Dark Hunger


Part Two. REHAB Chapter Thirteen


Ford watched Cilla take digitals of the pickup's door. His rage wanted to bubble up, but he couldn't figure out what he'd do with it if he spewed.

Kick the tires? Punch a couple of trees? Stalk around and froth at the mouth? None of the options seemed particularly helpful or satisfying. Instead he stood with his hands jammed in his pockets, and the rage at a low, simmering boil.

"The cops'll take pictures," he pointed out.

"I want my own. Besides, I don't think Wilson and Urick are going to make this a priority."

"It could be connected. They'll be here in the morning."

She shrugged, then turned the camera off, stuck it in her pocket. "That's not coming off. The sun baked that marker on so it might as well be paint. I'll have to have the whole damn door done. I haven't had this truck three months."

While he watched, she kicked a tire. He decided he'd been right. She didn't look satisfied. "You can use my car until it's fixed."

"I'll drive this." Both the defiance and the temper glared out of her eyes. "I know I'm not a whore. I saw Hennessy's van in the parking lot before I went in to visit Steve. He could've done this. He could've hurt Steve. He's capable."

"Did Steve say anything about it?"

"We didn't ask him. He was still so weak and disoriented. Probably tomorrow, the doctor said. He'd be up to talking to the police tomorrow. Damn it!"

She stalked for a few minutes but, he noted, didn't froth at the mouth or punch a tree. Then she stopped, heaved out a breath. "Okay. Okay. I'm not going to let some asshole spoil this really excellent day. Does the liquor store in town have any champagne in stock?"

"Couldn't say. But I do."

"How come you have everything?"

"I was a Boy Scout. Seriously," he said when she laughed. "I have the merit badges to prove it." She was right, he decided, no asshole should be allowed to spoil an excellent day. "How about we heat up a frozen pizza and pop the cork?"

From his perch on the veranda, Spock leaped up and danced.

"Sounds good to me, too."As she moved in to kiss him, a horn beeped cheerfully.

"Well," Ford said when a Mustang convertible in fire-engine red pulled in behind Cilla's car, and Spock tore down the steps to spin in delirious circles, "it had to happen sometime."

The vivid color of the car had nothing on the windswept red mop of the woman who waved from the passenger seat, who tipped down her big, Jackie O sunglasses to peer at Cilla over the top as she stepped out onto peep-toe wedges to greet the bouncing, spinning dog.

The driver unfolded himself. It was the height and the build that alerted Cilla, even before she got a good look at the shape of the jaw.

Her palms automatically went damp. This was definitely meet-the-parents. An audition she invariably failed.

"Hello, my cutie-pie!" Penny Sawyer clamped her hands on Ford's cheeks once he'd walked down the slope to her. She kissed him noisily. Her laugh was like gravel soaked in whiskey.

"Hey, Mama. Daddy." He got a one-armed bear hug from the man with hair of Cary Grant silver. "What are y'all doing?"

"Heading out to Susie and Bill's. Texas Hold ' Em tournament." Penny poked Ford in the chest while Ford's father squatted to shake hands with Spock. "We had to drive right by, so we stopped in case you wanted in."

"I always lose at poker."

"You don't have gambling blood." Penny turned her avid eyes on Cilla. "But you do have company. You don't have to tell me who this is. You look just like your grandmama." Penny moved forward, hands outstretched. "The most beautiful woman I ever saw."

"Thank you." Left with no choice, Cilla wiped her hands hurriedly on her pants before taking Penny's. "It's nice to meet you."

"Cilla McGowan, my parents, Penny and Rod Sawyer."

"I know your daddy very well." Penny shot a sly glance at her husband.

"Now you cut that out," Rod told her. "Always trying to make me jealous. Heard a lot of good things about you," he said to Cilla.

"Heard hardly a syllable out of this one." Penny poked Ford again.

"I am the soul of discretion."

Penny let out her quick, rumbling laugh again, then dug into her purse. She pulled out an enormous Milk Bone that sent Spock into a medley of happy growls, grunts and groans while his body quivered and his bulging eyes shone.

