“I don’t want to look like Georgia O’Keeffe’s grandfather on the book.”
“You won’t.” It was quite an image. She had looked him up on the Internet, and knew that he was forty-six years old, and now she remembered what he looked like. He was a good-looking man. And his voice sounded young and energetic, even if he was sick.
“Are you okay at the hotel?” he asked, sounding concerned.
“I’m fine,” she reassured him again.
“I really appreciate your coming over here on such short notice. I don’t know what my publisher was thinking, they forgot we needed a photo for the book, and they just reminded me this week. It’s a little crazy, with Christmas and everything. I asked them to contact you, but I didn’t think you’d come.”
“I had no other plans. I was going to Cape Cod, and it’s actually more fun to be here.”
“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “I live in Ireland, but it’s pretty depressing there this time of year too. I have a house here that I use whenever I’m not writing. Have you ever been to Ireland?” he asked with sudden interest, and then succumbed to another fit of coughing.
“Not in a long time,” she admitted. “It’s very pretty, but I haven’t had any reason to go there in years. I like it better in the summer.”
“Me too, but the wet, brooding winters are good for my writing,” he laughed then, “and Ireland is good for my taxes. Writers don’t pay income tax in Ireland, which is pretty cool. I took Irish citizenship two years ago. It works well for me,” he said, sounding pleased, and she laughed.
“That sounds like a great deal. Was your family Irish?” Given his name, she assumed they were, and enjoyed chatting with him. It was a good opportunity to get to know him a little better, even if on the phone. The more they talked, the more at ease with her he would be when they finally met and worked together.
“My parents were Irish, born in Ireland, but I was born in New York. Their being Irish made it easier to make the switch though. I had dual nationality, and then finally gave up my U.S. passport. It just made more sense for me, as long as I’m willing to live there. There are some fabulous houses in Ireland, and some beautiful countryside despite the bad weather. You’ll have to come and visit sometime.” It was the kind of thing people said, although she couldn’t imagine doing that, and once she took his photograph for the book jacket, it was unlikely that they’d see each other again, unless she did another shoot with him.
They chatted for a while longer, and he told her what his book was about. It was about a serial killer and was set in Scotland. It sounded eerie, but the plot had some interesting twists and he said he’d give her a copy when it was finished. He said he was putting the last touches on it. She told him she hoped he felt better and agreed to meet two days later, to give him time to get over his cold. And after that Hope decided to call Paul. She had no idea if he was in London, but she figured it was worth a try. He answered on the second ring, and he sounded pleased and surprised to hear her. She could hear the familiar tremor in his voice. Over the years, his voice had changed, and sometimes his speech slurred.
“What a nice surprise. Where are you? In New York?”
“No,” she said simply, with a quiet smile. “I’m in London. I came over here to work, just for a few days. I’m shooting a book jacket for an author.”
“I didn’t think you did that anymore, after your last big museum show,” he said warmly. He had always been proud of her work.
“I still do commercial work once in a while, just to keep my hand in. I can’t do arty stuff all the time. It’s fun to do different things. I’m shooting Finn O’Neill.”
“I like his books,” Paul said, sounding impressed and genuinely pleased by her call. She could hear it in his voice.
“So do I. He’s got a cold, so we delayed the shoot by a day. I was wondering if you were here and wanted to have lunch tomorrow.”
“I’d love it,” he said quickly. “I’m leaving day after tomorrow for the Bahamas. It’s too cold here.” He had a beautiful boat he kept in the Caribbean in winter. He spent a lot of time on it. It was his escape from the world.
“I’m glad I called.”
“So am I.” They agreed to meet at the hotel for lunch the next day. She hadn’t asked him how he was. She would be able to judge it for herself when she saw him, and he didn’t like to talk about his illness.
Paul had turned sixty that fall, and had been struggling with Parkinson’s for ten years. It had changed everything about their life, and his. He had developed a tremor right after his fiftieth birthday, and at first he had denied it, but as a cardiovascular surgeon, he couldn’t hide from it for long. He had had no choice but to retire within six months. And then the bottom had dropped out of his world and her own. He had continued to teach at Harvard for the next five years, until he couldn’t manage that anymore either. He had retired completely at fifty-five, and that was when the drinking began. For two years he hid it from everyone they knew, except for her.
