Grimacing, Gabriel looked at the brush in his very paint-stained hands then angrily turned back to glare ferociously at Ian.
“What do you mean, you haven’t been able to get a model? There’s got to be thousands of women out there who pose,” he growled.
“True, but you said you wanted an older woman and most women models that age are just not plus-sized.”
Furiously Gabriel snarled loudly, “Well, find one!”
“Calm down, Gabriel. I’ve contacted Erica Jones’ agency. We’ve used her agency before although I’ve never actually met her. She’s got plus-sized models on her books but I think they’re in their twenties and thirties. Still, she said she might have or might know someone.”
“I don’t want someone young, Ian,” Gabriel snapped, sick of telling Ian the same thing over and over. “I told you I want someone in their forties or even older. I don’t care if she’s in her late sixties or seventies. I want a woman with character, a woman who’s lived.”
“Okay, okay. I get the picture!”
Gabriel threw down the paintbrush and, stomping angrily across to his easel, he tried to look critically at the painting as he fumed on Ian’s unsuccessful search. Surely it shouldn’t be this hard to find one damn model! Ignoring Ian for the moment, he turned his attention back to the huge canvas in front of him.
A foreshortened figure of a gaunt naked man, lying on his back with his head toward the viewer, filled the painting. Even though the strokes were broad and heavy there was still a slight softness about the work that created a sympathetic feel. The haunted face appeared as if the man were in pain. Maybe from being stretched out or maybe he was ill or tortured. Whatever the reason, it drew the viewer immediately and they felt the same hurt, the same agony. It was an uncomfortable piece but it certainly demanded attention.
There wasn’t much work left to do on it and he really wanted to get started on the female nude. He took a deep breath, inhaling the aromas of paint, linseed oil, and turpentine.
Without turning, Gabriel said gruffly, “Just find someone, Ian.”
“I will. For goodness’ sake, Gabe, relax,” Ian snapped a retort.
Surprised at the exasperated tone in Ian’s voice, Gabriel turned back and really looked at the man who was both friend and agent. Gabriel saw with surprise that Ian looked very upset but was still trying to calm Gabriel down. Ruefully he realised at once Ian would be doing everything he could to satisfy Gabriel’s request.
They’d been friends for so long, ever since Gabriel started making his name in the art world. It was then he’d realised he’d need an agent and found Ian’s agency. Ian worked with the three “As”—artists, actors, and authors. Gabriel knew how hard Ian worked to satisfy his clients. Now Gabriel felt awful for yelling and complaining.
“I’m sorry. It’s just I get caught up and…”
Ian sighed loudly.
“I know, Gabriel. Believe it or not, I do understand. Let’s face it, I’ve seen you working for years so I know a little of what goes on inside that thick head of yours.” He smiled to take the sting out of his words. “Just when were you planning on starting the nude?”
Gabriel looked back at the vast painting.
“This…” He pointed to the canvas. “It’s really finished. I just want to touch up a few areas so maybe next week. The client wants this ready in three weeks so I’m ahead of time. Anyway, I want to get plenty of sketches down on the female nude so I can decide exactly on the pose and size. Until I have a model, I really don’t know the pose.”
He hoped Ian could understand the frustration he felt. His mind was filled with dozens of ideas but until he had an actual woman in front of him he wouldn’t be able to decide. The pose would really depend on the woman, how the play of light and shadows affected her body, even the woman’s personality would play into his ideas.
“I’m meeting Erica Saturday night, a party with a few million people, anyway hopefully she tells me she’s found someone.”
“If she doesn’t have a model then there’s a good chance she’ll know an agency that might be able to help. Don’t worry, Gabe, I’ll find her for you.”
“Sorry I got angry. I know you’re doing your best.”
Gabriel reached out a hand to Ian as a peace offering.
“Thanks, mate.” The two men shook hands and Ian clapped Gabriel’s shoulder. “So, happy with this one?”
“I think so. It’s what the client wanted. Not my choice but hey, he’s paying through the nose for it.”
“That he is. The fee should pay off your mortgage completely and still have a decent amount left.”
“Yeah. It’ll feel good to be completely out of debt. I mean I could have got rid of the damn thing years ago but I wanted to build up the bank balance as well as top up my investments. By the way, that property stock has gone through the roof.”
“Yes, I saw that.”
“Our broker did suggest I cash in, have to let him know by the end of the week.”
“Told me the same thing. I’m thinking it’s probably wise to follow his advice.”
“Yeah, it’ll give me a very handsome profit. Bring the bank balance very close to that magic seven figures.”
