/ Language: English / Genre:thriller,

Tribute

Nora Roberts

Virginia 's Shenandoah Valley is a long way from Hollywood. And that's exactly how Cilla McGowan wants it. Cilla, a former child star who has found more satisfying work as a restorer of old houses, has come to her grandmother's farmhouse, tools at her side, to rescue it from ruin. Sadly, no one was able to save her grandmother, the legendary Janet Hardy. An actress with a tumultuous life, Janet entertained glamorous guests and engaged in decadent affairs – but died of an overdose in this very house more than thirty years earlier. To this day, Janet haunts Cilla's dreams. And during waking hours, Cilla is haunted by her melodramatic, five-times-married mother, who carried on in the public spotlight and never gave her a chance at a normal childhood. By coming east, rolling up her sleeves, and rehabbing this wreck of a house, Cilla intends to find some kind of normalcy for herself. Plunging into the project with gusto, she's almost too busy to notice her neighbor, graphic novelist Ford Sawyer – but his lanky form, green eyes, and easy, unflappable humor (not to mention his delightfully ugly dog, Spock) are hard to ignore. Determined not to perpetuate the family tradition of ill-fated romances, Cilla steels herself against Ford's quirky charm, but she can't help indulging in a little fantasy. But love and a peaceful life may not be in the cards for Cilla. In the attic, she has found a cache of unsigned letters suggesting that Janet Hardy was pregnant when she died – and that the father was a local married man. Cilla can't help but wonder what really happened all those years ago. The mystery only deepens with a series of intimidating acts and a frightening, violent assault. And if Cilla and Ford are unable to sort out who is targeting her and why, she may – like her world-famous grandmother – be cut down in the prime of her life.

Nora Roberts

Tribute

For Jason and Kat, as you start your life together. May the garden you plant root strong, blossom with the colors and shapes each of you brings, and both of you tend, so the blooms flourish.

Part One. DEMO

The past cannot be presented;

we cannot know what we are not.

But one veil hangs over the past,

present, and future.

– HENRY DAVID THOREAU

ONE

According to legend, Steve McQueen once swam buck-naked among the cattails and lily pads in the pond at the Little Farm. If true, and Cilla liked to think it was, the King of Cool had stripped off and dived in post The Magnificent Seven and prior to The Great Escape.

In some versions of the legend, Steve had done more than cool off on that muggy summer night in Virginia -and he’d done the more with Cilla’s grandmother. Though they’d both been married to other people at the time, the legend carried more cheer than disdain. And since both parties were long dead, neither could confirm or deny.

Then again, Cilla thought as she studied the murky water of the lily-choked pond, neither had bothered-as far as she could ascertain-to confirm or deny while they’d had the chance.

True or false, she imagined Janet Hardy, the glamorous, the tragic, the brilliant, the troubled, had enjoyed the buzz. Even icons had to get their kicks somewhere.

Standing in the yellow glare of sun with the dulling bite of March chilling her face, Cilla could see it perfectly. The steamy summer night, the blue wash from the spotlight moon. The gardens would’ve been at their magnificent peak and stunning the air with fragrance. The water would’ve been so cool and silky on the skin, and the color of chamomile tea with pink and white blossoms strung over it like glossy pearls.

Janet would have been at her stunning peak as well, Cilla mused. The spun-gold of her hair tumbling free, spilling over white shoulders… No, those would have been spun-gold, too, from her summer tan. Gilded shoulders in the tea-colored water, and her Arctic-blue eyes bright with laughter-and most likely a heroic consumption of liquor.

Music darting and sparkling through the dark, like the fireflies that flashed over the fertile fields, the velvet lawns, Cilla imagined. The voices from the weekend guests who wandered over the lawns, the porches and patios as bright as the music. Stars as luminous as the ones that gleamed overhead like little jewels scattered away from that spotlight moon.

Dark pockets of shadows, streaming colored lights from lanterns.

Yes, it would’ve been like that. Janet’s world had been one of brilliant light and utter dark. Always.

Cilla hoped she dove into that pond unapologetically naked, drunk and foolish and happy. And utterly unaware her crowded, desperate, glorious life would end barely a decade later.

Before turning away from the pond, Cilla listed it in her thick notebook. It would need to be cleaned, tested and ecologically balanced. She made another note to read up on pond management and maintenance before she attempted to do so, or hired an expert.

Then the gardens. Or what was left of them, she thought as she crossed through the high, lumpy grass. Weeds, literal blankets of vines, overgrown shrubs with branches poking through the blankets like brown bones, marred what had once been simply stupendous. Another metaphor, she supposed, for the bright and beautiful choked off and buried in the grasping.

She’d need help with this part, she decided. Considerable help. However much she wanted to put her back into this project, get her hands into it, she couldn’t possibly clear and hack, slash and burn, and redesign on her own.

The budget would have to include a landscaping crew. She noted down the need to study old photographs of the gardens, to buy some books on landscaping to educate herself, and to contact local landscapers for bids.

Standing, she scanned the ruined lawns, the sagging fences, the sad old barn that stood soot gray and scarred from weather. There had been chickens once-or so she’d been told-a couple of pretty horses, tidy fields of crops, a small, thriving grove of fruit trees. She wanted to believe-maybe needed to believe-she could bring all that back. That by the next spring, and all the springs after, she could stand here and look at all the budding, the blooming, the business of what had been her grandmother’s.

Of what was now hers.

She saw how it was, and how it once had been through her own Arctic-blue eyes shaded by the bill of a Rock the House ball cap. Her hair, more honey than gold dust, threaded through the back of the cap in a long, messy tail. She wore a thick hooded sweatshirt over strong shoulders and a long torso, faded jeans over long legs, and boots she’d bought years before for a hiking trip through the Blue Ridge Mountains. The same mountains that rolled up against the sky now.

Years ago, she thought. The last time she’d come east, come here. And when, she supposed, the seeds for what she would do now had been planted.

Didn’t that make the last four-or was it five-years of neglect at least partially her doing? She could’ve pushed sooner, could have demanded. She could have done something.

“Doing it now,” she reminded herself. She wouldn’t regret the delay any more than she would regret the manipulation and bitter arguments she’d used to force her mother to sign over the property.

“Yours now, Cilla,” she told herself. “Don’t screw it up.”

She turned, braced herself, then made her way through the high grass and brambles to the old farmhouse where Janet Hardy had hosted sparkling parties, or had escaped to between roles. And where, in 1973, on another steamy summer night, she took her own life.

So claimed the legend.

THERE WERE GHOSTS. Sensing them was nearly as exhausting as evaluating the ramshackle three stories, facing the grime, the dust, the disheartening disrepair. Ghosts, Cilla supposed, had kept the vandalism and squatting to a minimum. Legends, she thought, had their uses.

She’d had the electricity turned back on, and had brought plenty of lightbulbs along with what she hoped would be enough cleaning supplies to get her started. She’d applied for her permits and researched local contractors.

Now, it was time to start something.

Lining up her priorities, she tackled the first of the four bathrooms that hadn’t seen a scrub brush in the last six years.

And she suspected the last tenants hadn’t bothered overmuch with such niceties during their stint.

“Could be more disgusting,” she muttered as she scraped and scrubbed. “Could be snakes and rats. And God, shut up. You’re asking for them.”

After two sweaty hours and emptying countless buckets of filthy water, she thought she could risk using the facilities without being inoculated first. Chugging bottled water, she headed down the back stairs to have a whack at the big farmhouse kitchen next. And eyeing the baby-blue-on-white laminate on the stubby counters, she wondered whose idea that update had been, and why they’d assumed it would suit the marvelous old O’Keefe amp; Merritt range and Coldspot refrigerator.

Aesthetically, the room was over the line of hideous, but sanitary had to take precedence.

She braced the back door open for ventilation, tugged rubber gloves back on and very gingerly opened the oven door.

“Oh, crap.”

While the best part of a can of oven cleaner went to work, she tackled the oven racks, the burners, the stove top and hood. A photograph flitted through her memory. Janet, a frilly apron over a wasp-waisted dress, sunlight hair pulled back in a sassy tail, stirring something in a big pot on the stove. Smiling at the camera while her two children looked on adoringly.

Publicity shoot, Cilla remembered. For one of the women’s magazines. Redbook or McCall’s. The old farmhouse stove, with its center grill, had sparkled like new hope. It would again, she vowed. One day, she’d stir a pot on that same stove with probably as much faked competence as her grandmother.

She started to squat down to check the oven cleaner, then yipped in surprise when she heard her name.

He stood in the open doorway, with sunlight haloing his silvered blond hair. His smile deepened the creases in his face, still so handsome, and warmed those quiet hazel eyes.

Her heart took a bound from surprise to pleasure, and another into embarrassment.

“Dad.”

When he stepped forward, arms opening for a hug, she tossed up her hands, wheeled back. “No, don’t. I’m absolutely disgusting. Covered with… I don’t even want to know.” She swiped the back of her wrist over her forehead, then fumbled off the protective gloves. “Dad,” she repeated.

“I see a clean spot.” He lifted her chin with his hand, kissed her cheek. “Look at you.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.” But she laughed as most of the initial awkwardness passed. “What are you doing here?”

“Somebody recognized you in town when you stopped for supplies and said something to Patty. And Patty,” he continued, referring to his wife, “called me. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

“I was going to. I mean I was going to call you.”At some point. Eventually. When I figured out what to say. “I just wanted to get here first, then I…” She glanced back at the oven. “I got caught up.”

“So I see. When did you get in?”

Guilt pricked her conscience. “Listen, let’s go out on the front porch. It’s not too bad out front, and I have a cooler sitting out there holding a cold-cut sub with our names on it. Just let me wash up, then we’ll catch up.”

It wasn’t as bad in front, Cilla thought when she settled on the sagging steps with her father, but it was bad enough. The overgrown, weedy lawn and gardens, the trio of misshaped Bradford pears, a wild tangle of what she thought might be wisteria could all be dealt with. Would be. But the wonderful old magnolia rose, dense with its deep, glossy leaves, and stubborn daffodils shoved up through the thorny armor of climbing roses along the stone walls.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call,” Cilla began as she handed her father a bottle of iced tea to go with half the sub. “I’m sorry I haven’t called.”

He patted her knee, opened her bottle, then his own.

It was so like him, she thought. Gavin McGowan took things as they came-the good, the bad, the mediocre. How he’d ever fallen for the emotional morass that was her mother eluded her. But that was long ago, Cilla mused, and far away.

She bit into her portion of the sub. “I’m a bad daughter.”

“The worst,” he said, and made her laugh.

“Lizzie Borden.”

“Second worst. How’s your mother?”

Cilla bit into her sub, rolled her eyes. “Lizzy’s definitely running behind me on Mom’s scale at the moment. Otherwise, she’s okay. Number Five’s putting together a cabaret act for her.” At her father’s quiet look, Cilla shrugged. “I think when your marriages average a three-year life span, assigning numbers to husbands is practical and efficient. He’s okay. Better than Numbers Four and Two, and considerably smarter than Number Three. And he’s the reason I’m sitting here sharing a sub with the never-to-be-matched Number One.”

“How’s that?”

“Putting the song and dance together requires money. I had some money.”

“Cilla.”

“Wait, wait. I had some money, and she had something I wanted. I wanted this place, Dad. I’ve wanted it for a while now.”

“You-”

“Yeah, I bought the farm.” Cilla tossed back her head and laughed.

“And she’s so pissed at me. She didn’t want it, God knows. I mean, look at it. She hasn’t been out here in years, in decades, and she fired every manager, every overseer, every custodian. She wouldn’t give it to me, and it was my mistake to ask her for it a couple years ago. She wouldn’t sell it to me then, either.”

She took another bite of the sub, enjoying it now. “I got the tragedy face, the spiel about Janet. But now she needed seed money and wanted me to invest. Big no on that followed by big fight, much drama. I told her, and Number Five, I’d buy this place, named an amount and made it clear that was firm.”

“She sold it to you. She sold you the Little Farm.”

“After much gnashing of teeth, much weeping, various sorrowful opinions on my daughterly behavior since the day I was born. And so on. It doesn’t matter.” Or hardly mattered, Cilla thought. “She didn’t want it; I did. She’d have sold it long before this if it hadn’t been tied up in trusts. It could only be sold and transferred to family until, what, 2012? Anyway, Number Five calmed her down, and everyone got what they wanted.”

“What are you going to do with it, Cilla?”

Live, she thought. Breathe. “Do you remember it, Dad? I’ve only seen the pictures and old home movies, but you were here when it was in its prime. When the grounds were gorgeous and the porches gleaming. When it had character and grace. That’s what I’m going to do with it. I’m going to bring it back.”

“Why?”

She heard the unspoken How? and told herself it didn’t matter that he didn’t know what she could do. Or hardly mattered.

“Because it deserves better than this. Because I think Janet Hardy deserves better than this. And because I can. I’ve been flipping houses for almost five years now. Two years pretty much on my own. I know none of them was on the scale of this, but I have a knack for it. I’ve made a solid profit on my projects.”

“Are you doing this for profit?”

“I may change my mind in the next four years, but for now? No. I never knew Janet, but she’s influenced almost every area of my life. Something about this place pulled her here, even at the end. Something about it pulls me.”

“It’s a long way from what you’ve known,” Gavin said. “Not just the miles, but the atmosphere. The culture. The Shenandoah Valley, this part of it, is still fairly rural. Skyline Village boasts a few thousand people, and even in the larger cities like Front Royal and Culpepper, it’s far and away from L.A.”

“I guess I want to explore that, and I want to spend more time with my East Coast roots.” She wished he’d be pleased instead of concerned that she’d fail or give up. Again.

“I’m tired of California, I’m tired of all of it, Dad. I never wanted what Mom wanted, for me or for herself.”

“I know, sweetie.”

“So I’ll live here for a while.”

“Here?” Shock covered his face. “Live here? At the Little Farm?”

“I know, crazy. But I’ve done plenty of camping, which is what this’ll be for a few days anyway. Then I can rough it inside for a while longer. It’ll take about nine, ten months, maybe a year to do the rehab, to do it right. At the end of that, I’ll know if I want to stay or move on. If it’s moving on, I’ll figure out what to do about it then. But right now, Dad, I’m tired of moving on.”

Gavin said nothing for a moment, then draped his arm around Cilla’s shoulders. Did he have any idea, she wondered, what that casual show of support meant to her? How could he?

"It was beautiful here, beautiful and hopeful and happy,” he told her. “Horses grazing, her dog napping in the sun. The flowers were lovely. Janet did some of the gardening herself when she was here, I think. She came here to relax, she said. And she would, for short stretches. But then she needed people-that’s my take on it. She needed the noise and the laughter, the light. But now and again, she came out alone. No friends, no family, no press. I always wondered what she did during those solo visits.”

"You met Mom here.”

“I did. We were just children, and Janet had a party for Dilly and Johnnie. She invited a lot of local children. Janet took to me, so I was invited back whenever they were here. Johnnie and I played together, and stayed friends when we hit our teens, though he began to run with a different sort of crowd. Then Johnnie died. He died, and everything went dark. Janet came here alone more often after that. I’d climb the wall to see if she was here, if Dilly was with her, when I was home from college. I’d see her walking alone, or see the lights on. I spoke to her a few times, three or four times, after Johnnie died. Then she was gone. Nothing here’s been the same since.

“It does deserve better,” he said with a sigh. “And so does she. You’re the one who should try to give it to them. You may be the only one who can.”

“Thanks.”

“Patty and I will help. You should come stay with us until this place is habitable.”

“I’ll take you up on the help, but I want to stay here. Get a feel for the place. I’ve done some research on it, but I could use some recommendations for local labor-skilled and not. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, landscapers. And just people with strong backs who can follow directions.”

“Get your notebook.”

She pushed to her feet, started inside, then turned back. “Dad, if things had worked out between you and Mom, would you have stayed in the business? Stayed in L.A.?”

“Maybe. But I was never happy there. Or I wasn’t happy there for long. And I wasn’t a comfortable actor.”

“You were good.”

“Good enough,” he said with a smile. “But I didn’t want what Dilly wanted, for herself or for me. So I understand what you meant when you said the same. It’s not her fault, Cilla, that we wanted something else.”

“You found what you wanted here.”

“Yes, but-”

“That doesn’t mean I will, too,” she said. “I know. But I just might.”

FIRST, CILLA SUPPOSED, she had to figure out what it was she did want. For more than half her life she’d done what she was told, and accepted what she had as what she should want. And most of the remainder, she admitted, she’d spent escaping from or ignoring all of that, or sectioning it off as if it had happened to someone else.

She’d been an actor before she could talk because it was what her mother wanted. She’d spent her childhood playing another child-one who was so much cuter, smarter, sweeter than she was herself. When that went away, she’d struggled through what the agents and producers considered the awkward years, where the work was lean. She’d cut a disastrous mother-daughter album with Dilly, and done a handful of teen slasher films in which she considered herself lucky to have been grue-somely murdered.

She’d been washed up before her eighteenth birthday, Cilla thought as she flopped down on the bed in her motel room. A has-been, a what-ever-happened-to, who copped a scattering of guest roles on TV and voice-overs for commercials.

But the long-running TV series and a few forgettable B movies provided a nest egg. She’d been clever about feathering that nest, and using those eggs to allow her to poke her fingers into various pies to see if she liked the flavor.

Her mother called it wasting her God-given, and her therapist termed it avoidance.

Cilla called it a learning curve.

Whatever you called it, it brought her here to a fairly crappy hotel in Virginia, with the prospect of hard, sweaty and expensive work over the next several months. She couldn’t wait to get started.

She flipped on the TV, intending to use it as background noise while she sat on the lumpy bed to make another pass through her notes. She heard a couple of cans thud out of the vending machine a few feet outside her door. Behind her head, the ghost sounds of the TV in the next room wafted through the wall.

While the local news droned on her set, she made her priority list for the next day. Working bathroom, number one. Camping out wasn’t a problem for her, but moving out of the motel meant she required the basic facilities. Sweaty work necessitated a working shower. Plumbing, first priority.

Halfway through her list her eyes began to droop. Reminding herself she wanted to be checked out and on site by eight, she switched off the TV, then the light.

As she dropped into sleep, the ghosts from the next room drifted through the wall. She heard Janet Hardy’s glorious voice lift into a song designed to break hearts.

“Perfect,” Cilla murmured as the song followed her into sleep.

SHE SAT on the lovely patio with the view full of the pretty pond and the green hills that rolled back to the blue mountains. Roses and lilies stunned the air with perfume that had the bees buzzing drunkenly and a hummingbird, bold as an emerald, darting for nectar. The sun poured strong and bright out of cloudless skies to wash everything in the golden light of fairy tales. Birds sang their hearts out in Disneyesque harmony.

“I expect to see Bambi frolicking with Thumper any minute,” Cilla commented.

“It’s how I saw it. In the good times.” Young, beautiful in a delicate white sundress, Janet sipped sparkling lemonade. “Perfect as a stage set, and ready for me to make my entrance.”

“And in the bad times?”

“An escape, a prison, a mistake, a lie.” Janet shrugged her lovely shoulders. “But always a world away.”

“You brought that world with you. Why?”

“I needed it. I couldn’t be alone. There’s too much space when you’re alone. How do you fill it? Friends, men, sex, drugs, parties, music. Still, I could be calm here for a while. I could pretend here, pretend I was Gertrude Hamilton again. Though she died when I was six and Janet Hardy was born.”

“Did you want to be Gertrude again?”

"Of course not.” A laugh, bright and bold as the day, danced through the air. “But I liked to pretend I did. Gertrude would have been a better mother, a better wife, probably a better woman. But Gertrude wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting as Janet. Who’d remember her? And Janet? No one will ever forget her.” With her head tilted, Janet gave her signature smile-humor and knowledge with sex shimmering at the edges. “Aren’t you proof of that?”

“Maybe I am. But I see what happened to you, and what’s happened to this place, as a terrible waste. I can’t bring you back, or even know you. But I can do this.”

“Are you doing this for you or for me?”

“Both, I think.” She saw the grove, all pink and white blossoms, all fragrance and potential. And the horses grazing in green fields, gold and white etched against hills. “I don’t see it as a perfect set. I don’t need perfect. I see it as your legacy to me and, if I can bring it back, as my tribute to you. I come from you, and through my father, from this place. I want to know that, and feel it.”

“Dilly hated it here.”

“I don’t know if she did, always. But she does now.”

“She wanted Hollywood-in big, shiny letters. She was born wanting it, and lacking the talent or the grit to get it and hold it. You’re not like her, or me. Maybe…” Janet smiled as she sipped again. “Maybe you’re more like Gertrude. More like Trudy.”

“Who did you kill that night? Janet or Gertrude?”

“That’s a question.” With a smile, Janet tipped back her head and closed her eyes.

BUT WHAT WAS THE ANSWER? Cilla wondered about that as she drove back to the farm in the morning. And why did it matter? Why ask questions of a dream anyway?

Dead was dead, after all. The project wasn’t about death, but about life. About making something for herself out of what had been left to ruin.

As she stopped to unlock the old iron gates that blocked the drive she debated having them removed. Would that be a symbol to throwing open again what had been closed off, or would it be a monumentally stupid move that left her, and the property, vulnerable? They protested when she walked them open, and left rust on her hands.

Screw symbols and stupidity, she decided. They should come down because they were a pain in the ass. After the project, she could put them back up.

Once she’d parked in front of the house, she strode up to unlock the front door, and left it wide to the morning air. She drew on her work gloves. She’d finish tackling the kitchen, she thought. And hope the plumber her father had recommended showed up.

Either way, she’d be staying. Even if she had to pitch a damn tent in the front yard.

She’d worked up her first sweat of the day when the plumber, a grizzle-cheeked man named Buddy, showed up. He made the rounds with her, listened to her plans, scratched his chin a lot. When he gave her what she thought of as a pull-it-out-of-his-ass estimate for the projected work, she countered with a bland stare.

He grinned at that, scratched some more. “I could work up something a little more formal for you. It’d be considerable less if you’re buying the fixtures and such.”

“I will be.”

“Okay then. I’ll work up an estimate for you, and we’ll see what’s what.”

“That’s fine. Meanwhile, how much to snake out the tub in the first bath upstairs? It’s not draining right.”

“Why don’t I take a look-see? Estimate’s free, and I’m here for that anyway.”

She hovered, not so much because she didn’t trust him but because you could never be sure what you might learn. She learned he didn’t dawdle, and that his fee for the small task-and a quick check of the sink and john-meant he wanted the job enough that his estimate would probably come into line.

By the time Buddy climbed back into his truck, she hoped the carpenter and electrician she’d lined up for estimates worked out as well.

She dug out her notebook to tick her meeting with Buddy off her day’s to-do list. Then she hefted her sledgehammer. She was in the mood for some demo, and the rotted boards on the front porch were just the place to start.

TWO

With her hammer weighted on her shoulder and her safety goggles in place, Cilla took a good look at the man strolling down her driveway. A cartoonishly ugly black-and-white dog with an enormous box of a head on a small, stocky body trotted beside him.

She liked dogs, and hoped to have one eventually. But this was one odd-looking creature, with bulbous eyes bulging out of, and little pointed devil ears stuck on top of, that oversized head. A short, skinny whip of a tail ticked at his behind.

As for the man, he was a big improvement over the dog. The faded, frayed-at-the-hem jeans and baggy gray sweatshirt covered what she judged to be about six feet, four inches of lanky, long-legged male. He wore wire-framed sunglasses, and the jeans had a horizontal tear in one knee. A day or two’s worth of stubble prickled over his cheeks and jaw in a look she’d always found too studied to be hip. Still, it fit with the abundance of brown streaky hair that curled messily over his ears.

She distrusted a man who had his hair streaked, and imagined he’d paid for the golden boy tan in a flash parlor. Hadn’t she left this type out in L.A.? While those elements added up to mostly harmless to her, and a casual how-ya-doing smile curved on a nicely defined mouth, she tightened her grip on the hammer.

She could use it for more than bashing out rotted boards, if necessary.

She didn’t have to see his eyes to know they were taking a good look, too.

He stopped at the base of the porch steps while the dog climbed right up to sniff-though the sound was more of a pig snuffle-at her boots. "Hey,” he said, and the smile ratcheted up another notch. “Can I help you?”

She cocked her head. “With what?”

“With whatever you’ve got in mind. I’m wondering what that might be, seeing as you’re holding a pretty big hammer there, and this is private property.” He hooked his thumbs in his front pockets as he continued in that same easy Virginia drawl. “You don’t look much like a vandal.”

“Are you a cop?”

The smile made the lightning strike to grin. “I don’t look any more like a cop than you do a vandal. Listen, I hate getting in your way, but if you’re thinking about bashing out some pieces of the house here, putting them up on eBay, I have to ask you to reconsider.”

Because it was heavy, she lifted the hammer off her shoulder. He didn’t move as she brought it down, then rested the head on the porch. But she sensed him brace. "EBay?”

“More trouble than it’s worth. Who’s going to believe you’re selling a genuine hunk of Janet Hardy’s house anyway? So, why don’t you load it up? I’ll close up behind you, and no harm, no foul.”

“Are you the custodian?”

“No. Somebody keeps firing them. I know it looks like nobody gives a half a damn about the place, but you can’t just come around and beat on it.”

Fascinated, Cilla shoved her safety goggles to the top of her head. “If nobody gives a half a damn, why do you?”

“Can’t seem to help myself. And maybe I admire the balls it takes to pick locks and wield sledgehammers in broad daylight, but, seriously, you need to load it up now. Janet Hardy’s family may not care if this place falls over in the next good wind, but-” He broke off, sliding his sunglassesdown his nose, peering over them before he took them off to swing them idly by one earpiece.

“I’m slow this morning,” he said. “Chalk it up to only getting a swallow of coffee in before I noticed your truck here, and the open gate and such. Cilla… McGowan. Took me a minute. You’ve got your grandmother’s eyes.”

His were green, she noted, with the sun bringing out the rims and flecks of gold. “Right on both. Who are you?”

“Ford. Ford Sawyer. And the dog licking your boots is Spock. We live across the road.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, drawing her gaze up and over to the rambling old Victorian on a pretty knoll across the way. “You aren’t going to try to brain me with that if I come up on the porch?”

“Probably not. If you tell me why you showed up this morning, and didn’t happen to see me here all day yesterday, or notice Buddy the plumber and assorted subcontractors leaving a half hour ago.”

“I was still in the Caymans yesterday. Had myself a little vacation. I expect I missed assorted subcontractors as I was just rolling out of bed a half hour ago. Took my first cup of coffee out on the front veranda. That’s when I saw the truck, the gate. Okay?”

Seemed reasonable, Cilla decided. And maybe he’d come by the tan and sun streaks naturally. She leaned the hammer against the porch rail. “As one of the people who gives a half a damn and more about this place, I appreciate you looking out for it.”

“No problem.” He walked up until he stood on the step just below her. As they were eye level, and she hit five-nine, she decided her estimate of six-four was on the mark. “What’re you planning to do with the hammer?”

“Rotten boards. The porch needs to be rebuilt. Can’t rebuild until you demo.”

“New porch, Buddy the plumber-who seems to know his stuff, by the way-assorted subcontractors. Sounds like you’re planning to fix the place up.”

“I am. You look like you’ve got a strong back. Want a job?”

“Got one, and I haven’t found tools to be my friend. But thanks. Spock, say hello.”

The dog sat, cocked his big box of a head and held up a paw.

“Cute.” Cilla obliged by leaning down, giving the paw a shake while Spock’s bulging eyes gleamed at her. “What kind of dog is this?”

“The four-legged kind. It’ll be nice to look over here and see this place the way I imagine it used to be. You fixing to sell?”

“No. I’m fixing to live. For now.”

“Well, it’s a pretty spot. Or could be. Your daddy’s Gavin McGowan, right?”

“Yes. Do you know him?”

“He was my English teacher, senior year of high school. I aced it in the end, but not without a lot of sweat and pain. Mr. McGowan made you work your ass straight off. Well, I’ll let you get on bashing your boards. I work at home, so I’m there most of the time. If you need anything, give a holler.”

“Thanks,” she said without any intention of following through. She fit her goggles back in place, picked up the hammer as he started back down the drive with the dog once again trotting beside him. Then gave in to impulse. “Hey! Who names their kid after a car?”

He turned, walked backward. “My mama has a considerable and somewhat unusual sense of humor. She claims my daddy planted me in her while they were steaming up the windows of his Ford Cutlass one chilly spring night. It may be true.”

“If not, it should be. See you around.”

“More than likely.”

FASCINATING DEVELOPMENTS, Ford mused as he took a fresh cup of coffee onto the veranda for his postponed morning ritual. There she was, the long drink of water with the ice blue eyes, beating the living crap out of the old veranda.

That hammer was probably damn heavy. Girl had some muscle on her.

“Cilla McGowan,” he said to Spock as the dog raced after invisible cats in the yard, “moved in right across the road.” Wasn’t that a kick in the ass? Ford recalled his own sister had all but worshipped Katie Lawrence, the kid Cilla had played for five? six? seven years? Who the hell knew? He remembered Alice carting around an Our Family lunch box, playing with her Katie doll and wearing her Katie backpack proudly.

As Alice tended to hoard everything, he suspected she still had the Our Family and Katie memorabilia somewhere up in Ohio, where she lived now. He was going to make a point of e-mailing her and rubbing her face in who he’d just copped as a neighbor.

The long-running show had been too tame for him back in the day. He’d preferred the action of The Transformers, and the fantasy of Knight Rider. He remembered after a bitter battle with Alice over God knew what, he’d exacted his revenge by stripping Katie naked, gagging her with duct tape and tying her to a tree, guarded by his army of Storm Troopers.

He’d caught hell for it, but it had been worth it.

It seemed a bit twisted to stand here now, watching the adult, live-action version of Katie switch sledgehammer for some sort of pry bar. And imagining her naked.

He had a damn good imagination.

Four years, Ford thought, since he’d moved in across the road. He’d seen two caretakers come and go, the second in just under six months. And not once had he seen any of Janet Hardy’s family before today. Subtracting the almost two years he’d lived in New York, he’d lived in the area the whole of his life, and seen none of them before today. Heard of Mr. McGowan’s girl Cilla passing through a time or two, but he’d never caught a glimpse.

Now she was talking to plumbers, tearing down porches and… He paused when he recognized the black pickup turning into the drive across the road as belonging to his friend Matt Brewster, a local carpenter. When a second truck pulled in barely thirty seconds later, Ford decided to get himself another cup of coffee, maybe a bowl of cereal, and take his breakfast out on the veranda so he could watch the goings-on.

He should be working, Ford told himself an hour later. Vacation was over and done, and he had a deadline. But it was so damn interesting out here. Another truck joined the first two, and he recognized that one as well. Brian Morrow, former top jock and wide receiver, and the third in the pretty much lifelong triumvirate of Matt, Ford and Brian, ran his own landscaping company. From his perch, Ford watched Cilla make the circuit of the grounds with Brian, watched her gesture, then consult the thick notebook she carried.

He had to admire the way she moved. Must be all that leg, he supposed, that had her eating up the ground so efficiently while appearing to take her time. All that energy so tightly packed in that willowy frame, the glacier blue eyes and china-doll skin masking the muscle it took to…

“Whoa, wait a minute.” He sat up straighter, narrowed his eyes and pictured her with the hammer hefted on her shoulder again. “Shorter handle,” he muttered. “Two-sided head. Yeah, yeah. Looks like I am working.”

He went inside, grabbed a sketch pad and pencils and, inspired, dug out his binoculars. Back on the veranda, he focused on Cilla through the glasses, studying the shape of her face, the line of her jaw, her build. She had a fascinating, sexy mouth, he mused, with that deep middle dip in the top lip.

As he began the first sketch, he rolled around scenarios, dismissing them almost as soon as he considered.

It would come to him, he thought. The concept often came from the sketches. He saw her… Diane, Maggie, Nadine. No, no, no. Cass. Simple, a little androgynous. Cass Murphy. Cass Murphy. Intelligent, intense, solitary, even lonely. Attractive. He looked through the glasses again. “Oh yeah, attractive.”

The rough clothes didn’t disguise that, but they played it down. He continued to sketch, full body, close-up face, profile. Then stopped to tap his pencil and consider. Glasses might be a cliché, but they were shorthand for smarts. And always a good mask for the alter ego.

He sketched them on, trying out simple, dark frames, rectangular lenses. “There you are, Cass. Or should I say, Dr. Murphy?”

He flipped a page over, began again. Safari shirt, khakis, boots, wide-brimmed hat. Out of the lab or classroom, into the field. His lips curved as he flipped the page again, and his mind raced as he sketched out who and what his newly minted Cass would become. The leather, the breastplate-and the very nice pair rising over it. Silver armbands, long bare legs, the wild swirl of hair with the circlet of rank crowning the head. Jeweled belt? he wondered. Maybe. The ancient weapon- double-headed hammer. Gleaming silver when gripped by the hand of the blood descendant of the warrior goddess…

And yeah, he needed a name for her.

Roman? Greek? Viking? Celt?

Celtic. It fit.

He held up the pad, and found himself grinning at the image. “Hello, gorgeous. We’re going to kick some major ass together.”

He glanced back across the road. The trucks were gone now, and while Cilla was nowhere in sight, the front door of the farmhouse stood open.

“Thanks, neighbor,” Ford said, and, rising, went inside to call his agent.

SURREAL WAS the best way to describe Cilla’s view on finding herself sitting on the pretty patio of her father’s tidy brick colonial, sipping iced sun tea fussily served by her stepmother. The scene simply didn’t fit in with any previous phase of her life. As a child, her visits east had been few and far between. Work trumped visitations, at least in her mother’s game.

He’d come to her now and then, Cilla remembered. And taken her to the zoo or to Disneyland. But at least during the heyday of her series, there’d always been paparazzi, or kids swarming her, and their parents snapping photos. Work trumps Fantasyland, Cilla thought, whether you wanted it to or not.

Then, of course, her father and Patty had their own daughter, Angie, their own home, their own lives on the other side of the country. Which, Cilla mused, equated to the other side of the world.

She’d never fit into that world.

Isn’t that what her father had tried to tell her? A long way, and not just the miles.

“It’s nice out here,” Cilla said, groping.

“Our favorite sitting spot,” Patty answered with a smile that tried too hard. “It’s a little chilly yet, I know.”

“It feels good.” Cilla racked her brain. What did she say to this sweet, motherly woman with her pleasant face, dark bob of hair and nervous eyes? “I, ah, bet the gardens will be great in a week or two, when everything starts to pop.”

She scanned the bed, the shrubs and vines, the trim swath of lawn that would fill with pockets of shade when the red maple and weeping cherry leafed out. “You’ve put a lot of work into it.”

“Oh, I putter.” Patty flicked her fingers over her short, dark bob, twisted the little silver hoop in her ear. “It’s Gavin who’s the gardener in the house.”

“Oh.” Cilla shifted her gaze to her father. “Really?”

“I like playing in the dirt. Guess I never grew out of it.”

“His grandfather was a farmer.” Patty sent Gavin a quick beam. “So it came down through the blood.”

Had she known that? Why hadn’t she known that? “Here, in Virginia?”

Patty’s eyes widened in surprise, then slid toward Gavin. “Ummm.”

“I thought you knew-your grandmother bought my grandfather’s farm.”

“I- What? The Little Farm? That was yours?”

“It was never mine, sweetie. My grandfather sold it when I was just a boy. I do remember chasing chickens there, and getting scolded for it. My father didn’t want to farm, and his brothers and sisters-those living at the time-had mostly scattered off. So, well, he sold it. Janet was here, filming on location. Barn Dance.”

“I know that part of the story. She fell in love with the farm they used and bought it on the spot.”

“More or less on the spot,” Gavin said with a smile. “And Grandpa bought himself a Winnebago-I swear-and he and Grandma hit the road. Traveled all over hell and back again for the next six, seven years, till she had a stroke.”

“It was McGowan land.”

“Still is.” Still smiling, Gavin sipped his tea. “Isn’t it?”

“I think it’s a lovely kind of circle.” Patty reached out, patted her hand over Cilla’s. “I remember how the lights would shine in that house when Janet Hardy was there. And how in the summer, if you drove by with the windows open, you could hear music, and maybe see women in beautiful clothes, and the most handsome men. Now and then, she’d come into town, or just drive around in her convertible. A picture she made.”

Patty picked up the pitcher again, as if she had to keep her hands busy. “She stopped by our house once, when we had a litter of puppies for sale. Five dollars. Our collie had herself a liaison with a traveling salesman of indeterminate origin. She bought a puppy from us. Sat right down on the ground and let those pups jump and crawl all over her. And laughed and laughed. She had such a wonderful laugh.

“I’m sorry. I’m going on, aren’t I?”

“No. I didn’t know any of this. I don’t know nearly enough. Was that the dog that…”

“It was. She called him Hero. Old Fred Bates found him wandering the road and loaded him in his pickup, took him back. He was the one who found her that morning. It was a sad day. But now you’re here.” Again, Patty laid a hand over Cilla’s. “There’ll be lights and music again.”

“She bought the dog from you,” Cilla murmured, “and the farm from your grandfather.” She looked at Gavin. “I guess it’s another circle. Maybe you could help me with the gardens.”

“I’d like that.”

“I hired a landscaper today, but I have to decide what I want put in. I’ve got a book on gardening in this zone, but I could use some direction.”

“It’s a deal. And I’ve got a couple of gardening books that might give you more ideas.”

“A couple?”

Gavin grinned at his wife’s rolling eyes. “A few more than a couple. Who’d you hire?”

“Morrow? Brian Morrow?”

“Good choice. He does good work, and he’s reliable. Was a football star back in high school, and never pushed himself to be more than a dead average student. But he’s built up a good business and reputation for himself.”

“So I hear. I met another of your former students today. Ford Sawyer.”

“Of course,” Patty put in. “He lives right across the road.”

“Clever boy, always was.” Gavin nodded over his tea. “Tended to day-dream, but if you engaged his mind, he’d use it. He’s done well for himself, too.”

“Has he? How?”

“He writes graphic novels. Illustrates them, too, which isn’t usual, I’m told. The Seeker? That’s his. It’s interesting work.”

The Seeker. Super-crime-fighter sort of thing?”

“Along those lines. A down-on-his-luck private investigator stumbles across a madman’s plot to destroy the world’s great art through the use of a molecular scrambler that renders them invisible. His hopes to stop them-and secure his own fame and fortune-result in the murder of his devoted girlfriend. He himself is left for dead, but he’s also exposed to the scrambler.”

“And is imbued with the power of invisibility,” Cilla finished. “I’ve heard of this. A couple of the guys who worked on my flips were into graphic novels. God knows Steve was,” she said, referring to her ex-husband. “They’d argue the Seeker versus the Dark Knight or X-Men as compared to the Fantastic Four half the day. When I said something about grown men and comic books, I got the fish eye.”

“Gavin enjoys them. Well, Ford’s in particular.”

“Do you really?” The image of the quiet-natured high school teacher poring over superhero comics amused her. “Because he’s a former student?”

“That’s certainly a factor. And the boy tells a good, meaty story centered on a complicated character who seeks redemption by seeking out evil. He attempted to do the right thing, but for all the wrong reasons. To stop a madman but for his own personal gain. And that single act cost the life of the woman who loved him, and whom he’d treated carelessly. His power of invisibility becomes a metaphor-he becomes a hero but will never be seen. Interesting work.”

“He’s single,” Patty added, and made Gavin laugh. “Well, I’m only mentioning it because he lives right across the road, and Cilla’s going to be alone at the farm. She might want some company now and again.”

Head that one off at the pass, Cilla thought. "Actually, I’m going to be spending my days on the rehab, and my evenings plotting out the phases of the job. I’ll be too busy for much company for a while. In fact, I should get back to it. I’ve got a full day scheduled tomorrow.”

“Oh, but can’t you stay for dinner?” Patty protested. “Let’s get a nice home-cooked meal into you before you go. I’ve got lasagna all made up and ready to pop into the oven. It won’t take long.”

“That sounds great.” Cilla realized it did just that. “I’d love to stay for dinner.”

“You sit right here, have another glass of tea with your father.”

Cilla watched while Patty popped up, then bustled across the patio and into the house. “Should I go help her?”

“She likes to fuss with meals. It relaxes her, the way gardening does me. She’ll like it better if you sit out here and let her.”

“I make her nervous.”

“A little. It’ll pass. I can tell you she’d have been disappointed if you’d said no to dinner. Lasagna’s Patty’s specialty. She makes the sauce from my tomato harvest every summer and cans it.”

“You’re kidding.”

His lips quirked at her quick and absolute surprise. “It’s a different world, sweetie.”

“I’ll say.”

In this world, Cilla discovered, people ate homemade lasagna and apple cobbler, and treated a meal as food rather than a performance. And a guest or family-she thought she fell somewhere in the middle-was given a plate of each covered in tinfoil to take home for leftovers. If the guest/family was driving, she was offered a single glass of wine with dinner, then plied with coffee afterward.

Cilla glanced at her watch, smiled. And could be walking in her own door by eight.

After stowing the two plates in her trusty cooler, Cilla planted her hands on her hips and looked around. The bare bulbs cast harsh light and hard shadows, spotlighted cracked plaster and scarred floorboards. Poor old girl, she thought. You’re in desperate need of a face-lift.

She picked up her flashlight, switched it on before turning off the overhead bulbs and, using it to guide her way, started toward the steps.

A glance out the front window showed her the lights sparkling from homes scattered across the hills and fields. Other people had finished their home-cooked meals, she supposed, and were settled down to watch ’TV or finish up a little paperwork. Maybe kids were being tucked into bed, or being told to settle down and finish their homework.

She doubted any of them sat reading changes in the script for tomorrow’s shoot, or yawned through another running of her lines. Foolish to envy them, Cilla thought, for having what she never had.

Standing there, she picked out the lights in Ford’s house.

Was he crafting the Seeker’s next adventure? Maybe chowing down on frozen pizza, what she imagined the bachelor’s version of a home-cooked meal might be? And what was a comic book writer-pardon me, graphic novelist-doing living in a beautifully restored old Victorian in rural Virginia?

A single graphic novelist, she remembered with a smirk, with an unquestionably sexy Southern drawl and a lazy gait that edged up toward a swagger. And an odd little dog.

Whatever the reasons were, it was nice to see the lights shining across the road. Close but not too close. Oddly comforted by them, she turned away to continue upstairs, where she intended to slide into her sleeping bag and work on her plans.

HER CELL PHONE woke her out of a dead sleep, had her eyes flashing open, then slamming shut again against the glare of the light she’d neglected to turn off before dropping off. Cursing, Cilla pried one eye partially open as she slid a hand over the floor for the phone.

What the hell time was it?

Heart pounding, she read the time on the phone-3:28 A.M.-and her mother’s data on the display.

“Crap.” Cilla flipped the phone open. “What’s wrong?”

“Is that any way to answer the phone? You don’t bother to say hello?”

“Hello, Mom. What’s wrong?”

“I’m not happy with you, Cilla.”

What else is new? Cilla thought. And you’re drunk or stoned. Ditto. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that, especially at three-thirty in the morning, East Coast time. Which is where I am, remember?”

“I know where you are.” Bedelia’s voice sharpened even as it slurred. “I know damn well. You’re in my mother’s house, which you tricked me into giving you. I want it back.”

“I’m in my grandmother’s house, which you sold to me. And you can’t have it back. Where’s Mario?” she asked, referring to her mother’s current husband.

“This has nothing to do with Mario. This is between you and me. We’re all that’s left of her! You know very well you caught me in a weak moment. You took advantage of my vulnerability and my pain. I want you to come back immediately and tear up the transfer papers or whatever they are.”

“And you’ll tear up the cashier’s check for the purchase price?”

There was a long, brittle silence during which Cilla lay back down and yawned.

“You’re cold and ungrateful.”

The thin sheen of tears on the words was much too calculated, and too usual, to get a rise. “Yes, I am.”

“After everything I did for you, all the sacrifices I made, all of which you tossed away. Now, instead of you willing to pay me back for all the years I put you first, you’re tossing money in my face.”

“You could look at it that way. I’m keeping the farm. And don’t, please don’t, waste my time or your own trying to convince either of us this place matters to you. I’m in it, I’ve seen just how much you care about it.”

“She was my mother!”

“Yeah, and you’re mine. Those are the crosses we have to bear.” Cilla heard the crash, and pictured the glass holding her mother’s preferred nighttime Ketel One on the rocks hitting the nearest wall. Then the weeping began. “How can you say such a horrible thing to me!”

Lying on her back, Cilla swung her arm over her eyes and let the ranting, the sobbing play out. “You should go to bed, Mom. You shouldn’t make these calls when you’ve been drinking.”

“A lot you care. Maybe I’ll do what she did. Maybe I’ll just end it.”

“Don’t say that. You’ll feel better in the morning.” Possibly. “You need to get a good night’s sleep. You’ve got your show to plan.”

“Everyone wants me to be her.”

“No, they don’t.” Mostly, that’s just you. “Go on to bed now, Mom.”

“Mario. I want Mario.”

“Go on to bed. I’ll take care of it. He’ll be there. Promise me you’ll go up to bed.”

“All right, all right. I don’t want to talk to you anyway.”

When the phone clicked in her ear, Cilla lay as she was a moment. The whining snub at the end signaled that Dilly was done, would go to bed or simply lie down on the handiest surface and pass out. But they’d passed through the danger zone.

Cilla pushed the speed-dial button she’d designated as Number Five. “Mario,” she said when he answered. “Where are you?”

It took less than a minute to recap the situation, so she cut off Mario’s distress and hung up. Cilla had no doubt he’d rush home and provide Dilly with the sympathy, the attention and the comfort she wanted.

Wide awake and irritated, she climbed out of her sleeping bag. Carting her flashlight, she used the bathroom, then trudged downstairs for a fresh bottle of water. Before going back to the kitchen, she opened the front door and stepped out onto the short section of porch that remained.

All the pretty sparkling lights were gone now, she noted, and the hills were utterly, utterly dark. Even with the thin scatter of stars piercing through the clouds overhead, she thought it was like stepping into a tomb. Black and silent and cold. The mountains seemed to have folded in for the night, and the air was so still, so absolutely still, she thought she could hear the house breathing behind her.

“Friend or foe?” she asked aloud.

Mario would rush into the house in Bel Air, murmur and stroke, flatter and cajole, and ultimately sweep his drunken wreck of a wife into his toned (and younger) Italian arms to carry her up to their bed.

Dilly would say-and say often-that she was alone, always so alone. But she didn’t know the meaning of it, Cilla thought. She didn’t know the depths of it.

“Did you?” she asked Janet. “I think you knew what it was to be alone. To be surrounded, and completely, miserably alone. Well, hey, me too. And this is better.”