The only wise thing he had done during that time was make some excellent investments, in two companies that made surgical equipment. He had advised one of them, and the investments had been more profitable than anything else he had ever done. One of the companies went public, and when he sold his shares within two years of his retirement, he made a fortune, and bought his first boat. But the drinking kept everything about their life on edge, and as the Parkinson’s hampered him more and more, he was barely able to function. And when he wasn’t sick, he was drunk, or both. He had finally gone into treatment for his drinking at a residential facility that one of his colleagues at Harvard had recommended. But by then, their entire world had fallen apart. There was nothing left and no reason to stay together, and Paul had made the decision to divorce her. She would have stayed with him forever, but he wouldn’t allow it.
As a physician, he knew better than anyone what lay ahead for him, and he refused to drag her through it. He made the decision about the divorce entirely on his own, and gave her no choice. Their divorce had been final two years before, after her return from her months in India. They tried not to talk about their marriage and divorce anymore. The subject was too painful for both of them. Somehow, with all that had happened, they had lost each other. They still loved each other and were close, but he wouldn’t allow her to be part of his life anymore. She knew that he cared about her and loved her, but he was determined to die quietly on his own. And other than her work, his seemingly generous gesture had left her completely alone and at loose ends.
She worried about him, but she knew that medically he was in good hands. He spent months at a time on his boat, and the rest of the time he lived in London, or went back to Boston for treatment at Harvard. But there was relatively little they could do to help him. The disease was slowly devouring him, but for now, he could still get around, although it was a challenge for him. It was easier for him being on the boat, with the crew around him all the time.
They had married when Hope was twenty-one years old, when she graduated from Brown. He had already been a surgeon and professor at Harvard by then, and was thirty-seven years old. They had met when Paul came to Brown to teach for a semester, during a sabbatical he had taken from Harvard. It was Hope’s junior year at Brown. Paul had fallen in love with her the first time he laid eyes on her, and their affair had been passionate and intense, until they married a year later right after graduation. And even in the two years since their divorce, she had never loved any other man. Paul Forrest was an impossible act to follow, and she was still deeply attached to him, whether they were married or not. He had been able to divorce her, but not to make her fall out of love with him. She just accepted it as a fact of their life. And even though his illness had changed him, she still saw the same brilliant man and mind within the broken body.
The loss of his profession had nearly destroyed him, and in many ways he was greatly diminished, but not in the eyes of his ex-wife. To her, his tremor and shuffling gait didn’t change the man he was.
Hope spent the night quietly in her hotel room, reading O’Neill’s book, trying not to think about Paul, and the life they had once shared. It was a door neither of them dared open anymore, there were too many ghosts behind it, and they were better off keeping their exchanges about the present, rather than the past. But her eyes lit up when she saw him the next day. She was waiting in the lobby for him, and saw Paul shuffle his feet slowly as he moved toward her with a cane, but he was still tall and handsome, stood erect, and despite the tremor, his eyes were bright and he looked well. She still thought he was the nicest man in the world, and although his illness had aged him, he was a fine-looking man.
He looked equally happy to see her, and gave her a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. “You look terrific,” he said, smiling at her. She was wearing black slacks, high heels, and a bright red coat, with her black hair pulled back in a bun. Her dark violet eyes looked huge and full of life as she took him in. To her practiced eye, he looked no worse than he had in a while, maybe even slightly better. The experimental medication he was on seemed to be helping, although he was still somewhat unsteady as she took his arm and they walked into the dining room. She could feel his whole body shake. The Parkinson’s was so cruel.
