Dark Hunger


Part One. DEMO Chapter Seven


LAS VEGAS

1954

Janet held the sleeveless, full-skirted dress up, and did a twirl in front of the wall of mirrors. "What do you think?" she asked Cilla. "The pink's more elegant, but I really want to wear white. Every girl should be able to wear white on her wedding day."

"You'll look beautiful. You'll look beautiful and young, and so incredibly happy."

"I am. I'm all of those things. I'm nineteen. I'm a major movie star. My record is number one in the country. I'm in love." She spiraled again, and again, spun-gold hair flying in gleaming waves.

Even in dreams, her sheer joy danced in the air, fluttered over Cilla's skin.

"I'm madly in love with the most wonderful, the most handsome man in the world. I'm rich, I'm beautiful, and the world-right this moment-the world is mine."

"It stays yours for a long time," Cilla told her. But not long enough. It's never long enough.

"I should wear my hair up."

Janet tossed the dress onto the bed where the pink brocade suit already lay discarded. "I look more mature with my hair up. The studio never wants me to wear it up. They don't want me to be a woman yet, a real woman. Always the girl next door, always the virgin."

Laughing, she began to fashion her sleek fall of hair into a French twist. "I haven't been a virgin since I was fifteen." Janet met Cilla's eyes in the mirror. And with the joy layered amusement, and a thin coat of disdain. "Do you think the public cares if I have sex?"

"Some do. Some will. But it's your life."

"Goddamn right. And my career. I want adult roles, and I'm going to get them. Frankie's going to help me. Once we're married, he'll manage my career. He'll handle things."

"Yes," Cilla murmured, "he will."

"Oh, I know what you're thinking." Standing in her white silk slip, Janet continued to place pins in her hair. "Within the year I'll be filing for divorce. Then a brief reconciliation gets me knocked up with my second child. I'm pregnant now, but I don't know it. Johnnie's already started inside me. Only a week or so, but he's begun. Everything changes today."

"You eloped to Vegas, married Frankie Bennett, who was nearly ten years older than you."

"Vegas was my idea." Janet picked up a can of hair spray from the dressing table, began to spray suffocating clouds of it. "I wanted to stuff it down their throats, I guess. Janet Hardy, and all the parts she plays, wouldn't even know Vegas exists. But here I am, in the penthouse of the Flamingo, dressing for my wedding. And no one knows but me and Frankie."

Cilla walked to the window, looked out.

A pool sparkled below, lush gardens flowing back from its skirting. Beyond, the buildings were small and on the tacky side. Colors faded, shapes blurred, like the old photographs Cilla supposed she'd pieced together to form the landscape for the dream.

"It's nothing like it will be, really. Vegas, I mean."

"What is?"

"You'll marry Bennett, and the studio will spin and spin to counteract the damage. But there won't be any, not really. You look so spectacular together, and that's almost enough. The illusion of two gorgeous people in love. And you'll take on your first true adult role with Sarah Constantine in Heartsong. You'll be nominated for an Oscar."

"After Johnnie. I have Johnnie before Heartsong. Even Mrs. Eisenhower will send a baby gift. I cut back on the pills." She tapped the bottle on her dressing table before turning to lift the dress. "I'm still able to do that, to cut down on the pills, the booze. It's easier when I'm happy, the way I am now."

"If you knew what would happen? If you knew Frankie Bennett will cheat on you with women, will gamble away so much of your money, squander more. If you knew he'd break your heart and that you'd attempt suicide for the first time in just over a year, would you go through with it?"

Janet stepped into the dress. "If I didn't, where would you be?" She turned her back. "Zip me up, will you?"

"You said, later, you'll say that your mother offered you like a virgin to the studio, and the studio tore the innocence out of you, piece by piece. And that Frankie Bennett took those pieces and shredded them like confetti."

"The studio made me a star." She fastened pearls at her ears. "I didn't walk away. I craved what they gave me, and gave them my innocence. I wanted Frankie, and gave what was left to him."

She held up a double strand of pearls, and understanding, Cilla took them to hook around Janet's neck.

"I'll do amazing work in the next ten years. My very best work. And I'll do some damn good work in the ten after that. Well, nearly ten," she said with a laugh. "But who's counting? Maybe I needed to be in turmoil to reach my potential. Who knows? Who cares?"