Better, Cilla thought, to be alone on a quiet night than to be alone in a crowd. Much better.

She stepped back inside, closed and locked the door.

And let the house sigh around her.

THREE

Ford spent two full hours watching Cilla through his binoculars, sketching her from various angles. After all, the way she moved jump-started the concept every bit as much as the way she looked. The lines, the curves, the shape, the coloring-all part of it. But movement, that was key. Grace and athleticism. Not balletic, no, not that. More… the sort of grace of a sprinter. Strength and purpose rather than art and flow.

A warrior’s grace, he thought. Economical and deadly.

He wished he could get a look at her with her hair down and loose instead of pulled back in a tail. A good look at her arms would help and her legs. And hell, any other parts of her that might pop into view wouldn’t hurt his feelings any.

He’d Googled her, and studied several photographs, and he’d NetFlixed her movies, so he’d have those to study. But the last movie she’d done-I’m Watching,Too!-was about eight years old.

He wanted the woman, not the girl.

He already had the story line in his head, crammed in there and shoving to get out. He’d cheated the night before, taking a couple hours away from his latest Seeker novel to draft the outline. And maybe he was cheating just a little bit more today, but he wanted to do a couple of pencils, and he didn’t want to do those until he had more detailed sketches.

The trouble was, his model had too many damn clothes on.

“I’d really like to see her naked,” he said, and Spock gave a kind of smart-assed snort. “Not that way. Well, yeah, that way, too. Who wouldn’t? But I’m speaking professionally.”

There came growlings and groanings now, with Spock rolling to his side. “I am a professional. They pay me and everything, which is why I can buy your food.”

Spock snagged the small, mangled bear he carted around, rolled again and dropped it on Ford’s foot. Then began to dance hopefully in place. “We’ve been through this before. You’re responsible for feeding him.”

Ignoring the dog, Ford thought of Cilla again. He’d pay another “Hi, neighbor” call. See if he could talk her into posing for him.

Inside, he loaded up his sketch pad, his pencils, tucked in a copy of The Seeker: Vanished, then considered what he might have around the house to serve as a bribe.

He settled on a nice bottle of cabernet, shoved that into the bag, then started the hike across the road. Spock deserted the bear and scrambled up to follow.

SHE SAW HIM COMING as she hauled another load of trash and debris out to the Dumpster she’d rented. Inside the house she’d started piles of wood and trim she hoped to salvage. The rest? It had to go. Sentiment didn’t magically restore rotted wood.

Cilla tossed the pile, then set her gloved hands on her hips. What did her hot-looking neighbor and appealingly ugly dog want now?

He’d shaved, she noted. So the scruffy look might’ve been laziness rather than design. She preferred laziness. Over one shoulder he carried a large leather satchel, and as he came down her drive, he lifted a hand in a friendly greeting.

Spock sniffed around the Dumpster and seemed happy to lift his leg.

“Hey. You’ve had a lot going on here the last couple of days.”

“No point wasting time.”

His grin spread slow and easy. “Wasting time can be the point.” He glanced at the Dumpster. “Are you gutting the place?”

“Not entirely, but more than I’d hoped. Neglect takes longer to damage than deliberation, but it does the job just as well. Hello, Spock.” At the greeting the dog walked over, offered a paw. Okay, Cilla thought as they shook. Ugly but charming. “What can I do for you, Ford?”

“I’m working up to that. But first, I brought you this.” He dug into the satchel, came out with the bottle of red.

“That’s nice. Thanks.”

“And this.” He drew out the graphic novel. “A little reading material with your wine at the end of the day. It’s what I do.”

“Drink wine and read comic books?”

“Yeah, actually, but I meant I write them.”

“So my father told me, and I was being sarcastic.”

“I got that. I speak sarcasm, as well as many other languages. Do you ever read them?”

Funny guy, she thought, with his funny dog. “I crammed in a lot of Batman when they were casting Batgirl for the Clooney version. I lost out to Alicia Silverstone.”

“Probably just as well, the way that one turned out.”

Cilla cocked an eyebrow. “Let me repeat. George Clooney.”

Ford could only shake his head. “Michael Keaton was Batman. It’s all about the I’m-a-little-bit-crazy eyes. Plus they lost the operatic sense after the Keaton movies. And don’t get me started on Val Kilmer.”

“Okay. Anyway, I prepped for the audition by studying the previous movies-and yes, Keaton was fabulous-reading some of the comics, boning up on the mythology. I probably overprepped.”

She shrugged off what had been a major blow to her at sixteen. “You do your own art?”

“Yeah.” He studied her as she studied the cover. Look at that mouth, he thought, and the angle of her chin. His fingers itched for his pad and pencil. “I’m territorial and egotistical. Nobody can do it the way I do it, so nobody gets the chance.”

She flipped through as he spoke. “It’s a lot. I always think of comics as about twenty pages of bright colors and characters going BAM! ZAP! Your art’s strong and vivid, with a lot of dark edges.”

“The Seeker has a lot of dark edges. I’m finishing up a new one. It should be done in a few days. It would’ve been done today, probably, if you hadn’t distracted me.”

The wine tucked in the curve of her arm took on another level of weight. “How did I do that?”

“The way you look, the way you move. I’m not hitting on you on a personal level.” He slid his gaze down. “Yet,” he qualified. “It’s a professional tap. I’ve been trying to come up with a new character, the central for another series, apart from the Seeker. A woman-female power, vulnerabilities, viewpoints, problems. And the duality… Not important for today’s purposes,” he said. “You’re my woman.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Dr. Cass Murphy, archaeologist, professor of same. Cool, quiet, solitary woman whose heart really lies in the field work. The discovery. Prodigy. Nobody gets too close to Cass. She’s all business. That’s the way she was raised. She’s emotionally repressed.”

“I’m emotionally repressed?”

“I don’t know yet, but she is. See.” He pulled out his sketchbook, flipped to a page. Angling her head, Cilla studied the drawing, studied herself if she wore conservative suits, sensible pumps and glasses.

“She looks boring.”

“She wants to look boring. She doesn’t want to be noticed. If people notice her, they might get in the way, and they might make her feel things she doesn’t want to feel. Even on a dig, she… See?”

“Hmm. Not boring but efficient and practical. Maybe subtly sexy, given the mannish cut of the shirt and pants. She’s more comfortable this way.”

“Exactly. You’ve got a knack for this.”

“I’ve read my share of storyboards. I don’t know your field, but I can’t see much of a story with this character.”

“Oh, Cass has layers,” he assured her. “We just have to uncover them the way she uncovers artifacts at a dig. The way she’ll uncover an ancient weapon and symbol of power when she’s trapped in a cave on a mythical island I have to create, after she discovers the dastardly plans of the billionaire backer of the project, who’s also an evil sorcerer.”

“Naturally.”

“I’ve got some work to do there, but here she is. Brid, Warrior Goddess.”

“Wow.” It was really all she could think of. She was all leather and legs, breastplate and boobs. The boring and practical had become the bold, dangerous and sexy. She stood, legs planted in knee-high boots, masses of hair swirling and a short-handled, double-headed hammer lofted skyward.

“You might’ve exaggerated the cup size,” she commented.

“The… Oh, well, it’s hard to tell. Besides, the architecture of the breastplate’s bound to give them a boost. But you hit on what you can do for me. Pose. I can get what I need from candid sketches, but I’d get better with-”

“Whoa.” She slapped her hand over his as he flipped to a page covered with small drawings of her. “Those aren’t character sketches. That’s me.”

“Yeah, well, same thing, essentially.”

“You’ve been over there, watching me over here, making drawings of me without my consent? You don’t see that as rude and intrusive?”

“No, I see it as work. If I snuck over here and peeked in your windows, that would be rude and intrusive. You move like an athlete with just a hint of dancer. Even when you’re standing still there’s a punch to it. That’s what I need. I don’t need your permission to base a character on your physicality, but I’d do a better job with your cooperation.”

She shoved his hand away to flip back to the warrior goddess. “That’s my face.”

“And a great face it is, too.”

“If I said I’m calling my lawyer?”

At Ford’s feet, Spock grumbled. “That would be shortsighted and hard-assed. And your choice. I don’t think you’d get anywhere, but to save myself the hassle, I can make a few alterations. Wider mouth, longer nose. Make her a redhead-a redhead’s not a bad idea. Sharper cheekbones. Let’s see.”

He dug out a pencil, flipped to a fresh page. While Cilla watched, he drew a quick freehand sketch.

“I’m keeping the eyes,” he muttered as he worked. “You’ve got killer eyes. Widen the mouth, exaggerate the bottom lip just a hair more, diamond-edge those cheekbones, lengthen the nose. It’s rough, but it’s a great face, too.”

“If you think you can goad me into-”

“But I like yours better. Come on, Cilla. Who doesn’t want to be a superhero? I promise you, Brid’s going to kick a lot more ass than Batgirl.”

She hated feeling stupid, and feeling her temper shove at her. “Go away. I’ve got work to do.”

“I take that as a no on posing for me.”

“You can take that as, if you don’t go away, I’m going to get my own magic hammer and beat you over the head with it.”

Her hands curled into fists when he smiled at her. “That’s the spirit. Just let me know if you change your mind,” he said as he slid the sketchbook back into his bag. “See you later,” he added and, tucking his pencil behind his ear, headed back down her driveway with his ugly little dog.

SHE STEWED ABOUT IT. The physical labor helped work off the mad, but the stewing part had to run its course. It was just her luck, just her freaking luck, that she could move out to what was almost the middle of nowhere and end up with a nosy, pushy, intrusive neighbor who had no respect for boundaries or privacy.

Her boundaries. Her privacy.

All she wanted was to do what she wanted to do, in her own time, in her own way-and largely by herself. She wanted to build something here, make a life, make a living. On her own terms.

She didn’t mind the aches and pains of hard physical labor. In fact she considered them a badge of honor, along with every blister and callus.

Damned if she wanted her steps, her movements documented by some pen-and-ink artist.

“Warrior goddess,” she muttered under her breath as she cleaned out clogged and sagging gutters. “Make her a redhead and give her collagen lips and D cups. Typical.”

She climbed down the extension ladder and, since the gutters completed her last chore of the day, stretched right out on the ground.

She hurt every damn where.

She wanted to soak herself limp in a Jacuzzi, and follow it up with an hour’s massage. And top that off with a couple glasses of wine, and possibly sex with Orlando Bloom. After that, she might just feel human.

Since the only thing on that wish list at hand was the wine, she’d settle for that. When she could move again.

With a sigh, she realized the stewing portion of the program was complete, and with her mind clear and her body exhausted, she knew the core reason for her reaction to Ford’s sketches.

A decade of therapy hadn’t been wasted.

So she groaned, pushed herself up. And went inside for the wine.

WITH SPOCK and his bear snoring majestically, Ford inked the last panel. Though the final work would be in color, his technique was to approach the inking as a near completion of the final art.

He’d already inked the panel borders, and the outlines of the background objects with his 108 Hunt. After completing the light side of his foregrounds, he stepped back, squinted, studied, approved. Once again, the Seeker, shoulders slumped, eyes downcast, face half turned away, slipped back toward the shadows that haunted his existence.

Poor sap.

Ford cleaned the nib he’d used, replaced it in its section of his worktable. He chose his brush, dipped it in India ink, then began to lay in the areas of shadow on his penciling with bold lines. Every few dips he rinsed the brush. The process took time, it took patience and a steady hand. As he envisioned large areas of black for this final, somber panel, he filled them in partially, knowing too much ink too fast would buckle his page.

When the banging on the door downstairs-and Spock’s answering barks of terror-interrupted him, he did what he always did with interruptions. He cursed at them. Once the cursing was done, he grunted a series of words-his little ritual incantation. He swirled the brush in water again and took it with him as he went down to answer.

Irritation switched to curiosity when he saw Cilla standing on his veranda holding the bottle of cab.

“We’re cool, Spock,” he said, to shut up the madly barking dog trembling at the top of the stairs.

“Don’t like red?” he asked Cilla when he opened the door.

“Don’t have a corkscrew.”

This time the dog greeted her with a couple of happy leaps, and an enthusiastic rub of his body against her legs. “Nice to see you, too.”

“He’s relieved you’re not invading forces from his home planet.”

“So am I.”

The response had Ford grinning. “Okay, come on in. I’ll dig up a corkscrew.” He took a couple steps down the foyer, stopped, turned back. “Do you want to borrow a corkscrew, or do you want me to open the bottle so you can share?”

“Why don’t you open it?”

“You’d better come on back then. I have to clean my brush first.”

“You’re working. I’ll just take the corkscrew.”

“Indian giver. The work can wait. What time is it anyway?”

She noticed he wasn’t wearing a watch, then checked her own. “About seven-thirty.”

“It can definitely wait, but the brush can’t. Soap, water, corkscrew and glasses all conveniently located in the kitchen.” He took her arm in a casual grip that was firm enough to get her where he wanted her.

“I like your house.”

“Me too.” He led the way down a wide hallway with lofty ceilings framed in creamy crown molding. “I bought it pretty much as it stands. Previous owners did a good job fixing it up, so all I had to do was dump furniture in it.”

“What sold you on it? There’s usually one or two main hooks for a buyer. This,” she added as she walked into the generous kitchen with its wide granite serving bar opening into a casual family room, “would be one for me.”

“Actually, it was the view, and the light from upstairs. I work upstairs, so that was key.”

He opened a drawer, located a corkscrew in a way that told her his spaces were organized. He set the tool aside, then stepped to the sink to wash the brush.

Spock executed what looked like a bouncing, nail-tapping dance, then darted through a doorway. “Where’s he going?”

“I’m in the kitchen, which sends the food signal to his brain. That was his happy dance.”

“Is that what it was?”

“Yeah, he’s a pretty basic guy. Food makes him happy. He’s got an autofeeder in the laundry room and a dog door. Anyway, the kitchen’s pretty much wasted on me, and so was the dining area they set up over there since I don’t actually dine so much as eat. I’d be a pretty basic guy, too. But I like having space.”

He set up the cleaned brush bristles in a glass. “Have a seat,” he invited as he picked up the corkscrew.

She sat at the bar, admired the stainless steel double ovens, the cherry cabinets, the six-burner range and grill combo under the shining stainless hood. And, since she wasn’t blinded by end-of-the-day fatigue, his ass.

He took two red wineglasses from one of the cabinets with textured glass doors, poured the wine. He stepped over, offered her one, then, lifting his own, leaned on the bar toward her and said, “So.”

“So. We’re going to be across the road from each other for quite a while, most likely. It’s better to smooth things out.”

“Smooth is good.”

“It’s flattering to be seen as some mythical warrior goddess,” she began. “Odd but flattering. I might even get a kick out of it-the Xena-meets-Wonder-Woman, twenty-first-century style.”

“That’s good, and not entirely off the mark.”

“But I don’t like the fact that you’ve been watching me, or drawing me when I wasn’t aware of it. It’s a problem for me.”

“Because you see it as an invasion of privacy. And I see it as natural observation.”

She took a drink. “All my life, people watched me, took pictures. Observed me. Take a walk, shop for shoes, go for ice cream, it’s a photo op. Maybe it was usually set up for that precise purpose, but I didn’t have any control over that. Even though I’m not in the business, I’m still Janet Hardy’s granddaughter, so it still happens from time to time.”

“And you don’t like it.”

“Not only don’t like it, I’m done with it. I don’t want to bring that by-product of Hollywood here.”

“I can go with the second face, but I’ve got to have the eyes.”

She took another drink. “Here’s the sticky part, for me. I don’t want you to use the second face. I feel stupid about it, but I like the idea of being the inspiration for a comic book hero. And that is something I never thought I’d hear myself say.”

Inside, Ford did a little happy dance of his own. “So it’s not the results, it’s the process. You want something to eat? I want something to eat.” He turned, opened another cupboard and pulled out a bag of Doritos.

“That’s not actual food.”

“That’s what makes it good. All of my life,” he continued as he dug into the bag, “I’ve watched people. Drawn pictures-well, I drew pictures as soon as I could hold a crayon. I’ve observed-the way they move, gesture, the way their faces and bodies are put together. How they carry themselves. It’s like breathing. Something I have to do. I could promise not to watch you, but I’d be lying. I can promise to show you any sketching I do, and try to keep that promise.”

Because they were there, she ate a Dorito. “What if I hate them?”

“You won’t, if you have any taste, but if you do, that would be too bad.”

Contemplating, she ate another chip. His voice had stayed easy, she noted-over the rigid steel underlying it. “That’s a hard line.”

“I’m not what you’d call flexible about my work. I can pretzel about most anything else.”

“I know the type. What comes after the sketching?”

“You’ve got to have a story. Graphics is only half of a graphic novel. But you need to… Bring your wine. Come on upstairs.”

He retrieved his brush. “I was inking the last panel on Payback when you knocked,” he told her as he led her out of the kitchen and to the stairs.

“Are these stairs original?”

“I don’t know.” His forehead creased as he looked down at them. “Maybe. Why?”

“It’s beautiful work. The pickets, the banister, the finish. Someone took care of this place. It’s a major contrast with mine.”

“Well, you’re taking care now. And you hired Matt-pal of mine-to do some of the carpentry. I know he worked on this place before I bought it. And did some stuff for me after.” He turned into his studio.

Cilla saw the gorgeous wide-planked chestnut floor, the beautiful tall windows and the wide, glossy trim. “What a wonderful room.”

“Big. It was designed as the master bedroom, but I don’t need this much space to sleep.”

Cilla tuned into him again, and into the various workstations set up in the room. Five large, and very ugly, filing cabinets lined one wall. Shelves lined another with what seemed to be a ruthless organization of art supplies and tools. He’d devoted another section to action figures and accessories. She recognized a handful of the collection, and wondered why Darth Vader and Superman appeared so chummy.

A huge drawing board stood in the center of the room, currently holding what she assumed to be the panels he’d talked about. Spreading out from it on either side, counters and cubbies held a variety of tools, pencils, brushes, reams of paper. Photographs, sketches, pictures torn or cut out of magazines of people, places, buildings. Still another leg of the counter held a computer, printer, scanner-a Buffy the Vampire Slayer action figure.

Opposite that, to form a wide U, stood a full-length mirror.

“That’s a lot of stuff.”

“It takes a lot of stuff. But for the art, which is what you want to know, I’ll do a few million sketches, casting my people, costuming them, playing with background, foreground, settings-and somewhere in there I’ll write the script, breaking that into panels. Then I’ll do thumbnails- small, quick sketches to help me decide how I’m going to divide my space, how I want to compose them. Then I pencil the panels. Then I ink the art, which is exactly what it sounds like.”

She stepped over to the drawing board. “Black and white, light and shadow. But the book you gave me was done in color.”

“So will this be. I used to do the coloring and the lettering by hand. It’s fun,” he told her, leaning a hip on one leg of the U, “and really time-consuming. And if you go foreign, and I did, it’s problematic to change hand-drawn balloons to fit the translations. So I digitized there. I scan the inked panels into the computer and work with Photoshop for coloring.”

“The art’s awfully good,” Cilla stated. “It almost tells the story without the captions. That’s strong imaging.”

Ford waited a beat, then another. “I’m waiting for it.”

She glanced over her shoulder at him. “For what?”

“For you to ask why I’m wasting my talent with comic books instead of pursuing a legitimate career in art.”

“You’ll be waiting a long time. I don’t see waste when someone’s doing what they want to do, and something they excel at.”

“I knew I was going to like you.”

“Plus, you’re talking to someone who starred for eight seasons on a half-hour sitcom. It wasn’t Ibsen, but it sure as hell was legitimate. People will recognize me from your art. I’m not on the radar so much anymore, but I look enough like my grandmother, and she is. She always will be. People will make the connection.”

“Is that a problem for you?”

“I wish I knew.”

"You’ve got a couple days to think about it. Or…” He shifted, opened a drawer, drew out papers.

“You wrote up a release,” Cilla said after a glance at the papers.

“I figured you’d either come around or you wouldn’t. If you did, we’d get this out of the way.”

She stepped away, walked to the windows. The lights sparkled again, she thought. Little diamond glints in the dark. She watched them, and the dog currently chasing shadows in Ford’s backyard. She sipped her wine. Then she turned her head to look at him over her shoulder. “I’m not posing in a breastplate.”

Humor hit his eyes an instant before he grinned. “I can work around that.”

“No nudity.”

“Only for my personal collection.”

She let out a short laugh. “Got a pen?”

“A few hundred of them.” He chose a standard roller ball as she crossed the room.

“Here’s another condition. A personal, and petty, requirement. I want her to kick a lot more ass than Batgirl.”

“Guaranteed.”

After she’d signed the three copies, he handed her one. “For your files. How about we pour another glass of this wine, order a pizza and celebrate the deal?”

She eased back. He hadn’t stepped into her space; she’d stepped into his. But the tingle in her blood warned her to mark the distance. “No, thanks. You’ve got work and so do I.”

“Night’s young.” He walked out of the room with her. “Tomorrow’s long.”

“Not as young as it was, and tomorrow’s never long enough. Plus I need extra time to fantasize about putting in a Jacuzzi.”

“I’ve got one.”

She slid her eyes toward him as they came down the stairs. “I don’t suppose you have a massage therapist on tap, too.”

“No, but I’ve got really good hands.”

“I bet you do. Well, if you were Orlando Bloom, I’d consider this a sign from God and be sleeping with you in about ninety minutes. But since you’re not”-she opened the front door herself-“I’ll say good night.”

He stood, frowning after her, then stepped onto the veranda as she hiked toward the road. “Orlando Bloom?”

She simply lifted a hand in a kind of brushing-off wave, and kept walking.

FOUR

She had a couple of good, productive days. She’d lined up her plumber, her electrician, her head carpenter, and had the first of three projected estimates on replacement windows. But her luckiest find, to her way of thinking, had been connecting with an ancient little man named Dobby and his energetic grandson Jack, who would save and restore the original plaster walls.

“Old man McGowan hired my daddy to do these walls back around 1922,” Dobby told Cilla as he stood on his short, bowed legs in the living room of the little farm. “I was about six, came around to help him mix the plaster. Never saw such a big house before.”

“It’s good work.”

“He took pride in it, taught me the same. Miz Hardy, she hired me on to do some pointing up, and replastering where she made some changes. That’d be back around, ’sixty-five, I guess.”

Dobby’s face reminded Cilla of a piece of thin brown paper that had been balled tight, then carelessly smoothed out. The creases deepened like valleys when he smiled. “Never seen the like of her, either. Looked like an angel. Had a sweet way about her, and didn’t put on airs like you’d reckon a movie star would. Signed one of her record albums for me, too, when I got up the gumption to ask her. My wife wouldn’t let me play it after that. Had to frame it up for the wall, and buy a new one to listen to. It’s still hanging in the parlor.”

“I’m glad I found you, to keep the tradition going.”

“Not hard to find, I expect. Lot of people, in Miz Hardy’s day, and with her wherewithal, woulda put up the Sheetrock.” He turned his deep brown eyes on Cilla. “Most people’d do that now instead of preserving it.”

“I can’t save it all, Mr. Dobby. Some of it has to change, and some just has to go. But what I can save, I intend to.” She ran a fingertip along a long crack in the living room wall. “I think the house deserves that kind of respect from me.”

“Respect.” He nodded, obviously pleased. “That’s a fine way to look at it. It’s right fitting to have a McGowan here again, and one who comes down from Miz Hardy. My grandson and I’ll do good work for you.”

“I’m sure you will.”

They shook hands on it, there where she imagined his father might have shaken hands with her great-grandfather. And where Janet Hardy had signed an album that would stand in a frame.

She spent a few hours off site with a local cabinetmaker. Respect was important, but the old metal kitchen cabinets had to go. She planned to strip some of them down, repaint them and put them to use in the combination mud- and laundry room she’d designed.

When she got home again, she found the open bottle of cabernet topped with a goofy, alien head glow-in-the-dark wine stopper, and a corkscrew sitting on the temporary boards at her front door.

The note under the bottle read:

Sorry I didn’t get this back to you sooner, but Spock chained me to my desk. Recently escaped, and you weren’t home. Somebody could drink all this selfishly by herself, or ask a thirsty neighbor to join her one of these nights.

Ford

Amused, she considered doing just that-one of these nights. Glancing back, she felt a little poke of disappointment that he wasn’t standing out on his porch-veranda, she corrected. And the poke warned her to be careful about sharing a bottle of wine with hot guys who lived across the road.

Considering that, considering him, made her think of his studio-the space, the light. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that sort of space, that sort of light, for an office? If she pushed through with her long-term plans of rehabbing, remodeling homes, flipping houses, she’d need an attractive and efficient home office space.

The bedroom she’d earmarked for the purpose on the second floor would certainly do the job. But imagining Ford’s studio as she set the wine down on the old kitchen counter (slated for demo the next day), her projected office came off small, cramped and barely adequate.

She could take out the wall between the second and third bedrooms, she supposed. But that didn’t give her the light, the look she now imagined.

Wandering the first floor, she repositioned, projected, considered. It could be done, she thought, but she didn’t want her office space on the main level. She didn’t want to live at work, so to speak. Not for the long term. Besides, if she hadn’t seen Ford’s fabulous studio, she’d have been perfectly content with the refit bedroom.

And later, if her business actually took off, she could add a breezeway off the south side, then…

“Wait a minute.”

She hustled up the stairs, down the hall to the attic door. It groaned in cranky protest when she opened it, but the bare bulb at the top of the steep, narrow stairs blinked on when she hit the switch.

One look at the dusty steps had her backtracking for her notebook, and a flashlight, just in case.

Clean attic. Install new light fixtures.

She headed up, pulled the chain on the first of three hanging bulbs.

“Oh yeah. Now we’re talking.”

It was a long, wide, sloped-roof mess of dust and spiderwebs. And loaded, to her mind, with potential. Though she’d had it lower than low on her priority list for cleaning and repair, the lightbulb was on in her head as well as over it.

The space was huge, the exposed rafter ceiling high enough for her to stand with room to spare until it pitched down at the sides. At the moment, there were two stingy windows on either end, but that could change. Would change.

Boxes, chests, a scarred dresser, old furniture, old pole lamps with yellowed shades stood blanketed with dust. Dingy ghosts. Books, probably full of silverfish, and old record albums likely warped from decades of summer heat jammed an old open bookcase.

She’d come up here before, taken one wincing look, then had designated the attic to Someday.

But now.

Go through the junk, she thought, writing quickly. Sort the wheat from the chaff. Clean it up. Bring the stairwell and the stairs up to code. Enlarge window openings. Outdoor entrance-and that meant outdoor stairs, with maybe an atrium-style door. Insulate, sand and seal the rafters and leave them exposed. Wiring, heat and AC. Plumbing, too, because there was plenty of room for a half bath. Maybe skylights.

Oh boy, oh boy. She’d just added a ton to her budget.

But wouldn’t it be fun?

Sitting cross-legged on the dusty floor, she spent a happy hour drawing out various options and ideas.

How much of the stuff up here had been her great-grandfather’s? Had he, or his daughter or son, actually used the old white bowl and pitcher for washing up? Or sat and rocked a fretful baby in the spindly rocker?

Who read the books, listened to the music, hauled up the boxes in which she discovered a rat’s nest of Christmas lights with fat, old-fashioned colored bulbs?

Toss, donate or keep, she mused. She’d have to start piles. More boxes revealed more Christmas decorations, scraps of material she imagined someone had kept with the idea of sewing something out of them. She found three old toasters with cords frayed and possibly gnawed on by mice, broken porcelain lamps, chipped teacups. People saved the weirdest things.

She bumped up the mice quotient on discovering four traps, mercifully uninhabited. Curious, and since she was already filthy, she squatted down to pull out some of the books. Some might be salvageable.

Who read Zane Grey? she wondered. Who enjoyed Frank Yerby and Mary Stewart? She piled them up, dug out more. Steinbeck and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dashiell Hammett and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

She started to pull out a copy of The Great Gatsby, and her fingers depressed the sides. Fearing the pages inside had simply deteriorated, she opened it carefully. Inside, in a depression framed by the raw edges of cut pages, sat a stack of letters tied with a faded red ribbon.

“Trudy Hamilton,” Cilla read. “Oh my God.”

She sat with the open book on her lap, her palms together as if in prayer, and her fingertips pressed to her lips. Letters to her grandmother, sent to a name Janet hadn’t used since childhood.

The address on the top envelope was a post office box in Malibu. And the postmark…

Reverently, Cilla lifted the stack, angled it toward the light.

“Front Royal, Virginia, January 1972.” A year and a half before she died, Cilla thought.

Love letters. What else could they be, tied with a ribbon, hidden away? A secret of a woman who’d been allowed precious few under the microscope of fame, and surely concealed by her own hands before, like Gatsby, she died young, tragically.

Romanticizing it, Cilla told herself. They could be chatty letters from an old friend, a distant relative.

But they weren’t. She knew they weren’t. Laying them back in the book, she closed it and carried it downstairs.

She showered first, knowing she didn’t dare handle the treasure she’d unearthed until she’d scrubbed off the attic dirt.

Scrubbed, dressed in flannel pants and a sweatshirt, her wet hair pulled back, she poured a glass of Ford’s wine. Standing in the hard fluorescent light-and boy, did that have to go-she sipped the wine, stared at the book.

The letters were hers now, Cilla had no qualms about that. Oh, her mother would disagree-and loudly. She’d weep about her loss, her right to anything that had been Janet’s. Then she’d sell them, auction them off as she had so many of Janet’s possessions over the years.

For posterity, Dilly would claim. For the public who adored her. But that was so much crap, Cilla thought. It would be for the money, and for the reflected glow of fame, the spread in People with photos of Dilly holding the stack of letters, her eyes sheened with tears, with inserts of her and Janet.

But she’d believe her own spin, Cilla thought. That was one of Dilly’s finest skills, as innate as her ability to call up those tear-sheened eyes on cue.

What should be done with them? Should they be hidden away again, returned to sender? Framed like a signed record and hung in the parlor?

“Have to read them first.”

Cilla blew out a breath, set the wine aside, then dragged a stool to the counter. With great care, she untied the faded ribbon, then slipped the top letter out of its envelope. The paper whispered as she unfolded it. Dark, clear handwriting filled two pages.

My Darling,

My heart beats faster knowing I have the right to call you that. My darling. What have I done in my life to earn such a precious gift? Every night I dream of you, of the sound of your voice, the scent of your skin, the taste of your mouth. I tremble inside as I remember the sheer glory of making love to you.

And every morning I wake, afraid it’s all just a dream. Did I imagine it, how we sat by the fire on that cold, clear night, talking as we had never talked before?

Only friends, as I knew what I felt for you, what I wanted with you, could never be. How could such a woman ever want someone like me? Then, then, did it happen? Did you come into my arms? Did your lips seek mine? Did we come together like madness while the fire burned and the music played? Was that the dream, my darling? If it was, I want to live in dreams forever.

My body aches for yours now that we are so far from each other. I long for your voice, but not only on the radio or the record player. I long for your face, but not only in photographs or on the movie screen. It’s you I want, the you inside. The beautiful, passionate, real woman I held in my arms that night, and the nights we were able to steal after.

Come to me soon, my darling. Come back to me and to our secret world where only you and I exist.

I send you all my love, all my longing in this new year.

I am now and forever,

Only Yours

Here? Cilla wondered, carefully folding the letter again. Had it been here in this house, in front of the fire? Had Janet found love and happiness in this house in the final eighteen months of her life? Or was it another fling, another of her brief encounters?

Cilla counted out the envelopes, noting they were all addressed the same way and by the same hand, though some of the postmarks varied. Forty-two letters, she thought, and the last postmarked only ten short days before Janet took her life in this house.

Fingers trembling a bit, she opened the last letter.

Only one page this time, she noted.

This stops now. The calls, the threats, the hysteria stop now. It’s over, Janet. The last time was a mistake, and will never be repeated. You must be mad, calling my home, speaking to my wife, but then I’ve seen the sickness in you time and time again. Understand me, I will not leave my wife, my family. I will not endanger all I’ve built, and my future, for you. You claim you love me, but what does a woman like you know about love? Your whole life is built on lies and illusions, and for a time I was seduced by them, by you. No longer.

If you are pregnant, as you claim, there’s no proof the responsibility is mine. Don’t threaten me again with exposure, or you will pay for it, I promise you.

Stay in Hollywood where your lies are currency. They’re worth nothing here. You are not wanted.

“Pregnant.” Cilla’s whispered word seemed to echo through the house.

Shaken, she pushed off the stool to open the back door, to stand and breathe and let the chilly air cool her face.

CULVER CITY 1941

“To understand,” Janet told Cilla, “you have to start at the beginning. This is close enough.”

The hand holding Cilla’s was small and soft. Like all her dreams of Janet, the image began as an old photograph, faded and frayed, and slowly took on color and depth.

Two long braids lay over the shoulders of a gingham dress like ropes of sunlight on a meadow of fading flowers. Those brilliant, cold and clear blue eyes stared out at the world. The illusion of it.

All around Cilla and the child who would become her grandmother people bustled, on foot or in the open-sided jitneys that plowed along the wide avenue. Fifth Avenue, Cilla realized-or its movie counterpart.

Here was MGM at its zenith. More stars than the heavens could hold, and the child clutching her hand would be one of its brightest.

“I’m seven years old,” Janet told her. “I’ve been performing for three years now. Vaudeville first. I wanted to sing, to perform. I loved the applause. It’s like being hugged by a thousand arms. I dreamed of being a star,” she continued as she led Cilla along. “A movie star, with pretty dresses and the bright, bright lights. All the candy in the candy shop.”

Janet paused, spun into a complex and energetic tap routine, scuffed Mary Janes flying. “I can dance, too. I can learn a routine with one rehearsal. My voice is magic in my throat. I remember all my lines, but more, I can act. Do you know why?”

“Why?” she asked, though she knew the answer. She’d read the interviews, the books, the biographies. She knew the child.

“Because I believe it. Every time, I believe the story. I make it real for me so it’s real for all the people who come to watch me in the movie show. Didn’t you?”

“Sometimes I did. But that meant it hurt when it stopped.”

The child nodded, and an adult sorrow clouded her eyes. “It’s like dying when it stops, so you have to find things that make it bright again. But that’s for later. I don’t know that yet. Now, it’s all bright.” The child threw out her arms as if to embrace it. “I’m younger than Judy and Shirley, and the camera loves me almost as much as I love it. I’ll make four movies this year, but this one makes me a real star. ‘The Little Comet’ is what they’ll call me after The Family O’Hara’s released.”

“You sang ‘I’ll Get By’ and made it a love song to your family. It became your signature song.”

“They’ll play it at my funeral. I don’t know that yet, either. This is Lot One. Brownstone Street.” Just a hint of priss entered her voice as she educated her granddaughter, and tugged her along with the small, soft hand. "The O’Haras live in New York, a down-on-their-luck theatrical troupe. They think it’s just another Depression-era movie, with music. Just another cog in the factory wheel. But it changes everything. They’ll be riding on the tail of the Little Comet for a long time.

“I’m already a drug addict, but that’s another thing I don’t know yet. I owe that to my mama.”

“Seconal and Benzedrine.” Cilla knew. “She gave them to you day and night.”

“A girl’s got to get a good night’s sleep and be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning.” Bitter, adult eyes stared out of the child’s pretty face. “She wanted to be a star, but she didn’t have it. I did, so she pushed, and she pushed, and she used me. She never hugged me, but the audience did. She changed my name, and pulled the strings. She signed me to a seven-year contract with Mr. Mayer, who changed my name again, and she took all the money. She gave me pills so I could make more. I hated her-not yet, but soon. Today, I don’t mind,” she said with a shrug that bounced her pigtails. “Today I’m happy because I know what to do with the song. I always know what to do with a song.”

She gestured. “That’s the soundstage. That’s where the magic happens. Out here, we’re just ghosts, ghosts and dreams,” she continued as a jitney full of actors in evening dresses and tuxes passed right through them. “But in there, it’s real. While the camera’s on, it’s all there is.”

“It’s not real, Janet. It’s a job.”

The blue eyes filled with warmth. “Maybe for you, but for me, it was my true love, and my salvation.”

“It killed you.”

“It made me first. I wanted this. That’s what you have to understand to figure out the rest. I wanted this more than anything I wanted before, or anything I wanted ever again, until it was nearly over. Those few moments when I do the scene, sing the song, and even the director’s eyes blur with tears. When, after he yells ‘Cut,’ the crew, the cast all break into applause and I feel their love for me. That’s all I wanted in the world, and what I’d try to find again and again and again. Sometimes I did. I was happy here, when I was seven especially.”

She sighed, smiled. “I would’ve lived here if they’d let me, wandering from New York to ancient Rome, from the old West to small-town USA. What could be a better playground for a child? This was home, more than I’d had. And I was pathetically grateful.”

“They used you up.”

“Not today, not today.” Frowning in annoyance, Janet waved the thought away. “Today everything’s perfect. I have everything I ever wanted today.”

“You bought the Little Farm, thousands of miles from here. A world away from this.”

“That was later, wasn’t it? And besides, I always came back. I needed this. I couldn’t live without love.”

“Is that why you killed yourself?”

“There are so many reasons for so many things. It’s hard to pick one. That’s what you want to do. That’s what you’ll need to do.”

“But if you were pregnant-”

“If, if, if.” Laughing, Janet danced over the sidewalk, up the steps of a dignified brownstone façade, then back down. “If is for tomorrow, for next year. People will play if about my whole life after I’m dead. I’ll be immortal, but I won’t be around to enjoy it.” She laughed again, then swung Gene Kelly style on a lamppost. “Except when you’re dreaming about me. Don’t stop, Cilla. You can bring me back just like the Little Farm. You’re the only one who can.”

She jumped off. “I have to go. It’s time for my scene. Time to make magic. It’s really the beginning for me.” She blew Cilla a kiss, then ran off down the sidewalk.

As the illusions of New York faded, as Cilla slowly surfaced from the dream, she heard Janet’s rich, heartbreaking voice soaring.

I’ll get by, as long as I have you.

But you didn’t, Cilla thought as she stared at the soft sunlight sliding through the windows. You didn’t get by.

Sighing, she crawled out of the sleeping bag and, scrubbing sleep from her face, walked to the window to stare out at the hills and mountains. And thought about a world, a life, three thousand miles west.

“If that was home, that was what you needed, why did you come all the way here to die?”

Was it for him? she wondered. Were you pregnant, and they covered that up? Or was that just a lie to stop your lover from ending your affair?

Who was he? Was he still alive, still in Virginia? And how did you keep the affair off the microscope slide? Why did you? was a keener question, Cilla decided.

Was he the reason you unplugged the phone that night, then chased the pills with vodka, the vodka with more pills until you went away? Not because of Johnnie then, Cilla mused. Not, as so many theorized, over the guilt and grief of losing your indulged eighteen-year-old son. Or not only because of that.

But a pregnancy so close to a death? Was that overwhelming or a beam of light in the dark?

It mattered, Cilla realized. All of it mattered, not only because Janet Hardy was her grandmother, but because she’d held the child’s hand in the dream. The lovely little girl on the towering edge of impossible stardom.

It mattered. Somehow she had to find the answers.

Even if her mother had been a reliable source of information-which Cilla thought not-it was hours too early to call Dilly. In any case, within thirty minutes, subcontractors would begin to arrive. So she’d mull all this, let it turn around in her head while she worked.

Cilla picked up the stack of letters she’d read, retied the faded ribbon. Once again she tucked them inside Fitzgerald. Then she laid the book on the folding table currently standing as a work area, along with her stacks of files and home magazines-and Ford’s graphic novel.

Until she figured out what to do about them, the letters were her secret. Just as they’d been Janet’s.

FIVE

As nervous as a parent sending her firstborn off to school, Cilla supervised the loading of her vintage kitchen appliances onto the truck. Once restored, they’d be the jewels in her completed kitchen. Or that was the plan.

For the foreseeable future, she’d make do with the under-the-counter fridge, hot plate and microwave oven, all more suited to a college dorm than an actual home.

“Get yourself brand-new appliances down at Sears,” Buddy told her.

"Call me crazy,” Cilla said, as she suspected he already did. “Now let’s talk about putting a john in the attic.”

She spent the next hour with him, the electrician and one of the carpenters in the musty attic outlining her vision, then adjusting it when their suggestions made sense to her.

With the music of hammers, drills, saws jangling, she began the laborious task of sorting and hauling the attic contents out to the old barn. There, where the ghostly scents of hay and horses haunted the air, she stored both trash and treasure. While spring popped around her, Cilla watched old windows replaced by new, and old ceramic tiles hauled to the Dumpster. She breathed in the scents of sawdust and plaster, of wood glue and sweat.

At night she nursed her blisters and nicks, and often read over the letters written to her grandmother.

One evening, too restless to settle after the various crews had cleared out, she hiked down to study and consider her iron gates. Or she used them as an excuse, Cilla admitted, as she’d seen Ford sitting out on his veranda. His casual wave as she stood on her side of the road, and Spock’s wagging stunted whip of a tail, made it easy, even natural to cross.

“I saw you rebuilding your veranda,” he commented. “Where’d you learn to use power tools?”

“Along the way.” After greeting the dog, she turned, looked back at the farm. “My veranda doesn’t look too bad from yours, considering mine’s not finished or painted. The new windows look good, too. I’m putting bigger ones in the attic, and adding skylights.”

“Skylights in an attic.”

“It won’t be an attic when I’m done. It’ll be my office. That’s your fault.”

He smiled lazily. “Is it?”

“You inspired me.”

“I guess that’s tit for tat, so to speak.” He lifted his Corona. “Want a beer?”

“I really do.”

“Have a seat.”

She slid into one of his wide Adirondacks, scratched Spock’s big head between his tiny pointed ears while Ford went inside for the beer. It was a good perspective of her place from here, she thought. She could see where she needed new trees, shrubs, where it might be a nice touch to add a trellis to the south side of the house, how the old barn wanted to be connected to the house by a stone path. Or brick, she thought. Maybe slate.

“I imagine the sound carries over here,” she said when Ford came back out. “All that noise must be annoying.”

“I don’t hear much when I’m working.” He handed her the beer, sat. “Unless I want to.”

“Superior powers of concentration?”

“That would be a lofty way of saying I just tune things out. How’s it going over there?”

“Pretty well. Fits and starts like any project.” She took a pull of her beer, closed her eyes. “God, cold beer after a long day. It should be the law of the land.”

“I seem to be in the habit of giving you alcohol.”

She glanced at him. “And I haven’t reciprocated.”

He kicked out his legs, smiled. “So I’ve noticed.”

“My place isn’t fit for even casual entertainment at the moment. Neither am I. You see that iron gate?”

“Hard to miss.”

“Do I have it restored, or do I have it replaced?”

“Why do you need it? Seems like a lot of trouble to be stopping the car, getting out, opening the gates, driving through, getting out, closing them again. Even if you put in something automatic, it’s trouble.”

“I told myself that before. Changed my mind.” Spock bumped his head against her hand a few times, and she translated the signal, went back to scratching him. “They’re there for a reason.”

“I can see why she needed them, your grandmother. But I haven’t noticed you using them since you moved in.”

“No, I haven’t.” She smiled a little as she sipped her beer. “Because they’re too much trouble. They don’t fit the feel of the place, do they? The rambling farmhouse, the big old barn. But she needed them. They’re just an illusion, really.” God knew she’d needed her illusions. “Not that hard to climb over them or the walls. But she needed the illusion of security, of privacy. I found some old letters.”

“Ones she wrote?”

She hadn’t meant to say anything about them. Was it two sips of beer that had loosened her tongue, Cilla wondered, or just his company? She wasn’t sure she’d ever met anyone so innately relaxed. “No, written to her. A number of them written to her in the last year and a half of her life. By a local, I’d say, as the majority of the postmarks are from here.”

"Love letters.”

“They started that way. Passionate, romantic, intimate.” She angled her head, studied him over another sip of beer. “Why am I telling you?”

“Why not?”

“I haven’t told anyone else yet. I’ve been trying to figure them out, figure him out, I guess. I’m going to talk to my father about it at some point, as he was friendly with Janet’s son-my uncle. And the affair seems to have begun the winter before he was killed-and appears to have started to go downhill a few months after.”

“You want to know who wrote them.” Ford rubbed the dog lazily with his foot when Spock shifted to bump against him. “How’d he sign them?”

“‘Only Yours’-until he started signing them with varieties of ‘up yours.’ It didn’t end well. He was married,” she continued as Spock, apparently rubbed enough, curled up under Ford’s chair and began to snore. “It’s no secret she had affairs with married men. From flings to serious liaisons. She fell in love the way other women change their hairstyle. Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“She lived in a different world than most women.”

“I’ve always considered that a handy excuse or justification for being careless, for being selfish.”

“Maybe.” Ford shrugged. “Still true.”

“She craved love, the physical and the emotional. As addicted to it as she was to the pills her mother started feeding her when she was four. But I think this one was real, for her.”

“Because she kept it secret.”

She turned back to him again. He had good eyes, she thought. Not just the way they looked with that rim of gold around the green, the flecks scattered in it. But the way he saw things.

“Yes, exactly. She kept it to herself because it was important. And maybe Johnnie’s death made it all the more intense and desperate. I don’t know what she wrote to him, but from his letters I can feel her desperation, and that terrible need, as easily as I can read his waning interest, his concerns with being found out and his eventual disgust. But she didn’t want to let go. The last letter in the stack was mailed from here ten days before she died.”

Now she shifted, and her gaze focused on the farm. “Died in that house across the road. He told her, in very clear, very harsh words, that they were done, to leave him alone. She must’ve gotten on a plane right after getting the letter. She walked off the set of her last, unfinished movie, claiming exhaustion, and flew here. That wasn’t her way. She worked, she loved the work, respected the work, but she flicked it off this time. Only this time. She must’ve been hoping to win him back. Don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. You do.”

“I do.” It hurt, she realized. A little pang in the heart. “And when she realized it was hopeless, she killed herself. Her fault. Hers,” she said before Ford could speak. “Whether it was the accidental overdose, as the coroner decided to rule it, or the suicide that seems much more realistic. But this man has to know he played a part in what she chose to do that night.”

“You want the piece of the puzzle so you can see the whole picture.”

The shadows were long now, she thought. Long and growing longer. Soon the lights would sparkle through the hills, and the mountains behind them would fold up under the dark.

“I grew up with her like another person in the house, or wherever I went, whatever I did. Her life, her work, her brilliance, her flaws, her death. Inescapable. And now, look what I’ve done.” She gestured with the bottle toward the farm. “My choice. I’ve had opportunities I never would have had if Janet Hardy hadn’t been my grandmother. And I’ve dealt with a lot of crap over the years because Janet Hardy’s my grandmother. Yeah, I’d like the whole picture. Or as much of one as it’s possible to see. I don’t have to like it, but I’d like, maybe even need, the chance to understand it.”

