Dark Hunger


Part Two. REHAB Chapter Fourteen


When Cilla showed Dobby the design she wanted for the medallions, he scratched his chin. And she saw his lips twitching at the corners.

"Shamrocks," she said.

"I've had me a few beers on Saint Patrick's Day in my time. I know they're shamrocks."

"I played around with other symbols. More formal, or more subtle, more elaborate. But I thought, screw that, I like shamrocks. They're simple and they're lucky. I think Janet would've gotten a kick out of them."

"I expect she would. She seemed to like the simple when she was around here."

"Can you do it?"

"I expect I can."

"I'll want three." The idea made her giddy as a girl. "Three's lucky, too. One for the dining room, one for the master bedroom, and one in here, in the living room. Three circles of shamrocks for each. I'm not looking for uniformity but more symmetry. I'll leave it to you," she said when he nodded.

"It's good working on this place. Takes me back."

They sat at a makeshift table, plywood over a pair of sawhorses. She'd brought him a glass of tea, and they drank together while Jack finished up the last of the plaster repairs.

"You'd see her around, when she came out to stay here?"

"Now and again. She always had a word. Give you that smile and a hello, how are you."

"Dobby, in that last couple of years, when she came out, was there any talk about her being... friendly with a local man?"

"You mean being sweet on one?"

Sweet on, Cilla thought. What a pretty way to put it. "Yes, that's what I mean."

The lines and folds on his face deepened with thought. "Can't say so. After she died, and all those reporters came around, some of them liked to say so. But they said all kinds of things, and most weren't in the same neighborhood as the truth."

"Well, I have some information that makes me think she was sweet on someone. Very sweet. Can you think of anyone she spent time with in that last year, year and a half? She came out fairly often during that period."

"She did," he agreed. "Talk was, after her boy died, the talk was she was going to sell the place. Didn't want to come here no more. But she didn't sell. Didn't have the parties or the people, either. Never brought the girl out again-that'd be your mother-that I saw or heard about. The best I can recall, she came alone. If anybody had wind of her seeing a man from around here, their jaws would've been working."

"Weren't so many people around to jaw back then," Jack commented as he set his trowel. "I mean to say there weren't so many houses around the farm here. Isn't that right, Grandpa?"

"That'd be true. Weren't houses on the fields across the road back then. Started planting them back twenty-five years on to thirty years back, I guess it was, when the Buckners sold their farm off."

"So there weren't any close neighbors."

"Buckners would've been closest, I expect. About a quarter mile down."

And that was interesting, Cilla decided. How hard could it be to have a secret affair when there were no nosy neighbors peeking out the window? The media would have been an extra challenge, but reporters hadn't been camped on the shoulder of the road seven days a week when Janet had traveled to the farm.

According to what she'd read or been told, Janet had been an expert at keeping certain areas of her private life private. After her death, facts, fallacies, rumors, secrets and innuendos abounded.

And still, Cilla mused, the identity of Janet's last lover remained blank. Just how badly, she wondered, did she want to fill in that blank in her grandmother's life?

Badly enough, she admitted. The answer to that single question could finally give clarity to the bigger question.

Why did Janet Hardy die at thirty-nine?

CILLA FOUND BRINGING Steve home both thrilling and terrifying. He was alive, and considered well enough to leave the hospital. Two weeks before, she'd sat beside his bed, trying to will him out of a coma. Now she stood with him as he studied the farmhouse. He leaned on a cane, a ball cap on his head, dark glasses over his eyes, and his clothes bagging a bit from the weight he'd lost in the hospital.

She wanted to bundle him inside, into bed. And feed him soup.

The terror came from wondering if she was competent enough to tend to him.

"Stop staring at me, Cill."

"You should probably get inside, out of the sun."

"I've been inside, out of the sun. Feels good out here. I like the barn. Barns should always be red. Where the hell is everybody? Middle of the day, no trucks, no noise."

"I told all the subs to take me off today's schedule. I thought you'd need a little peace and quiet."

"Jesus, Cilla, when did I ever want peace and quiet? You're the one."

"Fine, I wanted peace and quiet. We're going in. You look shaky."

"Goes with the territory these days. I've got it," he snapped at her when she started to take his free arm. He managed the stairs, crossed the veranda.

