Dark Hunger


Part Two. REHAB Chapter Eighteen


Cilla gave herself the pleasure of removing the old, battered doors with their worn or missing weather stripping, and installing their replacements. She salvaged the old, stored them in the barn.

You just never knew, to her mind, when you might need an old door.

She'd opted for mahogany-damn the budget-in an elegantly simple Craftman style. The three-over-three seeded glass panes on the entrance door would let in the light, and still afford some privacy.

Sucker fit, she thought with pleasure after one of the laborers helped her haul it into position. Fit like a fricking dream. She waited until she was alone to stroke her hands over the wood and purr, "Hello, gorgeous. You're all mine now." Humming under her breath, she went to work on the lock set.

She'd gone with the oil-rubbed bronze she'd chosen for other areas of the house and, as she began the install on the lock set, decided she'd made the perfect choice. The dark tones of the bronze showed off well against the subtle red hues in the mahogany.

"That's a nice-looking door."

She looked over her shoulder to see her father stepping out of his car. Cilla was so used to seeing him in what she thought of as his teacher clothes, it took her a minute to adjust her brain to the jeans, T-shirt and ball cap he wore.

"Curb appeal," she called back.

"You're certainly getting that." He paused to look over the front lawns. The grass had been neatly mowed, with its bare patches resowed and the tender new shoots protected by a thin layer of straw. The plantings had begun there, too, with young azaleas and rhododendrons, a clutch of hydrangeas already heading up, a slim red maple with its leaves glowing in the sunlight.

"Still got some work, and I won't put in the flower beds until next spring, unless I manage to put in some fall stuff. But it's coming along."

"You've done an amazing job so far." He joined her on the veranda, close enough she caught a whiff of what she thought might be Irish Spring. He studied the door, the lock set. "That looks sturdy. I'm glad to see it. What about the security system? Word gets around," he added when she raised her eyebrows.

"I was hoping that word would. It might be as much of a deterrent as the system itself. Which went in yesterday."

His hazel eyes tracked to hers, solemnly. "I wish you'd called me, Cilla, about the vandalism."

"Nothing you could've done about it. Give me a second here, I'm nearly done." She whirled the last screws in place, then set aside the cordless screwdriver before admiring the result. "Yeah, it looks good. I almost went with a plate style, but thought it would look too heavy. This is better. " She opened and closed the door a couple of times. "Good. I'm using the same style on the back entry, but decided to go with an atrium on... sorry. You couldn't possibly be interested."

"I am. I'm interested in what you're doing."

A little surprised by the hurt in his tone, she turned to give him her full attention. "I just meant the odd details-knob or lever style, sliding, swinging, luminary. Do you want to come in?" She opened the door again. "It's noisy, but it's cooler."

"Cilla, what can I do?"

"I... Look, I'm sorry." God, she was lousy at this father-daughter thing. How could she be otherwise? "I didn't mean to imply you don't care what I'm doing."

"Cilla." Gavin closed the door again to block off the noise from inside. "What can I do to help you?"

She felt guilty, and a little panicked, as her mind went blank. "Help me with what?"

He let out a sigh, shoved his hands into his pockets. "I'm not a do-it-yourselfer, but I can hammer a nail or put in a screw. I can fetch and carry. I can make iced tea or go pick up sandwiches. I can use a broom."

"You... want to work on the house?"

"School's out for the summer, and I didn't take on any summer classes. I have some time to help, and I'd like to help."

"Well... why?"

"I'm aware you have plenty of people, people who know what they're doing, that you're paying to do it. But, I've never done anything for you. I sent child support. I was legally obligated to. I hope you know, or can believe, I'd have sent it without that obligation. I didn't teach you to ride a bike, or to drive a car. I never put toys together for you on Christmas Eve or your birthday-or the few times I did you were too young to possibly remember. I never helped you with your homework or lay in bed waiting for you to come home from a date so I could sleep. I never did any of those things for you, or hundreds more. So I'd like to do something for you now. Something tangible. If you'll let me."