“Seems reasonable to me.”

“Does it? It does to me, too, except when it doesn’t and strikes me as obsessive.”

“She’s part of your heritage, and only one generation removed. I could tell you all kinds of stories about my grandparents, on both sides. Of course, three out of four of them are still living-and two of those three still live around here. And will talk your ear off the side of your head given half the chance.”

“And apparently so will I. I need to get back.” She pushed to her feet. “Thanks for the beer.”

“I’m thinking about tossing something on the grill in a bit.” He rose as well, casually shifting in a way that boxed her between the porch rail and his body. “That and the microwave are my culinary areas. Why don’t you have another beer, and I’ll cook something up?”

He could cook something up, she thought, she had no doubt. Tall, sun-streaked and charming with a faint wash of nerd. Too appealing for her own good. “I’ve been up since six, and I’ve got a full day tomorrow.”

“Ever take a day off?” He trailed his fingertips-just the fingertips- down her arm. “And this would be me officially hitting on you.”

“I suspected that. I’m not actually scheduling any time off right now.”

“In that case I’d better take advantage of the moment.”

She expected smooth, a nice quiet cruise by the way his head dipped toward hers, by the lazy interest in those gold-rimmed eyes. Later, when she could think about it clearly, she decided she hadn’t been entirely wrong. It was smooth, in the way a good shot of excellent whiskey, straight up, is smooth.

But rather than a nice, quiet cruise, she got a strong, hard jolt when his mouth closed over hers. The sort that bulleted straight to her belly. The hands that gripped her arms gave one quick, insistent tug that had her pressed against him. In another of those subtle moves, he had her back against the post, and her mouth completely captivated.

Zero to sixty, she thought. And she’d forgotten to strap in first.

She clamped her hands on his hips and let the speed take her.

Everything he’d imagined-and his imagination was boundless- paled. Her taste was more potent, her lips more generous, her body more supple. It was as if he’d painted this first kiss in the brightest, boldest colors in his palette.

And even they weren’t deep enough.

She was a ride on a dragon, a flight through space, a dive into the deep waters of an enchanted sea.

His hands swept up from her shoulders to her face, then into her hair to tug the band tying it back. He eased away to see her with her hair tumbled, to see her eyes, her face before he drew her back again.

But she pressed a hand to his chest. “Better not.” She let out a careful breath. “I’ve already hit my quota of mistakes for this decade.”

“That didn’t feel like a mistake to me.”

“Maybe, maybe not. I have to think about it.”

He ran his hands down to her elbows and back up as he watched her. “That’s really a damn shame.”

“It is.” She took another breath. “It absolutely is. But…”

At her light nudge, he stepped back. “Here’s what I need to know. There’s persistence, there’s pacing and there’s pains in the ass. I’m wondering which category you’d consider it if I wander over to your place now and then or invite you over here, with the full intention of trying to get you naked.”

The dog made an odd gurgling sound from under the chair, and Cilla watched one of those bulging eyes open. As if he waited for the answer, too.

“You haven’t come close to the third yet, but I’ll let you know if you do.”

She sidestepped. “But I’m going to take a rain check on that offer of food and nudity. I’ve got a porch-veranda-to finish tomorrow.”

“Oh, that tired old excuse.”

She laughed, went down the steps before she changed her mind. “I do appreciate the Corona, the ear and being hit on.”

“Come back anytime for any or all of the above.”

He leaned on the rail as she walked across the road, returned the wave she sent him when she reached the open gates. And he bent and picked up the little stretchy band of blue he’d tugged out of her hair.

FORD DEBATED GIVING her some time, some space. Then decided the hell with that. His latest novel was on his editor’s desk, and before he dove too deeply into Brid, he wanted some visual aids. Plus, since Cilla didn’t appear to be put off by the persistent, he intended to be just that.

After he rolled out of bed at what he considered the civilized hour of ten, checked the backyard to see that Spock was already up and chasing his ghost cats, he took his coffee outside and watched her work on her front veranda.

He considered he could get some very decent shots of her, in action, with his long lens. But decided that edged over into the murky area of creepy. Instead, he poured himself a bowl of Cheerios and ate them standing up, studying her.

The body was great. Long, lean, lanky and on the athletic side rather than willowy and slight. Cass would be fit, he decided, but instinctively conceal her… attributes. Brid, well, she’d be right out there.

The hair, that deep blond like shadowed sunlight, he decided. An easy transition there, too. Cass would habitually keep hers restrained; Brid’s would fly and flow. Then the face. He wished he could see Cilla’s now, but it was blocked by the brim of the ball cap she wore as she worked. He had no problem conjuring it in his mind, the shape, the angles, the tones. It would be a face Cass played down, one made quiet and intellectual by the glasses, the lack of makeup.

Beauty restrained, just like her hair.

But Brid, for Brid, the beauty would be bold, luminous. Not simply released but wild with it.

Time to get started.

Inside, he packed up his satchel again, hung his camera around his neck by its strap. He considered another token, and shoved an apple into the bag.

The sound of her nail gun peppered the air like muffled gunshots. And made Ford think of battles. Brid would never use a gun-much too crass, too ordinary. But how would she defend herself against them? With sword and hammer, deflecting bullets like Wonder Woman’s magic bracelets? Maybe.

As he walked closer, the echoey music from one of the workers’ radio jangled out country. Why was it always country? he wondered. Was it some sort of construction law?

Country music (including selected crossover artists) must be played on portable radios on all sites.

He caught the buzz of a saw, the whine of what might’ve been a drill, and assorted bangs from inside. Adding them together, along with the decor of Dumpster, Porta Potti and pickups, he found himself grateful he’d bought his own place move-in ready.

Plus, he sincerely doubted any of the workers he might have hired otherwise would have owned an ass like the one currently snugged into dusty Levi’s and happily facing his way.

He could’ve resisted, but why? So he lifted the camera, framed her in and took the shot as he walked.

“You know why they have those calendars of scantily clad women holding power drills and such in mechanics’ shops?” he called out.

Cilla looked over her shoulder, sized Ford up through her safety goggles. “So men can imagine their dicks as a power drill?”

“No, so we can imagine women imagine it.”

“I stand corrected.” She shot in the last two nails, then swiveled around to sit. “Where’s your faithful companion?”

“Spock? He’s busy, but sends his best. Where’d you learn to shoot that gun?”

“On-the-job training. I’ve got more boards to cut and nail, if you want a turn.”

“Tragic and terrible things happen when I pick up tools. So I don’t, and save lives.” He reached in his bag. “Brought you a present.”

“You brought me an apple?”

“It’ll help keep your strength up.” He tossed it to her, cocking a brow when she caught it neatly, and one-handed. “I had a feeling.”

She studied the apple, then bit in. “About what?”

“That you’d field what comes at you. Mind if I take some pictures while you’re working? I want to start some more detailed sketches.”

“So you’re going forward with the warrior goddess idea.”

“Brid. Yeah, I am. I can wait until you take a break if the camera bothers you while you work.”

“I spent more than half my life in front of cameras.” She pushed to her feet. “They don’t bother me.”

She tossed the apple core into the Dumpster before stepping over to her lumber pile. Ford snapped away while she selected, measured, set the piece on the power saw. He watched her eyes as the blade whined, as it cut through wood. He doubted the camera could capture the focus in them.

But it captured the cut of her biceps, the ripple of toned muscle when she hefted the planks and carried them to the finished decking.

“Living in California, I expect you’re a woman who spends regular time at a gym.”

Cilla set the plank on her marks, braced the distance with spacers. “I like a good gym.”

“Let me say working out’s worked out for you.”

“I tend toward skinny otherwise. Rehab work helps the tone,” she continued, driving in the first nail. “But I miss the discipline of a good gym. Do you know any around here?”

“As it happens, I do. Tell you what, you come on over when you’re finished up for the day. I’ll take you to see the gym, then we’ll have dinner.”

“Maybe.”

“You’re not the coy type. ‘Maybe’ means…?”

“It depends on when I finish up.”

“Gym’s open twenty-four/seven.”

“Seriously?” She flicked him a glance, then worked her way down the board with her nail gun. “That’s handy. I’ll adjust the maybe to probably.”

“Fair enough. On the dinner end, are you vegetarian or fruititarian or some other ’tarian that requires restrictions on the menu?”

Laughing, she sat back on her heels. “I’m an eatitarian. I’ll eat pretty much what you put in front of me.”

“Good to know. Mind if I take a look inside, see what all the banging and sawing’s about? It’ll also give me the chance to rag on Matt about whatever comes to mind.”

“Go ahead. I’d give you the tour, but my boss is a bitch about unscheduled breaks.”

“Mine’s a pushover.” He stepped up, then bent down, sniffed at her. “First time I ever realized the smell of sawdust was sexy.”

He stepped inside and said, “Holy shit.”

He’d expected a certain amount of chaos, activity and mess. He hadn’t expected what struck him as a kind of maniacal destruction. There had to be a purpose behind it all, he thought, as Cilla struck him as firmly sane, but he couldn’t see it.

Tools scattered over the floor in what hit his organized soul with dismay. How did anyone find anything? Cords snaked and coiled. Bare bulbs dangled. Sections of wall gaped where for reasons that escaped him someone had cut or hacked them out. The wide planks of the floor were patchworked with stained cloths and cardboard.

Baffled, and slightly horrified, he wandered through, observing the same sort of mad bombarding in every room.

He found Matt in one of them, curling blond hair under a red ball cap, tool belt slung, measuring tape at the ready. He gave Ford an easy smile, said, “Hey.”

“You make this mess?”

“Pieces of it. Boss lady’s got ideas. Good ones. That’s a woman who knows what she’s doing.”

“If you say so. How’s Josie?”

“Doing good. We got a picture of the Beast.”

Ford knew the Beast was the baby Josie was currently carrying. Their two-year-old son had been the Belly.

He took the sonogram shot Matt pulled out of his pocket, studied it, turned it and finally found the form. Legs, arms, body, head. “He looks like the other one did. Midget alien from Planet Womb.”

“She. We just found out. It’s a girl.”

“Yeah?” Ford glanced up at his friend’s huge grin, found his own spreading. “One of each species. Nice going.”

“She’s not dating till she’s thirty.” Matt took the picture back, looked at it with love, then slipped it back into his pocket. “So, you up for poker night at Bri’s?”

Ford thought he’d rather face a root canal than poker night. But he, Matt and Brian had been friends just about all their lives. “If there’s absolutely no escape.”

“Good. I need the money. Hold that end of the tape a minute.”

“You know better than that.”

“Right.” Matt set the tape himself. “If you touch it, it’s likely to explode in my hand. I could lose a finger. Have you been through the place yet?”

“I just started.”

“Take a look around. It’s going to be a hell of a thing.”

“It already looks like hell.”

Unable to resist, he backtracked, went upstairs. It didn’t get any better. What had been a bathroom was now a bare box with stripped walls and skeletal pipes, with raw holes in the floor and ceiling. Two bedrooms stood doorless, their windows still bearing the stickers of the manufacturer, their floors covered with ratty carpet.

But when he opened the door to the next bedroom, astonishment clicked up to temper. What the hell was she thinking? An air mattress and sleeping bag, cardboard boxes and an old card table?

“I take back the sane,” he muttered, and headed back down.

He found her standing in front of the newly planked veranda guzzling water from a bottle. The warming temperatures and the labor combined to lay a dark sweat line down the center of the white T-shirt she wore with the jeans. It only added to his annoyance that he found a sweaty, possibly unstable woman so damned appealing.

“Are you crazy or just stupid?” he demanded.

Slowly, she lowered the bottle. And slowly, she tipped her head down until those glacial blue eyes met his. “What?”

“Who lives like that?” He jerked a thumb back toward the house as he strode down to her. “The house is torn to pieces, you’re down to a hot plate in the kitchen, and you’re sleeping on the floor and living out of a cardboard box. What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“I’ll take that one at a time. I live like this because I’m in the middle of a major project, which is why the house is torn up, though hardly to pieces. I’m down to a hot plate because I’m having the appliances rehabbed. I’m sleeping on an air mattress, not the floor, because I haven’t decided what kind of bed I want. And there’s nothing wrong with me.”

“Go on up and get what you need. You’ll take my spare room.”

“I stopped taking orders a long time ago. From my mother, from agents, managers, directors, producers and all manner of others who decided they knew what was best for me, what I wanted, what I should do. I’m afraid you’re too late.”

“You’re living like a squatter.”

“I’m living as I choose.”

He caught the flare of heat in the icy blue, but pushed anyway.“There’s a bedroom over there with a perfectly good bed, one with sheets.”

“Oh, if it’s got actual sheets… no. Go away, Ford. My break’s over.”

“Your bitch of a boss’ll have to give you another couple minutes. You can see this damn place from mine, and you can walk over every morning in about ninety seconds-after you’ve had a decent night’s sleep in an actual bed, and used a bathroom that isn’t the black and blue of a psychedelic bruise, and about the size of a quarter.”

For some reason his obvious fury banked any embers of her own. Amused now, she laughed outright. “The bathroom’s hideous, I’ll give you that. But doesn’t persuade me to pull up stakes. I get the impression you’re a lot more fastidious than I am.”

“I’m not fastidious.” Temper veered sharply into insult. “Old men in cardigans are fastidious. Wanting to sleep in a bed and piss in a toilet that was manufactured sometime in the last half century doesn’t make me fastidious. And your hand’s bleeding.”

She glanced down. “Must’ve scraped it.” She wiped the shallow cut carelessly on her jeans.

He stared at her. “What the hell’s wrong with me?” he wondered, and grabbed her.

He jerked her up to her toes. He wanted those ice-blue eyes level with his, wanted that gorgeous, tasty mouth lined right up. He didn’t think any further than that before he swooped in and plundered.

She was sweaty, covered with sawdust and possibly had any number of screws loose. And he’d never, never wanted anyone more in his life.

He ignored her jump of shock. The bolt of lust that slammed into him blasted away any thought of niceties. He wanted, he took. It was as elemental as that.

The water bottle slipped out of her hand and bounced on the ground. For the first time in too long to remember she’d been caught completely by surprise. She hadn’t seen this move coming, and even the potency of the kiss they’d shared the evening before hadn’t prepared her for the punch of this one.

It was raw, and it was randy, and plowed straight through her to leave her muscles quivering and nerve ends quaking. She wanted, for one mad moment, to be gulped down in one greedy swallow, wanted him to throw her over his shoulder and drag her off to some dark cave.

When he jerked her away again, her head actually spun.

“Fastidious, my ass.”

As she stared at Ford, she heard Buddy the plumber call her name from behind. “Don’t mean to interrupt,” he continued, “but you might take a look at what I’m fixing to do in this bathroom. When you get a minute.”

She lifted a hand, wagged it vaguely in the air without looking around. “You’re a dangerous man, Ford.”

“Thanks.”

“I don’t know how I missed that. I’m usually good at spotting dangerous men.”

“I guess I wear it well, since I’ve missed that my entire life myself. There’s a lock on the spare bedroom. I can give you my word not to kick the door down, unless the house is on fire. Even then, since I’ve never kicked one down, you’d probably have plenty of warning.”

“If and when I sleep at your house, it won’t be in the spare room. But for now, I’m staying put. You’re a dangerous man, Ford,” she repeated before he could speak. “I’m a determined woman. I not only like living here, I need to. Otherwise, I’d be staying at the closest motel. Now, I’ve got to get inside. I’m putting in a basin-style sink with exposed pipes and wall-hung fixtures. Like you, Buddy doesn’t understand my line of thinking.”

He looked over her shoulder at the house, shook his head. “Right now, I’m not sure anyone understands your line but you.”

“I’m used to that.”

“Come on over when you’re done, we’ll check out that gym.” He picked up his satchel and camera. Then the water bottle. “Your shoes are wet,” he told her, then headed home.

Cilla looked down at her feet. Damned if they weren’t. She squished her way into the house to talk to Buddy.

SIX

Cilla spent the bulk of her afternoon looking at toilets. And choosing sinks. She debated the advantages of travertine tile and granite, limestone and ceramic. In her last incarnation of flipping houses, budget had been king. She’d learned to stick to one, to select the best value and look at the neighborhood as well as the house itself. Too much over, too much under, and profit would be sucked away like dust bunnies in a Dyson.

But this time things were different. While budget could never be ignored, she was making choices for home, not for resale. If she intended to live on the Little Farm, to build a life and a career there, she’d be the one living with those choices for a long time to come.

When she’d stumbled into the real estate game, she learned she had a good eye for potential, for color, texture, balance. And she discovered she was fussy. A slight difference in tone, shape or size in bathroom tile mattered in her world. She could spend hours deciding on the right drawer pull.

And she’d discovered doing so, and finding the right drawer pull, made her absurdly happy.

On her return to the now empty construction zone of a house, she grinned at the new planks of her veranda. She’d done that, just as she’d build the rail, the pickets, then paint it a fresh farmhouse white. Probably white, she corrected. Maybe cream. Possibly ivory.

The sound of her feet slapping down on those planks struck her like music.

She hauled the samples she’d brought with her up to the bathroom, spent time arranging, studying. And basking in her vision. Warm, charming, simple. Exactly right for a guest room bath.

The oil-rubbed bronze fixtures she’d already bought and had planned this room around would be wonderfully complemented by the subtle tones in the tile and old-fashioned vessel sink.

Buddy, she thought, would eat his words when this was done.

She left the samples where they were-she wanted to take another careful look at them in natural, morning light-then all but danced to the shower to wash off the day’s work.

She sang, letting her voice boom and echo off the cracked, pitiful and soon to be demolished tiles of her own bathroom. No playback from a recording studio or soundstage had ever pleased her more.

WHEN FORD OPENED THE DOOR, Cilla held out the traveling bottle of cabernet. He took it, held it up and estimated there was nearly half a bottle left.

“You lush.”

“I know. It’s a problem. So how about a drink before we go scout out this gym?”

“Sure.”

She’d left her hair down, he noted, so that it spilled, ruler straight, inches past her shoulders. Her scent brought a quick, vivid sensory memory of the night-blooming jasmine that rioted outside his grandmother’s house in Georgia.

“You look good.”

“I feel good. I bought three toilets today.”

“Well, that certainly deserves a drink.”

“I picked out bathroom tile,” she continued as she followed him back to the kitchen, “cabinet knobs, light fixtures and a tub. A really wonderful classic slipper-style claw-foot tub. This is a big day. And I’m thinking of going Deco in the master bath.”

“Deco?”

“I saw this fabulous sink today, and I thought, yeah, that’s it. I could do a lot of chrome and pale blue glass in there. Black-and-white tiles- or maybe black and silver. A little metallic punch. Jazzy, retro. Indulgent. You’d be tempted to wear a silk robe with marabou feathers.”

“I always am. As I’ve always wondered what is a marabou, and why does it have feathers?”

“I don’t know, but I may buy that robe just to hang in there and finish it off. It’s going to rock.”

“All this from a sink?” He handed her a glass of wine.

“That’s how it usually works for me. I’ll see a piece, and it gives a tug, so I can see how the rest of the room might work around it. Anyway.” She lifted her glass in toast. “I had a good day. How about you?”

She sparkled, he thought. A trip to Home Depot, or wherever she’d been, and she sparkled like sunlight. “Well, I didn’t buy any toilets, but I can’t complain. I’ve got a good handle on the book, the story line, and managed to put a lot of it on paper.” He studied her as he sipped. “I guess I understand your sink, after all. I saw you, you gave a tug. And the rest works around you.”

“Can I read it?”

“Sure. Once I get it smoothed out some.”

“That’s awfully normal and untemperamental. Most of the writers I’ve known fall into two camps. The ones who plead for you to read every word as it’s written, and the ones who’d put out your eyes with a shrimp fork if you glimpsed a page of unpolished work.”

“I bet most of the writers you’ve known are in Hollywood.”

She considered a moment. “Your point,” she conceded. “When I was acting, script pages could come flying at you while you were shooting the scene. I actually liked it that way. More spontaneous, keeps the energy up. But I used to think, how hard can it be? You just put the idea down in words on paper. I found out how hard it can be when I started to write a screenplay.”

“You wrote a screenplay?”

“Started to write. About a woman who grows up in the business-an insider’s view-the rise and the fall, the scrambling, the triumphs and humiliations. Write what you know, I thought, and boy, did I know. I only got about ten pages in.”

“Why did you stop?”

“I failed to factor in one little element. I can’t write.” She laughed, shook back her hair. “Reading a million scripts doesn’t mean you can write one. Even a bad one. And since of that million scripts I’ve read, I’ve read about nine hundred thousand bad ones, I knew a stinker. With acting, I had to believe-not make believe, but believe. Janet Hardy’s Number One Rule. It struck me it’s the same with writing. And I couldn’t write so I could believe. You do.”

“How do you know?”

“I could see it when you started telling me about this new idea, about this new character. And it shows in your work, the words and the art.”

He pointed at her. “You read the book.”

“I did. I confess I intended to flip through it, get the gist so I wouldn’t fail the quiz if and when you asked me about it. But I got caught up. Your Seeker is flawed and dark and human. Even when he’s in superhero mode, his humanity, his wounds show through. I guess that’s the point.”

“You’d guess right. You just earned yourself another drink.”

“Better not.” She put a hand over her glass when he reached for the wine. “Maybe later, over dinner. After you show me the gym. You said it was close.”

“Yeah, it is. Come take a look at this.”

He gestured, then opened a flat-panel cherry door she’d admired. Lower level, she assumed and, since touring houses always appealed, started down with him.

“Nice stairs again,” she commented. “Whoever built this place really… Oh. Man.”

Struck with admiration and not a little envy, she stopped at the base. The slope of the hill opened the lower level to the rear of the house through wide glass doors and windows, and a small and pretty slate patio beyond, where the dog currently sprawled on his back, feet straight up, sleeping.

But inside, on safety mats over the wide-planked oak floor, stood the machines. In silence, she wandered, studying the elliptical trainer, the weight bench, the rack of weights, the recumbent bike, rowing machine.

Serious stuff, she mused.

An enormous flat-panel TV covered one wall. She noted the components tucked into a built-in, and the glass-front bar fridge holding bottles of water. And in the corner where the wood merged with slate rested a whirlpool tub in glossy black.

“Matt’s work?”

“Yeah. Mostly.”

“I’m more and more pleased with my instinct to hire him. You never have to leave here.”

“That was sort of the idea. I like to hole up for long stretches. It was designed as a family room, but since my family doesn’t live here, I figured why haul myself to a gym when I can bring the gym to me? And, hey, no membership fee. Of course, it cuts out being able to ogle toned and sweaty female bodies, but you’ve got to make some sacrifices.”

“I have a basement,” Cilla mused. “An actual underground basement, but it’s big. I gave some thought to finishing it off eventually, but more for storage and utility. But with the right lighting…”

“Until then, you’re welcome to use this.”

Frowning, she turned to look at him. “Why?”

“Why not?”

“Don’t evade. Why?”

“That wasn’t an evasion.” And wasn’t she an odd combination of caution and openness, he thought. “But if you need more specifics, I only use it a few hours a week. So you’re welcome to use it a few hours a week, too. Call it Southern hospitality.”

“When do you generally work out?”

“No set time, really. More when the mood strikes. I try to make sure the mood strikes five or six days a week anyway, otherwise I can start to resemble Skeletor.”

“Who?”

“You know, Skeletor. Masters of the Universe? Archenemy of He-Man. And, no, you don’t know. I’ll get you a book. It doesn’t fit anyway, because despite the name, Skeletor’s ripped. Anyway, you can use those doors there, when your mood strikes. I won’t even know you’re here. And I might get lucky, have my mood match yours-then I’d be able to ogle a toned, sweaty female after all.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Pull up your shirt.”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

“Keep your pants on. Just the shirt, Ford. I want to check out the abs.”

“You’re a strange woman, Cilla.” But he pulled up his shirt.

She poked a finger into his stomach. “Okay. I just wanted to be sure you actually use this equipment, and the mood striking is a side benefit rather than a purpose.”

“I’ve got a purpose when it comes to you.”

“Which I get, and which is fine. But I’d really like to take you up on your offer and do that without strings or expectations. I appreciate the hospitality, Ford. I really do. Plus you have Matt’s seal of approval, and I like him.”

“It’s a good thing because I pay him five hundred a year for that seal.”

“He loves you. It came across when I subtly and cleverly pumped him about you.”

He felt a quick and happy twinge. “You pumped him about me?”

“Subtly,” she repeated. “And cleverly. And he’s a nice guy, so…” She scanned the room, the equipment again, and he could almost feel her longing. “How about we barter? I’ll happily take advantage of your equipment, and if you have something around the house that needs fixing or dealing with, I’ll take care of it.”

“You’re going to be my handyman?”

“I’m pretty damn handy.”

“Will you wear your tool belt, and a really short skirt?”

“Tool belt, yes. Skirt, no.”

“Damn it.”

“If I can’t fix it, I’ll send one of the guys over. Maybe one of them will wear a really short skirt.”

“I can always hope.”

“Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Great.” Smiling, she studied the room again. “I’m going to take advantage first thing tomorrow. Why don’t I take you out to dinner to seal the deal?”

“I’ll rain-check that as I’ve got the menu planned up in Chez Sawyer.”

“You’re going to cook.”

“My specialty.” He took her arm to turn her toward the steps. “I only have the one that doesn’t involve nuking. It involves tossing a couple steaks on the grill, stabbing a bunch of peppers on a skewer and baking a couple of potatoes. How do you like your steak?”

“So I can hear it faintly whisper moo.”

“Cilla, you’re a woman after my own heart.”

SHE WASN’T. She wasn’t after anything but the pursuit of her own goals, and the satisfaction of finding them. But she had to admit, Ford made it tempting. He engaged her mind, putting it at ease and keeping it on alert. It was, Cilla thought, a clever skill. She enjoyed his company, more than she felt was altogether wise, particularly since she’d planned to spend more of her time alone.

And he looked damn good standing over a smoking grill.

They ate on his back veranda, with the well-fed Spock snoring in table-scrap bliss. And she found the down-to-basics meal exactly right. “God, it’s so beautiful here. Peaceful.”

“No urges for club crawls or a quick foray down Rodeo Drive?”

“I had my fill of both a long time ago. Seems like fun at the time, but it goes sour fast if it’s not really your place. It wasn’t mine. What about you? You lived in New York for a while, didn’t you? No urges to take another bite out of the Big Apple?”

“It was exciting, and I like going back now and then, soaking up that energy. The thing was, I thought I was supposed to live there, given what I wanted to do. After a while, I realized I was doing more work when I came down to visit my parents for a few days, hang with friends, than I was in the same stretch of time up there. I finally figured out there were just too many people thinking up there, all hours of the day and night. And I thought better down here.”

“That’s funny,” she replied.

“What is?”

“In an interview once, a reporter asked my grandmother why she bought this little farm in Virginia. She said she could hear her own thoughts here, and that they tended to get drowned out with everyone else’s when she was in L.A.”

“I know exactly what she meant. Have you read many of her interviews? ”

“Read, reread, listened to, watched. I can’t remember a time she didn’t fascinate me. This brilliant light, this tragic icon, who I came from. I couldn’t escape her, so I needed to know her. I resented her when I was a kid. Being compared to her, and always falling short.”

“Comparisons are designed to make someone fall short.”

“They really are. By the time I was twelve or thirteen, they actively pissed me off. So I started to study her, very purposefully, looking for the trick, the secret. What I found was a woman who was stupendously and naturally talented. Anyone compared to her would fall short. And realizing that, I didn’t resent her anymore. It would be like resenting a diamond for sparkling.”

“I grew up hearing about her, because she had the place here. Died here. My mother would play her records a lot. She went to a couple of parties at the farm,” he added. “My mother.”

“Did she?”

“Her claim to fame is kissing Janet Hardy’s son, that would be your uncle. A little odd, isn’t it, you and me sitting out here like this, and back years, my mother and your uncle made out in the shadows across the road. Might be odder still when I tell you my mama did some of the same with your daddy.”

“Oh God.” On a burst of laughter, Cilla picked up her wine, took a quick drink. “You’re not making that up?”

“Pure truth. This would be, of course, before she settled on my father, and your father went out to Hollywood after your mother. Complicated business, now that I think about it.”

“I’ll say.”

“And mortifying for me, when she told me. Which was with some glee, when I ended up in your father’s class in high school. The thought that my mother had locked lips with Mr. McGowan was damn near traumatizing at the time.” His eyes lit with humor. “Now, I like the synchronicity that my mother’s son has locked lips with Mr. McGowan’s daughter.”

Circles, Cilla thought. She’d thought of circles when she’d come to rebuild her grandmother’s farm. Now here was another circle linked to that. “They must’ve been so young,” she said softly. “Johnnie was only eighteen when he died. It must’ve been horrible for Janet, for the parents of the other two boys-one dead, one paralyzed. She never got over it. You can see in every clip, every photo of her taken after that night, she was never the same.”

“My mother used to use that accident as a kind of bogeyman when I got old enough to drive. You’d see Jimmy Hennessy around town from time to time in his wheelchair, and she never missed the opportunity to remind me of what could happen if I was careless enough to drink or get high, then get behind the wheel or into a car with someone who’d been using.”

He shook his head, polished off his steak. “I still can’t go to a bar and guiltlessly enjoy a single beer if I’ve got to drive myself home. Mothers sure can screw things up for you.”

“Does he still live here? The boy-well, not a boy now-the one who survived the wreck?”

“He died last year. Or the year before. I’m not sure.”

“I didn’t hear about it.”

“He lived at home his whole life. His parents looked after him. Rough.”

“Yes. His father blamed Janet. Blamed her for bringing her Hollywood immorality here, for letting her son run wild, for buying him the fast car.”

“There were two other boys in that car. Nobody forced them into it,” Ford pointed out. “Nobody poured beer forcibly down their throats or pumped pot into their systems. They were young and stupid, all three of them. And they paid a terrible price for it.”

“And she paid them. According to my mother-and her bitterness over it tells me it’s true-Janet paid each of the families of those boys a considerable sum of money. Undisclosed amount, even to my mother. And again, according to the gospel of Dilly, Janet only kept the farm as a kind of monument to Johnnie, and tied it up in trusts for decades after her own death for the same reason. But I don’t believe that.”

“What do you believe?”

“I believe Janet kept it because she was happy here. Because she could hear her own thoughts here, even when those thoughts were dark and dreadful.” She sighed, sat back. “Give me another glass of wine, will you, Ford? That’ll make three, which is my absolute personal high-end limit.”

“What happens after three?”

“I haven’t gone over three in years, but if history holds, I go from relaxed, perhaps mildly and pleasantly buzzed, to drunk enough to have yet one or maybe two more. Then I’d be very drunk, jump you, and wake up tomorrow with a hangover and only blurred memories of our encounter.”

“In that case, you’re cut off after this.” He poured the wine. “When we encounter, your memory’s going to be crystal.”

“I haven’t decided on that yet, you know.”

“That’s okay, I have.” He propped his chin on his fist, stared at her. “I can’t get myself out of your eyes, Cilla. They keep pulling me in.”

“Janet Hardy’s eyes.”

“No. Cilla McGowan’s eyes.”

She smiled, sipped her last glass of wine. “I was going to make up an excuse-or not even bother to make one up-about not coming tonight.”

“Is that so?”

“That is so. Because you got bossy about my living arrangements.”

“Defining ‘bossy’ as ‘sensible.’ Why did you come?”

“Buying the toilets put me in a really good mood. Seriously,” she said when he choked out a laugh. “I’ve found my thing, Ford. After a long time looking.”

“You found your thing in toilets.”

It was her turn to laugh. “I found my thing in taking something broken down or neglected, or just a little tired, and making it shine again. Making it better. And doing that’s made me better. So because I was in a good mood, I walked across the road. I’m really glad I did.”

“So am I.”

SHE DIDN’T SEE him or Spock when she let herself in his home gym the next morning. Cilla plugged in her iPod and got down to business. She gave herself a solid hour, and at some point during it the dog strolled out into the backyard and lifted his leg a number of times. But there was still no sign or sound from Ford when she let herself out again, with one wistful glance at his hot tub.

No time for jets and indulgence, she told herself. But as Spock raced over, so obviously thrilled to see her, she spent a good ten minutes rubbing him while he gurgled and grunted in what seemed to be some form of communication. The workout, the silly dog, just the day itself put her in a fine mood as she jogged back across the road. She showered off the workout sweat, downed coffee and a blueberry yogurt. By the time she strapped on her tool belt, her crews and subs began to arrive.

It took time, every morning, but Cilla was happy to spend it. Talking, evaluating, brainstorming away problems.

“I’m going to expand the bathroom, Buddy,” she told him, and, as she expected, he let out a windy sigh.

“The one I’m using now, not the one you’ve roughed in.”

“That’s something anyway.”

“I’ve already talked to Matt,” she said. “Come on up, and I’ll show you what we’re going to do.”

He hemmed and he hawed, but that was expected, too. In fact, she’d come to look forward to it. “Now that we’re putting my office upstairs instead of in this bedroom, I’m going to use this space to make it a master suite. We’ll be taking out this wall,” she began.

He listened, he scratched, he shook his head. “Gonna cost you.”

“Yes, I know. I’ll draw it up in more detail later, but for now, here’s the idea.” She opened her notebook to the sketch she’d drawn with Matt. “We’ll keep the old claw-foot tub, have it refurbished and set here. Floor pipes and drains. Double sinks here, and I’m thinking undermount.”

“Guess you’ll be putting a slab of granite or whatnot.”

“No, zinc.”

“Say, what?”

“Zinc countertop. And over here, I’m putting in a steam shower. Yes,” she said before he could speak. “Hollywood ideas. Glass block here, to form the water closet. In the end, it’s going to reflect and respect the architecture, pay homage to retro, and, Buddy, it will rock.”

“You’re the boss.”

She grinned. “Damn straight.”

The boss moved outside, to build her rail and pickets in the April sunshine.

When her father pulled in, Cilla had her sides run, and had worked up a fresh sweat.

“Doesn’t that look nice,” he commented.

“It’s coming along.”

He nodded toward the house, and the cacophony of construction noise. “Sounds like more’s coming along inside.”

“First-stage demo’s done. I’ve changed some things, so we’ll have more demo on the second floor later. But the inspector’s coming tomorrow. ” She lifted her hand, crossed her fingers. “To approve the rough plumbing and electric. Then we’ll boogie.”

“It’s the talk of the town.”

“I imagine so.” She gestured toward the road. “Traffic’s increased. People slow down, even stop, to look. I had a call from the local paper for an interview. I don’t want pictures yet. Most people can’t see what it’s going to be while it’s at this stage, so I gave the reporter a quick hit over the phone.”

“When’s it going to run?”

“Sunday. Lifestyle. Janet Hardy still has the switch.” Cilla pushed back her cap to swipe the back of her hand over her forehead. “You knew her, Dad. Would she approve?”

“I think she loved this place. I think she’d be pleased you love it, too. And that you’re putting your mark on it. Cilla, are you building that railing yourself?”

“Yeah.”

“I had no idea you could do that. I thought you had the ideas, then you hired people to work them out.”

“Some of that, too. Most of that, I guess. But I like the work. Especially this kind. I’m going to go for my contractor’s license.”

“You… Well, how about that?”

“I’m going to start a business. This house? Talk of the town, and that’s going to turn into revenue for me down the road. I think people might like to hire the woman who rebuilt Janet Hardy’s little farm, especially if she’s Janet’s granddaughter. And after a while?” Her eyes narrowed and gleamed. “They’ll hire me because they know I’m good.”

“You really mean to stay.”

So he hadn’t believed it. Why should he? “I mean to stay. I like the way it smells here. I like the way I feel here. Are you in a hurry?”

“Nope.”

“Do you want to walk around a little, play landscape consultant?”

He smiled slowly. “I’d like that.”

“Let me get my notebook.”

Walking with him, listening to him as he gestured to an area, described the shrubs and groupings he suggested, Cilla learned more about him.

His thoughtful way of listening, then responding, the pauses between while he considered. His ease with himself, the time he took.

He paused at the edge of the pond, smiled. “I swam in here a few times. You’re going to need to get these lily pads and cattails under control.”

“It’s on the list. Brian said maybe we’ll do some yellow flags.”

“That would be a nice choice. You could plant a willow over there. It’d make a pretty feature, weeping over the water.”

She scribbled. “I thought a stone bench maybe, somewhere to sit.” Remembering, she looked up at him. “So, is this where you kissed Ford Sawyer’s mother?”

His mouth dropped open in surprise, and, to Cilla’s delight, a flush rose up into his cheeks. He chuckled, and began to walk again. “Now how’d you hear about that?”

“I have my sources.”

“I have mine. I hear you kissed Penny Sawyer’s son out in the front yard.”

“Buddy.”

“Not directly, but he’d be the root of it.”

“It’s a little weird.”

“A little bit,” Gavin agreed.

“You haven’t answered the question.”

“I guess I’ll confess I did kiss Penny Quint-which she was in those days-more than a few times, and some of those times here. We went steady for a number of months in high school. Before she broke my heart.”

He smiled when he said it, and had Cilla smiling in return. “High school is hell.”

“It sure can be. The heartbreaking took place here, too, as it happens. And back there, near the pond. Penny and I had a fight-God knows about what-and we broke up. I admit to having been torn between wooing her back and making a play for your mother.”

“You dog.”

“Most boys are dogs at eighteen. Then I saw Penny, near the pond, kissing Johnnie.” He sighed, even now, remembering. “That was a blow. My girl-or I still half thought of her as my girl-and one of my friends. It broke the code.”

“Friends don’t move in on exes,” Cilla said. “It’s still the code.”

“Johnnie and I had words about it. Then and there, and Penny gave me a piece of her mind. About that time, your mother came along. She’s always been drawn to drama. I went off with her, soothed my heart and ego. That was the last time Johnnie and I spoke. The last words we spoke to each other were hard ones. I’ve always regretted that.”

There was no smile now, and in its place, Cilla saw old grief. “He died two days later. And so did another of my friends, and Jimmy Hennessy was paralyzed. I was supposed to go with them that night.”

“I didn’t know that.” Something squeezed inside her. “I’ve never heard that.”

“I was supposed to be in that car, but Penny kissed Johnnie, Johnnie and I had hard words. And I didn’t go.”

“God.” A shudder snaked down Cilla’s spine. “I owe Ford’s mother quite a bit.”

“I went off to college the next fall, like I planned-then a couple of years in, I dropped out, went off to Hollywood. Got myself a contract. I think it was, at least in part, because I was another kind of reminder of her brother, her mother, that had your mother giving me another look. She was too young when the look turned serious. We both were. We got engaged secretly, broke up publicly. Back and forth, back and forth for years. Then we eloped.

“We had you hardly a year later.” He draped his arm around Cilla’s shoulders. “We did our best. I know it wasn’t very good, but we did our best.”

“It’s hard, knowing so much of what happened, what was done, was rooted in death at worst, on mistakes at best.”

“You were never a mistake.”

She didn’t respond. How could she? She’d been called one often enough. “You were still in college when Janet died?”

“I’d finished my first year.”

“Did you hear anything about a man, someone out here, she was involved with?”

“There was constant speculation, constant gossip about Janet and men. I don’t recall anything out of the ordinary, or any talk of someone from here. Why?”

“I found letters, Dad. I found letters written to her from a lover. They’re postmarked from here, or a lot of them are. She hid them. The last one, bitter, after he’d broken off the affair, was mailed only ten days before her death.”

They’d walked back to the house, stood now at the edge of the back veranda. “I think she came back here to see him, to confront him. She was desperately unhappy, if even half of the accounts from the time are true. And I think she was in love with this man, this married man she’d had a passionate, tumultuous affair with for over a year before it cooled.”

“You think he was local? What was his name?”

“He didn’t sign them by name. She-” Cilla glanced over, noticed how close they stood to the open window. Taking her father’s arm, she drew him away. “She told the man she was pregnant.”

“Pregnant? Cilla, there was an autopsy.”

“It might have been covered up. It might not have been true, but if it was, if it wasn’t a lie to get him back, it could’ve been covered up. He threatened her. In the last letter, he told her she’d pay if she tried to expose their relationship.”

“You don’t want to believe she killed herself,” Gavin began.

“Suicide or not, she’s still dead. I want the truth. She deserves that, and so do I. People have talked murder and conspiracies for decades. Maybe they’re right.”

“She was an addict, sweetheart. An addict who couldn’t stop grieving for her child. An unhappy woman who shone in front of the cameras, on the stage, but who never really found her happiness away from them.

And when Johnnie died, she lost herself in grief, and smothered the grief with pills and alcohol.”

“She took a lover. And she came back here. Johnnie kissed your girl, and as a result, you lived. Small moments change lives. And take them. I want to find out what moment, what actual event, took hers. Even if it was by her own hand.”

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 “Für 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 Céline 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.

EIGHT

Who the hell was that? And why in the hell was she kissing him? Ford stood holding his after-coffee-before-beer Coke and started at the man Cilla was currently attached to-like, like sumac on an oak. at the man Cilla was currently attached to-like, like

What was with the ponytail anyway? And the army boots? And why were the hands-the guy wore a bunch of rings, for Christ’s sake- rubbing Cilla’s ass?

“Turn around, buddy. Turn around so I can get a better look at your Wayfarer-wearing face.”

At Ford’s tone, Spock gave a low, supportive growl.

“Jesus, his whole arm’s tattooed right up to the sleeve of his black T-shirt. See that? You see that?” he demanded, and Spock muttered darkly.

And that glint? Oh yeah, that was an earring.

“Move the hands, pal. You’re going to want to move those hands, otherwise…” Ford looked down at his own, surprised to see he’d crushed the can of Coke, and the contents were foaming over his own fingers.

Interesting, he thought. Jealousy? He wasn’t the jealous type. Was he? Okay, maybe he’d had a couple of bouts with it in high school, and that one time in college. But that was just part of growing up. He sure as hell wouldn’t get worked up about some over-tattooed earring guy kissing a woman he’d known for a month.

Okay, maybe she’d gotten under his skin. And Spock’s, he conceded as his dog stood at full alert, snarling and grumbling. But a good part of that could be attributed to the work, and her starring role in it. If he felt territorial, it was just a by-product of the work, nothing more or less.

Maybe a little more, but a man didn’t like to stand around and watch a woman slap her lips to some strange guy’s when they’d been slapped to his a couple of days before. The least she could do was stop flaunting it in his face and take it inside where…

“Shit. Shit. They’re going inside.”

“I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE HERE.”

“I told you I’d swing down if I had time.”

“I didn’t think you’d have time, or remember to swing down.” Steve tipped down his Wayfarers and looked at Cilla over them with his deep and dreamy brown eyes. “When have I ever forgotten you?”

“Do you want a list?”

He laughed, gave her a hip bump as they crossed the veranda. “When it counted. Whoa.” He stopped just inside the doorway, scanned the living area, its pockets of drying plaster, the patchwork of scarred floors and splattered drop cloths. “Excellent.”

“It is, isn’t it? And it will be.”

“Nice space. Floors’ll clean up. Walnut?”

“They are.”

“Sweet.” He wandered through, passing casual how’s-it-goings to the workers still on-site cleaning up for the day.

He walked lightly, and looked slight. Looks, Cilla knew, were deceiving. Under the T-shirt and jeans, he was ripped. Steve Chensky honed his body with the devotion of an evangelist.

Cilla thought if he’d worked half as hard on his music, he’d have made it from struggling artist to serious rock star. Or so she’d told him, countlesstimes. Then again, if he’d listened to her, their lives might have turned out very differently.

He stopped in the kitchen, took his measure of the place with his sunglasses hooked in his T-shirt. “What’s the plan here?”

“Take a look.” She flipped through the notebook sitting on the one remaining counter, found her best sketch of the concept.

“Nice, Cill. This is nice. Good flow, good work space. Stainless steel?”

“No. I’m having the fifties appliances retrofitted. Jesus, Steve, they rock. I’m looking at faucets. I’m thinking of going copper there. Kind of old-timey.”

“Cost ya.”

“Yeah, but it’s a good investment.”

“Granite countertops?”

“I toyed around with doing polished concrete, but for this? You’ve got to go with granite. I haven’t picked it out yet, but the cabinets are in the works. Glass fronts, see, copper leading. I nearly went white there, but I want the warmth, so they’re cherry.”

“Gonna have something.” He gave her an elbow bump this time. “You always had an eye.”

“You opened the door so I could use it.”

“I opened it. You knocked it down. I drove by the Brentwood house before I headed to New York. Old time’s sake. It still looks fine. So, gotta beer?”

She opened the mini fridge, pulled out a beer for each of them. “When do you have to head back to L.A.?”

“I got a couple of weeks. I’ll trade labor for digs.”

“Seriously? You’re hired.”

“Like old times,” he said, and tapped his beer to hers. “Show me the rest.”

Ford bided his time. He waited a full hour after the crews headed out for the day. No harm in wandering over, he told himself. Paying a friendly visit. He scowled at the Harley, and after Spock peed copiously on its front tire, crouched down to exchange a quick high five with his loyal best friend.

It wasn’t as if he’d never driven a motorcycle. He’d taken a few spins in his day. Okay, one spin. He just didn’t like bugs in his teeth.

But he could drive one if he wanted to.

He jammed his hands in his pockets and resisted giving the Harley a testing kick. He heard the music-ass-kicking rock this time-and instead of going to the front, followed the sound around back.

They sprawled on the steps of the veranda with a couple of bottles of beer and a bag of Doritos. His flavor of Doritos, Ford noted. With her head tipped back against the post, Cilla laughed so the sound of it poured right over the music. And straight into Ford’s gut.

Tattoo Guy grinned at her, in a way that spoke of love, intimacy and history.

“You never change. What if you’d… Hey, Ford.”

“Hey.”

Spock stiff-walked over to Tattoo Guy. “Steve, this is Ford, my neighbor across the road. And that would be Spock. Steve detoured down from New York on his way back to L.A.”

“How you doing? Hey, guy, hey, pal.” He ruffled Spock’s big head with his ringed hand. Ford’s lips curled in disgust when his dog-his loyal best friend-dropped his head lovingly on Steve’s knee.

“Want a beer?” Steve offered, giving Spock a full-body rub.

“Sure. Are you driving the Harley cross-country?”

“The only way to travel.” Steve opened a beer, passed it to Ford. “My girl out there, she’s my one true love. Except for Cill here.”

Cilla snorted. “I notice you still put the bike first.”

“She’ll never leave me, like you did.” Steve clamped a hand on Cilla’s knee. “We used to be married.”

“You and the bike?”

The cool remark had Steve tossing back his head and laughing. “We’re still married. Cill and I only were.”

“Yeah, for about five minutes.”

“Come on. It was at least fifteen. Pull up a step,” Steve invited.

