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"Kid," Monty had told her, a half–smoked Cuban cigar dangling between his teeth—the permanent accessory accompanied all of Monty's words of wisdom—"the best piece of advice I can give you is this—personal availability is the key to making sales. When you get a call from a potential buyer, drop everything."
Cecilia Katz, known in southeastern Pennsylvania real estate circles as The Madam of the Million–Dollar Deal, had come to realize that everything in life could somehow relate back to the tenets imparted to her by her late mentor, Montgomery Frye.
Monty Frye was a firm believer that real estate equaled life. That if you didn't put your whole heart and soul into a sale, you weren't worth the paper your license was printed on. That if you weren't willing to forsake all else to meet a client for a showing, you may as well be selling time–shares in the Poconos.
So when the muffled strains of "Viva Las Vegas" echoed through the silence of St. John's Episcopal Church, distracting Monty's mourners from one of the most uninspired eulogies Cecilia had ever sat through, she didn't hesitate to answer her cell phone.
She dug through her purse, finding it wedged between a half–eaten PowerBar and an electronic lockbox she needed to put on the door of a house she'd just been contracted to sell.
"This is Cecilia," she whispered into the phone.
The elderly woman beside her gave her an acid look.
"Hang on." Cecilia hunkered into a crouch, working her way to the far end of the pew while, at the pulpit, a puffy–eyed golf buddy extolled the virtues of Monty's tee shot.
She hurried up the side aisle of the church, through the vestibule and out the red, arched front door into a blinding October morning.
"Okay. What's up?" She lit her first cigarette of the day, sucking the smoke deep into her lungs. Her exhale doubled as a sigh of relief.
"Marcia Hagstrom wants to look at the Grove place again." The voice of Jake Eamon, her assistant, cut in and out over the crappy connection.
Jake was manning her phone at Belkin–Frye Real Estate while Cecilia and most of the other agents from the office attended the funeral for her unfortunate mentor, who had dropped dead of a heart attack during negotiations on an eight–bedroom, six–and–a–half–bath estate home on the Main Line.
Cecilia hadn't been shocked at the news, but she had been saddened by it. Monty had been her chaperone into the world of real estate, her adviser, her friend and—when she'd finally hit her stride—her stiffest competition. He was now, of course, stiffer than ever.
Still, she felt absolutely no guilt over the fact that she'd left in the middle of the service to take a call. Monty would have done the same—especially these days, when sales were hard to come by.
"You're kidding me," Cecilia said, dragging on the cigarette. "She wants to look at it again?"
"Says she's bringing her husband, but they need to do it right away. Maybe she's really serious this time."
Yeah, thought Cecilia, and maybe when I get home I'll find George Clooney waiting for me in the bedroom in a tuxedo, with a bottle of Cristal and a dozen roses.
She crushed out the cigarette beneath the toe of her ridiculously expensive black patent–leather pump. "All right. Let's hope the third time's a charm. Tell them I'll meet them at the house in—" she checked her watch "—twenty–five minutes."
She headed for the Carmona Red Porsche Cayenne her husband had surprised her with two years ago, when times were better. Much better.
Now Ben was gone, and when she looked at the pricey SUV, all she could see were the seventeen payments she still owed.
She slid onto the black leather of the driver's seat and rested her head on the steering wheel. She wasn't a religious person—she'd pretty much ditched the strict Catholicism she'd been raised on when she married a nonpracticing Jew—but she figured as long as she was this close to a church, it couldn't hurt to pray.
"Dear God," she said into the silence of the car. "It's been fourteen years since my last confession. I have a lot to answer for, I know. And I will, soon. I promise. But right now I need a favor." She took a deep breath. "I really, really need to make this sale. I would appreciate it. And I'll try to keep the sinning to a minimum. Thank you."
She made the sign of the cross, lit another cigarette and pulled out of the lot.
"See you, Monty."
If there was real estate in the afterlife, Monty probably already had his license.
AFTER TWO LAPS through the 8,000–square–foot house and twenty minutes camping out in the master bedroom's walk–in closet, Cecilia still couldn't get a read on Grant Hagstrom. Apparently, neither could his wife.
"So? What do you think, darling?" Marcia linked her arm through her husband's.
Cecilia held her breath.
Grant Hagstrom frowned, the wrinkles on his forehead creating a relief map of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. "It's a little ostentatious for my taste."
This from a man with an electric–pink tie and a diamond pinky ring the size of a Frisbee.
