Dark Hunger


Part Three. FINISH TRIM Chapter Twenty-Seven


With a great deal of pleasure, Cilla hung her first kitchen cabinet. "Looking good." Thumbs hooked in his front pockets, Matt nodded approval. "The natural cherry's going to work with the walnut trim."

"Wait until we get the doors on. Things of beauty. So worth the wait. Guy's an artist."

She laid her level on the top, adjusted.

"It's beautiful work, and a lot of it." He scanned the space. "But we'll get them in today. How long before the appliances are back?"

"Three weeks, maybe four. Maybe six. You know how it goes."

"The old-timey stuff's going to be great in here." He winked at her as she stepped down off the ladder. "Don't let Buddy tell you different."

"It'll give him something to complain about instead of my pot filler." She ran her hand, lovingly, over the next cabinet. "Let's get her up."

"One second," Matt said as his phone rang. He glanced at the display. "Hey, baby. What? When?"

The tone, the merging of the two words into one stream had Cilla looking over.

"Yeah. Yeah. Okay. I'm on my way. Josie's water broke," he said, snappinghis phone off. "I gotta go." He lifted Cilla off her feet, a happy boost into the air.

"So this is what goes on around here all day," Angie said as she came into the room.

Matt just grinned like an idiot. "Josie's having the baby."

"Oh! Oh! What're you doing here?"

"Leaving." He dropped Cilla back on her feet. "Call Ford, okay? He'll pass the word. I'm sorry about-" He gestured toward the cabinets.

"Don't worry about it." Cilla gave him a two-handed shove. "Go! Go have a baby."

"We're having a girl. I'm getting me a daughter today." He grabbed Angie on the way out, dipped her, kissed her, then swung her back up as he ran out of the room.

"Boy, talk about excellent timing." With a laugh, Angie tapped her lips. "He gives good kiss. Wow, big, huge day. I need to call Suzanna, Josie's younger sister. We're friends. And another wow, look at all this!"

"Coming along. Look around if you want. I need to call Ford."

While Cilla made the call, Angie poked around the kitchen, in the utility room and back out.

"Men are odd," Cilla stated, hooking her phone back on her belt. "He said, 'Cool. Got it. See ya.'"

"A man of few words."

"Not usually."

"Well, I'll use some to say, Cilla, this all looks amazing." Angie spread her arms. "Totally amazing. And how the hell do you know where to put all these cabinets?"

"Diagram."

"Yeah, but you had to make the diagram. I have a hard time figuring out if I can move my bed from one place to the other in my room, and where the dresser could go if I did."

"I had a hard time getting through a class, much less imagining teaching one the way you're going to do. We all know what we know."

"I guess we do. Well." Angie gave a snappy salute. "Private McGowan reporting for duty."

"Sorry?"

"I'm here to paint. I could try to help you put these up now that Matt's otherwise occupied. But I think you'll be a lot happier with my painting skills than my cabinet-hanging ones. How do you hang them, anyway?" she wondered. "I mean, what holds them up? And never mind, I'd rather use a paintbrush."

"Angie, you don't have to-"

"I want to. Dad said they've finished scraping the old paint on the front and one of the sides, and they'll be working on the back today. And if there was more help, we could get some of the primer on what's been done. It's my day off. I'm the more help."

She tugged at the leg of her baggy white painter's pants. "Look. I have the outfit."

"As fetching as it is, I don't want you to feel obligated."

Angie's face turned from teasing to solemn. "Are you ever going to think of me as a sister?"

"I do." Fumbling, Cilla picked up her level. "Of course I do. I mean... we are sisters."

"If that's true, then let me say: Shut up, and show me the paint." Her smile went sly. "Or I'll tell Dad you're being mean to me."

Amusement came and went, but the quiet glow remained. "You're a lot like him. The, ah, one who made us sisters."

"I have only his good qualities. You, on the other hand-"

"The paint's out in the barn. We can go out this way." Cilla opened the back door. "Maybe I don't like having a sister who's younger than I am and has a cute little cheerleader body."

"Maybe I don't like having a sister who has a yard of leg and miles of perfect hair. But I've got a better ass."

