Lessons in Heartbreak

Lessons in Heartbreak

by Cathy Kelly


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From #1 bestselling Irish novelist Cathy Kelly, one woman’s journey to truly know the family she’s always loved...Lessons in Heartbreak.

Izzie Silver—a warmhearted Irishwoman with a mane of chestnut hair and a zest for life—is a New York success story, a highly successful booking agent at a top-notch modeling agency. But while she dreams of starting an agency for plus-sized models, at heart she's still the convent schoolgirl from the exquisite Irish coastal town of Tamarin. Which is why falling in love with a married man is something Izzie couldn't possibly imagine herself doing—until it happens. And it's something she feels she could never tell her beloved family.

Meanwhile, back in Tamarin, there's heartache, too. Izzie's aunt Anneliese is trying to hide her pain at her husband's betrayal of their marriage. And Lily—family matriarch and still feisty despite being nearly ninety—is taken ill. In her hospital bed, she reveals a tantalizing hint of a secret she has kept for decades, from her time as a 1930s servant girl at the local big house, before she ran off to London during World War Two to train as a nurse. Will the family be torn apart by the secrets they can't reveal...or will they have the courage to share their heartbreak and their joy?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416586241
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 02/10/2009
Edition description: Original
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Cathy Kelly is the #1 bestselling author of fifteen bestselling novels in Ireland, which have all hit the Sunday Times’ top ten in London. She lives in Ireland with her husband and twin sons. In 2005 she was appointed an ambassador for UNICEF Ireland. Contact her on Twitter at @CathyKellyBooks or follow her on Facebook or at CathyKelly.com.

Read an Excerpt


The New Mexico sun was riding high in the sky when the Zest catalog shoot finally broke up for lunch. Izzie Silver stood up and stretched to her full five feet nine inches, glorying in the drowsy heat that had already burnished the freckles on her arms despite her careful application of SPF 50 sunscreen.

Truly Celtic people — with milk-bottle skin, dots of caramel freckles and bluish veins on their wrists — only ever went one color in the sun: lobster red. And lobster red was never going to be a fashionable color, except for early stage melanomas.

It was her second day on the shoot and Izzie could feel her New Yorker-by-adoption blood slowing down to match the sinuous pace of desert life. Manhattan and Perfect-NY Model Agency, who'd sent her here to make sure nothing went wrong on a million-dollar catalog shoot involving three of their models, seemed a long way away.

If she had been in New York, she would have been sitting at her desk with the rest of the bookers: phone headset on, skinny latte untouched on her desk and a stack of messages piled up waiting for her. The office was in a sleek block off Houston, heavy on glass bricks and Perspex chandeliers and light on privacy.

At lunch, she'd be rushing down to the little beauty salon on Seventh where she got her eyebrows waxed or taking a quick detour uptown into Anthropologie on West Broadway to see if they had any more of those adorable little soap dishes shaped like seashells. Not that she needed more junk in her bathroom, mind you; it was like a beauty spa in there as it was.

In between scheduling other people's lives, she'd be mentally scrolling through her own, thinking of her Pilates class that night and whether she had the energy for it. And thinking of him. Joe.

Weird, wasn't it, how a person could be a stranger to you and then, in an instant, become your whole life? How did that happen, anyway?

And why him? When he was the most inconvenient, wrong person for her to love. Just when she thought she'd cracked this whole life thing, along came Joe to show her that nothing ever worked out the way you wanted it to. You have no control — random rules.

Izzie hated random, loathed it, despised it. She liked being in charge.

At least being here gave her the space to think, even if she was missing her eyebrow appointment, her Pilates and — most important — dinner with Joe. Because Joe took up so much space in her head and in her heart that she couldn't think clearly when he was around.

Here at Chaco Ranch, with the vast hazy spread of dusty land around her and the big sky that seemed to fill more than the horizon, clear thinking felt almost mandatory.

Izzie felt as much at home as if she was sitting on the back porch of her grandmother's house in Tamarin, where sea orchids dotted the grass and the scent of the ocean filled the air.

Chaco Ranch, just thirty minutes away from the buzz of Santa Fe, was a sprawling, white-painted ranch house, sitting like an exquisite piece of turquoise in the middle of sweeping red ochre.

And though it was geographically a long way from Tamarin, the small Irish coastal town where Izzie had grown up, the two places shared that same rare quality that mañana was far too urgent a word and that perhaps the day after tomorrow was time enough for what had to be done.

While the ranch was landlocked with huge cacti and mesquite trees guarding the house and mountains rising up behind them, Tamarin sat perilously on rocks, the houses clinging to steep hills as if the roar of the Atlantic would send them tumbling down.

In both places, Izzie decided, the landscape made people aware of just how puny they were in the grand scheme of things.

The consequent tranquillity of the ranch had calmed everyone down at least as much as two hours of Bikram yoga would.

Bookers rarely went on shoots: their work was confined to the office, living on the phone, relying on email as they juggled their models' lives effortlessly. But Zest was an important client and Izzie's bosses had decided it was worth flying her in, just in case anything went wrong on this first shoot for a whole new Zest line.

"I love this place," Izzie had said to the blond ranch owner the morning before, when the crew had arrived with enough clothes, makeup, hair spray and photographic equipment to make a small movie, and enough adrenaline to power a large town.

Mexican-inspired arches in the walls, tiled courtyards hung with Moroccan lights, and dreamy wall hangings made locally gave the place depth. Local artists' handiwork hung cheek by jowl with pieces by international artists, and there were two walls dedicated to haunting photographs of the Anasazi ruins.

The ranch owner had waved slender brown arms that rattled with silver and turquoise bangles and explained that Chaco Canyon, where her treasured photos had been taken, was home to a flea that still carried bubonic plague.

"Could we get some?" deadpanned Izzie. "Not for me, you understand, but I've got some people I'd like the flea to bite."

"I thought you fashion people had no sense of humor." The blond woman grinned.

"Only me, sorry," Izzie said. "It's a hindrance in fashion, to be honest. Some of these people cry at night over hemline lengths, and if you are not a True Fashion Believer, then they try to kill you with their Manolo spike heels or else batter you to death with their copy of Vogue's new collections edition. Personally, I think a sense of humor helps."

"And you're not a True Fashion Believer?" asked the woman, staring at the tall redhead curiously.

"Hey, look at me," laughed Izzie, smoothing her palms over her firm, curvy body. "True Fashion Believers think food is for wimps, so I certainly don't qualify. I've never done the South Beach or the Atkins, and I just cannot give up carbohydrates. These are crucial in True Fashion."

In an alternate universe, Izzie Silver could have been a model. Everyone told her so when she was a kid growing up in Tamarin. She had the look — huge eyes, colored a sort of dusty heliotrope blue with glossy thick lashes like starfishes around them, and a generous mouth that made her cheekbones rise into gleaming apples when she smiled. Her caramel mane of thick hair made her look like a Valkyrie standing on her own longboat, curls flying and fierce majesty in her face. And she was tall, with long, graceful legs perfect for ballet, until she grew so much that she towered over all the other little ballerinas.

There was only one issue: her size. When she was twelve, she stood five feet six in her socks and weighed one hundred and ten pounds.

Now, aged thirty-nine, she wore a U.S. size ten. In an industry where skinniness was a prize beyond rubies, Izzie Silver stood out for many reasons.

With her perfect hourglass figure, like a sized-up Venus, she was proof that big was beautiful. She loved food, turned heads everywhere she went and made the hollow-eyed fashion junkies look like fragile twigs in danger of cracking inside and out.

She liked her size and never dieted.

In fashion, this was the equivalent of saying that polyester was your favorite fabric.

Joe Hansen had been mildly surprised when she told him she worked in the fashion industry the first day they met. They'd been seated across the table from each other at a charity lunch — an event Izzie had only gone to by the strangest, totally random circumstances, which proved her point that random ruled.

She hadn't thought he'd noticed her, until suddenly, she'd seen that flicker in his eyes: a glint to add to the mirror-mosaic glints already there.