Her heart fluttered, the oddest combination of pleasure and distress. It seemed vital she think of something, the right something, and her mind went on a desperate scavenger hunt. "Ah. Ever done any painting?"

She watched the tension in his face melt into a delighted smile. "As a matter of fact, I'm an excellent painter. Do you want references?"

She smiled back at him. "I'll give you a trial run. Follow me."

She led him in and through to the living room. She hadn't scheduled painting this area quite yet, but there was no reason against it. "The plasterwork's done, and I've removed the trim. Had to. Some of it needed to be stripped, and that's done. I'm still working on making what I need to replicate and replace damaged areas, then I'll stain and seal. Anyway, you won't have to tape or cut in around trim. Oh, and don't worry about the brick on the fireplace, either. I'm going to cover that with granite. Or marble. There's no work going on in this area right now, so you won't be in anyone's way, and they shouldn't be in yours. We can drop-cloth the floors and the supplies stored here."

She set her fists on her hips. "Got your stepladder, your pans, rollers, brushes right over there. Primer's in those ten-gallon cans, and marked. Finish paint's labeled with the L.R. for living room. I hit a sale on Duron, so I bought it in advance. You won't get past starting the primer anyway."

She ran through her mental checklist. "So... do you want me to help you set up?"

"I can handle it."

"Okay. Listen, it's a big job, so knock off anytime you get tired of it. I'm going to be working on the back door if you need anything meanwhile. "

"Go ahead. I'll be fine."

"Okay. Ah... I'll check in after I'm done with the kitchen door."

She pulled away twice during the process of replacing the door-once for the sheer pleasure of walking up and down her newly completed outside stairs. They required staining, sealing, and the doorway cut into what would be her office suite would be blocked with plywood until she installed that door. But the stairs themselves delighted her so much she executed an impromptu dance number on the way down, to the applause and whistles of the crew.

Her father and the painting slipped her mind for over three hours. With twin pangs of guilt and concern, she hurried into the living room, fully expecting to see a weekend DIYer's amateurish mess. Instead, she saw a competently dropped area, a primed ceiling and two primed walls.

And her father, whistling a cheery tune, as he rolled primer on the next wall.

"You're hired," she said from behind him.

He lowered the roller, chuckled, turned. "Will work for lemonade." He picked up a tall glass. "I got some out of the kitchen. And caught your act."

"Sorry?"

"Your Ginger Rogers down the stairs. Outside. You looked so happy."

"I am. The pitch, the landings, the switchbacks. An engineering feat, brought to you by Cilla McGowan and Matt Brewster."

"I forgot you could dance like that. I haven't seen you dance since... You were still a teenager when I came to your concert in D.C. I remember coming backstage before curtain. You were white as a sheet."

"Stage fright. I hated that concert series. I hated performing."

"You just did."

"Perform? No, there's performing and there's playing around. That was playing around. Which you're obviously not, here. This is a really good job. And you?" She walked over for a closer inspection-and damn if she couldn't still smell the soap on him. "You barely have a dot of paint on you."

"Years of experience, between painting sets at school and Patty's redecorating habit. It looks so different in here," he added. "With the doorway there widened, the way it changes the shape of the room and opens it."

"Too different?"

"No, honey. Homes are meant to change, to reflect the people who live in them. And I think you'll understand what I mean when I say she's still here. Janet's still here." He touched her shoulder, then just left his hand there, connecting them. "So are my grandparents, my father. Even me, a little. What I see here is a revival."

"Want to see where the stairs lead? My garret?"

"I'd like that."

She got a kick out of showing him around, seeing his interest in her design and plans for her office. It surprised her to realize his approval brought her such satisfaction. In the way, she supposed, it was satisfying to show off to someone ready to be impressed.

"So you'll keep working on houses," he said as they started down the unfinished attic steps.

"That's the plan. Rehabbing either for myself to flip, or for clients. Remodeling. Possibly doing some consulting. It hinges on getting my contractor's license. I can do a lot without it, but with it, I can do more."

"How do you go about getting a license?"

"I take the test for it tomorrow." She held up both hands, fingers crossed.

