Dark Hunger


Part Three. FINISH TRIM Chapter Twenty-Five


Cilla used Sunday morning to pore through home and design magazines, scout the Internet for ideas and vendors and tear out or bookmark possibilities and potentials. She could hardly believe she'd reached the stage where she could begin considering furniture.

Weeks away, of course, and she needed to add in trolling antique stores, even flea markets-and possibly yard sales-but she was approaching the time when ordering sofas and chairs, tables and lamps, wouldn't be out of line.

Then there was bedding, she mused, a kitchen to outfit, an office, window treatments, rugs. All those fun, picky little details to fill in a house. To make a house a home. Her home.

Her first real home.

The closer it came to reality, the more she realized just how much she wanted home. All she had to do was step outside, look across the road and see it.

Sitting here now, at Ford's counter, with her laptop, her magazines, her notebooks, she thought of just how far she'd come since March. No, well before March, she corrected. She'd started this journey on that long-ago trek through the Blue Ridge, one she'd taken specifically, deliberately to see, firsthand, her grandmother's Little Farm, to see where her own father sprang from, and maybe to understand, a little, why he'd come back, and left her.

And she'd fallen in love, Cilla thought now, with the hills that bumped their way back to the mountains, the thick spread of trees, the little towns and the big ones, the houses and gardens, the winding roads and streams. Most of all, she'd fallen in love with the old farmhouse sagging behind a stone wall, closed in by its desolate, overgrown gardens.

Sleeping Beauty's castle, maybe, she mused, but she'd seen home, even then.

Now, what she'd dreamed of, yearned for, was very nearly hers.

She sat at the counter, sipping coffee, and imagined waking in a room with walls the color of a glowing and hopeful dawn, and of living a life she'd chosen rather than one chosen for her.

Ford gave a sleepy grunt as he walked in.

Look at him, she thought. Barely awake, that long, long, lean, edging-toward-gawky body dressed in navy boxers and a tattered Yoda T-shirt. All that sun-streaked brown hair rumpled and messy, and those green eyes groggy and just a little cranky.

Wasn't he just unbelievably adorable?

He dumped coffee into a mug, added sugar, milk. Said, "God, mornings suck through a straw," and drank as if his life balanced within the contents of the mug.

Then he turned, to prop his elbow on the counter. "How come you look so lucid?"

"Maybe because I've been up for three hours. It's after ten, Ford."

"You have no respect for the Sunday."

"It's true. I'm ashamed."

"No, you're not. But real estate agents also have no respect for the Sunday. Vicky just called my cell and woke me from a very hot dream involving you, me and finger paints. It was really getting interesting when I was so rudely and annoyingly interrupted. Anyway, the sellers came down another five thousand."

"Finger paints?"

"And as an artist I can say it was the beginning of a masterpiece.

We're only ten thousand apart now, as Vicky the dream killer pointed out. So..."

"No."

"Damn it." He looked like a kid who'd just been told there were no cookies in the jar. "I knew you were going to say no, which you did not say when I was swirling cobalt blue around your belly button. Couldn't we just-"

"No. You'll thank me later when you have that ten k to put into improvements and repairs."

"But I really want that ugly dump now. I want it for my own. I love it, Cilla, like a fat kid loves cake." He tried a hopeful smile. "We could split the difference."

"No. We hold firm. No one else has made an offer on the property. The seller isn't interested in making any of those repairs and improvements. He'll cave."

"Maybe he won't." Those groggy eyes narrowed into a scowl. "Maybe he's just as pigheaded as you are."

"Okay, here's this." She leaned back, an expert at the negotiation table. "If he doesn't cave, if he doesn't accept your offer within two weeks, you can counter with the split. But you hold tight for fourteen more days."

"Okay. Two weeks." He tried the hopeful smile again. "Do you ever think about scrambling eggs?"

"Hardly ever. But I am thinking about something else. I'm thinking, looking at that big, soft sofa over there-as I've been in the sofa-hunting mode. And wondering, as I'm thinking, what would happen if I stretched out on that big, soft sofa."

She slid off the stool, aiming a smile over her shoulder as she strolled to the sofa. "And I'm wondering will I have to lie here all by myself, all alone with my unquenched desires and lascivious thoughts."