"You do not. My ass is famous."

"Yeah, you showed enough of it in Terror at Deep Lake."

"I did no ass work in that picture. I wore a bikini." Holding back laughter, she stopped to pull out her keys, glanced over at the house. "Oh, damn it!"

Turning to look, Angie gaped at the sight of her father, three stories up, standing on scaffolding, scraping away.

"Dad! Get down from there!" They shouted it in unison. Gavin looked around, and down, then sent them a cheerful wave.

"I told him not to go up there. No scaffolding, no extension ladders."

"He doesn't listen, not when he's decided to do something. He pretends to listen, then does what he was going to do anyway. Is it safe?" Angie asked, gripping Cilla's arm. "I mean, it's not going to fall over or collapse, is it?"

"No. But..."

"Then we're not going to look. We're going to get the paint. I'm going around to the front of the house, you're going inside. Where we can't see him up there. And we're never, never going to tell my mother."

"Okay." Cilla deliberately turned away, then stuck the key in the padlock on the barn.

OLIVIA ROSE BREWSTER came into the world at 2:25 P.M.

"Matt's floating," Ford told Cilla as they drove to the hospital. "Passing out bubble-gum cigars with this dopey smile on his face. The kid's pretty cute, got all this black hair. Ethan was bald as my uncle Edgar, but the girl, she's already got a headful."

"Uncle Ford seems pretty pleased, too."

"It's a kick. It's a pretty big kick. Josie looked pretty whipped when I saw her, right after."

"There's a surprise. She should have looked camera ready after pushing eight pounds, five ounces out of her-"

"Okay, okay. No need for details." He hunted up a parking space in the hospital's lot. "I talked with Matt while you were cleaning up. He said they're both doing great."

"It's nice to come back here for something happy." She skimmed her gaze up to the Intensive Care floor.

"Have you talked to Shanna since she got back?"

"No, I haven't."

"She had a great time." Ford took Cilla's hand as they crossed the lot. "She said Steve's looking good. Put some of the weight back on he lost, got what she called a Roman gladiator 'do going on. He's only using the cane when he gets tired."

Ford pulled open the heavy glass door.

"I've been e-mailing him pictures of the house. I need to take some of the kitchen cabinets. Gift shop. Presents for Mommy and baby."

"I took her flowers already," Ford objected, "and a big pink teddy bear."

"Eight pounds, five ounces out of her-"

"Gift shop."

Loaded down with flowers, Mylar balloons, a plush musical lamb and a stack of coloring books for the new big brother, they walked into the birthing suite.

Josie sat up in bed, in her arms the swaddled baby, a bright pink cap over her dark hair. Josie's younger sister stood nearby, cooing over a tiny, frothy white dress, while Brian unwrapped a bubble-gum cigar and Matt snapped a picture of his wife and daughter.

"More visitors!" Josie beamed. "Cilla, you just missed your dad and Patty."

"I came to see someone else." She leaned over the bed. "Hello, Olivia. She's beautiful, Josie. You do wonderful work."

"Hey, she's got my chin, and nose," Matt claimed.

"And your big mouth. Do you want to hold her, Cilla?"

"I thought you'd never ask. Trade." She put the lamb on the bed, took the baby. "Look at you. Look how pretty you are. How are you feeling, Josie?"

"Good. Really good. Only seven and a half hours of blood, sweat and tears with this one. Ethan took twice that."

"Got some stuff here for big bro." Ford set the coloring books on the foot of the bed.

"Oh, that's so sweet! My parents just took him home for dinner. He looks so big, so sturdy. I can hardly... Oh, hormones still working," she managed when her eyes filled.

"It's a full house!" Cathy announced as she and Tom came in with a bouquet of pink roses and baby's breath. "Let me see that beautiful baby."

Cilla turned obligingly.

"Oh, look at all that hair. Tom, just look at this sweet thing."

"Pretty as a picture." Tom set the flowers down among the garden of others, then poked Brian in the shoulder. "When are you going to get busy making us one? Matt's got two up on you now. You, too, Ford."

