She and Finn kissed for a last time, and she waved as he went through security and disappeared, and then she went back to the city in the limo he’d rented. It was the first time she’d been alone in a month and it felt strange. It was small comfort that they wouldn’t be wrestling with her narrow bed. It was an impossible fit for her and Finn, but he insisted on sleeping with her in it, every night. She had promised to try and fit a larger bed onto her sleeping platform before he came to stay again, but it would be a tight fit.
After he left, the apartment seemed empty without him, and she wandered around aimlessly for a while, then she answered some emails, checked her mail, made some editing notes about photographs for her retoucher, and finally took a bath and went to bed with a book. She missed him, but she had to admit that, for a short time, having time to herself was nice. Finn liked a lot of attention, engaged in interesting conversations with her at all hours, and wanted to be together all the time. And just for a change, it was almost fun to be on her own again, although she wouldn’t have said it to him. He would have been crushed.
Her cell phone woke her at three in the morning. It was Finn. He had just arrived. He called to tell her he loved her, and missed her awfully. She thanked him, told him she loved him too, blew him a kiss, and went back to sleep. And he called her again at nine. He told her everything he was doing at the house in preparation for her arrival, and she smiled, listening to him. He sounded like a little kid, and she loved that about him. There was an innocence and sweetness about him that was irresistible. When they were together, it was easy to forget how famous and successful he was, just as he did about her. It wasn’t important to them.
He called her three times a day, and she called him as often, between projects and meetings, gallery visits, and discussions with curators. He sounded fine until the day she was leaving for L.A., and then he mentioned Rod Beames again and reminded her not to fall in love with him, or even go out to dinner with him, remembering what had happened between them. She assured him that she wouldn’t and reminded him that Beames had a twenty-five-year-old wife who was pregnant, and he would surely not be chasing her.
“You never know,” Finn said, still sounding anxious. “I’d rather have you than any twenty-five-year-old.”
“That’s why I’m in love with you,” Hope said, smiling. She was rushing to the airport and had to get off the phone.
Once she was in L.A., Finn called her constantly. She finally had to shut off her phone at the sitting, and he complained about it bitterly when she turned it back on again after the shoot.
“What were you doing with him?” Finn asked, sounding angry.
“Taking his picture, silly,” Hope said, trying to calm him. It was the first time she had ever encountered jealousy of this nature. It would never have occurred to Paul, nor to her. “I’m all done. I’m back at the hotel. I have a meeting tomorrow morning at the L.A. County Museum about a show next year, and then I’m through. I’m flying out tomorrow. So stop worrying. And I’m not seeing Beames again.” In fact, he and his wife had invited her to dinner, and she hadn’t accepted because Finn had made such an issue about it. It seemed like a shame to her. She liked having dinner with her subjects before or after a shoot. It was the first time she had ever hesitated to do so, because she didn’t want to upset Finn. She hoped he’d get over his jealousy soon. It was a little trying, but flattering at the same time, as though she were some hot young thing that every man on the planet would want to seduce, which she had pointed out to Finn was hardly the case. But he was jealous anyway.
Instead of going out, she had dinner in her room at the Beverly Hills hotel. When Finn called her before he went to bed, he was happy to find her having room service. He was warm and loving with her and could hardly wait for her to arrive.
Hope flew to Dublin after her meeting at the L.A. County Museum, which went well. The flight was long, and by the time she landed in Dublin, she felt as though she had been on a plane for days. In the future, it was going to be a lot easier getting to Ireland from New York.
She went through customs quickly, and Finn was waiting for her as she came through and swept her into his arms. Anyone who saw them would have thought he hadn’t seen her for years, and he was carrying an enormous bouquet of flowers, reds and yellows and pinks-they were the prettiest flowers she’d ever seen. They chatted animatedly as they went to pick up her bags, and then she followed him to his car. She liked listening to the Irish brogues around her, and Finn imitated them perfectly. He swept a low bow as he held open the door to his Jaguar, and she got in holding her bouquet. She didn’t say it, but she felt like a bride.