"Be a man," she said to the dog, and Spock rose up on his hind legs to dance in place. "That's my sweetheart," she crooned and held the biscuit out. Spock nipped it and, with a full-body wag, ran off to chomp and chew. "I have to spoil him," she said to Cilla. "He's the closest thing resembling a grandchild I've gotten out of this one."

"You have two of the human variety from Alice," Ford reminded her.

"And they get cookies when they visit." She gestured to the house across the road. "It's a good thing you're doing, bringing that place back to life. It deserves it. Your grandfather's going to be at the game tonight, Ford. My daddy was madly in love with your grandmother."

Cilla blinked. "Is that so?"

"Head over. He has scores of pictures she let him take over the years. He wouldn't sell them for any price, even when I had a notion to frame a few and display them at the bookstore."

"Mama owns Book Ends in the Village," Ford told Cilla.

"Really? I've been there. I bought some landscaping and design books from you. It's a nice store."

"Our little hole in the wall," Penny said. "Oh now, look, we're going to be late. Why do you let me talk so much, Rod?"

"I have no idea." "Y'all change your mind about the game, we'll make sure you get a seat at a table. Cilla, they'd just love to have you, too," Penny called out as Rod pulled her down to the car. "I'm going to have Daddy bring those pictures over for you to look at."

"Thank you. Nice to meet you."

"Ford! You bring Cilla over for dinner sometime."

"In the car, Penny."

"I'm getting, I'm getting. You hear?"

"Yes, ma'am," Ford called back. "Win a bundle."

"I'm feeling lucky!" Penny shouted as Rod zipped into reverse, then zoomed on down the road.

Cilla said, "Wow."

"I know. It's like being lightly brushed by the edge of a hurricane. Leaves you a little surprised and dazed, and sure that much more and you'd be flat on your ass."

"You look a lot like your father, who is very handsome, by the way. But your mother? She's dazzling."

"She is, as her own father likes to say, a corker."

"Corker." Cilla laughed as they walked into the house. With a polite burp, Spock trotted in with them. "Well, I like her, and I tend to eye mothers suspiciously. Speaking of corks. Where's the champagne?"

"Spare fridge, mudroom."

"I'll get that, you get the pizza."

Moments later, she came back into the kitchen with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and a puzzled frown. "Ford, what are you doing with all that paint?"

"The what?" He looked over from setting the oven. "Oh that. There's a zillion gallons of primer, a zillion of exterior red, and a slightly lesser amount of exterior white, for trim."

As her heart did a slow somersault, she set the bottle on the counter. "You bought the barn paint."

"I don't believe in jinxes. I do believe in positive thinking, which is just really hope anyway."

Everything inside her shifted, settled. Opened. She stepped to him, laid a hand on his cheek, laid her lips on his. Warm as velvet, tender as a wish, the kiss flowed. Even when he shifted so she pressed back against the counter, it stayed slow and silky, deep and dreamy.

When their lips parted, she sighed, then rested her cheek against his in a gesture of simple affection she gave to very few. "Ford." She drew back, sighed again. "My head's too full of Steve to meet your requirements for sex tonight."

"Ah. Well." He trailed a fingertip up her arm. "Realistically, they're more loose guidelines than strict requirements."

She laughed, caressed his cheek once more. "They're good requirements. I'd like to stick to them."

"Got no one to blame but myself." He stepped around her to slide the pizza into the oven.

"So we'll eat bad pizza, get a little buzzed on champagne and not have sex."

Ford shook his head as he removed the foil and the cage on the bottle. "Almost my favorite thing to do with a beautiful woman."

"I don't fall for guys. It's a policy," she said when he paused and glanced over at her. "Considering the influence of inherited traits-and the track record of my grandmother and mother in that area-I've taken a pass. Steve was an exception, and that just showed how it can go. So I don't fall for guys. But I seem to be falling for you."

The cork exploded out of the bottle as he stared at her. "Does that scare you?"

"No." He cleared his throat. "A little. A moderate amount."

"I thought it might because it's got me jumpy. So I figured heads-up."

"I appreciate it. Do you have, like, a definition for the term 'fall for'?" God, she thought as she looked at him. Oh my God, she was a goner. "Why don't you get the glasses? I think we could both use a drink."