The polite thing to do, the sensible thing to do would be to back off, back away. But Ford was damned if he’d be polite or sensible. He sat. And the brief sour look he sent Spock had the dog hanging his head. “So you live in L.A.”

“That’s my town.”

“Steve got me into flipping. Houses,” Cilla added. “He needed some slave labor on a flip one day, drafted me. I liked it. So he let me go into the next one with him.”

“When you were married.”

“God no, years after that.”

“You were writing a script when we were married.”

“No, I was doing voice-overs and recording. I started the script after.”

“Right, right. I worked on a session with Cilla, picking up some change and contacts while I was trying to get my band off the ground.”

“You’re a musician.” It just figured.

“Right now I’m a licensed contractor who plays guitar on the side, and does the HGTV thing.”

Rock the House,” Cilla supplied. “Home-improvement type show that takes the viewer through stages of a rehab, remodel, a flip. Named after Steve’s construction company.”

TV guy, Ford thought. That just figured.

“Construction was my day job, back in rock-star-hopeful days,” Steve continued. “And I talked Cill into bankrolling my first flip when I saw how the real estate market was heading and when the band flushed away. Hit that mother in the sweet spot. Is that your Victorian across the street?”

“Yeah.”

“Nice. So do you know where we can get a pizza around here?”

Pizza was a key word for Spock, who lifted his shamed head and did his happy dance. “Eat in or delivery?”

“Delivery, man. I’m buying.”

“I’ve got the pizzeria’s number,” Cilla told him. “Do you want the usual?”

“Stick with a winner.”

“Ford?”

“Whatever you want’s fine.”

“I’ll call it in.”

When Cilla went in, Steve tipped back his beer. “Did you rehab the place yourself?”

“No, I bought it that way.”

“So what’s your line? What do you do across the street?”

“I write graphic novels.”

“No shit.” Steve bumped Ford in the arm with his beer. “Like The Dark Knight and From Hell?”

“More Dark Knight than Campbell. You into graphic novels?”

“Ate comic books for breakfast, lunch and dinner when I was a kid. But I didn’t discover the graphics until a few years ago. Maybe I’ve read some of yours. What… damn, are you Ford Sawyer?” The brown eyes went child-like wide, and full of thrill. “Are you the fucking Seeker?”

So maybe the guy wasn’t a complete asshole, Ford decided. “Yeah, that’s right.”

“This is unreal. It’s like surreal. Check this out.” Standing, Steve yanked off his T-shirt, turned his back. There, among the other art decorating Steve’s back, was a tattoo of the Seeker striding over the left shoulder blade.

“Well… wow.” Ford’s usually active mind switched off.

“Your dude is completely awesome. I mean, he totally rocks. He suffers, and I feel that.” Steve punched a fist into his chest. “But he keeps going. Picks it up and goes, does what he has to do. And the bastard can walk through freaking walls! How do you come up with that shit?”

“Jesus, Steve, are you stripping again?” Cilla demanded as she came back out.

“You’ve got Ford Freaking Sawyer living across the street. Man, he’s the Seeker.”

Cilla studied the tattoo Steve tapped as he looked over his shoulder. “When are you going to stop that?”

“When my whole body tells a story. Still got you on my ass, doll.”

“Do not pull down your pants,” she said, knowing him. “Pizza will be here, thirty minutes or less.”

“I’m going to grab a shower.” Steve punched Ford’s shoulder, gave the delighted Spock a quick scratch. “This is way, over-the-top cool.”

As the screen door slammed behind Steve, Ford studied his beer. “That was just weird.”

“That was just Steve.”

“To whom you were married for five minutes.”

“Technically, five months.” She sat again, stretched out long legs. “You’re looking for the story.”

“I’d be a fool not to.”

“There isn’t that much of one. We met, we clicked. He wanted to be a rock star, and I was, at seventeen, an actor already trying for a come-back. Except, even then, I didn’t really want one. And Steve was exactly the opposite image of what everyone expected from me. So he was perfect.”

“Good girl meets bad boy.”

“You could say. Still, I wasn’t so good, and he wasn’t so bad. We loved each other, made each other laugh and had really good sex. What else could you ask for? So the minute I turned eighteen, we ran off and got married. It took us about that five minutes to wonder, what the hell did we do this for?”

She tipped back her head and laughed. “We didn’t want to be married, to each other or anyone else. We wanted to be friends, to hang out, and maybe have good sex now and then. So we fixed it, way before there was any ugliness or damage, and we still love each other. He’s the best friend I ever had. And, tattoos aside, the most stable and solid.”

“He didn’t let you down.”

Cilla looked over, nodded. “Not once. Not ever. I couldn’t do what I’m doing here if it wasn’t for Steve. He taught me. He’s a fifth-generation contractor. Part of the rock star bit was a rebellion against that, you could say. Man, I’m banging a guitar, not a hammer. But he eventually figured out he was better, and let me say a hell of a lot better, with the hammer.

I lent him some money for his first flip, this sad little dump in South L.A. He made it sweet, and paid me back, bought another. He asked me if I wanted in, and, well, one thing led to another. Now he owns his own company and has the TV gig. He still turns sad little dumps, and he turns million-dollar properties. He’s launching a branch in New York, and there’s talk about a spin-off for the show for the East Coast. He was up there, doing the business, so he swung by before he heads back to L.A.”

“And he has you tattooed on his ass.”

“For old time’s sake. Got any?”

“Tattoos?” Oddly, he felt foolish. “No. You?”

She smiled, sipped her beer. “A lot happens in five minutes of marriage. ”

Ford ended up eating pizza, and wondering what sort of tattoo Cilla had chosen, and where she’d had it inked.

Because the idea wouldn’t leave him alone, he decided Brid should probably have one. Researching symbols gave him something to do once he returned home other than obsess as to whether or not Cilla and Steve were talking rehab plans or having good sex.

By two A.M. both his eyes and his energy gave out. Still, curiosity had him wandering to one of his front windows to take a last look at the house across the road. A slow smile curved his lips when he spotted the beam of a flashlight cutting through the dark toward the barn.

If Steve was bunking in the barn, good sex wasn’t on the night’s agenda.

"Let’s keep it that way,” Ford muttered, stripped off his clothes and fell facedown on the bed.

“YOU HEAR THAT?” Steve poked Cilla awake, an easy job as they were sharing her sleeping bag.

“What? No. Shut up.” Rolling over, Cilla vowed Steve would find other sleeping arrangements the next night.

“I heard something. Like a moan, like the way a door sounds when it opens in an abandoned house in a creepy movie. We ought to go check it out.”

“Do you remember what I said when you proposed we have sex?”

“That was a no.”

“Same answer for this. Go to sleep.”

“I don’t know how you can sleep with all this quiet.” He rolled, rolled again until she snarled at him. “You need a white-noise machine.”

“I need to get you your own sleeping bag.”

“Harsh.” He kissed the top of her head. “You’ll be sorry when some wild-eyed mountain dude runs in here with a meat cleaver.”

“When that happens, I promise to apologize. Now shut up or go away. Crew’s coming at seven.”

THE ELABORATE BRASS headboard banged rhythmically against the red wall, the sound punctuated by her cries of pleasure. A shaft of moonlight illuminated those blue crystal eyes, glazed now as he plunged into her. She called out his name, nearly sang it while her body surged under his.

Ford. Ford.

Yo, Ford.

He woke with a spectacular morning hard-on, the sun beaming into his eyes and a vague sense of embarrassment that it was Steve calling his name. But at least the realization was already doing the job of deflating the hard-on.

Ford stuck his head out the window, yelled, “Hold on.” He dragged on the jeans he’d stripped off the night before, then stumbled his way downstairs.

“Got doughnuts,” Steve said when Ford pulled open the door.

“Huh?”

“Hey, man, were you still in the sack?”

Ford stared at Steve’s affable smile, at the box of Krispy Kremes. “Coffee.”

“I hear that.” When Ford turned and groped his way to the kitchen, Steve followed. “Great house, man. Seriously. Use of space, choice of materials. Figured you were up since Cilla’d been over to use your gym. Thought I’d try trading doughnuts for some gym time.”

“Okay.” Ford set a mug in place, punched on the coffeemaker, then opened the box Steve set on the counter. The smell hit him like a lightning bolt.

“Caffeine and sugar.” Steve grinned as Ford grabbed a jelly-filled. “Best way to start the day, after nooky anyway.”

Ford grunted, got down a second mug.

“Things are hopping at Cill’s this morning, so I cut out for the doughnuts. Guys in construction dig on the doughnuts. Hey, man, look at your dog.”

Ford glanced toward the window, saw Spock running, leaping, nosing down to stalk. “Yeah, it’s cats.”

“What is?”

“He’s hunting cats. Magic cats only he can see.”

“Son of a bitch, that’s just what he’s doing.” Steve grinned out the window, a ringed thumb hooked in his belt loop. “So it’s cool if I catch a workout with Cill in the A.M., or hit it late in the day? Not cramping your style?”

“It’s fine.” The sugar rush got Ford’s eyes open, and the first hit of coffee did the rest. “I figured you’d sleep in later today. Long day for you yesterday, and you probably didn’t get the best night sleeping in the barn.”

“I like long days.” Steve took the coffee Ford gave him, then dumped in the milk Ford sat on the counter.“What barn? Cill’s barn? Cill wouldn’t make me bunk in the barn. I got a corner of her sleeping bag.”

“Oh.” Damn. “I was working late, saw you head out there. I just figured-”

“I didn’t go out there. Man, it’s dark out there. In-the-sticks dark. I’m a city boy.” He cocked his head. “You saw somebody out there?”

I saw a flashlight, the beam. I think. It was late, maybe I-”

“No freaking way!” He slammed a hand to Ford’s arm hard enough to make Ford stumble back. “I told her I heard something, but she’s all shut up and go to sleep. What time was this?”

“I don’t know. Ah… little after two.”

“That’s it. Going for the barn? We gotta go check this out.”

“Crap.” Ford downed more coffee. “I guess we do. I need to get a shirt, shoes.”

“Can I come up? I’m digging on the house.”

“Whatever.” It was annoying to feel himself tugged into friendship with the guy who was having sex with the woman he wanted to have sex with. But there didn’t seem to be a way to dig in his heels and hold it off. “So… you didn’t bring your own sleeping bag, I guess.”

“Shit, man, I stay in hotels. Room service, bars, pillow-top mattresses. Cill’s the one for roughing it. You don’t have a spare, do you?”

“Actually-”

“Whoa! Holy shit! That’s Cilla.”

Before Ford could respond, Steve strode into his office and to the sketches pinned and hanging.

“Super Cilla. Dude.” Steve tapped a finger to a corner of a sketch. “These are awesome. You’re a genius. This isn’t Seeker stuff.”

“No. New character, new series. I’m just getting started.”

“With Cill as the… what, like, model? Does she know?”

“Yeah. We worked it out.”

Nodding, Steve continued to grin at the sketches. “I got the vibe when you came over there yesterday. But seeing this? I totally get why she turned down the on-site booty call last night.”

“She-” Mentally, Ford pumped his fist. “So… the two of you aren’t…”

“Road’s clear there, man. I’m going to say, straight out, doing her’s one thing-if she’s down with that. Messing with her? That’s another. Do that, I’ll rip your still-beating heart out. Otherwise? We’re cool.”

Ford studied Steve’s face and decided every word spoken was the silver truth. “Got it. I’m going to get my shoes.”

Steve poked his head in the bathroom, then into Ford’s bedroom. “You’ve got good light in here. How come you’re not tapping that yet?”

“What? Tapping the light?”

“Come on.” Steve shook his head as Ford pulled on a T-shirt. “Cilla. How come you’re not tapping that yet? I’d know if you were. And she’s been over there about a month now.”

“Listen, I don’t see how that’s your business. No offense.”

“None taken. Except I see how it is, because there’s nobody who matters more to me. I don’t want to say she’s like my sister, because that would just be sick, considering.”

Ford sat on the side of the bed to pull on his shoes. “The lady seems to want to take it slow. So I’m taking it slow. That’s it.”

“That’s solid. I like you, so I’m going to give you a tip. She’s tough, and what you’d call resilient. She handles herself and what comes at her. But she’s got depths, and in some of those deep places she hurts. So you’ve got to be careful there.”

“She wouldn’t be doing what she’s doing over there if she didn’t have depths, and if some of them didn’t hurt.”

“Okay. Let’s go be men and check out the barn.”

IN WHAT WOULD be her laundry/mudroom, Cilla straightened to stretch out her back. As she’d suspected, the old and yellowing linoleum covered a scarred but salvageable hardwood floor. She’d rather be upstairs having fun with power tools, but it made more sense for her to focus her sweat equity into ripping up the linoleum. Her carpenter didn’t need her up there, especially with Steve on site, so…

Through the window she spotted Steve, who obviously wasn’t upstairs, walking toward her barn with Ford. Setting aside her tools, she headed out to find out why Steve was out for a morning stroll instead of supervising the master suite rebuild.

The barn door stood open, and the two men were inside by the time she got there. They appeared to be debating which one of them should climb the ladder into the hayloft.

“What the hell are you doing?” she demanded.

“Checking it out,” Steve told her. “Can you tell if anything’s missing?”

“No, and why should it be?”

“Ford saw somebody skulking around out here last night.”

"I didn’t say ’skulking.’ I said I saw someone out here with a flashlight last night.”

“You’re out on somebody else’s property in the middle of the night, with a flashlight, that’s skulking.” Steve pointed at Cilla. “I told you I heard something.”

Cilla shook her head at Steve, turned to Ford. “From all the way across the road, in the dead of night, you saw someone skulking around my barn?”

“While I have to agree with the definition of ‘skulking,’ what I said was I saw a light, the beam of it. The beam of a flashlight, moving toward the barn.”

“It was probably a reflection. Moonlight or something.”

“I know what a flashlight beam looks like.”

“Plus,” Steve interrupted, “when we opened the door, it groaned. That’s the sound I heard last night. Somebody came in here. You’ve got a lot of shit in here, Cill.”

“And it’s pretty clear the lot of shit is still here.”

“Maybe something, or some things, aren’t,” Ford pointed out. “There’s a lot of inventory here, and I’d say a valiant attempt to organize it, but I doubt you know everything that’s here, or exactly where you put it the last time you worked in here.”

“Okay, no, I don’t.” She set her hands on her hips to study the piles and stacks, the arrangement. Had she stacked those boxes that way? Had she turned that broken rocker to the left?

How the hell did she know?

“I’ve got a lot to go through, but I haven’t found anything especially valuable yet. And okay,” she continued before Steve could speak, “a teaspoon Janet Hardy dipped into a sugar bowl would be worth a spot of breaking and entering for a lot of people.”

“Who knows you’ve got stuff in here?”

“Everyone.” Ford answered Steve’s question. “There’s a bunch of people working in the house, and that bunch of people saw Cilla hauling this stuff out here-even helped. So anyone any of them talked to knows, and anyone the anyones talked to and so on.”

“I’ll get a padlock.”

“Good idea. How about the letters?”

“What letters?” Steve wanted to know.

“Did you tell anyone besides me about the letters you found in the attic?”

“My father, but I hardly think-”

“You found letters in the attic?” Steve interrupted. “Like secret letters? Man, this is like one of those BBC mystery shows.”

“You never watch BBC mysteries.”

“I do if they have hot Brit chicks in them. What letters?”

“Letters written to my grandmother by the man she had an affair with in the year before she died. And yeah, secret letters. She had them hidden. I’ve only told Ford and my father-who probably told my stepmother. But it wouldn’t go further than that.” She hoped. "Except…” She blew out a breath. “I realized when I was telling my father we were standing right beside an open window so I pulled him away to finish. But if one of the men was anywhere near the window, they would have heard enough.”

She rubbed her eyes. “Stupid. Plus, I pushed my mother yesterday morning about whether Janet had a lover-and one from out here- before she died. She’d blab, if the mood struck. Added to that, she’s pissed at me.”

Reaching over, Steve patted her shoulder. “Nothing new there, doll.”

“I know. But in her current mood, she might have sent someone out here to poke around, looking for something of value.”

“Give me the letters, and anything else you’re worried about. No one’s going to look at my place for them,” Ford added when she frowned at him.

“Maybe. Let me think about it.”

“Anyway,” Steve said, “we can cross off the wild-eyed mountain man with a meat cleaver. Right? Or we can as soon as Ford climbs up there and makes sure there aren’t any dead bodies or severed body parts.”

“Oh, for Christ sake.” Cilla turned toward the ladder.

Ford blocked her, nudged her back. “I’ll do it.”

He tested his weight on each rung on the climb, as he pictured himselfcrashing through and breaking any variety of bones on the concrete floor. As he reached the top, he cursed roundly.

“What is it?” Cilla called up.

“Nothing. Splinter. There’s nothing up here. Not even the lonely severed head of an itinerant field-worker.”

When he’d climbed down again, Cilla took his hand, winced at the chunk of ladder in the meat of his palm. “That’s in there. Come on inside and I’ll dig it out for you.”

“I can just-”

“While you guys play doctor, I’ll go strap on my tool belt and do a man’s work.”

Cilla glanced back at Steve. “About damn time.”

“Had to make the doughnut run. Later,” he said to Ford and strolled out.

“Did he bring you doughnuts?” Cilla asked.

“Yeah. A bribe for use of the gym.”

“Mmm. Come on in, and bring the chunk of my ladder. I assume he also woke you up.”

“You assume correctly.” Ford shoved the barn door closed behind them. “And from a very interesting dream involving you, a red room and a brass headboard. But the jelly doughnuts almost made up for it.”

“Steve believes in the power of the doughnut. So, just what was I doing in a red room with a brass headboard?”

“Hard to describe. But I think I could demonstrate.”

She looked into his eyes, bold green against gold rims. “I don’t have a red room. Neither do you.”

“I’ll go buy the paint.”

Laughing, she reached for the mudroom door, and quickly found herself with her back to the wall of the house. It came as a constant surprise just how potent, how dangerous that mouth could be. The same mouth, she thought dimly as it assaulted hers, that smiled so charmingly, that spoke in such an easy drawl about everyday things. Then it closed over hers and spiked through her system like a fever.

He gave her bottom lip a light nip before he stepped back. “I thought it was Steve headed to the barn last night. To bunk down.”

“Why would Steve sleep in the barn?” It took another minute for her brain to fire on all circuits again. “Oh. We’re all grown-ups, Ford. I’m not asking Steve to sleep in the barn.”

“Yeah, I got that. But he’s going to borrow my old sleeping bag. I haven’t used it for about fifteen years, or since sleeping in a bag on the ground lost its thrill for me. He’ll like it. It’s Spider-Man.”

“You have a Spider-Man sleeping bag?”

“I got it for my eighth birthday. It was a highlight, and has never lost its luster.” He leaned down, brushed her lips with his and opened the door behind her. “I’m more than happy to get it out of storage so Steve can use it while he’s here.”

“Neighborly of you.”

“Not especially.”

She opened the first aid kit, checked the contents. “I’ve got what I need here. Let’s do this outside. In the light.” When they stepped out onto the veranda, she gestured for him to sit. She doused a cotton ball with peroxide and cleaned the wound.

“It’s not neighborly,” Ford continued, “because the motives are entirely self-serving. I don’t want him sleeping with you.”

She shifted her gaze up to his even as she began to clean a needle and tweezers with alcohol. “Is that so?”

“If you wanted to sleep with him, then I’d be out of luck.”

“How do you know I don’t? That I didn’t?”

“Because you want to sleep with me. Ow!” He looked down at his hand and the hole she’d made at the top of the splinter with the needle. “Jesus.”

“It’s too deep to milk out, and needs a route. Suck it up. If I want to sleep with you, why haven’t I?”

He eyed the needle in her hand warily. “Because you’re not ready. I can wait until you are. But-and don’t jab me with that again-I’m god-damned if I want you sleeping with someone else, old time’s sake or not, while I’m waiting. I want my hands on you, all over you. And I want you thinking about that.”

“So you’ll lend Steve your treasured Spider-Man sleeping bag so I can think about it without caving in to my needs and sleeping with him because he’s handy.”

“Close enough.”

“Look at that.”

He turned his head to look in the direction she indicated. The sharp, quick sting had him jolting. When he cursed, Cilla held the hefty splinter in the teeth of her tweezers. “Souvenir?”

“No, thanks.”

“You’re done.” She packed up the kit, then grabbed him by the hair, crushed her mouth greedily to his. Just as quickly, she broke the kiss, rose. “And you can think about that while you’re waiting.”

With a cool smile, she walked back into the house, let the screen door slap shut behind her.

NINE

Cilla grew so accustomed to the cars that slowed or stopped at the end of her driveway she barely registered them. The lookie-loos, gawkers, even the ones she imagined took photos, didn’t have to be a problem. Sooner or later, she thought, they’d grow accustomed to her, so the best solution to her way of thinking was to ignore them, or to toss out the occasional and casual wave.

To become part of the community, she determined, she had to demonstrate her intent and desire. So she shopped at the local supermarket, hired local labor, bought the majority of her materials from local sources. And chatted up the salesclerks, the subcontractors, and signed autographs for those who still thought of her as TV Katie.

She considered it symbolic, a statement of that intent, when she took Ford’s advice and followed her first instincts and had the gates removed. To follow up, she planted weeping cherry trees to flank the drive. A statement, Cilla thought, as she stood on the shoulder of the road and studied the results. New life. And next spring, when they burst into bloom again, she’d be here to see it. From her vantage point, she looked down at the house. There would be gardens and young trees as well as the grand old magnolia. Her grand old magnolia, she thought, with its waxy white blooms sweetening the air. The paint on the house would be fresh and clean instead of dingy and peeling. Chairs on the veranda, and pots of mixed flowers. And when she could squeeze a little more out of the budget, pavers in earthy tones on the drive cutting through lush green lawns.

Eventually, when people slowed down to look, it would be because they admired a pretty house in a pretty setting, and not because they wondered what the hell the Hollywood woman was doing with the house where Janet Hardy had swallowed too many pills and chased them with vodka.

She stepped back toward the wall at the sound of an approaching car, then turned at the quick beep-beep as the little red Honda pulled to the shoulder.

It took her a moment-and brought on a twist of guilt-to recognize the pretty blonde in cropped pants and a crocheted cami who hopped out of the car.

“Hi!” On a bubble of laughter, Angela McGowan, Cilla’s half sister, rushed forward to catch Cilla in a squeeze.

“Angie.” The fresh, sassy scent enveloped her as completely as the arms. “You cut your hair. Let me look at you. No! Don’t hug me again. I’m filthy.”

“You really are.” On another bubble of laughter, Angie pulled back, met Cilla’s eyes with her own enormous hazel ones. Their father’s eyes, Cilla thought. Their father’s daughter. “And you smell a little, too.” Beaming, just beaming, Angie gripped Cilla’s hands. “You shouldn’t still be so beautiful, considering.”

“You look amazing.” Cilla brushed her fingertips over the very abbreviated ends of Angie’s hair. “It’s so short.”

“Takes two seconds to deal with in the morning.”Angie gave her head a quick shake so the sunny cap lifted, ruffled, settled. “I had to practically have a blindfold and a cigarette to get it done.”

“It’s fabulous. What are you doing here? I thought you were at college?”

“Semester’s done for me, so I’m home for a while. I can’t believe you’re here. And this.” She gestured toward the house. “You’re actually living here, and fixing it up and… all.”

“There’s a lot of all.”

“These are so pretty. So much prettier than that old gate.” Angie touched one of the curved branches with its blossoms of soft, spring pink. “Everyone’s talking about what’s going on here. I’ve only been home for a day, and already I’ve had my ears burned by all the talk.”

“Good talk or bad talk?”

"Why wouldn’t it be good?” Angie cocked her head. “This place was an eyesore. So yeah, it’s not so pretty right now, either, but you’re doing something. Nobody else has. Is it hard? I don’t mean the work, because obviously… I mean is it hard being here, living here?”

"No.” But Angie would ask, Cilla knew. Angie would care. “In fact, it’s easy. It feels right, more than anything or anywhere else. It’s strange.”

“I don’t think so. I think everyone’s supposed to be somewhere, and the lucky ones find out where it is. So you’re lucky.”

“I guess I am.” The bright side of optimism, Cilla remembered, was where Angie lived. Her father’s daughter. Their father’s daughter, Cilla corrected. “Do you want to come in, take a look? It’s in serious flux right now, but we’re making progress.”

“I would, and I will another time. I’m on my way to meet some friends, but I detoured, hoping to see you for a minute. Didn’t expect to see you on the side of the road, so I guess I’m lucky, too. So if… uh-oh.”

Cilla followed the direction of Angie’s glance, noted the white van that slowed and pulled to the shoulder across the road.

“Do you know who that is?” Cilla asked. “I’ve seen that van pull up out here before, several times before.”

“Yeah, that’s Mr. Hennessy’s van. His son was-”

“I know. One of the boys with Janet’s son, in the accident. Okay. Stay here.”

“Oh God, Cilla, don’t go over there.” Angie grabbed at Cilla’s arm. “He’s just awful. Mean son of a bitch. I mean, sure, what happened was terrible, but he hates us.”

"Us?”

“All of us. It’s a by-association kind of thing, Dad says. You should stay out of his way.”

“He’s in mine, Angie.”

Cilla crossed over, met the bitter eyes in the thin, pinched-mouth face through the windshield as she crossed to the driver’s-side door. A lift van, she saw now. One designed to handle his son’s wheelchair.

The slope of the shoulder put her at a disadvantage-slightly off-balance and several inches lower than the man who glared out at her.

“Mr. Hennessy, I’m Cilla McGowan.”

“I know who you are. Look just like her, don’t you?”

“I was sorry to hear you lost your son last year.”

“Lost him in 1972 when your worthless kin crushed his spine. Drunk and high and not giving a damn about anything but himself, because that’s how he was raised. Not to give a damn.”

“That may be. I know those three boys paid a terrible price that night. I can’t-”

“You’re no better than she was, thinking you’re better’n anybody else ’cause you’ve got money to spend, and expecting people to kowtow.”

The well of Cilla’s sympathy began to dry up. “You don’t know me.”

“Hell I don’t. I know you, your kind, your blood. You think you can come here where that woman whored around, let her kids run like wolves, where she cost my boy his arms and legs, his life?” His anger slapped out, bony fingers, in short, brittle blows. “You think you can buy some wood, some paint and use it to cover up the stink of that place? Shoulda burned it down years back. Burned it to the godforsaken ground.”

“It’s a house, Mr. Hennessy. It’s wood and glass.”And you, she thought with no sympathy at all, are a lunatic.

“It’s as cursed as she was. As you are.” He spat out the window, barely missed the toe of Cilla’s boot. “Go back where you came from. We don’t want you or your kind here.”

He pulled out so fast, fishtailing, that Cilla had to scramble back. She slid on the slope, lost her balance and went down on her knees as Angie ran across the road.

“Are you okay? Jesus, Jesus, he didn’t hit you, did he?”

“No. No.” But her eyes were narrowed, iced blue, on the speeding van. "I’m fine.”

“I’m calling the police.” Quivering with indignation, Angie pulled a hot pink cell phone out of her pocket. “He spat at you! I saw him, and he nearly ran you over, and-”

“Don’t.” Cilla put a hand to the phone as Angie flipped it open. “Let it go.” She sighed, rubbed at her knee. “Just let it go.”

“Are you hurt? You went down hard. We need to look at your knee.”

“It’s okay, Mom.”

“Seriously. I’ll drive you down to the house, and we’ll see if you need to have it checked out. That old bastard.”

“The knee’s fine. I’m not hurt, I’m pissed off.”

As if to stabilize, Angie took a couple of whooshing breaths while she studied Cilla. “You don’t look pissed off.”

“Believe me. Whoring around, wolves, cursed, your kin. Asshole.”

Angie laughed. “That’s more like it. I’m driving you down to the house, now don’t argue.”

“Fine. Thanks. Does he act that way to you?” Cilla asked as they crossed to Angie’s Honda.

“He snarls and sends what you could call burning stares, mutters. No spitting. I know he’s gone off on Dad. And I mean, God, do you know anybody with more compassion than Dad? Just because he was friends with Mr. Hennessy’s son, and the rest of them, doesn’t make him responsible for what happened. He wasn’t even there that night. And clue in, you weren’t even born.”

“He’s got the sins-of-the-father thing going, I’d say. If he wants to drive by, stop and glower and think bad thoughts, let him.”

At the end of the drive, Cilla opened the car door. She took a breath herself now, and realized she felt better, more level, she supposed, with Angie there. “Thanks, Angie.”

“I want to look at your knee before I go.”

“The knee’s fine.” To prove it, and to change the mood, Cilla swung into a quick tap routine on the patchy lawn, and ended with a flourish while Angie giggled.

“Wow. I guess it is fine.”

“Nice stems, doll.” Steve stepped onto the veranda, tattoos and tool belt. “And who’s your friend?”

“We’re not friends,” Angie said, “we’re sisters.”

“Angela McGowan, Steve Chensky. Steve’s a friend from L.A. He’s giving me a hand for a few days.”

“Maybe longer.” Steve smiled, big and bold.

“Angie’s just home from college, and heading out to meet some friends.”

“I am. I’m late. You tell him about Mr. Hennessy,” Angie ordered, climbing back into her car.

“Mr. who?”

“I will. Have fun.”

“That’s the plan. I’ll be back. Nice meeting you, Steve.” With a wave out the window, she did a neat three-quarter turn and drove out.

“Your sister’s hot.”

“And barely legal, so hands off.”

“‘Barely’ would be the key word. You gotta love that McGowan DNA.”

“No. No, you don’t. How’s it coming in the attic?”

“It’s fucking hot. They need to finish getting the AC up and running. But it’s coming along. Get your tools, doll. Daylight’s wasting.”

“I’m right behind you.”

HE’D BEEN RIGHT about the heat. Cilla calculated she’d dropped a couple of pounds in sweat alone by the time she unhooked her tool belt for the day. She treated herself to a long, cool shower in her one nearly completed bathroom. Paint and light fixtures yet to go. And thought about fixing herself an enormous sandwich.

She ate it in solitary, pig-out splendor on her back veranda, and imagined the blooming shrubs, ornamental trees, the colorful plants in place of the hacked overgrowth. She imagined a rugged stone bench under the spread of the big sycamore and pictured the new slates and bricks on the patios and paths. The drip of willows at the pond, the shade of red maples, the glossy beauty of magnolias.

Not cursed, she thought, rubbing lightly at the knee that was a little stiff and sore. Ignored, neglected for too long, but not cursed, despite the accusations of a bitter old man.

She’d put up a martin house, and hummingbird feeders. And the birds would come. She’d plant a cutting garden with her own hands-after she researched what should be planted-and draw more birds and butterflies that would wing about as she harvested blooms for vases.

She’d buy a dog, one who’d chase sticks and squirrels and rabbits, and she’d have to chase him when he dug in the gardens. Maybe she’d even see if she could hunt up an appealingly ugly one, like Spock.

She’d have parties with colored lights and music with people wandering through the house, over the lawn, filling it, filling it with sound and movement. Pulses and heartbeats and voices.

And she’d wake up every morning inside a home. Her home.

She looked down at the paper plate in her lap, watched the tear plop. “Oh God, what’s this?” She rubbed her hands over her wet cheeks, pressed them to the tightness in her chest. “What’s this, what’s this?”

On the sagging veranda facing the ruined gardens, she sat alone while the sun slid toward the mountains. And gave in to the sobs. Meltdown, part of her brain thought. Had to happen.

Dogs, people, colored lights? Failure was a lot more likely. No, the house wasn’t cursed. It had good bones, good muscle. But wasn’t she cursed? What had she ever done that mattered? What had she ever finished? She’d fail here, too. Failure was what she did best.

“Stop it. Stop this crap.”

She choked back the next sob as she pushed to her feet. Grabbing the plate and the half-eaten sandwich, she marched inside, tossed them away. Breathing slowly, she splashed cold water on her face until it was drown or suck it up. Steadier, she went upstairs, deliberately applied makeup to conceal her pity bout, then picked up the copy of Gatsby.

She carried it across the road and knocked on Ford’s door.

“This is handy,” he said when he came to the door. Spock stopped his aliens-at-the-door trembling and raced forward to press his body to Cilla’s legs. “I was just going over a short list of excuses, deciding which one to pick that covered going over to your place. I was sitting out back so I wouldn’t appear to be obviously casing your house.”

She stepped in, handed him the book. “You said I could keep this here.”

“Sure. The letters?”

“Yeah.” Because the dog looked up at her with love shining in his protruding eyes, she crouched for a moment to scratch and rub him into ecstasy. “I’m in a mood. I don’t want them in the house right now.”

“Okay.”

“Would you read them sometime, when you get a chance? I think I’d like someone else’s take.”

“That’s a relief. Now I don’t have to fight a daily war between curiosity and integrity. I’ll put them in my office. Do you want to come up a minute? I’ve got some sketches I think you’ll like.”

“Yeah.” Restless, she thought. She felt restless, itchy, a little headachy. Better to keep moving, keep doing. “Yeah, why not?”

“Want a beer, some wine?”

“No, no. Nothing.” Alcohol wasn’t the best idea after a meltdown.

“Where’s Steve? I thought I heard his bike a while back.”

“He went out. He said he wanted some action, maybe he’d play a little pool with some of the guys on the crew. I think he’s hoping to get lucky with one of the landscapers. Her name’s Shanna.”

“Shanna and I go back. Not that way,” he said quickly. “Been friends since we were kids. Me, her, Bri, Matt.”

“Nice. Nice to have friends you go back with. Oh. Wow.”

He had two boards loaded with sketches. Action poses, she thought. Mid-leap, mid-stride, mid-spin. In all she looked-there was no mistaking her face-she looked strong, fierce, bold and brilliant.

Everything, she realized, everything she didn’t feel at that moment.

“I’m thinking tattoo. I got hung up on that. Now I’m figuring out what and where.” He tucked his hands in his back pockets as he gave the sketches a critical study. “Small of the back, shoulder blade, biceps. I’m thinking small and symbolic, and somewhere people wouldn’t notice it on Cass. Or better, it’s not on Cass, but forms when she changes to Brid. That way, it’s not just a symbol but part of the power source.”

He narrowed his eyes as he scanned the sketches. “I need to figure it out before I start on the panels. The story’s outlined, and I like it. It holds up, but…”

Because Spock had begun to whine, Ford glanced over. And his trend of thought snapped into tiny pieces. Tears streamed down Cilla’s face.

“Oh man. Crap. What? Why?”

“Sorry. Sorry. I thought it was finished. I thought I was done.” Backing up, she swiped at her cheeks. “I have to go.”

“No. Uh-uh.” There might have been a hole spreading in the pit of his stomach, but he took her arm, and his grip was firm. “What’s the matter? What did I do?”

“Everything. Nothing.”

“Which?”

“Everything’s the matter. You did nothing. It’s not you. It’s me. It’s me, me, me. That’s not me.” She gestured wildly toward the sketches. The tone, the gesture had Spock slinking over to his bed. “I’m nothing like that. I can’t even gear myself up to have sex with you. Do you want to know why?”

“I’m pretty interested.”

“Because I’ll end up messing it up, ruining it, then I won’t have anyone to talk to. I don’t make things work. I screw up everything, fail at everything.”

“Not from where I’m standing.” Baffled, he shook his head. “Where’s this coming from?”

“From reality. From history. You don’t know anything about it.”

“So tell me.”

“For God’s sake, I was washed up at twelve. I had the tools, I had the platform, and I screwed it up. I failed.”

“That’s bullshit.” His tone was matter-of-fact, and so much more comforting than soft sympathy. “You’re too smart to believe that.”

“It doesn’t matter that I know it’s not true-exactly. But when you’re told you’re a failure over and over, you start believing it. That goddamn show was my family, then bam! Gone. I couldn’t get it back, not the family, not the work. Then it’s do concerts, live shows, and I can’t. Stage fright, panic attacks. I wasn’t going to take pills.”

“What pills?”

“God.” She pressed her fingers to her eyes, grateful the tears had stopped. Spock slunk back over, dropped a half-chewed stuffed bear at her feet. “My manager, my mother, people. You just need something to smooth the edges, to get you out there. So you can keep bringing in the money, keep your name in the public consciousness. But I wouldn’t, I didn’t, and that was that. So there’s bad movies, horrible press-then worse from some viewpoints, no press. And Steve.”

Wound up, she tossed out her arms, paced the room. “I jumped into marriage two seconds after I turned eighteen because finally, finally, here was someone who loved me, who cared, who understood. But I couldn’t make that work.

“I tried college, and I hated it. I was miserable and I felt stupid. I wasn’t prepared, and I didn’t expect so many people to actually want me to fail. So I did. I matched their low expectations of me. One semester and I was out. Then there were voice-overs and humiliating bit parts. I’d write a screenplay, no, couldn’t do that, either. Photography, maybe? No, I sucked. I had income, thanks to Katie-and the fact, which I found out years later, that my father went to the wall to make sure my income was legally protected until I was of age.

“I was in therapy when I was fourteen. I thought about suicide at sixteen. Hot bath, pink candles, music, razor blade. Except after I got in the tub, I thought, this is just stupid. I don’t want to die. So I just took a bath. I tried things. Maybe I could manage someone else, or do choreography. Name it. Tried it. Bombed. I don’t get things done. I don’t stick.”

“Take a breather,” Ford ordered, in such stern, authoritative tones she could only blink at him. “You were a cute kid, a cute, talented kid on TV.”

“Oh hell.”

“Just shut up a minute. I don’t know how these things work, exactly, but I’d have to guess the show had run its course.”

“And then some.”

“But nobody took into account there was a kid involved, one who’d grown up on that show and who had to feel as if she’d been ripped away from her family. Orphaned. Who might feel it was her fault.”

“I did. I really did. I know better, but-”

“Anybody who offers much less pushes tranquilizers on a fourteen-year-old girl to get her to perform ought to be shot. There’s no gray area there, not to me. You’re not going to be able to claim those events as your failure. Sorry, they’re off the list. Actually, it’s a clean sweep,” he continued as she stared at him. “College didn’t work, writing, photography, whatever. It’s not failing, Cilla, it’s trying. It’s exploring. You had a marriage that didn’t work, and you’ve managed to remain friends-real friends-with the ex? That’s a failure? See, that comes up strong in the plus column for me. And how about the houses back in California that you fixed up and sold? If you’ve hit a snag across the road, you’ll just have to unsnag it.”

“I haven’t.” She pushed at her hair, managed to take a clear, easy breath. “Things are actually going really well. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t believe I dumped all this on you. I had a meltdown earlier, and I thought I’d finished it off. For some reason the sketches opened the floodgates again.”

She bent down, stroked Spock as he continued to look at her with great concern. She picked up the tattered little bear. “This is disgusting.”

“Yeah. He’s had it awhile. He only gives it to people he loves.”

“Well.” She leaned forward, kissed Spock on the nose. “Thanks, baby. Here, you better have it back.”

His tail wagged as if to say, Crisis over, and he took the bear back to his bed.

“What brought on the meltdown in the first place?”

“Oh boy.”

She walked away from Ford, from the sketches, to the window. The sun had dipped down behind the mountains so its light haloed their dignified peaks. The sight of them-distant, a bit aloof-was comforting.

“My half sister stopped by today. Angie, who I often think of internally as my father’s daughter. I don’t often think of myself that way, or didn’t. It was easier not to. She’s so there. Happy, smart, pretty. A nice girl, but not so nice you can’t stand being around her. I haven’t made any particular effort there, or with my stepmother. Cards and an appropriate gift at Christmas and on birthdays. I didn’t recognize her for a minute, she’s cut her hair, but that wasn’t why. Not really. I just blanked at first. I felt stiff and awkward, and she didn’t. So I have to feel guilty about that, which makes me feel more stiff, more awkward, and she’s just bubbling over, happy to see me. No pretense, no agenda.”

She sighed now, irritated with herself. Big whiny baby, she thought. Just can’t stand that everything’s going well. “I’d been congratulating myself on having the gates taken down-the symbol of it-and planting trees. Opening things up, putting in roots, looking to the future, and she made me realize I keep skimming over people and relationships, like a stone skipped over a river. Don’t want to sink in.”

“Maybe you’re more treading water awhile now.”

She glanced back. He looked so damn good, she thought, in the ancient sweatshirt, torn jeans, ragged hair. “Maybe I am. Anyway, while we’re standing there talking, and I’m trying to figure it out, Mr. Hennessy pulls up across the road. I’ve seen his van out there before, just sitting there. Angie recognized it.”

She turned around. “Did you know he’s slapped out at my father and his family?”

“No. Maybe. He’s a hard man, Cilla.”

“So I found out when I went over to talk to him. He pretty much blames me and all my kin, as he put it, for what happened to his son. The house is cursed, I’m a whore like my grandmother, and so on. He actually spat at me.”

"Bastard.”

“I’ll say. Then he pulls out so fast, I lost my balance, and Angie’s all mother hen.”

“You should call the cops. They’ll talk to him.”

“And tell him not to spit on my shoes? Better if I just make sure he doesn’t have the chance to do it again. I’m done feeling sorry for what happened to him before I was born. I thought I was just pissed off, went back to work and sweated it out. But later, I guess it just all hit, resulting in the massive pity event I’ve just shared with you.”

“I’d call it a more medium-sized event, and that it illustrates you’re way too hard on yourself. I don’t know anything about building houses, but I do know the person in charge of what’s going on across the road. She’s no screwup. She’s smart and bold and she works for what she wants. She may not have the mystical powers of the goddess but…” He tapped one of the sketches. “That’s her. That’s you, Cilla. Just the way I see you.” He took down one of Brid, gripping a two-headed hammer in both hands, her face alive with power and purpose.

“Take this one, put it up somewhere. You feel one of the events coming on again, take a look at it. It’s who you are.”

“I have to say, you’re the first person to see me as a warrior goddess.”

“That’s not all she is.”

Cilla looked from the sketch up into his eyes. There was tightness in her chest again, but not the sort that presaged tears. It was the flexing, she thought, of something starting to open again. “Thanks for this, and for the rest. As payback…”

She turned, had his pulse bounding when she lifted the back of her shirt, bent just a little at the waist so her jeans gapped at the spine. And there, at the base, in deep blue, the three lines of the triple spiral curved.

He felt the punch in his libido even as it hit the intellect. “Celtic symbol of female power. Maid, mother, crone.”

She glanced over her shoulder, eyebrows cocked. “Aren’t you smart?”

“I’ve been researching.” He stepped closer to study the tattoo. “And that particular symbol was top of my list for Brid. That’s freaking kismet.”

“It should be on her biceps.”

“What? Sorry. Very distracted.”

“Biceps.” Cilla turned, flexed hers. “It’s stronger there. Not as sexy, maybe, but stronger, I think. And if you go with the idea of having it form when she transforms, it’s a bigger statement.”

“You were listening.”

“So were you.” She lifted a hand, touched his cheek. “You’re good at it.”

“Okay. We need to get out of the house now.”

“We do?”

“Yeah. Because I could talk you into bed now, and I really want to. Then we’d both wonder if it was because you had a bad day and I was just here. Angst and awkwardness ensue. So… let’s go get ice cream.”

Another key word had Spock deserting bear and bed and leaping up.

Smiling, she stroked her fingers down to Ford’s jawline. “I want you to talk me into bed now.”

“Yeah. Shut up. Ice cream. Let’s go.”

He grabbed her hand, pulled her along. The dog passed them at a run in a race for the front door.

“You’re a confusing man, Ford.”

“Half the time I don’t understand myself.”

TEN

To Steve’s mind very little topped the sensation of roaring along a country road, hugging the curves with the warm night wind streaming. Scoring with the hot brunette, Shanna the landscaper, would’ve edged that out, but he’d come close there.

And there was always next time.

He’d gotten a taste, anyway, and had the feeling the full dish would live up to the promise of the sample. Yeah. He grinned into the wind. Next time.

But for now, cruising along the deserted road after a little beer, a little pool, a few laughs and the prelude with Shanna hit all the chords. Swinging down, taking a couple of weeks to hook up with Cilla, yeah, that was working for him.

She’d taken on a big one, he mused. A big, complicated project, and a wicked personal one. But it was working for her, too. He could see it in the way she looked, the way she talked. And she’d make herself something-something big, complicated and personal. Just like she’d always needed to.

He could give her another week, maybe ten days on it. Because damn if the rehab didn’t grab him, and tight enough he wanted to see it through a little longer. He wanted to hang with Cilla a little longer, too, watch her build the framework of her new life.

And hopefully close the deal with Shanna while he was at it.

A week ought to do it, he thought as he swung around the turn and onto Cilla’s road. By then, the rural charm of the Shenandoah Valley would start to fade for him. He needed the action of the city, and though New York appealed to him for short stints, L.A.’s gloss and sparkle was home, sweet home.

Not for Cilla. Steve glanced idly at a car parked on the shoulder near a long, rising lane. No, for Cilla L.A. had always been just a place. Probably another reason getting married had been such a whacked idea. Even back then she’d been looking for a way out, and he’d been looking for a way in.

And somehow, they’d both found it.

He turned into her drive, smiling to himself when he noted she’d left a light on out front for him, and another inside that glowed against one of the windows. That was Cilla, he thought. She thought of the little things, remembered details.

And the light in the window reminded him it had to be after two in the morning. In the country quiet his Harley sounded like a tornado blowing out to Oz. She’d probably sleep through it-when Cilla went out, she went out-but he cut the engine halfway down the drive and coasted.

Singing under his breath, he hopped off the bike to guide it the rest of the way to the barn. He took off his helmet, strapped it onto the bike, then pulled open the creaking barn door. He left the headlight on to cut a swath through the dark and, with a belch that brought back the memory of Corona, slapped the kickstand down. When he angled the front wheel, the headlight cut across one of Cilla’s storage boxes. It sat open, with its lid beside it, and scattered with photos and papers.

“Hey.”

He took a step forward for a closer look. He heard nothing, saw nothing, and felt only an instant of shattering pain before he pitched forward onto the concrete.

CILLA HAD the first of what she thought of as a heads-together with Matt just after seven A.M. She planned others with the electrician and the plumber, but she wanted Steve in on that. As long as he was here, she thought, she’d use him.

Plus, she wanted him to go with her on a buying trip. She needed to choose tile and hardware, fixtures, and order more lumber. By seven-thirty, the cacophony of saws, hammers and radios filled the house, and figuring Steve had had a late night, she took pity on him and carried a mug of coffee up to the bedroom where he slept in his borrowed Spider-Man sleeping bag.

When she saw Spidey was currently unoccupied, she blew out a breath. “Somebody got lucky,” she muttered, and drank the coffee herself as she headed downstairs.

She grabbed her lists, her notebook, her purse. As she stepped outside, the landscape crew pulled in. Cilla’s eyebrows quirked up when she spotted Shanna. Just who did Steve get lucky with? she wondered. Shanna lifted a hand in a wave, then, carrying a to-go cup of coffee, wandered over.