Hello, you, she'd thought wistfully.

It had been so long since she'd found a man attractive that she almost wasn't sure what that strange quiver in her belly was. But if it was attraction, she tried to suppress it. She had no time for men anymore. They messed things up, messed people's heads up and caused nothing but trouble. Work — nice solid work where you toiled away and achieved something real that nobody could take away from you — and having good friends, that was what life was about.

But if she'd discounted him, he clearly hadn't discounted her. From her position across the table Izzie could feel Joe taking her in admiringly, astonished to see that she was so earthy and real. She'd eaten her bread roll with relish, even briefly licked a swirl of butter off her finger. Carbs and fats: criminal. The city was full of fashion people, and common wisdom held that they were skinny, high-maintenance beings, always following some complicated diet. Izzie didn't try to be different. She'd just never tried to be the same.

"God made you tall so men could look up to you," Gran used to say. Her grandmother had stepped into her mother's place when Mum died of cancer when Izzie was just thirteen. Izzie wasn't sure how her grandmother had managed to steer her around the tricky path of being a big girl in a world of women who wanted to be thin, but she'd done it.

Izzie liked how she looked. And so, it seemed, did the man across from her.

He was surrounded by skinny charity queens, spindly legs set elegantly on equally spindly-legged gilt chairs, and he was staring at her. No, staring wasn't the right word: gazing at her hungrily, that summed it up.

Lots of men looked at Izzie like that. She was used to it; not in a cavalier, couldn't-care-less way, but certainly she barely glanced at the men who stared at her. She honestly didn't need their stares to make her feel whole. But when Joe Hansen looked at her like that, he flipped her world upside down.

The most shocking thing was that when his eyes were on her, she could feel the old Izzie — uncompromising, strong, happy in her own skin — slip away, to be replaced by a woman who wanted this compelling stranger to think her beautiful.

"You know, honey, from what I hear, that whole fashion world sounds kinda like hard work," sighed the ranch owner to Izzie now, hauling her mind away from The Plaza and the first time she'd met Joe.

"I tried that South Beach once and it takes a lot of time making those egg white and spinach muffins 'n' all."

"Too much hard work," agreed Izzie, who worked in an office where the refrigerator was constantly full of similar snacks. Quinoa was the big kick at the moment. Izzie had tried it and it tasted like wet kitchen towels soaked overnight in cat pee — well, she imagined that was what cat pee tasted like. Give her a plate of Da Silvano pasta with an extra helping of melting Parmesan shavings any day.

"Pasta's my big thing," she said.

"Spaghetti with clams," said the other woman.

"Risotto. With wild mushrooms and cheese," Izzie moaned. She could almost taste it.

"Pancakes with maple syrup and butter."

"Stop," laughed Izzie, "I'm going to start drooling."

"Bet those little girls never let themselves eat pancakes," the woman said, gesturing to where two models sat chain-smoking. Even smoking, they looked beautiful, Izzie thought. She was constantly humbled by the beauty of the women she worked with, even if she knew that sometimes the beauty was only a surface thing. But what a surface thing.

"No," she said now. "They don't eat much, to be honest."

"Sad, that," said the woman.

Izzie nodded.

The ranch owner departed, leaving the crew to it, and Izzie wandered away from the terrace where the last shots had been taken and walked down the tiled steps to the veranda at the back where Tonya, at eighteen the youngest of the Perfect-NY models, had gone once she'd whipped off the cheerful Zest pinafore dress she'd been wearing and had changed into her normal clothes.

A brunette with knife-edge cheekbones, Tonya sat on a cabana chair, giraffe legs sprawled in Gap skinny jeans, and took a first drag on a newly lit cigarette as if her life depended on it. From any angle, she was pure photographic magic.

And yet despite the almond-shaped eyes and bee-stung lips destined to make millions of women yearn to look like her, Izzie decided that there was something tragic about Tonya.

The girl was beautiful, slender as a lily stem and 100 percent messed up. But Izzie knew that most people wouldn't be able to see it. All they'd see was the effortless beauty, blissfully unaware that the person behind it was a scared teenager from a tiny Nebraska town who'd won the looks lottery but whose inner self hadn't caught up.

As part of the Perfect-NY team, Izzie Silver's job was to see the scared kid behind the carefully applied makeup. Her stock-in-trade was a line of nineteen-year-olds with Ralph Lauren futures, trailer-trash backgrounds and lots of disastrous choices in between.

Officially, Izzie's job was to manage her models' careers and find them jobs. Unofficially, she looked after them like a big sister. She'd worked in the modeling world for ten years, and not a week went by when she didn't meet someone who made her feel that modeling ought to include free therapy.

"Why do people believe that beauty is everything?" she and Carla, her best friend and fellow booker, wondered at least once a week. It was a rhetorical question in a world where a very specific type of physical beauty was prized.

"'Cause they don't see what we do," Carla inevitably replied. "Models doing drugs to keep skinny, doing drugs to keep their skin clear and doing drugs to cope."

Like a lot of bookers, Carla had been a model herself. Half Hispanic, half African-American, she was tall, coffee-skinned and preferred life on the other side of the camera, where the rejection wasn't as brutal.

"When the tenth person of the week talks about you as though you're not there and says your legs are too fat, your ass is too big or your whole look is totally last season, then you start to believe them," Carla had told Izzie once.

She rarely talked about her own modeling days now. Instead, she and Izzie — who'd bonded after starting at the agency at the same time and finding they were the same age — talked about setting up their own company, where they'd do things differently.

Nobody was going to tell the models of the Silverwebb Agency — the name had leaped out at them: Izzie Silver, Carla Webb — they were too fat. Because the sort of models they were going to represent were plus-sized: beautiful and big. Women with curves, with bodies that screamed goddess and with skin that was genuinely velvety instead of being airbrushed velvety because the model was underweight and acned from a bad lifestyle.

For two women who shared the nobullshit gene and who both struggled with the part of their jobs that dictated that models had to be slender as reeds, it had seemed such an obvious choice.

Five months ago — pre-Joe — they'd been sharing lunch on the fire escape of Perfect-NY's West Side brownstone, talking about a model from another agency who'd ended up in rehab because of her heroin addiction.

She weighed ninety pounds, was six feet tall and was still in demand for work at the time.

"It's a freaking tragedy, isn't it?" Carla sighed as she munched on her lunch. "How destructive is that? Telling these kids they're just not right even when they're stop-traffic beautiful. Where is it going to end? Who gets to decide what's beautiful anymore if the really beautiful girls aren't beautiful enough?"

Izzie shook her head. She didn't know the answer. In the ten years she'd been working in the industry, she'd seen the perfect model shape change from all-American athletic and strong, although slim, to tall, sticklike and disturbingly skinny. It scared everyone in Perfect-NY and the other reputable agencies.

"It's going to reach a point where kids will need surgery before they get on any agency's books because the look of the season is too weird for actual human beings," she said. "What does that say about the fashion industry, Carla?"

"Don't ask me."

"And we're the fashion industry," Izzie added glumly. If they weren't part of the solution, then they were part of the problem. Surely they could change things from the inside.

"You know," she added thoughtfully, "if I had my own agency, I really don't think I'd work with ordinary models. If they're not screwed up when they start, they'll be screwed up by the time they're finished." She took a bite of her chicken wrap. "The designers want them younger and younger. Our client list will be nothing but twelve-year-olds soon."

"Which means that we, as women of nearly forty" — Carla made the sign of the cross with her fingers to ward off this apocalyptic birthday — "are geriatric."

"Geriatric and requiring clothes in double-digit sizes in my case," Izzie reminded her.

"Hey, you're a woman, not a boy child," said Carla.

"Point taken and thank you, but still, I am an anomaly. And the thing is, women like you and me, we're the ones with the money to buy the damn clothes in the first place."

"You said it."

"Teenagers can't shell out eight hundred dollars for a fashion-forward dress that's probably 'dry-clean only' and will be out of date in six months."