It took them a little over an hour, driving southwest from Dublin, until they reached the town of Blessington, and drove through it. Finn followed the signs to Russborough, on narrow country roads, driving expertly on the left side, and then turned off finally onto a gravel road. The hills he had talked about were all around them, the Wicklow Mountains. There were forests and fields of wildflowers that had sprung up in the February rains. It was cold, but not as much so as Cape Cod. It was mostly damp and gray, and it rained on and off as they drove from the airport. And as soon as they reached the gravel road that was his driveway, he stopped the car, took her in his arms, and kissed her hard. He took her breath away.
“God, woman, I felt like you were never coming. I’m not letting you out of my sight again. Or I’m going with you next time. I’ve never missed anyone so much in my life.” They had only been apart for a week.
“I missed you too,” she said, smiling, happy to be there, and she couldn’t wait to see his house.
He started the car again then. It was a dark green Jaguar with tan leather seats, very elegant and masculine, and perfectly suited to him. He told her she could drive it anytime, but she was afraid to drive on the wrong side of the road, so he promised to be her chauffeur wherever she went, which sounded fine to her. She didn’t need to go anywhere without him anyway. She was here to see him.
They drove along the gravel road for what seemed like forever, with forests in the distance, and a row of trees bordering the road. They sped along a graceful turn then, and suddenly she saw it, and caught her breath. For a moment she was speechless, while he smiled. It always did the same to him, particularly when he’d been away for a while.
“Oh my God!” Hope said, turning to look at him with a broad smile. “Are you kidding? That’s not a house, it’s a palace !” It looked extraordinary. The house was enormous, and looked like the photograph he’d shown her in London, but in real life it was so much bigger, it stunned her.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” he said humbly, as he stopped the car and she got out. The house itself was majestic, the staircase looked like the gateway to heaven, and the columns lent it grace. “Welcome to Blaxton House, my love.” He had already told her it bore his mother’s maiden name and always had. Finn put an arm around her, and led her up the long stone steps. An old man in a black apron came out to greet them, and a moment later an ancient maid appeared wearing a uniform and a black sweater, with her hair in a tight bun. They looked older than the building, but were smiling and friendly, as Finn introduced her to them. Their names were Winfred and Katherine, and he explained to her later that they had come with the estate, and commented himself that they looked nearly as old.
Inside the house, there was a long gallery filled with dusty family portraits in a long dark hall with tapestries and somber furniture. There was no proper lighting, and Hope could hardly see the portraits, as she walked past them. Winfred had gone out to get her bags, and Katherine had disappeared to make them tea. On either side of the gallery were enormous drawing rooms, sparsely furnished in threadbare antiques. Hope noticed several handsome Aubusson carpets in muted colors, badly in need of repair. But the windows were long and wide, and let lots of light in. The curtains were beautiful and old with gigantic tassles but were in shreds, barely hanging by a thread.
The dining room was palatial, and the table could seat forty, Finn told her, with enormous silver candelabra that someone had polished till they gleamed. Next to it was a library that looked like it housed a million books. Finn led her up the grand staircase, to a floor with half a dozen bedrooms, small dressing rooms, sitting rooms. There were ancient furnishings in them, but all the rooms had dustcovers on the furniture, and the curtains were closed. And finally, up another smaller staircase, was the cozier floor where Finn lived. The rooms were smaller, the light brighter, and the furniture and rugs in better condition. Here, there were no curtains at all, and the rooms seemed to be filled with light, even though it was a gray day. He had a fire burning brightly for her, and had filled vases with wildflowers in every room. There was a cozy bedroom with a gigantic four-poster bed, which she knew instantly was his. And as in his mews house in London, there were stacks of books everywhere, particularly in the room he used as an office.
Katherine found them as Hope was taking her coat off, and set down a silver tray in a small sitting room. There was a silver teapot on the tray, a plate of scones, and clotted cream. She curtsied with a shy smile at them both, and left.