“Well, with this property, your investments, and that balance you are way over the million pounds.” Ian gave a laugh. “Plus this property has to be worth three mill at the very least.”
“It is. I got it at the right time, just before the boom. Last I checked, even with the mortgage interest I’ve almost doubled my investment in it.”
“Shit! Didn’t think it had gone that crazy. Still, come to think of it, my place has more than trebled since I got it.”
“Yep, I bought at a good time. This place had been on the market for over a year and the owner was glad to take anything. In fact he was desperate to sell regardless of the price.”
“Hey, is Adam still moving in?”
“Yep, in the next week or so. Told him he could stay as long as he wants. Hell, he can live here permanently. I don’t mind. He’s promised to take over the grounds upkeep.”
“That’s good. When was the last time you mowed?” Ian asked with a grin. “Don’t tell me. Let me guess—never.”
“Got that right. The two guys who come in only mow. They don’t do anything else so Adam said he’ll tidy it all up and find the gardens underneath the jungle. Michael’s done it a few times. Told Adam if he wants to look after the grounds he doesn’t have to pay me any rent.”
“Good idea. So is Marisa still looking for a new position?”
“She is. Wants to find something closer to here but I don’t think she’s had much success. Adam said something about it the other day.”
“I’ll give her a ring. One of my business pals is looking for a new PA and I thought of her.”
“That’d be great. I know neither are happy she’ll have to travel so far to work once they marry.”
“Well, this guy is working locally so she’d only have a ten or fifteen minute commute. I’ll ring her and give her his number.”
“Anyway, better get going. I’ll ring you once I’ve spoken with Erica.”
The two men did the “man hug” thing, thumping each other on the back and Ian left with Gabriel feeling a little better.
* * * *
“Have you ever heard of Gabriel Milford?”
“No. Should I?”
“Maybe not.” Erica took a mouthful of her salad. She frowned then muttered, “Not sure if he paints under that name.”
“So why the question?”
“He’s contacted the agency, or rather his agent has, asking for a model. He’s specifically requested an older woman with plenty of curves.”
“Ah. So you thought your old friend might like to get back into the modelling business.”
Erica had the grace to look bashful at Isabella.
“Come on, Issie, you were the best in the business. Practically every artist who painted nudes wanted to paint the beautiful Issie. There was a time when almost every female nude had your body and a lot had your face.”
“That was a long time ago, Erica. I’m fifty years old, not twenty.”
Erica waved her hand as if dismissing Isabella’s remark.
“That’s a cop out and you know it. Look at you! You look amazing. Your birth certificate might say fifty but we both know you could easily pass for forty or younger.”
Isabella shrugged as she took another mouthful of her delicious cauliflower risotto. Savouring it, she pointed her fork at Erica.
“You can stop with the flattery. I’m not doing it.”
“Maybe he’s single and a hunk,” Erica teased. “You need to get a man in your life again. It’s been what—ten or twelve years since your last date?”
“Oh, come off it, Erica!” Isabella snapped. “It’s not that long.” Then she thought a little. “Okay, maybe eight years and I’ve told you heaps of times I no longer need a man.”
“When was the last time you had sex with a man and not a lump of plastic?”
“Geeze, Erica! Want to know my undies size, too?”
“I already do. So answer the question. When?”
Isabella looked down at her plate. Awkwardly she muttered, “Maybe ten, fifteen, maybe twenty. I don’t know.”
She looked up quickly at Erica’s gasp of horror.
“Issie! That’s awful.”
“Once you go a year or so without, the rest just gets easier. Plus I’ve been busy.”
“Oh, my darling. You need a man in your life.”
“No I don’t.”
“Bet he’s sexy,” she teased.
“Gabriel Milford, silly.”
“I don’t care. I most certainly would never get involved with an artist I was posing for.”
“Even if he’s gorgeous?”
“I wouldn’t care what he looked like. It’s unprofessional. Anyway, the answer is no.”
“Please. I’m begging you, Issie. At least consider it.”
“Uh uh.” Isabella moved her head from side to side as she said definitely, “No.”
“Think of the lovely fat fee you would get.”
Erica dangled this enticing bait but Isabella closed her eyes as she shook her head again, saying, “Not interested.”
Then she lowered her eyes and studied her meal. She had to admit it did sound tempting. She missed posing, the excitement of watching a painting come to life, but she pretended she was too old. Erica wisely changed the subject but Isabella knew Erica had planted the seed.
“It’s nice out here.”
“Mmm, wouldn’t like to be sitting here in winter though.”