SHE HIRED PAINTERS, and had some of the crew haul the paint to the barn. She talked to the cops, and made a deal with a local body shop to paint the door of her truck. Whenever she caught sight of the white van, she had no qualms about shooting up her middle finger.

No evidence, the cops said. Nothing to place Hennessy at the scene on the night Steve was attacked. No way to prove he decorated her truck with hate.

So she'd wait him out, Cilla decided. And if he made another move, she'd be ready.

Meanwhile, Steve had been bumped down to a regular room, and his mother had hopped back on her broomstick to head west.

Dripping sweat from working in the attic, Cilla stood studying the skeleton of the master bath. "It's looking good, Buddy. It's looking good for tomorrow's inspection."

"I don't know why in God's world anybody needs all these shower-heads. "

"Body jets. It's not just a shower, it's an experience. Did you see the fixtures? They came in this morning."

"I saw. They're good-looking," he said, grudgingly enough to make her smile.

"How are you coming with Mister Steam?"

"I'll get it, I'll get it. Don't breathe down my neck."

She made faces at his back. "Well, speaking of showers, I need one before I go in to see Steve."

"Water's turned off. You want this done, water's got to stay off."

"Right. Shit. I'll grab one over at Ford's."

She didn't miss the smirk he shot her, but opted to ignore it. She grabbed clean clothes, stuffed them in her purse. Downstairs, she had a few words with Dobby, answered a hail from the kitchen area, then spent another ten minutes outside discussing foundation plantings.

She dashed across the road before someone could catch her again, and decided to slip into the shower off the gym rather than disturb Ford.

It wasn't until she was clean, dry and wrapped in a big white towel that she realized she'd left her purse-and the clothes in it-sitting on her front veranda.

"Oh, crap."

She looked down at the sweaty, grungy clothes she'd stripped off and dragged a hand through her clean hair. "No, I am not crawling back into them."

She'd have to disturb Ford after all. Bundling her underwear and baggy work shorts in her T-shirt, she tied it off and carried the bundle with her.

She opened the door to the kitchen, to a very surprised Ford.

"Oh, hi. Listen-"

"Ford, you didn't tell us you had company."

"I didn't know I did. Hey, Cilla."

Her expression went from slightly harried to mildly ill as she looked over and saw Ford's mother sitting at the kitchen bar with an older man.

While she stood frozen, Spock dashed over to rub against her bare legs. "Oh God. Oh God. Just... God. I'm sorry. Excuse me."

Ford grabbed her arm. "Back up like that, you'll pitch right down the steps. You've met my mother. This is my grandfather, Charlie Quint."

"Oh, well, hello. I apologize. I'm, well, what can I say? Ford, I didn't want to interrupt you. I thought you'd be working. They had to turn the water off at my place for a while, so I ran over to use your shower downstairs-thanks for that. And then realized that when I was being distracted by varieties of spirea, I left my bag and my clothes sitting on the veranda. I came up to ask if you wouldn't mind running over there and, you know, getting them. My clothes."

"Sure." He sniffed at her. "My soap smells better on you than on me."

"Hah."

"Cilla, I bet you'd like a nice glass of iced tea." Penny rose to get a glass.

"Oh, don't bother, I-"

"No bother. Ford, go on now, get this girl her clothes."

"All right. But it's kind of a shame. Isn't it, Granddad?"

"Pretty legs on a pretty woman are easy on the eyes. Even old eyes. You look more like her in person than you do in pictures I've seen of you."

How much more awkward could it be? Cilla wondered when Ford winked and slipped out. "You knew my grandmother."

"I did. I fell in love with her the first time I saw her on the movie screen. She was just a little girl, and I was just a boy, and that was the sweetest kind of puppy love. You never forget your first."

"No, I guess you don't."


"Here you go, honey. Why don't you sit down?"

"I'm fine. Thanks." She stared at the glass Penny offered and wondered how to take it as she had one hand holding the bundle of filthy clothes, and the other clutched on the towel.

"Oh, are those your dirty clothes? Just give those to me. I'll toss them in Ford's machine for you."

"Oh, no, don't-"

"It's no trouble." Penny pulled them away, pushed the cold glass into Cilla's hand. "Daddy, why don't you show Cilla the pictures? We were going to drop by to do just that," Penny continued from the mudroom. "Just stopped to say hi to Ford first. My goodness! You must've worked up a storm today."