"Tomorrow? Why aren't you studying? says the teacher."

"Believe me, I have. Studied my brains out, took the sample test on-line. Twice." She paused by the guest bath. "This room's finished-for the second time."

"This is one that was vandalized?"

"Yeah. You'd never know it," she said, crouching down to run her fingers over the newly laid tile. "I guess that's what counts."

"What counts is you weren't hurt. When I think about what happened to Steve..."

"He's doing good. I talked to him yesterday. His physical therapy's going well, which may in part be due to the fact that the therapist is a babe. Do you think Hennessy could have done it?" she asked on impulse. "Is he capable, physically, character-wise?"

"I don't like to think so, when it comes to his character. But the fact is, he's never stopped hating."After a pause, Gavin let out a sigh. "I'd have to say he hates more now than he did when it happened. Physically? Well, he's a tough old bird."

"I want to talk to him, get a sense. I just haven't decided how to approach it. On the other hand, if it was him, I'm not sure that wouldn't get him even more riled up. I haven't had any problems for nearly two weeks now. I'd like to keep it that way."

"He's been out of town for a few days. He and his wife are visiting her sister. Up in Vermont, I think it is. My neighbor's boy mows their lawn," Gavin explained.

Convenient, she thought as her father went back to painting.

And since the living area was getting painted, she decided to set up her tools outside and get to work on the trim.

IN THE MORNING, Cilla decided she'd been foolish and shortsighted to bar Ford from the house the night before. She hadn't wanted any distractions while she reviewed her test manual, and had planned on an early night and a solid eight hours' sleep.

Instead she'd obsessed about the test, pacing the house, second-guessing herself. When she slept, she tossed and turned with anxiety dreams.

As a result she woke tense, edgy and half sick with nerves. She forced herself to eat half a bagel, then wished she hadn't as even that churned uneasily in her stomach.

She checked the contents of her bag three times to make absolutely certain it held everything she could possibly need, then left the house a full thirty minutes early, just in case she ran into traffic or got lost. Couldn't find a parking place, she added as she locked the front door. Was abducted by aliens.

"Knock it off, knock it off," she mumbled as she strode to her pickup. It wasn't as if the fate of the damn world rested on her test score.

Just hers, she thought. Just her entire future.

She could wait. She could take the test down the road, wait just a little longer. After she'd finished the house. After she'd settled in. After...

Stage fright, she thought with a sigh. Performance anxiety and fear of failure all wrapped up in a slippery ribbon. With her stomach knotted, she opened the truck door.

She made a sound that was part laugh, part awww.

The sketch lay on the seat, where, she supposed, Ford had put it sometime the night before.

She stood in work boots, a tool belt slung from her hips like a holster. As if she'd drawn them from it, she held a nail gun in one hand, a measuring tape in the other. Around her were stacks of lumber, coils of wire, piles of brick. Safety goggles dangled from a strap around her neck, and work gloves peeked out of the pocket of her carpenter pants. Her face carried a determined, almost arrogant expression.

Below her feet, the caption read:

THE AMAZING, THE INCREDIBLE CONTRACTOR GIRL

"You don't miss a trick, do you?" she said aloud.

She looked across the road, blew a kiss to where she imagined he lay sleeping. When she climbed into the truck and turned on the engine, all the knots had unraveled.

With the sketch riding on the seat beside her, Cilla turned on the music and drove toward her future, singing.

FORD SETTLED on his front veranda with his laptop, his sketchbook, a pitcher of iced tea and a bag of Doritos to share with Spock. He couldn't be sure when Cilla might make it back. The drive to and from Richmond was a bitch even without rush hour factored in. Added to it, he couldn't be sure how long the exam ran, or what she might do after to wind down.

So around two in the afternoon, he stationed himself where he couldn't miss her return and kept himself busy. He sent and answered e-mail, checked in with the blogs and boards he usually frequented. He did a little updating on his own website.

He'd neglected his Internet community for the last week or two, being preoccupied with a certain lanky blonde. Hooking back in entertained him for a solid two hours before he noticed at least some of the crew across the road were knocking off for the day.

