Dark Hunger

Part Three. FINISH TRIM Chapter Twenty-Three

So they're gone." Ford gestured toward the house with the Coke he'd copped from Cilla's kitchen.

"Yes. After a finale of motherly embraces in view of the cameras".

"Back to California?"

"No, they're staying over in D.C. for the night, at the Willard. In that way, she can stage another couple of press ambushes, and get in the plug for her show at the National Theater in September." Cilla held up her hands, shook her head. "It's not entirely that calculating. Only about eighty percent was calculated. The remaining twenty was actual concern for me, which she'd have expressed and assuaged on the phone if it hadn't been to her advantage to make the trip. It took a lot of need for her to come here, to this house. I didn't understand until today, or fully believe until today, how genuinely it upsets her. It makes it a little easier to forgive the neglect, and accept why she was so bitter when I made her an offer she couldn't refuse."

"And it doesn't enter into logical thinking that if she didn't want it, couldn't handle it, she could have given it to you?"

"Not in Dilly's world. It's tit for tat. I didn't know how much she felt unloved at the end, or how completely she felt pushed into second place to her brother in Janet's heart. I'm not sure she's wrong. And yes, I know she did something today she knew I didn't want, and can justify doing it not only because it was to her advantage, but by convincing herself it was what was best for me. It's a talent of hers."

"She'll be an interesting mother-in-law."

"Oh, really." Panic teeth clamped on her throat. "Don't go there."

"Already through that garden gate and meandering up the walk. 'Meander' being the key for now," he said, lifting his Coke for another sip. "No rush on it."

"Ford, you have to understand-"

"Cilla. Sorry," Matt added, stepping out. "Looks like the flooring for the third floor's coming in. Thought you'd want to take a look, check it out before we take it up."

"Yeah, yeah, I do. Be right there."

"Flooring already?" Ford asked her.

"It has to rest on site, a kind of acclimating, for a few days before installation. Since we're doing built-ins up there, the floor has to... Never mind."

"Okay. If my services are no longer needed here, I'm going to go try to salvage some of my workday."

"Good. Good," she repeated, struggling against nerves.

"Oh, I finished scanning those photos for you. Remind me to give them to you."

"God, I'd forgotten all about them. I'll have to thank your grandfather."

"I think he considers it thanks enough that he got to see you in a towel."

"And thanks for that reminder." They came around front where the delivery truck slowly backed down her drive. "Hot dog!"

"I'll leave you to the thrill of your wood planks." He caught her face in his hands, kissed her. "We'll be waiting for you."

They would, she thought. He and his strange little dog would do just that. It was both wonderful and terrifying.

FORD LOCKED HIMSELF in his box for four straight hours. It rolled, and it rocked along. Even with all the distractions-sexy neighbor, break-ins,a new friend in the hospital, worry about sexy neighbor and falling in love with her-he was making excellent progress.

It occurred to him that Brid might be finished just about the same time Cilla's house was. That was some superior synchronicity. But now, he deserved to shut it down and indulge in some serious sitting-on-the-veranda time. He unlocked the box, stepped back to take a long, critical look at the day's work.

"You're damn good, Sawyer. Don't let anybody tell you different."

With his back warm from the self-pat, he walked downstairs, stopping to look out the window. Not a reporter in sight, he noted, pleased for Cilla. No trucks in sight, either, which meant her day's work should be wrapped, too. He headed to the kitchen to get a cold one and to call Spock in from the backyard for the veranda-sitting, wait-for-Cilla portion of their day.

He found a note inside the fridge, taped to a beer.

Finished? If so, drop over to Chez McGowan.

Come around back.

He grinned at the note. "Don't mind if I do."

She sat on the slate patio, at a teak table under a bright blue umbrella. A trio of copper pots, filled to bursting with mixed plantings, cheered the three stairs of the veranda. With her ball cap on her head, her legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles of her work boots, and roses rioting behind her, he thought she looked both relaxed and extraordinary.

She smiled-relaxed and easy-when he sat across from her. "I'm basking," she told him, and gave Spock a rub.

"I noticed. When did you get this?" He flicked a finger up at the umbrella.

"It came in today, and I couldn't resist setting it up. After I did, Shanna hauled over the planters. I picked them up on one of my sorties, and figured I'd get around to doing something with them, eventually. But she saw the table here, and ran out to the nursery, picked up the plants and did the job, just because. I'll have to move them when we do the exterior staining and painting, but I really love looking at them now."

She shifted, reached down and pulled two beers out of the ice in a drywall compound bucket. "And now, even better, you can bask with me."

He twisted off the tops, then clinked his bottle to hers. "To the first of many basks under blue umbrellas. I take it you had a good day."

