Dark Hunger


Part Two. REHAB Chapter Seventeen


She didn't think about the vandalism. Or when thoughts of what waited for her across the road crept into her mind, Cilla firmly slammed the door. No point in it, she told herself. There was nothing she could do because she didn't know what she wanted to do.

There was no harm in a day out of time. A fantasy day, really, filled with sex and sleep inside the bubble of rain-slicked windows. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been content to spend the day in a man's company, unless it had been work-related.

Even the idea of wine and video games held an appeal. Until Ford severely trounced her for the third time in a row.

"She-what's her name?-Halle Berry."

"Storm," Ford provided. "Halle Berry's the actress, and really hot. Storm is a key member of the X-Men. Also really hot."

"Well, she just stood there." Cilla scowled down at the controls. "How am I supposed to know what to push and what to toggle, and whatever?"

"Practice. And like I said, you need to form your team more strategically. You formed your all-girl alliance. You should've mixed it up."

"My strategy was gender solidarity." Under the coffee table, Spock snorted. "That's enough out of you," she muttered. "Besides, I think this controller's defective because I have excellent hand-eye coordination."

"Want to switch and go another round?"

She eyed him narrowly. "How often do you play this?"

"Off and on. Throughout my entire life," he added with a grin. "I'm currently undefeated on this version of Ultimate Alliance."

"Geek."

"Loser."

She handed him her controller. "Put your toys away."

Look at that, she thought when he rose to do just that. Tidy hot guy. Tidy straight hot guy. How many of them were there in the world?

"Saving the world worked up my appetite. How about you?"

"I didn't save the world," she pointed out.

"You tried."

"That was smug. I see the smug all over you."

"Then I'd better wash up. I got leftover spaghetti and meatballs, courtesy of Penny Sawyer."

"You've got a nice setup here, Ford. Work you love, and a great house to do it in. Your ridiculously appealing dog. The tight circle of friends going back to childhood. Family you get along with, close enough you can cop leftovers. It's a great platform."

"No complaints. Cilla-"

"No, not yet." She could see in his eyes the offer of sympathy and support. "I'm not ready to think about it yet. Spaghetti and meatballs sounds like just the thing."

"Cold or warmed up?"

"It has to be exceptional spaghetti and meatballs to warrant cold."

He crossed back, took her hand. "Come with me," he said and led her around to the kitchen. "Have a seat." He took the bowl out of the fridge, peeled off the lid, got a fork. "You'll get yours," he told Spock as the dog danced and gurgled. Turning back, he set the bowl on the bar, then wound some pasta on a fork. "Sample."

She opened her mouth, let him feed her. "Oh. Okay, that's really good. Really. Give me the fork."

With a laugh, he passed it to her. After adding some to Spock's dish, he topped off both glasses of wine. They sat at the counter, eating cold pasta straight from the bowl.

"We had this cook when I was a kid. Annamaria from Sicily. I swear her pasta wasn't as good as this. What?" she said when he shook his head.

"Just strikes me weird that I know somebody who can say, 'We had a cook when I was a kid.'"

She grinned around more pasta. "We had a butler."

"Get out."

She raised her brows, inclined her head and stabbed at a meatball. "Two maids, chauffeur, gardener, under-gardener, my mother's personal assistant, pool boy. And once, when my mother discovered the pool boy, whom she was banging, was also banging one of the maids, she fired them both. With much drama. She had to go to Palm Springs for a week to recover, where she met Number Three-ironically, by the pool. I'm pretty sure, at some point, he also banged the pool boy. The new pool boy, whose name was Raoul."

He gestured at her with his fork until he swallowed. "You grew up in an eighties soap opera."

She thought it over. "Close enough. But, in any case, Annamaria had nothing on your mother."

"She'll get a kick out of hearing that. What was it like, seriously? Growing up with maids and butlers?"

"Crowded. And not all it's cracked up to be. That sounds snotty," she decided. "And I imagine some woman with a house and family to run, a full-time job and the need to get dinner on the table would be tempted to bitch-slap me for it. But." She shrugged. "There's always somebody there, so genuine privacy is an illusion. No sneaking a cookie out of the jar before dinnertime. Actually no cookies for the most part as the camera adds pounds. If you have a fight with your mother, the entire household knows the details. More, the odds are that those details will be recounted sometime down the road in a tabloid interview or a disgruntled former employee's tell-all book.