Matt pulled out, swung to Ford's side of the road, then leaned out the window. "Checking the porn sites?"

"Day and night. How's it going over there?"

"It's going. Finished insulating the attic today. Fucking miserable job. Yeah, hey, Spock, how's it going," he added when the dog gave a single, deep-throated, how-about-me bark. "I'm going home and diving into a cold beer. You coming by for burgers and dogs on the Fourth?"

"Wouldn't miss it. I'll be bringing your boss."

"I thought that's how it was. Nice work, dog. Not you," he added, pointing at Spock. "Don't know what she sees in you, but I guess she settled since she knows I'm married."

"Yeah, that was it. She had to channel her sexual frustration somewhere. "

"You can thank me later." With a grin and a toot of the horn, Matt pulled out.

Ford poured another glass of tea and traded his laptop for his sketch pad. He wasn't yet satisfied with his image of his villain. He'd based Devon/ Devino predominantly on his tenth-grade algebra teacher, but turns in his original story line made him think he wanted something slightly more... elegant. Cold, dignified evil played better. He played around with various face types hoping one jumped out and said: Pick me!

When none did, he considered a cold beer. Then forgot the work and the beer when Cilla's truck pulled into his drive.

He knew before she got out of the truck. It didn't matter that her eyes were shielded by sunglasses. The grin said it all. He headed down, several paces behind a happy Spock, as she got out of the truck, then braced himself as she took a running leap into his arms.

"I'm going to take a wild guess. You passed."

"I killed!" Laughing, she bowed back recklessly so he had to shift, brace his legs, or drop her on her head. "For the first time in my life, I kicked exam ass. I kicked its ass down the street, across county lines and out of the goddamn state. Woo!"

She threw her arms into the air, then around his neck. "I am Contractor Girl! Thank you." She kissed him hard enough to vibrate his teeth. "Thank you. Thank you. I was a nervous, quivering mess until I saw that sketch. It just gave me such a high. It really did." She kissed him again. "I'm going to have it framed. It's the first thing I'm going to hang in my office. My licensed-contractor's office."

"Congratulations." He thought he'd known just how much the license meant to her. And realized he hadn't even been close. "We have to celebrate."

"I've got that covered. I bought stuff." She jumped down, then scooped a thrilled Spock into her arms and covered his big head with kisses. Setting him down, she ran back to her truck. "French bread, caviar, a roasted chicken with trimmings, stuff, stuff, stuff, complete with little strawberry shortcakes and champagne. It's all on ice."

She started to muscle out a cooler, before he nudged her aside.

"God, the traffic was a bitch. I thought I'd never get here. Let's have a picnic. Let's have a celebration picnic out back and dance naked on the grass."

The stuff she'd bought had to weigh a good fifty pounds, he thought, but looking at the way she just shone made it seem weightless. "It's like you read my mind."

HE DUG UP a blanket and lit a trio of bamboo torcheres to add atmosphere, and discourage bugs. By the time Cilla spread out the feast, half the blanket was covered.

Spock and his bear contented themselves with a ratty towel and a bowl of dog food.

"Caviar, goat cheese, champagne." Ford sat on the blanket. "My usual picnic involves a bucket of chicken, a tub of potato salad and beer."

"You can take the girl out of Hollywood." She began to gather a selection for a plate.

"What is that?"

"It's a blini, for the caviar. A dollop of creme fraiche, a layer of beluga, and... You've never had this before?" she said when she read his expression.

"Can't say I have."

"You fear it."

"Fear is a strong word. I have concerns. Doesn't caviar come from-"

"Don't think about it, just eat." She held the loaded blini to his lips. "Open up, you coward."

He winced a little but bit in. The combination of flavors-salty, smooth, mildly sweet-hit his taste buds. "Okay, better than I expected. Where's yours?"

She laughed and fixed another.

"How do you plan to set up?" he asked as they ate. "Your business."

