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Authors: Nora Roberts

Tribute (3 page)

“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.”
“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, CILL A 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
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 gruesomely 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.
ith 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 ratch eted 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 sunglasses down 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?”
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