“Morning. Brian’s got to site another job this morning, but he’ll swing by in a couple hours.”

“Fine. I’m heading in to pick up some materials. Do you need me for anything?”

“We’re good. But you ought to come around when you get back. We’ll be starting on hardscape-the patio and walkways today.” Shanna glanced at the house. “So, is Steve among the living this morning?”

“Haven’t seen him yet.”

“I’m not surprised.” Adjusting the cap over her dark braid, Shanna flashed a smile. “We about closed the place down last night. That Steve, he sure can dance.”

“Yes, he can.”

“He’s a sweetie. Followed me home to make sure I got there safe, then didn’t push-or not hard-to come in. He’d pushed a little harder, and who knows?” She hooted out a laugh.

“He didn’t stay with you?”

“No.” Shanna’s smile faded. “Did he get home all right?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see him inside, so I assumed…” With a shrug, Cilla jingled her keys. “I’ll just go see if his bike’s in the barn.”

Shanna fell into step beside her. “He was fine when he left, I mean he hadn’t been drinking much. A couple of beers all night. I only live about twenty minutes from here.”

“I probably just missed him in the house.” But her stomach started to jump as Cilla reached the barn door. “Maybe he went up while I went down.”

Sunlight splashed into the barn and erupted with dust motes. Cilla blinked to adjust her eyes and felt a fresh wave of anxiety when she didn’t immediately spot the Harley.

Stepping in, she noted some of her storage boxes were tipped over, the contents spilled. An old chair lay broken on its side. She saw the Harley then, on the floor, handlebars up as if its rider had wiped out. Steve, arms and legs splayed, sprawled under the weighty bulk of it.

“Oh God.” She sprang forward, Shanna beside her, to lift the bike off Steve. Blood matted his hair, and more stained his raw and bruised face. Afraid to move him, Cilla pressed her fingers to his throat. And nearly shook as she felt his pulse beat.

“He’s alive. He’s got a pulse. Call-”

“I am.” Crouching, Shanna punched nine-one-one on her cell phone. “Should we get a blanket? Should we-”

“Tell them to hurry. Don’t move him.” Cilla leaped up and ran for the house.

HE COULD USUALLY sleep through anything. But the shouting scraped along Ford’s consciousness, then the sirens drove straight in. Too bleary to put them together, he rolled out of bed, stumbled out onto the veranda. Yawning, he scanned across the road, wished he could conjure a cup of coffee with the power of his mind. The sight of the ambulance outside Cilla’s barn had him snapping awake. When he didn’t see her in his quick, panicked search, he rushed back inside to drag on clothes.

He streaked across the road, up Cilla’s drive, keeping his mind blank. If one image, even one image, formed, a dozen horrible others would follow. He pushed through the crowd of workers, said her name once, like a personal prayer.

When he saw her standing behind the portable gurney, his heart started beating again. Then it slammed into his belly when he realized Steve lay on the gurney.

“I’m going with him. I’m going.” Her voice teetered on the thin edge between control and hysteria. “He’s not going alone.” She gripped the edge of the gurney, stuck like glue as they transported it to the ambulance.

The fear in her eyes chilled Ford to the bone. “Cilla. I’m going to follow you in. I’m going to be there.”

“He won’t wake up. They can’t wake him up.” Before anyone could deny her, Cilla climbed into the back of the ambulance.

He took her purse because Shanna had retrieved it and pushed it into his hands. Shanna, Ford thought, who’d had tears streaking down her face.

“He was in the barn,” Shanna choked out, and slid into Ford’s arms for comfort. “Lying on the floor, under the bike. The blood.”

"Okay, Shan. Okay, honey. I’m going to go. I’m going to find out how he is.”

“Call me, please. Call me.”

“First thing.”

After a wild drive to the hospital, Ford carried Cilla’s purse into the ER, too worried to feel even marginally foolish.

He found her standing outside a pair of double doors, looking helpless.

“I gave them his medical history, the stuff I could remember. Who remembers all of that kind of thing?” She pawed at the neck of her shirt, as if looking for something, anything, to hold on to. “But I gave them his blood type. I remembered his blood type. A-negative. I remembered.”

“Okay. Let’s go sit down.”

“They won’t let me in. They won’t let me stay with him. He won’t wake up.”

Ford put an arm around her shoulders and firmly steered her away from the doors and to a chair. Instead of sitting, he crouched in front of her so her eyes were on his face. “They’re going to fix him now. That’s what they’re doing. Okay?”

“He was bleeding. His head. His face. Lying there bleeding. I don’t know how long.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“I don’t know!” She pressed both hands to her mouth, and began to rock. “I don’t know. He wasn’t in his room, and I figured, I thought, well, I figured, he shoots, he scores. That’s all. I almost left. God, God, I almost left without even looking, even checking. It would’ve been hours more.”

“Breathe.” He spoke sharply, took her hands and squeezed. “Look at me and breathe.”

“Okay.” She breathed, and she trembled, but Ford saw a hint of color come back into her face. “I thought he’d stayed at Shanna’s, so I was going to go buy materials, but he didn’t. I mean, she got there and said he didn’t. I worried that he might’ve gotten lost or something. I don’t even know. But I went to see if his bike was there. And we found him.”

“In the barn.”

“He was lying under his bike. I don’t know what could’ve happened. His head, his face.” Now she rubbed a hand between her breasts. Ford could almost hear the slam of her heart against the pressure. “I heard them say he’s probably got a couple of broken ribs, from the bike falling on him. But how did the bike fall on him? And… and the head injuries. His pupils. They said something about a blown pupil. I know that’s not good. I had a guest spot on ER once.”

She hitched in three raw breaths, then let them out in a gush. And the tears came with it. “Who the hell has a motorcycle accident in a barn? It’s so goddamn stupid.”

Taking the tears, and the hint of anger, as good signs, Ford sat beside her and held her hand.

When the door flew open, they lurched to their feet together. “What is it? Where are you taking him? Steve.”

“Miss.” One of the ER nurses put herself in Cilla’s path. “They’re taking your friend up to surgery.”

“Surgery for what? For what?”

“He has bleeding in his brain from the head injury. They need to operate. I’m going to take you up to the surgical waiting area. One of the doctors can explain the procedure to you.”

“How bad? You can tell me that. How bad?”

“We’re doing everything we can. We have a good surgical team prepping for the procedure.” She gestured them to an elevator. “Do you know if Mr. Chensky was in some sort of fight?”

“No. Why?”

“The injury to the back of his head. It looks as though he’s been struck. It’s just not consistent with a fall. Of course, if he was driving without his helmet…”

“It didn’t happen when he was driving. It didn’t happen on the road.”

“So you said.”

“Cilla.” Ford laid a hand on hers before she could get into the elevator. “We need to call the cops.”

HOW WAS SHE supposed to think? How could she sit in this room while somewhere else strangers operated on Steve? An operating room. Operating theater. They called it a theater sometimes, didn’t they? Would the patient and doctor be costars? Who got top billing?

“Miss McGowan?”

“What?” She stared into the blank eyes of the cop. What was his name? She’d already forgotten it. “I’m sorry.” She groped through the chaos of her mind for the question he’d asked. “I’m not sure what time he got back. I went to bed about midnight, and he wasn’t back. Shanna said he left her before two. Just before two, she said.”

“Do you have Shanna’s full name?”

“Shanna Stiles,” Ford supplied. “She works for Brian Morrow. Morrow Landscape and Design.”

“You found Mr. Chensky at approximately seven-thirty this morning?”

“I said that. Didn’t I say that?” Cilla pushed at her hair. “He wasn’t in the house, so I checked the barn for his bike. And I found him.”

“You and Mr. Chensky live together?”

“He’s visiting. He’s helping me out for a few weeks.”

“Visiting from?”

“Los Angeles. New York. I mean, he was in New York, and he’s going back to L.A.” Whatever churned in her belly wanted to rise up to her throat. “What difference does it make?”

“Officer Taney.” Ford put a hand over Cilla’s, squeezed. “Here’s the thing. A few nights ago, I saw someone walking around, going into Cilla’s barn. It was late. I was working late, and I looked out the window on the way to bed and saw someone, saw a flashlight. I thought it was Steve, and didn’t think anything of it.”

“But it wasn’t.” Remembering, Cilla shut her eyes. “I was supposed to buy a padlock, but I didn’t. I forgot about it, didn’t think about it, and now-”

“What do you keep in the barn?” Taney asked her.

“I cleaned out the attic and stored things there. A lot of things I have to sort through. And there’s other stuff. Old tack, tools, equipment.”

“Valuables?”

“For some, anything connected to my grandmother is valuable. Stupid, stupid to think I could turn it all around, make it new.” Make it mine, she thought. Stupid.

“Was anything taken?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

“Mr. Chensky went out at approximately eight last evening, to a bar. You don’t have the name of the bar-”

“No, I don’t have the name of the bar. You can ask Shanna Stiles. And if you’re thinking he was drunk and somehow bashed himself on the back of the head, smashed his face into the concrete and knocked his bike on top of him, you’re wrong. Steve wouldn’t get on his bike drunk. You can ask Shanna or anyone else who was in the bar last night about that.”

“I’m going to do that, Miss McGowan, and if it’s all right with you, I’ll go over and have a look at your barn.”

“Yes, go ahead.”

“I hope your friend comes through okay. I’ll be in touch,” he added as he rose.

Ford watched him cross to the nurses’ station, take out a card.

“He thinks it was drunken clumsiness, or that Steve was stoned and stupid.”

“Maybe he does.” Ford turned back to Cilla. “Maybe. But he’s still going to look at things, talk to people. And Steve can fill in the blanks when he’s able.”

“He could die. They don’t have to tell me that for me to know it. He might never wake up.” Her lips trembled before she managed to firm them. “And I keep seeing him in there, in this scene out of Grey’s Anatomy, with the interns up there in that glass-walled balcony looking down at Steve. And everybody’s thinking more about sex than they are about Steve.”

Ford took her face in his hands. “People do their jobs while they think about sex. All the time. Otherwise nothing would ever get done.” When she let out a weak laugh, he kissed her forehead. “Let’s take a walk, get some air.”

“I shouldn’t leave. I need to be here.”

“It’s going to be a while. Let’s clear the head, hunt up some decent coffee.”

“Okay. A few minutes. You don’t have to stay.” She looked down at her hand as they walked to the elevator, saw it was caught in his again. “I wasn’t thinking. You don’t have to stay. You barely know Steve.”

“Don’t be stupid. I do know him, and I like him. Anyway, I won’t leave you alone.”

She said nothing, couldn’t, as they rode down. Her eyes stung, wanted to flood. Her body ached to turn into his, press against the solidity of him, be enfolded. Safe. She could hold on there, she thought. Be allowed to hold on.

“You want food?” he asked as they stepped out at the lobby level.

“No, I couldn’t.”

“Probably still sucks anyway.”

“Still?”

“My dad was in for a couple days a few years ago, so I choked down the cafeteria fare a time or two. It hadn’t improved since I was a kid and did my own time.”

“What were you in for?”

“Overnight observation-concussion, broken arm. I, uh, got the idea to put these Velcro strips on my snow gloves and socks. Thought I’d be able to climb up and down buildings like Spider-Man. Fortunately my bedroom window wasn’t that high up.”

“Maybe you should’ve tried climbing up before climbing down.”

“Hindsight.”

“You’re taking my mind off Steve, and I appreciate it. But-”

“Five minutes,” Ford said as he drew her outside. “Fresh air.”

“Ford?”

Cilla looked over as he did toward the pretty woman wearing a suit of powerful red. A laugh played over lips painted the same bold color, while she drew off sunglasses to reveal eyes of deep, dark brown.

Her arms opened wide, then closed around Ford in a hard, proprietary hug. She added sound effects, Cilla noted, a low mmmmmMM! before she broke off, shook back the short swing of glossy brown hair. “It’s been ages!”

“A while,” Ford agreed. “You look seriously great.”

“I do my best.” She turned those eyes, those smiling lips on Cilla. “Hi there.”

“Cilla, this is Brian’s mom, Cathy Morrow. Bri’s doing a job for Cilla.”

“Of course,” Cathy said. “Janet Hardy’s granddaughter. I knew her a little. You certainly have the look of her. And you’re fixing up the old farm.”

“Yes.” It was surreal, the conversation. Cilla thought of it as lines from a play. “Brian’s a big help. He’s talented.”

“That’s my boy. What are y’all doing here?”

“Cilla’s friend’s in surgery. There was an accident.”

"Oh God, I’m so sorry.” The bright, flirtatious smile transformed into a look of concern. “Is there anything I can do?” Cathy’s arm went around Cilla in a gesture so genuine, Cilla leaned into it instinctively.

“We’re just… waiting.”

“The worst. The waiting. Listen, I volunteer here a couple of days a week, and I head a couple of the fund-raising committees. I know a lot of the staff. Who’s his surgeon?”

“I don’t know. It happened so fast.”

“Why don’t I find out, see if I can get you some information? I don’t know why they don’t understand we do better if we know things.”

The offer was like water on a burning throat. “Could you?”

“I can sure try. Come on, honey. You want some coffee, some water? No, I’ll tell you what. Ford, run on down and get Cilla a ginger ale.”

“Okay. I’ll meet you back upstairs. You’re in good hands.”

It felt like it. For the first time in too long to remember, Cilla felt as if it was okay to just let go and allow somebody else to take charge.

“What happened to your friend?”

“We don’t know, exactly. That’s part of the problem.”

“Well, we’ll find out what we can.” Cathy gave Cilla a comforting squeeze as they crowded onto an elevator with visitors and flowers and Mylar balloons. “What’s his name?”

“Steve. Steven Chensky.”

Cathy took out a red leather notebook and a silver pen to note it down. “How long’s he been in?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve lost track. We got here about eight, I think, into the ER, and he was there for a little while before they brought him up. Maybe an hour ago?”

“I know that seems long, but it’s not, really. Here now.” Cathy patted Cilla on the back when the elevator doors opened. “You go on and sit, and I’ll see what I can find out.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“Don’t you give it a thought.”

Cilla walked back to the waiting room but didn’t sit. She didn’t want to sit with the others who were waiting for word on a friend, on a loved one. On life and death. She wished for a window. Whose idea had it been to design an interior waiting room with no windows? Didn’t they understand people needed to stare out? To will their minds outside the room?

“Hey.” Ford stepped up beside her with a large go-cup.

“Thanks.”

“Cathy’s talking to people.”

“It’s very kind of her. She’s very fond of you. When she first came up, I thought she was an old girlfriend.”

“Man.” Mortification flashed. “She’s a mom. She’s Brian’s mom.”

“A lot of men go for older women, sport. And she looks really good.”

“Mom,” Ford repeated. “Brian’s mom.”

Cilla started to smile, then tensed when Cathy stepped in.

“First, Dr. North is operating,” Cathy began in brisk, practical tones that were enormously comforting. “He’s one of the best. You’re very, very lucky there.”

“Okay.” Cilla’s breath eased out. “All right.”

“Next, do you want all the medical terms, the jargon?” Cathy held up her notebook.

“I… No. No, I want, just, to know.”

“He’s holding his own. He’s stable. It’s going to be another couple of hours, at least. And there are other injuries that need to be addressed.” She flipped the book open now. “Two broken ribs. His nose and left cheekbone were broken, and his kidney’s bruised. His head injuries are the most serious, and Dr. North’s working on him. He’s young, fit, healthy, and those factors are in his favor.”

“Okay.” Cilla nodded. “Thank you.”

“Why don’t I check back in a little while?” Cathy took Cilla’s hand.

“I appreciate it, Mrs. Morrow, very much.”

“Cathy. And it’s nothing. Take care of her,” she said to Ford, and left them alone.

“I’m going to go out, call the house. Let everyone know what’s going on.”

“I did that,” Ford told her, “when I got your drink. But we can do an update.”

They walked. They sat. They stared at the waiting room TV someone had tuned to CNN. As the projected couple of hours became a few, Cathy came back in.

“He’s out of surgery. Dr. North will come in to talk to you.”

“He’s-”

“They won’t tell me much right now, except that he made it through. That’s a good thing. Ford, you make sure Cilla has my number. You call me if you need anything. All right?”

“Yes.” Cilla’s fingers tightened like wires on Ford’s when the man in green scrubs paused in the doorway. His gaze scanned the room, paused on Cathy with a flicker of acknowledgment. And Cathy’s hand rested briefly on Cilla’s shoulder.

“You call,” she repeated, and moved away as the doctor crossed the room.

“Miss McGowan?”

“Yes. Yes. Steve?”

North sat. His face looked quiet, Cilla thought. Almost serene, and smooth, smooth as brown velvet. And he angled his body toward hers, kept his dark eyes on her face as he spoke.

“Steve suffered two skull fractures. A linear fracture here,” he said, running his finger along the top of his forehead. “That’s a break in the bone that doesn’t cause the bone to shift. Those usually heal on their own. But the second was a break here.” Now he held his hand to the base of his skull. “A basilar fracture. And this more severe break caused bruising of his brain, and bleeding.”

“You fixed him.”

“He came through the surgery. He’s going to need further tests. We’ll monitor the pressure inside his skull in the ICU with a device I inserted during surgery. When the swelling goes down, we’ll remove it. He has a good chance.”

“A good chance,” she repeated.

“There could be brain damage, temporary or permanent. It’s too soon to tell. Right now, we wait and we monitor. He’s in a coma. His heart is very strong.”

"Yes, it is.”

“He has a good chance,” North repeated. “Does he have family?”

“Not here. Just me. Can I see him?”

“Someone will come in to take you up to ICU shortly.”

When they did, she stared down at him. His face under the clouds and streams of bruises was deathly pale. It wasn’t right, was all she could think. None of this was right. He didn’t even look like Steve with those blackened, sunken eyes, and his nose all swollen, and the white bandages around his head.

They’d taken his earring off. Why did they do that?

He didn’t look like Steve.

She took the small silver hoop out of her ear and, bending over him, fixed it to his. And brushed his bruised cheek with a kiss.

“That’s better now,” she whispered. “That’s better. I’m going to be here, okay?” Lifting his hand, she kissed his fingers. “Even when I’m not here, I’ll be here. You don’t get to leave. That’s the rule. You don’t get to leave me.”

She stayed, holding his hand, until the nurse shooed her out.

Part Two. REHAB

Change your opinions,

keep to your principles;

Change your leaves,

keep intact your roots.

– VICTOR HUGO

ELEVEN

We can take shifts.” Ford glanced over at Cilla as he drove. She hadn’t objected when he insisted she needed to go home, get some rest, have a meal. And that worried him. "They’re pretty strict in ICU anyway, and don’t let you hang out very long, so we’ll take shifts. Between you and me, Shanna and some of the guys, we’ll cover it.”

“They don’t know how long he’ll be in a coma. It could be hours, or days, and that’s if-”

“When. We’re going with when.”

“I’ve never had a very optimistic nature.”

“That’s okay.” He tried to find a tone between firm and sympathetic. “I’ve got one and you can borrow a piece.”

“It looked like he’d been beaten. Just beaten.”

“It’s the skull fracture. I talked to one of the nurses when you were in with him. It’s part of it.” Knowing it, even knowing it, he thought, hadn’t dulled the shock when he’d been allowed a minute with Steve. “So’s the coma. The coma’s not a bad thing, Cilla. It’s giving his body a chance to heal. It’s focusing.”

“You do have plenty of optimistic pieces. But this isn’t a comic book where the good guy pulls it out every time. Even if-or we can go with your rainbow when-he comes out of it, there could be brain damage.”

He’d gotten that, too, but saw no point in pushing through to worst-case scenario. “In my rainbow world, and in your darker version, the brain relearns. It’s a clever bastard.”

“I didn’t get the goddamn padlock.”

“If somebody got in the barn and went at Steve, why do you think a padlock would’ve kept them out?”

She curled her fingers into her palms as they approached her drive. “I took down the gates. And planted fucking trees.”

“Yeah, I figure the trees are what did it. Makes it all your fault.” He waited for her to take a shot at him-better, to his mind, than wallowing. But she said nothing. “Okay, again, if someone wanted in, how would a couple of wrought-iron panels stop them? What happened to pessimism?”

She only shook her head and stared at the house. “I don’t know what I’m doing here. That crazy old man was probably right. The place is cursed. My uncle died, my grandmother, and now Steve may die. For what? So I can buff and polish, paint and trim this place? Looking for that link, that click, that connection with my grandmother because I’ve got none with my own mother? What’s the point? She’s dead, so what’s the point?”

“Identity.” Ford gripped her arm before she could push the car door open. “How can we know who we really are until we know where we came from, and overcome it, build on it or accept it?”

“I know who I am.” She wrenched free, shoved the door open. Slammed it behind her.

“No, you really don’t,” Ford responded.

She strode around the side of the house. Work, she thought, a couple hours of sweaty work, then she’d clean up and go back to the hospital. The patio had been repaired, the new slate laid, with the walkways roped and dug except for the one she’d added to the plans. The one leading to the barn. Yellow crime-scene tape crossed over her barn door like ugly ribbon over a nasty gift. She stared at it as Shanna dropped her shovel and raced over the lawn.

Cilla willed her compassion back into place. She wasn’t the only one worried and distressed. “There’s no change.” She gripped Shanna’s extended hand.

The rest of the landscape crew stopped working, and some of the men from inside the house stepped out. “No change,” she repeated, lifting her voice. “They’ve got him in ICU, monitoring him, and they’ll be doing tests. All we can do is wait.”

“Are you going back?” Shanna asked her.

“Yeah, in a little while.”

“Brian?”

Brian gave Shanna a quick nod. “Go ahead.”

Yanking her phone out of her pocket, Shanna strode toward the front of the house.

“Her sister can pick her up,” Brian explained. He pulled his cap off his short brown hair, raked grimy fingers through it. “She wanted to knock off when you got here, go by and see Steve herself.”

“Good. That’s good.”

“The rest of us, and Matt and Dobby and such, we’ll go by, too. Don’t know as they’ll let us in to see him, but we’ll go by. Shanna had a jag earlier. She’s blaming herself.”

“Why?”

“If she’d let him stay the night, and so on.” Sighing, he replaced his cap. After one glance at Ford, he got the picture. Taking off his sunglasses, he focused his summer blue eyes on Cilla. “I told her there’s no ifs, and no blame except for whoever did that to Steve. Start hauling out the ifs and the blame, you could just as soon say if Steve hadn’t gone out to play pool, if he hadn’t gone in the barn. And that’s crap. Best thing is to hold good thoughts. Anyway.”

He took a bandanna out of his pocket to wipe the sweat from his face. “The cops were here, as I guess you can see. Asking questions. I can’t say what they’re thinking about this.”

“I hope they’ve stopped thinking he was drunk and did that to himself.”

“Shanna set them straight on the drunk part.”

“Good.” It loosened one of the multitude of knots in her belly. “I met your mother.”

“Did you?”

“At the hospital. She was a lot of help. Well.” Tears continued to burn the back of her eyes as she stared into the sunlight. “The patio looks good.”

“Helps to have work.”

“Yeah. So give me some, will you?”

“That I can do.” He shot a smile at Ford. “How about you? Want a shovel?”

“I like to watch,” Ford said easily. “And I’ve got to check on Spock.”

“Just as well. Give this guy a shovel or a pick?” he said to Cilla. “And if there’s a pipe or a cable in the ground, he’ll hit it, first cut.”

“That only happened once. Maybe twice,” Ford qualified.

WHEN THE CREW KNOCKED OFF, she knocked off with them and hit the shower. She wanted to say she felt human again, but was still well shy of the mark. Like an automaton, she pulled on fresh clothes. She decided she’d buy some magazines, something to occupy her mind at the hospital, and maybe snag a sandwich from a vending machine.

When she jogged downstairs, Ford stood in her unfinished living room.

“I’d say you’re making progress, but I don’t know that much about it, and it doesn’t look like it to me.”

“We’re making progress.”

“Good. I’ve got dinner out on the veranda. Spock sends his regards as he’s dining at home this evening.”

“Dinner? Listen, I-”

“You have to eat. So do I.” He grabbed her hand, pulled her out. “We’ve got my secondary specialty.”

She stared at the paper plates and cups, the bottle of wine and the can of Coke. And in the center of the folding table sat a dish of macaroni and cheese.

“You made mac and cheese?”

“Yeah, I did. That is, I put the package in the microwave and programmed according to directions. It’s mac and cheese if you aren’t too fussy.” He poured some wine in a paper cup. “And the wine’ll help it along.”

“You’re not having wine.”

“That’s ’cause I like the nuked version just fine, and I’m driving you to the hospital.”

A hot meal, companionship. Help. All offered, she thought, without a need for asking. “You don’t have to do that, do this.”

He pulled her chair out, nudged her into it. “It’s more satisfying to do something you don’t have to do.”

“Why are you?” She looked up, into his eyes. “Why are you doing this for me?”

“You know what, Cilla, I’m not entirely sure. But…” He pressed his lips to her forehead before he sat. “I believe you matter.”

She clutched her hands in her lap as he scooped out two heaping spoons of the macaroni and cheese onto her plate. Then, to clear her throat, she took a sip of wine. “That’s the second thing you’ve said to me today no one else ever has.”

Those eyes of his lifted, zeroed in on hers. “No one ever told you you mattered?”

“Maybe Steve. In different words, in different ways. But no, not just that way.”

“You do. Go on and eat. That stuff gets cold, it turns to cement.”

“The second thing-or the first, actually, that you said to me today was you wouldn’t leave me alone.”

He only looked at her, and she couldn’t tell if it was pity or understanding, or simply patience, on his face. Whatever it was, she knew it was exactly what she needed. And so much what she’d never expected to find.

“I guess you meant it, because here you are.” She stabbed up a forkful, slid it into her mouth and smiled around it. “It’s terrible. Thanks,” she said and stabbed another bite.

“You’re welcome.”

THERE WAS NO CHANGE when they arrived at the hospital, and no change when they left hours later. Cilla slept with the phone clutched in her hand, willing it to ring, willing the on-duty nurse to call to tell her Steve was awake and lucid.

But no call came. The dreams did.

SHENANDOAH VALLEY 1960

“This is how it looked, the first time I saw it. My little farm.”

In red capri pants, a white shirt tied at the midriff and white Keds, Janet strolled arm in arm with Cilla. Janet’s sunshine hair bounced in a jaunty ponytail.

“Of course, that’s not true-exactly-as when I first came here there were the trailers, the lights, the cables, the trucks. The city we make on locations. You know.”

“Yes, I know.”

“But we’re looking through that now. As I did then. What do you see?”

“A pretty house, with simple lines. A family home with wide, welcoming porches with old rocking chairs where you can sit and do absolutely nothing. Sweet little gardens and big shade trees.”

“Keep going.”

“The big red barn, and oh! Horses in the paddock!” Cilla rushed over to the paddock fence, thrilled with the breeze that fluttered through her hair and rippled the manes on the mare and her foal. “They’re so beautiful.”

“Did you always want a pony?”

“Of course.” Laughing, Cilla turned her head to smile at Janet. “Every little girl wants a pony. And a puppy, a kitten.”

“But you never got them.”

“No, I had call sheets and script changes. You know.”

“Yes, I know.”

“A chicken house! Just listen to them cluck.” The sound made her laugh again. “And pigs rooting in their pen. Look at the fields. Is that corn? And there’s a kitchen garden. I can see the tomatoes from here. I could grow tomatoes.”

Janet’s smile was both indulgent and amused. “And have a pony, a puppy and a kitten.”

“Is that what I want? I’m not ten anymore. Is that what I want? I can’t seem to figure it out. Is it what you wanted?”

“I wanted everything I didn’t have, and if I got it, it was never exactly what I wanted after all. Or in the long run. Even this place.” She swept out an arm, a graceful dancer’s gesture, to encompass the farm. “I fell in love, but then I fell easy and often, as everyone knows, and out again. And I thought, I have to have it.”

Lifting both her arms, Janet turned, circle after circle. “The family home with the wide, welcoming porches, the big red barn, tomatoes on the vine. That’s what I’ve never had. But I can buy it, I can own it.” She stopped spinning. “Then, of course, I had to change it. The gardens had to be lusher, the colors bolder, the lights brighter. I needed bright, bright lights. And even though I made it bolder, brighter, even though I brought the stars here to stroll like Gatsby’s ghosts across the lawn, it never really changed. It never lost its welcome. And I never fell out of love.”

“You came here to die.”

“Did I?” Janet cocked her head, looked up under her lashes, suddenly sly. “You wonder, don’t you? It’s one of the reasons you’re here. Secrets-we all have them. Yours are here, too. It’s why you came. You told yourself you’d put it back, as it was, and somehow put me back. But like me, you’ll make changes. You already have. It’s not me you’re looking for. It’s you.”

In the dream she felt a quick shiver, a chill from truth. “There is no me without you. I see you when I look in the mirror. I hear you when I speak. There’s a filter over it all, just enough to dim the brilliance, but you’re under there.”

“Did you want the pony or the call sheets, Cilla?”

“For a while, I wanted both. But I’d have been happier with the pony.” Cilla nodded, looked back toward the house. “Yes, and the family home. You’re right. That’s why I’m here. But it’s not enough. The secrets, the shadows of them. They’re still here. People get hurt in the dark. Steve got hurt in the dark.”

“Then turn on the lights.”

“How?”

“I’m just a dream.” Janet smiled, shrugged. “I don’t have any answers.”

WHEN SHE WOKE, Cilla grabbed the phone she’d dropped in her sleep and speed-dialed the hospital.

No change.

She lay in the dim light of predawn, the phone pressed between her breasts, wondering if she should feel fear or relief. He hadn’t died in the night, hadn’t slipped away from her while she slept. But he still lay trapped in that between world, that place between life and death.

So she’d go talk to him, nag him, browbeat him into waking up. She climbed out of bed, cleaned herself up. She’d make coffee, she thought, make lists for any of the subs she might miss while she was at the hospital.

As she passed the next bedroom she stopped, and studied Ford. He slept half in, half out of the sleeping bag. And what was out, she had to admit, was very nice.

The dog curled at the foot of the bag, snoring like a chain saw in mid-massacre. Ford hadn’t wanted Spock to spend the night alone, she remembered, and went to get him when they returned from the hospital. Went to get his dog, she thought, after he told her he’d be sleeping in the spare room.

He wouldn’t leave her alone.

She went down, made the coffee, drinking hers on the back veranda. There had been no patio in the dream, but her subconscious had known Janet had added that, and the walkways. The crops in the field, another given. The kitchen garden? She couldn’t remember if that had been original, or one of Janet’s additions. Either way, it was something she herself wanted.

And the barn? It was no longer red. That bright color had weathered away long ago. The coffee turned bitter in her throat as she stared at the yellow tape crossing the door. If Steve died, she’d tear the bastard down. Tear it down, burn it, and everything inside it.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she battled back the anger that wanted to scream out of her. If he lived, she told herself, if he came back whole, she’d paint it that bright, happy red again. Red with white trim.

“Please, God.”

Why God gave a damn if she burned the barn to the ground or painted it red with yellow smiley faces she couldn’t say. But it was the best she had.

She went back inside, poured another mug and carried it upstairs to Ford.

She sat cross-legged beside him and, sipping her own second cup of coffee, gave him a good study. Unlike his dog, he didn’t snore, which added points in his favor, but the way he sprawled indicated bed hog. Points deducted. He had a good growth of stubble going, considering he hadn’t shaved the day before, but she had to admit it added a sexy edge to the package.

He wasn’t what she’d call buff or ripped, but reasonably toned over a build that leaned toward skinny. Just a touch of gawkiness, she mused. Add a few cute points for that.

He had good arms. Strong, lean rather than bulky. Best, she thought, they knew how to hold on. Major points, she decided. He just kept racking them up.

And the lips-top score. Leaning over, she rubbed hers to his. He made a humming sound in his throat, reached out. When she eased back, his eyes blinked open.

“Hey.”

“Hey yourself.”

“Did you have a bad dream?”

“No. A strange one, but I’m prone to them. It’s morning.”

“Uh-uh.” He shifted enough to turn his wrist, blink at his watch. At the foot of the bag, Spock yawned, a high-pitched whine, then went back to snoring. “Nope. Six-forty isn’t morning. Crawl in here with me. I’ll prove it.”

“Tempting.” More so when he tugged her head down again and improved, considerably, on her casual wake-up kiss. “Very tempting,” she said. “But some of the crew should be pulling up in about twenty minutes.”

“I can get it done in twenty minutes.” He winced. “That probably didn’t translate to my advantage.”

“Have coffee.” She held out the mug, waved it slowly under his nose.

“You brought me coffee?” He sat up, took the first sip. “Now you have to marry me.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, and bear me eight young, dance naked for my pleasure every Tuesday and wake me with coffee-that’s after the sex-every morning. It’s the law of Kroblat.”

“Who’s Kroblat?”

“Not who. The planet Kroblat. It’s a very spiritual place,” he decided on the spot. “I try to live my life by its laws. So, we’ll have to get married and all the rest.”

“We’ll get on that, first chance.” She brushed her hand over his hair. “Thanks for staying.”

“Hey, I got coffee, a wife and eight kids out of it. You checked on Steve?”

“No change. I’m going to go see him. Maybe I can bitch-talk him awake, you know?”

“Maybe. Give me ten minutes, I’ll drive you.”

“No. No, I’m fine. I’m going to sit with him awhile, nag him awhile. Then I’m going to pick up some supplies and materials, drop them back here. I’ll be back and forth a lot today. Let me ask you something. If I made a bargain with myself-or with God, fate. Whatever. And it was that I’d paint the barn red, red with white trim if Steve comes out of this okay, would I be jinxing it if I bought the paint before… before he comes out of it?”

“No. In fact, it shows faith.”

She shook her head. “I knew you’d say that. I’m just the opposite. Too scared to buy the damn paint.” She pushed to her feet. “I’ll see you later.”

“I’ll be by the hospital.”

She stopped at the door, hesitated, then turned back to look at him. “I can pick up dinner for tonight, if you want.”

“That’d be great.”

“I really want to sleep with you.” She smiled when he nearly bobbled the coffee and when Spock’s tiny ears perked. What a pair they were. “I really want to know what it’s like, to just let go. But I guess it’s like buying the paint, for now.”

He kept his gaze on hers, and smiled. Slowly. “I’ve got time. For later.” Ford sat where he was, drinking coffee and making a mental note to write down that stuff about Kroblat. It could come in useful sometime, somewhere.

He felt pretty damn good for a man who’d slept on the floor, he decided. And one who’d had some trouble not thinking about the woman sleeping on the floor in the next room.

Now, since he was up at this ungodly hour, he’d drag his ass across the road, get in a workout, check on Steve, get a couple solid hours in on the novel, then drop by the hospital.

“You get your lazy ass up, too,” he said to Spock, and juggled the dog fully awake with his foot. He heard the first truck pull up as he pulled on his pants. By the time he was dressed and pouring a second cup of coffee, with Spock doing what Spock had to do in the backyard, the noise and activity level hit the red zone. Deciding he’d just borrow the mug and bring it back later, Ford headed outside with the coffee.

He saw Brian directing one of his men toward the back of the house with what looked like a load of sand. Ford shot up a wave. "Hey, Bri.”

“Well, hey.” With his thumbs in his front pockets, Brian strolled over and shot a meaningful look toward the house. “And hey.”

“Nah. Separate rooms. I didn’t want her to be alone.”

“How’s she doing?”

“Seems steadier this morning. She’s already on her way to see Steve.”

“Shanna called the hospital. No change yet. It’s the damnedest thing. Hell of a nice guy.”

“Yeah.” Ford looked over at the barn. “How much paint do you figure it’d take to do that barn?”

“Hell if I know. Ask a painter.”

“Right.” He glanced over as another car pulled up. “This place is a madhouse half the time. I’m going home.”

“Cops.” Brian jerked his chin. “Cops’re back. I hope to hell they don’t want to talk to Shanna again. It gets her going.”

“I’ll see if I can take it.”

Neither of the men who stepped out of the Crown Vic were the cop- Taney, Ford remembered-they’d talked to the day before. Neither of them wore a uniform, and instead sported suits and ties. Detectives, he assumed.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

The taller of the two, with snow-salted gray hair and prominent jowls, gave Ford a curt nod. The second, small, lean and black, eyed him coolly.

And both, he noted, stared down at the dog that stared up at them.

“Cilla-Miss McGowan’s-not home,” Ford began. “She left for the hospital about fifteen, twenty minutes ago.”

Tall White Guy studied him. “And you’d be?”

“Sawyer. Ford Sawyer. I live across the road. I spoke with Officer Taney yesterday.”

“You live across the road, but you stayed here last night. With Miss McGowan.”

Ford sipped his coffee, met Short Black Guy’s eyes while Spock grumbled. “Is that a statement or a question?”

“Your hair’s still wet from the shower.”

“So it is.” Ford offered an easy smile, then sipped his coffee.

Tall White Guy took out a notebook, flipped pages. “Can you tell us where you were night before last, between two and five A.M.?”

"Sure. Would you mind doing the ID thing? It’s not just for TV”

“Detective Urick, and my partner, Detective Wilson,” Tall White Guy said as they both produced their badges.

“Okay. I was in bed-over there-from about one A.M. until I heard the sirens yesterday morning.”

“Have company?”

“Yeah, Spock.” He gestured at the dog. “You could take a statement from him, but I’d have to translate so it probably wouldn’t work. Look, I get you have to check out everything and everyone, but the fact is somebody was out here a few nights before. I saw somebody skulking around with a flashlight.”

“We got that.” Urick nodded. “You’re the only one who claims to have seen anything. What’s your relationship with Miss McGowan?”

Ford beamed an exaggerated country-rube grin. “Friends and neighbors.”

“We have the impression, from other sources, that your relationship is more than friendly.”

“Not yet.”

“But you’d like it to be.”

As Ford blew out a breath, Spock began to circle the cops. He wouldn’t bite, but Ford knew if irritated enough, Spock would sure as hell lift his leg and express his opinion.

Bad idea-probably.

“Spock, say hello. Sorry, he’s feeling a little irritated and ignored. If you’d take a minute and shake, he’ll settle.”

Wilson crouched, took the paw. “How’s it going? Damnedest-looking dog I ever saw.”

“Got some bull terrier in there,” Urick commented, and leaned down to shake.

“Yeah, at least that’s what I’ve been told. Okay, back to would I like it to be more than friends and neighbors. Have you seen Cilla? Met her?

If so, you’d know I’d have to be stupid not to like it to be. What does that have to do with Steve?”

Urick gave Spock an absent scratch before straightening. “Miss McGowan’s ex-husband, staying with her. Three’s a crowd.”

“Again, only if you’re stupid. But you’ve made it clear that none of what happened was an accident.” Ford turned, studied the barn. “Somebody was in there, and whoever it was fractured Steve’s skull and left him there. Just left him there.”

The thought of that, just the thought of that stirred the rage he’d managed to hold still and quiet. “Son of a bitch. What the hell were they looking for?”

“Why do you think someone was looking for anything?” Urick demanded.

Ford’s eyes were cold green ice when he turned back. “Give me a fucking break. Not some scavenger, either, not some asshole poking around trying to score a pair of Janet Hardy’s shoes to sell on eBay. That doesn’t follow.”

“You’ve given this some thought.”

“I think a lot. Listen, look at me as long as you want, as hard as you want. If you’ve got more questions, I’ll be around.”

“We’ll find you, if and when,” Wilson called out.

No doubt about it, Ford thought as he headed for home with his dog.

TWELVE

He wanted to get into the barn, and Ford figured if he tried it, it would add a few more layers to the suspect cake the cops were baking for him.

He was a suspect. It was actually kind of cool.

God, once a nerd always a nerd, he thought as he went through a series of lats and flys.

Once he’d worked up a sweat and an appetite, he checked in with the hospital, downed some cereal. Showered, shaved, dressed, he stepped into his office, up to his workstation.

He closed his eyes, held up his hands and said, “Draco braz minto.” The childhood ritual put everything outside the work, and Ford into it. He sat, picked up his tools and began to draw the first panel for Brid.

CILLA HAD her chair angled toward the bed so she could look directly into Steve’s face as she spoke. And she spoke, keeping up a constant one-sided conversation, as if any appreciable stretch of silence could be deadly.

“So it’s moving. Clicking along better than I anticipated, even with the changes and additions I made to the original plans. The attic space shows real promise. Later on, I’m going to go pick out the flooring for up there, and the fixtures and tiles for that bath, and the master. We’ll be able to have a beer out on the patio, soon as you’re ready. What I need is pots. A couple of big-ass pots. Monsters. Oh, and I’m going to plant tomatoes. I think it’s about the right time to do that. And, like, peppers, maybe carrots and beans. I should wait until next year when the house is done, but I think I could scratch out a square for a little garden now. Then-”

“Miss McGowan.”

Cilla took a breath. When it hurt her chest to draw it in, it told her she’d been pushing too hard. “Yes.” What was the nurse’s name, the nurse with the curly blond hair and warm brown eyes? “Dee. It’s Cilla.”

“Cilla. The police are out there. A couple of detectives. They asked to speak to you.”

“Oh. Sure. Just a sec. I’ve got to do this thing,” she told Steve. “I’ll be back.”

Spotting the cops was the easiest thing she’d done all day, Cilla thought. She stepped up to them. “I’m Cilla McGowan.”

“Detective Wilson. My partner, Detective Urick. Is there somewhere we could talk?”

“There’s a little waiting room down here. They’ve got something they call coffee. You’re looking into what happened to Steve now,” she said as she led the way.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then you know he didn’t trip over his own feet, bash himself in the head and fall under his own bike.” She hit the coffeepot, added powdered creamer. “Do you know what did happen?”

“We’re looking into it,” Urick said. “Do you know anyone who’d wish Mr. Chensky harm?”

“No. He’s only been here a few days. Steve makes friends, not enemies.”

“You were married.”

“That’s right.”

“No hard feelings?” Wilson prompted.

“None. We were friends before we got married. We’ve stayed friends.”

“He’s living with you.”

“No, he’s visiting me, and giving me a hand for a couple of weeks on the house. I’m rehabbing the house. He’s in the business.”

Rock the House,” Urick commented. “I’ve caught the show.”

“Best there is. You want to know if we’re sleeping together. No. We have, but we’re not.”

Wilson pursed his lips, nodded. “Your neighbor, Mr. Sawyer, states that he saw a prowler on your property a few nights ago.”

“Yeah, the night Steve got in. Steve heard something outside.”

“You didn’t.”

“No, I sleep like a rock. But Steve woke me up, said he heard something. I brushed it off.” The guilt wormed its way back. “Then Ford mentioned the flashlight he’d seen. I was supposed to get a padlock for the barn, and I let it slip by.”

“We noticed you seem to be using the barn to store things. Boxes, furniture…”

“Junk,” Cilla finished, and nodded at Urick. “I brought it down from the attic. I’m having the attic finished off and needed to clear it out. I’ve been sorting, but it’s a big job. I thought I’d separated what struck me as potentially valuable, but it’s hard to tell on a couple of passes.”

“You didn’t notice anything missing?”

“Not at this point.”

“Some of the boxes were crushed, the furniture knocked over.” Wilson gestured. “It looked, possibly, as if Mr. Chensky drove his bike into the barn, lost control, went down.”

“That’s not what happened. You know he wasn’t drunk or stoned.”

“His alcohol level was well under the legal limit,” Urick agreed. “There were no drugs in his system.”

Inside her chest, her heart began a tripping beat. “A sober man, and one who’s straddled a Harley for about a dozen years, doesn’t get off the bike, open the door, get back on the bike and yee-haw drive in over a bunch of boxes and furniture.”

“The X-rays indicate Mr. Chensky was struck at the base of the skull. Probably a crowbar or tire iron.”

Cilla pressed her hand to her heart as it tightened to a fist. “Oh, God.”

“The force of the blow pitched him forward, dropped him so that he hit the concrete floor, which caused the second fracture. Our reconstruction indicates the Harley was rolled to where Mr. Chensky lay, then pushed over on top of him, breaking two of his ribs and bruising his kidney.”

Urick waited, watched as Cilla set her coffee down, as her hand trembled. Her color went from pale to ghostly. “Now, let me ask you again. Do you know anyone who’d wish Mr. Chensky harm?”

“No. No, I don’t know anyone who’d want to hurt him. Who’d do something like that to him.”

“How did Sawyer get along with him?”

“Ford?” For a moment she went blank. “Fine. They hit it off. Big-time. Steve’s a fan. He’s even got… Oh, for God’s sake.”

Understanding, Cilla pressed her fingers to her eyes, then dragged them back through her hair. "Okay, follow the dots, please. I am not and was not sleeping with Steve. I am not and was not sleeping with Ford, though that is on the table. Ford did not attack Steve in a jealous rage as I don’t think he has a lot of rage in the first place and, more importantly, he knew there was nothing to be jealous about. I was up front with him regarding my relationship with Steve, and in fact was out with Ford the night Steve got hurt. The night both myself and Ford knew Steve had gone out to sniff around Shanna Stiles. There’s no romantic or sexual triangle here. This isn’t about sex.”

“Miss McGowan, it looks as though someone was in your barn, and may have been lying in wait. You and Sawyer knew Mr. Chensky had gone out for the evening, and that he stored his motorcycle in the barn.”

“That’s right, that’s absolutely right, Detective Wilson. Just like we both knew he’d gone out to try to score with a very attractive brunette. Neither of us could know if he’d get lucky or bomb out. So you’re suggesting that after spending the evening with me, Ford snuck back, hid out in my barn, just in case Steve came back. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Shock, anger, guilt, annoyance all drained into sheer misery. “None of this makes any sense.”

“We’d like you to go through the items you have stored in the barn, see if anything’s been disturbed or taken.”

“All right.”

“Your grandmother left a deep mark,” Wilson continued. “I’d guess most people figured anything of hers in that house was taken away a long time ago. Word gets out, as word will, there’s still some things around, someone might be interested enough to break into a barn.”

“And fracture a man’s skull. Yeah. The thing is? Most of what’s in the barn is from the McGowans. The ordinary side of the family.”

She went back to Steve, but this time sat in silence.

When she left, walked to the elevator, she saw her father get off the car. “Dad.”

“Cilla.” He strode quickly toward her, took her shoulders. “How is he?”

“The same, I guess. He’s critical. He came through the surgery, and that’s a plus, but…A lot of buts and ifs and maybes.”

“I’m so sorry.” He pulled her tight for a moment. “I know I only met him a couple of times, but I liked him. What can I do?”

“I just don’t know.”

“Let me take you downstairs, get some food in you.”

