviously, not as well as you should be," taking in the cast on her arm. "Are you here to join us?"
Dani interrupted. "No, Paris. Ms Cutter is the woman who was attacked at the Nest."
A myriad of emotions crawled over the dark woman's face. Emily could clearly see them as they went from surprise, to understanding, to empathy and finally settled on anger. She seemed to push it down as well as she could, but the vestiges of it were there as she said. "I'm so very sorry Ms. Cutter. Can we help you out in any way? We have plenty of room, and plenty of people here to help you out while you're recovering." Her obvious sincerity touched Emily deeply. Again. These people don't even know me. It would never occur to me to offer that kind of help to a virtual stranger. She swallowed. And just what does that say about me?
Unbeknownst to her, Harley was watching her reactions as intently as she had watched Paris'. She registered the surprise at Long Arrow's offer and the almost instant look of shame that followed it. She found herself liking the young woman even more for it. Then once again, she felt that undeserving and foreign sense of pride in the smaller woman. Jesus, just where is that coming from?
Emily managed to gather herself together enough to answer in a small voice. "That is a very kind and generous offer, Ms. Long Arrow, ..."
"Paris, please!" She interrupted, with a grin.
Emilyreturned the grin and suddenly felt a little better.
"Paris. But, as I was saying, I think I'll be just fine on my own. I do want to thank you for thinking of me, though."
"No problem," the woman returned, "if you do need something or change your mind, just give us a call." She handed her a business card from the display on the desk and continued. "Have you had a tour of our school yet, Ms. Cutter?"
"Emily." The writer answered.
"I was just about to offer her one, when you came in, honey." Dani looked at her and said, "May I show our place, Emily?" Then she turned to Harley, "if that's okay with you, Sheriff. Have you got a few minutes?"
"No, go right ahead, Dani. I was about to do it myself if you were busy." She turned to the writer, "Go ahead Emily, it's an interesting place. I'll just stay here with Paris and catch up." She smiled down at the blonde and nodded.
Interesting. There was that word again. Well, if she thinks
it's interesting, I have to see this for myself.
"Thanks, Dani. I'd like that very much."
As the two smaller women left through the glass doors behind the desk, Paris turned to Harley.
"So. What's the deal with that? Did you castrate the son of a bitch who attacked her, or what?" The angry growl was something the Sheriff was used to hearing from her volatile, but good-hearted friend.
"Gunny picked him up this morning with a New Mexico state trooper." She then gave her the particulars on the other crimes he committed and his likely future.
"Were all his parts in working order?" She smirked at the officer.
Harley looked down at the desk and ran her forefinger along the grain for a second. She looked back up at the smaller woman through her lashes. A tiny, evil, grin quirked at the edges of her mouth.
"Most of them." She answered quietly.
"This is the archery field. It's not a very practical weapon for self-defense, but it develops great hand to eye coordination and gives a woman a tremendous feeling of confidence. That's most of what we're trying to instill her. A feeling of empowerment and competence in a patriarchal society that has diminished women's roles and segmented us away from each other and our dreams for so long." The pretty, gray-eyed woman spoke with a passion that was fundamental to her beliefs.
Shasta was quietly impressed with the woman's' clarity of thought on a subject that she had rather relegated to the woman's libbers of the eighties. She was also a little ashamed again. She had been so successful, so quickly and had been surrounded by powerful and successful women since college, that she kind of saw everything through that filter. After having heard Dani describe some of the battered women and talented women who had been denied a chance at succeeding who came to them, she was forced to once again, reevaluate her fairly limited view of the world for most other women.
It made her feel bad, kind of disconnected from the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the women in the world. Dani saw all women as sisters. Sisters who needed different things from them, but sisters who needed something only other women could give to them. All of it stemming from the understanding that we, as women, need to stop feeling ashamed of ourselves and stop accepting the boxes the world and organized religion had forced us into for so long. She was enchanted to find out that Dani and Paris and several of the staff here, considered themselves to be some kind of new amazons, fighting for their tribe. That tribe, being all women everywhere who rebel and reject the way the world pushes them into accepting less than what should be, their share of happiness. She started out liking her when they met, but she was sure now, she wanted to develop a deeper friendship with this fascinating woman. She also wanted to know more about her concept of women in the world and, a part of her she hadn't even known existed, wanted to participate.