“So what do you think?” he asked her, looking anxious. All morning he had asked himself what he would do if she hated it and ran. He loved the place himself, but he was used to its state of comfortable disrepair, and he didn’t even see it anymore. He was afraid she would find it gloomy or depressing, and refuse to stay. And instead she was smiling at him and held out her arms.
“It’s the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen,” she reassured him, “and I love you more than life itself.” As she said it, he felt as though he were sinking into a featherbed of her approval and love, and it brought tears to his eyes.
“It needs a little work,” he said shyly, and Hope laughed.
“Yes, it does, a little, but you don’t need to rush. It’s very comfortable up here. Can we go exploring later? It’s a little overwhelming at first.” She was feeling in awe of all she’d seen, but she wanted to get to know the house and do whatever she could for him.
“You’ll get used to it, I promise.” He sat down and poured a cup of tea for her, as she helped herself to a scone. She put cream on one for him too. “Wait till you see the bathrooms, the tubs are big enough for both of us. And I want to go for a walk with you this afternoon. There are beautiful old stables in back, but I haven’t had time to think about them yet. There’s too much else to do. I keep pouring my royalty checks into it, and this place just scarfs them up and it doesn’t even show. I have to start buying some decent furniture one of these days. Nearly every couch and chair in the place is broken. What’s here came with the house.” Most of all, from what Hope could see, everything needed a good cleaning and a coat of paint, or many coats of paint. But it was easy to figure out that restoring a house like this one would cost a fortune. It would take him years to do it all. And suddenly, she was dying to help. It would be an exciting project for them both.
But before she’d even finished the scone or gotten to her tea, he had dragged her off to his enormous four-poster bed, and lovingly attacked her. He had the door locked and her clothes off in less than a minute, and he made love to her until she was breathless and he was sated. They had a sex life worthy of teenagers, and she never failed to be impressed.
“Wow!” She grinned at him afterward, wondering how she had lived without him for a week. He was definitely habit forming, and their passion totally addictive. He gave her pleasures she had never even dreamed of.
“I’m not letting you out of my sight again,” he said, grinning at her, lying naked across what was now officially their bed. “In fact, I may have to chain you to the bed. I’m sure one of my ancestors did something like that at some point. It seems like an excellent idea. Or maybe I’ll just chain you to me.” She laughed.
He showed her the enormous bathroom then and the gigantic tub. He ran a bath for her, and she was very glad she’d gotten some sleep on the plane. She could see she wouldn’t get much here. She slipped into the warm water in the bathtub, and Finn appeared with her cup of tea, in an exquisite gold Limoges cup. She sat there drinking tea in the bathtub, feeling very spoiled. It was a long way from the simple pleasures of Cape Cod, or her loft in New York. Blaxton House was remarkable, and Finn even more so.
Finn got in with her, and moments later, he made love to her again in the bathtub. As she had in New York at times, and Cape Cod, she wondered if they’d ever get out of the house. Finn insisted that no one had ever turned him on as much in his entire life, which she found hard to believe, but it was nice to hear, particularly after the last several years of her monastic life. Finn was an explosion of joy and lust she had never expected.
Eventually, he let her put on jeans, a sweater, and loafers, and she went downstairs with him. This time they toured each room more carefully. She raised shades, many of which fell as she touched them, and pulled back curtains, so she could see the rooms more clearly. There was beautiful wood paneling, and some lovely moldings on the walls. But the furniture was a disgrace, the ancient carpets badly in need of restoration, and all of the curtains were beyond salvation.
“What if you got rid of everything that’s broken or too damaged to save, cleaned it all up, and started painting it room by room? It might give you a fresh start, although it would be empty at first.” She was trying to think what she could do to help while she was there, and it would be challenging and creative to work on it with him, or even for him while he was writing. She had nothing but time on her hands.
“It would be more than empty.” Finn laughed at her. “It would be totally bare. I don’t think there’s much here worth saving.” Most of the furniture looked awful, and the upholstery was pretty grim in brighter light, some chairs only had three legs, tables were propped against walls, fabrics were dirty and torn, and there was the smell of dust everywhere. Winfred and Katherine were too old to keep it clean. They mostly took care of his rooms upstairs and ignored the rest. The place looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned properly in years, and Hope delicately said so. “I didn’t bring you over here to do housework,” he said apologetically, visibly embarrassed, and she didn’t want to criticize his house or make him feel bad. She knew it was his treasure.