"I do."

With a soft smile, Janet turned to kiss Cilla's cheek. "I looked for love all of my life, and gave it too often, and too intensely. Maybe if I hadn't looked so hard, someone would have given it back to me. The red belt!" She danced away to snatch a thick scarlet belt from the clothes tossed on the bed. "It's just the right touch, and red's Frankie's favorite color. He loves me in red."

She buckled it on, like a belt of blood, and stepped into matching shoes. "How do I look?"

"Perfect."

"I wish you could come, but it's only going to be me and Frankie, and the funny old justice of the peace and the woman who plays the spinet. Frankie will leak it to the press without telling me, and that's how the photo of the two of us coming out of the tacky little chapel gets into Photoplay. Then the shit hits the fan." She laughed. "What a ride."

And laughed, and laughed, so that Cilla heard the echoes of the laughter as she woke.

BECAUSE SHE WANTED to let her thoughts simmer away from the noise and distractions, Cilla spent the majority of her time the next two days sorting out the dozens of boxes and trunks she'd hauled into the barn.

Cilla had determined on her first pass that her mother had already culled and scavenged whatever she deemed worthwhile. But Dilly had missed a few treasures. She often did, to Cilla's mind, being in such a rush to grab the shiniest object, she missed the little diamonds in the rough.

Like the old photo tucked in a book. A very pregnant Janet plopped on a chaise by the pond, mugging for the camera with a glossily handsome Rock Hudson. Or the script for With Violets-Janet's second Oscar nomination-buried in a trunk full of old blankets. She found a little music box fashioned like a grand piano that played "Fur Elise." Inside, a little handwritten note read: From Johnnie, Mother's Day, 1961, in Janet's looping scrawl.

By the end of a rainy afternoon, she had a pile designated for the Dumpster, and a small stack of boxes to keep.

When she hauled out a load in a wheelbarrow, she found the rain had turned to fragile sunlight and her front yard full of people. Ford and her landscaper stood on the wet grass laughing at each other, along with a man with steel-gray hair who wore a light windbreaker. Crossing to them from a little red pickup was the owner of the roofing company she'd hired. A boy of about ten and a big white dog trailed after him.

After some posturing, and looking out from between Ford's legs, Spock tiptoed-if dogs could tiptoe-up to the white dog, sniffed, then plopped down and exposed his belly in submission.

"Afternoon." Cleaver of Cleaver Roofing and Gutters gave her a nod of greeting. "Had a job to check on down the road, and thought I'd stop on the way home to let you know we'll be starting tomorrow if the weather's clear."

"That's great."

"These are my grandsons, Jake and Lester." He winked at Cilla. "They don't bite."

"Good to know."

"Grandpa." The boy rolled his eyes. "Lester's my dog."

As Cilla crouched to greet the dog, Spock bumped through them to claim Cilla's hand. It was a clear: Uh-uh, you owe me first.

Cleaver hailed the trio of men walking toward them. "Tommy, you son of a..." Cleaver slid his gaze toward his grandson, smirked. "Gun. Don't think you can fast-talk this lady into selling. I've got the roof."

"How you doing, Hank? I'm not buying. Just checking up on my boy here."

"Cilla, this is my dad." Brian, the landscaper, gripped his father's shoulder. "Tom Morrow."

"He's a slick one, Miz McGowan," Hank warned her with another wink. "You watch out for him. Before you know it, he'll talk you into selling this place, then put up a dozen houses."

"This acreage? No more than six." Tom offered a smile and his hand. "Welcome to Virginia."

"Thanks. You're a builder?"

"I develop land, residential and commercial. You've taken on quite a project here. I've heard you hired some good people to work on it. Present company excepted," he said with a grin to Hank.

"Before these two get going," Brian interrupted, "I've got some sketches on the landscaping I wanted to drop off for you to look at. Do you want a hand with that haul?"

Cilla shook her head. "I've got it. I'm just going through the stuff I brought down from the attic, stowed in the barn. Rainy-day work, I guess."

Brian lifted a dented toaster out of the wheelbarrow. "People keep the damnedest things."

"I can attest."