“No, actually, I’m just leaving for a while. I have some errands.” To get out, to do, to stop thinking for just a couple of hours. “Maybe… Do you think you could go in and sit with him for a little bit? Talk to him? He liked you, too.”

“Sure, I will.”

“And when you leave? Remind him that I’ll be back later. I’ll be back.”

“All right.”

Nodding, she pressed for the elevator, hitched her bag on her shoulder. “I appreciate… I really appreciate you coming. You barely know him. Hell, you barely know me.”

“Cilla-”

“But you came.” She stepped into the elevator, turned, met her father’seyes. “You came. It means a lot,” she said as the doors closed between them.

WORK. WORK GOT HER THROUGH the day.And the next day. She was better at work, she thought, than at sentiment, at expressing emotions- unless they were scripted. She made her schedule, and stuck to it. So many hours on the house, on the landscaping, so many at the hospital, so many in the barn.

That left her so many hours to fall on her air mattress and clock out.

So far, she thought, so good.

Except Steve’s mother had jumped down off her broomstick and thrown the schedule into the Dumpster. So, more time for work, Cilla told herself. More time to get things done.

She picked up a pole lamp, scowled at the six funnel-shaped shades running down the spotted brass rod. “What were they smoking when they bought this?”

On impulse, she took a few running steps and launched it at the open barn doors like a javelin. Then yipped when Ford stepped into view. He jumped back so the lamp whizzed by his face with a few layers of dust to spare.

“Jesus Christ!

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.”

“Shouldn’t you yell ‘fore,’ or something?” he demanded. “How the hell would I have explained that one? Yes, Doctor, I’ve been impaled through the brain by perhaps the ugliest pole lamp in the history of pole lamps.”

“I don’t think it would’ve impaled. More dented. Anyway, it offended my eye.”

“Yeah, mine too. Almost literally. What are you doing back here? It’s early for you,” he added when she frowned at him. “I saw your car. I thought maybe…”

“No. Nothing new. Except Steve’s mother’s there.”

“Yeah. I ran into her this morning for a minute.” He dipped his hands into his pockets, hunched a little. “She’s scary.”

“She hates me. For marrying Steve, for divorcing him. She doesn’t actually like Steve all that much, but me? She hates. So I cleared the field. Deserted, actually. I don’t do well with mothers.”

“You do okay with your stepmom. She sent over that nice casserole last night.”

“Tuna noodle. I’m not sure that’s a sign of affection.”

“It is, take my word.” He stepped through and around some of the mess to get to her, to touch her cheek. “You’re working too hard, beautiful blond girl.”

“I’m not.” She pulled away, kicked at one of the boxes. “The cops want me to go through this stuff, to see if anything’s missing.”

“Yeah. I think I’ve been bumped down the suspect list, which is oddly disappointing. Tall White Guy asked me to sign a copy of The Seeker: Indestructible for his grandson.”

“Tall… oh, Urick. I told them it wasn’t about you or Steve or me. But what the hell is here? What’s here somebody would want so damn bad? It’s junk. It’s trash. It should be tossed, all of it. I’m tossing it,” she decided in an instant. “Help me toss it.”

He grabbed her, pulled her back up as she started to drag up a box. “No. You don’t toss when you’re churned up. And you know that what someone might have wanted isn’t here. Because you already found it and put it somewhere else.”

“The letters.”

“That’s right. Did you tell the cops about the letters?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know, exactly. Partly because all I could really think about at first was Steve. And what would they do with the letters? Thirty-five-year-old letters, unsigned, no return address.”

“Fingerprints, DNA. Don’t you watch CSI?”

“Fact, fantasy. And it’ll leak. It always leaks, that is a fact. Letters from a lover, days before her death. Was it suicide? Was it murder? Was she carrying a love child? All the speculation, the print, the airtime, the reporters, the obsessed fans, it all pumps up. Any chance I had here, at peace, at a life, pretty much goes up in flames.”

“Why?”

“I don’t want to live like that, in the crosshairs of the camera lens. I want this to be my home.” She heard the edge of desperation in her own voice but couldn’t dull it. “I wanted to bring something back from her, and for her. But I wanted it to be mine at the end of the day.”

“You don’t want to know who wrote those letters?”

“Yes, I do. I do. But I don’t want to ruin his life, Ford, or his children’s lives because he had an affair, because he broke off the affair. Even if he was cruel about it. There has to be a statute of limitations. Thirty years should cover it.”

“Agreed.”

He said nothing more, just watched her, looked into her eyes until she closed them.

“How could anyone prove it?” she demanded. “If, if, if she didn’t kill herself. If, if, if some of the conspiracy theories have been close to true and someone-this someone-made her take the pills, or slipped them to her. How could we prove it?”

“I don’t know, but the first step would be asking the right people the right questions.”

“I don’t know the people or the questions, and I can’t think about this. Not now. I need to get through today, then get through tomorrow. I need-”

She threw herself against him, locking her arms around his neck while her mouth latched on to his. He wasn’t prepared for the eruption, the bursts of desperation and appetite. Who could have been? With quick, catchy gasps, low, sexy moans, she devoured. She hooked one of those long, long legs around him, sank her teeth into his bottom lip, tugged. And he went instantly, helplessly, hard as stone.

She rubbed her body against his until he could literally feel the blood draining out of his head and heading south. “Lock the door.” Her lips moved to his ear, parted on a breathless whisper. “Lock the door.”

He quivered, felt the shock of need ram into him-head, belly, loins- like fists. “Wait.” Even as he said it his mouth collided with hers again for one more greedy gulp. But he managed to order himself to pull back, to get his hands on her shoulders to peel her away, a couple of inches.

“Wait,” he repeated, and momentarily forgot his train of thought as those brilliant blue eyes burned into his.

“No. Now.”

“Cilla. Whoa. Jeez. I can pretty much feel myself growing breasts as I say this.”

She took his hands, pulled them down, pressed. “Those are mine.”

“Yeah.” Soft, firm. “They are.”And with considerable regret, and what he considered heroic restraint, he put his hands back on her shoulders. “Where was I? I meant to say, even at the risk of sounding like a girl, this isn’t right.”

She slid her hand over his crotch. “Then what’s this?”

“The penis has a mind of its own. And boy, oh boy,” he managed as he took her wandering hand and yanked it up. “I should get an award for this. A monument. Let’s just step back.”

“Step back?” Shock and insult leaped out with the words. “Why? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“The penis is asking those exact questions. But the thing is… wait,” he ordered, taking a firm hold of her arms when she started to jerk away. “The thing is, Cilla, you don’t toss stuff out when you’re churned up. Just like when you’re churned up, you don’t… lock the barn door.”

“It’s just sex.”

“Maybe. Maybe. But when it happens? It’s going to be just you and me. Just you.” He tested his willpower by leaning down and taking her mouth in a slow, soft kiss. “Just me. No Steve or Steve’s mom, no Janet Hardy, no letters. Just us, Cilla. I want lots of alone with you.”

She let out a sigh, gave one of the boxes a halfhearted kick. “How am I supposed to feel pissed off and rejected after that?” Hooking her thumbs in her pockets, she lowered her gaze deliberately to his crotch. “Looks like that’s still doing a lot of thinking. What are you going to do about it?”

“I just need to get a picture of Maylene Gunner in my head.”

“Maylene Gunner.”

“Maylene was mean as a snake, big as a battleship and ugly as homemade sin. She beat the living snot out of me when I was eight.”

No, she couldn’t possibly stay pissed off. “Why would Maylene do that?”

“Because I had drawn a very unflattering portrait of her. I didn’t possess the talent to draw a flattering one. Da Vinci didn’t possess that much talent. I drew her as a kind of Goodyear Blimp, soaring and farting. Very colorful. Little people on the ground clutching themselves or lying sprawled and unconscious, running for cover.”

“Cruel,” Cilla said as her lips twitched.

“I was eight. In any case, she got wind-so to speak-and ambushed me and proceeded to pound me to dust. So when I need to, I just picture that Jupiter-sized face, and…” He glanced down, smiled. “There we go. Retired from the field.”

Cilla studied him a moment. “You’re a very strange man, Ford. Yet oddly appealing. Like your dog.”

“Don’t get me started again. Even Maylene Gunner has only so much power. Why don’t I give you a hand here, then we’ll go see Steve together. Between the two of us, we can take his mama.”

Yes, she thought, a very strange and appealing man. “Okay. You can start by taking what’s left of that pole lamp out there to the Dumpster.”

SHE GOT THROUGH THE DAY, got through the night. And Cilla geared herself up for her second visit of the day, and second confrontation with Steve’s mother. Pacing in front of the hospital entrance, she gave herself a pep talk.

It wasn’t about her, wasn’t about old business, grudges, one-upmanship.It wasn’t about tossing a bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

It was about Steve.

She bounced her shoulders to loosen them like a boxer before a bout, and stepped toward the doors as someone called her name.

Relief at the temporary interruption might have been cowardly, but she’d take what she could get. Turning, she smiled at Cathy and Tom Morrow.

Cathy reached out to rub a hand along Cilla’s arm. “How’s your friend?”

“The same. Pretty much the same. I want to thank you again for your help when Steve was in surgery.”

“It was nothing.”

“It was a lot to me. Are you volunteering today?”

“Actually, we’re here to see our goddaughter. She had a baby.”

“That’s nice. Well…” Cilla looked back toward the doors.

“Would you like me to go up with you first?” Cathy offered.

“No, no, I’m fine. It’s just… Steve’s mother’s probably up there. She harbors extreme dislike for me. It makes it pretty tight in that room with both of us in there.”

“I can fix that.” Cathy held up a finger. “Why don’t I go up, lure her away for fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“How?”

“Volunteer mode. I’ll buy her a cup of coffee, lend a shoulder. It’ll give her a break and give you a few minutes alone with your friend.”

“She can do it,” Tom said with a shake of his head. “Nobody resists Cathy.”

“I’d be so grateful.”

“Nothing to it. Tom, keep Cilla company for a few minutes. Five should do it.” With a cheery wave, Cathy strode into the hospital.

“She’s great.”

“Best there is,” Tom agreed. “Let’s sit down over here, give her that head start. I was sorry to hear about your friend.”

“Thank you.” Three days, she thought. Three days in a coma.

“Do the police have any idea how it happened?”

“Not really. I guess we’re all hoping Steve can tell us if… when,” she corrected, “he wakes up.”

She caught a glimpse of a white van crossing the parking lot and, with a shudder, looked away.

“I hope that’s soon.” Tom gave her hand an encouraging pat. “How’s Brian doing on your place?”

“It’s shaping up. He does good work. You must be proud of him.”

“Every day. It’s an ambitious project you’ve taken on. The grounds, the house. A lot of time, money and sweat. Word gets around,” he added.

“It’ll be worth it. You should drop by sometime, look at the progress.”

“I was hoping you’d ask.” He winked at her.

“Anytime, Mr. Morrow.”

“Tom.”

“Anytime,” Cilla repeated, and pushed to her feet. “I’m going to sneak up, see if Cathy had any success.”

“You can take it to the bank. I’ll say a prayer for your friend.”

“Thanks.”

And this, Cilla thought as she crossed the lobby to the elevators, was the reason to make this home. People like the Morrows, and like Dee and Vicki and Mike, the ICU nurses she saw every day. People who cared, who took time.

People like Ford.

Hell, even people like cranky, dyspeptic Buddy.

She stepped off the elevator and spotted Mike at the nurses’ station. “How’s he doing?”

“Holding steady. Kidney functions are normal. That’s an improvement. ”

“Yeah, it is. Is anyone with him?”

Mike wiggled his eyebrows. “Mrs. Morrow breezed in and took Mrs. Chensky down for coffee. You got a clear road.”

“Hallelujah.”

Bruises still covered his face, but they were turning yellow at the edges. Thick stubble masked his jawline and pricked her when she leaned over to kiss him. “I’m back. It’s hot out this afternoon. Strip-it-off weather.”

She tuned out the machines, started to turn to the window to describe the view for him before she relayed construction progress. And she saw the sketch taped to the glass wall.

“What have we got here? Con the Immortal?” She glanced back at Steve. “Did you see this? Striking resemblance.”

Ford had drawn it. Cilla didn’t need to see the signature looped in the bottom corner to know it. Steve stood, wearing what she supposed was a loincloth, with thick black straps crossing over his chest, and knee boots. His hair flew out as if in a strong wind, and his face was set in a fierce, fuck-you grin. His hands rested on the hilt of a sword, with its point planted between his spread feet.

“Big sword, obvious symbolism. You’d love that. And the biceps bulging over the armbands, the tats, the necklace of fangs. Con the Immortal. He’s got you pegged, doesn’t he?”

Tears rose hot in her throat, were ruthlessly swallowed down. “You’ve really got to see this, okay?” She crossed back to take Steve’s hand. “You’ve got to wake up and see this. It’s been long enough now, Steve, I mean it. Goddamn it. This bullshit’s gone on long enough, so stop screwing around and… oh God.”

Had his hand moved? Had it moved in hers or had she imagined it? She let her breath out slowly, stared down at the fingers she held in hers. “Don’t make me yell at you again. You know if I cut loose I can out-bitch your mother. Who’s going to come back here pretty soon, so…”

The fingers twitched, curled. The lightest of pressure on hers.

“Okay, okay, stay there, don’t go anywhere.” She reached for the call button, held her finger down on it. “Steve, come on, Steve, do it again.” She lifted his hand, pressed her lips to it. Then, narrowing her eyes, bit. And laughed when his fingers twitched and curled again.

“He squeezed my hand,” she called out as Mike came in. “He squeezed it twice. Is he waking up? Is he?”

“Talk to him.” Mike moved to the side of the bed, lifted one of Mike’s eyelids. “Let him hear your voice.”

“Come on, Steve. It’s Cill. Wake up, you lazy bastard. I’ve got better things to do than stand around here and watch you sleep.”

On the other side of the bed, Mike checked pulse, pupils, BP. Then pinched Steve hard on the forearm. The arm jerked.

“He felt that. He moved. Steve, you’re killing me. Open your eyes.” Cilla grabbed his face, put her nose nearly to his. “Open your eyes.”

They fluttered, and she felt another flutter on her chin. More than his breath, she realized. A word.

“What? What? Say it again.”

She leaned down, her ear at his lips. She caught his slow, indrawn breath, and heard the hoarse, raw whisper of a single word. He said, “Shit.”

Cilla let out a sob that choked into a laugh. “Shit. He said shit!”

“Can’t blame him.” Quickly, Mike strode to the door to signal another nurse. “Page Dr. North. His patient’s waking up.”

“Can you see me?” Cilla demanded when his eyes opened. “Steve? Can you see me?”

He let out a weary sigh. “Hi, doll.”

SHE SPOKE to the doctor, even managed to smile genuinely at Steve’s mother before she locked herself in a bathroom stall for a jag of weeping relief. After she’d washed her face, slapped on makeup and sunglasses to hide the damage, she went back to the nurses’ station.

“He’s sleeping,” Mike told her. “Natural sleep. He’s weak, and he’s still got a lot of healing to do. You should go home, Cilla. Get a good night’s sleep yourself.”

“I will. If he asks for me-”

“We’ll call you.”

For the first time Cilla stepped into the elevator with an easy heart. As she crossed the lobby, she pulled out her phone and called Ford.

“Hey, beautiful blond girl.”

“He woke up.” She moved down the sidewalk toward the parking lot with a bounce in every step. “He woke up, Ford. He talked to me.”

“What’d he say?”

“ ‘Shit’ came first.”

“As it should.”

“He knew me, his name and all that. His left side’s a little weaker than his right, just now. But the doctor says he’s looking good. They have to do tests, and-”

“Looking good works. Do you want me to come by, bring you some dinner?”

“No, I’m heading home now. He’s sleeping. Just sleeping. I wanted to tell you. I just wanted to say that I saw your sketch, and I was teasing him about it right before… I think it might have done the trick.”

“Nothing stops Con the Immortal for long.”

“You are so- Oh God! Son of a bitch!”

“What? What was that?”

She stared down at the door of her truck. “I’ll be home in a few minutes. I’ll come by.”

She clicked off before Ford could respond. And read what someone had written on the driver’s-side door in black marker.

WHORES BEGET WHORES!

THIRTEEN

Ford watched Cilla take digitals of the pickup’s door. His rage wanted to bubble up, but he couldn’t figure out what he’d do with it if he spewed.

Kick the tires? Punch a couple of trees? Stalk around and froth at the mouth? None of the options seemed particularly helpful or satisfying. Instead he stood with his hands jammed in his pockets, and the rage at a low, simmering boil.

“The cops’ll take pictures,” he pointed out.

“I want my own. Besides, I don’t think Wilson and Urick are going to make this a priority.”

“It could be connected. They’ll be here in the morning.”

She shrugged, then turned the camera off, stuck it in her pocket. “That’s not coming off. The sun baked that marker on so it might as well be paint. I’ll have to have the whole damn door done. I haven’t had this truck three months.”

While he watched, she kicked a tire. He decided he’d been right. She didn’t look satisfied. “You can use my car until it’s fixed.”

“I’ll drive this.” Both the defiance and the temper glared out of her eyes. “I know I’m not a whore. I saw Hennessy’s van in the parking lot before I went in to visit Steve. He could’ve done this. He could’ve hurt Steve. He’s capable.”

“Did Steve say anything about it?”

“We didn’t ask him. He was still so weak and disoriented. Probably tomorrow, the doctor said. He’d be up to talking to the police tomorrow. Damn it!”

She stalked for a few minutes but, he noted, didn’t froth at the mouth or punch a tree. Then she stopped, heaved out a breath. “Okay. Okay. I’m not going to let some asshole spoil this really excellent day. Does the liquor store in town have any champagne in stock?”

“Couldn’t say. But I do.”

“How come you have everything?”

"I was a Boy Scout. Seriously,” he said when she laughed. “I have the merit badges to prove it.” She was right, he decided, no asshole should be allowed to spoil an excellent day. “How about we heat up a frozen pizza and pop the cork?”

From his perch on the veranda, Spock leaped up and danced.

“Sounds good to me, too.”As she moved in to kiss him, a horn beeped cheerfully.

“Well,” Ford said when a Mustang convertible in fire-engine red pulled in behind Cilla’s car, and Spock tore down the steps to spin in delirious circles, “it had to happen sometime.”

The vivid color of the car had nothing on the windswept red mop of the woman who waved from the passenger seat, who tipped down her big, Jackie O sunglasses to peer at Cilla over the top as she stepped out onto peep-toe wedges to greet the bouncing, spinning dog.

The driver unfolded himself. It was the height and the build that alerted Cilla, even before she got a good look at the shape of the jaw.

Her palms automatically went damp. This was definitely meet-the-parents. An audition she invariably failed.

“Hello, my cutie-pie!” Penny Sawyer clamped her hands on Ford’s cheeks once he’d walked down the slope to her. She kissed him noisily. Her laugh was like gravel soaked in whiskey.

“Hey, Mama. Daddy.” He got a one-armed bear hug from the man with hair of Cary Grant silver. “What are y’all doing?”

“Heading out to Susie and Bill’s. Texas Hold ’ Em tournament.” Penny poked Ford in the chest while Ford’s father squatted to shake hands with Spock. “We had to drive right by, so we stopped in case you wanted in.”

“I always lose at poker.”

“You don’t have gambling blood.” Penny turned her avid eyes on Cilla. “But you do have company. You don’t have to tell me who this is. You look just like your grandmama.” Penny moved forward, hands outstretched. “The most beautiful woman I ever saw.”

“Thank you.” Left with no choice, Cilla wiped her hands hurriedly on her pants before taking Penny’s. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Cilla McGowan, my parents, Penny and Rod Sawyer.”

“I know your daddy very well.” Penny shot a sly glance at her husband.

“Now you cut that out,” Rod told her. “Always trying to make me jealous. Heard a lot of good things about you,” he said to Cilla.

“Heard hardly a syllable out of this one.” Penny poked Ford again.

“I am the soul of discretion.”

Penny let out her quick, rumbling laugh again, then dug into her purse. She pulled out an enormous Milk Bone that sent Spock into a medley of happy growls, grunts and groans while his body quivered and his bulging eyes shone.

“Be a man,” she said to the dog, and Spock rose up on his hind legs to dance in place. “That’s my sweetheart,” she crooned and held the biscuit out. Spock nipped it and, with a full-body wag, ran off to chomp and chew. “I have to spoil him,” she said to Cilla. “He’s the closest thing resembling a grandchild I’ve gotten out of this one.”

“You have two of the human variety from Alice,” Ford reminded her.

“And they get cookies when they visit.” She gestured to the house across the road. “It’s a good thing you’re doing, bringing that place back to life. It deserves it. Your grandfather’s going to be at the game tonight, Ford. My daddy was madly in love with your grandmother.”

Cilla blinked. “Is that so?”

“Head over. He has scores of pictures she let him take over the years. He wouldn’t sell them for any price, even when I had a notion to frame a few and display them at the bookstore.”

“Mama owns Book Ends in the Village,” Ford told Cilla.

“Really? I’ve been there. I bought some landscaping and design books from you. It’s a nice store.”

“Our little hole in the wall,” Penny said. “Oh now, look, we’re going to be late. Why do you let me talk so much, Rod?”

“I have no idea.” "Y’all change your mind about the game, we’ll make sure you get a seat at a table. Cilla, they’d just love to have you, too,” Penny called out as Rod pulled her down to the car. “I’m going to have Daddy bring those pictures over for you to look at.”

“Thank you. Nice to meet you.”

“Ford! You bring Cilla over for dinner sometime.”

“In the car, Penny.”

“I’m getting, I’m getting. You hear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ford called back. “Win a bundle.”

“I’m feeling lucky!” Penny shouted as Rod zipped into reverse, then zoomed on down the road.

Cilla said, "Wow.”

“I know. It’s like being lightly brushed by the edge of a hurricane. Leaves you a little surprised and dazed, and sure that much more and you’d be flat on your ass.”

“You look a lot like your father, who is very handsome, by the way. But your mother? She’s dazzling.”

“She is, as her own father likes to say, a corker.”

“Corker.” Cilla laughed as they walked into the house. With a polite burp, Spock trotted in with them. “Well, I like her, and I tend to eye mothers suspiciously. Speaking of corks. Where’s the champagne?”

“Spare fridge, mudroom.”

“I’ll get that, you get the pizza.”

Moments later, she came back into the kitchen with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and a puzzled frown. “Ford, what are you doing with all that paint?”

“The what?” He looked over from setting the oven. “Oh that. There’s a zillion gallons of primer, a zillion of exterior red, and a slightly lesser amount of exterior white, for trim.”

As her heart did a slow somersault, she set the bottle on the counter. “You bought the barn paint.”

“I don’t believe in jinxes. I do believe in positive thinking, which is just really hope anyway.”

Everything inside her shifted, settled. Opened. She stepped to him, laid a hand on his cheek, laid her lips on his. Warm as velvet, tender as a wish, the kiss flowed. Even when he shifted so she pressed back against the counter, it stayed slow and silky, deep and dreamy.

When their lips parted, she sighed, then rested her cheek against his in a gesture of simple affection she gave to very few. “Ford.” She drew back, sighed again. “My head’s too full of Steve to meet your requirements for sex tonight.”

“Ah. Well.” He trailed a fingertip up her arm. “Realistically, they’re more loose guidelines than strict requirements.”

She laughed, caressed his cheek once more. “They’re good requirements. I’d like to stick to them.”

“Got no one to blame but myself.” He stepped around her to slide the pizza into the oven.

“So we’ll eat bad pizza, get a little buzzed on champagne and not have sex.”

Ford shook his head as he removed the foil and the cage on the bottle. “Almost my favorite thing to do with a beautiful woman.”

“I don’t fall for guys. It’s a policy,” she said when he paused and glanced over at her. “Considering the influence of inherited traits-and the track record of my grandmother and mother in that area-I’ve taken a pass. Steve was an exception, and that just showed how it can go. So I don’t fall for guys. But I seem to be falling for you.”

The cork exploded out of the bottle as he stared at her. “Does that scare you?”

“No.” He cleared his throat. “A little. A moderate amount.”

“I thought it might because it’s got me jumpy. So I figured heads-up.”

“I appreciate it. Do you have, like, a definition for the term ‘fall for’?” God, she thought as she looked at him. Oh my God, she was a goner. “Why don’t you get the glasses? I think we could both use a drink.”

SHE HIRED PAINTERS, and had some of the crew haul the paint to the barn. She talked to the cops, and made a deal with a local body shop to paint the door of her truck. Whenever she caught sight of the white van, she had no qualms about shooting up her middle finger.

No evidence, the cops said. Nothing to place Hennessy at the scene on the night Steve was attacked. No way to prove he decorated her truck with hate.

So she’d wait him out, Cilla decided. And if he made another move, she’d be ready.

Meanwhile, Steve had been bumped down to a regular room, and his mother had hopped back on her broomstick to head west.

Dripping sweat from working in the attic, Cilla stood studying the skeleton of the master bath. “It’s looking good, Buddy. It’s looking good for tomorrow’s inspection.”

“I don’t know why in God’s world anybody needs all these shower-heads. ”

“Body jets. It’s not just a shower, it’s an experience. Did you see the fixtures? They came in this morning.”

“I saw. They’re good-looking,” he said, grudgingly enough to make her smile.

“How are you coming with Mister Steam?”

“I’ll get it, I’ll get it. Don’t breathe down my neck.”

She made faces at his back. “Well, speaking of showers, I need one before I go in to see Steve.”

“Water’s turned off. You want this done, water’s got to stay off.”

“Right. Shit. I’ll grab one over at Ford’s.”

She didn’t miss the smirk he shot her, but opted to ignore it. She grabbed clean clothes, stuffed them in her purse. Downstairs, she had a few words with Dobby, answered a hail from the kitchen area, then spent another ten minutes outside discussing foundation plantings.

She dashed across the road before someone could catch her again, and decided to slip into the shower off the gym rather than disturb Ford.

It wasn’t until she was clean, dry and wrapped in a big white towel that she realized she’d left her purse-and the clothes in it-sitting on her front veranda.

“Oh, crap.”

She looked down at the sweaty, grungy clothes she’d stripped off and dragged a hand through her clean hair. “No, I am not crawling back into them.”

She’d have to disturb Ford after all. Bundling her underwear and baggy work shorts in her T-shirt, she tied it off and carried the bundle with her.

She opened the door to the kitchen, to a very surprised Ford.

“Oh, hi. Listen-”

“Ford, you didn’t tell us you had company.”

“I didn’t know I did. Hey, Cilla.”

Her expression went from slightly harried to mildly ill as she looked over and saw Ford’s mother sitting at the kitchen bar with an older man.

While she stood frozen, Spock dashed over to rub against her bare legs. “Oh God. Oh God. Just… God. I’m sorry. Excuse me.”

Ford grabbed her arm. “Back up like that, you’ll pitch right down the steps. You’ve met my mother. This is my grandfather, Charlie Quint.”

“Oh, well, hello. I apologize. I’m, well, what can I say? Ford, I didn’t want to interrupt you. I thought you’d be working. They had to turn the water off at my place for a while, so I ran over to use your shower downstairs-thanks for that. And then realized that when I was being distracted by varieties of spirea, I left my bag and my clothes sitting on the veranda. I came up to ask if you wouldn’t mind running over there and, you know, getting them. My clothes.”

“Sure.” He sniffed at her. “My soap smells better on you than on me.”

“Hah.”

“Cilla, I bet you’d like a nice glass of iced tea.” Penny rose to get a glass.

“Oh, don’t bother, I-”

“No bother. Ford, go on now, get this girl her clothes.”

“All right. But it’s kind of a shame. Isn’t it, Granddad?”

“Pretty legs on a pretty woman are easy on the eyes. Even old eyes. You look more like her in person than you do in pictures I’ve seen of you.”

How much more awkward could it be? Cilla wondered when Ford winked and slipped out. “You knew my grandmother.”

“I did. I fell in love with her the first time I saw her on the movie screen. She was just a little girl, and I was just a boy, and that was the sweetest kind of puppy love. You never forget your first.”

“No, I guess you don’t.”

“Here you go, honey. Why don’t you sit down?”

“I’m fine. Thanks.” She stared at the glass Penny offered and wondered how to take it as she had one hand holding the bundle of filthy clothes, and the other clutched on the towel.

“Oh, are those your dirty clothes? Just give those to me. I’ll toss them in Ford’s machine for you.”

“Oh, no, don’t-”

“It’s no trouble.” Penny pulled them away, pushed the cold glass into Cilla’s hand. “Daddy, why don’t you show Cilla the pictures? We were going to drop by to do just that,” Penny continued from the mudroom. “Just stopped to say hi to Ford first. My goodness! You must’ve worked up a storm today.”

Casting her eyes to the ceiling, Cilla moved closer to the counter as Charlie opened the photo album.

“These are wonderful!”

At the first look, she forgot she was wearing only a towel and edged closer. “I haven’t seen these before.”

“My personal collection,” he told her with a wistful smile. “This one here?” He tapped a finger under a picture. “That’s the first one I ever took of her.”

Janet sat on the steps of the veranda, leaning back, relaxed and smiling in rolled-up dungarees and a plaid shirt.

“She looks so happy. At home.”

“She’d been working with the gardeners-walking around with them, showing them where she wanted her roses and such. She got word I took pictures and asked if I’d come over, take some of the house and grounds as things were going on. And she let me take some of her. Here she is with the kids. That’d be your mother.”

"Yes.” Looking bright and happy, Cilla thought, alongside her doomed brother. “They’re all so beautiful, aren’t they? It almost hurts the eyes.”

“She shone. Yes, she did.”

Cilla paged through. Janet, looking golden and glorious astride a palomino, tumbling on the ground with her children, laughing and kicking her feet in the pond. Janet alone, Janet with others. At parties at the farm. With the famous, and the everyday.

“You never sold any of these?”

“That’s just money.” Charlie shrugged. “If I sold them, they wouldn’t be mine anymore. I gave her copies of ones she wanted, especially.”

“I think I might have seen a couple of these. My mother has boxes and boxes of photos. I’m not sure I’ve seen all of them. The camera loved her. Oh, this! It’s my favorite so far.”

Janet leaned in the open doorway of the farmhouse, head cocked, arms folded. She wore simple dark trousers and a white shirt. Her feet were bare, her hair loose. Flowers spilled out of pots on the veranda, and a puppy curled sleeping at the top of the steps.

“She bought the puppy from the Clintons.” Penny stepped beside her father, rested a hand on his shoulder. “Your stepmama’s people.”

“Yes, she told me.”

“Janet loved that dog,” Charlie murmured.

“You need to make copies for Cilla, Daddy. Family pictures are important.”

“I guess I could.”

“Granddad’s going to make copies for Cilla,” Penny announced as Ford walked in with Cilla’s bag. “He has the negatives.”

“I could scan them. If you’d trust me with them. Here you go.” Ford passed the bag to Cilla.

“Thanks.” Sensing Charlie’s hesitation, Cilla eased back. “They’re wonderful photographs. I’d love to look through the rest, but I have to get to the hospital. I’m just going to…” She held up the bag. “Downstairs.”

“You look more like her than your mother,” Charlie said when Cilla reached the door. “It’s in the eyes.”

And in his lived such sadness. Cilla said nothing, only slipped quickly downstairs.

CILLA DID a mental happy dance as the first tiles were laid in the new master bath. She glugged down water and executed imaginary high kicks through the first run of subway tiles in what would be her most fabulous steam shower.

The black-and-white design, retro cool Deco, added just the right zing. Stan, the tile guy, glanced over his shoulder. “Cilla, you gotta get the AC up.”

“We’re working on it. By the end of the week, I promise.”

It had to be running by week’s end, she thought. Just as the bed she’d ordered had to be delivered. Steve couldn’t recuperate in a steamy house, in a sleeping bag.

She went back to framing in the closet in the master bedroom. In a couple of weeks, she thought, if everything stayed on schedule, she’d have two completed baths, the third, fourth and the powder room on the way. She’d be ready for Sheetrock up in her attic office suite, the replastering should be about wrapped. Then Dobby could start work on the ceiling medallions. Well, he could start once she’d settled on a design.

She ran through projections while she checked her level, adjusted, shot in nails.

And in a few weeks, she’d take the contractor’s exam. But she didn’t want to think about it. Didn’t want to think if she didn’t make it, she’d have to ask one of her own subs for a job by the end of the year. If she didn’t make it, she couldn’t afford to buy that sweet little property down the road in the Village that she knew would make an excellent and profitable flip.

If she didn’t make it, it would be another failure. She really thought she was at her quota already.

Positive thinking, she reminded herself. That’s what Ford would say. No harm in trying.

“Gonna make it,” she stated aloud and stepped back from the framing with a nod of approval. “Gonna kick exam ass. Cilla McGowan, Licensed Contractor.”

Gathering her tools, she started out to check on the progress of her exterior office stairs with a quick peek at the tile work on the way. She joined the carpenter crew as the painters, working on her new scaffolding, added the first strokes of red to the barn.

The air smelled of the mulch freshly laid around new plantings, and salvaged ones. Roses, hydrangeas, spirea and old-fashioned weigela, and beds of hopeful new perennials, eager annuals already blooming insanely.

More to come, she thought, more to do. But here was progress. Tear-out time was done. Renewal time was here.

She thought of Charlie’s photo album. And breaking off from the work, ran in to get her camera to document.

Shirtless men slick with sweat and sunscreen high on scaffolding. Shanna in shorts and a bright pink T-shirt and ball cap working with Brian on a low, dry stone garden wall. The bones of her stairs, the half-finished back veranda. And around front, the completed one.

For a moment, in her mind’s eye, she saw Janet, leaning on the jamb of the open front door, smiling out.

“It’s coming back,” Cilla said softly.

Turning, she saw Ford and Spock walking down the drive.

The dog trotted up to her, leaned on her legs, then sat back to look up at her, all love and cheer. She rubbed, petted, kissed his nose.

“Brought you a present.” Ford handed her one of the two Cokes he carried. “I swung in to see Steve. He tells me they’re going to spring him in a couple days.”

“He’s coming back strong.” Like the farm, she thought. “I’m pushing to get the AC up, and I’ve got a bed coming.”

“You want him to recoup from having his skull fractured in a construction zone. Do you hear that?” Ford asked, tapping his ear.

Cilla shrugged off the buzzing, the banging, the whirl of drills. “To people like me and Steve, that’s chamber music.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it. But he could bunk at my place. I’ve got the bed, the AC. And digital cable.”

She took a long drink, watching him. “You really mean that.”

“Damn right. I pity anyone without digital cable.”

“I bet. But you’re not going to take on my ex-husband. He’ll need to be… Who’s this?” she wondered as a black Lexus turned cautiously into her drive.

“City car,” Ford commented. “Big city.”

“I don’t know who… Crap.”

Ford lifted his brows as men exited from both sides of the car. “Friends of yours?”

“No. But the driver’s my mother’s Number Five.”

“Cilla!” Mario, handsome as sin, Italian style, in Prada loafers and Armani jeans, threw out his arms and a wide, wide smile. His graceful forward motion was spoiled when he stopped, then sidestepped around the sniffing Spock.

The sunglasses hid his eyes, but she suspected they were dark and sparkling. Tanned, panther lean, dark hair flowing, he crossed to her, caught her in an enthusiastic embrace and kissed her cheeks. “Look at you! So fit, so competent.”

“I am. What are you doing here, Mario?”

“A little surprise. Cilla, this is Ken Corbert, one of our producers. Ken, Cilla McGowan, my stepdaughter.”

"It’s a real pleasure.” Ken, small and wiry, silver-winged black hair, pumped Cilla’s hand. “Big fan. So…” He scanned the farm. “This is the place.”

“It’s my place,” she said coolly. “Ford, Mario and Ken. I’m sorry, I can’t ask you in. We’re a work in progress.”

“So I see.” Mario’s smile never dimmed. “And hear.”

“Spock, say hello,” Ford ordered-after his dog had finished with the tires. “He wants to shake,” Ford explained, “to make sure you’re friendly.”

“Ah.” Mario studied the dog dubiously as he put the tips of his thumb and forefinger on the offered paw.

Spock didn’t appear to be impressed.

Ken gave Spock’s paw the same salesman pump he’d given Cilla’s.

“Lovely country,” Mario continued. “Just lovely. We drove down from New York. We had some meetings. Such scenery! Your mother sends her love,” he added. “She would have come, but you know how difficult it is for her. The memories here.”

“She’s in New York?”

“A quick trip. We barely have time to catch our breath. Fittings, rehearsals, meetings, media. But Ken and I must steal you away, a late lunch, an early drink. Where can we take you?”

“Nowhere, but thanks. I’m working.”

“Didn’t I tell you?” Mario let out a hearty laugh while Spock squatted on his haunches and stared at him with suspicious eyes. “Cilla is the most amazing woman. So many talents. You can spare an hour, cara.”

“I really can’t. Especially if this is about performing in Mom’s show. I told her I wasn’t interested.”

“We’re here to persuade you that you are. Perhaps you’d excuse us,” Mario said to Ford.

“No, he won’t.” Cilla pointed at Ford. “You won’t.”

“I guess I won’t.”

Irritation tightened Mario’s mouth briefly. The grumbling growl from Spock had him eyeing the dog with some trepidation. “You have a chance to make history, Cilla. Three generations performing together. You saw Céline perform with Elvis? We have that technology. We can bring Janet onstage with you and Bedelia. One extraordinary performance, live.”

“Mario-”

“I understand you’re reluctant to commit to doing the full set of duets with your mother, though I can tell you-as will Ken-what that would mean to the show, and to you. Your career.”

“The advertising and promotion we’ve got lined up,” Ken began. “We can all but guarantee sellouts in every venue. Then the cable special, the CD, the DVD. The foreign markets are already buzzing. We may be able to work a deal to attach a second CD, a special package, for you, solo. In fact, Mario and I were kicking around ideas for videos there. And you’re right, Mario, shooting here would add punch.”

"You’ve been busy, haven’t you?” Cilla’s voice was as soft, and as meaningful, as Spock’s growl. “And you’ve been wasting your time. No. I’m sorry, Ken, I don’t believe Mario made it clear. I’m not looking to be persuaded or revived or promoted. You have no business talking to producers, promoters, advertisers about me,” she said to Mario. “You’re not my agent or my manager. I don’t have an agent or a manager. I run the show now. And this is what I do. Houses. I do houses. Enjoy the scenery on the way back.”

She knew Mario would come after her. Even as she turned on her heel to stride away, she heard him call her name. And she heard Ford speak to Ken, caught the extra yokel he put in his voice.

“Spock, stay. So y’all drove down from New York City?”

“Cilla. Cara. Let me-”

“Touch me, Mario, and I swear I’ll deck you.”

“Why are you angry?” There was puzzled sorrow in his voice. “This is an insanely rich opportunity. I’m only looking out for your interests.”

She stopped, struggled with temper ripe to bursting. “You may actually believe that on some level. I can look after my own interests, and have been for a long time.”

“Darling, you were mismanaged. Otherwise you’d be a major star today.”

“I might be a major star today if I’d had the talent and the aptitude. Listen to what I’m saying to you: I don’t want to be a major star. I don’t want to perform. I don’t want that kind of work. I don’t want that kind of life. I’m happy here, Mario, if that matters to you. I’m happy with what I have, and I’m getting happy with who I am.”

“Cilla, your mother needs you.”

“And here it comes.” She turned away in disgust.

“She has her heart set. And the backers will do so much more with this addition. She’s so-”

“I can’t do it, Mario. And I won’t. I’m not just being a hard-ass. I can’t. It’s not in me. You should have talked to me before you came here, and brought him. And you should listen to me when I say no. I’m not Dilly. I don’t bullshit, I don’t play. And she’s already used up all her guilt points with me. I’m not doing this for her.”

His face, his voice, held nothing but sadness now. “You’re very hard, Cilla.”

“Okay.”

“She’s your mother.”

“That’s right. Which makes me, let’s see. Her daughter. Maybe, this time-this one time-she could think about what I need, about what I want.” She held up a hand. “Believe me, if you say anything else, you’ll only make it worse. Cut your losses here. You’re smart enough. Tell her I said knock them dead, break a leg. And I mean it. But that’s all I’ve got.”

He shook his head as a man might over a sulking child. He walked away in his excellent shoes, and got into the big city car with Ken to drive away.

Ford wandered over, stared off at the barn while Spock rubbed himself against Cilla’s legs. “That red’s going to look good.”

“Yeah. You’re not going to ask what that was about?”

“I got the gist. They want, you don’t. They pushed, you didn’t budge. They pissed you off, which is fine. But in the end it made you sad. And that’s not. So I don’t care about them or what they want. I say fuck ’em, and that red looks good going on that barn.”

It made her smile. “You’re good to have around, Ford.” She leaned down, ruffled Spock. “Both of you. Back in L.A., I’d have paid several hundred dollars for this kind of therapy.”

“We’ll bill you. Meanwhile, why don’t you show me what’s going on around here today?”

“Let’s go bug the tile guy. It’s my favorite so far.” She took Ford’s hand and walked into the house.

FOURTEEN

When Cilla showed Dobby the design she wanted for the medallions, he scratched his chin. And she saw his lips twitching at the corners.

"Shamrocks,” she said.

"I’ve had me a few beers on Saint Patrick’s Day in my time. I know they’re shamrocks.”

“I played around with other symbols. More formal, or more subtle, more elaborate. But I thought, screw that, I like shamrocks. They’re simple and they’re lucky. I think Janet would’ve gotten a kick out of them.”

“I expect she would. She seemed to like the simple when she was around here.”

“Can you do it?”

“I expect I can.”

“I’ll want three.” The idea made her giddy as a girl. “Three’s lucky, too. One for the dining room, one for the master bedroom, and one in here, in the living room. Three circles of shamrocks for each. I’m not looking for uniformity but more symmetry. I’ll leave it to you,” she said when he nodded.

“It’s good working on this place. Takes me back.”

They sat at a makeshift table, plywood over a pair of sawhorses. She’d brought him a glass of tea, and they drank together while Jack finished up the last of the plaster repairs.

“You’d see her around, when she came out to stay here?”

“Now and again. She always had a word. Give you that smile and a hello, how are you.”

“Dobby, in that last couple of years, when she came out, was there any talk about her being… friendly with a local man?”

“You mean being sweet on one?”

Sweet on, Cilla thought. What a pretty way to put it. “Yes, that’s what I mean.”

The lines and folds on his face deepened with thought. “Can’t say so. After she died, and all those reporters came around, some of them liked to say so. But they said all kinds of things, and most weren’t in the same neighborhood as the truth.”

“Well, I have some information that makes me think she was sweet on someone. Very sweet. Can you think of anyone she spent time with in that last year, year and a half? She came out fairly often during that period.”

“She did,” he agreed. “Talk was, after her boy died, the talk was she was going to sell the place. Didn’t want to come here no more. But she didn’t sell. Didn’t have the parties or the people, either. Never brought the girl out again-that’d be your mother-that I saw or heard about. The best I can recall, she came alone. If anybody had wind of her seeing a man from around here, their jaws would’ve been working.”

“Weren’t so many people around to jaw back then,” Jack commented as he set his trowel. “I mean to say there weren’t so many houses around the farm here. Isn’t that right, Grandpa?”

“That’d be true. Weren’t houses on the fields across the road back then. Started planting them back twenty-five years on to thirty years back, I guess it was, when the Buckners sold their farm off.”

“So there weren’t any close neighbors.”

“Buckners would’ve been closest, I expect. About a quarter mile down.”

And that was interesting, Cilla decided. How hard could it be to have a secret affair when there were no nosy neighbors peeking out the window? The media would have been an extra challenge, but reporters hadn’t been camped on the shoulder of the road seven days a week when Janet had traveled to the farm.

According to what she’d read or been told, Janet had been an expert at keeping certain areas of her private life private. After her death, facts, fallacies, rumors, secrets and innuendos abounded.

And still, Cilla mused, the identity of Janet’s last lover remained blank. Just how badly, she wondered, did she want to fill in that blank in her grandmother’s life?

Badly enough, she admitted. The answer to that single question could finally give clarity to the bigger question.

Why did Janet Hardy die at thirty-nine?

CILLA FOUND BRINGING Steve home both thrilling and terrifying. He was alive, and considered well enough to leave the hospital. Two weeks before, she’d sat beside his bed, trying to will him out of a coma. Now she stood with him as he studied the farmhouse. He leaned on a cane, a ball cap on his head, dark glasses over his eyes, and his clothes bagging a bit from the weight he’d lost in the hospital.

She wanted to bundle him inside, into bed. And feed him soup.

The terror came from wondering if she was competent enough to tend to him.

“Stop staring at me, Cill.”

“You should probably get inside, out of the sun.”

“I’ve been inside, out of the sun. Feels good out here. I like the barn. Barns should always be red. Where the hell is everybody? Middle of the day, no trucks, no noise.”

“I told all the subs to take me off today’s schedule. I thought you’d need a little peace and quiet.”

“Jesus, Cilla, when did I ever want peace and quiet? You’re the one.”

“Fine, I wanted peace and quiet. We’re going in. You look shaky.”

“Goes with the territory these days. I’ve got it,” he snapped at her when she started to take his free arm. He managed the stairs, crossed the veranda.

The scowl smoothed away when he stepped inside the house, took his first look around.

“The plastering looks good. Getting rid of that door over there, widening the opening, that works for you. Better flow.”

“I’m thinking of using that area as a kind of morning room. It gets nice light. Then later on, if I’m still inclined, I could add on a sunroom, put in a hot tub, a couple of machines, some nice plants. Down the road.”

“Be sweet.”

And because she heard the strain in his voice, she nearly fussed about taking him up to bed. Instead she tried a different tack. The first step would be to get him upstairs.

“We’ve done a lot on the second floor. The master suite’s really coming along. You’ve got to see it.”

These steps were longer. She all but felt his weaker left side begin to tremble on the journey up. “We should’ve taken Ford up on his offer. You’d be more comfortable at his place.”

“I can walk up a damn flight of steps. Got a headache, that’s all. Goes with the territory now, too.”

“If you want to lie down… I’ve got your pills right here.”

“I don’t want to lie down. Yet.” He pushed her offered hand aside. Again, some of the strain eased on his face when he studied the new bedroom space. “You always had an eye. Good lines, good light. Nice closet, doll.”

“A girl’s best friend. I built the organizer yesterday.” She opened the door, gave a Vanna White flourish.

“Cedar paneling. Good work.”

“I learned from the best.”

He turned away to limp toward the bath, but she’d seen the look in his eyes. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Sexy, classy,” he said of the bathroom. “Deco deal. Glass block for the shower wall? When did you decide on that?”

“Last-minute change. I liked the effect, and the way it looks with the black-and-white tiles.” She gave up, just leaned her forehead on his shoulder. “Please tell me what’s wrong.”