"Mmm." She washed down caviar with champagne. "The Little Farm's a springboard. It gets attention, just because of what it is. The better job I do there, the more chance people see I know what I'm doing. And the subs I've hired talk about it, and about me. I need to build on word of mouth. I'll have to advertise, make it known I'm in business. Use connections. Brian to Brian's father, for instance. God, this chicken is great. There are two houses within twelve miles up for sale. Serious fixer-uppers that I think are a little overpriced for the area and their conditions. I'm keeping my eye on them. I may make a lowball offer on one of them, see where it goes."

"Before you finish here?"

"Yeah. Figure, even if I came to terms with the seller straight off, there'd be thirty to ninety days for settlement. I'd push for the ninety. That'd put me into the fall before I have to start outlaying any cash. And that's seven, eight months into the Little Farm. I juggle the jobs, and the subs, work out a realistic time frame and budget. Flip the house in, we'll say, twelve weeks, keeping the price realistic."

She loaded another blini for both of them. "Greed and not knowing your market's what can kill a flip just as quick as finding out too late the foundation's cracked or the house is sitting in a sinkhole."

"How much would you look to make?"

"On the house I'm looking at? With the price I'd be willing to pay, the budget I'd project, the resale projection in this market?" She bit into the blini while she calculated. "After expenses, I'd look for about forty thousand."

His eyebrows shot up. "Forty thousand, in three months?"

"I'd hope for forty-five, but thirty-five would do it."

"Nice." She was right about the chicken, too. "What if I bought the other one? Hired you?"

"Well, Jesus, Ford, you haven't even seen it."

"You have. And you know what you're doing-about houses and picnics. I could use an investment, and this has the advantage of a fun factor. Plus, I could be your first client."

"You need to at least look at the property, calculate how much you're willing to invest, how long you can let that investment ride." She lifted her champagne glass, gestured with it like a warning. "And how much you can afford to lose, because real estate and flipping are risks."

"So's the stock market. Can you handle both houses?"

She took a drink. "Yeah, I could, but-"

"Let's try this. Figure out a time when you can go through it with me, and we'll talk about the potential, the possibilities, your fee and other practical matters."

"Okay. Okay. As long as we both understand that once you've seen the property and we've gone over those projections, and you tell me you'd rather buy a fistful of lottery tickets than that dump, no harm, no foul."

"Understood and agreed. Now, with the business portion of tonight's program out of the way." He leaned over to kiss her. "Do you have any plans for the Fourth?"

"The fourth what? Blini?"

"No, Cilla. Of July. You know, hot dogs, apple pie, fireworks."

"Oh. No." My God, she thought. It was nearly July. "Where do people go to watch fireworks around here?"

"There are a few options. But this is the great state of Virginia. We set off our own."

"Yeah, I've seen the signs. You all are crazy."

"Be that as it may, Matt's having a cookout. It's a short walk from his place to the park where the Roritan band plays Sousa marches, there's the world-famous pie-eating contest, won four years running by Big John Porter, and other various slices of Americana before the fireworks display. Wanna be my date?"

"Yes, I would." She leaned over the picnic debris, linked her arms around his neck. "Ford?"

"Yeah."

"If I eat another bite of anything, I'm going to be sick. So..." She leaped up, grabbed his hands. "Let's dance."

"About that. My plans were to lie here like a dissipated Roman soldier and watch you dance."

"No, you don't. Up, up, up!"

"There's just one problem. I don't dance."

"Everybody dances. Even Spock."

"Not really. Well, yes, he does," Ford admitted as Spock got up to demonstrate. "I don't. Did you ever catch Seinfeld? The TV deal."

"Of course."

"Did you see the one where Elaine's at this office party, and to get people up to dance, she starts it off?"

"Oh yeah." The scene popped straight into her mind, made her laugh. "That was bad."

"I make Elaine look like Jennifer Lopez."

"You can't be that bad. I refuse to believe it. Come on, show me."

Those gold-rimmed eyes showed actual pain. "If I show you, you'll never have sex with me again."

"Absolutely false. Show me your moves, Sawyer."

"I have no moves in this arena." But with a heavy sigh, he rose.