"We cleaned out the attic when my mother passed," Hank put in. "Found a whole box of nothing but broken dishes, and another dozen or more full of papers. Receipts from groceries back thirty years, and God knows. But you want to be careful sorting through, Miz McGowan. Mixed all in there we found letters my daddy wrote her when he was in Korea. She had every one of our report cards-there's six of us kids- right through high school. She never threw a blessed thing out, but there're important things up there."

"I'm going to take my time with it. I'm finding it an interesting mix of both sides of my family so far."

"That's right, this used to be the McGowan farm." Tom scanned the area. "I remember when your grandmother bought it from old man McGowan, back around 1960. My father had his eye on this land, hoping to develop it. He brooded for a month after Janet Hardy bought it-then he decided she wouldn't keep it above six months, and he'd snap it up cheap from her. She proved him wrong.

"It's a pretty spot," Tom added, then gave his son a poke. "See that you make it prettier. I'd better get going. Good luck, Miss McGowan. If you need any recommendations on subs, just give me a call."

"I appreciate that."

"I'd better get on, too." Hank pulled at the brim of his cap. "Get my grandsons home for supper."

"Grandpa."

"They'll talk another twenty minutes," Brian commented when his father and Hank strolled toward the red pickup. "But I really do have to get going." He handed Cilla a large manila envelope. "Let me know what you think, what kind of changes you might want."

"I will, thanks."

After Brian tossed the toaster into the Dumpster, he shot a finger at Ford. "Later, Rembrandt."

On a short laugh, Ford waved. "Around and about, Picasso."

"Rembrandt?"

"Short story. Wait. Jesus." After she'd handed him the envelope and started to push the wheelbarrow up the Dumpster's ramp, Ford nudged her aside. "Flex your muscles all you want, but not while I'm standing here holding paper and guys are around."

He shoved the envelope back at her, then rolled the wheelbarrow up to dump. "Brian and I could both draw, and somehow or other got into a sex-parts-and-positions drawing contest. We got busted passing sketches back and forth in study hall. Earned us both a three-day pass."

"Pass to what?"

He looked down as he dumped. "Suspension. I guess you didn't go to regular school."

"Tutors. How old were you?"

"About fourteen. I got my ears burned all the way home when my mother picked me up, and got grounded for two weeks. Two weeks, and it was my first and last black mark in school. Talk about harsh. Hmm."

"I bet they still have them," she said when he rolled the barrow down again. "And future generations will find them in the attic."

"You think? Well, they did show considerable promise and a very healthy imagination. Want to go for a ride?"


"A ride?"

"We can go get some dinner somewhere, catch a movie."

"What's playing?"

"Couldn't say. I'm thinking of the movie as a vehicle for popcorn and necking."

"Sounds good," she decided. "You can put the wheelbarrow back in the barn while I wash up."

WITH HER NEW WIRING APPROVED, Cilla watched Dobby and his grandson replaster the living room walls. Art came in many forms, she decided, and she'd found herself a pair of artists. It wouldn't be quick, but boy, it would be right.

"You do fancy work, too?" she asked Dobby. "Medallions, trim?"

"Here and there. Not much call for it these days. You can buy pre-made cheaper, so most people do."

"I'm not most people. Fancy work wouldn't suit this area." Hands on hips, she turned a circle in the drop-clothed, chewed-up living space."But simple and interesting might. And could work in the master bedroom, the dining room. Nothing ornate," she said, thinking out loud. "No winged cherubs or hanging grapes. Maybe a design. Something Celtic... that would address the McGowan and the Moloney branches."

"Moloney?"

"What? Sorry." Distracted, she glanced back at Dobby. "Moloney would have been my grandmother's surname-except her mother changed it to Hamilton just after Janet was born, then the studio changed it to Hardy. Gertrude Moloney to Trudy Hamilton to Janet Hardy. They called her Trudy as a girl," she added and thought of the letters.

"Is that so?" Dobby shook his head, dipped his trowel. "Pretty, old-fashioned name Trudy."

"And not shiny enough for Hollywood, at least when she came up in it. She said in an interview once that no one ever called her Trudy again, once they'd settled on Janet. Not even her family. But sometimes she'd look at herself in the mirror and say hello to Trudy, just to remind herself. Anyway, if I came up with some designs, we could talk about working them in upstairs."