"Slackers," Josie agreed, and held out her arms for Olivia.

"I have such high standards," Brian said. "I can't settle for any woman who isn't as perfect as Mom."

"That's a clever way out of it," Cathy commented, but she beamed with pleasure as she stepped over to kiss Brian's cheek. She turned and kissed Matt. "Congratulations."

"Thanks. We figured we had another week. When Josie called this morning, I figured it was to remind me to bring her home a caramel coconut sundae. She's been eating mountains of them."

"I have, too!" Josie said with a laugh.

"It was peanut brittle for me. Acres of peanut brittle. I'm lucky I have a tooth left in my head."

"Never touched it again after Brian was born," Tom commented.

"It'll probably be a good long while before I can look at coconut." Josie stroked Olivia's cheek. "Thank God I didn't go another week."

"And now you'll be able to show off the baby at Cilla's party. We're all looking forward to that," Cathy added. "I guess you could say the house is your baby."

"Without the pink teddy bear and pretty white dresses," Cilla agreed.

Matt passed out more cigars. "I had to bail out today. We'd just started installing the kitchen cabinets. How's it going?"

"We just have to set the island, put on the doors, the hardware. We'll be ready for the counters, on schedule."

"I'm going to have a powwow with Patty and Ford's mother. And if you sweet-talk him," Cathy told Cilla, "Tom might make his special ribs."

Cilla smiled. "What makes them special?"

"It's all in the rub," Tom claimed. "Family secret."

"He won't even give me the recipe."

"It passes down only through the bloodline. Many have tried to unlock the secret. None have succeeded. We've got to be on our way, Cathy."

"Meeting friends for dinner. You get some rest, Josie. I'll pop in to see you and that precious baby tomorrow when I'm here."

It took several more minutes for the leave-taking, especially when other people came in. By the time Cilla and Ford walked out, she had a bubble-gum cigar in her pocket.

"It's nice that your parents-yours, Brian's, Matt's-take such an interest in all of you. It's almost tribal."

"We grew up practically joined at the hip, along with Shanna. Her parents split about ten years ago. They both remarried and moved out of the area."

"Still, three out of four sticking with it. Well above national average. They looked so happy. Matt and Josie. Little beams of happiness shooting out of their eyes. How long have they been married?"

"About six years, I guess. But they've had a thing a lot longer. Listen, if you want to stop and have dinner, that's okay." His fingers tapped on the steering wheel. "But I'd kind of like to get home."

"No, I'm fine. Is something wrong?"

"No. Nothing's wrong." Except a rampant case of nerves, he realized. And the sudden and inescapable understanding that he needed to take the next step, make the next move.


Ready or not, he thought. Here it comes.

HE POURED two glasses of wine, brought them out to the veranda where she sat rubbing Spock with her foot and studying the house across the road.

"The coat of primer on the front of the first story, on the veranda, doesn't add style. But it's clean. And it shows care and intent. It was the oddest thing, Ford, the oddest thing. To be working with one of Matt's crew on the cabinets, knowing my father was out back scraping old paint, and Angie was out front priming for new. Then Patty shows up at lunchtime with a bunch of subs and sides. Before they were fully devoured, she has a paintbrush in her hand.

"I didn't know what to think of it, what to make of it."

"Family pitches in."

"That's just it. For basically the first half of my life, family was an illusion. A stage set. I used to dream about my mother when I was a kid. Those lucid, conversational dreams I get. But she was on that set, part of that illusion, a combination of her and Lydia-the actress who played Katie's mother."

"Seems pretty much normal to me, given the circumstances."

"My therapist said my subconscious merged them because I was unhappy with the reality. Big duh, and it was more complicated than that. I wanted pieces of both those worlds. But I was me in them, not Katie. I was Cilla. Katie had her family, for eight seasons anyway."

"And Cilla didn't."

"It was a different kind of structure." A shaky one, she thought now. "Later, I stepped away from it. I had to. And coming here, I stepped out again. It's strange trying to figure out how to blend in, or catch up, or sign on with family at this stage."

"Be mine."

"What?"

"Be my family." He set the ring box on the table between them. "Marry me."