The scowl smoothed away when he stepped inside the house, took his first look around.

"The plastering looks good. Getting rid of that door over there, widening the opening, that works for you. Better flow."

"I'm thinking of using that area as a kind of morning room. It gets nice light. Then later on, if I'm still inclined, I could add on a sunroom, put in a hot tub, a couple of machines, some nice plants. Down the road."

"Be sweet."

And because she heard the strain in his voice, she nearly fussed about taking him up to bed. Instead she tried a different tack. The first step would be to get him upstairs.

"We've done a lot on the second floor. The master suite's really coming along. You've got to see it."

These steps were longer. She all but felt his weaker left side begin to tremble on the journey up. "We should've taken Ford up on his offer. You'd be more comfortable at his place."

"I can walk up a damn flight of steps. Got a headache, that's all. Goes with the territory now, too."

"If you want to lie down... I've got your pills right here."

"I don't want to lie down. Yet." He pushed her offered hand aside. Again, some of the strain eased on his face when he studied the new bedroom space. "You always had an eye. Good lines, good light. Nice closet, doll."

"A girl's best friend. I built the organizer yesterday." She opened the door, gave a Vanna White flourish.

"Cedar paneling. Good work."

"I learned from the best."

He turned away to limp toward the bath, but she'd seen the look in his eyes. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Sexy, classy," he said of the bathroom. "Deco deal. Glass block for the shower wall? When did you decide on that?"

"Last-minute change. I liked the effect, and the way it looks with the black-and-white tiles." She gave up, just leaned her forehead on his shoulder. "Please tell me what's wrong."

"What if I can't do this anymore? If I can't handle the tools? It takes me longer to think, and these headaches about drop me."

She wanted to hold him, hug him, nuzzle him into comfort. And instead flicked at him with mild annoyance. "Steve, it's your first day out of the hospital. What did you think, you'd walk out swinging a hammer?"

"Something like that."

"You're on your feet. You're talking to me. The doctor said it's going to take time. Just as he said you've already made an amazing recovery, and there's every reason to believe you'll get it all back."

"Could take months. Even years. And I can't remember." A trace of fear eked through frustration. "Goddamn it, I can't remember anything that happened that night after I left here. Can't remember going to the bar, or hanging out, trailing Shanna home like she says I did. It's blank. I can remember getting on the bike. I can remember thinking I might just score with Shanna of the big brown eyes and amazing rack. Next thing I remember is you yelling at me, and your face leaning down over mine. Everything between is gone. Just gone."

She shrugged, as if it was no big deal. "If you're going to forget something, that would be the night."

He smiled a little. "Fricking ray of sunshine, aren't you? I'm going to crash awhile, take some drugs and crash."

"Good idea."

He let her take his weight to lead him to the guest room. Then stopped at the doorway. The walls were painted a soft and restful blue, as was the beadboard wainscoting. The original walnut trim, stripped and restored by her own hands, framed the windows. The floor gleamed, deep, rich and glossy. The iron headboard and footboard in dignified pewter suited the simple white and blue quilt, the star-patterned rug with its blue border. White daisies sprang up out of a cobalt vase on a table in front of the window.

"What the hell's this?"

"Surprise. I think it's marginally more appealing than a hospital room."

"It's a great room." Even as he jabbed a finger at her, pleasure shone on his face. "What are you thinking, getting the floors refinished in one room?"

"I'm thinking it's nice to see one room finished-or nearly. Need some art for the walls, and I have to finish the rest of the trim, but otherwise. And check it out." She opened an old wardrobe, revealed a flat-screen TV. "Got cable." She grinned at him. "Digital, at Ford's insistence. The bath's finished, too. And looks great if I say so myself."

Steve sat on the side of the bed. "Going at rehab this way screws up the schedule."

"I'm not in a hurry." She poured a glass from the pitcher she'd placed on the nightstand, then got out the pill bottle. "Bottoms up, then we'll get you undressed and into bed."

The faintest twinkle winked in his eyes. "Time was you'd've gotten in with me, doll."

"Time was." She crouched down to take off his shoes.

"I want those subs back here tomorrow."

