Dark Hunger


Part One. DEMO Chapter Ten


To Steve's mind very little topped the sensation of roaring along a country road, hugging the curves with the warm night wind streaming. Scoring with the hot brunette, Shanna the landscaper, would've edged that out, but he'd come close there.

And there was always next time.

He'd gotten a taste, anyway, and had the feeling the full dish would live up to the promise of the sample. Yeah. He grinned into the wind. Next time.

But for now, cruising along the deserted road after a little beer, a little pool, a few laughs and the prelude with Shanna hit all the chords. Swinging down, taking a couple of weeks to hook up with Cilla, yeah, that was working for him.

She'd taken on a big one, he mused. A big, complicated project, and a wicked personal one. But it was working for her, too. He could see it in the way she looked, the way she talked. And she'd make herself something-something big, complicated and personal. Just like she'd always needed to.

He could give her another week, maybe ten days on it. Because damn if the rehab didn't grab him, and tight enough he wanted to see it through a little longer. He wanted to hang with Cilla a little longer, too, watch her build the framework of her new life.

And hopefully close the deal with Shanna while he was at it.

A week ought to do it, he thought as he swung around the turn and onto Cilla's road. By then, the rural charm of the Shenandoah Valley would start to fade for him. He needed the action of the city, and though New York appealed to him for short stints, L.A.'s gloss and sparkle was home, sweet home.

Not for Cilla. Steve glanced idly at a car parked on the shoulder near a long, rising lane. No, for Cilla L.A. had always been just a place. Probably another reason getting married had been such a whacked idea. Even back then she'd been looking for a way out, and he'd been looking for a way in.

And somehow, they'd both found it.

He turned into her drive, smiling to himself when he noted she'd left a light on out front for him, and another inside that glowed against one of the windows. That was Cilla, he thought. She thought of the little things, remembered details.

And the light in the window reminded him it had to be after two in the morning. In the country quiet his Harley sounded like a tornado blowing out to Oz. She'd probably sleep through it-when Cilla went out, she went out-but he cut the engine halfway down the drive and coasted.

Singing under his breath, he hopped off the bike to guide it the rest of the way to the barn. He took off his helmet, strapped it onto the bike, then pulled open the creaking barn door. He left the headlight on to cut a swath through the dark and, with a belch that brought back the memory of Corona, slapped the kickstand down. When he angled the front wheel, the headlight cut across one of Cilla's storage boxes. It sat open, with its lid beside it, and scattered with photos and papers.

"Hey."

He took a step forward for a closer look. He heard nothing, saw nothing, and felt only an instant of shattering pain before he pitched forward onto the concrete.

CILLA HAD the first of what she thought of as a heads-together with Matt just after seven A.M. She planned others with the electrician and the plumber, but she wanted Steve in on that. As long as he was here, she thought, she'd use him.

Plus, she wanted him to go with her on a buying trip. She needed to choose tile and hardware, fixtures, and order more lumber. By seven-thirty, the cacophony of saws, hammers and radios filled the house, and figuring Steve had had a late night, she took pity on him and carried a mug of coffee up to the bedroom where he slept in his borrowed Spider-Man sleeping bag.

When she saw Spidey was currently unoccupied, she blew out a breath. "Somebody got lucky," she muttered, and drank the coffee herself as she headed downstairs.

She grabbed her lists, her notebook, her purse. As she stepped outside, the landscape crew pulled in. Cilla's eyebrows quirked up when she spotted Shanna. Just who did Steve get lucky with? she wondered. Shanna lifted a hand in a wave, then, carrying a to-go cup of coffee, wandered over.

"Morning. Brian's got to site another job this morning, but he'll swing by in a couple hours."

"Fine. I'm heading in to pick up some materials. Do you need me for anything?"

"We're good. But you ought to come around when you get back. We'll be starting on hardscape-the patio and walkways today." Shanna glanced at the house. "So, is Steve among the living this morning?"

"Haven't seen him yet."

"I'm not surprised." Adjusting the cap over her dark braid, Shanna flashed a smile. "We about closed the place down last night. That Steve, he sure can dance."

"Yes, he can."

"He's a sweetie. Followed me home to make sure I got there safe, then didn't push-or not hard-to come in. He'd pushed a little harder, and who knows?" She hooted out a laugh.

"He didn't stay with you?"

"No." Shanna's smile faded. "Did he get home all right?"