For an instant she wasn't capable of thought or speech, as if she'd taken a sudden, shocking blow to the head. "Oh my God, Ford."

"It's not a poisonous insect," he said when she snatched her hands away. "Open it."

"Ford."

"Open it, Cilla. You're not supposed to piss a guy off when he's proposing. Thrill or crush, but not piss off."

When she hesitated, Spock grumbled at her, and bumped his head into her shin.

"Just open it."

She did, and in the soft dusk the ring gleamed like dreams. Lucid, lovely dreams.

"You don't wear jewelry much, and when you do, you don't go for the flash. You go more subtle, more classy." He felt that thing in his chest again, the hot rock of pressure he'd experienced with her father in the kitchen. "So I figure, you're not going to impress the girl with a big, fat rock. Plus you work with your hands, and that has to be considered. So having the diamonds set in instead of sticking up made sense. My mother helped me pick it out a few days ago."

Yet another layer of panic coated her throat. "Your mother."

"She's a woman. It's the first ring I've bought for a woman, so I wanted some input. I liked the idea of the three stones. The past, the right now, the future. We've got our yesterdays, we've got our right now. I want a future with you. I love you."

"It's beautiful, Ford. It's absolutely beautiful. And the thought behind it makes it more so. I'm such a bad bet." She reached over, took his hands. "Even the idea of marriage freezes me up. I don't have the foundation for it. Look at what we were just talking about. You have two parents, with one marriage between them. You believe. I have two parents, with seven. Seven marriages between them. How can I believe?"

Strange, he thought, that her nerves, her fears and doubts dissolved the thing in his chest. "That's bogus, Cilla. That's not you and me. Do you love me?"

"Ford-"

"It's not that hard a question. It's pretty much yes or no."

"It's simple for you. You can say yes, and it's simple. I can say yes. Yes, I love you, and it's incredibly scary. People love, and it falls apart."

"Yeah. And people love and it stays whole. It's just another step, Cilla. The next step."

"And this is meandering? Isn't that what you called it?"

"I picked up the pace. That doesn't mean I can't wait." Ford closed the box, nudged it toward her. "Take it. Keep it. Think about it."

She stared at the box. "You think I won't be able to resist opening it, looking at it. That I'll fall under its spell."

He smiled. No wonder he loved her. "Dare you."

She closed her hands over the box and, breathing slowly, pushed it into her pocket. "I'm a has-been actress with a history of alcohol, drug abuse and suicide in my family. I don't know why in hell you'd want me."

"I must be crazy." He lifted her hand, kissed it. In the spirit of the moment, Spock kissed her ankle. "Every few days, I'm going to just say, 'Well?' When I do, you can give me your current position on my proposal."

"The key word is 'well'?"

"That's right. Otherwise, I won't bring it up. You just carry the ring around, and you think about it. Deal?"

"All right," she said after a moment. "All right."

He picked up his glass, tapped it to hers. "Why don't we call out for Chinese?"

At their feet Spock did a happy dance.

SHE DIDN'T KNOW how he did it, she honestly didn't know. The man had proposed to her. He'd presented her with a ring so utterly perfect for her, so completely right, because he'd thought of her. Of who and what she was when he'd chosen it. Her reaction, her reluctance- be honest, Cilla, she added, while screwing the copper knobs on her cabinets-her stuttering horror at his proposal had to have hurt him.

And yet, after he'd said his piece, after he'd made his deal, he'd ordered butterfly shrimp and kung pao chicken. He'd eaten as if his stomach hadn't been in knots-as hers had been-then had suggested unwinding with the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (short season, summer replacement).

And sometime during episode three, just as she'd begun to relax enough to think about something other than the ring in her pocket, he'd taken her under with slow, shimmering kisses, with lazy, lingering caresses. By the time she'd come out of the sexual haze, the ring was all she could think about.

Nearly twelve hours later, and she still couldn't get the damn thing off her mind.

She didn't believe in marriage. Simple as that. Even living together was fraught with pitfalls. For God's sake, she'd barely gotten used to him telling her he loved her, to believing it. She hadn't finished her house, or opened her business. She'd gotten as far as she had while being harassed for months.