"Who made you job manager?" Rising, she gestured so he lifted his arms. But she smiled as she drew off his shirt. "They'll be back. They wanted to have a welcome-back party. Beer and subs. I scotched that. I guess I shouldn't have."

"I don't think I'm ready to party." He lay back so she could take off his jeans. "The day I can have a woman strip me down and not want to return the favor's not a day for partying."

"I give you a week." Now, no longer able to resist, she stroked his cheek. "I heard how you hit on all the nurses."

"It's expected. I skipped Mike." He gave her a wan smile. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

She turned down the bed, eased him into it, slipped off his shades, took the cap off his shaved head. The smooth dome marred by the line of stitches hurt her in every cell of her body. "I'm going to be downstairs doing some paperwork. You need anything, just call. If you want the TV, there's the remote. If you want anything, Steve, I'm right here."

"Just a few z's for right now."

"Okay." She kissed his forehead, then slipped out.

Alone, he stared up at the ceiling. And, sighing, closed his eyes.

Cilla took her laptop outside to work. Though she snuck up to check on Steve twice in the first hour, she made headway with bills and cost projections. When she heard the crunch of feet on gravel, she glanced up to see Ford and Spock.

"Hi, neighbor," he called out. "I figured if you were out here, the returning hero's doing all right."

"Sleeping." She looked at her watch. "God, how did it get to be five o'clock?"

"The earth orbits around the sun as it turns on its axis, thereby-"

"Smart-ass."

"Present. And speaking of." He shook the bag in his hand. "I've got something for Steve. Some DVDs, since you've got the set up in his room."

Cilla cocked her head. "DVDs? Porn?"

Ford's eyebrows drew together. "Porn's such a hard word. Just hear how it comes out of the mouth. That short, hard syllable. Spider-Man, the three-movie box set. It seemed appropriate. And a couple of others that involve naked women and motorcycles, which I'd call adult entertainment. Spock picked those out."

She slid her glance down to the dog, who cocked his head and looked innocent. "I'm sure Steve will appreciate them."

"Spock believes Sleazy Rider was very underrated."

"I'll take his word." She heard the footsteps first, sprang to her feet. She pulled open the screen door as Steve reached for it from the inside. "You're up. Why didn't you call me? You shouldn't take the steps by yourself."


"I'm fine. I'm good. Ford."

"Good to see you out."

"Good to be. Hey, Spock. Hey, boy." He sat on one of the white plastic chairs, stroking the dog, who laid his front legs on Steve's knee.

"You look better," Cilla decided.

"Magic pills and sleep. I nap like a three-year-old these days, but it does the job."

"You're probably hungry. Why don't I fix you some food? Something to drink? Get you-"

"Cill." He started to tell her not to bother, changed his mind. "Yeah, I could use a sandwich or something. Not hospital food or smuggled-in goods. Maybe you could throw something together for all of us."

"Sure. Give me a few minutes."

When she dashed inside, Steve shook his head. "She's hovering, man."

"I talked her out of the little bedside john."

"I owe you. What's in the bag?"

Ford passed it over, and after a quick look, Steve broke out in a grin. "Now we're talking. Thanks. Listen, I need to get the exercise in. You spot me on a walk around?"

"Okay."

Ford waited until Steve handled the stairs, then walked with him away from the house. "Something on your mind?"

"Lots of shit, man. It still gets a little bogged coming through the channels. Cops don't have dick, right?"

"That'd be about it."

"It looks like a one-time thing. Just bad luck. I mean, nothing's happened since."

"No."

Steve stared at Ford's profile. "You'd tell me straight?"

Ford thought of Cilla's car door, but set it aside. "Nobody's broken into the barn, bothered the house."

"You were bunking here while I was in the hospital. I got word on that."

"Hey. My sleeping bag."

"So you and Cilla aren't in the sack?"

"Not quite yet."

"But you're into her. Look, that's your business, her business and all that bullcrap, but I'm asking because I need to know if you're going to look out for her when I'm gone."

Ford paused as Steve did. "Going somewhere?"

"I haven't said anything to her yet. I was going to when we got back, but Jesus, she fixed up the room for me. Down to flowers, you know. Oh, and thanks for the push on the cable."

"It's only right."