"Ups and downs. It couldn't get worse than it started, though there were bumps. My excitement over the flooring was short-lived when I discovered they'd delivered the wrong hardwood. Then claimed I'd called in to change the order from walnut to oak, which is just so much bullshit, and will delay the third-floor work schedule a full week. I did finish the closet in the third bedroom, and got a start on the one in the fourth. The vendor messed up the cut on a panel of the steam shower doors, which means a delay there, but the soaking tub I've had my eye on for the third bath, second floor, just went on sale. The insurance company is balking at giving me another loaner after getting hit with two claims in two days, and will surely raise my rates. I decided to bask instead of being pissed."

"Good choice."

"Well, delays and glitches go with the territory. The roses are blooming, and I have a blue umbrella. So enough about me. How was your day?"

"Much better than average. I solved a major problem in the work, and it rolled from there. Then I found a very nice invitation in my refrigerator. "

"I figured you'd see it first thing, after you surfaced. I actually came upstairs first, but if I've ever seen anyone in the zone, you were." Curious, interested, she cocked her head. "What was the problem solved?"

"The villain. Early version of him was Mr. Eckley, my tenth-grade algebra teacher. I'm telling you, the man was evil. But as the character developed, I knew I didn't have the right look-physically. I wanted leaner, a little meaner, yet handsome, maybe slightly aristocratic and dissipated. Everything I tried ended up looking like John Carradine or Basil Rathbone."

"Good looks, both. Hollowed cheeks, piercing eyes."

"And too obvious for the character. It kept bogging me down. Today I hit on it. I'm not looking for dissipation, cut cheekbones and intensity. I'm looking for a thin coat of polish and sophistication over a whole lotta smarm. Not the lean and bony Carradine, but something slighter, edging toward effete. The contrast between looks and intent," he explained. "Between image and purpose. It's a lot more evil when a guy coldly destroys while wearing an Armani suit."

"So you based him on a Hollywood agent?"

"Pretty much. He's Number Five."

She managed to swallow the beer, barely avoiding a spit take. "Mario? Are you serious?"

"Completely. One look at him out front today, and the scales fell from my eyes. He's got it all-the build, the posture, the five-hundred-dollar haircut and that sheer, shiny layer of oil. I don't know why I didn't see it when I met him before. Too locked into Mr. Eckley, I guess."

"Mario." She jumped up to grab Ford by the hair and crush her lips to his in a hard, smacking kiss that sent Spock into his happy dance. "This actually makes that clusterfuck this morning worthwhile. Thank you."

"I didn't actually do it for you. Any enjoyment you get from it's just a side benefit."

"I'll take it." She dropped back in her seat. "This has, indeed, turned out to be a better-than-average day."

CILLA TACKLED the next batch of trim in the shady shadow of the barn. She liked the work, and the quiet. There might have been miles of trim to strip, replicate, stain and seal through the farmhouse, but she wanted to keep the project her own. One day, she thought as she peeled away layers of white and, unfathomably, baby-blue paint from walnut, she'd walk through her house and admire every inch of restored trim. Best, she'd be able to say: I did that. Every inch.

She stripped down herself, to a tank and army-green cargo shorts as a concession to the heat that had snuck in, even in the shade. When she stopped to guzzle some water, she watched the pond crew removing and dividing water lilies, digging out over-propagated cattails.

Once it was done, she mused, ecologically balanced, she saw no reason she couldn't maintain the pond herself. She'd need some help with the grounds, she admitted, even once she bought a riding mower. She thought she'd enjoy puttering around, cutting the grass, pulling weeds, blowing and raking leaves in the fall, shoveling snow in the winter, planting new flowers in the spring.

But it wasn't realistic to believe she could handle it all-house, grounds, pond, gardens-and run a business.

Cleaning service, she thought, reholstering her water bottle and picking up her sandpaper block. That was a weekly definite. Maybe she'd talk to Brian about a once-a-month service, say March through October, at least until she got a better sense of what needed to be done, and just how much she could handle.

Plus, she needed advice on that kitchen garden she hoped to start, especially since she just hadn't been able to work it in this year as she'd hoped. And she needed to know if the fields should be plowed and planted-and with what. And who the hell would do that? More advice if she gave in to that nagging longing and got a horse. Which would require exercise, housing, feeding, grooming, and was probably a crazy idea.

But... wouldn't a couple of horses be gorgeous romping and grazing in one of the fields? Wouldn't they be worth the work, the time, the expense?

Next year, she told herself. Maybe.