"Six? Make that four," said Carla. "Between cruise lines and the midseason looks, there are four collections every year. By the time you get it out of the tissue paper, it's out of fashion."

"True," agreed Izzie. "Great for making money for design houses, though. But that's not what really annoys me. It is the bloody chasm between the target market and the models."

"Grown-up clothes on little girls?" Carla said knowingly.

"Exactly," agreed Izzie.

As a single career woman living in her own apartment in New York, she had to look after herself, doing everything from unblocking her own sink to sorting out her taxes and then being able to play hardball with the huge conglomerates for whom her models were just pawns.

Yet when the conglomerates showed off clothes aimed at career women like Izzie, they chose to do it with fragile child-women.

The message from the sleek, exquisite clothes was: I'm your equal, mister, and don't you forget it.

The message coming from a model with a glistening pink pout and knees fatter than her thighs was: Take care of me, Daddy.

"It's a screwed-up world," she said. "I love our girls, but they're so young. They need mothers, not bookers."

She paused. Lots of people said bookers were part mother/part manager. For some reason, this bothered her lately. She'd never minded what she was called before, but now she felt uncomfortable being described as an eighteen-year-old's mother. She wasn't a mother, and it came as a shock that she was old enough to be considered mother to another grown-up. Why did it bother her now? Was it the age thing? Or something else?

"Yeah." Carla abandoned her lunch and started on her coffee. "Wouldn't it be great to work with women who've had a chance to grow up before they're shoved down the catwalk?"

"God, yes," Izzie said fervently. "And who aren't made to starve themselves so the garment hangs off their shoulder blades."

"You're talking about plus-sized models...." said Carla slowly, looking at her friend.

Izzie stopped midbite. It was exactly what she was always thinking. How much nicer it would be to work with women who were allowed to look like women and weren't whipped into a certain-shaped box. The skinny noboobs-no-belly-and-no-bum box.

Carla wrapped both hands around her coffee cup thoughtfully. The familiar noises of their fire-escape perch — the hum of the traffic and the building's giant aircon machine on the roof that groaned and wheezed like a rocket about to take off — faded into nothingness.

"We could — "

" — start our own agency — "

" — for plus-sized models — "

They caught each other's hands and screamed like children.

"Do you think we could do it?" asked Izzie earnestly.

"There's definitely a market for plus-sized models now," Carla said. "You remember years ago, nobody ever wanted bigger girls, but now, how often are we asked do we have any plus-sized girls? All the time. The days of plus girls being used just for catalogs and knitting patterns are over. And with lots of the big-money design houses making larger lines, they want more realistic models. No, there's a market, all right. It's niche, but it's growing."

"Niche: yes, that sums it up," Izzie agreed. "I like niche. It's special, elite, different."

She was fed up working for Perfect-NY and having daily corporate battles with the three partners who'd long ago gone over to the dark, moneymaking side. The agency's Dark Side Corporates didn't care about people, be it employees or models. Any day now, time spent in the women's room would involve a clocking-in time card and a machine that doled out a requisite number of toilet paper sheets.

Besides, she'd given ten years to the company and she felt at a crossroads in her life. Forty loomed. Life had run on and — it hit Izzie suddenly what was wrong with her, why she'd been feeling odd lately — she felt left behind.

She had all the things she'd wanted: independence, her own apartment, wonderful friends, marvelous holidays, a jam-packed social life. And yet there was a sense of something missing, a flaw like a crack in the wall that didn't ruin the effect, but was still there, if you thought about it. She refused to believe the missing bit could be love. Love was nothing but trouble. Having a crack in her life because she didn't have someone to love was just such a goddamn cliché, and Izzie refused to be a cliché.

Work was the answer — her own business. That would be the love affair of her life and remove any lingering, late-night doubts about her life's path.

"I'm sure we could raise the money," Carla said. "We haven't got any dependents to look out for. There has to be some bonus in being single women, right?"

They both grinned. Izzie often said that New York must surely have the world's highest proportion of single career women on the planet.

"And it's not as if we don't know enough Wall Street venture capitalists to ask for help," Carla added.

This time, Izzie laughed out loud. Their industry attracted many rich men who had all the boy toys — private jets, holiday islands — and felt that a model on their arm would be the perfect accessory.

"As if they'd meet us," she laughed. "You know there's a Wall Street girlfriend age limit, and we're ten years beyond it, sister. No," she corrected herself, "not ten, more like fifteen. Those masters-of-the-universe men with their Maseratis and helicopter lessons prefer girlfriends under the age of twenty-five. They are blind when women of our vintage are around."

"Stop dissing us, Miz Silver," Carla retorted. "When we have our own agency, we can do what I'm always telling them here and have an older model department. And you could be our star signing," she added sharply. "The masters of the universe only keep away from you because they're scared of you. You're too good at that 'tough Irish chick' thing. Men are like guard dogs, Izzie. They growl when they're scared. Don't scare them and they'll roll over and beg."

"Stop already," Izzie said, lowering her head back to her wrap. "It doesn't matter whether I scare them or not: they prefer nineteen-year-old Ukrainian models every time. If a man wants a kid and not a woman, then he's not my sort of man."

She didn't bother to reply to the remark about her working as a model. It was sweet of Carla, but she was too old, for a start, and she'd spent too long with models to want to enter their world. Izzie wanted to be in control of her own destiny and not leave it in the hands of a bunch of people in a room who wanted a specific person to model a specific outfit and could crush a woman's spirit by saying, "We definitely don't want you."

"Could we make our own agency work?" she'd asked Carla on the fire escape. "I mean, what's the percentage of new businesses that crash and burn in the first year? Fifty percent?"

"More like seventy-five."

"Oh, that's a much more reassuring statistic."

"Well, might as well be real," Carla said.

"At least we'd be doing something we really believed in," Izzie added.

For the first month after the conversation, they'd done nothing but talk about the idea. Then they'd begun to lay the groundwork: talking to banks, talking to a small-business consultancy and drawing up a business plan. So far, nobody was prepared to loan them the money, but as Carla said, all it took was one person to believe in them.

Then, two months ago, Izzie Silver had found love.

Love in the form of Joe Hansen. Love had obliterated everything else from her mind. And while Carla still talked about having their own agency, Izzie's heart was no longer in it, purely because there was no room in her heart for anything but Joe.

Love had grabbed her unexpectedly and nobody had been more shocked than Izzie.

"If it all works out, we won't be the backbone of Perfect-NY anymore," Carla had said happily just before Izzie had set off for New Mexico. "Imagine, we'll be the bosses...and the bookers, assistants, accountants and probably the women who'll be mopping out the women's room at night too, but, hey, we won't care."

"No," agreed Izzie, thinking that she didn't give a damn about anything because she was so miserable at having to fly to New Mexico and be away from Joe. Once, she'd have loved this chance to leave the office for a shoot in a far-flung location. Now, thanks to Joe, she hated the very idea.

"Catalog shoots are tough," Carla added. "Pity you weren't sent to babysit an editorial shoot instead. 'Cause it's going to be hard work, honey."

She was right, Izzie thought, standing in the New Mexico heat, watching the Perfect-NY model work.

Catalog shoots were hard work. Hours of shooting clothes with no time to labor over things the way they could on magazine shoots. On magazine shoots, Izzie knew it could easily take a day to shoot six outfits — here, they might manage that in one morning. The models had to be ultraprofessional. The girl with the cheekbones, still-eyed and silent, was just that.

During the morning, Izzie had watched Tonya in an astonishing seven different outfits, transforming her silent watchful face into an all-American, girl-next-door smile each time. It was only when the cameras were finished, and Tonya's face lapsed back into adolescent normality, that Izzie thought again and again how incredibly young she was.

Now it was lunchtime. The photographer and his two senior assistants were drinking coffee and gulping down the food brought in from outside; the other two assistants were hauling light reflectors and shifting huge lights.

No lunch for them.