Casting her eyes to the ceiling, Cilla moved closer to the counter as Charlie opened the photo album.

"These are wonderful!"

At the first look, she forgot she was wearing only a towel and edged closer. "I haven't seen these before."

"My personal collection," he told her with a wistful smile. "This one here?" He tapped a finger under a picture. "That's the first one I ever took of her."

Janet sat on the steps of the veranda, leaning back, relaxed and smiling in rolled-up dungarees and a plaid shirt.

"She looks so happy. At home."

"She'd been working with the gardeners-walking around with them, showing them where she wanted her roses and such. She got word I took pictures and asked if I'd come over, take some of the house and grounds as things were going on. And she let me take some of her. Here she is with the kids. That'd be your mother."

"Yes." Looking bright and happy, Cilla thought, alongside her doomed brother. "They're all so beautiful, aren't they? It almost hurts the eyes."

"She shone. Yes, she did."

Cilla paged through. Janet, looking golden and glorious astride a palomino, tumbling on the ground with her children, laughing and kicking her feet in the pond. Janet alone, Janet with others. At parties at the farm. With the famous, and the everyday.

"You never sold any of these?"

"That's just money." Charlie shrugged. "If I sold them, they wouldn't be mine anymore. I gave her copies of ones she wanted, especially."

"I think I might have seen a couple of these. My mother has boxes and boxes of photos. I'm not sure I've seen all of them. The camera loved her. Oh, this! It's my favorite so far."

Janet leaned in the open doorway of the farmhouse, head cocked, arms folded. She wore simple dark trousers and a white shirt. Her feet were bare, her hair loose. Flowers spilled out of pots on the veranda, and a puppy curled sleeping at the top of the steps.

"She bought the puppy from the Clintons." Penny stepped beside her father, rested a hand on his shoulder. "Your stepmama's people."

"Yes, she told me."

"Janet loved that dog," Charlie murmured.

"You need to make copies for Cilla, Daddy. Family pictures are important."

"I guess I could."

"Granddad's going to make copies for Cilla," Penny announced as Ford walked in with Cilla's bag. "He has the negatives."

"I could scan them. If you'd trust me with them. Here you go." Ford passed the bag to Cilla.

"Thanks." Sensing Charlie's hesitation, Cilla eased back. "They're wonderful photographs. I'd love to look through the rest, but I have to get to the hospital. I'm just going to..." She held up the bag. "Downstairs."

"You look more like her than your mother," Charlie said when Cilla reached the door. "It's in the eyes."

And in his lived such sadness. Cilla said nothing, only slipped quickly downstairs.

CILLA DID a mental happy dance as the first tiles were laid in the new master bath. She glugged down water and executed imaginary high kicks through the first run of subway tiles in what would be her most fabulous steam shower.

The black-and-white design, retro cool Deco, added just the right zing. Stan, the tile guy, glanced over his shoulder. "Cilla, you gotta get the AC up."

"We're working on it. By the end of the week, I promise."

It had to be running by week's end, she thought. Just as the bed she'd ordered had to be delivered. Steve couldn't recuperate in a steamy house, in a sleeping bag.

She went back to framing in the closet in the master bedroom. In a couple of weeks, she thought, if everything stayed on schedule, she'd have two completed baths, the third, fourth and the powder room on the way. She'd be ready for Sheetrock up in her attic office suite, the replastering should be about wrapped. Then Dobby could start work on the ceiling medallions. Well, he could start once she'd settled on a design.

She ran through projections while she checked her level, adjusted, shot in nails.

And in a few weeks, she'd take the contractor's exam. But she didn't want to think about it. Didn't want to think if she didn't make it, she'd have to ask one of her own subs for a job by the end of the year. If she didn't make it, she couldn't afford to buy that sweet little property down the road in the Village that she knew would make an excellent and profitable flip.

If she didn't make it, it would be another failure. She really thought she was at her quota already.

Positive thinking, she reminded herself. That's what Ford would say. No harm in trying.

"Gonna make it," she stated aloud and stepped back from the framing with a nod of approval. "Gonna kick exam ass. Cilla McGowan, Licensed Contractor."