She couldn't get cocky and complacent just because she'd had a couple of days of smooth sailing, because she was so damn happy. Reality included leaky faucets, and aphids and crabgrass, clogged gutters and fractious appliances. She'd be dealing with that, and a whole lot more, for the rest of her life.

And wasn't that just fabulous?

She sang as she sanded the old walnut trim.

"I'd forgotten how much you sound like her."

She looked up, squinted, then smiled as Gavin stepped from sun to shade. "Without her range, depth or natural vibrato."

"It sounded wonderful to me, and interesting that a girl of your age would sing 'Blue Skies.'"

"The place sort of calls for old standards. Or maybe she does. And, well"-she pointed up-"we've sure got them today."

"I came in through the front and saw the finished product." He tapped a finger on the trim. "That's another thing I'd forgotten, or never noticed when I came here all those years ago. It's beautiful. Truly beautiful."

"It makes me happy. Hence the singing. I was wondering when you might drop by again, so I could talk you into picking up another paintbrush."

"Show me the walls and the paint."

"I've got a bedroom just waiting for a couple coats of Spiced Cognac." She gestured to the newspapers he carried. "We provide drops. You don't have to bring your own." When he didn't smile, she felt a little warning dip in her belly. "Uh-oh."

"I heard about the media invasion, and your mother's visit the other day. There's been some coverage-TV, newspapers."

"Yeah, I've seen some of it. Look, I know they brought your name up, and-"

He cut her off with a wave of his hand. "That's not important. Cilla, I debated doing this, and decided someone would tell you or show you before much longer. It might be better if it was me. Patty was in the supermarket this morning. They'd just stocked these at checkout."

"The tabloids." She nodded, pulled off her work gloves. "I knew they'd be hitting any day. Don't worry. I'm used to it." She held out a hand for the papers.

The headlines screamed. They always did in the tabs, she knew, but the screams seemed only more strident when her name was involved.





The pictures were worse, grainy, exploitative. Splashed on one front page was a photo of Cilla, angled to spotlight her injured face, with Dilly holding her close, a single tear sliding down her cheek. Behind them floated the ghostly image of Janet with the caption: "'My mother's spirit remains trapped here,' Bedelia Hardy claims. Photographic PROOF corroborates her mournful statement."

An insert shot showed Cilla carrying the very trim she now worked on out of the house. Cilla struggles to exorcise Janet's ghost from her Virginia farm.

Ford hadn't escaped, she noted. They'd slapped his photograph, his name, their ridiculous captions inside.

"Okay, worse. A lot worse than I expected it to be." She pushed the papers back at her father. "Front page, multiple stories in each. Mom will be thrilled. I don't care how that sounds," she snapped before her father could speak. "She amped it up. Everyone I work with, do business with, will see this crap. And Ford's sucked into the shit pile because he had the poor judgment to fall in love with me. Now he'll-"

"He's in love with you?" Gavin interrupted. Even as she started to shrug, Gavin set a hand on Cilla's shoulder. "He's in love with you? You're in love with him?"

"The L word's been spoken by both parties-or alluded to by me. Or, according to that rag there, spoken by Janet through me as they're speculating whether Cilla's outraged lover has been seduced by my grandmother's spirit. Don't say I shouldn't let it upset me. Don't say everyone knows this stuff is a load of crap. These papers sell because people love reading loads of crap."

"I was going to say I've always been fond of Ford. If he makes you happy, I'm even more fond of him."

"He's not going to be happy with me when he sees all this, and has to explain to his family, his friends, his publisher, for God's sake, why his name and his face have been smeared all over the place." Helpless, she pressed a hand to her nervous belly. "I knew they'd pull him in, and I warned him, but I didn't know it would be this bad."

"You're either giving yourself too much credit or Ford not enough. Either way, you've got a right to be upset. To be thoroughly pissed. I don't have as much experience with celebrity as you do, but I know you have two choices."

He spoke calmly, his eyes solemn. "You go out, make a stink, demand corrections and retractions, threaten legal action, or you ignore it. Do the first, and you have a slim chance for some satisfaction, while the story gains legs and they sell more papers. Do the second and it burns in your guts, at least for a while."

"I have to ignore it, I know that. But it doesn't go away. They'll pull out those pictures, the worst of them, anytime they decide to run with another Janet Hardy story, or when Mom eventually divorces Number Five. I need a lot more thoroughly-pissed time before I can resign myself to it."

"I could buy you a puppy."

"A what?" Baffled, she pushed a hand at her hair. "Why?"

"Then you could spread these ridiculous papers on the floor for him to poop and pee on."

She smiled a little. "I always wanted a puppy, but I guess I should actually finish the house before I put on additions like pets."

"Then why don't I paint that bedroom for you instead? Spiced Cognac, right?"