“What if I can’t do this anymore? If I can’t handle the tools? It takes me longer to think, and these headaches about drop me.”

She wanted to hold him, hug him, nuzzle him into comfort. And instead flicked at him with mild annoyance. “Steve, it’s your first day out of the hospital. What did you think, you’d walk out swinging a hammer?”

“Something like that.”

“You’re on your feet. You’re talking to me. The doctor said it’s going to take time. Just as he said you’ve already made an amazing recovery, and there’s every reason to believe you’ll get it all back.”

“Could take months. Even years. And I can’t remember.” A trace of fear eked through frustration. “Goddamn it, I can’t remember anything that happened that night after I left here. Can’t remember going to the bar, or hanging out, trailing Shanna home like she says I did. It’s blank. I can remember getting on the bike. I can remember thinking I might just score with Shanna of the big brown eyes and amazing rack. Next thing I remember is you yelling at me, and your face leaning down over mine. Everything between is gone. Just gone.”

She shrugged, as if it was no big deal. “If you’re going to forget something, that would be the night.”

He smiled a little. “Fricking ray of sunshine, aren’t you? I’m going to crash awhile, take some drugs and crash.”

“Good idea.”

He let her take his weight to lead him to the guest room. Then stopped at the doorway. The walls were painted a soft and restful blue, as was the beadboard wainscoting. The original walnut trim, stripped and restored by her own hands, framed the windows. The floor gleamed, deep, rich and glossy. The iron headboard and footboard in dignified pewter suited the simple white and blue quilt, the star-patterned rug with its blue border. White daisies sprang up out of a cobalt vase on a table in front of the window.

“What the hell’s this?”

“Surprise. I think it’s marginally more appealing than a hospital room.”

“It’s a great room.” Even as he jabbed a finger at her, pleasure shone on his face. “What are you thinking, getting the floors refinished in one room?”

“I’m thinking it’s nice to see one room finished-or nearly. Need some art for the walls, and I have to finish the rest of the trim, but otherwise. And check it out.” She opened an old wardrobe, revealed a flat-screen TV. "Got cable.” She grinned at him. “Digital, at Ford’s insistence. The bath’s finished, too. And looks great if I say so myself.”

Steve sat on the side of the bed. “Going at rehab this way screws up the schedule.”

“I’m not in a hurry.” She poured a glass from the pitcher she’d placed on the nightstand, then got out the pill bottle. “Bottoms up, then we’ll get you undressed and into bed.”

The faintest twinkle winked in his eyes. “Time was you’d’ve gotten in with me, doll.”

“Time was.” She crouched down to take off his shoes.

“I want those subs back here tomorrow.”

“Who made you job manager?” Rising, she gestured so he lifted his arms. But she smiled as she drew off his shirt. “They’ll be back. They wanted to have a welcome-back party. Beer and subs. I scotched that. I guess I shouldn’t have.”

“I don’t think I’m ready to party.” He lay back so she could take off his jeans. “The day I can have a woman strip me down and not want to return the favor’s not a day for partying.”

“I give you a week.” Now, no longer able to resist, she stroked his cheek. “I heard how you hit on all the nurses.”

“It’s expected. I skipped Mike.” He gave her a wan smile. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

She turned down the bed, eased him into it, slipped off his shades, took the cap off his shaved head. The smooth dome marred by the line of stitches hurt her in every cell of her body. “I’m going to be downstairs doing some paperwork. You need anything, just call. If you want the TV, there’s the remote. If you want anything, Steve, I’m right here.”

“Just a few z’s for right now.”

“Okay.” She kissed his forehead, then slipped out.

Alone, he stared up at the ceiling. And, sighing, closed his eyes.

Cilla took her laptop outside to work. Though she snuck up to check on Steve twice in the first hour, she made headway with bills and cost projections. When she heard the crunch of feet on gravel, she glanced up to see Ford and Spock.

“Hi, neighbor,” he called out. “I figured if you were out here, the returning hero’s doing all right.”

“Sleeping.” She looked at her watch. “God, how did it get to be five o’clock?”

“The earth orbits around the sun as it turns on its axis, thereby-”

“Smart-ass.”

“Present. And speaking of.” He shook the bag in his hand. “I’ve got something for Steve. Some DVDs, since you’ve got the set up in his room.”

Cilla cocked her head. "DVDs? Porn?”

Ford’s eyebrows drew together. “Porn’s such a hard word. Just hear how it comes out of the mouth. That short, hard syllable. Spider-Man, the three-movie box set. It seemed appropriate. And a couple of others that involve naked women and motorcycles, which I’d call adult entertainment. Spock picked those out.”

She slid her glance down to the dog, who cocked his head and looked innocent. “I’m sure Steve will appreciate them.”

“Spock believes Sleazy Rider was very underrated.”

“I’ll take his word.” She heard the footsteps first, sprang to her feet. She pulled open the screen door as Steve reached for it from the inside. “You’re up. Why didn’t you call me? You shouldn’t take the steps by yourself.”

“I’m fine. I’m good. Ford.”

“Good to see you out.”

“Good to be. Hey, Spock. Hey, boy.” He sat on one of the white plastic chairs, stroking the dog, who laid his front legs on Steve’s knee.

“You look better,” Cilla decided.

“Magic pills and sleep. I nap like a three-year-old these days, but it does the job.”

“You’re probably hungry. Why don’t I fix you some food? Something to drink? Get you-”

“Cill.” He started to tell her not to bother, changed his mind. “Yeah, I could use a sandwich or something. Not hospital food or smuggled-in goods. Maybe you could throw something together for all of us.”

“Sure. Give me a few minutes.”

When she dashed inside, Steve shook his head. “She’s hovering, man.”

“I talked her out of the little bedside john.”

“I owe you. What’s in the bag?”

Ford passed it over, and after a quick look, Steve broke out in a grin. “Now we’re talking. Thanks. Listen, I need to get the exercise in. You spot me on a walk around?”

“Okay.”

Ford waited until Steve handled the stairs, then walked with him away from the house. “Something on your mind?”

“Lots of shit, man. It still gets a little bogged coming through the channels. Cops don’t have dick, right?”

“That’d be about it.”

“It looks like a one-time thing. Just bad luck. I mean, nothing’s happened since.”

“No.”

Steve stared at Ford’s profile. “You’d tell me straight?”

Ford thought of Cilla’s car door, but set it aside. “Nobody’s broken into the barn, bothered the house.”

“You were bunking here while I was in the hospital. I got word on that.”

“Hey. My sleeping bag.”

“So you and Cilla aren’t in the sack?”

“Not quite yet.”

“But you’re into her. Look, that’s your business, her business and all that bullcrap, but I’m asking because I need to know if you’re going to look out for her when I’m gone.”

Ford paused as Steve did. “Going somewhere?”

“I haven’t said anything to her yet. I was going to when we got back, but Jesus, she fixed up the room for me. Down to flowers, you know. Oh, and thanks for the push on the cable.”

“It’s only right.”

With a nod, Steve began to walk again. “The thing is, I should’ve headed back last week, latest. Plans changed on account of brain surgery. I’d stay if I thought she needed me to watch out for her, or I could help out. She can take care of herself, that’s Christ’s truth, but… Hell, maybe it’s the near-death experience. Whatever. I want to get home. I want to sit on the beach, soak up the rays. But I need to know somebody’s got her back.”

“I’ve got her back, Steve.”

Steve stopped to stare at the barn. “She said you bought the paint. While I was still out of it.” He nodded, as if satisfied. “You’re all right, Ford. Totally not the type she usually lets get a taste. It’s about time. She digs on candles. When you’re making it,” Steve added. “She digs on lots of candles around. Doesn’t mind music, either. Doesn’t need it, like some do, but she’s good with it. Lights on, lights off; she’s okay either way. But she does dig on the candle thing.”

Ford cleared his throat. “Appreciate the tips. How are you getting back to L.A.?”

“The doc wants to see me Friday, so I’m going to stick till Saturday. I’ve got a friend in New Jersey who’s coming down in an RV. We’ll load me and the bike up, head west. Don’t say anything to her, okay? I want to tell her myself.”

Cilla whistled from the veranda. “You guys want to eat?”

Spock’s answer was to run toward her as if hellhounds were on his heels.

“The mountains are cool,” Steve commented as they turned back.

“That’s part of what pulled her out east. She told me how the mountains seem like home. Me? I miss the ocean.” He nudged Ford with his elbow. “And the women in very small bikinis.”

SHE SLEPT POORLY, with one ear cocked for Steve, and her mind niggling over the fact he planned on leaving in a matter of days.

How could she take care of him if he was three thousand miles away?

One day out of the hospital, and he was planning cross-country trips. In an RV? It was so like him, she thought as she tossed over onto her back. Always had to move, never stay in one place too long. That’s where the whole flipping houses came from, she reminded herself. You didn’t have to settle on one if you kept turning them.

But he wouldn’t listen to reason on this. And the fact that he was just out of the damn hospital made it impossible to kick his ass. Who’d check on him two or three times a night as she’d done? So he’d been fine when she had. What if he hadn’t been?

She rolled over again, punched her pillow. And gave up.

Dawn was about to break anyway. She’d go check on him again, then go down and make some coffee. She’d have her quiet time outside before the crew started piling in.

As she heard Steve snoring before she reached his doorway, she headed straight for coffee. In another few months, she thought, she’d have an actual kitchen. Refitted antique appliances, countertops, cabinets. Actual dishes. And damn if she wasn’t treating herself to a fancy espresso maker.

Maybe she’d actually learn how to cook. She’d bet Patty could teach her some good basics. Nothing fancy and gourmet. She’d tried that route and failed spectacularly. But your basic red sauce, or meat and potatoes. Surely she could learn how to cook a chicken breast.

Once the house was finished, she promised herself. Once she had her license, geared up for business, found a routine. She’d learn how to cook for herself instead of living on sandwiches, canned soup and takeout.

She carried the coffee outside, drawing in its scent as the first sleepy light played over her new gardens, over earth still turned and waiting. She sipped while the mists rose off the pond she still had to clean.

Every day, she thought. She wanted to do this every day. To step out of her home in the soft, sleepy light and see what she could do, what she had done. What had been given to her.

Whatever she’d paid her mother for this place, this life, didn’t count. In that soft and sleepy light, she knew everything she could see and smell and touch had been a gift from the grandmother she’d never met.

She would’ve taken coffee on a morning walk, Cilla thought as she stepped off the veranda to wander. Accounts spoke of her as an early riser, used to the demands of filming. Often up at dawn.

Often up till dawn, too, Cilla admitted. But that was another side of the woman. The party girl, the Hollywood queen, the star who drank too much and leaned too heavily on pills.

In the quiet morning, Cilla wanted the company of the Janet Hardy who fell in love with this little slice of Virginia. Who brought home a mongrel pup and had roses planted under the window.

The big red barn made her smile as she strolled around the house. The police tape was gone, the padlock firmly in place. And Steve, she thought, was snoring in the pretty iron bed in the pretty room upstairs.

That nightmare was done. A scavenger looking for scraps who’d panicked. The police believed that to be the case, so who was she to argue? If she wanted to solve a personal mystery, it would be the author of the letters inside Gatsby. And in that way, she’d put another piece of Janet’s together, for her own knowledge. Her own history.

The light grew as she neared the front of the house. Birdsong sweetened the air as did the scent of roses and turned earth. Dew tickled coolly on her bare feet. It pleased her more than she could say to know she walked on her own land, over dewed grass, wearing a tank and cotton pajama pants.

And no one cared.

She finished the coffee on the front veranda, gazing out over the lawn.

Her smile faded slowly, changing into a puzzled frown as her eyes scanned the front wall.

Where were her trees? She should be able to see the bowing tops of her weeping cherries from the veranda. As the frown deepened, she set her mug on the rail, stepped down to walk along the lawn beside the gravel drive.

Then she began to run.

“No. Goddamn it, no!”

Her young weepers lay on the narrow swatch of green between her wall and the shoulder of the road. Their slender trunks bore the hack marks of an ax. It wouldn’t have taken much, she thought as she crouched down to brush her fingers over the leaves. Three or four swings at most.

Not to steal. Digging them up would have taken a bit more time, a bit more trouble. To destroy. To kill.

The sheer meanness of the act twisted in her belly in a combination of sorrow and fury. Not a scavenger, she thought. Not kids. Kids bashed mailboxes along the road, so she’d been warned. Kids didn’t take the time to hack down a couple of ornamental trees.

She straightened to take a steadying breath, and looked over at the broken stump of one of her dying trees. That breath caught. Her body trembled, that same combination of sorrow and fury. Black paint defiled the old stone wall with its ugly message.

GO BACK TO HOLLYWOOD BITCH!

LIVE LIKE A WHORE DIE LIKE A WHORE

“Fuck you,” she said under her breath. “Goddamn it, Hennessy, fuck you.”

Riding on pure fury now, she stormed back to the house to call the police.

WITH BLOOD IN HER EYE, Cilla warned every one of the crew that anyone who mentioned the trees or the wall to Steve would be fired on the spot. No exceptions, no excuses.

She ordered Brian back to the nursery. She wanted two new trees planted, and she wanted them planted that very day.

By ten, when the cops had come and gone, secure that her threat would hold and that the crew would keep Steve busy inside, she went out to work with the mason on cleaning the stone.

Ford saw her, scrubbing at the stone, when he stepped out with his first cup of coffee. And he saw the message sprayed over the wall. As she had done earlier, he left his coffee on the rail and jogged down to her in bare feet.

“Cilla.”

“Don’t tell Steve. That’s the first thing. I don’t want you to say a word about this to Steve.”

“Did you call the cops?”

“They’ve been here. For whatever good it does. It has to be Hennessy, it has to be that son of a bitch. But unless he’s got black paint and wood chips under his goddamn fingernails, what are they going to do about it?”

“Wood…” He saw the stumps then, swore. “Wait a minute. Let me think.”

“I don’t have time. I have to get this off. Can’t risk sandblasting this stone. It’s too harsh. It’d damage the stone, the mortar, do as much harm, potentially, as the stupid paint. This chemical’s the best alternative. Probably have to have the wall repointed, but it’s all I can do.”

“Scrub at the stone with a brush?”

“That’s right.” She attacked the C in BITCH like she would a sworn enemy. “He’s not going to get away with this. He’s not going to soil or damage what’s mine. I wasn’t driving the goddamn car. I wasn’t even born, for Christ’s sake.”

“And he’s eighty if he’s a day. I have a hard time seeing him chopping down a couple of trees and tagging a stone wall in the middle of the night.”

“Who else?” She rounded on Ford. “Who else hates me or this place the way he does?”

“I don’t know. But we’d better work on finding out.”

“It’s my problem.”

“Don’t be an ass.”

“It’s my problem, my wall, my trees. I’m the bitch.”

He met her hot glare with a cool stare. “I wouldn’t argue with the last part right at the moment, but as for the rest? Bullshit. You don’t want to tell Steve, fine. I get it. But I’m not leaving. I’m not heading back to L.A. or anywhere else.”

He grabbed her arm, pulled her back around to face him. “I’m staying right here. Deal with it.”

“I’m trying to deal with this, and with having my best friend leave when he can hardly walk more than five yards at a time. I’m trying to deal with making a life I didn’t even realize I wanted until a few months ago. I don’t know how much more I can deal with.”

“You’ll have to make room.” He cupped her face, kissed her hard. “Got another brush?”

FIFTEEN

Cilla sweated over the long, tedious process most of the day, with breaks to handle scheduled work. She concentrated on the ob-scenities first as people slowed on the drive by, or stopped altogether to comment or question.

Sometime during the process, the burning edge of her rage banked down to simple frustration. Why had the asshole written so damn much?

She picked up the task again the next morning, before the mason or any of the crew arrived. Two new trees flanked her entrance. She thought of them as defiant now rather than sweet. And that pumped up her energy.

“Hey.”

She glanced around to see Ford, ratty sweatpants and T-shirt, standing on the opposite shoulder of the road with a red bandanna-sporting Spock quivering, but sitting obediently at his feet. “Early for you,” she responded.

“I set the alarm. It must be love. Come over here a minute.”

“Busy.”

“When aren’t you? Honey, you can wear me out just watching. Come on, take a minute. I got coffee.” He held up one of the oversized mugs he carried.

He’d set the alarm, and though she didn’t know quite what to think about that, she owed him for it. And for the time he’d put in the day before, even after she’d been rude and snarly. She set the bristle brush down, crossed the road.

He handed her the coffee, gestured to the wall as she greeted Spock. “Read it from here. Out loud.”

She shrugged, turned, and even as she took a gulp of the coffee felt a little bubble of amusement rise in her throat. “Go to Hollywood, live like an ore ike.”

“Ore-ike,” he mused. “I can use that. Seems to me he tried to hurt and intimidate you, and you’ve made him a joke. Nicely done.”

“Unexpectedly ridiculous. I guess that’s a plus. I’ve nearly run out of mad. You don’t have to get into this again today, Ford. How are you going to make me a warrior goddess if you’re scrubbing off graffiti?”

“That’s cruising along pretty well. I can give you a couple of hours before I get back to it. Spock’s looking forward to being what Brian and Matt call a job dog today. He’s just going to go over and hang out with the guys. Hence the bandanna.”

“You know, I’m probably going to have sex with you, without the offer of manual labor.”

“I’m hoping.” He gave her an easy, uncomplicated smile. “You know I’d offer the labor even if you weren’t going to have sex with me.”

She took a contemplative sip of coffee. “I guess that evens it out. I do better on even ground. Well.” She started back across the street, and he and Spock fell into step beside her. “My father heard about this, called me last night. What could he do? How could he help? Why didn’t I come stay there for a while, until the police figured it out? Which is looking like, hmm, never. Then my stepmother got on the phone. She wants to take me shopping.”

“For a new wall? This one’s cleaning up okay.”

“No, not a new wall.” She gave him a light punch, then handed him protective gloves. “Patty, Angie and Cilla do the outlets. Like trolling for bargains would solve my problem.”

“I take it you’re not going?”

“I don’t have the time or the inclination to search out peek-toe pumps or a flirty summer dress.”

“Red shoes, white dress. Sorry,” he added at her quiet stare. “I think in visuals.”

“Uh-huh. The point, I guess, is that I’m not used to people offering- time or company or help-without any number of strings attached.”

“That’s a shame, or perhaps living like an ore-ike.”

She laughed, began to scrub.

"Go play,” he told Spock, who trotted off toward the house in his red bandanna.

“I’m trying to learn to accept the offers without the lingering haze of cynicism. It’s going to take a little while.”

He worked for a few moments in silence. “You know what I see when I look over here?”

“Trucks, big-ass Dumpster, a house in desperate need of paint?”

“Sleeping Beauty’s castle.”

“How? Where? Why?”

“First, I risk impinging my manhood by admitting I dug on those kind of stories as a kid, as much as I did the Dark Knight, X-Men, and so on. And consider Disney’s version solid, with Maleficent one of the top villains of all time. Anyway.”

He shrugged as she continued to stare at him. “You know how the evil Maleficent cast the spell, and surrounded the castle with giant briar, those big, wicked thorns. Closed it in to a dark, forbidding place that held sorrow and, well, trapped beauty.”

“Okay.”

“The hero had to fight his way through the blocks, the thorns, the traps. A lot of risk, a lot of work, but when he reached the goal, the castle came back to life. And, you know, peace reigned across the land.”

She worked her wire brush against the wall. “I have to kiss the princess?”

“Okay, new visual. Interesting. There are some flaws in the metaphor, but basically, the trapped, sleeping castle needs a hero to wake it up. Some people like having a part in that. And some…” He tapped his brush on a large black E. “They like to fuck it up.”

“I find myself fascinated by a man who admits to enjoying fairy tales and uses the word ‘impinge’-and barely misses a beat while indulging in a brief girl-on-girl fantasy. You’re a man of layers, Ford.”

“Me and Shrek, we’re onions.”

Oh yeah, she thought. Falling for him, and falling fast.

She stopped as Buddy’s truck pulled up beside them. The plumber leaned out the window, scowled. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“According to Ford, it means some people like to mess things up.”

“Damn kids. No respect.”

“I don’t want Steve to hear about this. He’s got enough on his mind. I need to talk to you about the venting for the steam shower. I took another look last night, and… I really need to go over this with Buddy on site,” she said to Ford.

“Go ahead. I’ve got this for a while.”

“Thanks. Give me a lift, Buddy.” She hopped into the cab of the truck, and as Buddy turned in the drive, tried to imagine the house as Sleeping Beauty’s castle, with about half of the briars hacked away.

FORD GOT IN a solid day before stepping back from the work to take a long look at the panels and the pencils. The story had turned on him a bit, but he considered that a good thing. He’d edit the script later that evening to suit the new images and action that had come to mind.

To do that, he needed to let it stew. To stop pushing while it cooked on one of the back burners of the brain. Which meant, for his process, it was probably time for a beer and a little PlayStation.

Downstairs, he opened the front door to take a quick look at what he thought of as Cilla World before wandering back to the kitchen. He saw Steve picking his way up the walk, the cane in one hand, a six-pack in the other.

“This is what I call superior timing.”

Beside Ford, Spock all but jumped up and applauded.

“I escaped. The warden had to make a supply run, so I stole her beer and booked.”

“Who could blame you?” Ford took the beer, flicked a thumb at a chair.

“Doc cleared me. I’m heading out tomorrow.” He sat, with an audible whoosh of breath, then scrubbed his hand over Spock’s head.

“You’ll be missed.” Ford popped the tops on two beers, passed one over.

“I’m going to try to come back out in the fall, if I can manage it. The way she’s going, she’ll be down to punch-out work.”

Ford glanced dubiously across the road. “If you say so.”

“I’m mostly in her way now.”

“She doesn’t see it that way.”

Steve took a long pull on the beer. “She reamed my ass for going up in the attic to hang out with the guys. Wanted to set me out in a rocker like her grandfather, and give me a paint fan to play with. Jesus, next thing it’ll be crossword puzzles or some such shit.”

“Could be worse. Could be knitting.”

With a grunt, Steve frowned at the stone wall across the road. “What’s your take on what went down on that?”

“Sorry?”

“Don’t bullshit. My brain’s not that damaged. Guys on construction crews gossip like girls. I heard some asshole tagged the wall. Got about six different versions of what it said, but all the same basic idea.”

“My take is some asshole tagged the wall, and he’s got a mean streak. It might be the same one that went after you, or it might not. She thinks it’s old man Hennessy.”

“And you don’t.”

“Old man’s the defining term. Then again, I can’t think of anybody who has anything against her except him. And he’s tough. Stringy, but tough.”

“If I was a hundred percent-or closer to it-I’d stay. But I wouldn’t be much help to her right now.” He tipped his beer at Ford. “Up to you, Sparky, and your little dog, too.”

“We’ve got it.”

“Yeah.” Steve took another sip of beer. “I think you do.”

SHE DIDN’T CRY when Steve climbed into the passenger seat of the RV on the cool and wet Saturday. She censored herself from making any suggestion he wait until the weather cleared to begin the long trip cross-country. Instead, she kissed him goodbye and stood in the rain to wave him off.

And felt horribly, painfully alone.

So alone, she closed herself in the house. The rain took planting or painting off the slate. She considered moving her things into the guest room Steve had vacated, but that struck her as too much housekeeping. She wanted work, not chores.

She switched on the radio, turned up the volume to fill the house with sound. And got down to the business of building the shelving and framing out the storage closet for the utility room off the kitchen. The task wasn’t on the agenda for weeks yet, but it was exactly the kind of job that smoothed out nerves, soothed the mind.

She measured, marked, sawed, lost herself in the rhythm of carpentry. Content again, she sang along with the radio as her cordless screwdriver spun a wood screw home.

She nearly dropped the drill on her foot when she turned and caught a movement out of the corner of her eye.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Patty threw up her hands, as if the tool were a loaded gun. “I didn’t mean to scare you. We knocked, but… It’s so loud in here.”

Cilla walked over to shut off the radio. “I need it loud to hear it over the tools.”

“I got worried when you didn’t answer the door, and there was all the noise, and your car out front. So we just came in.”

“It’s all right. You just startled me. We?”

“Angie and Cathy. We tried to get Penny, but she’s covering the store. It’s such a poopy day we decided we’d brave the mall, then catch a movie and round it out with dinner. We came to kidnap you.”

“Oh, that sounds like fun.” Like torture, she thought. “I appreciate it, but I’m in the middle of this.”

“You deserve a day off. My treat.” "Patty-”

“I can hardly believe…” Cathy stepped in, trailed off with a wide-eyed stare at Cilla. “We’ve invaded. Gosh, you look so HGTV. I’m nervous about banging a nail into the wall to hang a picture, and look at you.”

“My sister, the handyman.” Perky in a pink hoodie, Angie beamed at her. “Can we look around? Is it all right? The buzz is the action’s on the second floor.”

“Sure. Um, it’s got a ways to go. Actually, it all has a ways.”

“I confess, I’ve been dying to get a look inside this place for years.” Cathy glanced around at the bare walls, the bare floors, the stacks and piles of lumber and supplies. “How do you manage without a kitchen?”

“I’m not much of a cook anyway. I’m having the stove and refrigerator that were in here retrofitted-they’re fairly fabulous. It takes time, so the kitchen’s way down on the list. Ah, the dining area’s over there, so it makes it an open floor plan. It’s good light, nice views.”

“The back gardens look so pretty!” Patty stepped closer to the French doors. “Was this patio here?”

“It needed work, and we redesigned it. The gardens have been a job. Your son does good work,” she said to Cathy. "And he’s got a real talent for landscape design.”

“Thank you. We certainly think so.”

“The dining room opens to the patio, and from the interior flows into this area I’m going to use as a sort of sitting/TV room off the living area. Powder room there’s getting new tiles, new fixtures. Coat closet here off the entryway. It’s a lot of space. It’s good space.”

“I love that you can step outside from every room.” Angie turned a circle.

Cilla led them upstairs where the three unexpected guests cooed over the tiles and fixtures of the completed bath, chattered over the projected master.

“I don’t know what I’d do with a steam shower, but I would love heated tile floors in my bathroom.” Patty beamed at Cilla. “I don’t know how you know all of this, and figure it out, but the two finished rooms are just beautiful. Like something out of a magazine.”

“The resale value’s going to skyrocket,” Cathy commented.

“I think it would, if I were planning on selling.”

“Sorry, my husband’s influence.” Cathy chuckled. “And I know without asking him he’d want first crack if you ever change your mind about selling. What wonderful views. It seems so solitary, even with the other houses around. I admit I like the convenience and the security of living closer to town, but if I had more country girl in me, this would be the spot.”

“Do you ever feel her around? Janet?”

“Angie.”

At her mother’s frown, Angie blinked. “I’m sorry. Is that the wrong thing to ask?”

“It’s all right,” Cilla told her. “I do sometimes. I like to think she’d approve of what I’m doing, even the changes I’m making. It matters to me.”

“There’s such history in this house,” Cathy added. “All the people who came here, the parties, the music. The tragedy, too. It makes it more than a house. It’s a legend, isn’t it? I remember when it happened. I was pregnant with my middle child-just a couple months along, and had such morning sickness. I’d just had a bout, and Tom was trying to feed Marianna-our oldest-breakfast. She wasn’t quite two, and there was oatmeal everywhere. My next-door neighbor-Abby Fox, you remember her, Patty?”

“I do. If there was a drop of gossip, she squeezed out more.”

“Knew everything first, and this was no exception. She came over and told us. I burst right into tears. Hormones, I guess. I got sick again, and I remember how Tom was at his wit’s end trying to figure out how to deal with me and the baby. It was an awful day. I’m sorry.” She shook herself. “I don’t know why I started on that.”

“The house stirs it up,” Patty decided. “Go on, Cilla, get cleaned up and come with us. This rain and gloom’s going to make us sad. We’re just not taking no for an answer.”

She supposed she went along as it was three against one, and because Cathy’s memory had made her sad. It surprised her that she enjoyed herself, poking around a mall, sitting through a weepy chick flick, drinking margaritas and eating grilled chicken Caesar salad.

In the restaurant ladies’ room, Angie joined her to fuss with her hair and lip gloss. “It’s no Rodeo Drive, premiere and dinner at the latest hot spot, but it was a pretty good day, huh?”

“I had fun. And Rodeo Drive wasn’t my usual stomping grounds.”

“It would be mine, if I lived out there. Even if I could only window-shop and fantasize. You really don’t miss it?”

“I really don’t miss it. I- Sorry,” she said when her phone rang. Drawing it out, Cilla saw her mother’s number on the readout, put it away without answering.

“You can take it. I’ll step out.”

“No. It’s the kind of call that’s guaranteed to spoil my nice, subtle margarita buzz. Do you do this a lot? Hang out with your mother on a rainy Saturday?”

“I guess. She’s fun to be around. We always tried to have a day together, and since I went to college, we try harder when I’m home on break. Sometimes we have friends along, sometimes just the two of us.”

“You’re lucky.”

Angie laid a hand on Cilla’s arm. “I know she’s not your mother, but I know, too, she’d really like to be your friend.”

“She is my friend. We just don’t know each other very well.”

“Yet?”

“Yet,” Cilla agreed, and made Angie smile.

WHEN SHE GOT HOME, Cilla checked her voice mail. Two from Ford, she noted-probably when she’d turned off her phone in the movie- and one from her mother.

She got her mother’s over with. It ran long, as expected, covering the gamut from cold disdain to angry resentment, with a short stint of teary tremor between.

Cilla deleted it, played Ford’s first.

“Hey. My mother decided to cook up spaghetti and meatballs, and told me to come over to pig out and bring a friend. You didn’t answer the door, and you’re not answering this. So now I’m wondering if I should worry, mind my own business or be insanely jealous because you ran off with some piece of beefcake named Antonio. Anyway, give me a call so I know.”

She played the second. “Ignore that message. My father ran into your father, so have fun with the girls. Ah, that was your father’s term. The girls. You’re going to miss some seriously awesome meatballs.”

“God, you’re so cute,” Cilla murmured. “And if I wasn’t so tired, I’d walk right over there and jump your bones.”

Yawning, she climbed the steps with two shopping bags. A real bed waited upstairs, she remembered. She could curl up on an actual mattress with actual sheets. Snuggle right in, sleep as late as she liked. The idea shimmered like heaven in her mind as she turned into the guest bath.

It was like being struck in the heart. The lovely floor lay broken-tiles chipped, shattered, heaved up from long cracks. The bowl of the new sink lay scattered over it in pieces. Shocked, she staggered back, the bags dropping out of her hands. The contents spilled out as she turned, with a fist twisting in her belly, to run to the newly tiled master.

The same senseless destruction met her.

A sledgehammer, she thought, maybe a pick. Someone had pounded, chipped, gashed the tiles, the glass block, the walls. Hours and hours of work, destroyed.

With ice coating that fist in her belly, she walked downstairs and outside into the rain to make the now familiar call to the police.

“CAME IN THROUGH the back door,” Wilson told her. “Broke the glass, reached in, turned the lock. It appears he used your tools-that short-handled sledgehammer, the pickax-to do the damage. Who knew you’d be out for the evening?”

“Nobody. I didn’t know I’d be out. It was spur of the moment.”

“And your car remained here, in full view from the road?”

“Yes. I left the veranda light on, and two lights on inside-one up, one down.”

“And you left here about two in the afternoon, you said?”

“Yes, about then. We went to the mall, to the movies, to dinner. I got back about ten-thirty.”

“The three women you were with knew your house would be vacant?”

“That’s right. My neighbor knew, as he called me while I was out. My father knew, and my neighbor’s parents. I suppose Mrs. Morrow’s husband knew, or could have. Basically, Detective, pretty much anyone who had any interest in my whereabouts could have known or found out.”

“Miss McGowan, I’m going to suggest you get yourself a security system.”

“Is that what you’d suggest?”

“This area is lightly developed, it’s part of its charm. You’re relatively remote here, and your property has been a repeated target of vandalism. We’re doing what we can. But if I were you, I’d take steps to protect my property.”

“You can believe I will.”

Cilla pushed to her feet when she heard Ford’s voice, raised in obvious frustration as he argued with one of the cops currently prowling her house and grounds. “That’s my neighbor. I’d like him to come in.”

Wilson signaled. A moment later Ford rushed in. “Are you hurt? Are you all right?” He took her face in his hands. “What happened now?”

“Someone broke in while I was out. They did a number on two of the second-floor bathrooms.”

“Mr. Sawyer, where were you this afternoon and evening, between two and eleven?”

“Detective Wilson-”

“It’s okay.” Ford took Cilla’s hand, squeezed it. “I was home working until about four. I went out to buy some wine and some flowers for my mother. I had dinner at my parents’, got there about five. Got home, I don’t know, about nine, maybe nine-thirty. I watched some TV, fell asleep on the couch. When I surfaced, I started upstairs. I looked out the front door-it’s a habit now-and I saw the cops.”

“Ms. McGowan stated you knew she wasn’t home.”

“Yeah, I called her to invite her to dinner at my parents’. No, walked over first to invite her. She didn’t answer, and I got a little worried with everything that’s been going on. Then I called. And a little while later, I talked to my father; my mother wanted me to stop and pick up some milk. I told him I was trying to reach Cilla to ask her over, and he said he’d run into her dad, and that she was out with girlfriends.”

“What time did you come over here?”

“Ah, about three, some after, I guess. I walked to the barn when you didn’t answer, but the lock was on, and I walked around the house. I was worried, a little. Everything looked okay. Where did they break in?”

“Back door,” she told him.

“The back door was fine when I did the walk-around. How bad is it?”

“Way bad enough.”

“You can fix it.” He reached for her hand. “You know how.”

She shook her head, walked over to sit on the steps. "I’m tired.” After scrubbing her hands over her face, she dropped them into her lap. “I’m tired of it all.”

“Why don’t you go over to my place, get some sleep? I’ll bunk here so somebody’s in the house.”

“If I leave, I’m not going to come back. I need to think about that. I need to see if staying here matters anymore. Because right now? I just don’t know.”

“I’ll stay with you. I’ll take the sleeping bag. Are you going to leave any cops here?” Ford demanded of Wilson.

Wilson nodded. “We’ll leave a radio car and two officers outside. Ms. McGowan? I don’t know if it makes any difference to the way you’re feeling, but this is starting to piss me off.”

She offered Wilson a sigh. “Get in line.”

WHILE FORD WENT over to get the dog, she fixed plywood over the broken glass herself-a kind of symbol. At that moment, Cilla wasn’t sure if it was a symbol of defense or defeat. When she set down the hammer, all she felt was brutal fatigue.

“You don’t have to take the sleeping bag. It’s a big bed, and you’re too decent a guy to try anything under the circumstances. And the fact is, I don’t want to sleep alone.”

“Okay. Come on. We’ll figure everything out tomorrow.”

“He used my own tools to ruin things.” She let Ford lead her through the house, up the stairs. “It makes it worse somehow.”

In the bedroom, she toed off her shoes. Then pulled off her shirt. And had just enough left in her to be touched and amused when Ford cleared his throat, turned his back.

Spock, on the other hand, cocked his head and-if it was possible- ogled.

“He didn’t bust up the johns,” she said as she changed into a tank and cotton pants. “I don’t know if he ran out of steam, or if he knew the tiles, the sinks, the block were all more expensive and would take more time and trouble to replace. He’d be right about that. But you don’t have to go outside if you have to pee.”

“I’m good, thanks.”

“You can turn around now.”

She crawled onto the bed, didn’t bother to turn it down. “You don’t have to sleep in your clothes. I don’t know if I’m as decent as you, but I’m too damn tired to start up anything.”

Taking her at her word, he stripped down to his boxers, then stretched out on the bed, leaving plenty of space between them.

She reached out, turned off the light. "I’m not going to cry,” she said after a few moments of silence. “But if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like you to hold on to me for a while.”

He shifted to her, turned, then, draping an arm around her, drew her back against his body. “Better?”

“Yeah.” She closed her eyes. “I don’t know what to do. What I want, what I need, what I should, what I shouldn’t. I just don’t know.”

He kissed the back of her head, and the quiet gesture pushed tears into her throat. “Whatever it is, you’ll figure it out. Listen, it’s starting to rain again. It’s a nice sound, this time of night. It’s like music. You can just lie here and listen to the music.”

She listened to the music, how it played on and around the house she’d come to love. And, with his arm curled around her, slipped into exhausted sleep.

SIXTEEN

There was music when she woke. The same steady drum and plink of rain that had lulled her to sleep greeted her when she stirred. He’d held on to her, she thought-a little dreamily- when she’d asked. Just held on to her while the rain played and sleep took her under.

Though she had a dim memory of just dropping down on top of the bed, she found herself cozily tucked in.

And alone.

The part of her that didn’t want to face it, didn’t want those memories to clear, urged her to sink down again, to just let the rain and the watery gloom stroke her back to sleep.

Come too far for that, Cilla, she reminded herself. You’ve come too far for the slide and stroke. Pull it up, face the facts. Decide. Then deal.

As she pushed herself up to sit, she thought that nagging, practical voice in her head a coldhearted bitch.

Then she saw the coffee.

Her insulated travel mug sat on the nightstand. Propped against it, one of her notepads sported a mercilessly accurate and wincingly unflattering sketch depicting exactly how she imagined she looked at that precise moment. Tousled, heavy-eyed, rumpled and scowling. Beneath, in bold block letters, the caption read:

I AM COFFEE!!

DRINK ME!

(THEN TURN THE PAGE)

“Funny guy,” she grumbled. She picked up the pad, tossed it on the bed before lifting the mug. The coffee it held was only a few degrees above lukewarm, but it was strong and sweet. And just what the doctor ordered. She indulged, sitting, sipping, letting the coffee give her system that first kick start.

And idly, turned the page in the notebook.

She hadn’t expected to laugh, wouldn’t have believed anything could cut through the fog of depression to pull a quick, surprised chuckle out of her.

He’d drawn her vivid, wide-eyed, exaggerated breasts and biceps bulging out of her sleep tank, hair streaming in an unseen wind, smile full and fierce. The travel mug, a hint of steam puffing out of the drink hole, gripped in her hand.

“Yeah, you’re a funny guy.”

Laying the notepad back down, she went to find him.

She heard the clattering sound when she opened the bedroom door. Glass-no, broken tiles, she decided-against plastic. She wended her way to the master bedroom, pushed open that door, then crossed to the doorway of the bath.

He’d dug up work gloves, she noted, and a small spade, several empty drywall compound buckets. Two of them were filled with tile shards. It struck her almost harder than it had the night before, to stand there and see the methodical clearing of destruction.

“You’re losing your status as a morning slug.”

He dumped another handful of shards, straightened. He scanned her face. “You may have ruined me for life. How’s the coffee?”

“Welcome. Thanks. You don’t have to do this, Ford.”

“I don’t know anything about building, but I know a lot about cleaning up.”

“We’re going to need a lot more than a couple of buckets and a spade.”

“Yeah, I figured. But I also figured I might as well get started because lying in bed with you on a rainy Sunday morning had me… energized.”

“Is that what you call it?”

His face remained very solemn. “In polite company.”

She nodded, stepped over to stare at the cracks and breaks in her glass-block wall. She’d loved the look of that, the patterns in the glass, the way the light stole through. She’d imagined painting the walls a sheer, subtly metallic silver to pick up the glints of chrome. Her classy oasis, and yes, maybe a personal salute to old Hollywood.

The roots of her roots.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. I honestly don’t know if I want to put this back together. If I’ve got it in me to fight this war someone’s declared on me. I didn’t come here to fight wars. I wanted to build something for myself, and for her. Maybe to build something for myself from her. But you know, when the foundation’s cracked, things keep falling down.”

“It didn’t fall down, Cilla, it was knocked down. That’s a different thing.” He tipped his head to one side, then the other, making a deliberate study of her face. So she saw he understood she meant herself as much as-maybe more than-the room. “I don’t see any cracks.”

“She was a junkie, a drunk. Maybe she was made into one, exploited, used. Pampered and abused. I know what that’s like. Not on her level, but enough to have a glimmer of what it was for her. I could have tried to build anywhere, but I made a deliberate choice to come here. She’s part of the reason. This place is part of the reason. My own wounded psyche and need to prove my own worth on my own terms. All part of the reason.”

“Those are good reasons.” He shrugged in that easy way of his. “So you stay, you clean it up. And you build it. On your terms.”

She shook her head. “You have no idea how screwed up I am.”

“I’ve got a few clues. How about you? Any idea how strong you are?”

How could she argue against that straight-line, stubborn conviction? “It vacillates. I’m on a low ebb right now.”

“Maybe you just need a boost.”

“More coffee?”

“A hearty Sunday breakfast.” He pulled off the work gloves, tossed them on the lid of the john. “You don’t have to decide the rest of your life this minute, or today, or tomorrow. Why don’t you give yourself a break? Take a little time. Let’s blow off the day. We’ll get Spock from outside where he’d be chasing his cats about now. Gorge ourselves at The Pancake House, go… to the zoo.”

“It’s raining.”

“It can’t rain forever.”

She stared at him a moment, at that relaxed smile, the warm, patient eyes. He’d held on to her, she thought. He’d left her coffee, and made her laugh before she was fully awake. He was cleaning up her mess, and demanding absolutely nothing.

He believed in her, in a way, on a level no one, not even she, had believed in before.

“No, it really can’t, can it? It really can’t rain forever.”

“So, get dressed and we’ll go overload on carbs, then go check out the monkeys.”

“Actually, the pancakes sound pretty good. After.”

“After what?”

She laughed, and this time the sound didn’t seem so surprising. She took hold of the front of his shirt, watched the awareness come into his eyes. “Come back to bed, Ford.”

“Oh.”

She backed up, tugging him with her. “It’s just us. Right this minute, I’ve got nothing else on my mind. And I really could use that boost.”

“Okay.” He scooped her up, closed his mouth over hers.

When her head stopped spinning, she smiled. “Really nice start.”

“I’ve been planning it out. Change in venue and basic approach,” he said as he carried her to the bedroom. “But I’m flexible.”

Her smile was slow, like a long, low purr. “So am I.”

“Oh, boy.”

She was laughing as she hooked her arms around his neck, caught his mouth with hers. Just them, she thought as they tumbled onto the bed. Everything else was later. Just them, and the music of the rain. In the soft and lazy light, on the rumpled bed, she let herself sink into the here and now. She drew his shirt up, away, hooked her legs around him and said, “Mmmm.”

He could have lingered on her mouth, the taste, the shape, the movement of it, endlessly. That wonderful deep dip in her top lip held a world of fascination for him. The sexy, seeking slide of her tongue against his could have held him enthralled for hours.

But there was so much more. The graceful stem of her neck allured him, the curve of her cheek, the smooth skin just under her jaw offered him countless pleasures as he roamed, as he sampled before finding her lips again.

The flavors there had become familiar over the weeks since they’d begun this dance, and only the more desirable to him. Now, finally, there would be more.

He could glide his lips down her, learn the tastes and textures, madden himself with the subtle swell above simple cotton. He teased and tormented them both, lingering there even as she arched up in invitation. He found warmth and silk and secrets while her heart beat strong against his lips. And when his tongue slid under the cotton, when she moaned in approval, he found more.

He eased the tank up, inch by torturous inch, fingers gliding light as moth wings as he lifted his head to look into her eyes.

Her heart stuttered. Her body simply sighed.

“You’re really good at this.”

“If something’s worth doing… I’ve looked at you a lot. In an artistic capacity.” His gaze shifted down as his fingers brushed over her breasts. “I’ve thought about you a lot.”

Thumbs, fingertips sent shivers through her.

“I’ve imagined touching you. Watching you while I did. Feeling you tremble under my hands. You’ve been worth waiting for.”

He lowered his mouth to hers again, taking the kiss deep. Lowered his body to hers. Heat spread where flesh met flesh, sent her pulse to pound. Now her body quivered as he journeyed down it, slow and easy, hands and lips.

She thought she’d let go when they tumbled onto the bed. But she’d been wrong. That had been acquiescence. This, what he seduced from here, was surrender.

He touched with a care, a curiosity, as if she were the first woman he’d touched. And made her feel as if she’d never been touched before. Sensations swam and coiled inside her, shimmered over her skin until pleasure coated her like light. And the light bloomed with such intensity she gripped the tangled sheets to anchor herself in the glow.

He guided her up, up where the light flashed, where in the quick, stunning blindness pleasure turned on its edge and shot through her.

He steeped himself in the shape of her, even as she quaked under him. The slender line of her torso that curved into her waist enchanted him. The feel of her hips, rising up as she peaked, thrilled. Long, lovely thighs led him to gorgeous calves that flexed at the light nip of his teeth.

She moaned, and the sound of it seeped into him when he roamed up again to explore that warm, wet, welcoming center. She said his name when she came, a quick, breathless gasp. Her fingers raked through his hair, then down his back on the coil and release. Damp flesh slid over damp flesh until he looked back down into her eyes.

She touched his face, held the look, trembling, trembling as he slipped into her. And as those icy blue eyes glazed, he took her with long, slow thrusts.

She ached, every part of her. She rose to him, helplessly caught. Swamped in needs he met, stirred and met once more. When they built again, impossibly, she held on.

And she let go.

Limp, loose, languid, she lay under him. The world eked back so she heard the drumming rain again, felt the hot twisted sheet under her back. When the mists cleared from her brain enough to allow random thoughts to wind through, she wondered if the fact that she’d just had the best sex of her life meant it was all downhill from here.

Then he turned his head, rubbed his lips against her shoulder, and she swore she felt her skin glow.

He lifted his head, brushed her hair away from her cheek as he smiled sleepily down at her. “Okay?”

“Okay?” She let out a mystified laugh. “Ford, you seriously deserve a medal, or at least a certificate of excellence. I feel like every inch of me has been… tended,” she decided.

“I’d say my job is done, but I really like the work.” He dipped his head, and the kiss sent sparkles dancing in her brain to go with the glow. “Probably need, ah, a coffee break though.”

Deciding she’d never been more relaxed or content in her life, she hooked her arms around his neck. “Understandable. When my bones resolidify, I could use a shower. And it just occurs to me we can’t shower here.”

He saw the worry come back into her eyes and, rolling away, pulled her up to sitting. “We’ll go over to my place.” Where what had happened wouldn’t keep slapping her in the face, he thought. “Toss something on, grab what you want. It turns out I’ve also imagined you wet and slippery. Now I’ll find out how close I was to right.”

“All right. There was a mention of pancakes, too, as I recall.”

“Stacks of them. We’re going to need fuel to get through the rest of the day.”

THEY DIDN’T MAKE it to The Pancake House. After a long, steamy, energetic shower, the idea struck to stay in and make pancakes. The result was messy but reasonably edible.

“They just need a lot of syrup.” Sitting at the kitchen counter in Ford’s T-shirt, Cilla drowned the oddly shaped stack on her plate.