The makeup and hair people were sitting outside, letting the sun dust their pedicured toes and gossiping happily about people they knew.

"She insists she hasn't had any cosmetic procedures done. Like, hello! That's so a lie. If the skin round her eyes gets pulled up any farther at the corners, she'll be able to see sideways. And talk about Botox schmotox. She never smiled much before, but now she's like a wax dummy."

"Dummy? She wishes. Dummies were warm once — isn't that how they melt the wax?"

"You're a scream!"

The woman from Zest's enormous marketing department was loudly phoning her office.

"It's fabulous: we're on target. We've the rest of the day here because the light's so good that Ivan says we can shoot until at least six. Then tomorrow we're going up to the pueblo...."

Izzie's cell phone buzzed discreetly and she fumbled in her giant tote until she found it. She loved big bags that could hold her organizer, makeup, spare flat shoes, gum, emergency Hershey bars, water bottle and flacon of her favorite perfume, Acqua di Parma. The minus was triumphantly holding up a panty liner by mistake when you were actually looking for a bit of notepaper. How did they always manage to escape their packaging and stick themselves to inappropriate things? They never stuck to panties as comprehensively as they did to things in her handbag.

"How's it goin'?" asked Carla on a line so clear that she might have been in the next room instead of thousands of miles away in their Manhattan office.

"It's all going fine," Izzie reassured her. "Nobody's screamed at anybody yet, nobody's threatened to walk off in a temper, and the shots are good."

"You practicing magic to keep it all running smooth, girl?" asked Carla.

"Got my cauldron in my bag," replied Izzie, "and I'm ready with the eye of a newt and the blood of a virgin."

Carla laughed at the other end of the phone. "Not much virgin blood around if Ivan Meisner is the photographer."

Ivan's reputation preceded him. As a photographer he might be a genius who had W and Vogue squabbling over him, but the genius fairy hadn't extended her wand as far as his personality.

Nobody watching him idly caressing his extra-long lens as he watched young models could be in any doubt that he considered himself a bit of a maestro in the sack as well as behind the Hasselblad.

"He's definitely got his eye on Tonya," Izzie said, "but don't worry. I'm going to put a stop to his gallop."

"Can somebody tape that?" Carla asked. "I'd like to see him when you've finished with him. Entertainment Tonight would love film of Ivan having his lights punched out."

Izzie laughed. Carla was one of the few people who knew that at fourteen Izzie Silver had had a reputation for being a tomboy with a punishing right hook. It wasn't the sort of thing she'd want widely known — violence was only in fashion when it came to faking hard-edged shoots in graffiti-painted alleyways — but it still gave her an edge.

"Don't mess with the big Irish chick" was how some people put it. Izzie was more than able to stand up to anyone. Ruefully, she could see how that might put some men off. Before Joe, it had been six months since her last date. Not that she cared anymore: you had to move on, right?

"Carla, you're just dying to see me hit someone, aren't you?" laughed Izzie now.

"I know you can because of all those kickboxing classes," Carla retorted. "Sure, you're the queen of glaring people into silence with the evil eye and telling them you don't take any crap, but I'd still prefer to see you flatten someone one day. For fun. Pleeease...? I hate the way Ivan hits on young models."

"He won't this time," Izzie said firmly. "He might try, but he won't get anywhere. Since the company has actually spent hard cash to fly me here to make sure it all runs smoothly, I'm going to do my best. Any news at your end?"

"No, it's pretty quiet. Rosanna's off sick so we're a woman down. Lola spotted a gorgeous Mexican girl on the subway last night. She got a photo of her and gave the girl her card, but she thinks the kid's scared she's from immigration or something, so she may not call. Stunning, Lola says. Tall, with the most incredible skin and fabulous legs."

"Oh, I hope she phones," Izzie said. As bookers, they were always on the lookout for the next big thing in modeling. Despite the proliferation of television shows where gorgeous girls turned up hoping to be models, there were still scores of undiscovered beauties, and there was nothing worse than finding one and having her not believe the "I work for a model agency" shtick.

"Me too. Lola keeps glaring at her phone. It's going to catch fire soon."

"No more news?"

"Nah. Quiet. What's the Zest marketing guy like? I heard he's a looker."

Izzie grinned. Carla had said she was never dating ever again just the previous week.

"He couldn't come. They sent a woman instead."

"You can catch up on your beauty sleep, then." Carla laughed before hanging up.

When shooting was over for the day, the entire crew repaired to their hotel's restaurant-cum-bar for some rest and relaxation. There was a sense of a good day's work having been done, but it wasn't quite party time. That would be tomorrow night when the catalog shots were all finished, when nobody had to be up at the crack of dawn and hangovers didn't matter.

Besides, the Zest marketing woman was there watching everything alongside Izzie, and there was too much money in catalog work to screw it all up midshoot.

Izzie knew what happened on shoots when party night had come too early. Someone phoned her at the office and screamed that her models had gone partying, and that the following day had been a blur with the makeup people working extra hard to hide the ravages of sleep deprivation, while general hangover irritation meant it was a miracle any shots were taken at all.

"Menus," said the Zest woman cheerily, handing them out like a prefect at school trying to quash any naughtiness in advance. "There's a salad bar too, if anyone wants anything lighter."

A line of skinny people who did their best to never eat heavy, if possible, stared grimly back at her. No mojitos tonight, then.

Food was finally ordered, along with a modest amount of wine and, thanks to the hair guy, who hated bossy women, cocktails.

"Just one each," chirped the Zest woman, who had the company credit card to pay for all this, after all.

As Izzie had predicted, Ivan wasn't long slithering up the cushioned wooden seat to where Tonya sat nursing something alcoholic from the cocktail menu.

Izzie sat down on a stool opposite Ivan and Tonya, simultaneously patting Tonya comfortingly on the knee, and giving Ivan the sort of hard stare she'd perfected after years of dealing with men just like him.

"How's Sandrine?" she said chattily. Sandrine was his wife and a model who'd miraculously staved off her sell-by date by being labeled a super. Normal models were considered elderly once they hit twenty-five; supers could get another ten years out of the industry if they were clever.

Ivan didn't appear to get the hint. He took another long pull of his margarita, gazing at Tonya over the top of his salt-encrusted glass.

"She's in Paris doing editorial for Marie Claire," he said finally.

Tonya, bless her, looked impressed. Izzie wished she could explain to the younger girl that she wouldn't absorb Sandrine's brilliance by osmosis. Sleeping with a supermodel's photographer husband didn't make you a supermodel. It just made you look stupid, feel used and get a bad reputation.

Izzie had another try at the subtle approach. She was working for Tonya's agency, after all. No point in irritating the photographer so much that he took awful shots of the girl, thus screwing up both her career and her part of the catalog shoot. Izzie knew that wasn't what her boss had in mind when she said, "Make sure nothing goes wrong."

"Ivan's married to Sandrine," Izzie informed Tonya gently, as if Tonya didn't already know this. "She's so beautiful and so successful, but she travels a lot. It must be so hard to be apart when you're married," Izzie added thoughtfully. "You must miss Sandrine so much. I bet you're dying for the moment you can phone her. How far ahead is Paris? Ten hours, eleven?"

Izzie was not a natural liar. Catholic school had done its work a long time ago, but for her job, she'd perfected the art of subtle manipulation. A tweak here, an insinuation there was all it took.

She could see the rush to Ivan's brain: Would the smooth fire of the local tequila make it there first or would her suggestion about phoning his wife overtake it?

A moment passed and Ivan reached into his jacket for his cell phone.

Izzie allowed herself a small internal smile.

Too much cocaine and general stupidity had eroded Ivan's logistic skills but still he had a certain bovine intelligence. He was aware that Izzie knew the bookers in his wife's agency and that if he misbehaved the news would reach Sandrine. He began to dial.

His wife was the sort of model Tonya might be one day, given plenty of kindness and therapy and people to stop predatory males hitting on her.