They had already seen the guest rooms, gymnasium, pool and spa area, rifle and gun range and now the archery range. Dani explained the myriad of things they taught here, from martial arts, gun safety and use, to woodcraft, tracking and hunting. Harley was right; this place is interesting. Hell, it's fascinating. They talked about the self-defense classes and she told Dani that she took lessons in Tae Bo. The woman lit up and she offered to have her come back anytime when her arm healed and sit in on the classes. Emily accepted the offer instantly, and then they headed to the archery range. A few women were still practicing as the sun began to set and Dani called to them that it was getter dark, and to start again tomorrow. She saw some disappointment on some of the faces.
They continued walking and ended up at the dining room. The smells were great and the buffet was just being set up as they wandered though it. They exited through another door, which led them back to the lobby. They found Harley and Paris sitting in front of a newly made fire at the south end of the building, deep in a discussion of the pros and cons of different types of martial art forms.
Paris was just standing to make her point about something when she saw them return.
"Hey there Emily. So what did you think?" She asked.
"I think it's a wonderful place you have here. Dani has offered to have me back when I heal to sit in on some classes, and I can't wait." She said with obvious enthusiasm.
Harley stood and watched her as she bubbled over about the place and couldn't keep the grin off her face. Anything that makes her want to stick around is fine by me. She did however notice a slight strain in her voice and a loss of color around her eyes. She's in pain. She looked at her watch and realized it was later than she thought. Knowing she needed to get the woman home and to her pain pills, she interrupted the women's mutual admiration.
"I hate to be the bad guy here, but I need to get going." She turned and offered her arm to first Paris and then Dani as she told them good-bye. She walked the still enthused woman to the car, listening to her talk about how much she had liked the place and the two women running it.
"Three, actually. You didn't meet Valerie. She's the third of the triumvirate that runs the place. She has another business so she only stays up here a couple of weeks a month," Harley informed her.
There was nothing in Harley's tone of voice, or her body language that she could put her finger on, but Emily got the distinct impression that Valerie was not one of the Sheriff's favorite people. She took a moment to decide whether to call her on it, and her natural curiosity won out.
"Just what is it you don't like about this Valerie?" she asked, bluntly.
Harley stiffened. She was more than a little surprised to have the younger woman pick up on her dislike of the woman. She knew she hadn't inplied it in her inflection. How did she know?
She gave brief thought to denying it, but then figured what the hell, sooner or later, if she stayed, she'd hear about it from someone.
"You're right, I don't like her." She thought about how to tactfully explain her history with the woman without going into too much detail, and without sounding as angry about it as she was. She knew that to tell her, she would have to explain things about her self that she hoped would come later, but she figured she really had no choice. Hoping she hadn't read the smaller woman wrong when they flirted earlier, she just bit the bullet and started.
"She and I dated for a while." Keeping her eyes on the darkening dirt
road ahead of her as they descended the mountain, she kept her peripheral
vision steadily on the blonde to her side. She saw just a touch of
a smile at the edges of he mouth and took a mental deep breath in relief.
"About a year ago, Dani and Paris were running into some financial problems. Valerie had been a regular here for at least a year before that. She inherited a chain of sporting goods stores from her parents when they died in a boating accident, and had plenty of capital to sink into the business. She offered to bail them out for a piece of the Village and they agreed. Just after she came on board as an owner, we met, and she and I dated briefly."
"How briefly?" Emily asked.
"About six weeks." She took the turn onto Bender and Emily was secretly grateful that Hatley hadn't dropped her off at Stephanie's on the way back to town, especially now. She really wanted to hear about this, for several reasons.
"What happened?" She registered just how that sounded and hurried to rectify it as best she could. "I mean, if you don't mind telling me or if it isn't too pushy or personal. I mean it really is none of my business." She trailed off lamely and hoped like crazy the woman would let it go and just continue. She said a little thank you to anyone listening to her prayer when the dark-haired woman started to talk again.
"I realized she and I weren't really... compatible, I guess. I told her I didn't think it was going to work out between us and asked if we could just continue as friends." I knew when I did that though, that we would never be that. If she could have been a person I might have become friends with, I might not have stopped seeing her. "Anyway, she took it very badly and she's pretty much gone out of her way to make my life miserable ever since. I try to stay away from The Village when she's there. Since she doesn't come into town much, we can pretty well manage to avoid each other. It's not very pleasant when we don't." She couldn't have kept the look of quiet anger and disgust off her face if she tried. The women very nearly came to blows on any number of occasions since they stopped seeing each other, and the whole town knew enough to warn the Sheriff if Valerie was shopping or eating in Bramble, in order to avoid a scene.