"All in all," she concluded, "I'd rather eat leftover spaghetti."

"But, if I remember right, you don't cook."

"Yeah, that's a problem." She reached for her wine. "I've thought about maybe asking Patty for pointers in that area. I like to chop." She hacked down a few times with the flat of her hand to demonstrate. "You know, vegetables, salads. I'm a hell of a chopper."

"That's a start."

"Self-sufficiency, that's the key. You manage."

"True, but I've been butler-free all my life. I do have a biweekly cleaning service, and am well acquainted with the primary and alternate routes to all takeout facilities. Plus, I have a direct line to Brian and Matt and Shanna, who will handle small household emergencies for beer."

"It's a system."

"Well oiled." He tucked her hair behind her ear.

"If and when I learn to cook something other than a grilled cheese sandwich and canned soup, I'll have reached another lofty personal goal."

"What are some of the others?"

"Lofty personal goals? Rehabbing a house and selling it at a profit. I hit that one. Having my own business and having said business generate an actual income. Which first requires reaching the goal of getting my contractor's license, which in turn requires passing the test for same. In a couple weeks, actually, if I-"

"You've got to take a test? I love tests." His eyes actually lit up. "Do you need a study buddy? And yes, I capitalize the N in nerd."

She paused with what she swore would be her last bite of pasta halfway to her mouth. "You love tests?"

"Well, yeah. There are questions and answers. True or false, multiple choice, essay. What's not to love? I kill on tests. It's a gift. Do you want any help?"

"Actually, I think I'm good. I've been prepping for it for a while now. I think I met your kind during my brief and unfortunate college experience. You're the one who screwed the curve for me, every time. You are, therefore, one of the primary reasons I'm a one-semester college dropout."

"You should've asked my kind to be your study buddy. Besides, you should thank my kind for putting you exactly where you want to be right now."

"Hmm." She deliberately nudged the bowl toward him and away from herself. "That's very slick and clever. Previous humiliation and failure lead to current spaghetti-and-meatball-induced contentment."

"Or, condensing, sometimes shit happens for the best."

"There's a bumper sticker. I have to move." She pressed a hand on her stomach, slid off the stool. "And I'll demonstrate my self-sufficiency and gratitude for current contentment by doing the dishes, which includes everything back to breakfast, apparently."

"We were busy with other things."

"I guess we were."

For a moment, he indulged himself with wine and watching her. But watching wasn't enough. He stood and crossed to her, turned her to face him. She had a wooden spoon in her hand and an easy smile curving her lips. He wrapped her hair around his hand-and saw her eyes widen in surprise, heard the spoon clatter to the floor-as he used it like a rope to tug her head back.

And ravished her mouth.

A new and rampant hunger surged through him, a whip of need and now. He released her hair to drag off her shirt. Even as his mouth crushed back down to hers, he yanked her pants down her hips.

It was a tornado of demand and speed. It seemed she was naked before she could catch the first breath. Plucked up off the ground while her head spun and her heart lurched. He dropped her down on the counter, shoved her legs apart.

And ravished her.

Her hand flailed out for purchase. Something shattered; she wondered if it was her mind. His fingers dug into her hips as he pounded into her, pounded greed and scorching pleasure. Mad for more, she locked her legs around his waist.

His blood pounded under his skin, a thousand brutal drumbeats. The hunger that had leaped into him seemed to snap its teeth and bite even as he drove himself into her to slake it. Its dark excitement pushed him to take, to fill her with the same wild desperation that burned in him.

When it broke, it was like shooting out of the black, into the blind.

Her head dropped limply onto his shoulder while her breath came in short, raw gasps. She felt him tremble, found herself pleased she wasn't the only one.

"Oh," she managed, "God."

"Give me a minute. I'll help you down."

"Take your time. I'm fine where I am. Where am I?"

His laugh muffled against the side of her neck. "Maybe it was something in the spaghetti sauce."

"Then we need the recipe."