Quite why Sandrine had married Ivan in the first place was beyond Izzie. Models knew that photographers were drawn to models like flies to jam. And that DCOL (doesn't count on location) was such a given in their industry that it should have been part of the model wedding-vow thing: I promise to love, honor, obey and look the other way if he/she has a fling doing a shoot in Morocco. However, it didn't work quite that way with the supers; when you could have any man on the planet, you didn't stand for being cheated on.

When Tonya got up to go to the women's room, Izzie quickly slipped into the young model's seat, to make sure that Ivan couldn't get close to her when she came back.

Eventually, the rest of the group joined them, the food arrived, and the danger of Ivan getting Tonya on her own for a quiet tête-à-tête passed.

The group shared a low-key meal and Ivan wandered off with his assistant early on. Probably to score coke, Izzie guessed — and not the liquid type that refreshed, either. After all, he didn't need to look good in the morning.

Once he was gone, she left Tonya in the gentle hands of the other models and the makeup and hair people, and went to bed.

Her room was large, decorated in the soft ochre that seemed to be part and parcel of New Mexico, and looked out over a pretty pool that was surrounded by ceramic candleholders, twinkling like so many stars. Opening the double doors onto the small terrace, she stepped outside for a moment and breathed in the balmy night air.

There were two wooden loungers on her terrace, along with a little blue and yellow tile-topped table with a lit citronella candle to ward off the giant flying things that seemed to hum in the air. A heady scent of vanilla rose from below, as well as a more distant smell of garlic cooking. It was all very romantic and begging for a special someone to share it with. Even the huge ensuite bath was big enough for two. Sad for one, though.

Izzie sighed and went back into the room. She stripped off her simple belted shirtdress and sank onto the bed, trying not to worry how many other people had sunk onto the heavy Dupion coverlet — hotels were freaky, so many other people using exactly the same space over and over again, leaving their auras and their sweat there — and lay down. Her head felt heavy from the heat and she was tired. Tired and emotional.

She looked at her phone again. No messages. What was it Oscar Wilde said: that it was better to be talked about than not to be talked about?

Cell phones were the same. No matter how often people moaned about them, it was nicer to be phoned than not to be phoned.

She ran one unvarnished fingernail over the rounded plastic of the screen, willing some message to appear there. But there was nothing: the blankness mocked her.

He hasn't called. What's he doing?

What was the point of being wise, clever, savvy — all the things she'd worked hard at being — when she was risking it all for a married man?

Izzie closed her eyes and let the now-familiar anxiety flood over her. She loved Joe. Loved him. But it was all so complicated. She longed for the time when it would be simpler.

Of course, it was complicated simply because of the sort of person Joe was. He might be a tough member of the Wall Street elite, a hedge-fund man who'd gone out on his own with a friend to set up a closed fund and was slowly, relentlessly pushing toward the billionaire Big Boys' Club. But he was a family man underneath it all, and that was where the complications appeared.

Raised in the Bronx, married at twenty-one, a dad at twenty-two, his professional life might have been fabulous but his home life had gone sour long ago. What he did have, however, were three sons whom he adored, and while he was living a separate life from his wife, they were trying to shield their two younger sons from the breakup.

When Izzie thought about it, about the tangled mess she'd walked into when she'd fallen for Joe, she felt nauseated. She knew that people of her age or Joe's carried baggage with them, but his baggage made their relationship so difficult.

No wonder she felt nauseated.

Funnily enough, someone being sick had set it all off. That someone was Emily De Santos, one of the Perfect-NY partners.

Emily had bought a ticket for a twenty-thousand-dollar-a-plate lunch at The Plaza in aid of a child-protection charity which focused on kids from disadvantaged areas.

"Do you think those rich people would have heart attacks if they actually saw a child from a disadvantaged area?" wondered Carla when word came down from on high that Emily — a social climber so keen she carried her own oxygen — was too ill to take her place at the lunch and wanted a warm body to stand in for her.

"Carla, don't be mean," said Izzie, who was the only one without any actual appointments that lunchtime and was therefore about to race home to swap her jeans and chocolate Juicy Couture zippered sweat top for an outfit fit for The Plaza's ballroom. "They're raising money. Isn't that what matters? Besides, they don't have to do a thing for other people. They could just sit at home and buy something else with their twenty thousand bucks."

"Sucker," said Carla.

"Cynic," said Izzie, sticking her tongue out.

She was between blow-dries, so her hair needed a quick revamp, and Marcello, one of her favorite hairstylists, said he could fit her in if she rushed down to the salon.

"I'm channeling Audrey Hepburn," he announced, as Izzie arrived, having changed at home and tried to put on her makeup in the cab downtown to the hair salon.

"You better be channeling her bloody quickly," Izzie snapped, throwing herself into the seat and staring gloomily at her hair.

"You're right," Marcello agreed, holding up a bit of Izzie's hair with his tail comb as if he dared not touch it with his actual hand. Marcello was from Brooklyn, had been miserable in high school when he wasn't allowed to be prom queen and made up for it by being a drama queen for the rest of his life. "Forget Audrey. I'm seeing...a woman leaning into a Dumpster searching for something to eat and she hasn't washed her hair in a month...."

"Yes, yes, you are so funny you should have your own show, Marcello. I have to leave here in twenty minutes to go to The Plaza — can you not channel Izzie Silver looking a bit nice? Why do I have to look like someone else?"

"The rules of style, sugar," Marcello sighed, like someone explaining for the tenth time that the earth wasn't flat. "Nobody wants to look like themselves. Too, too boring. Why be yourself when you can be somebody more interesting?"

"That's what's wrong with fashion," said Izzie. "None of us is good enough as we are. We have to be smelling of someone else, wearing someone else and looking like somebody else."

"Are you detoxing?" Marcello murmured. "Have a double espresso, please," he begged. "You're much easier to style when you've caffeine in your system. Fashion is fantasy." Marcello began spraying gunk on her hair with the intensity of a gardener wiping out a colony of lethal aphids.

"There goes another bit of the ozone layer," Izzie chirped.

"Who cares about the ozone layer?" he grumbled as he sprayed. "Did you see Britney in the Enquirer?"

They gossiped while Izzie dutifully took her espresso medicine and Marcello worked his magic.

"You like?" he said finally, holding up a mirror so she could see the back.

He'd turned her caramel ripples into a swath of soft curls that framed her face and softened it. Audrey hadn't been right, Marcello had decided early on. She was a light brown Marilyn.

"I love it! I'm grotto fabulous," Izzie joked. "Like ghetto fabulous, but the Catholic version."

"And you think I should have my own show?" Marcello grinned. "You're the comedienne."

The world at The Plaza that lunchtime was so not Izzie's milieu that her New Yorker cool was rattled. She stared. Used to the fashion world where wearing American Apparel dressed up with something by McQueen was considered clever, it was odd to see so much high-end designer bling in one spot.

This was a combination of stealth wealth — clothes, jewelry and accessories so expensive and elite that there was no brand visible apart from the reek of dollars — and good old-fashioned nouveau riche, where no part of the anatomy was allowed out unless it was emblazoned with someone else's name: Tommy Hilfiger, Louis Vuitton, Fendi.

Women toted rocks worth more than a year's rent on Izzie's apartment, and it was hard not to be dazzled by the megacarats on show. Still, Izzie's face betrayed none of this.

The tallest, biggest girl in the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Tamarin had to learn to look cool, calm and collected. Izzie never raised her chin haughtily into the air — she didn't need to. She wore self-assurance like a full-length cloak, draping it round herself to show that she was happy, centered and ready for the world on any terms.

Her hair, thanks to Marcello, was fabulous. Her grape silk wrap dress — from a new designer nobody had heard of who understood draping curvy figures — might have cost the merest fraction of the clothes worn by the other guests, but she looked stunning in it. Self-esteem, as her darling Granny Lily always said, was more valuable than any diamond.