“I’d love to do it. It would be a fun project for me. Why don’t we sort through it while I’m here, room by room, and see what you want to save.”
“Probably nothing. It looks like the ‘Fall of the House of Usher,’” he said, looking around, as though seeing it for the first time, now through her eyes. “I can’t really afford to do everything it needs.” He looked apologetic. He wanted her to love it as he did.
“We can figure it out once we get it clean. That would be a start. We might even be able to buy fabric in a local market to cover some of the couches. I’m pretty good with my hands,” she said, and he gave her a lascivious look that made her blush.
“You certainly are!” he agreed, and she laughed.
After they looked around the house, he took her out to see the grounds. He gave her an old jacket of his, which was enormous on her, and they went to see the stables, the gardens, the park, as it was called, and walked to the edge of the forest nearest the house. There was a heavy mist falling, so he didn’t suggest they walk into the hills, which he was anxious to do with her. Instead, he drove her into the village, and showed her all the quaint shops. They stopped for a drink at the pub, and Hope had a cup of tea, while Finn had a tall glass of warm dark beer. They chatted with everyone around, and Hope was amused to see grandmothers, children, old men, young ones, and young women coming in and out of the pub. It was like the local social club and had none of the atmosphere of bars in the States. It was kind of like a coffeehouse and bar all rolled into one. And everyone was extremely friendly. The only thing that bothered Finn was that he said there were two men looking at her, which she hadn’t even noticed. He was extremely possessive of her, but she wasn’t the kind of woman to give him any worries on that score, so she wasn’t bothered. She had never even been flirtatious in her youth, and was very straightforward, and faithful to her man. Finn had nothing to fear from her.
They drove back to the house and eventually had what the lo cals referred to as “tea,” which was really a light dinner. There were sandwiches, meats, potatoes, cheeses, and a heavy Irish meat soup, all of which filled them both. And after that, they sat by the fire in his little living room upstairs. They went to bed early, and she climbed under the comforter, and this time, before he could make love to her, Hope fell sound asleep.
On the day after Hope arrived at Blaxton House, she had Winfred, Katherine, and Finn pulling back curtains, taking down shades, and opening shutters so she could better see the condition of the rooms. Finn had given her carte blanche to do whatever she wanted, and by that afternoon, the house was full of light. Torn shades had been disposed of, shredded curtains had been taken down to be more closely examined and were lying on the floor. In the main living room, she had all the broken furniture pushed to one side of the room, and she had made a long list of what needed to be done. In drier weather, she wanted to take the ancient carpets out to air them, but there was no way to do that now. It rained on and off all day. The house was dusty, and she was coughing by the time she finished her rounds on the main floor. There was actually some very good-looking furniture, the arms and legs needed to be reinforced, and most of the upholstery was gone. She wanted to find a furniture restorer in the village, and with so many important manor houses in the area, she was sure that there was one. So far, she had listed sixteen pieces of furniture that needed restoration, and only seven that were broken beyond repair. She had Finn take her into the village to buy wax late that afternoon-she wanted to try and work on some of the woodwork and paneling herself. It was going to be a mammoth job. Winfred and Katherine were impressed with what she was doing, and Finn was in awe. And the next day, she did the same on the second floor. There, she went through all the bedrooms, and found some beautiful furniture under the muslin covers. Hope was having a great time. Finn loved it, and her.
“Good lord,” Finn said, smiling at her. “I didn’t expect you to restore my house yourself.” He was touched by what she was doing. She was a hard worker and she had a good eye. She made him take her into Blessington to find a restorer, which she did, and she made an appointment for him to come out the next day. He took away all the pieces Finn agreed needed to be worked on, and the following day, she had him drive her to Dublin, where she bought miles and miles of fabric, for upholstery, and some for the bedrooms in pastel satins. She made sure that Finn liked all the colors, and she paid for it herself as a gift to him.