She and Erica were sitting at one of the tables the restaurant had set up in their courtyard. It was pleasant in the sun but would be so cold in the middle of winter. She’d joined Erica for lunch in London after visiting with her solicitor to finalise the selling of her old studio. Erica moved her chair so she could turn her face to the sun. Isabella felt as if they’d been friends forever.
Erica was a striking woman—fifty-five, tall with a shock of short platinum blonde hair that had a purple streak running through the fringe. Her figure made Isabella envious. Erica was one of those lucky people who seemed to eat anything and everything yet never put on weight. She had an outgoing personality and could get on with everyone yet at the same time she tended to hold back when she met a new man. She’d never married. Once she told Isabella that she was waiting for the right man. Plus, she’d seen too many of her friends have marriages that ended in divorce.
“So how did the move go, Issie, last weekend? Sorry I couldn’t help but I had to get that Italian gig sorted and I only got back on Tuesday night.”
“That’s okay. The move was good. It’s so nice to be out of the city. I’ve always wanted to move back into the countryside.”
“You were lucky that place came on the market.”
“I know. It’s perfect for me. It might be large but I love it. I’ve still got the people in at the moment turning the old stables into a studio. They’ve already set up the big kiln and lined the whole place. Just the final fit out now.”
“I forgot to ask, how did your last gallery show go?”
“Fantastic! I sold everything.”
“Not surprised. Your work has been gaining in value over the past ten years, Issie. Everyone wants a ‘Leigh Price’ original. You could ask for any amount and you’d get it no trouble.”
Isabella smiled warmly and agreed.
“It’s a great feeling, Erica. I can sculpt whatever I want and people pay ridiculous amounts for a piece.”
“So have you got another commission yet?”
“Nothing yet. You know I cleared off everything so I could make the move without deadlines. I’d finished that insurance commission. So there’s nothing on the books, which means I can settle into the new studio without any pressure.”
“It will be wonderful for you, Issie, new house and new studio.”
“You still coming over to help me unpack tomorrow?”
“Of course. Hope you’ve got my bed sorted.” Erica gave a fake growl and warned, “I’m not sleeping on the floor.”
Isabella laughed. “No, I’ve got one of the spare bedrooms arranged for you but there are just so many damn boxes to empty and pack stuff away.”
Erica pushed her plate aside and said casually, “Seen anything of Peter?”
Isabella glared furiously at her friend.
“Why the hell would I ever want to see that creep again?” She felt angry and sickened.
Erica looked at her and speculated, “I don’t think he’s ever gotten over getting the short end of the stick in the divorce.”
“Yeah, well, I could have done without his dramatics. Bad enough we lived separate lives in separate countries for eight years but when he thought I was making a lot of money he decided he loved me still.”
“Honestly, he was really stupid to start sending you those emails and letters threatening you when you refused to give him anything. Then those couple of times he hit you. Heaven knows, why he thought abusing you would get him money is beyond me. I’m so glad you got that restraining order on him.”
Chuckling, Erica said, “Remember the day he came into the gallery with all those flowers declaring you were the only woman he ever loved and how he wanted another chance to make the marriage work?”
Isabella closed her eyes briefly, embarrassed at the memory.
“Don’t remind me. Why on earth he broke the order not to come near me I’ll never know. But it did make the front page when I told him to get lost and he threw the flowers all over the Mayor who just happened to be standing alongside me when Peter made his stupid declaration.”
“But it was funny.” Erica had an enormous smile on her face, remembering the day. “Pity they didn’t take a picture of him being taken away yelling abuse and in handcuffs.”
“I don’t think anyone expected that he’d hit me after throwing the flowers. I know I didn’t. The photographers were too busy taking pictures of the Mayor decorated in roses to notice us walk out.”
“Crazy when he knew you had that restraining order out on him. He must have thought if he gave you flowers and declared his love in front of the bigwigs you’d turn all mushy.”
“He’s a fool. Nobody in their right mind breaks a restraining order.” Isabella’s voice was filled with anger at the thought.
“It certainly didn’t help his case during the divorce.”
Then Isabella finally laughed and said, “He never did have much of a brain.”
“No, he’s one of those guys whose brain is in their dick. Beats me why you stayed married to him for that long.”
“Well, it was less than eight months we were actually together, married for about five, and then we’d been separated eight years. I really should have divorced him earlier but we were in different countries and I just never bothered. To be honest, I’d forgotten about him.”
Erica nodded her agreement.
“Guess I understand. Out of sight, out of mind until he discovered you were still making a lot of money modelling.”