Didn't she have enough on her mind? Didn't she have enough to do without having an engagement ring weighing down her pocket, and the worry of not knowing when Ford might say, "Well?" preying on her mind?

"Hello?"

"Cilla?"

At the voices, Cilla simply banged her head repeatedly on the cabinet door. Perfect, she thought, just perfect. Patty and Ford's mother. Icing on her crumbling cake.

"Here you are," Patty said. "Hard at work."

Cilla watched as two pairs of eyes zoomed straight in on the third finger of her left hand. And watched two pairs of eyes cloud with disappointment. Great, now she was responsible for bringing sorrow into the lives of two middle-aged women.

"We were hoping you'd have a few minutes to talk about the menu for the party," Patty began. "We thought we could do at least some of the shopping for you, store the supplies since you don't have a place for them yet."

You were hoping for more than that, Cilla thought. "Let's get this out of the way. Yes, he asked me. Yes, the ring is absolutely beautiful. No, I'm not wearing it. I can't."

"It doesn't fit?" Penny asked.

"I don't know. I can't think about it. I can't not think about it. It was damn sneaky of him," she added with some heat. "I appreciate- No, I don't just appreciate the two of you coming here like this, but I'm trying to understand why you would. I've got enough on my mind already, enough on my head, and he adds this. I don't even know if he listened to what I said, if he's getting the reasons why..." She trailed off.

He doesn't listen, Angie had said of their father, not when he's decided to do something. He pretends to listen, then does what he was going to do anyway.

"Oh, God. God, isn't that perfect? He's Dad. He's Dad with a layer of nerd. Solid, steady, chipping away so patiently, you don't even know you've had your shields hacked down until you're defenseless. It's the type."

"You're not in love with a type, you're in love with a man," Penny corrected. "Or you're not."

Ford's mother, Cilla reminded herself. Be careful there. "I love him enough to give him time to consider all the reasons this won't work. I don't want to hurt him."

"Of course you'll hurt him. He'll hurt you. It's all part of being connected to someone. I wouldn't want a man I couldn't hurt. I sure as hell wouldn't marry one who couldn't hurt me."

Baffled, Cilla stared at Penny. "That makes absolutely no sense to me." "If and when it does, I think you'll be ready to see if the ring fits. I think your cabinets are beautiful, and they're giving me cabinet lust. Why don't we find somewhere to sit down, go over this menu for a few minutes. Then we'll get out of your way."

Cilla sighed. "Maybe he's not so much my father's type. Maybe he's you."

"No, indeed. I've always been so much meaner than Ford. Let's sit out there." Penny pointed out the window. "Under that blue umbrella."

When Penny sailed out, Patty stepped closer to slip an arm around Cilla's waist. "She loves her boy. She wants him happy."

"I know. So do I."

MAYBE SHE SHOULD make a list, Cilla considered. Reasons for and reasons against taking the ring out of the box. She depended on lists, diagrams, drawings in every other area of her life. Surely it made sense to utilize one before making such a huge decision.

The against list would be the easy part, she thought as she scooped up some post-workout, pre-workday Special K. She could probably fill pages with those items. She could, in fact, write a freaking book, as many others had, on the Hardy women.

To be fair, there were a number for the pro side. But weren't they primarily, even exclusively, emotion-driven? And weren't her emotions twisted up with nerves because she was waiting-as he damn well knew- for him to stroll up to her at any point in any day and say, "Well?"

Which he hadn't, not once, in days.

So she jumped, nearly bobbled her bowl of cereal, when he strolled in. "Too much coffee?" he suggested, and poured himself a bowl of Frosted Flakes. Spock dashed straight in to attack his dog feeder. "How do you eat that stuff? It looks like little twigs."

"As opposed to your choice, the vehicle for sugar?"

"Exactly."

Not only up at six in the morning, she thought, but cheerful and bright-eyed. And she knew he'd worked late. But he was up, dressed and eating Frosted Flakes because he insisted on walking her across the road, hanging out until some of the crew arrived.