Gathering her tools, she started out to check on the progress of her exterior office stairs with a quick peek at the tile work on the way. She joined the carpenter crew as the painters, working on her new scaffolding, added the first strokes of red to the barn.

The air smelled of the mulch freshly laid around new plantings, and salvaged ones. Roses, hydrangeas, spirea and old-fashioned weigela, and beds of hopeful new perennials, eager annuals already blooming insanely.

More to come, she thought, more to do. But here was progress. Tear-out time was done. Renewal time was here.

She thought of Charlie's photo album. And breaking off from the work, ran in to get her camera to document.

Shirtless men slick with sweat and sunscreen high on scaffolding. Shanna in shorts and a bright pink T-shirt and ball cap working with Brian on a low, dry stone garden wall. The bones of her stairs, the half-finished back veranda. And around front, the completed one.

For a moment, in her mind's eye, she saw Janet, leaning on the jamb of the open front door, smiling out.

"It's coming back," Cilla said softly.

Turning, she saw Ford and Spock walking down the drive.

The dog trotted up to her, leaned on her legs, then sat back to look up at her, all love and cheer. She rubbed, petted, kissed his nose.

"Brought you a present." Ford handed her one of the two Cokes he carried. "I swung in to see Steve. He tells me they're going to spring him in a couple days."

"He's coming back strong." Like the farm, she thought. "I'm pushing to get the AC up, and I've got a bed coming."

"You want him to recoup from having his skull fractured in a construction zone. Do you hear that?" Ford asked, tapping his ear.

Cilla shrugged off the buzzing, the banging, the whirl of drills. "To people like me and Steve, that's chamber music."

"I'll have to take your word for it. But he could bunk at my place. I've got the bed, the AC. And digital cable."

She took a long drink, watching him. "You really mean that."

"Damn right. I pity anyone without digital cable."

"I bet. But you're not going to take on my ex-husband. He'll need to be... Who's this?" she wondered as a black Lexus turned cautiously into her drive.

"City car," Ford commented. "Big city."

"I don't know who... Crap."

Ford lifted his brows as men exited from both sides of the car. "Friends of yours?"

"No. But the driver's my mother's Number Five."

"Cilla!" Mario, handsome as sin, Italian style, in Prada loafers and Armani jeans, threw out his arms and a wide, wide smile. His graceful forward motion was spoiled when he stopped, then sidestepped around the sniffing Spock.

The sunglasses hid his eyes, but she suspected they were dark and sparkling. Tanned, panther lean, dark hair flowing, he crossed to her, caught her in an enthusiastic embrace and kissed her cheeks. "Look at you! So fit, so competent."

"I am. What are you doing here, Mario?"

"A little surprise. Cilla, this is Ken Corbert, one of our producers. Ken, Cilla McGowan, my stepdaughter."

"It's a real pleasure." Ken, small and wiry, silver-winged black hair, pumped Cilla's hand. "Big fan. So..." He scanned the farm. "This is the place."

"It's my place," she said coolly. "Ford, Mario and Ken. I'm sorry, I can't ask you in. We're a work in progress."

"So I see." Mario's smile never dimmed. "And hear."

"Spock, say hello," Ford ordered-after his dog had finished with the tires. "He wants to shake," Ford explained, "to make sure you're friendly."

"Ah." Mario studied the dog dubiously as he put the tips of his thumb and forefinger on the offered paw.

Spock didn't appear to be impressed.

Ken gave Spock's paw the same salesman pump he'd given Cilla's.

"Lovely country," Mario continued. "Just lovely. We drove down from New York. We had some meetings. Such scenery! Your mother sends her love," he added. "She would have come, but you know how difficult it is for her. The memories here."

"She's in New York?"

"A quick trip. We barely have time to catch our breath. Fittings, rehearsals, meetings, media. But Ken and I must steal you away, a late lunch, an early drink. Where can we take you?"

"Nowhere, but thanks. I'm working."

"Didn't I tell you?" Mario let out a hearty laugh while Spock squatted on his haunches and stared at him with suspicious eyes. "Cilla is the most amazing woman. So many talents. You can spare an hour, cara."