The maître d’ gave them a good table, and they chatted easily as they caught up with each other and decided what to eat. It was always so comfortable for her with him. They were so familiar with each other, knew each other so perfectly. She had known and loved him since she was nineteen, and it seemed strange to her at times to no longer be married to him. But he had been intransigent about it-he refused to have her saddled with a sick old man. She was sixteen years younger, which had made no difference to either of them, until he got sick, and then it had mattered to him. He had opted out of her life, although they still loved each other, and always had a good time when they were together. Within minutes he had her laughing about something, and she told him all about her recent shows, trips, and work. She hadn’t seen him in six months, although they talked on the phone fairly regularly. Even though they were no longer married, she couldn’t imagine a life without him in it.
“I looked up your subject on his publisher’s website last night,” Paul told her as his hands shook while he tried to eat. Inevitably, he had a hard time feeding himself, but was determined to do it, and she made no comment at whatever he spilled, nor reached over to help him. It took every ounce of dignity he could muster to go out to restaurants, but she was proud of him that he still did. Everything about his illness had been an agony for him, the career he had lost that had meant everything to him, and on which his self-esteem had rested, the marriage that had ultimately been a casualty to it, because he refused to drag her down with him. The only real pleasure he had now was sailing, while slowly he deteriorated. Even Hope knew that he was only a shadow of the man he had once been, although out of pride, if nothing else, he tried to hide it. At sixty, he should have been vital and alive, still in the bloom of his life and career. Instead, he was in the winter of his life, alone now, just as she was, although she was so much younger. Paul was slipping ever so slowly out of life, and it always upset her deeply when she saw it. He put a good front on it, but the reality was brutal, especially for him.
“O’Neill is a very interesting man,” Paul went on, looking intrigued. “He seems to have been born in the States, of a noble Irish family, and he returned to reclaim his ancestral estate. There was a photo of it on the Internet too, it’s quite a place. It’s beautiful, in a fallen-down ancient way. There are some lovely old houses like that in Ireland. I’ve noticed that a lot of the furniture from those places comes up for auction at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. They look like French antiques and in many cases are. In any event, he lives in an enormous house, and he’s an Irish aristocrat, which I’d never realized before. He went to some ordinary American university, but he has a doctorate from Oxford, and he was decorated by the British, after he won the National Book Award in the States, for fiction. He’s actually Sir Finn O’Neill,” he reminded her, which jogged a memory for her.
“I’d forgotten that,” she admitted. Paul was always a source of endless knowledge for her. And then she looked sheepish. “I forgot to call him Sir Finn when he called me. He didn’t seem to care though.”
“He sounds like a wild character,” Paul said, giving up on eating. Some days were harder than others, and there was only so much embarrassment he could tolerate in public. “He’s been involved with a number of very well known women, heiresses, princesses, actresses, models. He’s a bit of a playboy, but he certainly has talent. It should be an interesting shoot. He sounds like a loose cannon with some fairly outrageous behavior, but at least he won’t be boring. He’ll probably try to seduce you,” Paul said with a sad smile. He had relinquished all claim to her, except in friendship, long since, and never asked about her love life. He didn’t want to know. And she spared him the agony of telling him that she was still in love with him. There were a number of subjects they never touched on, both past and present. In the circumstances, what they shared, over the occasional lunch or dinner, or on the phone, was the best they could do. And this last bond between them was what they clung to.
“He’s not going to seduce me,” Hope reassured him. “I’m probably twice the age of what he goes out with, if he’s as wild as you say.” She didn’t look interested or worried. He was a subject, not a date, in her mind anyway.
“Don’t be so sure,” Paul said wisely.
“I’ll hit him with a tripod if he tries anything,” she said firmly, and they both laughed. “Besides, I have an assistant working with me tomorrow. Maybe he’ll like her. And he’s sick, that should help.”
They chatted amiably after lunch, and dawdled over dessert. Paul made two attempts to drink the tea he’d ordered and couldn’t, and Hope didn’t dare offer to hold the cup for him, although she wished she could. And after lunch, she walked him out of the hotel and waited while the doorman got him a taxi to take him back to his apartment.
“Are you coming back to New York one of these days?” she asked him hopefully. He had an apartment at the Hotel Carlyle, which he rarely used. And he avoided Boston entirely now, except for medical treatments. Going back to visit his old colleagues was too depressing for him. They were all still at the height of their careers, and his had been over for ten years, far too soon.