"That's the one. I'll show you where it is."

FORD STEPPED OUT of the box for a bottle of water and to study the last pencils he'd completed. He liked the subtle changes in Cass, after she'd awakened and merged with Brid. The look in her eyes, the difference in posture when she was alone. She'd changed, and not just when she called out for power, and the symbol of her rank burned into her arm. The quiet, self-effacing academic would gradually come into her own, until that persona was more of a mask than her true self.

Then that loss would become an issue in future volumes.

To choose a path to destiny, as the Immortal told her in panel three, page sixty-one, required sacrifice. She would never be exactly who or what she had been once that choice was made.

How would she deal? Ford wondered. How would she handle who she became, and who she left behind on that journey?

He thought it would be interesting to find out. He hoped the readers did, too.

It wouldn't hurt, he decided, to hit some blogs, give a few cryptic hints as to what was in store. He needed to check his e-mail anyway. And an hour break from the work would let the creative juices simmer.

He started to sit at his desktop when he heard a knock on his front door. Cautious since the Invasion of the Reporters, he checked out the window before he went down to answer.

"Hey, Mr. McGowan."

"Ford. I hope this isn't a bad time."

"No, actually, I was just taking a break. Come on in."

"There are a couple of things I'd like to talk with you about."

"Sure." Stupid to feel nervous, Ford told himself. It had been a long time since he'd had term papers and final exams on the line. "Ah, you want something cold?"

"That would be nice. I just finished doing some priming over at Cilla's."

"Is there a problem over there?" Ford asked as he led the way to the kitchen.

"Something about the hot water heater, a protracted debate over drawers versus doors on some sort of cabinetry and Buddy bitching about O rings. Otherwise, it looks to me as if the work over there is going very well."

"Cilla seems to be able to juggle all the balls. Have a seat. Tea work for you?"

"Perfect." Gavin waited while Ford poured the cold tea over ice in tall glasses. Then he set the tabloids on the counter.

Ford glanced down, turned the angle of the top paper for a better view. "Ouch. Has Cilla seen these?"

"Yes. I take it you haven't."

"No, I've been in Centuria most of the day. Working, I mean," he explained. "How'd she take it?"

"Not well."

"Jesus, could this be any cheesier?" Ford asked, tapping the photo with Janet's "ghost." "Any twelve-year-old can Photoshop better than that. But this insert of Cilla when she was a kid's pretty cute."

Saying nothing, Gavin opened the paper, watched as Ford skimmed down and saw his own face. "Man, I need a haircut. I keep meaning to take care of that. Hmm, 'Cilla's Outraged Lover Rushes to Her Aid.' I don't appear especially outraged in this shot. Concerned would fit better. They ought to..."

The full phrase, and the fact that Cilla's father sat at his counter drinking iced tea, sank in, and had him clearing his throat. "Listen, Mr. McGowan, Cilla and I- That is, it's not... Well, it is, but-"

"Ford, I'm not shocked by the fact that you and Cilla are sleeping together, and I don't own a shotgun."

"Okay. Well." He took a deep gulp of tea. "Okay then."

"Is it?" Gavin opened another paper. "If you read this one, you'll see it's suggested you've been seduced by the lonely, trapped spirit of Janet Hardy-or you've seduced the granddaughter in an attempt to become Janet's lover."

Ford actually snorted. "Sorry, but it just strikes me funny. I don't know, if they had any real imagination, I'd be the reincarnation of somebody cool. Bogart or Gregory Peck, who's slaking his lust for the reincarnation of Janet Hardy by banging Cilla every chance he gets. And God, sorry about the banging comment. Really."

Gavin sat back, took a sip of his tea. "You were one of my best students. Bright, creative. A bit awkward and eccentric, but never dull. I always enjoyed what could be called your unique thought process. I told Cilla this morning I've always been fond of you."

"I'm really glad to hear that, considering."

"And considering, what are your intentions toward my daughter?"

"Oh boy. I just got this thing in my chest." Ford thumped on it. "Do you think extreme anxiety can cause a heart attack in somebody my age?"

"I doubt it, but I promise to call nine-one-one if necessary." Eyes direct, Gavin inclined his head. "After you answer the question."

"I want her to marry me. She's not there yet. Still got that thing," he added, rubbing now with the heel of his hand. "We've only been..." Probably not the way to go, Ford decided. "We've only known each other a few months, but I know how I feel. I love her. Am I supposed to tell you about my prospects and stuff? This is my first time."

"It's mine, too. I'd say between you and Cilla, your prospects are more than fine. I'd also say, in my opinion, you suit each other."