And for the next many days, she worked with Winfred and Katherine to clean all the rooms, and get rid of all the dust and cobwebs. She left some of the shredded curtains hanging, and those that were beyond salvation she threw away. The windows looked better with no covering than with the remains of the old ones hanging there. The house already looked cleaner and more cheerful, and she pulled back the deep green velvet curtains in the gallery, so the house didn’t look so dark as one walked in. The place was looking better every day. And Hope said she was having a ball.
“Come on,” Finn said one afternoon, “let’s get out of here. I want to show you around.” He took her to see the other great houses, and she assured him that none were more beautiful than his. Blaxton House looked the most like Russborough House. And her goal now was to help him get his place into shape. It was too big a job for him alone, and she sensed that money was somewhat tight for him, so she tried to do everything on a budget, and paid for things whenever she could, without offending him. Finn was deeply appreciative of all she did. He was well aware that it was a labor of love she was doing for him. And the results were already starting to show.
Whenever he had work to do, she spent time on her waxing and polishing project, and room by room, the woodwork was starting to shine. The broken furniture was out being restored. A local upholsterer had taken the pieces to be re-covered, and upstairs she had found treasures under the holland covers. The master bedroom once uncovered was a marvel of exquisite furniture and beautiful frescoes on the walls. She said it looked like Versailles.
“You are amazing,” Finn said in admiration. And when she wasn’t waxing, polishing, and pushing furniture around, she was taking photographs of the locals, or digging through antique shops, looking for treasures for his house. She even helped Katherine polish the silver on a rainy afternoon, and that night, they had dinner in the formal dining room, at one end of the enormous table, instead of on trays upstairs. She was wearing jeans and an old sweater of Finn’s, which made her look like a little girl. The house was still fairly cold. “I feel like one of those cartoons in The New Yorker ,” Finn said, laughing, as Winfred served them dinner in the gigantic room. The kitchen was in the basement, and was a relic, but everything in it worked, and Hope had wrought her magic there too. By the time she had been there for two weeks, his house looked as though she had worked on it for months, and it was much improved.
After dinner, she was taking photos of the frescoes on the ceiling in the main living room as Finn walked in and smiled to see her there. She made his heart sing every time he gazed at her.
“How hard do you think it would be for us to paint these rooms ourselves?” she asked, looking vague, as he put his arms around her and kissed her.
“You’re insane, but I love you. How did I ever survive before we met? My house was filthy, my life was a mess, and I didn’t know what I was missing. Now I know. I don’t think I’m going to let you go back to the States.” He looked serious as he said it, and she laughed. They were both enjoying working on his house, and it was looking great. She could see why he loved it, and she was enjoying polishing it up for him.
“Why don’t we have some of your neighbors in for dinner sometime?” she suggested. “There must be some interesting people here, living in all those big houses. Do you know a lot of them?” she asked with interest. It would be exciting to fill the table in the dining room with lively people, and she wanted to meet some of the locals.
“I don’t know any of them,” Finn said. “I’m always working when I’m here. I never make time to go out. I do most of my socializing in London.”
“It would be nice to invite people over, maybe when the furniture comes back,” she said pensively.
“I’d rather be alone with you,” he said honestly. “You’re only here for a short time, and I don’t want to share you with anyone. It’s much more romantic on our own,” he said firmly. He clearly wanted her to himself, but Hope wanted to meet people and show off the house.
“We can do both,” she said sensibly. “We can meet people, and spend time alone.” It seemed odd to her that he had lived there for two years and didn’t know anyone.
“Maybe next time,” he said vaguely, and as he said it, her cell phone rang and she answered it. It was Paul. And she walked into a little alcove off the living room and sat down to talk. She hadn’t spoken to him in weeks. He was still sailing, and said he was fine. She told him she was visiting a friend in Ireland at a fabulous old house. She noticed that he sounded tired, but didn’t press the point, and after a few minutes she got off, as Finn walked into the room. “Who was that?” he asked, looking worried. Hope smiled as he sat down next to her.
