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Authors: Nora Roberts

Tribute (9 page)

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.
s 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.
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