"Just a little boogie," she suggested. She moved her hips, her shoulders, her feet. Obviously, to Ford's mind, to some well-oiled internal engine. Clutching the bear between his paws, Spock gurgled his approval.

"You asked for it," he muttered.

He moved, and could swear he heard rusty gears with mismatched teeth grind and shriek. He looked like the Tin Man of Oz, before the oil can.

"Well, that's not... Okay, that's really bad." She struggled to swallow a snort of laughter, but didn't quite succeed. The disgusted look he shot her had her holding up her hands and stepping quickly to him. "Wait, wait. Sorry. I can teach you."

This time, Spock snorted.

"Others have tried; all have failed. I have no rhythm. I am rhythmically impaired. I've learned to live with it."

"Bull. Anyone who has your kind of moves horizontally can have them vertically. Here." She took his hands, set them on her hips, then put hers on his. "It starts here. This isn't a structured sort of thing, like a waltz or quickstep. It's just moving. A little hip action. No, unlock your knees, it's not a goose step, either. Just left, right, left. Shift your weight to the left, not just your hip."

"I look and feel like a spastic robot."

"You don't." She shot Spock a warning glance, and the dog turned his head away. "Relax. Now, keep the hips going, but put your hands on my shoulders. That's it. Feel my shoulders, just a little up and down. Feel that, let that go up your arms, into your shoulders. Just up and down. Don't stiffen up, keep those knees loose. There you go, there you are. You're dancing."

"This isn't dancing."

"It is." She put her hands on his shoulders, then slid them down his arms until they held hands. "And now you're dancing with me."

"I'm standing like an idiot in one spot."

"We'll worry about the feet later. We're starting slow, and smooth. It would even be sexy if you took that pained expression off your face. Don't stop!"

She did a quick inward spin so her back pressed into him, and lifted an arm to stroke it down his cheek.

"Oh, well, if this is dancing."

Laughing, she spun back again so they were front to front. "Sway. A little more." She wrapped her arms around his neck, lifted her lips to a breath from his. "Nice."

He closed the distance, sliding slowly into the kiss while his hands ran down her back to her hips.

"Feels like dancing to me," she whispered.

He surfaced to see he was facing in the opposite direction, and several feet away from where they'd started. "How'd that happen?"

"You let it happen. You stopped thinking about it."

"So, I can dance, as long as it's with you."

"Just one more thing." She danced back with a provocative rock of hips, and began unbuttoning her shirt.

"Whoa."

"I believe the celebration called for naked dancing."

He glanced in the direction of his closest neighbors. Dusk had fallen, but torches tossed out light. He glanced down at his dog, who sat, head cocked, obviously fascinated.

"Maybe we should move that event inside."

She shook her head, and her blouse slid down with the movement of her shoulders. "In the grass."

"Ah, Mrs. Berkowitz-"

"Shouldn't spy on her neighbor, even if she could see through that big black walnut tree." Cilla unhooked her pants, kicked off her shoes, which Spock retrieved and carried territorially to his ratty towel. "And when we've finished dancing naked, there's something else I'm going to do on the grass."

"What?"

"I'm going to give you the ride of your life." She stepped out of her pants, continued to sway, turn as she ran her hands over her own body, marginally covered now in two tiny white swatches.

Ford forgot the dog, the shoes, the neighbors. He watched, all of the blood draining out of his head as she flicked open the front hook, opened her bra inch by delicious inch. The torchlight glimmered gold over her skin, danced in her eyes like sun on a pure blue sea.

When the bra floated to the ground, she ran a fingertip under, just under the low-riding waist of her panties. "You're still dressed. Don't you want to dance with me?"

"Yeah. Oh yeah. Can I just say something first?"

She trailed her fingers down her breasts, smiled at him. "Go ahead."

"Two things, actually. Oh Christ," he managed when she lifted her hair, let it fall over those glowing shoulders. "You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. And at this moment? I'm the luckiest man in the known universe."

"You're about to get luckier." Tossing her hair back, she started toward him. She pressed her naked body to his. "Now, dance with me."

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