"Okay, lascivious did it."

He skirted the counter, crossed, then pounced. "Hi."

With a low laugh, she scissored her legs, reared and rolled until their positions reversed. "I think I'll be high this time." Dipping down, she caught his bottom lip between her teeth, chewed lightly.

"This is how I respect the Sunday."

"I was so wrong about you." He ran his hands down her, over the loose, white tank. "Cilla."

"You're all rumpled and sexy and..." She peeled Yoda off, tossed him away. "Mostly naked."

"All we're missing are the finger paints." He pushed up, locking his arms around her, fixing his mouth to hers. "I miss you. As soon as I'm awake and you're not there."

"I'm not far." She wrapped around him, only separating to let him strip the white tank away. And, oh, those hands, those slow, steady hands. "Here. Here." She cupped his head, guided it down until his mouth closed over her breast.

Everything coiled and curled inside her, and opened again.

She wanted, wanted, with those hands pressing, that mouth feasting. Wanted him inside her, hot and hard. She wiggled out of her shorts, gasping as he touched and teased, moaning as she rose up, eased down, and filled herself with him.

"This is what I want, on Sunday morning."

She took him, riding up, riding down, her hands braced on the arm of the couch. Slim, hard muscles, burnt honey hair, iced blue eyes so clear they were a mirror into his heart.

No dream, no fantasy came close to the truth of her. No wish, no wonder compared.

"I love you, Cilla. I love you."

Her breath caught; her heart skipped beats. Her body bowed, and the arrow it shot struck home.

She slid down to him, snuggled right in. He loved the way they fit, line to line, the way her hair felt against his skin.

"So... where exactly do you buy finger paints?"

He grinned, lazily walked his fingers up and down her spine. "I'll find out, lay in a supply."

"I'll provide the drop cloth. Where did you get this couch?"

"I don't know. Somewhere where they sell furniture."

"It's a good size, shape, nice fabric. Comfortable. I need to start thinkingfurniture, and I have that great big living room to deal with. Conversation areas and lighting and art. I've never done all that before. It's a little intimidating."

He glanced over when Spock wandered in, took one look at them twined together naked on the couch and walked away. Just jealous, Ford thought. "Never bought furniture before?"

"Sure, you've got to sit on something. But I've never chosen things with the idea of keeping them any length of time. It's always been temporary. " She brushed her lips over his collarbone, nuzzled at his shoulder. "And I've worked with stagers on flips. Staging a property can help it sell. So I know, or have opinions, about what works in a space. But this is different. Staging's like a set. Load it in, break it down."

"Didn't you have a house, an apartment, something in L.A.?"

"Steve had a place. After our five-minute marriage I lived at the BHH awhile."

"The BHH?"

"Beverly Hills Hotel. Then I traveled some, or stayed at Steve's when I picked up some work. There was my very brief college stint, and I had an apartment off campus. When Steve bought the property in Brentwood to flip, I camped there. I got in the habit of staying in the flip houses. It gave me a sense of them."

Place, house, property. Never home, he thought. She'd never had what he and everyone he knew took for granted. She'd never had home. He thought of how she'd sat in the big, empty living room with its beautiful walls and gorgeous trim, and imagined a long-ago holiday party.

She was reaching back to find her future.

"We can move the couch over there," he said, suddenly desperate to give her something. "You could see how it looks in place and have something to sit on besides the ever-versatile bucket."

"That's a very nice offer." She gave him an absent kiss before sitting up to hunt for her clothes. "But it's more practical to wait for furniture until after the floors are done. Of course, now that I've gotten trapped into giving a party, I'd better find some suitable outdoor furniture."

"Party?"

"Didn't I tell you?" She pulled on her tank. "I made the mistake of mentioning to Cathy Morrow that I'd like-maybe-to give a party around Labor Day, but the house wouldn't be finished or furnished. She jumped right on the first part, completely ignored the second. Now I've got Patty calling me with menu ideas, and your mother offering to make her pork barbecue."

"It's great stuff."

"No doubt. The problem remains how I find time to squeeze in party planning while I'm installing kitchen cabinets, running trim, hanging doors, refinishing floors and hitting a very long punch-out list, not to mention exploring the world of sofas, couches, divans and settees."