“I’m going to stay in the Caribbean for the winter. And then probably come back here.” He liked the anonymity of London, the fact that no one knew him. There was no one to feel sorry for him here, and it was painful for him to see the sympathy in Hope’s eyes. It was one of the reasons why he hadn’t stayed married to her. He didn’t want to be an object of pity. He preferred being alone to being a burden to someone he loved. And in making that decision, he had deprived them both. But there had been no swaying him once he made up his mind. Hope had tried to no avail, and finally accepted that he had a right to choose how he wanted to live out his final years, and whatever the reasons, it wasn’t with her.
“Let me know how the interview with O’Neill goes,” Paul said, as the doorman hailed him a cab. He looked down at her with a smile then, and he pulled the small familiar figure into his arms, and as she hugged him, he closed his eyes. “Take care of yourself, Hope,” he said with a lump in his throat, and she nodded. Sometimes he felt guilty for letting her go, but he had firmly believed it was the right thing for her, and he still did. He had no right to ruin her life, in order to serve his.
“I will, you too,” she said, as she kissed his cheek and helped him into the cab. It pulled away from the curb in front of Claridge’s a moment later, and she stood and waved in the cold, as they drove off. It always made her sad to see him, but he was the only family she had left. She realized as she walked back into the hotel that she had forgotten to wish him a Merry Christmas, but she was glad she had. It would only have brought back memories for both of them, which would have been much, much too hard.
She went up to her room and changed into flat shoes, and a heavier coat. And a few minutes later, she left the hotel quietly and went for a long, solitary walk.
Fiona Casey, the assistant her agent had hired for her, showed up at Hope’s hotel room at nine o’clock the next morning. She was a bright, funny, redheaded girl, who was totally in awe of Hope. She was a graduate photography student at the Royal Academy of Arts, and supported herself by doing freelance work. She was equally impressed that they would be shooting Finn O’Neill, and stumbled all over herself, carrying Hope’s equipment out to a rental van. They were due at Finn O’Neill’s house at ten o’clock. Hope hadn’t heard from him again, so she assumed he was healthy enough to do the shoot.
The driver the hotel had provided for her with the van drove them the short distance to an elegant mews house at a fashionable address. The house was tiny, as they all were on the narrow backstreet, and as soon as she struck the brass knocker on the door, a maid in a uniform appeared and let them in. She led them into a doll-sized living room near the front door, which was crammed with weathered antique English furniture. The bookcase was overflowing, and there were stacks of books on the floor, and glancing at them, Hope could see that many of the books were old, either leatherbound, or on closer inspection, first editions. This was clearly a man who loved books. The couches were comfortable, covered in leather, and very old, and there was a fire burning brightly in the grate, which seemed to be the only heat source in the room. It was cold, except when one stood close to the fire. And in close proximity to the sitting room was a dining room painted dark green, and a small kitchen beyond. Each of the rooms was very small, but had lots of charm.
They sat there for nearly half an hour, waiting for Finn, as both Fiona and Hope got up to stand near the fire, chatting quietly in whispers. The house was so minute that it seemed awkward to speak too loudly, for fear that someone would overhear them. And then, just as Hope began wondering where he was, a tall man with a mane of dark hair and electric blue eyes burst into the room. The house seemed ridiculously small for a man his size, as though if he stretched his arms he could touch the walls and span the room. It seemed an absurd place for him, particularly after she had looked up his ancestral home in Ireland on the Internet after Paul mentioned it to her.
“I’m so sorry to keep you waiting,” Finn said in an ordinary American accent. She didn’t know why, but after all she’d read about O’Neill and his ties to Ireland, she almost expected him to have a brogue, except that they had spoken on the phone the night before, and he had sounded like any other educated New Yorker, although he looked more European. Whatever his ancestry, he was in fact as American as Hope. And his cold sounded a lot better. He coughed a few times, but no longer sounded as though he were dying. In fact, he looked surprisingly healthy and full of life. And he had a smile that melted Fiona on the spot, as he had the maid offer her a cup of coffee while he invited Hope to join him upstairs. He apologized to Fiona for disappearing with Hope, but he wanted to get to know his photographer a little better.