Would that sort of thing go on the for or against list?

"You know I'm not going to be attacked crossing the road at six-thirty in the morning."

"Odds are against it." He smiled, ate.

"And I know you worked late last night, and find it unnatural to be up at this hour of the morning."

"Had a good run, too. You know, I'm finding that I can get a lot done by round-about noon most days with this routine. A habit which I intend to shed like a bad suit in what I hope is the near future. But right now?"

He paused to shovel in more Tony the Tiger. "It's working. I should have ten chapters fully inked by the end of today and have time to put a couple of new teaser panels up on my website."

"Happy to help, but-"

"You're looking for the negative. I like that about you because it pushes me to look on the brighter side of things-sides I might've missed or taken for granted otherwise. You remind me I love what I do. And loving what I do, it's interesting to do more of it than usual for a space of time. And to pay us both back for all this industry, I'll be taking us to the Caymans-a favorite place of mine-right about the middle of January, where we'll soak up sea and sand while our neighbors are shoveling snow."

"I'll be finishing up two flips. I-"

"You'll have to make time in your schedule. We can always bump sun and sea to February. I'm easy."

"Not nearly as much as you pretend to be." She opened the dishwasher to load in her bowl, spoon, mug. "You're a slow leak, Ford."

His eyes continued to smile as he scooped up cereal. "Is that what I am?"

"A slow leak, unchecked, eventually eats through just about anything. Stone, metal, wood. It doesn't make much noise, and it's a long way from the big gushing flood. But it gets the job done."

He shook his spoon at her. "I'm going to take that as a compliment. Kitchen counter's coming in today, right?"

"This morning. Then Buddy's on for the finish plumbing this afternoon. "

He tucked his breakfast dishes in with hers. "Big day. Let's get started. Walk!" he said, lifting his voice, and Spock raced in to run in circles.

She walked out with them, then stopped just to look at the Little Farm. Summer thrived over the grounds, lushly green. The big red barn stood, its practical lines softened by the curve of the stone wall, the textures of the plantings. She could see a hint of the pond, with the last vapors of dawn still rising, with the graceful bow of a young willow dipping. Back to the fields, wild with thistle and goldenrod, back to the mountains stretched across the morning sky.

And the house, the centerpiece, rambling and sturdy, with its white veranda, and its front wall half painted in warm and dignified blue.

"I'm glad my father talked me into painting the exterior ahead of schedule. I had no idea how much satisfaction it would give me to see it. When the painting's finished, it'll be like a strong old character actress after a really good face-lift."

She laughed, the mood lightened, and she took his hand as they walked. "One that allows her to maintain her dignity and personal style."

"I guess that's apt enough, considering all the cutting and stitching that went into it so far. But I don't get the whole face-lift thing."

"It's just another kind of maintenance."

Alarm literally vibrated out of him. "You wouldn't ever..."

"Who knows?" She shrugged. "I'm vain enough to want things to stay put, or have them shored up when they sag. My mother's had two already, in addition to other work." Amused by the stunned horror in his eyes, she gave him a nudge. "A lot of men have work done, too."

"You can put that one away. Deeply buried in a remote location. Are you mailing something out?" He nodded toward her mailbox and the raised red flag.

"No. That's funny. I didn't stick anything in there after yesterday's delivery. Maybe one of the guys did."

"Or someone put something in it for you. Not supposed to. Mail carrier doesn't like it." He veered over, reached for the lid.

"Wait! Don't!" She grabbed his hand while her heart leaped up to pound in her throat. Beside them, Spock quivered and growled at the alarm in her tone. "Rattlesnake in the mailbox. It's shorthand for the unexpected-an unpleasant, dangerous surprise."

"I know what it is. Code name for the season-three finale of Lost. Well... keep back some."

"Wait until I-"

But he didn't wait. Instead, he shifted his body, putting it between Cilla and the box, then yanked the lid down.

No snake coiled and hissed inside. None struck out and slithered down the pole. The doll sat, her arms lifted as if in defense. The bright blue eyes were open, and the smile frozen on Cilla's young face. The bullet left a small, scorched hole in the center of the forehead.

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