"You buy a grill, a bunch of meat and a whole lot of alcoholic beverages. "

She shook her head at him. "You're a man."

"I am. A fact which I've just proven beyond any reasonable doubt." And being Sunday, he should get a shot at proving it again. "A party's a good thing, Cilla. People come, people you know and like, enjoy being with. You show off what you've done. You share it. That's why you took down the gate."

"I..." He was right. "What kind of grill?"

He smiled at her. "We'll shop."

In an exaggerated gesture, she crossed her hands over her heart. "Words most women only dream about hearing from a man. I need to go get dressed. I could pick up paint while we're out, and hardware, take another look at kitchen lighting."

"What have I wrought?"

She tossed a smile at him as she walked out of the room. "We'll take my truck."

He dragged on his boxers, but stayed where he was, thinking about her. She didn't realize how much she'd told him. She'd never once mentioned the house, or houses, where she'd grown up.

He, on the other hand, could describe in perfect detail the house of his childhood, the way the sun slanted or burst through the windows of his room at any given time of the day, the green sink in the bathroom, the chip in the kitchen tile where he'd dropped a gallon jug of apple juice.

He remembered the pang when his parents had sold it, even though he'd been in New York, even though he'd moved out. Even though they'd only moved a couple miles away. Years later, he could still drive by that old brick house and feel that pang.

Lovingly restored trim, letters hidden in a book, an old barn painted red again. All of that, every step and detail, were links she forged herself to make a chain of connection.

He'd do whatever he could do to help her forge it, even if it came down to shopping for a grill.

"Hey, Ford."

"Back here," Ford called out when he heard Brian's voice, and unfolded himself off the sofa as Brian walked in. "Weber or Viking?"

"Tough choice," Brian said without any need for explanation. "I went with the Weber, as you know, but a man can't go wrong with the Viking."

"How about a woman?"

"Women have no place behind a grill. That's my stand on it." He bent down, picked up Ford's discarded T-shirt. "This is a clue. It tells me that I've come too late to interrupt morning sex. Damn that second cup of coffee." He tossed the shirt at Ford's face, then leaned down to greet Spock.

"You're just jealous because you didn't have any morning sex."


"How do you know?"

"Because you're here. Why are you here?"

Brian gestured to the counter and Cilla's research pile as he crossed over to open Ford's refrigerator. "Where's Cilla?"

"Upstairs, getting dressed so we can go out and debate between Weber and Viking."

"You've got Diet Cokes in here," Brian observed as he pulled out a can of the real thing. "A sure sign a guy is hooked. I went by my mom's yesterday." Brian popped the top, took a swig. "Hauled off, to her surprised joy, not one but two boxes of junk she's saved for me. What am I supposed to do with a crayon drawing of a house, a big yellow sun and stick people?"

"I don't know, but you can't throw it out. According to my mother, dumping any childhood memorabilia they saved dares the gods." Ford got his own Coke. "I have three boxes."

"I won't forget it's your fault I took possession of that stuff." He pulled an envelope out of his pocket, tossed it on the counter. "However, as I didn't score female companionship last night, I went through some of it, came up with this. It's a card my grandfather gave my mother on the occasion of my birth. He wrote some stuff in it."

"Thanks. I owe you one."

"Damn right. I am now housing every report card I got from first grade through high school. You'll let me know if it matches. I'm kind of into it now."

"One way or the other." Ford picked up the card, studied the strong, bold lettering of Cathy's name.

"I gotta go, pick up Shanna. I'm driving her to the airport." He squatted down, rubbing Spock's head, the wiggling body. "Tell Cilla I'll have a couple guys there tomorrow to finish that mulching, and I should be able to swing by the new place she's buying, take a look at the yard."

"Okay. I'll get this back to you."

Brian smirked at the card. "Yeah, I'm worried about that."

Ford went upstairs, into the bedroom where Cilla was pulling her hair back into a tail. "I'm set," she told him. "I'm going to go over while you're getting dressed, take another look at a couple things before we go."

"Brian just came by."

"Oh, did he look at the new property already?"

"No, next week, he said. He brought this." Ford held up the card.