With a nod, Steve began to walk again. "The thing is, I should've headed back last week, latest. Plans changed on account of brain surgery. I'd stay if I thought she needed me to watch out for her, or I could help out. She can take care of herself, that's Christ's truth, but... Hell, maybe it's the near-death experience. Whatever. I want to get home. I want to sit on the beach, soak up the rays. But I need to know somebody's got her back."

"I've got her back, Steve."

Steve stopped to stare at the barn. "She said you bought the paint. While I was still out of it." He nodded, as if satisfied. "You're all right, Ford. Totally not the type she usually lets get a taste. It's about time. She digs on candles. When you're making it," Steve added. "She digs on lots of candles around. Doesn't mind music, either. Doesn't need it, like some do, but she's good with it. Lights on, lights off; she's okay either way. But she does dig on the candle thing."

Ford cleared his throat. "Appreciate the tips. How are you getting back to L.A.?"

"The doc wants to see me Friday, so I'm going to stick till Saturday. I've got a friend in New Jersey who's coming down in an RV. We'll load me and the bike up, head west. Don't say anything to her, okay? I want to tell her myself."

Cilla whistled from the veranda. "You guys want to eat?"

Spock's answer was to run toward her as if hellhounds were on his heels.

"The mountains are cool," Steve commented as they turned back.

"That's part of what pulled her out east. She told me how the mountains seem like home. Me? I miss the ocean." He nudged Ford with his elbow. "And the women in very small bikinis."

SHE SLEPT POORLY, with one ear cocked for Steve, and her mind niggling over the fact he planned on leaving in a matter of days.

How could she take care of him if he was three thousand miles away?

One day out of the hospital, and he was planning cross-country trips. In an RV? It was so like him, she thought as she tossed over onto her back. Always had to move, never stay in one place too long. That's where the whole flipping houses came from, she reminded herself. You didn't have to settle on one if you kept turning them.

But he wouldn't listen to reason on this. And the fact that he was just out of the damn hospital made it impossible to kick his ass. Who'd check on him two or three times a night as she'd done? So he'd been fine when she had. What if he hadn't been?

She rolled over again, punched her pillow. And gave up.

Dawn was about to break anyway. She'd go check on him again, then go down and make some coffee. She'd have her quiet time outside before the crew started piling in.

As she heard Steve snoring before she reached his doorway, she headed straight for coffee. In another few months, she thought, she'd have an actual kitchen. Refitted antique appliances, countertops, cabinets. Actual dishes. And damn if she wasn't treating herself to a fancy espresso maker.

Maybe she'd actually learn how to cook. She'd bet Patty could teach her some good basics. Nothing fancy and gourmet. She'd tried that route and failed spectacularly. But your basic red sauce, or meat and potatoes. Surely she could learn how to cook a chicken breast.

Once the house was finished, she promised herself. Once she had her license, geared up for business, found a routine. She'd learn how to cook for herself instead of living on sandwiches, canned soup and takeout.

She carried the coffee outside, drawing in its scent as the first sleepy light played over her new gardens, over earth still turned and waiting. She sipped while the mists rose off the pond she still had to clean.

Every day, she thought. She wanted to do this every day. To step out of her home in the soft, sleepy light and see what she could do, what she had done. What had been given to her.

Whatever she'd paid her mother for this place, this life, didn't count. In that soft and sleepy light, she knew everything she could see and smell and touch had been a gift from the grandmother she'd never met.

She would've taken coffee on a morning walk, Cilla thought as she stepped off the veranda to wander. Accounts spoke of her as an early riser, used to the demands of filming. Often up at dawn.

Often up till dawn, too, Cilla admitted. But that was another side of the woman. The party girl, the Hollywood queen, the star who drank too much and leaned too heavily on pills.

In the quiet morning, Cilla wanted the company of the Janet Hardy who fell in love with this little slice of Virginia. Who brought home a mongrel pup and had roses planted under the window.

The big red barn made her smile as she strolled around the house. The police tape was gone, the padlock firmly in place. And Steve, she thought, was snoring in the pretty iron bed in the pretty room upstairs.

That nightmare was done. A scavenger looking for scraps who'd panicked. The police believed that to be the case, so who was she to argue? If she wanted to solve a personal mystery, it would be the author of the letters inside Gatsby. And in that way, she'd put another piece of Janet's together, for her own knowledge. Her own history.