"We sure could do that."

"I'll do some research. Maybe we could... Sorry," she said when the phone in her pocket rang. She pulled it out, stifled a sigh when she saw her mother's number on the display. "Sorry," she repeated, then stepped outside to take the call.

"Hello, Mom."

"Did you think I wouldn't hear about it? Did you think I wouldn't see?"

Cilla leaned against the veranda column, stared across the road at Ford's pretty house. "I'm good, thanks. How are you?"

"You have no right to criticize me, to judge me. To blame me."

"In what context?"

"Save your sarcasm, Cilla. You know exactly what I'm talking about."

"I really don't." What was Ford doing? Cilla wondered. Was he writing? Drawing? Was he turning her into a warrior goddess? Someone who would face down evil instead of calculating how to stretch the budget to accommodate handcrafted plaster medallions, or handle a motherly snit long-distance.

"The article in the paper. About you, about the farm. About me. AP picked it up."

"Did they? And that bothers you? It's publicity."

"'McGowan's goal is to restore and respect her neglected heritage. Speaking over the busy sounds of banging hammers and buzzing saws, she states: "My grandmother always spoke of the Little Farm with affection, and related that she was drawn to it from the first moment. The fact that she bought the house and land from my paternal great-grandfather adds another strong connection for me." ' "

"I know what I said, Mom."

"'My purpose, you could even say my mission, is to pay tribute to my heritage, my roots here, by not only restoring the house and the land, but making them shine. And in such a way that respects their integrity, and the community.'"

"Sounds a little pompous," Cilla commented. "But it's accurate."

"It goes on and on, a showcase during Janet Hardy's visits for the luminaries of her day. A pastoral setting for her children, now peeling paint, rotted wood, overgrown gardens through a generation of neglect and disinterest as Janet Hardy's daughter, Bedelia Hardy, attempted to fill her mother's sparkling footsteps. How could you let them print that?"

"You know as well as I do you can't control the press."

"I don't want you giving any more interviews."

"And you should know you can't control what I do, or don't. Not anymore. Spin it, Mom. You know how. Grief kept you away, and so on. Whatever happy times you spent here were overshadowed, even smothered, by your mother's death here. It'll get you some sympathy and more press."

The long pause told Cilla her mother was considering the angles. "How could I think of that place as anything but a tomb?"

"There you go."

"It's easier for you, it's different for you. You never knew her. She's just an image for you, a movie clip, a photograph. She was flesh and blood for me. She was my mother."

"Okay."

"It would be better, for everyone, if you vetted interviews with me or Mario. And I'd think any reporter who works for a legitimate paper would have contacted my people for a comment or quote. Be sure they do, next time."

"You're up early," Cilla said by way of evading.

"I have rehearsals, costume fittings. I'm exhausted before I begin."

"You're a trouper. I wanted to ask you something. The last year or so, before Janet died, do you know who she was involved with?"

"Romantically? She could barely get out of bed by herself half the time in the first weeks after Johnnie. Or she'd bounce off the walls and demand people and parties. She'd cling to me one minute, and push me away the next. It scarred me, Cilla. I lost my brother and my mother so close together. And really, I lost them both the night Johnnie died."

Because she believed that, if nothing else, that was deeply and painfully true, Cilla's tone softened. "I know. I can't imagine how terrible it was."

"No one can. I was alone. Barely sixteen, and I had no one. She left me, Cilla. She chose to leave me. In that house you're so determined to turn into a shrine."

"That's not what I'm doing. Who was she involved with, Mom? A secret affair, a married man. An affair that went south."

"She had affairs. Why wouldn't she? She was beautiful and vital, and she needed love."

"A specific affair, during this specific period."

"I don't know." Dilly's voice clipped on the words now. "I try not to think about that time. It was hell for me. Why do you care? Why dredge that kind of thing up again? I hate the theories and the speculations."

Tread carefully, Cilla reminded herself. "I'm just curious. You hear talk, and she did spend a lot of time here in that last year, year and a half. She wasn't really involved with anyone back in L.A., that I've heard about. It wasn't like her to be without a man, a lover, for very long."

"Men couldn't resist her. Why should she resist them? Then they'd let her down. They always do. They make promises they don't keep. They cheat, they steal, and God knows they can't stand for the woman to be more successful."