"There, it's going away." Ford took his first easy breath. "She needs me. She needs someone who understands and appreciates who she is, and who she's decided to be. And I need her, because who she is, and who she's decided to be are-big surprise to me-what I've been waiting for all my life."

"That's an excellent answer." Gavin rose."I'm going to leave those here," he said, gesturing to the papers. "You handle that with Cilla however you think best. I'm going to go paint. I'll see myself out." At the edge of the kitchen, he turned back briefly. "Ford, I couldn't be more pleased."

Pretty damn pleased himself, Ford sat down at the bar and read through all the papers, all the stories. And knew just how he'd handle it.

It took considerable time, but the end result more than satisfied. He and Spock crossed the road, and finding the front door locked, Ford used the spare key she'd given him. He gave a shout and, when she didn't answer, started upstairs. The sound of the shower solved the mystery of where Cilla was. He thought briefly and intensely about joining her, but that would spoil the order of events.

Besides, surprising a woman in the shower in a locked house invited screams-and the woman could produce a serious scream. So he contented himself with sitting on the side of the guest room bed-as it remained the only bed in the house-to wait.

She didn't scream when she saw him, though from the amount of air she sucked in when she stumbled back, she'd have shattered every piece of glass for five miles if she'd cut loose.

"God, Ford. You scared the hell out of me!"

"Sorry. I figured I'd scare you more if I came in the bathroom while you were in the shower." He fisted his hand as if over the hilt of a knife, pumped it and did a fair imitation of the Psycho shower scene.

"It might've been worse. No Spock?"

"He wanted to go see if there were any invisible cats out back."

"I need to get dressed. Why don't you go sit out on the patio. I'll be out in a few minutes."

Unhappy, he thought. Irritated. And with a faint haze of discouragement. His idea would either help or make it worse. He might as well find out.

"I brought you something."

"What? Why don't you take it down, and I'll..." She trailed off when he took the thin package wrapped in tabloid paper from behind his back.

She hitched the towel a little more securely between her breasts. "So, you've seen them."

"Yeah. Oh, and two of your subs, my supposedly lifelong friends Matt and Brian, snuck off the job to come over and rag me about it. Punish them as you will. But meanwhile, open your present."

"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I completely underestimated the interest, the angles. And I walked straight into it by using my mother's publicist in the first place. Stupid, stupid, stupid."

"Okay, you can claim the stupid award. Open your present." He patted the bed beside him.

She sat, stared down at the package he put in her lap.

"I didn't use pages with any of the stories on them. We might want to make a scrapbook."

"It's not funny, Ford."

"Then you're really not going to like your present. I'll just take it back, bury it in the backyard. Where I may come across some worms we can both eat."

"Really not funny. You have absolutely no idea..." Temper had her ripping the paper. Then she could only stare down.

It was a slim volume, comic-book style, she supposed. The cover held a full-color drawing of her and Ford, locked in a passionate embrace. Over their heads, in what she could only call a lurid font, the title read:



"You wrote a comic book?"

"It's really more a very short, illustrated story. Inspired by recent events. Come on, read it."

She couldn't think of anything to say, not initially. The five pages he'd done in black and white, complete with dialogue balloons, narrative captions and illustrations, ranged from the ludicrous, to pornographic to brutally funny.

She kept her face expressionless-she still had some acting chops-as she read it through.

"This." She tapped her finger on a panel depicting Ford, full monty, sweeping a naked Cilla into his arms while Spock covered his face with his paws. "I don't think this is to scale. A certain attribute is exaggerated. "

"It's my attribute, and I'm the artist."

"And do you really think I'd ever say, 'Oh, Ford, Ford, hammer me home'?"

"Everyone's a critic."

"But I do like this part in the beginning, where the horny ghosts of Janet and Steve McQueen are floating over our sleeping bodies."

"It seemed appropriate as there's that legend of how they got it on in the pond. Plus, if I'm going to be possessed by the spirit of somebody, he'd be top of the cool scale."

"All-time champ," she agreed. "I also like how the paparazzo falls out of the tree while taking pictures through the bedroom window, and the little X's in his eyes in the next panel before Spock drags him off to bury him. But my favorite, possibly, is the last panel, where all four of us are in bed smoking cigarettes with expressions of sexual gratification on our faces."

"I like a happy ending."

She looked up from the book and into those green eyes. "And this is your way of telling me not to take all this so seriously."

"It's my way of giving you another way to take it, if you want."

She scooted back to prop herself at the head of the bed. "Let's have a table read. I'll be Cilla and Janet, you're Ford and Steve."

"Okay." He moved back to sit beside her.

"Then, we'll act it out."

He grinned over at her. "Even better."

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