The light grew as she neared the front of the house. Birdsong sweetened the air as did the scent of roses and turned earth. Dew tickled coolly on her bare feet. It pleased her more than she could say to know she walked on her own land, over dewed grass, wearing a tank and cotton pajama pants.

And no one cared.

She finished the coffee on the front veranda, gazing out over the lawn.

Her smile faded slowly, changing into a puzzled frown as her eyes scanned the front wall.

Where were her trees? She should be able to see the bowing tops of her weeping cherries from the veranda. As the frown deepened, she set her mug on the rail, stepped down to walk along the lawn beside the gravel drive.

Then she began to run.

"No. Goddamn it, no!"

Her young weepers lay on the narrow swatch of green between her wall and the shoulder of the road. Their slender trunks bore the hack marks of an ax. It wouldn't have taken much, she thought as she crouched down to brush her fingers over the leaves. Three or four swings at most.

Not to steal. Digging them up would have taken a bit more time, a bit more trouble. To destroy. To kill.

The sheer meanness of the act twisted in her belly in a combination of sorrow and fury. Not a scavenger, she thought. Not kids. Kids bashed mailboxes along the road, so she'd been warned. Kids didn't take the time to hack down a couple of ornamental trees.

She straightened to take a steadying breath, and looked over at the broken stump of one of her dying trees. That breath caught. Her body trembled, that same combination of sorrow and fury. Black paint defiled the old stone wall with its ugly message.

GO BACK TO HOLLYWOOD BITCH!

LIVE LIKE A WHORE DIE LIKE A WHORE

"Fuck you," she said under her breath. "Goddamn it, Hennessy, fuck you."

Riding on pure fury now, she stormed back to the house to call the police.

WITH BLOOD IN HER EYE, Cilla warned every one of the crew that anyone who mentioned the trees or the wall to Steve would be fired on the spot. No exceptions, no excuses.

She ordered Brian back to the nursery. She wanted two new trees planted, and she wanted them planted that very day.

By ten, when the cops had come and gone, secure that her threat would hold and that the crew would keep Steve busy inside, she went out to work with the mason on cleaning the stone.

Ford saw her, scrubbing at the stone, when he stepped out with his first cup of coffee. And he saw the message sprayed over the wall. As she had done earlier, he left his coffee on the rail and jogged down to her in bare feet.

"Cilla."

"Don't tell Steve. That's the first thing. I don't want you to say a word about this to Steve."

"Did you call the cops?"

"They've been here. For whatever good it does. It has to be Hennessy, it has to be that son of a bitch. But unless he's got black paint and wood chips under his goddamn fingernails, what are they going to do about it?"

"Wood..." He saw the stumps then, swore. "Wait a minute. Let me think."

"I don't have time. I have to get this off. Can't risk sandblasting this stone. It's too harsh. It'd damage the stone, the mortar, do as much harm, potentially, as the stupid paint. This chemical's the best alternative. Probably have to have the wall repointed, but it's all I can do."

"Scrub at the stone with a brush?"

"That's right." She attacked the C in BITCH like she would a sworn enemy. "He's not going to get away with this. He's not going to soil or damage what's mine. I wasn't driving the goddamn car. I wasn't even born, for Christ's sake."

"And he's eighty if he's a day. I have a hard time seeing him chopping down a couple of trees and tagging a stone wall in the middle of the night."

"Who else?" She rounded on Ford. "Who else hates me or this place the way he does?"

"I don't know. But we'd better work on finding out."

"It's my problem."

"Don't be an ass."

"It's my problem, my wall, my trees. I'm the bitch."

He met her hot glare with a cool stare. "I wouldn't argue with the last part right at the moment, but as for the rest? Bullshit. You don't want to tell Steve, fine. I get it. But I'm not leaving. I'm not heading back to L.A. or anywhere else."

He grabbed her arm, pulled her back around to face him. "I'm staying right here. Deal with it."

"I'm trying to deal with this, and with having my best friend leave when he can hardly walk more than five yards at a time. I'm trying to deal with making a life I didn't even realize I wanted until a few months ago. I don't know how much more I can deal with."

"You'll have to make room." He cupped her face, kissed her hard. "Got another brush?"

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