"I don't know. I didn't see him inside, so I assumed..." With a shrug, Cilla jingled her keys. "I'll just go see if his bike's in the barn."

Shanna fell into step beside her. "He was fine when he left, I mean he hadn't been drinking much. A couple of beers all night. I only live about twenty minutes from here."

"I probably just missed him in the house." But her stomach started to jump as Cilla reached the barn door. "Maybe he went up while I went down."

Sunlight splashed into the barn and erupted with dust motes. Cilla blinked to adjust her eyes and felt a fresh wave of anxiety when she didn't immediately spot the Harley.

Stepping in, she noted some of her storage boxes were tipped over, the contents spilled. An old chair lay broken on its side. She saw the Harley then, on the floor, handlebars up as if its rider had wiped out. Steve, arms and legs splayed, sprawled under the weighty bulk of it.

"Oh God." She sprang forward, Shanna beside her, to lift the bike off Steve. Blood matted his hair, and more stained his raw and bruised face. Afraid to move him, Cilla pressed her fingers to his throat. And nearly shook as she felt his pulse beat.

"He's alive. He's got a pulse. Call-"

"I am." Crouching, Shanna punched nine-one-one on her cell phone. "Should we get a blanket? Should we-"

"Tell them to hurry. Don't move him." Cilla leaped up and ran for the house.

HE COULD USUALLY sleep through anything. But the shouting scraped along Ford's consciousness, then the sirens drove straight in. Too bleary to put them together, he rolled out of bed, stumbled out onto the veranda. Yawning, he scanned across the road, wished he could conjure a cup of coffee with the power of his mind. The sight of the ambulance outside Cilla's barn had him snapping awake. When he didn't see her in his quick, panicked search, he rushed back inside to drag on clothes.

He streaked across the road, up Cilla's drive, keeping his mind blank. If one image, even one image, formed, a dozen horrible others would follow. He pushed through the crowd of workers, said her name once, like a personal prayer.

When he saw her standing behind the portable gurney, his heart started beating again. Then it slammed into his belly when he realized Steve lay on the gurney.

"I'm going with him. I'm going." Her voice teetered on the thin edge between control and hysteria. "He's not going alone." She gripped the edge of the gurney, stuck like glue as they transported it to the ambulance.

The fear in her eyes chilled Ford to the bone. "Cilla. I'm going to follow you in. I'm going to be there."

"He won't wake up. They can't wake him up." Before anyone could deny her, Cilla climbed into the back of the ambulance.

He took her purse because Shanna had retrieved it and pushed it into his hands. Shanna, Ford thought, who'd had tears streaking down her face.

"He was in the barn," Shanna choked out, and slid into Ford's arms for comfort. "Lying on the floor, under the bike. The blood."

"Okay, Shan. Okay, honey. I'm going to go. I'm going to find out how he is."

"Call me, please. Call me."

"First thing."

After a wild drive to the hospital, Ford carried Cilla's purse into the ER, too worried to feel even marginally foolish.

He found her standing outside a pair of double doors, looking helpless.

"I gave them his medical history, the stuff I could remember. Who remembers all of that kind of thing?" She pawed at the neck of her shirt, as if looking for something, anything, to hold on to. "But I gave them his blood type. I remembered his blood type. A-negative. I remembered."

"Okay. Let's go sit down."

"They won't let me in. They won't let me stay with him. He won't wake up."

Ford put an arm around her shoulders and firmly steered her away from the doors and to a chair. Instead of sitting, he crouched in front of her so her eyes were on his face. "They're going to fix him now. That's what they're doing. Okay?"

"He was bleeding. His head. His face. Lying there bleeding. I don't know how long."

"Tell me what happened."

"I don't know!" She pressed both hands to her mouth, and began to rock. "I don't know. He wasn't in his room, and I figured, I thought, well, I figured, he shoots, he scores. That's all. I almost left. God, God, I almost left without even looking, even checking. It would've been hours more."

"Breathe." He spoke sharply, took her hands and squeezed. "Look at me and breathe."

"Okay." She breathed, and she trembled, but Ford saw a hint of color come back into her face. "I thought he'd stayed at Shanna's, so I was going to go buy materials, but he didn't. I mean, she got there and said he didn't. I worried that he might've gotten lost or something. I don't even know. But I went to see if his bike was there. And we found him."

"In the barn."