Izzie didn't have any diamonds, on purpose. No man had ever bought one for her, and somehow diamonds had come to represent coupledom in her head. Men bought diamonds in glorious solitaire settings as engagement rings for girlfriends, or a half-circle band of diamonds for the birth of babies. Strong single women bought strong jewelry for themselves.

So Izzie wore her Venetian-inspired bangles and dangling earrings with pride because she'd written the check herself. She mightn't have paid for her twenty-thousand-dollar ticket, but she was as good as anybody here.

The ballroom was beautifully formal and all cream: cream table cloths, cream bows on the chairs, cream roses rising from the centerpieces with a froth of baby's breath softening the look. It was very pretty and reeked of money.

At her table, there were six women, including herself, and two men. One was young, handsome and accompanying a beautiful, very slim woman with a youthful face, telltale middle-aged décolletage and an emerald necklace of such staggering beauty and obvious value that it was probably only out of the bank vault for the day.

The other man at the table was in a different league altogether. Forty-something, steel gray eyes that surveyed the room like those of a hawk, tightly clipped dark hair and a slightly weather-beaten face that wouldn't have looked out of place under a cowboy hat, he had a definite presence. He didn't need the exquisite perfection of his Brioni suit to give away the fact that he was a mogul of some sort or other.

Izzie knew the signs. If there was a checklist for the typical alpha male with a commanding presence, Brioni Suit Guy ticked all the boxes.

Elegance, utter self-confidence, a fleeting hint of ruthlessness: he had it all.

There was also the fact that one of the other female guests, whom Izzie recognized from the gossip pages, was flirting with him like the last ark was leaving town and she needed a man for it. Professional hunters of rich men only picked on the really rich and powerful.

The woman with the emeralds kept talking to him about superyachts. Izzie idly wondered what a superyacht was; from the odd snippet of conversation that reached her, this floating palace which needed sixty full-time staff sounded more like a liner than a yacht.

She did think of asking, just for the fun of dropping a wrench in the social works, but decided against it.

As the meal progressed, Izzie couldn't help keeping an eye on the guy, pegging him as a megarich wheeler-dealer who'd spent years in the dirty business of making money and now, finally, was shaking the prizefighter's dust from his hands and looking for some worthy charity to help him climb a much steeper ladder: the New York class ladder.

She didn't want him to see her looking. That would be so embarrassing.

But she couldn't stop.

Hello, you.

She didn't say it, but she thought it. This man was surely out of her league on so many levels. Rich guys went for young beauties: end of story. A normal New York career woman wouldn't stand a chance.

But still...he was looking at her, making her stomach flip.

"...so I phoned him. I said I wouldn't, but, you know, men never take the initiative..." went on the woman to Izzie's left. Linda was blond and Botoxed to look forty rather than her actual fifty years. Having started by saying she loved Izzie's dress and adored her jewelry, she was now mournfully recounting her own Manhattan dating tales as she toyed with her entrée, pushing the radicchio and feta salad around her plate in the prescribed manner.

Izzie managed to swivel her head away from the hard-edged mogul and concentrated on her neighbor's story as well as her own tuna steak.

"You're going on a date with this guy, then?" she asked Linda.

"Sort of. Is it a date if he says he'll meet you at a party you're both going to anyway?"

Izzie winced. It seemed that wealthy divorcées were just like ordinary women after all. She decided to give the sort of advice she'd give a friend. "Not a date, really. More a promise of a date unless something better comes up," she said. No point in fudging. "He's hedging his bets, Linda."

Linda sighed. "That's what I think. I want to say no, but I like him...."

"If he likes you, that's fine," Izzie said firmly. "But don't put your heart on the line so he can toy with you. Linda, men can sniff out dating despair the way an airport sniffer dog can home in on ten kilos of Red Leb. If you tell yourself you don't need this guy, then you've got a better chance. And if he doesn't really mean it, then you haven't compromised yourself by wearing your heart on your sleeve. Trust me."

"Yeah, been there, done that, got the Tshirt," sighed Linda. "I used to give advice like that too, when I was your age. But I'm not anymore: your age or giving that advice. Let me tell you, honey, when you get older, you get desperate. You don't care if they know it. Shit, they know it anyway. This town's full of women like me, and the guys all know the story. I don't want to be alone. Why hide that?"

Izzie's soft heart contracted. She grabbed Linda's bony arm and squeezed it. She hadn't expected this sort of honesty in such a place. Here, where it was all for show, it was strange and yet refreshing to find Linda and her straightforwardness.

"Oh, listen to me, I sound all whiny," Linda said, finally putting her fork and knife down on her pushed-around-yet-uneaten meal.

"That's not whining — that's being truthful." Izzie smiled. "I have this conversation with my girlfriends all the time. It's a toss-up between being on our own forever and getting used to it, or boarding the first plane to Alaska, where there are single men dying to meet you."

"Why can't the Alaska guys come to the Upper East Side?" Linda wanted to know.

"Because then, I guess, they'd become New York men and suddenly they'd have supermodels throwing themselves at their feet and they wouldn't want us normal women anymore."

"Oh, save me from models." Linda sighed.

Izzie laughed this time. "I work with models," she explained. "I'm a booker with Perfect-NY."

Linda looked at her with respect. "Look at me whining about being lonely when you've got to compete with that. There isn't enough Lexapro in the world to make me work with models."

"Really, they're just kids who happen to look that way," Izzie pointed out. "Lots of models are just as messed up as the rest of us. Looking amazing doesn't fix any of the stuff on the inside."

"I could deal with a lot of shit inside if I looked like that on the outside," Linda said fervently. "Still, I guess they'll get old too one day."

"You're not old," Izzie insisted.

Linda looked at her. "In this town, Izzie, once you're sliding down toward fifty, you might as well get a walker. Screw surgery and Botox: men want real youth and tight little asses and ovaries that still pump out an egg. They might not want a kid, but they want a woman who could have one if they changed their mind. They want youth, end of story."

She sounded so harsh, so bitter that Izzie could say nothing in response. For once, her appetite deserted her.

All conversation stopped while the fashion show and auction part of the lunch began. Waiters silently cleared away the dishes, African-inspired technomusic pumped out of the speakers, and the show began.

Izzie watched as the models — many of whom were from Perfect-NY, supplied free of charge for the event — stalked up and down the runway. Normally, she watched her girls intensely, scanning their moves and faces to see who looked content, who looked bored and whose pupils betrayed too many sips of the preshow champagne. But today Izzie was still shaken as she thought about her conversation with Linda and what she'd left unsaid: that she was scared of being alone too.

It had been a long time since she'd admitted that to anyone, even to herself.

Marriage had seemed inevitable when she was growing up in Tamarin: you met someone and got married, simple as that. It would all fall into place gently, without you having to do anything.

Except that she'd left Tamarin for London and then New York, a place where the same boy-meets-girl-and-gets-married rules didn't seem to apply. Now, while all of her old school friends had at least one marriage under their belts, she hadn't even come close to being engaged.

Finding the right person seemed a bit like commanding a space shuttle coming back to earth — there was a remarkably small window of opportunity, much smaller than anyone realized, and if you missed it, you had to hope you'd find another window before it was too late.

When the single guys were gone, you had to wait for the next round — the ones who'd been married, got divorced and were ready to go again. Except that they went for younger women, maybe ten years younger. And the women the same age as the guys were the ones who lost out.

Izzie thought about her forthcoming fortieth birthday in November.

A passionate Scorpio, as her astrologically mad friend, Tish, liked to remind her. Izzie and Tish had lived together on the second floor of a three-story walk-up in the West Village when Izzie had first come to New York.

They were the same age, in the same industry — Tish was a photographer's assistant — and both were immigrants. Ten years on, Tish's lilting Welsh accent was as pronounced as ever. She was also married and the mother of a six-month-old baby boy.

Tish would be forty soon too, but Izzie was facing it from a vantage point different from her friend's.

Everyone had moved their chairs to get a better view of the fashion show, so when it was time for the auction, Brioni Suit Guy was sitting much nearer to her. Izzie hadn't noticed until her auction program fell and he got up smoothly, picked it up and held it out toward her.