“It was Paul. I told him all about your house.”
“That’s nice. Is he still in love with you?” Hope shook her head. “He’s too sick to think of anyone but himself. He divorced me, remember? He’s just a very special friend now. He’s my family. We were married for a long time.” Finn nodded and didn’t pursue the subject, and he looked relieved by what she had said.
They went for a walk in the hills then, and Hope brought back two baskets full of wildflowers, and put them in vases when they got back. Finn looked at her with a happy smile, and that night he talked again about their having a baby, although he had promised not to for a while. He said he loved her so much, he just couldn’t resist. He insisted he wanted a child with her, and she reminded him that it was too soon. She didn’t say it to him, but she didn’t want to have a baby unless they were married, and that wasn’t a certainty yet, although it was looking more and more likely.
“I want a little girl who looks just like you,” Finn said wistfully, as he held her after they made love. “I want our baby, Hope,” he pleaded with her.
“I know,” she said sleepily, “me too… but it’s not a sure thing at my age anyway.”
“It is nowadays. We can get a little high-tech help. The Brits are pretty good at that.” He was very persistent about wanting to get her pregnant, but for the moment they were still using protection, so it wasn’t likely to happen. It really seemed too soon to her. That was a major decision she wasn’t ready to undertake yet. It was one thing helping him fix up his house, another having a child.
“We’ll see,” she said, as she cuddled into his arms and nestled up against him, smiling happily, thinking that these were the best days in her life, or surely in a very, very long time.
On her third week in Ireland, Finn surprised her by suggesting they go to Paris for the weekend. She hadn’t thought of traveling in Europe while she was there, but she loved the idea. He made reservations at the Ritz for them, which was her favorite hotel, and that weekend they flew to Paris. They were going to London on the way back, which was perfect for her, since she wanted to meet with the photography curator at the Tate Modern, and called the day before they left to make an appointment. He was delighted at the prospect of meeting her.
Their time in Paris was everything they had hoped. The room at the Ritz was small but elegant, they walked miles all over Paris, and ate in wonderful old bistros on the Left Bank. They went to Nôtre Dame and Sacré Coeur, and poked around antiques shops, looking for things to take back to Blaxton House. The time they shared was magical, just as it had been so far everywhere else. But Paris seemed even more romantic and particularly special. The city was meant for that.
“I’ve never been so spoiled in my life.” She tried to pay for some of their dinners, but Finn wouldn’t let her. He had old-fashioned ideas about it, although he had let her pay for a few things for the house. She wished he would let her do more. His books did well, she knew, but he had a son to support and pay tuition for. He was putting Michael through college, and even without income taxes in Ireland, a house the size of Blaxton House was a major challenge to maintain and support. And life was expensive everywhere. She had so much money from Paul that she felt guilty not helping Finn more. She tried to explain it to him one day over lunch.
“I know it’s embarrassing to have me pitch in,” she said gently, “but I got this crazy huge settlement from Paul when we divorced. He had just sold his company, and with Mimi gone, neither of us has anything to do with our money. He spends most of his time on the boat. And I have hardly any expenses. Honestly, I wish you’d let me pay for things once in a while.”
“That’s not my style,” Finn said firmly, and then wondered about something. “With Mimi gone, who are you going to leave your money to one day?” It was an odd question, but nothing was out of bounds between them. They had talked about everything, and she had thought of it herself. She had no living relatives except Paul, and he was sixteen years older than she was, and very sick. It was unlikely that he would outlive her, a thought that made her very sad. And all the money she had came from him. He had given her a staggering settlement in the divorce, over her protests, but he had insisted that he wanted her set for life, and whatever was left when he died, was coming to her too.
“I don’t know,” Hope said honestly, thinking about the money she would leave behind at the end of her life. “Dartmouth maybe, in honor of my father and Mimi. Or Harvard. I don’t have anyone to leave it to. It’s kind of an odd situation. I give away a fair amount every year now, to various philanthropic causes I care about. I set up a scholarship in Mimi’s name at Dartmouth, because she went to school there, and another one at the New York City Ballet.”