“Yes. He thought he was going to get millions in settlement and instead he got a big fat zero and six months of community service for the assaults. So why did you ask if I’d seen him, Erica?”
“He’s back in town.”
“I doubt he’d contact me. I made it very plain twelve years ago when the divorce was finalised I never wanted to see him again.”
“Yes, but he knows you were once a soft touch for money and I heard on the grapevine he’s skint. Someone said he owes big time to some bookies.”
“Hell, I wouldn’t give him one penny!”
“Well, I’ve warned you he’s around. Just in case.”
“Erica, he wouldn’t be stupid enough to approach me. On top of that if he got angry and physically assaulted me again he knows this time he’d end up in gaol, even though the restraining order has long lapsed.”
The two women accepted coffee from their waiter. Isabella pushed all thoughts of her crazy ex-husband from her mind. The perfect weather was too nice to dwell on the fool. It was one of those amazing autumn days when the sun shone brightly. Isabella began to feel warm and peaceful as she relaxed in the midday sun. She glanced at Erica.
Erica had done so much for her both as a model and a sculptor. At nineteen Isabella had been working as an artist’s model for a year before she signed up with the agency that handled all types of models from catwalk to editorial right through to artists and photographical. At that time Erica was working as one of the agents but she bought the agency for herself five years later. The two women had hit it off immediately and rather than being just agent and model had become firm friends.
Erica encouraged Isabella to develop her sculpting when she saw some of the pieces Isabella had made. She’d even hosted Isabella’s first exhibition. That seemed so long ago now. Isabella hadn’t wanted to cash in on her modelling success so her work was created under her middle name and her mother’s maiden name—Leigh Price. People had no idea that “Issie” and “Leigh Price” were one and the same. She kept her face out of the spotlight, preferring to let her work earn its own merit.
Still, she had so much to thank Erica for. Without her she probably would never be in the position she was now. Now her work was considered some of the world’s best in the field. She commanded very high fees for her pieces, could pick and choose the commissions she wanted to take.
Isabella mainly worked in clay then made moulds to have bronze casts poured. Some of her pieces were made from marble but she really preferred working with the oil-based clay and bronze. The majority of her work were nudes and busts but she also did animals. Her most recent commission involved five larger than life bronze figures. They were slightly abstract but very eye-catching. The piece had been placed in the entrance foyer of a very prestigious insurance company and she made a very handsome amount of money from it. It had meant she had the cash to pay for the move, to have the house repainted and the kitchen updated as well as renovations to the studio. She even had a little left over. She might even be able to pay a little extra on her mortgage.
“I’d better get back to the office. You still coming to Jake’s party on Saturday?”
“Yes, I’ll be there. I’ve booked a room at the Shangri-La hotel so I don’t have to drive home.”
“Good idea, although you know you could have stayed at my place.”
“I know, but you have all those meetings, this just makes it easier for us.”
“True. I’ll see you tomorrow. Bye.”
The two women stood and kissed good-bye. Isabella watched her friend walk away and then headed off to her car. The drive home took her almost two hours. It felt like she’d spent half of it trying to get through the city traffic. As she turned into the driveway she felt relieved. It had been great to catch up with Erica but she still wasn’t used to this long drive. She felt glad Erica was staying the night tomorrow rather than driving back to her London apartment in the dark. After parking the car Isabella walked over to the studio and looked in. The foreman spotted her and came over.
“Afternoon, Miss Coburn, almost finished.”
“It looks amazing.”
“We’ll be out of your hair Friday and then it’s all yours.”
“Thanks, Marvin. I know how fast you’ve got this done for me and I really appreciate it.”
“Been a pleasure working with you. Do you want to check on those cabinets we’ve put in and that big movable island? It’s quite wide.”
“Okay. I do need it wide, Marvin, but let’s check.”
The two walked over to where a row of cabinets were set against one wall. Isabella was pleased to see they had listened to her about the handles and not gone with something small. Next she looked at the large island. It was perfect for her and she told Marvin so. There was a dais set near the windows where she could work directly from a model and a large heavy-duty moveable easel with a table top to hold the clay as she worked.
He directed her to the workshop he’d set up beyond a doorway.
In here Isabella would do the metal chasing and welding on the piece before sending it back to the foundry for sand-blasting. She looked around the room. Marvin had set up an area for her grinders with plenty of space away from the welding area. Her enormous kiln was easily accessible. She nodded her approval.
Walking back to the main entrance, the two shook hands and Isabella went into the house, confident that everything was to her specifications. Hopefully next week she could get back into work. She’d ordered a new batch of clay and it was due to arrive around ten on Tuesday.