Steadier, he leaned back, took a good look at her."Now I really want my camera. You're the first naked woman to sit on my kitchen counter, which I now plan to have sealed in Lucite. I'd like to document the moment."

"Not a chance. My contract specifies no nude scenes."

"That's a damn shame." He stroked her hair back. "I guess the least I can do after playing Viking and maiden is help you with the dishes."

"The least. Hand me my shirt, will you?"

"See, I've confiscated your clothes. You'll have to do the dishes naked."

Her head cocked, her eyebrows lifted. On a sigh, Ford scooped up her shirt. "It was worth a shot."

HE WOKE in the dark to a quiet house and an empty bed. Groggy and baffled, he rose to look for her. One part of his brain reserved the right to be pissed if she'd gone back across the road without waking him.

He found his front door open, and saw the silhouette of her sitting in one of the chairs on his veranda with Spock stretched at her feet. He smelled coffee as he pushed open the screen.

She glanced over. "Morning."

"As long as it's still dark, it's not morning." He sat beside her. "Give me a hit of that."

"You should go back to bed."

"Are you going to give me a hit of that coffee or make me go get my own?"

She passed him the cup. "I have to decide what to do."

"At..." He took her wrist, turned it up and squinted at her watch. "Five-oh-six in the morning?"

"I didn't deal with it yesterday, didn't think about it. Or not much. I even left my phone over there so the police couldn't contact me. So no one could. I ducked and covered."

"You took a break. There's no reason you can't take a couple more days before you try to figure it all out."

"Actually, there are real and practical reasons I can't take more time. I have subs coming in about two hours, unless I call them off. If I take them off for a couple of days, it's more than screwing up my schedule, which is, of course, already screwed. It messes up theirs, and their employees'. And subs are always juggling jobs, so I could lose key people for more than a couple of days if I hold them off. If that decision is to walk away, I have to tell them that."

"The circumstances aren't of your making, and no one's going to blame you."

"No, I don't think anyone would. But it still creates a domino effect. I also have to consider my budget, which is also screwed. I have insurance, but insurance has a deductible that has to be factored into the whole. I'm already over the high end of my projections, but that was my choice, with the changes and additions I made."

"If you need-"

"Don't," she said, anticipating him. "I'm okay financially, and if I can't make it on my own, I can't make it. If I really needed extra, I could make a few calls, grab a couple voice-over jobs. Bottom line is I can't leave the place the way it is, half done. I've got custom cabinets I ordered back in March, and the balance due when I take delivery. The kitchen appliances will be back in another couple months. Other details, small and large. It has to be finished, that's not really a question. The questions are do I want to finish it, and do I want to stay? Can I? Should I?"

He took another hit of her coffee. Serious conversations, he thought, required serious attention. "Tell me what you'd do if you decided to turn it over to someone else to finish. If you left."

"There are a lot of places I could slip into without the baggage I have here. Stick a pin in a map, I guess, and pick one. Take some of those voice-overs to thicken the bankroll, if I need to. Find a place with potential to flip. I can get a mortgage. Regular and very nice residuals from Our Family look good on an application. Or if I don't want the stress of that, I could get a job with a crew. Hell, I could work for Steve's new New York branch."

"You'd be giving up your lofty personal goals."

"Maybe I'd just postpone reaching them. The problem is..." She paused, sipped the coffee he'd handed back to her. "The problem is," she repeated, "I love that house. I love what it was, what I know I can make it. I love this place, and how I feel here. I love what I see when I look out my windows or step out my door. And I'm pissed off that someone's meanness makes me consider giving that up."

Something that had tightened inside him relaxed. "I like it better when you're pissed off."

"I do, too, but it's hard to hold up the level. The part of me that isn't pissed off or discouraged is scared."

"That's because you're not stupid. Someone's set out to deliberately hurt you. You're going to be scared, Cilla, until you know who and why, and make it stop."

"I don't know where to start."

"Do you still think it's old man Hennessy?"

"He's the only one I've met or had contact with around here who's made it clear he hates me. Which, if this were a screenplay, means he couldn't be behind all this because he's the only one who hates me. But-"

"We'll go talk to him, face-to-face."