"He was lying under his bike. I don't know what could've happened. His head, his face." Now she rubbed a hand between her breasts. Ford could almost hear the slam of her heart against the pressure. "I heard them say he's probably got a couple of broken ribs, from the bike falling on him. But how did the bike fall on him? And... and the head injuries. His pupils. They said something about a blown pupil. I know that's not good. I had a guest spot on ER once."

She hitched in three raw breaths, then let them out in a gush. And the tears came with it. "Who the hell has a motorcycle accident in a barn? It's so goddamn stupid."

Taking the tears, and the hint of anger, as good signs, Ford sat beside her and held her hand.

When the door flew open, they lurched to their feet together. "What is it? Where are you taking him? Steve."

"Miss." One of the ER nurses put herself in Cilla's path. "They're taking your friend up to surgery."

"Surgery for what? For what?"

"He has bleeding in his brain from the head injury. They need to operate. I'm going to take you up to the surgical waiting area. One of the doctors can explain the procedure to you."

"How bad? You can tell me that. How bad?"

"We're doing everything we can. We have a good surgical team prepping for the procedure." She gestured them to an elevator. "Do you know if Mr. Chensky was in some sort of fight?"

"No. Why?"

"The injury to the back of his head. It looks as though he's been struck. It's just not consistent with a fall. Of course, if he was driving without his helmet..."

"It didn't happen when he was driving. It didn't happen on the road."

"So you said."

"Cilla." Ford laid a hand on hers before she could get into the elevator. "We need to call the cops."

HOW WAS SHE supposed to think? How could she sit in this room while somewhere else strangers operated on Steve? An operating room. Operating theater. They called it a theater sometimes, didn't they? Would the patient and doctor be costars? Who got top billing?

"Miss McGowan?"

"What?" She stared into the blank eyes of the cop. What was his name? She'd already forgotten it. "I'm sorry." She groped through the chaos of her mind for the question he'd asked. "I'm not sure what time he got back. I went to bed about midnight, and he wasn't back. Shanna said he left her before two. Just before two, she said."

"Do you have Shanna's full name?"

"Shanna Stiles," Ford supplied. "She works for Brian Morrow. Morrow Landscape and Design."

"You found Mr. Chensky at approximately seven-thirty this morning?"

"I said that. Didn't I say that?" Cilla pushed at her hair. "He wasn't in the house, so I checked the barn for his bike. And I found him."

"You and Mr. Chensky live together?"

"He's visiting. He's helping me out for a few weeks."

"Visiting from?"

"Los Angeles. New York. I mean, he was in New York, and he's going back to L.A." Whatever churned in her belly wanted to rise up to her throat. "What difference does it make?"

"Officer Taney." Ford put a hand over Cilla's, squeezed. "Here's the thing. A few nights ago, I saw someone walking around, going into Cilla's barn. It was late. I was working late, and I looked out the window on the way to bed and saw someone, saw a flashlight. I thought it was Steve, and didn't think anything of it."

"But it wasn't." Remembering, Cilla shut her eyes. "I was supposed to buy a padlock, but I didn't. I forgot about it, didn't think about it, and now-"

"What do you keep in the barn?" Taney asked her.

"I cleaned out the attic and stored things there. A lot of things I have to sort through. And there's other stuff. Old tack, tools, equipment."

"Valuables?"

"For some, anything connected to my grandmother is valuable. Stupid, stupid to think I could turn it all around, make it new." Make it mine, she thought. Stupid.

"Was anything taken?"

"I don't know. I just don't know."

"Mr. Chensky went out at approximately eight last evening, to a bar. You don't have the name of the bar-"

"No, I don't have the name of the bar. You can ask Shanna Stiles. And if you're thinking he was drunk and somehow bashed himself on the back of the head, smashed his face into the concrete and knocked his bike on top of him, you're wrong. Steve wouldn't get on his bike drunk. You can ask Shanna or anyone else who was in the bar last night about that."


"I'm going to do that, Miss McGowan, and if it's all right with you, I'll go over and have a look at your barn."

"Yes, go ahead."

"I hope your friend comes through okay. I'll be in touch," he added as he rose.

Ford watched him cross to the nurses' station, take out a card.

"He thinks it was drunken clumsiness, or that Steve was stoned and stupid."

"Maybe he does." Ford turned back to Cilla. "Maybe. But he's still going to look at things, talk to people. And Steve can fill in the blanks when he's able."