"Is that... Of course it is. I didn't expect him to find something so fast. Wow." She pressed a hand to her belly. "Big mystery could be solved. It makes me a little nervous."

"Do you want me to go check it out, then just tell you?"

She dropped her hand. "What am I? A weenie?"

"No, you're not."

"Then let's do it."

"They're in my office."

She went in with him, watched him take the book off the shelf, then set it on the counter for her to open.

"I keep thinking how she chose Gatsby. The rich, shining life, the glitter and then ennui, romance, betrayal, ultimate tragedy. She was so unhappy. I dreamed of her again not long ago. I didn't tell you. One of my Janet and Cilla dreams. Forest Lawn. They're both buried there. Her and Johnnie. I only went there once. Her grave was literally covered with flowers. It made me sad to look at it. All those flowers, brought by strangers, fading in the sun."

"You planted them for her here instead. And even when they fade, they come back new. Year after year."

"I like to think that would matter to her. My personal tribute." She opened the book, took the stack of letters out. "I'll open this," she said, choosing one. "You open that."

Ford took out the card. He'd expected a happy picture of a baby, or a sentimental one of a mother and child. Instead he found Andrew Morrow's initials on heavy, cream-colored stock. "Pretty formal," he commented, and opened the card.

Congratulations to my lovely daughter-in-law on the birth of her son. I hope these roses bring you pleasure. They're only a small token of my great pride. Another generation of Morrows is born with Brian Andrew.

Affectionately, Drew

Cilla laid the letter beside the card.

My Dear. My Darling.

There are no words to express my sorrow, my sympathy, my grief for you. I wish I could hold you, could comfort you now with more than words on a page. Know that I'm with you in my heart, that my thoughts are full of you. No mother should have to suffer the loss of her child, and then be forced to grieve in so public a manner.

I know you loved your Johnnie beyond measure. If there can be comfort now, take it in knowing he felt that love every day of his short life.

Only Yours

"Is that fitting, is that fate?" Cilla said quietly. "That I'd choose the loss of a son to compare to the birth of another? It's a kind letter," she continued. "They're both kind notes, and both strangely distant, so carefully worded, I think. When each occasion should have filled the page with emotions and intimacies. The tone, the structure. They could be from the same person."

"The writing's similar. Not... well, not exactly exact. See the S's in the card? When he starts a word-son, small-with an S, it's in curvy print. In the letter-sorry, sympathy-traditional lowercase cursive."

"But the uppercase T's are written the same way, and the Y's. The slant of the writing. It's very close. And they were written years apart."

"My and my in both really look like the same hand, and the uppercase I's, but the uppercase D's, not so much." Ford knew he looked with an artist's eye, and wasn't sure if that was a plus or a minus. "Then again, in the card, that's a signature. Some people write the first letter of their signature differently than they might a word. I don't know, Cilla."

"Results, inconclusive. I don't suppose you know any handwriting experts."

"We could find one." He looked up, into her eyes. "Do you want to go that route?"

"No. Maybe. I don't know. Damn it. No easy answers."

"Maybe we could get our hands on a sample closer to when the letters were written. I can ask Brian to try for that."

"Let's just put it away for now." She folded the letter, slipped it back into the envelope. "We know one thing after this. It wasn't Hennessy. I'd forgotten about the letter after Johnnie's death. No way, even if he was crazy in love, would he have written that after the accident. Not when he was with his own son in the hospital."

"You're right."

"So, if I had a list, I'd be able to cross a name off. That's something. I guess it's going to have to be enough for now. At least for now."

Ford closed the book, put it back on the shelf. He turned to her, took her hand. "What do you say we go buy a grill?"

"I'd say that's exactly what I want to do."

But he left the monogrammed note on his desk when he went to dress. He could find a graphologist. Someone outside Virginia to whom the name Andrew Morrow meant nothing. And he could see where that led.

CILLA'S PLEASURE WHEN her walnut flooring finally arrived Tuesday morning hit a major roadblock before noon when her tile layer stormed over to her work area beside the barn.

"Hi, Stan. You're not scheduled until Thursday. Are..."

She found herself backpedaling quickly as she caught the murderous look in his eye. "Hey, hey, what's the problem?"

"You think you can treat people that way? You think you can talk to people that way?"