"I really can't. Especially if this is about performing in Mom's show. I told her I wasn't interested."

"We're here to persuade you that you are. Perhaps you'd excuse us," Mario said to Ford.

"No, he won't." Cilla pointed at Ford. "You won't."

"I guess I won't."

Irritation tightened Mario's mouth briefly. The grumbling growl from Spock had him eyeing the dog with some trepidation. "You have a chance to make history, Cilla. Three generations performing together. You saw Celine perform with Elvis? We have that technology. We can bring Janet onstage with you and Bedelia. One extraordinary performance, live."

"Mario-"

"I understand you're reluctant to commit to doing the full set of duets with your mother, though I can tell you-as will Ken-what that would mean to the show, and to you. Your career."

"The advertising and promotion we've got lined up," Ken began. "We can all but guarantee sellouts in every venue. Then the cable special, the CD, the DVD. The foreign markets are already buzzing. We may be able to work a deal to attach a second CD, a special package, for you, solo. In fact, Mario and I were kicking around ideas for videos there. And you're right, Mario, shooting here would add punch."

"You've been busy, haven't you?" Cilla's voice was as soft, and as meaningful, as Spock's growl. "And you've been wasting your time. No. I'm sorry, Ken, I don't believe Mario made it clear. I'm not looking to be persuaded or revived or promoted. You have no business talking to producers, promoters, advertisers about me," she said to Mario. "You're not my agent or my manager. I don't have an agent or a manager. I run the show now. And this is what I do. Houses. I do houses. Enjoy the scenery on the way back."

She knew Mario would come after her. Even as she turned on her heel to stride away, she heard him call her name. And she heard Ford speak to Ken, caught the extra yokel he put in his voice.

"Spock, stay. So y'all drove down from New York City?"

"Cilla. Cara. Let me-"

"Touch me, Mario, and I swear I'll deck you."

"Why are you angry?" There was puzzled sorrow in his voice. "This is an insanely rich opportunity. I'm only looking out for your interests."

She stopped, struggled with temper ripe to bursting. "You may actually believe that on some level. I can look after my own interests, and have been for a long time."

"Darling, you were mismanaged. Otherwise you'd be a major star today."

"I might be a major star today if I'd had the talent and the aptitude. Listen to what I'm saying to you: I don't want to be a major star. I don't want to perform. I don't want that kind of work. I don't want that kind of life. I'm happy here, Mario, if that matters to you. I'm happy with what I have, and I'm getting happy with who I am."

"Cilla, your mother needs you."

"And here it comes." She turned away in disgust.

"She has her heart set. And the backers will do so much more with this addition. She's so-"

"I can't do it, Mario. And I won't. I'm not just being a hard-ass. I can't. It's not in me. You should have talked to me before you came here, and brought him. And you should listen to me when I say no. I'm not Dilly. I don't bullshit, I don't play. And she's already used up all her guilt points with me. I'm not doing this for her."

His face, his voice, held nothing but sadness now. "You're very hard, Cilla."

"Okay."

"She's your mother."

"That's right. Which makes me, let's see. Her daughter. Maybe, this time-this one time-she could think about what I need, about what I want." She held up a hand. "Believe me, if you say anything else, you'll only make it worse. Cut your losses here. You're smart enough. Tell her I said knock them dead, break a leg. And I mean it. But that's all I've got."

He shook his head as a man might over a sulking child. He walked away in his excellent shoes, and got into the big city car with Ken to drive away.

Ford wandered over, stared off at the barn while Spock rubbed himself against Cilla's legs. "That red's going to look good."

"Yeah. You're not going to ask what that was about?"

"I got the gist. They want, you don't. They pushed, you didn't budge. They pissed you off, which is fine. But in the end it made you sad. And that's not. So I don't care about them or what they want. I say fuck 'em, and that red looks good going on that barn."

It made her smile. "You're good to have around, Ford." She leaned down, ruffled Spock. "Both of you. Back in L.A., I'd have paid several hundred dollars for this kind of therapy."

"We'll bill you. Meanwhile, why don't you show me what's going on around here today?"

"Let's go bug the tile guy. It's my favorite so far." She took Ford's hand and walked into the house.

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