As a young intern at an art gallery in Paris, Isabelle McAvoy meets Putnam Armstrong, wealthy, gentle, older, and secluded from the world. Isabelle’s relationship with Putnam, and her time at his château on the Normandy coast, are the stuff of dreams. But it turns real when she becomes pregnant, for she knows that marriage is out of the question.
When Isabelle returns to New York, she enters a new relationship that she hopes will be more stable and traditional. But she soon realizes she has made a terrible mistake and again finds herself a single mother.
With two young daughters and no husband, Isabelle finally and unexpectedly finds happiness and a love that gives her a third child, a baby as happy as her beloved father. And yet, once again, life brings dramatic changes.
The three girls grow up to be very different women, and Isabelle’s relationship with each of them is unique. While raising her girls alone, Isabelle also begins building a career as a successful art consultant. Then one final turn of fate brings a past secret to light, bonds mother and daughters closer, and turns a challenge into a blessing.
Isabelle McAvoy sat at her well-organized desk with photographs of the important people in her life in silver frames around her. Her oldest daughter, Theo, in Putnam’s arms when she was three months old, a photo of Xela at two, hands on hips, looking outraged. That photo made Isabelle smile every time she saw it. It was so Xela, the drill sergeant among them. Theo was the dreamer, as quiet and shy as she had been since she was born, and so like Putnam, her father. It was as though they both had landed from another world and weren’t quite equipped for this one. There was a photo of Declan, next to one of Oona as a baby, where she was smiling broadly. She was the happiest person Isabelle had ever known. From the very beginning she had radiated joy and good humor. There was also a photograph of Isabelle with all three of her daughters, taken during a trip to Italy a few years before, with Theo looking wistful, Xela annoyed, Oona laughing, and Isabelle the bridge between the three. Their personalities hadn’t changed, and at thirty-seven, thirty-two, and twenty-six now, they had grown into the women they had promised to be as children.
It was hard for Isabelle to believe how the years had flown. Theo had been pursuing a life of self-sacrifice and caring for the poor in India for sixteen years, Xela was consumed by her passion for business and entrepreneurial talent, and Oona had been nurturing her children, her husband, and his family in Tuscany, and loving it. Only Xela remained in New York where they’d grown up. Isabelle had her own career as a private art consultant, after years as a curator in an highly respected downtown gallery. Now she had her own clients. They ranged from famous art collectors to the newly rich, hungry to buy important paintings to show off their wealth and impress their friends. Some of them genuinely wanted to learn what Isabelle could teach them. Others just wanted to spend money, and a few had a deep appreciation for art. She enjoyed working with all of them and ran her business from her home, a small, elegant town house on East Seventy-Fourth Street she’d owned for twenty-seven years. She also used it to showcase the art she sold. The house was impeccable, it suited her, and the girls had grown up there as well. It was thanks to Putnam that she had been able to buy the house and start her business, which had flourished ever since. She hadn’t amassed a huge fortune, but had enough to live well, help her children when they needed it, and enjoy a pleasant life herself. Her innate sense of style showed in the simple, chic, understated way she dressed. She was still beautiful at fifty-eight.
On her desk was a photograph of Isabelle with her father, Jeremy, as well. They were in front of the remarkable “cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island, where she’d grown up. Her mother had been a schoolteacher and died when Isabelle was three. Her father had been a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, with a specialty in Impressionist art and a subspecialty in Renaissance art and history. Her earliest memories were of trips to the museum with him. Two years after his wife’s death, he had made a dramatic career change and accepted the job of property manager for one of the Vanderbilt estates in Newport, which included the mansion euphemistically referred to as the Vanderbilt “cottage.” It was a spectacular home more like a small château, filled with priceless antiques and art. With the job came a modest house on the grounds where Jeremy and his daughter could live. Jeremy had been looking for an opportunity like it for a while. He thought it would be better for Isabelle to grow up in the country rather than the city of Boston in a small apartment with him. He also wanted a job where he could spend more time with his daughter than his curating at the museum would allow. When the right position turned up, he jumped at it. They moved to the Vanderbilt estate in Newport. He was responsible for the art, antiques, the grounds, the staff, and keeping everything in perfect order and ready at the drop of a hat for his employers, who only used the house once a year for a few weeks in August. The rest of the time, the Vanderbilts lived in their other homes in New York, London, and the South of France, where they spent June and July.