"And say what?"

"It'll come to us, but basically you're sticking, you're making your home here, and neither you nor a house is responsible for something that happened over thirty years ago. And words to that effect. I'm also going to make copies of those letters you found. I'm going to read them more carefully and so are you. You need to think about passing them to the cops. Because if it's not Hennessy, the next best possibility is it's someone connected to those letters who got wind they still exist and you have them. Janet Hardy's married secret lover revealed? That'd be news. Big, juicy, scandalous news."

She'd thought of that. Of course she'd thought of that. But... "They aren't signed."

"Might be clues in there about the identity. Might not be, but we're talking thirty-five years ago. Do you remember everything you wrote thirty-five years ago?"

"I'm twenty-eight, but I get what you're saying." In the still, softening dark, she stared at him. "You've given this a lot of thought."

"Yeah. The first, the prowler in your barn. That could've been somebody hoping to pick up a few Janet Hardy souvenirs. I've got to weigh in the place has been empty for years now, and sure I've seen some people poking around now and then. Against that, I've got to factor most people didn't know there was anything left inside, and any who did probably thought it was worthless junk left by tenants, not the woman herself. But then you come along."

"I clear it out, store it in the barn, and it's clear and obvious that I'm sorting through it, culling out anything that belonged to my grandmother. "

"Somebody gets curious, a little greedy. Possibility. The second, the attack on Steve, could come from the same root. Poking around, somebody's coming. Panic. But that takes it way over harmless if annoying trespass. Also above, if the letters are the goal, trespass to preserve reputation. It's up to assault, arguably attempted murder."

She shivered. "Of discouraged, pissed and scared, scared just leaped way into the lead."

"Good, because then you'll be more careful. Next, your truck door.

That one's personal and direct to you. So was the message on the stone wall. Maybe there are two separate people involved."

"Oh, that really helps. Two people who hate me."

"It's another possible. Last, the destruction inside the house. It's more personal, more direct, and it's ballsier. So today, you're going shopping for a security system."

"Is that what I'm going to do?"

The cold bite in her tone didn't break his skin. "One of us is. Since it's your place, I assume you'd rather do it yourself. But if you don't, today, I will. I'm now authorized as I've had you naked on my kitchen counter. No point in whining to me if you didn't bother to read the fine print."

She said nothing for a moment, struggling against the urge to stew. "I intended to arrange that anyway-stay or go."

"Good. And you don't care for ultimatums. Neither do I, but in this particular case, I'm making an exception. I can sleep over there with you. Happy to. But sleep is a foregone conclusion at some point, just as the house being empty at some time or other for some period of time is inevitable. You need to be safe, and to feel safe. You need to protect your property.

"And Cilla, there's no 'go.' You've already decided to stay."

She really did want to stew, she thought, and he was making it damn hard to indulge. "How come you're all macho and pushy with your ultimatum, but you're not all macho and pushy telling me to flee to safety while you slay the dragon?"

"My shining armor's in the shop. And maybe I just like the sex, which would be hard to come by with all the fleeing. Or it could be I don't want to see you give up something you love."

Yeah, he made it damn hard. "When I came out here to sit, I told myself it was just a house. I've put a lot of myself into other houses-it's what makes the rehab worthwhile-and I've let them go. It's just a house, wood and glass and pipes and wire, on a piece of ground."

She looked down when he laid his hand over hers, when the gesture told her he understood. "Of course it's not just a house, not to me. I don't want to let it go, Ford. I'd never get it back, never get back what I've found if I let it go."

She turned her hand over, laced her fingers with his. "Plus, I like the sex."

"It can't be overstated."

"Okay then." She took a deep breath. "I've got to get back. Get ready. Get started."

"Let me get some shoes on. I'll walk you home."

MATT STOOD in the center of the master bath, hands on his hips, face grim. "I'm awful damn sorry about this, Cilla. I don't know what gets into people, I swear I don't. We're going to fix that wall for you, don't worry. And Stan'll come back and do the tile. I can get one of my men to chip out what's damaged in place, but it'd be better to leave the glass block for Stan. I'll give him a call for you."