"So how are things with you and Num-with Mario?"

"He's the exception to the rule. I've finally found the kind of man I need. Mama never did. She never found a man worthy of her."

"And never stopped looking," Cilla prompted. "She would have wanted the comfort, the love and support, especially after Johnnie died. Maybe she looked here, in Virginia."

"I don't know. She never took me with her back to the farm after Johnnie. She said she had to be alone. I didn't want to go back anyway. It was too painful. That's why I haven't been back in all these years. It's still a fresh wound in my heart."

And we come full circle, Cilla thought. "Like I said, I'm just curious. So if something or someone occurs to you, let me know. I'd better let you get to rehearsal."

"Oh, let them wait! Mario had the best idea. It's phenomenal, and such a good opportunity for you. We'll work a duet for you and me into the show, in the second act. A medley of Mama's songs with clips and stills from her movies on screen behind us. We'll finish with 'I'll Get By,' making it a trio, putting her onstage with us, the way they did with Elvis and Celine Dion. He's talking to HBO, Cilla, about broadcasting."

"Mom-"

"We'll need you back here next week for rehearsals, and costume design, choreography. We're still working out the composition, but the number would run about four minutes. Four spectacular minutes, Cilla. We want to give you a real chance for a comeback."

Cilla closed her eyes, debated sawing off her tongue, letting it fly- and settled on somewhere in the middle. "I appreciate that, I really do. But I don't want to come back, geographically or professionally. I don't want to perform. I want to build."

"You'd be building." Enthusiasm bubbled across the continent. "Your career, and helping me. The three Hardy women, Cilla. It's landmark."

My name's McGowan, Cilla thought. "I think you'd be better spotlighted alone. And the duet with Janet? That could be lovely, heart-wrenching. "

"It's four minutes, Cilla. You can spare me four fucking minutes a night for a few weeks. And it will turn your life around. Mario says-"

"I've just finished turning my life around, and I like where it's standing. I've got to go. I've got work."

"Don't you-"

Cilla closed the phone, deliberately shoved it back into her pocket. She heard the throat clear behind her and, turning, saw Matt in the doorway. "They just got the grouting done on the tile in the bathroom upstairs. Thought you'd want to take a look."

"Yeah. We'll be installing the fixtures tomorrow then."

"That'd be right."

"Let me get my sledgehammer. We can start taking down that wall up there. I'm in the mood for demo."

THERE WAS LITTLE, Cilla decided, more satisfying than beating the hell out of something. It relieved frustration, brought a quick and wild rise of glee, and fulfilled all manner of dark fantasies. The fact was, it was-on several levels-every bit as therapeutic as good sex.

And since she wasn't having any sex-good or otherwise-at the moment, knocking down walls did the job. She could be having sex, she thought as she strode out of the house trailing plaster dust. Ford and his magic mouth had made that fairly clear.

But she was on a kind of moratorium there-as part of the turn-the-life-around program, she supposed. New world, new life, new style. And in there, she'd found the real Cilla McGowan.

She liked her.

She had the house to rehab, her contractor's license to study for, a business to establish. And a family mystery to unravel. Scheduling in sex with her hot neighbor wouldn't be the smartest move.

Of course, he just had to be standing out on his veranda when she walked out, thinking of sex. And the low-down tingle had her asking herself if it was really, completely, absolutely necessary to abstain. They were both adults, unattached, interested, so why couldn't she walk on over there and suggest they spend the evening together? Doing something more energetic than sharing a beer?

Just straight out. No dance, no pretenses, no illusions. Isn't that what the real Cilla wanted? She angled her head as she considered. And plaster dust rained down from the bill of her cap.

Maybe she should shower first.

"You're weak and pitiful," Cilla muttered and, amused at herself, started to circle around to the back of the house and the landscaping crew.

She heard the deep-throated roar of a prime engine, glanced back. The sleek black bullet of a Harley shot down the road and seemed to ricochet through her open gates. Even as it spit gravel, she ran toward it, laughing.

Its occupant jumped off the bike, landed on scarred combat boots and caught Cilla on the fly.

"Hello, doll." He swung her in one quick circle, then kissed her enthusiastically.

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