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23.12.2018

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."