8,805
23.12.2018

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.