Marcia's surgically altered smile grew painfully tight. "Ms. Katz, may I speak to my husband alone, please?"
Cecilia left them in the closet and went downstairs to the massive kitchen, where miles of sandalwood cabinets had undoubtedly required the clear–cut logging of at least an acre of Peruvian rainforest.
She sighed. The house really was ostentatious.
From the kitchen she could see the great room, which featured, as her entry in the Multiple Listing Service touted, "Gorgeous Twin Stone Fireplaces!" at either end, and "Fabulous Exposed Oak Beams!" across the ceiling.
Ostentatious, perhaps. But it was a great place. One of a kind.
The couple who owned the house had thrown some legendary parties, complete with helicopter rides, live elephants, fire eaters and—during one unseasonably warm Christmas—imported snow.
Don Grove was a semiretired music company executive who liked to show his clients a good time. Rumor had it the cops had been called out more than once to break up cat–fights between warring pop divas.
But the Groves had decided to move permanently to their home in London, and Cecilia had been trying to unload the house for nearly nine months. True, a place like this didn't sell overnight. But she hadn't earned her reputation as a closer by sitting on her high heels.
Last year she'd sold more than forty–two million dollars' worth of prime suburban Philadelphia real estate. She'd been in the Platinum Club at Belkin–Frye five years running. This was her forte.
She'd never had this much trouble selling a house before. And she had never needed to sell a house more. If the Hagstroms bought this place it would mean a huge commission, with her as both the listing agent and the selling agent. Six percent of three–point–two million dollars. Minus Belkin–Frye's twenty–percent cut of that commission, of course.
She could make up a lot of ground with that chunk of change. She hadn't pulled in a check like that for more than a year. The real estate market had been leveling off, and demand for these types of homes—costly showpieces that required a fortune in upkeep—had dwindled. Unfortunately for her, they were the bulk of her business. She'd become a seller of "exclusive" properties.
She gnawed on a fake fingernail, watching as the Hagstroms emerged onto the flagstone terrace by the pool. Through a set of French doors, she could see Marcia's preternaturally smooth face, the red slash of her mouth forming the suggestion of a frown. Grant's back was toward the window, his bulk shifting beneath his wife's glare. Or what would have been a glare, had recent Botox treatments not made all forms of facial expression temporarily impossible.
"Come on, Marcia. Work it," Cecilia whispered. And then she closed her eyes and prayed again.
Wow. Twice in one day.
God wasn't going to know what to do with herself.
JAKE MET CECILIA at the reception desk, looking like he just stepped off the pages of a Neiman Marcus mailer in a moss–green sport jacket and gold striped tie. With his dark hair and money–green eyes, he drew slavering looks from every female in the office—and a few men, too.
Jake walked Cecilia back to her office. "So?"
Cecilia plunked her bag down on her desk and collapsed into the leather executive chair. "They passed."
Jake shook his head. "I'm sorry." "Me, too. They're the only ones who've even looked at the place in three months."
Jake came up behind her and kneaded the knots in her shoulders with the strong, gentle touch of one who had worked his way through college as a masseur. "I have faith in you. If you can't sell that house, nobody can."
Cecilia sighed and closed her eyes, ignoring the butterflies in her stomach that sprang to life whenever Jake touched her. He was her assistant, for crying out loud. Her very young, very impressionable assistant. And she was, if not actually at least technically, still married.
But Jake had a knack for making her feel good. Beneath his buttoned–down good looks beat the heart of a true flower child. His meditation/yoga/karma kind of attitude infused an air of calm into her hectic life and gave her momentary glimpses of what life might be like if she weren't so driven.
And although his eternal optimism drove her crazy, he made up for it by being so much fun to look at.
Jake ended the massage, letting his hands linger a bit too long on her shoulders. Or was that just her imagination?
Or maybe a little wishful thinking? Her mind whispered. Oh, boy. She was sinning again, wasn't she?
She raised her eyes heavenward. "Sorry!" "Sorry for what?" Jake asked. "Not you. Never mind." She scooted her chair up to her desk and shuffled some papers around. "Any other calls while I was out?"
"I don't know what's on your voice mail, but I only got one. Some woman named Dannie. I left the slip on your desk."
"Dannie?" Cecilia dug through the piles on her desk. It had to be Dannie Peters—now Dannie Treat—her best friend from high school. Or one of them, anyway.
She and Dannie, Grace Poleiski and Roseanna Richardson had all run around together. They'd been inseparable, cutting classes, smoking in the girls' room and doing each others' nails in study hall.