For eleven months of the year, Isabelle had free run of the grounds and was in and out of the main house frequently with her father. She would study the paintings for hours while he was busy. She’d sit quietly on a chair, examining the paintings minutely, and her father would tell her about them, and something about the artists. She learned a great deal from him, and her early favorites were Degas and Renoir. It never struck her as odd that she lived amidst such opulence, although none of it was theirs. She had no pride of ownership, nor did her father, only a deep appreciation for the beauty of their surroundings. In some ways, it was like living in a museum. As she grew up, her friends were the housekeeper, the butler, the cook, and maids and housemen, though she and her father ate dinner alone in their own house every night. She went to the local school but made few friends. It was complicated explaining to them where she lived, and why.
It came as no surprise to her father when she decided to major in art history at New York University, and volunteered on weekends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She took her junior year abroad at the Sorbonne, where she spent every moment possible at the Louvre, the Jeu de Paume, and the Impressionist exhibits that her father had given her a profound love for ever since she was old enough to talk. She described every exhibit and museum she went to in detail in her letters to him, and he was proud of her. He had saved up for her education for years, and he approved of her plan to work at the Met or an important gallery in New York after she graduated. She landed an internship at a greatly respected gallery in Paris for June and July after she’d finished her year at the Sorbonne. It was there that her life’s journey began. And now, so many years later, she was still influenced by the choices she had made at twenty, and by the people who had crossed her path so long ago.
Isabelle had begun her internship at the Verbier Gallery in Paris that June feeling breathless to be in its hallowed halls. The most important collectors in the world entered their portals regularly to view the remarkable paintings being presented to them, at prices beyond anything she could imagine. Her duties were menial. She had to clean the coffee machine, order lunch for the sales representatives from the bistro nearby, and set it up in the gallery’s dining room. She was taught how to wrap a painting for delivery, or for crating to be shipped, using all the packing materials they showed her, and under the careful supervision of one of the regular employees. They all wore the same white cotton gloves she had been given to handle the art. The truly important paintings weren’t left in her care, but she saw them after they were removed from a viewing room. She’d been told that if she encountered a client, which would be rare, she was to say only good morning or good afternoon. She was fluent in French by then, having learned it during her year at the Sorbonne. She looked like a child with her long blond hair in a braid, and the short navy skirt and white blouse she wore to work every day. She looked younger than her twenty years.
She’d been at the gallery for a week when there was a considerable stir one afternoon, before a client came in. She didn’t hear his name, and wouldn’t have recognized it anyway, all she could glean was that he almost never came in, as it was rare for him to leave his château in Normandy. And although he was an important collector, and a frequent client of theirs, he hadn’t been to the gallery in two years.
The gallery’s director, Robert Pontvert, and two assistants were on hand when he arrived. They showed him discreetly to a viewing room, and shortly after, Isabelle was asked to bring cold mineral water for the client to drink. She noticed the four beautiful Monets on display, and a slim, quiet man, concentrating on the paintings without saying a word. She set the water down on a table, as the man turned toward her and smiled. She then disappeared without a sound, as she’d been told to do. He emerged an hour later, with the gallery director looking pleased. The client stopped briefly to study a small painting of a nude on the way out. It was part of their current exhibition, and after he left, Isabelle heard his name for the first time. Putnam Armstrong was American, from a wealthy Boston family, and had lived in France for twenty years. He had just bought two of the Monets, and there was a celebratory atmosphere in the gallery after he left. Armstrong had slipped out as quietly as he’d arrived. He drove away in a beautiful old silver Rolls he had left with the doorman outside.