"I'd appreciate that. I need to go pick up the replacement tile and block, some supplies. Arrange for a security system."

"I hear that. People didn't lock their doors half the time around here when I was a kid. Times change. Another damn shame when it comes to things like this. You said they busted out a pane in the back door? I'll get somebody to replace that for you."

"I'm going to order a new door, and a lock set for that and the front. The plywood's okay for now. You'll need to take down that drywall rather than try to repair it. There's enough on site."

"Sure there is. Anything else I can do, Cilla, you just let me know. Got the other bathroom up here, too?"

"Yeah. Got it good."

"I guess we'd better take a look."

They assessed damage, talked repairs. As she gathered her lists and checked on other areas of the project, crew offered sympathy, asked questions, expressed outrage and disgust. By the time she left, her ears were ringing from it, and with the more comforting sound of whirling drills and buzzing saws.

INEVITABLY, SHE HAD to explain to her usual consultant at the flooring center why she needed to buy considerable square footage of tile she'd already bought, as well as grout. It slowed the process, but Cilla supposed that, too, was inevitable. Even in L.A. she'd formed relationships with specific tile guys, lumber guys, appliance guys. It went with the trade, and good relationships paid off the time spent.

She ran into the same situation at the home supply store when she stopped in to buy the replacement sink and other items on her list. While she waited for the clerk to check stock, she cruised the faucets. Chrome, nickel, brass, copper. Brushed, satin, antiqued. Single handles, vessel style. Matching towel bars, robe hooks.

All the shapes, the textures, the tones, gave her the same rush of pleasure others might find browsing the glittery offerings in Tiffany's.

Copper. Maybe she'd go with copper on her office bath. With a stone vessel-style sink and-

"Cilla?"

She broke off from her visualization to see Tom Morrow and Buddy coming down the aisle. "I thought that was you," Tom said. "Buying or deciding?"

"Both, actually."

"Same for me. I'm outfitting a spec out. Usually my bath and kitchen designer takes care of this, but she's out on maternity leave. Plus, I like to get my hand in occasionally. You know how it is."

"Yes, I do."

"Got my consultant here," he said with a wink. "Buddy'll make sure I don't go buying a center set when I need a wide, or vice versa."

"You've done it before," Buddy pointed out.

"And you never let me forget. I heard you ladies had a fine time on Saturday."

"We did."

"Cathy always says shopping's her hobby. I've got golf, she's got the mall and the outlets."

"Don't see the point in either." Buddy shook his head. "Fishing's got a point."

"Excuse me." The clerk strode up. "Everything's in stock, Ms. McGowan. You got the last we have of the wall-hung sink."

"What wall-hung?" Buddy wanted to know. "I'm plumbing for a pedestal in the third bath."

"It's a replacement. The sink you installed in the second-floor guest bath was damaged."

If he'd been a rooster, Cilla thought, Buddy's cockscomb would have quivered.

"How the hell did that happen? Nothing wrong with it when I put it in."

Okay, Cilla thought, one more time. "I had a break-in Saturday. Some vandalism."

"My God! Were you hurt?" Tom demanded.

"No, I wasn't home. I was out with your wife and Patty and Angie."

"They busted up a sink?" Buddy pulled off his cap to scratch his head. "What the hell for?"

"I couldn't say. But both second-floor baths we'd finished took a hit. They used my sledge and pickax from the look of it, smashed a lot of tile, one of the walls, the sink, some glass block."

"This is terrible. It's not the sort of thing that happens around here. The police-"

"Are doing what they can," she said to Tom. "So they tell me, anyway." Since she wanted the word spread, she kept going. "I'll be installing a security system."

"Can't blame you. I'm so sorry to hear this, Cilla."

"Wouldn't want my daughter living out that far on her own." Buddy shrugged. "Just saying. Especially after what happened to Steve."

"Bad things happen everywhere. I've got to get my supplies and finish my run. Good luck with the spec."

"Cilla, if there's anything we can do, Cathy or I, you just give a call. We're a growing area, but that doesn't mean we don't take care of our own."

"Thank you."

It warmed her, and stayed warm inside her, even as her supplies were loaded, even as she drove away.

Our own.

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