"Thank you," she said, startled, reaching for it.

"Unpainted nails, how refreshing," he remarked.

Izzie never polished her nails with anything but clear gloss. In a sea of exquisite manicures, her almost-nude hands stood out.

"I'm not a curly girl," she said absently. She felt too jolted by Linda's conversation to show the same level of interest in the guy. He'd hardly be interested in her, anyway, what with her shriveling ovaries and skin that no amount of Dermalogica facials could refresh.

"What?" he asked.

"I'm not a curly girl."

"I wasn't talking about your hair." His fingers didn't reach to touch the caramel curls that were streaked with honey tones at ferocious cost in Salon Circe every six weeks. But he looked at her as if he was thinking of it.

Linda had slipped off to the bathroom, so her seat was free and Brioni Suit Guy took it, pulling it so close to Izzie that she felt her breath catch. She was a tall woman and instinctively knew if people were taller than she. He was.

"I'm Joe Hansen," he said, holding out his hand.

"Izzie Silver," she replied automatically, catching his and feeling something inside her jolt at the touch of that firm, masculine hand.

Nearly forty, but she could still feel the surge of attraction, couldn't she?

And the way he was looking at her, watching, made her think that he wasn't looking for a twenty-five-year-old. He was looking at her.

Smiling, a nice, real smile. Making her think of him with that shirt ripped off, and her close to him, kissing him, being cradled in those big arms, his mouth closed over the brown nub of her nipple. Phew.

Even now, Izzie could recall every precise detail of the moment. "So, what's the 'curly girl' thing?" he asked.

Wiping the nipple-sucking vision from her mind, Izzie grinned at him now, not her sassy New Yorker-by-adoption grin but the born-and-bred-country-girl grin her family would have recognized. "My best friend from school used to call that sort of thing 'curly.' Don't know why. She had an odd way with words. Curly means the sort of person who loves pink ribbons and barrettes, makes her eyes look like Bambi's and believes in eating before a dinner date so men won't think she's a great horse of a creature with a huge appetite."

"I'd warrant a guess you never did anything like that in your life," he said, assessing her with his eyes. "Not that there's anything wrong with a huge appetite."

A quicksilver flip in her stomach made Izzie think he wasn't referring to appetites at mealtimes.

"I like my food," she said flatly.

He'd get no games from her. She knew how they were played after years of dating in Manhattan. Games were games. This was for real, wasn't it?

"Favorite meal, then? Your last meal on earth?"

He was leaning back in Linda's chair by now, totally oblivious to everyone round them. The charity auction had begun. Some hideous piece of sculpture was being sold and the other alpha males in the room were practically beating their chests like gorillas trying to buy it.

But Joe wasn't interested. His total focus was on her. In turn, she couldn't take her eyes off his face, off the steel gray eyes that were making her feel like the most important person in the room. That couldn't be a trick, could it? Could a person fake absolute fascination?

Izzie sensed rather than saw the women at their table noticing the courtship going on between her and Joe, and she knew that it was time to put a stop to it all, and go back to the real world. Somebody would notice. She half recognized his name and was sure that Mr. Hansen was a big fry while she was just a shrimp in the pond. But somehow she couldn't put a stop to this just yet. It had been so long since she'd flirted with a man or felt even a quarter of the attraction she felt right now. Just a few minutes more — that couldn't hurt, right?

"Cough medicine and painkillers, probably," she joked. She joked when she was nervous.

"Not your last meal in Cedars-Sinai," he said, eyes glinting now and a smile turning up his mouth ever so slightly. He smiled with his eyes, Izzie realized. So few people did that.

"Trout caught from the stream beside my home in Ireland, with salad — arugula from the garden my grandmother set. She says it's a great cure for grumpiness, puts a bit of pep back into you. And gooseberry tart with cream."

"Real food," Joe said, and his eyes were smiling more, sending out even more warmth that hit her square in the heart. "I was afraid you might say something about rare Iranian caviar or champagne out of a small vineyard that they only stock in five-star hotels in Paris."

"Then you don't know me very well," Izzie countered. There weren't many things that surprised Mr. Hansen very much, she felt sure. Shrewd wasn't the word. Izzie had a feeling she'd managed a feat few people ever had, and all because she'd been herself. Normally, being herself got her nowhere with men. How lovely to meet one who liked the unvarnished, raw Izzie Silver. The onthe-verge-of-forty Izzie.

"I'd like to," he said. "Know you well, I mean."

"Sold at seventy thousand dollars!" yelled the auctioneer triumphantly. Izzie glanced up. The red-faced oil billionaire at the table next to theirs was now the proud owner of what looked to Izzie like a squashed car gearbox painted with acid yellow dribbles. Art, schmart.

"I'm boring you," Joe said softly.

"No." Izzie flushed. She never flushed. Flushing was man-hunting girlie behavior, ranking alongside her pet hates like hair-flicking and the tentative licking-of-lip thing that men always seemed to fall for, brain surgeons and cabdrivers alike. Men could be so dumb.

"You're not boring me at all," she said quickly. He was unsettling her, though. Not that she could say that. Hello, I haven't been on a date in six months and have given up on men, so you're not boring me, but you're freaking the hell out of me because I like you. No, definitely not something she could say.

He was talking again; he'd think she was a total nutcase, the way she kept tuning in and out.

"That's good," he said. "I'd hate to be boring."

As if, Izzie thought with a little sigh.

The voice of the auctioneer boomed out of the sound system: "The next item in today's auction is a portrait painted by art legend Pasha Nilanhi. Who'll start the bidding at twenty thousand dollars?"

Everyone made the correct noises of appreciation. Izzie had no idea who this Pasha person was, but everyone else must from the approving murmurs. Or else they were pretending in case they looked like art philistines.

"Do you collect art?" he asked her as she craned her neck to see the picture that was now being carried round among the tables.

"Only if it's in the pages of magazines," she said with a mischievous smile. "To let you in on a secret, I didn't pay for my ticket today," she added. "I'm not one of the art-collecting ladies who lunch."

She waited for him to retreat. She was too old and not rich, either.

"I've a secret too," he murmured, moving closer so that she instinctively bent her head to hear him. "I figured that out for myself. That's why I'm talking to you."

Izzie felt another swoop deep in her belly. "You're saying I stand out like a sore thumb?" she teased.

"In a good way." He grinned. "The big giveaway was seeing you actually eat the entrée."

Izzie couldn't help herself: she let out a great roar of laughter.

"Greed was the giveaway," she laughed. "How awful."

"Not greed," he insisted. "Hey, I ate mine too."

"You're a guy," Izzie said, as if explaining experimental physics to a four-year-old. "Guys can eat and it looks macho. In our screwed-up universe, women can't eat."

"Except for you," he urged.

"Except for me," she agreed, feeling suddenly heiferlike.

"Good. Because I was going to ask you out to lunch and there wouldn't be any point if you wouldn't eat. Or if lunch isn't acceptable, we could have dinner?"

Izzie wanted to shriek "Yes!" at the top of her voice. This man, all elegance in a Brioni suit that cost more than a month's rent on her apartment, had captured her as surely as if he'd caged her. He might dress like a civilized man, but he was a hunter all the same, a predator, the alpha male.

And playing with alpha males was madness. They knew what they wanted and went after it ruthlessly. Izzie didn't want to be hurt.

To steady herself, she reached for the stem of her wineglass and twirled it. The table no longer looked pretty. It was sad now: the menus tossed aside, place names scrunched up, dirtied napkins left carelessly alongside coffee cups and untouched petits fours.

The whole shebang was nearly over and she had to go back to work afterward, back to her normal life where millionaires didn't flirt with her.

She lived in a tiny apartment with a dripping showerhead, mold in the cupboard under the sink in the kitchen, and she still owed twelve hundred dollars on her credit card, for God's sake, after splurging on those Christian Louboutin platforms and the Stella McCartney trousers. Had he mistaken her for someone else from his blue-chip world? She imagined people she knew hearing about her flirting with Joe Hansen and winced. She'd never wanted to be a rich man's arm candy: arm candy was twenty-something and ninety pounds, most of it breast enhancement, veneers and ego.