She followed him up a narrow winding staircase, and found herself in a cozy but larger living room, filled with books, antiques, objects, mementos, old leather couches, and comfortable chairs, and there was a blazing fire in the fireplace. It was the kind of room where you wanted to tuck yourself in and stay for days. Every object was fascinating and intriguing. Some were from his travels, and others looked as though he had treasured them for years. The room was full of personality and warmth, and despite his large frame and long limbs, it somehow seemed the perfect place for him. He let himself down into the embrace of an overstuffed old couch, and stretched out his long legs toward the fire with a broad grin at Hope. She saw that he was wearing well-worn, very elegant black leather riding boots.
“I hope I wasn’t rude to your assistant,” he said apologetically. “I just thought it might be nice to get acquainted, before we get to work. I’m always self-conscious about being photographed. As a writer, I’m used to observing everyone else, not to having others watch me. I don’t like being in the limelight.” He said it with a boyish, slightly lopsided smile that immediately won her heart. He had an immense amount of charm.
“I feel exactly the same way. I don’t like being photographed either. I like being at the shooting end myself.” She was already thinking about where she could photograph him best. She almost preferred him right where he was, stretching out comfortably in front of the fire, his head slightly thrown back so she could see his face. “Are you feeling better?” He appeared so healthy and vital that it was hard to believe he’d ever been sick. He still sounded a little hoarse, but he was full of energy, and his blue eyes danced when he laughed. He reminded her of the fairy tales of her youth, and looked like the perfect handsome prince, or the hero in a book, although most of the subjects of his work were fairly dark.
“I’m fine now,” he said blithely, and then coughed a little. “This house is so small, I always feel somewhat foolish in it, but it’s so comfortable and easy, I could never give it up. I’ve had it for years. I’ve written some of my best books here.” And then he turned to point to his desk behind them. It was a wonderful old partner’s desk, which he said had been on a ship. It dominated the far corner of the room, where his computer sat on it, looking strangely out of place. “Thank you for coming over,” he said kindly. He seemed truly grateful, as the maid walked in, carrying a silver tray with two cups of tea. “I know it was a crazy thing to ask you to do, on Christmas week. But they needed the shot, and I’m finishing a book next week, and due to start another right after, so I’ll be back in Dublin working. Meeting you in London now made more sense.”
“It was fine actually,” Hope said easily, helping herself to one of the cups of tea. Finn took the other one, and the maid instantly disappeared back down the stairs. “I had nothing else to do,” she said, as he examined her carefully. She was younger than he had expected, and better looking. He was startled by how tiny and delicate she was, and the strength of her violet eyes.
“You’re a good sport to come over here right before Christmas,” he commented, as she looked at the light and shadows on his face. He was going to be easy to photograph. Everything about him was expressive, and he was a strikingly handsome man.
“London is fun this time of year,” Hope said with a smile as she set down her cup of tea on the regimental drum he used as a coffee table. A stack of beautiful old alligator suitcases sat to one side of the fireplace. Everywhere she looked there was something to admire. “I usually ignore the holiday, so it was fun to come over here. The assignment was a nice surprise and came at a good time. What about you? Will you be spending Christmas in Ireland or here?” She liked getting to know her subjects before she started work, and O’Neill was easy and relaxed. He didn’t seem like a difficult person, and he was open and accessible as he smiled at her over his cup of tea. He was extremely charming and appealing.
“No, I’m going to stay here and go back afterward,” he answered. “My son is flying over the day after Christmas. He goes to MIT, he’s a bright kid. He’s a computer whiz. His mother died when he was seven, and he grew up with me. I really miss him now that he’s in college in the States. It’s more fun for him here in London than in Dublin. And then he’s going skiing with friends. We’re very close,” Finn said proudly, and then looked at her intently. He was curious about her. “Do you have kids?”
“No.” She shook her head quietly. “I don’t.” He was surprised. She looked as though she would. She didn’t look like one of those career women who had decided not to have children. She seemed more motherly and there was a noticeably gentle softness about her. She was soft-spoken and seemed nurturing and kind.