"He could die. They don't have to tell me that for me to know it. He might never wake up." Her lips trembled before she managed to firm them. "And I keep seeing him in there, in this scene out of Grey's Anatomy, with the interns up there in that glass-walled balcony looking down at Steve. And everybody's thinking more about sex than they are about Steve."

Ford took her face in his hands. "People do their jobs while they think about sex. All the time. Otherwise nothing would ever get done." When she let out a weak laugh, he kissed her forehead. "Let's take a walk, get some air."

"I shouldn't leave. I need to be here."

"It's going to be a while. Let's clear the head, hunt up some decent coffee."

"Okay. A few minutes. You don't have to stay." She looked down at her hand as they walked to the elevator, saw it was caught in his again. "I wasn't thinking. You don't have to stay. You barely know Steve."

"Don't be stupid. I do know him, and I like him. Anyway, I won't leave you alone."

She said nothing, couldn't, as they rode down. Her eyes stung, wanted to flood. Her body ached to turn into his, press against the solidity of him, be enfolded. Safe. She could hold on there, she thought. Be allowed to hold on.

"You want food?" he asked as they stepped out at the lobby level.

"No, I couldn't."

"Probably still sucks anyway."

"Still?"

"My dad was in for a couple days a few years ago, so I choked down the cafeteria fare a time or two. It hadn't improved since I was a kid and did my own time."

"What were you in for?"

"Overnight observation-concussion, broken arm. I, uh, got the idea to put these Velcro strips on my snow gloves and socks. Thought I'd be able to climb up and down buildings like Spider-Man. Fortunately my bedroom window wasn't that high up."

"Maybe you should've tried climbing up before climbing down."

"Hindsight."

"You're taking my mind off Steve, and I appreciate it. But-"

"Five minutes," Ford said as he drew her outside. "Fresh air."

"Ford?"

Cilla looked over as he did toward the pretty woman wearing a suit of powerful red. A laugh played over lips painted the same bold color, while she drew off sunglasses to reveal eyes of deep, dark brown.

Her arms opened wide, then closed around Ford in a hard, proprietary hug. She added sound effects, Cilla noted, a low mmmmmMM! before she broke off, shook back the short swing of glossy brown hair. "It's been ages!"

"A while," Ford agreed. "You look seriously great."

"I do my best." She turned those eyes, those smiling lips on Cilla. "Hi there."

"Cilla, this is Brian's mom, Cathy Morrow. Bri's doing a job for Cilla."

"Of course," Cathy said. "Janet Hardy's granddaughter. I knew her a little. You certainly have the look of her. And you're fixing up the old farm."

"Yes." It was surreal, the conversation. Cilla thought of it as lines from a play. "Brian's a big help. He's talented."

"That's my boy. What are y'all doing here?"

"Cilla's friend's in surgery. There was an accident."

"Oh God, I'm so sorry." The bright, flirtatious smile transformed into a look of concern. "Is there anything I can do?" Cathy's arm went around Cilla in a gesture so genuine, Cilla leaned into it instinctively.

"We're just... waiting."

"The worst. The waiting. Listen, I volunteer here a couple of days a week, and I head a couple of the fund-raising committees. I know a lot of the staff. Who's his surgeon?"

"I don't know. It happened so fast."

"Why don't I find out, see if I can get you some information? I don't know why they don't understand we do better if we know things."

The offer was like water on a burning throat. "Could you?"

"I can sure try. Come on, honey. You want some coffee, some water? No, I'll tell you what. Ford, run on down and get Cilla a ginger ale."

"Okay. I'll meet you back upstairs. You're in good hands."

It felt like it. For the first time in too long to remember, Cilla felt as if it was okay to just let go and allow somebody else to take charge.

"What happened to your friend?"

"We don't know, exactly. That's part of the problem."

"Well, we'll find out what we can." Cathy gave Cilla a comforting squeeze as they crowded onto an elevator with visitors and flowers and Mylar balloons. "What's his name?"

"Steve. Steven Chensky."

Cathy took out a red leather notebook and a silver pen to note it down. "How long's he been in?"

"I'm not sure. I've lost track. We got here about eight, I think, into the ER, and he was there for a little while before they brought him up. Maybe an hour ago?"