If the sounds from the mudroom were an indication, Spock had no trouble with his share.

“They’re not so bad.” Ford forked a dripping pile. “And more fun than Eggos. I had this other idea. Instead of going out to see monkeys, we stay in and have monkey sex.”

“So far your ideas are working out pretty well. Who am I to argue? What do you usually do on rainy Sundays?”

“You mean when I’m not eating pancakes with gorgeous blondes?” He shrugged. “I might work some, depending on how that’s going, or fat-ass around and read. Maybe hang out with Brian or Matt, or both. If I had absolutely no choice, I’d do laundry. How about you?”

"Back in L.A.? If I had a project going, I’d tackle some interior work, or paperwork, or research. If I didn’t have a project, I’d scour the Internet and real estate ads looking for one. That’d pretty much sum up my life for the past few years. That’s pitiful.”

“It’s not. It’s what you wanted. A lot of people thought it was pitiful I’d rather hole up scribbling and sketching than, say, play basketball. Being tall, you know. I sucked at basketball. Never got it. On the other hand, I was good, and got better, at the scribbling and sketching.”

“You’re frighteningly well adjusted. Or maybe just compared to me.”

“You seem pretty steady from where I sit.”

“I have abandonment issues.” She gestured with a dripping forkful of pancakes. “I have a drug phobia due to a family history of drug abuse that has me sweating taking an aspirin. I suffer from acute stage fright that escalated in my teens to the point that I could barely cope with being in the same room with three people at a time. The only way I can cope with my mother, sanely, is to stay away from her, and I spent the majority of my life alternately blaming myself or my father for the fact that we didn’t-don’t, really-know each other.”

He made a pfft sound. “Is that all?”

“Want more?” She ate pancakes, stabbed more. “I got more. I have dreams where I engage in detailed conversations with my dead grandmother, whom I never met, and to whom I feel closer than I do to any living member of my family. My best friend is my ex-husband. I’ve had four stepfathers, and countless ‘uncles,’ and being not stupid, understandthat is part of the reason that I’ve never had a long-term, healthy relationship with a man other than Steve. I expect to be exploited and used, or I expect the attempt, and, as a result, have successfully sabotaged any potentially long-term, healthy relationship I might have had. Fair warning.”

He forked more pancakes, ate them. “Is that the best you can do?”

With a laugh, she shoved her plate away, picked up her coffee. “That’s probably enough over breakfast.” She rose, held out a hand. “Let’s take a walk in the rain. Then we can come back and dive in your Jacuzzi.”

They left the mess, took a long walk with the dog. Was there anything more romantic than being kissed in the rain? Cilla wondered. Anything more lovely than the mountains, shrouded in clouds and mist? Anything more liberating than strolling hand in hand through the summer rain while all the world huddled inside, behind closed doors and windows?

Drenched, they raced back to the house to strip off dripping clothes. In the hot, bubbling water, they took each other slowly.

Drained, they went upstairs to curl together like puppies to sleep on Ford’s bed.

She woke him with love, the sleepy joy of it, the warm tangle of limbs and soft press of lips. When they dozed again, the rain slowed to a quiet patter.

Later, Cilla slipped out of bed. Tiptoeing to Ford’s closet, she found a shirt. Pulling it on, she eased out of the room. She intended to go down to search out a bottle of water-preferably ice cold-but detoured to his studio. Thirst could wait for curiosity.

When she switched on the light, the drawings pinned to his display board pulled her forward. So odd to see her face, she thought, on the warrior’s body. Well, her body, she admitted.

He’d added her tattoo, but as she’d once suggested, it rode on Brid’s biceps.

Wandering over to his workstation, she frowned at the papers on his drawing board. Small sketches covered them-sparse sketches, she mused, all in separate boxes, and each with a dotted vertical line running top to bottom. Some of them had what she thought she recognized as speech balloons, with numbers inside. She spread them out for a better look.

It was like a storyboard, she realized. The characters, the action, some staging. Blocking. And if she wasn’t mistaken, the sizes and shapes of the boxes had been calculated mathematically as well as artistically. Balance, she mused, and impact.

Who knew so much went into a comic?

On the other side of the board, a larger sheet lay on the counter. More squares and rectangles, she noted, holding detailed drawings, shaded and… inked. Yes, that was the word. Though no dialogue had been added, the setup, the art, drew the eye across, just as words in a book would do.

In the center, Dr. Cass Murphy stood in what Cilla thought of as her professor suit. Conservative, acceptable. Bland. The clothes, the dark-framed glasses and the posture defined personality in one shot. That was a kind of brilliance, wasn’t it? she thought. To capture and depict in one single image the character. The person.

Without thinking, she picked up the panel, took it to the display board to hold it against the sketch of Brid.

The same woman, yes, of course the same woman. And yet the change was both remarkable and complete. Repression to liberation, hesitation to purpose. Shadow to light.

When she started to walk back to replace the panel, she saw another stack of pages. Typewritten pages. She scanned the first few lines.

FORD WOKE HUNGRY, and deeply disappointed Cilla wasn’t beside him to slake one area of appetite. Apparently, he decided, he couldn’t get enough of her.

She was all beautiful and sexy and wounded and smart. She knew how to use power tools, and had a laugh that made his mouth water. He’d watched her hang tough, and fall to pieces. He’d witnessed her absolute devotion to a friend, watched her handle acute embarrassment and lash out with temper.

She knew how to work, and oh boy, she knew how to play.

She might be, he mused, pretty damn close to perfect.

So where the hell was she?

He rolled out of bed, snagged a pair of pants and stepped into them on his way to hunt her down.

He was just about to call her name when he spotted her. She sat at his work counter, legs tucked up and crossed, shoulders hunched, one elbow propped. He had the quick and fleeting thought that if he sat like that for more than ten minutes, his neck and shoulders would lock up for days.

Walking over, he set his hands on her shoulders to rub what he imagined would be knotted muscles. And she jumped as if he’d swung an ax at her head.

She pitched forward, caught herself, reared back as her legs scissored out. Then, spinning around in his chair, she clutched her hands at her chest as her laughter bubbled out.

“God! You scared me!”

“Yeah, I picked that up when you nearly bashed your head on my drawing board. What’re you up to?”

“I was… Oh God. Oh shit!” She shoved the chair back, dropped her hands into her lap. “I’m sorry. I completely breached your privacy. I was looking at the sketches you had sitting out, and I saw the book. I just meant to skim the first page. I got caught up. I shouldn’t have-”

“Whoa, whoa, save the self-flagellation. I told you before you could read it sometime. I just hadn’t written it yet. If you got caught up, that’s a plus.”

“I moved things around.” She picked up the panel, held it out. “I hate when people move my things around.”

“I know where it goes. Obviously, you’re lucky I’m not as temperamental and touchy as you are.” He lay the panel back in its place. “So, what do you think?”

“I think the story is fun, exciting and entertaining, with a sharp thread of humor, and with strong underpinnings of feminism.”

He lifted his brows. “All that?”

“You know damn well. The character of Cass behaves in certain ways, and expects certain behavior and attitudes toward her because she was raised by a domineering, unsympathetic father. She’s sexually repressed and emotionally clogged, has been reared to accept the superiority of men and accept a certain lack of respect in her male-dominated field. You see a great deal of that in the single portrait. The one you just put back.

“She’s betrayed, and left for dead, because she’s so indoctrinated to taking orders from male authority figures. To subverting her own intellect and desires. And by facing death, by fighting against it, she becomes a leader. Everything that’s been trapped inside her, and more, is released in the form of Brid. A warrior. Empowerment, through power.”

Fascinating, he thought, and flattering, to listen to her synopsize his story, and his character. “I’m going to interpret that as you like it.”

“I really do, and not just due to the recent sexual haze. It’s like a screenplay, a very strong screenplay. You even have camera angles and direction.”

“It helps remind me how I saw it when I wrote it, even if that changes.”

“And you add in these little boxes like the ones on the art.”

“Helps with the layout. That may change, too. Just like the story line took some turns on me.”

“You added Steve. You added the Immortal. He’s going to be so… well, insane over that.”

“She needed the bridge, the link between Cass and Brid. A character who can straddle her worlds, and help the two sides of our heroine understand each other.”

Not unlike, Ford thought now, how Steve helped Cilla. “Adding him changed a lot of the angles, added a lot of work, but it’s stronger for it. And something I should’ve thought of in the first place. Anyway, it’s still evolving. The story’s down, and now I have to tell it with art. Sometimes, for me anyway, the art can shift the story. We’ll have to see.”

“I especially like the one up there, of Brid in what’s almost a fouetté turn, as I assume she’s about to kick out her leg against a foe.”

“Fouetté turn?”

“A ballet move.” Cilla crossed over to tap the sketch she spoke of. “This is very close, even the arms are in position. To be precise, the supporting foot should be turned out slightly more, but-”

“You know ballet? Can you do that?”

“A fouetté? Please. Eight years of ballet.” She executed a quick turn. "Of tap.” And a fast-time step. “Jazz.”

“Cool. Hold on.” He opened a drawer, pulled out a camera. “Do the ballet thing again.”

“I’m mostly naked.”

“Yeah, which is why I’ll be posting these on the Internet shortly. I just want the feet business you were talking about.”

He had no idea what an enormous leap of faith it took for her to do the turn as he snapped the camera.

“One more, okay? Good. Great. Thanks. A fouetté turn. Ballet.” He set the camera back down. “I must’ve seen it somewhere, sometime or other. Eight years? I guess that explains how you did those high leaps in Wasteland Three, when you were running through the woods, trying to escape the reanimated psycho killer.”

“Grand jetés.” She laughed. “So to speak.”

“I thought you were going to make it, the way you were flying. I mean you got all the way back to the cabin, avoiding the death trap and the flying hatchet, only to pull open the door-”

“To find the reanimated psycho killer had taken a convenient shortcut to beat me there. Sobbing relief,” she said, miming the action, “shock, scream. Slice.”

“It was a hell of a scream. They use voice doubles for that stuff, right? And enhance.”

“Sometimes. However…” She sucked in her breath and let out a bloodcurdling, glass-shattering scream that had Ford staggering back two full steps. “I did my own work,” she finished.

“Wow. You’ve got some lungs there. How about we go down, have some wine, while we see if my eardrums regenerate.”

“Love to.”

SEVENTEEN

She didn’t think about the vandalism. Or when thoughts of what waited for her across the road crept into her mind, Cilla firmly slammed the door. No point in it, she told herself. There was nothing she could do because she didn’t know what she wanted to do.

There was no harm in a day out of time. A fantasy day, really, filled with sex and sleep inside the bubble of rain-slicked windows. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been content to spend the day in a man’s company, unless it had been work-related.

Even the idea of wine and video games held an appeal. Until Ford severely trounced her for the third time in a row.

“She-what’s her name?-Halle Berry.”

“Storm,” Ford provided. “Halle Berry’s the actress, and really hot. Storm is a key member of the X-Men. Also really hot.”

“Well, she just stood there.” Cilla scowled down at the controls. “How am I supposed to know what to push and what to toggle, and whatever?”

“Practice. And like I said, you need to form your team more strategically. You formed your all-girl alliance. You should’ve mixed it up.”

“My strategy was gender solidarity.” Under the coffee table, Spock snorted. “That’s enough out of you,” she muttered. “Besides, I think this controller’s defective because I have excellent hand-eye coordination.”

“Want to switch and go another round?”

She eyed him narrowly. “How often do you play this?”

“Off and on. Throughout my entire life,” he added with a grin. “I’m currently undefeated on this version of Ultimate Alliance.”

“Geek.”

“Loser.”

She handed him her controller. “Put your toys away.”

Look at that, she thought when he rose to do just that. Tidy hot guy. Tidy straight hot guy. How many of them were there in the world?

“Saving the world worked up my appetite. How about you?”

“I didn’t save the world,” she pointed out.

“You tried.”

“That was smug. I see the smug all over you.”

“Then I’d better wash up. I got leftover spaghetti and meatballs, courtesy of Penny Sawyer.”

“You’ve got a nice setup here, Ford. Work you love, and a great house to do it in. Your ridiculously appealing dog. The tight circle of friends going back to childhood. Family you get along with, close enough you can cop leftovers. It’s a great platform.”

“No complaints. Cilla-”

“No, not yet.” She could see in his eyes the offer of sympathy and support. “I’m not ready to think about it yet. Spaghetti and meatballs sounds like just the thing.”

“Cold or warmed up?”

“It has to be exceptional spaghetti and meatballs to warrant cold.”

He crossed back, took her hand. “Come with me,” he said and led her around to the kitchen. “Have a seat.” He took the bowl out of the fridge, peeled off the lid, got a fork. “You’ll get yours,” he told Spock as the dog danced and gurgled. Turning back, he set the bowl on the bar, then wound some pasta on a fork. “Sample.”

She opened her mouth, let him feed her. “Oh. Okay, that’s really good. Really. Give me the fork.”

With a laugh, he passed it to her. After adding some to Spock’s dish, he topped off both glasses of wine. They sat at the counter, eating cold pasta straight from the bowl.

“We had this cook when I was a kid. Annamaria from Sicily. I swear her pasta wasn’t as good as this. What?” she said when he shook his head.

“Just strikes me weird that I know somebody who can say, ’We had a cook when I was a kid.’”

She grinned around more pasta. “We had a butler.”

“Get out.”

She raised her brows, inclined her head and stabbed at a meatball. “Two maids, chauffeur, gardener, under-gardener, my mother’s personal assistant, pool boy. And once, when my mother discovered the pool boy, whom she was banging, was also banging one of the maids, she fired them both. With much drama. She had to go to Palm Springs for a week to recover, where she met Number Three-ironically, by the pool. I’m pretty sure, at some point, he also banged the pool boy. The new pool boy, whose name was Raoul.”

He gestured at her with his fork until he swallowed. “You grew up in an eighties soap opera.”

She thought it over. “Close enough. But, in any case, Annamaria had nothing on your mother.”

“She’ll get a kick out of hearing that. What was it like, seriously? Growing up with maids and butlers?”

“Crowded. And not all it’s cracked up to be. That sounds snotty,” she decided. “And I imagine some woman with a house and family to run, a full-time job and the need to get dinner on the table would be tempted to bitch-slap me for it. But.” She shrugged. “There’s always somebody there, so genuine privacy is an illusion. No sneaking a cookie out of the jar before dinnertime. Actually no cookies for the most part as the camera adds pounds. If you have a fight with your mother, the entire household knows the details. More, the odds are that those details will be recounted sometime down the road in a tabloid interview or a disgruntled former employee’s tell-all book.

“All in all,” she concluded, “I’d rather eat leftover spaghetti.”

“But, if I remember right, you don’t cook.”

“Yeah, that’s a problem.” She reached for her wine. “I’ve thought about maybe asking Patty for pointers in that area. I like to chop.” She hacked down a few times with the flat of her hand to demonstrate. “You know, vegetables, salads. I’m a hell of a chopper.”

“That’s a start.”

“Self-sufficiency, that’s the key. You manage.”

“True, but I’ve been butler-free all my life. I do have a biweekly cleaning service, and am well acquainted with the primary and alternate routes to all takeout facilities. Plus, I have a direct line to Brian and Matt and Shanna, who will handle small household emergencies for beer.”

“It’s a system.”

“Well oiled.” He tucked her hair behind her ear.

“If and when I learn to cook something other than a grilled cheese sandwich and canned soup, I’ll have reached another lofty personal goal.”

“What are some of the others?”

“Lofty personal goals? Rehabbing a house and selling it at a profit. I hit that one. Having my own business and having said business generate an actual income. Which first requires reaching the goal of getting my contractor’s license, which in turn requires passing the test for same. In a couple weeks, actually, if I-”

“You’ve got to take a test? I love tests.” His eyes actually lit up. “Do you need a study buddy? And yes, I capitalize the N in nerd.”

She paused with what she swore would be her last bite of pasta halfway to her mouth. “You love tests?”

“Well, yeah. There are questions and answers. True or false, multiple choice, essay. What’s not to love? I kill on tests. It’s a gift. Do you want any help?”

“Actually, I think I’m good. I’ve been prepping for it for a while now. I think I met your kind during my brief and unfortunate college experience. You’re the one who screwed the curve for me, every time. You are, therefore, one of the primary reasons I’m a one-semester college dropout.”

“You should’ve asked my kind to be your study buddy. Besides, you should thank my kind for putting you exactly where you want to be right now.”

“Hmm.” She deliberately nudged the bowl toward him and away from herself. “That’s very slick and clever. Previous humiliation and failure lead to current spaghetti-and-meatball-induced contentment.”

“Or, condensing, sometimes shit happens for the best.”

“There’s a bumper sticker. I have to move.” She pressed a hand on her stomach, slid off the stool. “And I’ll demonstrate my self-sufficiency and gratitude for current contentment by doing the dishes, which includes everything back to breakfast, apparently.”

“We were busy with other things.”

“I guess we were.”

For a moment, he indulged himself with wine and watching her. But watching wasn’t enough. He stood and crossed to her, turned her to face him. She had a wooden spoon in her hand and an easy smile curving her lips. He wrapped her hair around his hand-and saw her eyes widen in surprise, heard the spoon clatter to the floor-as he used it like a rope to tug her head back.

And ravished her mouth.

A new and rampant hunger surged through him, a whip of need and now. He released her hair to drag off her shirt. Even as his mouth crushed back down to hers, he yanked her pants down her hips.

It was a tornado of demand and speed. It seemed she was naked before she could catch the first breath. Plucked up off the ground while her head spun and her heart lurched. He dropped her down on the counter, shoved her legs apart.

And ravished her.

Her hand flailed out for purchase. Something shattered; she wondered if it was her mind. His fingers dug into her hips as he pounded into her, pounded greed and scorching pleasure. Mad for more, she locked her legs around his waist.

His blood pounded under his skin, a thousand brutal drumbeats. The hunger that had leaped into him seemed to snap its teeth and bite even as he drove himself into her to slake it. Its dark excitement pushed him to take, to fill her with the same wild desperation that burned in him.

When it broke, it was like shooting out of the black, into the blind.

Her head dropped limply onto his shoulder while her breath came in short, raw gasps. She felt him tremble, found herself pleased she wasn’t the only one.

“Oh,” she managed, “God.”

“Give me a minute. I’ll help you down.”

“Take your time. I’m fine where I am. Where am I?”

His laugh muffled against the side of her neck. “Maybe it was something in the spaghetti sauce.”

“Then we need the recipe.”

Steadier, he leaned back, took a good look at her.“Now I really want my camera. You’re the first naked woman to sit on my kitchen counter, which I now plan to have sealed in Lucite. I’d like to document the moment.”

“Not a chance. My contract specifies no nude scenes.”

“That’s a damn shame.” He stroked her hair back. “I guess the least I can do after playing Viking and maiden is help you with the dishes.”

“The least. Hand me my shirt, will you?”

“See, I’ve confiscated your clothes. You’ll have to do the dishes naked.”

Her head cocked, her eyebrows lifted. On a sigh, Ford scooped up her shirt. “It was worth a shot.”

HE WOKE in the dark to a quiet house and an empty bed. Groggy and baffled, he rose to look for her. One part of his brain reserved the right to be pissed if she’d gone back across the road without waking him.

He found his front door open, and saw the silhouette of her sitting in one of the chairs on his veranda with Spock stretched at her feet. He smelled coffee as he pushed open the screen.

She glanced over. “Morning.”

“As long as it’s still dark, it’s not morning.” He sat beside her. “Give me a hit of that.”

“You should go back to bed.”

“Are you going to give me a hit of that coffee or make me go get my own?”

She passed him the cup. “I have to decide what to do.”

“At…” He took her wrist, turned it up and squinted at her watch. “Five-oh-six in the morning?”

“I didn’t deal with it yesterday, didn’t think about it. Or not much. I even left my phone over there so the police couldn’t contact me. So no one could. I ducked and covered.”

“You took a break. There’s no reason you can’t take a couple more days before you try to figure it all out.”

“Actually, there are real and practical reasons I can’t take more time. I have subs coming in about two hours, unless I call them off. If I take them off for a couple of days, it’s more than screwing up my schedule, which is, of course, already screwed. It messes up theirs, and their employees’. And subs are always juggling jobs, so I could lose key people for more than a couple of days if I hold them off. If that decision is to walk away, I have to tell them that.”

“The circumstances aren’t of your making, and no one’s going to blame you.”

“No, I don’t think anyone would. But it still creates a domino effect. I also have to consider my budget, which is also screwed. I have insurance, but insurance has a deductible that has to be factored into the whole. I’m already over the high end of my projections, but that was my choice, with the changes and additions I made.”

“If you need-”

“Don’t,” she said, anticipating him. “I’m okay financially, and if I can’t make it on my own, I can’t make it. If I really needed extra, I could make a few calls, grab a couple voice-over jobs. Bottom line is I can’t leave the place the way it is, half done. I’ve got custom cabinets I ordered back in March, and the balance due when I take delivery. The kitchen appliances will be back in another couple months. Other details, small and large. It has to be finished, that’s not really a question. The questions are do I want to finish it, and do I want to stay? Can I? Should I?”

He took another hit of her coffee. Serious conversations, he thought, required serious attention. “Tell me what you’d do if you decided to turn it over to someone else to finish. If you left.”

“There are a lot of places I could slip into without the baggage I have here. Stick a pin in a map, I guess, and pick one. Take some of those voice-overs to thicken the bankroll, if I need to. Find a place with potential to flip. I can get a mortgage. Regular and very nice residuals from Our Family look good on an application. Or if I don’t want the stress of that, I could get a job with a crew. Hell, I could work for Steve’s new New York branch.”

“You’d be giving up your lofty personal goals.”

“Maybe I’d just postpone reaching them. The problem is…” She paused, sipped the coffee he’d handed back to her. “The problem is,” she repeated, “I love that house. I love what it was, what I know I can make it. I love this place, and how I feel here. I love what I see when I look out my windows or step out my door. And I’m pissed off that someone’s meanness makes me consider giving that up.”

Something that had tightened inside him relaxed. “I like it better when you’re pissed off.”

“I do, too, but it’s hard to hold up the level. The part of me that isn’t pissed off or discouraged is scared.”

“That’s because you’re not stupid. Someone’s set out to deliberately hurt you. You’re going to be scared, Cilla, until you know who and why, and make it stop.”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Do you still think it’s old man Hennessy?”

“He’s the only one I’ve met or had contact with around here who’s made it clear he hates me. Which, if this were a screenplay, means he couldn’t be behind all this because he’s the only one who hates me. But-”

“We’ll go talk to him, face-to-face.”

“And say what?”

“It’ll come to us, but basically you’re sticking, you’re making your home here, and neither you nor a house is responsible for something that happened over thirty years ago. And words to that effect. I’m also going to make copies of those letters you found. I’m going to read them more carefully and so are you. You need to think about passing them to the cops. Because if it’s not Hennessy, the next best possibility is it’s someone connected to those letters who got wind they still exist and you have them. Janet Hardy’s married secret lover revealed? That’d be news. Big, juicy, scandalous news.”

She’d thought of that. Of course she’d thought of that. But… "They aren’t signed.”

“Might be clues in there about the identity. Might not be, but we’re talking thirty-five years ago. Do you remember everything you wrote thirty-five years ago?”

“I’m twenty-eight, but I get what you’re saying.” In the still, softening dark, she stared at him. “You’ve given this a lot of thought.”

“Yeah. The first, the prowler in your barn. That could’ve been somebody hoping to pick up a few Janet Hardy souvenirs. I’ve got to weigh in the place has been empty for years now, and sure I’ve seen some people poking around now and then. Against that, I’ve got to factor most people didn’t know there was anything left inside, and any who did probably thought it was worthless junk left by tenants, not the woman herself. But then you come along.”

“I clear it out, store it in the barn, and it’s clear and obvious that I’m sorting through it, culling out anything that belonged to my grandmother. ”

“Somebody gets curious, a little greedy. Possibility. The second, the attack on Steve, could come from the same root. Poking around, somebody’s coming. Panic. But that takes it way over harmless if annoying trespass. Also above, if the letters are the goal, trespass to preserve reputation. It’s up to assault, arguably attempted murder.”

She shivered. “Of discouraged, pissed and scared, scared just leaped way into the lead.”

“Good, because then you’ll be more careful. Next, your truck door.

That one’s personal and direct to you. So was the message on the stone wall. Maybe there are two separate people involved.”

“Oh, that really helps. Two people who hate me.”

“It’s another possible. Last, the destruction inside the house. It’s more personal, more direct, and it’s ballsier. So today, you’re going shopping for a security system.”

“Is that what I’m going to do?”

The cold bite in her tone didn’t break his skin. “One of us is. Since it’s your place, I assume you’d rather do it yourself. But if you don’t, today, I will. I’m now authorized as I’ve had you naked on my kitchen counter. No point in whining to me if you didn’t bother to read the fine print.”

She said nothing for a moment, struggling against the urge to stew. “I intended to arrange that anyway-stay or go.”

“Good. And you don’t care for ultimatums. Neither do I, but in this particular case, I’m making an exception. I can sleep over there with you. Happy to. But sleep is a foregone conclusion at some point, just as the house being empty at some time or other for some period of time is inevitable. You need to be safe, and to feel safe. You need to protect your property.

“And Cilla, there’s no ‘go.’ You’ve already decided to stay.”

She really did want to stew, she thought, and he was making it damn hard to indulge. “How come you’re all macho and pushy with your ultimatum, but you’re not all macho and pushy telling me to flee to safety while you slay the dragon?”

“My shining armor’s in the shop. And maybe I just like the sex, which would be hard to come by with all the fleeing. Or it could be I don’t want to see you give up something you love.”

Yeah, he made it damn hard. “When I came out here to sit, I told myself it was just a house. I’ve put a lot of myself into other houses-it’s what makes the rehab worthwhile-and I’ve let them go. It’s just a house, wood and glass and pipes and wire, on a piece of ground.”

She looked down when he laid his hand over hers, when the gesture told her he understood. “Of course it’s not just a house, not to me. I don’t want to let it go, Ford. I’d never get it back, never get back what I’ve found if I let it go.”

She turned her hand over, laced her fingers with his. “Plus, I like the sex.”

“It can’t be overstated.”

“Okay then.” She took a deep breath. “I’ve got to get back. Get ready. Get started.”

“Let me get some shoes on. I’ll walk you home.”

MATT STOOD in the center of the master bath, hands on his hips, face grim. “I’m awful damn sorry about this, Cilla. I don’t know what gets into people, I swear I don’t. We’re going to fix that wall for you, don’t worry. And Stan’ll come back and do the tile. I can get one of my men to chip out what’s damaged in place, but it’d be better to leave the glass block for Stan. I’ll give him a call for you.”

“I’d appreciate that. I need to go pick up the replacement tile and block, some supplies. Arrange for a security system.”

“I hear that. People didn’t lock their doors half the time around here when I was a kid. Times change. Another damn shame when it comes to things like this. You said they busted out a pane in the back door? I’ll get somebody to replace that for you.”

“I’m going to order a new door, and a lock set for that and the front. The plywood’s okay for now. You’ll need to take down that drywall rather than try to repair it. There’s enough on site.”

“Sure there is. Anything else I can do, Cilla, you just let me know. Got the other bathroom up here, too?”

“Yeah. Got it good.”

“I guess we’d better take a look.”

They assessed damage, talked repairs. As she gathered her lists and checked on other areas of the project, crew offered sympathy, asked questions, expressed outrage and disgust. By the time she left, her ears were ringing from it, and with the more comforting sound of whirling drills and buzzing saws.

INEVITABLY, SHE HAD to explain to her usual consultant at the flooring center why she needed to buy considerable square footage of tile she’d already bought, as well as grout. It slowed the process, but Cilla supposed that, too, was inevitable. Even in L.A. she’d formed relationships with specific tile guys, lumber guys, appliance guys. It went with the trade, and good relationships paid off the time spent.

She ran into the same situation at the home supply store when she stopped in to buy the replacement sink and other items on her list. While she waited for the clerk to check stock, she cruised the faucets. Chrome, nickel, brass, copper. Brushed, satin, antiqued. Single handles, vessel style. Matching towel bars, robe hooks.

All the shapes, the textures, the tones, gave her the same rush of pleasure others might find browsing the glittery offerings in Tiffany’s.

Copper. Maybe she’d go with copper on her office bath. With a stone vessel-style sink and-

“Cilla?”

She broke off from her visualization to see Tom Morrow and Buddy coming down the aisle. “I thought that was you,” Tom said. “Buying or deciding?”

“Both, actually.”

“Same for me. I’m outfitting a spec out. Usually my bath and kitchen designer takes care of this, but she’s out on maternity leave. Plus, I like to get my hand in occasionally. You know how it is.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Got my consultant here,” he said with a wink. “Buddy’ll make sure I don’t go buying a center set when I need a wide, or vice versa.”

“You’ve done it before,” Buddy pointed out.

"And you never let me forget. I heard you ladies had a fine time on Saturday.”

“We did.”

“Cathy always says shopping’s her hobby. I’ve got golf, she’s got the mall and the outlets.”

“Don’t see the point in either.” Buddy shook his head. “Fishing’s got a point.”

“Excuse me.” The clerk strode up. “Everything’s in stock, Ms. McGowan. You got the last we have of the wall-hung sink.”

“What wall-hung?” Buddy wanted to know. “I’m plumbing for a pedestal in the third bath.”

“It’s a replacement. The sink you installed in the second-floor guest bath was damaged.”

If he’d been a rooster, Cilla thought, Buddy’s cockscomb would have quivered.

“How the hell did that happen? Nothing wrong with it when I put it in.”

Okay, Cilla thought, one more time. “I had a break-in Saturday. Some vandalism.”

“My God! Were you hurt?” Tom demanded.

“No, I wasn’t home. I was out with your wife and Patty and Angie.”

“They busted up a sink?” Buddy pulled off his cap to scratch his head. “What the hell for?”

“I couldn’t say. But both second-floor baths we’d finished took a hit. They used my sledge and pickax from the look of it, smashed a lot of tile, one of the walls, the sink, some glass block.”

“This is terrible. It’s not the sort of thing that happens around here. The police-”

“Are doing what they can,” she said to Tom. “So they tell me, anyway.” Since she wanted the word spread, she kept going. “I’ll be installing a security system.”

“Can’t blame you. I’m so sorry to hear this, Cilla.”

“Wouldn’t want my daughter living out that far on her own.” Buddy shrugged. “Just saying. Especially after what happened to Steve.”

“Bad things happen everywhere. I’ve got to get my supplies and finish my run. Good luck with the spec.”

“Cilla, if there’s anything we can do, Cathy or I, you just give a call. We’re a growing area, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take care of our own.”

“Thank you.”

It warmed her, and stayed warm inside her, even as her supplies were loaded, even as she drove away.

Our own.

EIGHTEEN

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a nice-looking door.”

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

“Curb appeal,” she called back.

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

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

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

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

His hazel eyes tracked to hers, solemnly. “I wish you’d called me, Cilla, about the vandalism.”

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

“I am. I’m interested in what you’re doing.”

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

“Cilla, what can I do?”

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

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

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

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

“You… want to work on the house?”

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

“Well… why?”

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

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

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

She smiled back at him. “I’ll give you a trial run. Follow me.”

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

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

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

“I can handle it.”

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

“Go ahead. I’ll be fine.”

“Okay. Ah… I’ll check in after I’m done with the kitchen door.”

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

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

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

“You’re hired,” she said from behind him.

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

“Sorry?”

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

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

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

“Stage fright. I hated that concert series. I hated performing.”

“You just did.”

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

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

“Too different?”

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

“Want to see where the stairs lead? My garret?”

“I’d like that.”

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

“So you’ll keep working on houses,” he said as they started down the unfinished attic steps.

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

“How do you go about getting a license?”

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

“Tomorrow? Why aren’t you studying? says the teacher.”

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

“This is one that was vandalized?”

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

“What counts is you weren’t hurt. When I think about what happened to Steve…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just hers, she thought. Just her entire future.

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

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

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

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

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

Below her feet, the caption read:

THE AMAZING, THE INCREDIBLE CONTRACTOR GIRL

“You don’t miss a trick, do you?” she said aloud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Day and night. How’s it going over there?”

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

“Wouldn’t miss it. I’ll be bringing your boss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to take a wild guess. You passed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is that?”

“It’s a blini, for the caviar. A dollop of crème fraîche, a layer of beluga, and… You’ve never had this before?” she said when she read his expression.

“Can’t say I have.”

“You fear it.”

“Fear is a strong word. I have concerns. Doesn’t caviar come from-”

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

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

She laughed and fixed another.

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

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

“Before you finish here?”

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

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

“How much would you look to make?”

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

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

“I’d hope for forty-five, but thirty-five would do it.”

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

“Well, Jesus, Ford, you haven’t even seen it.”

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

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

“So’s the stock market. Can you handle both houses?”

She took a drink. “Yeah, I could, but-”

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

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

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

“The fourth what? Blini?”

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

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

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

“Yeah, I’ve seen the signs. You all are crazy.”

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“No, you don’t. Up, up, up!”

“There’s just one problem. I don’t dance.”

“Everybody dances. Even Spock.”

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

“Of course.”

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

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

“I make Elaine look like Jennifer Lopez.”

“You can’t be that bad. I refuse to believe it. Come on, show me.”

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

“Absolutely false. Show me your moves, Sawyer.”

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

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

“You asked for it,” he muttered.

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

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

This time, Spock snorted.

“Others have tried; all have failed. I have no rhythm. I am rhythmically impaired. I’ve learned to live with it.”

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

“I look and feel like a spastic robot.”

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

“This isn’t dancing.”

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

“I’m standing like an idiot in one spot.”

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

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

“Oh, well, if this is dancing.”

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

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

“Feels like dancing to me,” she whispered.

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

“You let it happen. You stopped thinking about it.”

“So, I can dance, as long as it’s with you.”

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

“Whoa.”

“I believe the celebration called for naked dancing.”

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

“Maybe we should move that event inside.”

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

“Ah, Mrs. Berkowitz-”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“Yeah. Oh yeah. Can I just say something first?”

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

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

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

NINETEEN

On the morning of the Fourth, Ford rolled out of Cilla’s bed. It didn’t surprise him she was already up, even on a holiday. He considered it his duty as an American to sleep in, but apparently she didn’t share his staunch sense of patriotism. He groped his way downstairs, and followed the now familiar sound of whoosh-bang! to the living room.

She stood on a ladder shooting nails into window trim.

“You’re working.” It was an accusation.

She glanced back. “A little. I wanted to see how this trim looks against the paint since my father finished it. I still can’t believe he painted all this, and so well. If he didn’t have a job, I’d hire him.”

“Is there coffee?”

“Yes, there is. Spock’s out back. He fears the nail gun.”

“Minute.”

He heard more whoosh-banging behind him as he dragged himself into the kitchen. The coffeemaker stood on a small square of counter as yet undemoed. Shielding his eyes from the sunlight blasting through the windows, he found a mug, poured. After the first couple sips, the light seemed more pleasant, and less like an alien weapon designed to blind all humankind.

He drank half the mug standing where he was, and after topping it off felt mostly awake. Carrying it with him, he walked back to the living room and watched her work for a few minutes while the caffeine wove its magic.

She stood on the floor now, fitting the diagonal edges of the bottom piece to the sides she’d already nailed up. In what struck him as wizard-fast time, the dark, wide trim framed the window.

She set the gun down, took several steps back. He heard her whisper, “Yes, exactly.”

“It looks good. What did you do with what was there before?”

“This is what was there before, or mostly. I had to build the sill to match because it was damaged.”

“I thought it was white.”

“Because some idiot along the way slapped white paint on this gorgeous walnut. I stripped it. A little planing, a little stain and a couple coats of poly, and it’s back to its original state.”

“Huh. Well, it looks good. I didn’t get the paint color until now. Thought it looked a little dull. But it looks warmer against the wood. Like, ah, a forest in the fog.”

“It’s called Shenandoah. It just seemed right. When you look out the windows in this room, it’s the mountains, the sky, the trees. It’s just right.” She walked back, picked up another piece of trim.

“You’re still working.”

“We don’t have to leave for…” She looked at her watch, calculated. “About ninety minutes. I can get some of this trim run before I have to get ready.”

“Okay. I’m taking the coffee and my dog and heading across the road. I’ll pick you up in an hour and a half.”

“Great. But you might want to put some pants on first.”

He glanced down at his boxers. “Right. I’m going to put on pants, possibly shoes, take the coffee and so on.”

“I’ll be ready.”

HE DIDN’T EXPECT her to be ready. Not because she was female, but because he knew what often happened when he himself got lost in the work. If he didn’t set an alarm, being late, or in fact missing an appointment or event altogether, was the norm.

So it surprised him when she came out of the house even as he stopped in front of it. And her appearance left him momentarily speechless.

She’d left her hair down, as she rarely did, so it spilled dark, aged gold, down her back. She wore a dress of bright red swirled against white, with a kind of thin and floaty skirt and thin straps that set off those strong shoulders.

With his paws planted on the window, Spock leaned out. Ford translated the series of sounds the dog made as the canine version of a wolf whistle.

He got out of the car-he just had to-and said, “Wow.”

“You like? Check this.” She did a turn, giving him a chance to admire the low dip of the back with the flirt of crisscrossing ties.

“And again, wow. I’ve never seen you in a dress before, and this one pulls out some stops.”

Instant distress ran across her face. “It’s too much, too fussy for a backyard cookout. I can change in five minutes.”

“First, over my dead body. Second, ‘fussy’ is the last word I’d use. It’s great. You look all summery sexy, ice-cream-sundae cool. Only now I wish I’d thought to take you out where you’d wear dresses. I feel a fancy dinner coming on.”

“I prefer backyard picnics.”

“They are permanently top of my list.”

SHE’D EXPECTED IT to be awkward initially, the introductions, the mixing. But she knew so many of the people there that it was as easy and pleasant as Matt’s backyard with its generous deck and smoking grill.

Josie, Matt’s pretty and very pregnant wife, snatched Cilla away from Ford almost immediately. “Here.” Josie handed Ford a beer. “Go away. Wine, beer, soft?” she asked Cilla.

“Ah, I’ll start with soft.”

“Try the lemonade, it’s great. Then I’m going to steal you for ten minutes over there in the shade. I’d say walk this way, but waddling’s unattractive unless you’re eight months pregnant. I’ve been dying to meet you.”

“You’re welcome to come by the house, anytime.”

“I nearly have a couple times, but with this.” She patted her belly as they walked. “And that.” And pointed toward a pack of kids on a swing set. “The little guy in the blue shorts and red shirt squeezing Spock in mutual adoration is mine. So between this and that, and a part-time job, I haven’t made it by. Either to welcome you to the area, or to poke my nose in to see what’s going on. Which Matt claims is pretty great.”

“He’s terrific to work with. He’s very talented.”

“I know. I met him when my family moved here. I was seventeen and very resentful that my father’s work dragged me away from Charlotte and my friends. My life was over, of course. Until the following summer when my parents hired a local contractor to put an addition on the house, and there was a young, handsome carpenter on the crew. It took me four years,” she said with a wink, “but I landed him.”

She sat with a long, heartfelt sigh.

“I’ll get this out of the way. I adored Katie. I had a Katie doll. In fact, I still do. It’s stored away for this one.” She ran a gentle circle over her belly. “We’re having a girl this time. I’ve seen most if not all of your grandmother’s movies and have Barn Dance on DVD. I hope we come to like each other because you’re seeing Ford and I love him. In fact, Matt knows if I ever get tired of him and decide to ditch him, I’m going after Ford.”

Cilla sipped her lemonade. “I think I already like you.”

IN THE HEAVY, drowsing heat, people sought out the shade of deck umbrellas or gathered at tables under the spread of trees. Seemingly unaffected by spiraling temperatures and thickening humidity, kids clambered over the swing set or raced around the yard like puppies with inexhaustible energy. Cilla calculated that Matt’s big yard, sturdy deck and pretty two-story Colonial held nearly a hundred people spanning about five generations.

She sat with Ford, Brian and a clutch of others at one of the picnic tables, plates loaded with burgers, hot dogs, a wide variety of summer salads. From where she sat, she could see her father, Patty and Ford’s parents talking and eating together on the deck. As she watched, Patty laughed, laid a hand on Gavin’s cheek and rubbed. He took his wife’s hand, kissed her knuckles lightly as the conversation continued.

It struck, a dull blade of envy and its keener edge of understanding. They loved each other. She’d known it, of course, on some level. But she saw it now, in the absent gestures she imagined neither of them would remember, the steady and simple love. Not just habit or contentment or duty, not even the bonds of-how long had they been together? she wondered. Twenty-three, twenty-four years? No, not even the bonds of half a lifetime.

They’d beaten the odds, won the prize.

Angie walked by-so young, fresh, pretty-with the gangly guy in baggy shorts she’d introduced to Cilla as Zach. Angie stopped, and for a moment Cilla was stunned to realize how much she wished she was close enough to hear the quick, animated conversation. Then with her hand resting on her mother’s shoulder, Angie leaned down to kiss her father’s head before moving on.

That said it all, Cilla decided. They were a unit. Angie would go back to college in the fall. She might move a thousand miles away at any point in her life. And still, they would always be a unit.

Deliberately, she looked away.

“I think I’ll get a beer,” she said to Ford. “Do you want one?”

“No, I’m good. I’ll get it for you.”

She nudged him back as he started to rise. “I can get it.”

She wandered off to the huge galvanized bucket filled with ice and bottles and cans. She didn’t particularly want a beer, but figured she was stuck now. She fished one out and, thinking of it as a prop, crossed over to where Matt manned the grill.

“Do you ever get a break?” she asked him.

“Had a couple. People come and go all day, that’s how it is at these things. Gotta keep it smoking.”

His little boy raced up, wrapped his arms around Matt’s leg, chattering in a toddlerese Cilla was incapable of interpreting. Matt, however, appeared to be fluent. “Let’s see the proof.”

Eyes wide, the boy pulled up his shirt to expose his belly. Matt poked at it, nodding. “Okay then, go tell Grandma.”

When the boy raced off again, Matt caught Cilla’s puzzled expression. “He said he finished his hot dog and could he have a big, giant piece of Grandma’s cake.”

“I didn’t realize you were bilingual.”

“I have many skills.” As if to prove it, he flipped a trio of burgers expertly. “Speaking of skills, Ford told me you ran some of the living room trim this morning.”

“Yeah. It looks, if I must say-and I do-freaking awesome. Is that your shop?” She gestured with the beer to the cedar building at the rear of the property.

“Yeah. Want to see?”

“You know I do, but we’ll take the tour another time.”

“Where are you going to put yours?”

“Can’t decide. I’m debating between putting up something from scratch or refitting part of the existing barn. The barn option’s more practical.”

“But it sure is fun to build from the ground up.”

“I never have, so it’s tempting. How many square feet do you figure?” she continued, and fell into the comfortable, familiar rhythm of shoptalk.

As evening drifted in, people began the short pilgrimage to the park. They crowded the quiet side street, carting lawn chairs, coolers, blankets, babies and toddlers. As they approached, the bright, brassy sound of horns welcomed them.

“Sousa marches,” Ford said, “as advertised.” He shifted the pair of folding chairs he had under his arm while Cilla led Spock on a leash. “You having fun?”

“Yes. Matt and Josie put on quite a cookout.”

“You looked a little lost back there, just for a couple minutes.”

“Did I?”

“When we were chowing down. Before you got up to get a beer, and I lost you to Matt and Tool Time Talk.”

“Probably too much pasta salad. I’m having a really good time. It’s my first annual Shenandoah Valley backyard July Fourth extravaganza. So far, it’s great.”

The park spread beneath the mountains, and the mountains were hazed with heat so the air seemed to ripple over them like water. Hundreds of people scattered through the park, sprawling over its greens. Concession stands did a bustling business under the shade of their awnings, in offerings of country ham sandwiches, sloppy joes, funnel cakes, soft drinks. Cilla caught the scents of grease and sugar, grass and sunscreen.

Over loudspeakers came a whine of static, then the echoey announcement that the pie-eating contest would begin in thirty minutes in front of the north pavilion.

“I mentioned the pie-eating contest, right?”

“Yes, and four-time champ Big John Porter.”

“Disgusting. We don’t want to miss it. Let’s grab a square of grass, stake our claim.” Stopping, Ford began to scan. “We need to spread out some, save room for Matt and Josie and Sam. Oh hey, Brian’s already homesteaded. The girl he’s with is Missy.”

“Yes, I met her.”

“You met half the county this afternoon.” He slanted Cilla a look. “Nobody expects you to remember names.”

“Missy Burke, insurance adjuster, divorced, no kids. Right now she’s talking to Tom and Dana Anderson, who own a small art gallery in the Village. And Shanna’s strolling over with Bill-nobody mentioned his last name-a photographer.”

“I stand corrected.”

“Schmoozing used to be a way of life.”

They’d barely set up, exchanged more than a few words with their companions, before Ford dragged her off to the pie-eating contest.

A field of twenty-five contestants sat at the ready, white plastic bibs tied around their necks. They ranged from kids to grandpas, with the smart money on Big-an easy two-fifty big-John Porter.

At the signal, twenty-five faces dropped forward into crust and blueberry filling. A laugh burst straight out of her, drowned away in the shouts and cheers.

“Well, God! That is disgusting.”

“Yet entertaining. Man, he’s going to do it again! Big John!” Ford shouted, and began to chant it. The crowd picked up the rhythm, erupting with applause as Big John lifted his wide, purple-smeared face.

“Undefeated,” Ford said when Porter was pronounced the winner. “The guy can’t be beat. He’s the Superman of pie-eaters. Okay, there’s the raffle in the south pavilion. Let’s go buy some chances on the ugliest, most useless prize.”

They settled, after considerable debate, on a plastic rooster wall clock in vibrant red. Target selected, Ford moved to ticket sales. “Hi, Mrs. Morrow. Raking it in?”

“We’re doing well this year. I smell record breaker. Hello, Cilla. Don’t you look gorgeous? Enjoying yourself?”

“Very much.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I imagine it’s a little tame and countrified compared to the way you usually spend your holiday, but I think we put on a nice event. Now, how much can I squeeze you for? I mean…” Cathy gave an exaggerated flutter of lashes. “How many tickets would you like?”

“Going for twenty.”

“Each,” Cilla said and pulled out a bill of her own.

“That’s what I like to hear!” Cathy counted them off, tore off their stubs. “Good luck. And just in time. We’ll start announcing prizewinners over the loudspeaker starting in about twenty minutes. Ford, if you see your mama, tell her to hunt me up. I want to talk to her about…”

Cilla tuned out the conversation when she saw Hennessy staring at her from the other side of the pavilion. The bitter points of his hate scraped over her skin. Beside him stood a small woman, with tired eyes in a tired face. She tugged a