"What? What?" He backed her right up into the side of the barn. Too shocked at seeing the usually affable Stan with a vein throbbing in the center of his forehead, Cilla held up her hands as much in defense as a gesture of peace.

"You think 'cause you come from money and got yourself on TV you're better than the rest of us?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. Where-"

"You got some nerve, goddamn it, calling my wife, talking to her like that."

"I never-"

"You got a problem with my work, you talk to me. You got that? Don't you go calling my house and yelling at my wife."

"Stan, I've never spoken to your wife."

"You calling her a liar now?" He shoved his face into hers, so close she could taste his rage.

"I'm not calling her anything." Alarm lumped at the base of Cilla's throat, so she spaced her words carefully. "I don't know her, and I don't know what the hell you're talking about."

"I come home and she's so upset she can barely talk. Started crying. The only reason I didn't come straight over here last night is she begged me not to, and I didn't want to leave her when she was in that state. She's got hypertension, and you go setting her off 'cause you decide you don't like my work."

"And I'm telling you, I never called your house, I never spoke to your wife, and I'm not dissatisfied with your work. In fact, the opposite. Or why in God's name did I contract you to lay the floor in my kitchen?"

"You tell me, goddamn it."

"Well, I can't!" she shouted back at him. "What time was I supposed to have made this call?"

"About ten o'clock last night, you know damn well. I get home about ten-thirty, and she's lying down, flushed and shaking because you screamed at her like a crazy woman."

"Have you ever heard me scream like a crazy woman? I was at Ford's last night at ten o'clock. I nodded off in front of the TV. Ask him. Jesus, Stan, you've been working here off and on for months now. You should know I don't handle things that way."

"Said it was you. Cilla McGowan." But puzzlement began to show through the temper. "You told Kay she was a stupid hick, just like most of the people around here. How I couldn't lay tile for shit, and you were going to make sure word got out. When I lost work, I'd have nobody to blame but my own lazy ass. How maybe you'd sue me over the crap job I did for you."

"If your wife's a hick, I am, too. I live here now. I don't contract with subs who do crap work. In fact, I recommended you to my stepmother just last week, if she ever talks my father into updating their master bath." She realized she was breathless from reaction, but the alarm had dissolved. "Why the hell would I do that, Stan, if I thought your work was crap?"

"She didn't just make it up."

"Okay." She had to draw in air. "Okay. Is she sure whoever called gave my name?"

"Cilla McGowan, and then Kay said you... they," he corrected, obviously ready to give Cilla the benefit of the doubt, "said, 'Do you know who I am?' in that bitchy way people do when they think they're important. Then just laid into her. It took me almost an hour to calm her down when I got home from the summer league. I had to make her take a Tylenol P.M. to help her sleep. She was that upset."

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry somebody used my name to upset her. I don't know why..." Pressure lowered onto her chest, pushed and pushed. "The flooring supplier said I called in and changed my order. Walnut to oak. But I didn't. I thought there'd just been a mix-up. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe somebody's screwing with me."

Stan stood a moment, stuck his hands in his pockets, pulled them out again. "You never made that call."

"No, I didn't. Stan, I'm trying to build a reputation, and a business here. I'm trying to build relationships with subs and service people. When someone broke in and went at the bathrooms, you juggled me in for the repair and re-lay, and I know you cut me a break on the labor."

"You had a problem. And the fact is, I was proud of that work and wanted to make it right."

"I don't know how to make this right with your wife. I could talk to her, try to explain."

"Better let me do that." He blew out a breath. "Sorry I came at you."

"I'd have done the same in your place."

"Who'd do something like this? Mess with you, get Kay all upset?"

"I don't know." Cilla thought of Mrs. Hennessy. Her husband was doing two years in a psych facility. "But I hope I can head it off before it happens again."

"I guess I'd better swing by home, straighten this out with Kay."

"Okay. You still on for Thursday?"

His smile was a little sheepish. "Yeah. Ah, you got any reason to call me at home, maybe you should come up with a code word or something. "

"Maybe I should."

She stood in the shadow of her barn, with trim propped against the wall and laid out to dry, stretched across her sawhorses. And wondered how many times she'd have to pay for the crimes, sins, mistakes of others.

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