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