"I know that seems long, but it's not, really. Here now." Cathy patted Cilla on the back when the elevator doors opened. "You go on and sit, and I'll see what I can find out."

"Thank you. Thank you so much."

"Don't you give it a thought."

Cilla walked back to the waiting room but didn't sit. She didn't want to sit with the others who were waiting for word on a friend, on a loved one. On life and death. She wished for a window. Whose idea had it been to design an interior waiting room with no windows? Didn't they understand people needed to stare out? To will their minds outside the room?

"Hey." Ford stepped up beside her with a large go-cup.

"Thanks."

"Cathy's talking to people."

"It's very kind of her. She's very fond of you. When she first came up, I thought she was an old girlfriend."

"Man." Mortification flashed. "She's a mom. She's Brian's mom."

"A lot of men go for older women, sport. And she looks really good."

"Mom," Ford repeated. "Brian's mom."

Cilla started to smile, then tensed when Cathy stepped in.

"First, Dr. North is operating," Cathy began in brisk, practical tones that were enormously comforting. "He's one of the best. You're very, very lucky there."

"Okay." Cilla's breath eased out. "All right."

"Next, do you want all the medical terms, the jargon?" Cathy held up her notebook.

"I... No. No, I want, just, to know."

"He's holding his own. He's stable. It's going to be another couple of hours, at least. And there are other injuries that need to be addressed." She flipped the book open now. "Two broken ribs. His nose and left cheekbone were broken, and his kidney's bruised. His head injuries are the most serious, and Dr. North's working on him. He's young, fit, healthy, and those factors are in his favor."

"Okay." Cilla nodded. "Thank you."

"Why don't I check back in a little while?" Cathy took Cilla's hand.

"I appreciate it, Mrs. Morrow, very much."

"Cathy. And it's nothing. Take care of her," she said to Ford, and left them alone.

"I'm going to go out, call the house. Let everyone know what's going on."

"I did that," Ford told her, "when I got your drink. But we can do an update."

They walked. They sat. They stared at the waiting room TV someone had tuned to CNN. As the projected couple of hours became a few, Cathy came back in.

"He's out of surgery. Dr. North will come in to talk to you."

"He's-"

"They won't tell me much right now, except that he made it through. That's a good thing. Ford, you make sure Cilla has my number. You call me if you need anything. All right?"

"Yes." Cilla's fingers tightened like wires on Ford's when the man in green scrubs paused in the doorway. His gaze scanned the room, paused on Cathy with a flicker of acknowledgment. And Cathy's hand rested briefly on Cilla's shoulder.

"You call," she repeated, and moved away as the doctor crossed the room.

"Miss McGowan?"

"Yes. Yes. Steve?"

North sat. His face looked quiet, Cilla thought. Almost serene, and smooth, smooth as brown velvet. And he angled his body toward hers, kept his dark eyes on her face as he spoke.

"Steve suffered two skull fractures. A linear fracture here," he said, running his finger along the top of his forehead. "That's a break in the bone that doesn't cause the bone to shift. Those usually heal on their own. But the second was a break here." Now he held his hand to the base of his skull. "A basilar fracture. And this more severe break caused bruising of his brain, and bleeding."

"You fixed him."

"He came through the surgery. He's going to need further tests. We'll monitor the pressure inside his skull in the ICU with a device I inserted during surgery. When the swelling goes down, we'll remove it. He has a good chance."

"A good chance," she repeated.

"There could be brain damage, temporary or permanent. It's too soon to tell. Right now, we wait and we monitor. He's in a coma. His heart is very strong."

"Yes, it is."

"He has a good chance," North repeated. "Does he have family?"

"Not here. Just me. Can I see him?"

"Someone will come in to take you up to ICU shortly."

When they did, she stared down at him. His face under the clouds and streams of bruises was deathly pale. It wasn't right, was all she could think. None of this was right. He didn't even look like Steve with those blackened, sunken eyes, and his nose all swollen, and the white bandages around his head.

They'd taken his earring off. Why did they do that?

He didn't look like Steve.

She took the small silver hoop out of her ear and, bending over him, fixed it to his. And brushed his bruised cheek with a kiss.

"That's better now," she whispered. "That's better. I'm going to be here, okay?" Lifting his hand, she kissed his fingers. "Even when I'm not here, I'll be here. You don't get to leave. That's the rule. You don't get to leave me."

She stayed, holding his hand, until the nurse shooed her out.

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