"Everything is possible," she said cheerily, the way she spoke to woebegone models on the phone when they hadn't been booked for something they were sure they'd got. "Not probable, though."

"Why not?"

Izzie thought about her words. "Because although I don't know you from Adam, Mr. Hansen, I have a pretty good idea that you live in a different world to me and it's not my world."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

Izzie threw up her hands. "OK, I've got three questions for you and if you answer yes to any of them, then we agree that you come from a different world. Deal?"

"Deal," he agreed, his eyes amused.

"You haven't flown commercial in the past year. Am I right?" She smiled and so did he.

"Yes," he admitted.

Izzie held up one finger. People needed more than the average production-line worker's salary to fly on private aviation.

"Were there three or more zeros on the check you gave for today's charity?"

This time he laughed. "You're clever."

"Is that a yes?"

"That's a yes."

She held up two fingers. "Two yeses," she said. From the way one of the table-hopping organizers had gushed over him earlier, Izzie had surmised that Joe had dropped a check for at least a hundred thousand dollars on the charity.

"Finally, do you own another home on the East Coast — say, in the Hamptons or Westchester or fill-in-the-blanks Ralph Lauren-style destination?"

He closed his eyes and ran a hand over a jaw that already had stubble shading it. Sexy, Izzie thought. Men who were smooth in every sense worried her; this guy was very real, very male. She liked that.

"You got me," he said. "None of that explains why we can't be friends."

Izzie favored him with her narrowed-eyes look that said, without actual words: And the check's in the mail, right?

"I'm not very good at this," he added ruefully.

"You're probably marvelous at it," she said. "I'm the one who's out of practice."

"I find that hard to believe."

"Well, believe it, Mr. Hansen," she said. "I've just had a depressing conversation about age with the woman whose seat you're sitting in. New York older women age in proportion to dog years. Once we hit forty, we freewheel downhill to becoming senior citizens, wearing elasticized waists and going on cruises so we can put on another twelve pounds at the buffet. To sum up: I am all out of sexy chat with new men."

She was sort of sorry by the time the words had left her mouth, but still, she didn't want to be toyed with. Joe was probably only amusing himself with her until a more likely prospect came along.

"You don't look forty," he said. "And I'm really not good at this. I'm out of practice too. I was married for a long time and my wife and I have, well — separated." He said it all slowly, like he was just getting used to the phrase.

"Sorry to hear that."

"Thanks, but it's been a long time coming." He shrugged. "We were married young. We've been trying to make it work for a long time but, hey, it hasn't."

"You're on the lookout for a second wife, then?" Izzie asked cheekily. "Because your neighbor" — she meant the woman with the bank-vault jewelry — "seemed to be auditioning for the role."

"Muffy?" he said. "She's sweet but not really my type."

Sweet? Muffy? She was as sweet as a rattlesnake, Izzie thought, but let it pass. She liked the fact that he wasn't the sort of guy to make a snide remark about Muffy.

"Listen," he went on, "I don't do this normally. It's been" — he winced — "over twenty years since I did."

He put one hand on her bare arm and Izzie had to hide her sharp intake of breath.

What was happening to her?

"I take risks in business, calculated ones. I try to systematically beat the markets through math. Sometimes I bet on long shots, but not often. I'm known for being straight and saying what I think. I've never sat beside a strange woman at a charity luncheon and felt like this, or acted like this. For all I know, you might have a hotline to Page Six of the New York Post to say Joe Hansen has lost it, but for once, I don't care because I've got to say what I feel."

There was silence. His fingers were still wrapped around her arm, warm skin on warm skin.

"This is crazy," Izzie said, shaken.

Their eyes locked and he only looked away to curse lightly under his breath and take a tiny, vibrating cell phone from his breast pocket. He scanned it quickly, then put it back.

"I've got to go," Joe said urgently. "Can I drop you someplace?"

"I've got to go back to work too," she said. Work seemed like a million miles away. "But my office is off Houston, it may not be on your way..." she added lamely.

"I've got time," he said.

Suddenly, they were leaving, walking out without saying good-bye to anyone. The auction was still going on. Joe made a call on his cell phone and by the time they reached the street there was a discreet black car waiting for them. It was sleek and luxuriously anonymous, like something NASA might consider sending to Mars. Izzie climbed in.

"I've lived in apartments smaller than the inside of this car," she joked, settling back into a seat of pale cream leather.

"I know the owner. We could sort out a deal," he joked back.

She sat as far away from him as she could get in the backseat, trying to appear as if she spent a lot of time being ferried round the city in luxury.

"You know about me and I still don't know anything about you, Ms. Silver. What do you do?" he asked.

Izzie gave him her spiel. Women were normally interested in the fashion world and made sympathetic noises about working with beautiful beings. Men were either bored or their faces lit up and they wanted to know — some subtly, some not so subtly — if her agency had any of the Victoria's Secret girls on their books.

Joe did none of these things.

He asked her about the agency and about the problems faced by a business where the main commodity was human beings. As the car cruised along, insulating Izzie and Joe from the rainy streets via darkened windows, she became passionate about the flaws in the industry.

Before she knew it, she'd forgotten everything except the need to explain to this man that she hated seeing so many girls messed up by fashion's predilection for using the skinniest-limbed waifs they could find.

"Officially, fashion people say it's not our fault that the big look is 'rexy' — a combination of sexy and anorexic," she explained when he looked baffled, "but of course the whole fashion industry is a factor. C'mon, if you're a fourteen-year-old and you see an airbrushed girl in every TV commercial or magazine spread, eventually you'll think that's what you're supposed to look like, even if it's physically impossible for you. So hello to anorexia or bulimia."

"I'm glad I've got sons," he remarked.

"Sons? How old are they?" Izzie recovered at lightning speed. Of course he'd have children. He'd spoken about a long marriage: children would be part of that.

"Twenty-three, twelve and fourteen," he said, his face softening. "Tom, he's the eldest. He's in France working on his French, and possibly on the girls. Matt's next, bit of a gap, I know, and he's into music in a big way. Practices guitar all the time, won't touch his math homework. Ironic, given that's how I've made my money. Josh is more into his books. His school had an extra language class this term, Japanese, and he took it." Joe couldn't keep the pride out of his voice. "Tom says his little bro is mad. Kids, huh?"

"And they live with...?" Izzie probed.

"Us. We're still in the same house while we're sorting it all out," he said. "The separation has been a long time coming, but we've only recently formalized it. We've a big house," he added. "We want to get things right for the boys and this was the best way. No 'Dad moving out,' not yet."

"Ah," Izzie said. Time for her to back off. No matter what instant attraction she'd had for this guy, she didn't want to get caught up in a messy separation and divorce, or even be his rebound person. Any man getting out of a marriage after that long would be rebounding like a basketball at a Knicks game.

"That's my building," she told the driver as the Perfect-NY offices came into view.

The car pulled up. Joe put one hand on the door handle to let her out his side, the curb side.

"Would you have lunch with me one day?" he asked.

"You're still married," Izzie pointed out. "In my book, that affects the whole dating process. It gets kinda messy — I've seen it. I don't want to experience it."

"Just lunch," he said, and his steel gray eyes seemed to melt as they stared at hers. Izzie felt it again: that lurch of excitement inside her. She could honestly say she'd never felt anything like that before in her whole life, but what was the point? Their relationship could only be a friendship, it had no future. Otherwise, she'd be doing something really dumb.

"Don't move," Joe told the driver. "I'll let Ms. Silver out."

"Whatever you want, Mr. Hansen."

Whatever you want, Mr. Hansen, thought Izzie helplessly, feeling that wave of attraction spanning out from her solar plexus again.

Just one little lunch. What was the harm in that?

Copyright © 2008 by Cathy Kelly

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