“Married?” He glanced at her left hand, and there was no ring.
“No,” and then she opened up a little. “I was. My husband was a cardiovascular surgeon at Harvard. Heart-lung transplants were his specialty. He retired ten years ago. We’ve been divorced for over two years.”
“I think retiring destroys people. I’m going to keep writing until they carry me out. I wouldn’t know what else to do with myself. Was retiring hard on him? It must have been. Heart surgeons are always heroes, particularly at Harvard, I imagine.”
“He had no choice. He got sick,” she said quietly.
“Worse yet. That must have been tough for him. Cancer?” He wanted to know about her, and as they talked, she watched the movement of his face, and the bright blue of his eyes. She was glad they were shooting in color-it would have been a shame not to get the actual color of those eyes. They were the bluest she’d ever seen.
“No, Parkinson’s. He stopped operating as soon as he found out. He taught for several years after that, but eventually, he had to give that up too. It was very hard on him.”
“And probably on you too. That’s a brutal disappointment for a man in the midst of a career like that. Hence the divorce?”
“That and other things,” she said vaguely, glancing around the room again. There was a photograph of Finn with a handsome young blond boy, who she guessed was his son, and he nodded when he saw her looking at it.
“That’s my boy, Michael. I miss him now that he’s at school. It’s hard getting used to his not being around.”
“Did he grow up in Ireland?” She smiled at the image. Like his father, he was good-looking.
“We lived in New York and London when he was small. I moved to Ireland two years after he left for college. He’s an all-around American kid. I never really was. I always felt different, maybe because my parents weren’t born in the States. All they ever talked about was moving back. So eventually, I did.”
“And Ireland feels like home?” she asked as their eyes met.
“Now it does. I reclaimed my family’s ancestral house. Restoring it will take me the next hundred years. The place was falling apart when I got it, and parts of it still are. It’s an enormous old Palladian home built by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce in the early 1700s. Unfortunately, my parents died long before I got it back, and Michael thought I was nuts to take it on.” There was a photograph of it on the mantelpiece, and he handed it to Hope. It was a gigantic classic house, with a large stone staircase in front, and rounded side wings with columns. In the photograph Finn was in front of the house, astride an elegant black horse. He looked very much the lord of the manor.
“It’s an amazing house,” Hope said with admiration. “It must be quite a project to restore.”
“It has been, but it’s a labor of love. It will be my legacy to Michael one day. I should have it in decent shape by then, providing I live for at least another hundred years to do it.” He laughed as he said it, and Hope handed back the photograph. Now she was sorry she hadn’t shot him there. In comparison to the remarkable Palladian palace, his London mews house suddenly seemed ridiculously small, but all his publisher wanted was a head shot, and for that the cozy room they were sitting in was good enough.
“I’d better get my assistant started,” Hope said, standing up. “It’ll take us a while to set up. Do you have any preference about location?” she asked, glancing around again. She had liked the way he looked when he was sitting on the couch, relaxing and talking about his Dublin house. And she wanted to shoot him at his desk as well, and maybe a couple of shots standing next to the bookcase. It was always hard to predict where the magic would happen, until they connected as she worked. He seemed like an easy subject; everything about him was open and relaxed. And as she looked into his eyes, she could sense that he was the kind of man you could trust, and rely on. There was a feeling of warmth and humor about him, as though he had a good understanding of people’s quirks and the vagaries of life. And there was a hint of laughter in his eyes. He was sexy too, but in a distinguished, aristocratic way. There was nothing sleazy about him, even though her agent had warned her that he was something of a womanizer. Seeing him, that was easy to understand. He was enormously appealing, seemed very caring, and was a gorgeous hunk of man. And she suspected that if he turned the charm on at full volume, he’d be hard to resist. She was glad she wasn’t in that position, and was only working with him. He had been very complimentary about her work. She could tell from questions he had asked her, and things he referred to, that he had Googled her. He seemed to know the entire list of museums she’d been shown in, some of which even she didn’t remember most of the time. He was very well informed.