It hit Emily like wildfire, a sudden and intense dislike for this woman she never met, on Harley's behalf. Well, if that isn't screwed. Not two hours ago. you were telling yourself to stop making assumptions about people you never met and to judge each one on their own merits. Where did that go, Emily? More importantly, where did that feeling of defensive anger come from? Harley's a big girl and she can take care of herself, obviously. She knew that the woman driving the car could probably taken care of herself against a half dozen Valerie's, but...that doesn't explain the need to pummel this unknown woman, does it? Once again, confused and upset with herself, she tried to forget her feelings until she had some private time to examine them.
They pulled up to the Sheriff's office and Harley turned to her.
"I'll just run in and get your pills, then I'll take you home. Mom said she'd be by in less than an hour to bring you your dinner and then you need to get some rest. Be right back." She closed the door and was gone before Emily could object.
"Well," she speculated to the empty car, "what did you expect? She spent the whole day with you, ya know, she does have a life." The understanding and rational explanation did nothing to diminish the feeling of being dismissed though, and she racked her brain for a way to invite herself back into the Sheriff's company, without making the woman feel obligated.
Harley returned a minute later and started the car, turning it back up Bender toward Stephanie's place.
She parked it in the driveway and there was an awkward moment where they simply sat in the same silence that had accompanied them here.
Finally, Emily said, "I want to thank you, Sheriff, for babysitting me all day. And for the tour of the town and the wonderful company." She held out her left hand a little awkwardly but the taller woman took with a practiced grace and held it as she replied.
"Twern't no thang, Ma'am. I plumb enjoyed the honor of havin ya with us. Surely wish we could be doin it agin." Then she tipped her hat in a credible imitation of Gary Cooper.
The young women just shook with laughter and the officer joined her. When they both calmed down, Emily said, "I would like that very much, if you mean it. What I mean is, if it's alright with you, I'd like to drop in again and talk." She held her breath for a minute as the officer turned to face her.
"I'd like that very much Emily. Very much." They just looked at one another as a building tension began. Realizing where they were headed and totally unsure how to handle it right now, the Sheriff offered a tender smile and said, "Let me walk you to your door."
The writer's quiet, "Sure," went unheard as the tall woman was already heading around the front of the car.
The walk to the front door was quiet and Emily felt a palpable need to fill it. " Does Bramble have a Taxi or a bus service? I mean, I'd hate to be confined to this house all the time, but it doesn't look like I'll be shifting gears any time soon."
The officer looked uncomfortable for a moment and switched her weight from one foot to another as she answered. "Uh, actually no. We never really, uhm, felt the need for one, I guess. It's a really small town, ya know?"
"Oh." Emily wasn't quite prepared for that answer. She knew she had to find a solution to this problem or she'd go stir crazy. There had to be someone. What happened if your car broke down? So she asked. "Well, what happens if someone's car breaks down or has an accident or something?"
The look of discomfort the Sheriff wore increased a little more and a small pale-pink blush crept up her neck, visable by the light of the porch lamp. "We, uh, we uh, usually call the Sheriff." She cleared her throat. "We don't usually have a lot of crime here, so whoever is working that day as deputy or Sheriff has plenty of time to just go pick them up and take them where they need to go. That is, if they don't have any other way of getting there, or home. Ya see?" She finished weakly and saw disappointment creep into the writers face. Finally, understanding that she gave her the wrong impression, she went on. "Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you wouldn't be offended, I'd be happy to pick you up tomorrow, or uhm, anytime if you needed to go somewhere for some reason. That is, I mean, either Cole or I, if we're not busy that is. I mean if we're chasing a bank robber or something, you'll just have to wait." She chuckled a little at that and hoped to break some of the tension.
"Thanks Harley, I'd like that too. Very much." She realized that she had run out of things to say, so she needed to let the woman go and get in the house. What Emily really wanted to do was lean up and kiss her. Restraining that urge with almost super human effort, she compromised and hoped she wasn't rejected. Leaning up, she placed her left hand on the officer's shoulder, and kissed her on her cheek. Almost. Just the very edge of her lips grazed Harleys and she felt the response in the twitch of the Sheriff's mouth toward her own. In a voice much lower and deeper than she intended, she whispered, "Good night," And opening the door, slipped inside.
Harley just stood there and closed her eyes. She tried very hard to get the same word out of her mouth, but nothing came. The warm rush that ran down her back and coursed through her at that kiss took her by complete surprise. By the time her voice returned to her, the woman was gone. She smiled a little and touched her lips where they met Emily's. Maybe it's a good thing she's a tourist. I don't know if I'd survive the intensity of a long-term thing with her. Then her smile grew until she nearly squinted with it, and the thought of it brought that warm feeling back with a jolt and flooded her again. I'm a strong woman. I have many... talents. I could adapt. She let go with a little laugh as she made her way to police car. Gods, I love a challenge!!
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