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"The Ex Factor, from Write It Up!"
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Chapter One

So your love affair went flat like yesterday's chocolate souffle! That doesn't mean some lucky gal won't find your ex to be ab-so-lutely yummy! After all, he had to be special if YOU went out with him, even if it wasn't a case of happily ever after. So register now. Share the delectable details on an old love Ń the JUICIER the better! And sample the possibilities regarding a new Mr. Right while you're at it. Just remember. Every scrumptious, lip-smacking ex has been personally vouched for by women IN THE KNOW - women like YOU!                           -- www.exbeaux.com

The sheer density of exclamation marks and capital letters on the Exbeaux Home Page was giving Abby one doozy of a headache, while the food metaphors were making her amazingly hungry.

Not that any self-respecting staffer on Tess EVER admitted to being hungry, let alone to digesting their food. No need to ask why the toilets in the women's rooms were cleaned after lunchtime.

Abby pulled open the top desk drawer, hoping against hope that she'd find a bottle of ibuprofen. The closest she got was a complimentary front mezzanine ticket to A Boy From Oz. Was Hugh Jackman still on Broadway? She looked more closely. The performance was for over a year ago. That was the problem with going away - everybody ransacked your desk and took the good stuff.

"Searching for inspiration, luv?" A lilting baritone sounded above her.

Still holding the theater ticket, Abby looked up. Who needed Hugh Jackman dancing across the footlights when she had Ned Devlin standing next to her? "If it isn't my favorite Irishman? The Gaelic Lady Killer!" she said, very pleased, the first genuine reaction she'd had all day.

"And here I thought you appreciated me for my mind." He sat on the corner of her built-in desk without so much as a by-your-leave.

Not that Abby would have asked him to.

Ned Devlin was a fashion photographer who successfully managed the whole rough-and-tumble, bad boy-image thing - a Vogue model on both arms, a pint of Guinness in each hand, and allegedly, a tattoo in a region that rarely saw sunshine. It also didn't hurt that he had bed-head black hair and a grin that reminded Abby of Colin Farrell, only better, because Ned was taller and he would NEVER wear a blond wig and let Angelina Jolie play his mother.

"You're like the brother I never had," she'd once confessed after a long day at the office. Ned had dragged her to what he said was one of his favorite pubs -- he was one of those guys who seemed to have a favorite pub in ANY AND ALL the cities of the world. They'd celebrated putting a particularly thorny issue of the magazine to bed and clinked their pints of beer together.

"Excuse me, but you already have two brothers -- one older, one younger," Ned had pointed out.

He had a way of remembering things Abby wouldn't have expected. "Well, a gal can never have too many brothers."

"You sure you couldn't find some other place in your heart for me?"

Abby had laughed. "No, Brad wouldn't like it."

Yeah, that was the era of Good Ol' Brad.

Abby pushed aside memories of her ex. "So have you broken any hearts lately?" She eyed the rough stubble on Ned's cheeks. "Or at least given someone beard burn?"

He touched his jaw. "I ran out of razor blades two days ago, but from the reactions I'm getting, I might keep it." He cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. "Some changes with you, too. I like the new cut."

Abby had always had long, super-curly hair, which she ruthlessly blow-dried straight every morning. On the few days she didn't, her hair looked like Little Bo Peep with a hoof stuck in an electrical outlet.

"I put my head in the hands of Piero della Francesca - I kid you not; supposedly a direct descent of the Florentine painter -- and this is what I got." She ruffled the short wispy locks that waved naturally around her face.

Ned crossed his arms. "Very romantic is all I can say."

Which Abby would have interpreted as flirting if it had come from anyone but Ned. "Whatever. The time it saves me in the morning is the main thing."

"Ah, yes. The Abby Lewis that I know and love. She doesn't need to get serious -- she is serious." He gave her a smart salute.

"Tell me truthfully, you wouldn't be making fun of me now, would you?"

"Me, make fun of you?" He covered his heart. "You wound me."

"Yeah, right. You want wounding? I'll wound you." She threw the ticket stub at his chest.

He caught it and pocketed it in his black jeans. "So tell me, despite your glorious pragmatic sense, did you take the time to travel to Ravello on the Amalfi Coast and watch the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea from the wall surrounding the gardens at the Villa Rufolo? And afterward, did you sit in the Piazza Vescavado sipping a Martini Bianco and gaze into eyes of your lover?" He paused, reeling in his image. "No, don't tell me about the lover part. You'll never know how much it pains me to picture your and the wonderful Brad doing the dirty."

Abby shook her head. "You are too much. Anyway, Brad couldn't come over." Wouldn't was more like it.

Ned raised one eyebrow. "But did you take my advice and visit anyway?"

Should she tell him that, yes, totally out of character, she'd taken a spur-of-the moment weekend along the coast of southern Italy, to that incredible cliffside village perched halfway between the sky and the sea? That she'd walked amidst the tumbling bougainvillea and rambling roses and later sat in the piazza sipping her drink? And that she had pictured herself with a lover, who for some reason, wasn't Brad, but, in fact, was he -- her buddy, Ned Devlin?

Which made no sense at all, since they had never EVER had a relationship, physical or otherwise, unless you counted the time Abby had gotten a wicked paper cut from the program at the Commes des Garons spring runway show and Ned had applied Neosporin and bandaged her finger. But then, Abby didn't count that because who, after all, would?

Similarly, she couldn't tell him about the whole Ravello thing, could she?

"Hey, Devlin, some of us are going to meet at this new club in the Meat Packing District. You want to come?" Ling Ling, Tess's butt-kicking assistant, strode over in hip-high patent-leather boots with six-inch stiletto heels. Her style gave new meaning to the martial arts content of her father's Hong Kong action movies.

Ned rubbed his ear.

"Don't let me stop you," Abby interjected.

Ling Ling glanced at Abby, quickly dismissing her.

No big surprise. The Ÿber-hipsters took one look at Abby, saw her average height and features that were attractive but certainly not model perfect, especially given the angularity of her cheek bones and the sharp line of her brow - a legacy of her Lakota grandmother -- and then they looked the other way.

Fine by Abby. She had never thought of herself as a glamourista, and as far as she was concerned, the more people ignored her, the easier it was to listen and observe. And when you combined those two qualities with her funky style of writing and a work ethic that would leave a Puritan begging for a personal day, voilˆ, you had Abby: Ÿber-staff writer in the competitive world of women's magazines.

"Maybe another day," Ned answered Ling Ling apologetically. "I'm kind of backed up with work, but keep me in mind."

Ling Ling shrugged. Her T-shirt, bearing the image of Che Guevara and with cutout sleeves, slipped off one shoulder. "Well, you know where to find me." She puckered up and kissed Ned full on the lips, then strutted away with more leg action than a Jackie Chan fight scene.

I'm impressed," Abby said. "Let me tell you, they don't make girls like that back in Rapid City, South Dakota." Che from the rear was somehow more menacing. "Listen, don't let me hold you up. I know your type, and she is definitely your type." She pointed to Ling Ling's retreating figure.

"Thank you for looking out for my welfare, but I've got a hamstring acting up. I can use a little break from my extracurricular activities." He settled more firmly on the corner of Abby's desk. "So, tell me, what's going on in the red-hot world of publishing?"

Abby frowned. "Well, let's see - and this is not complaining, because I can't stand complaining - merely a recitation of facts."

Ned nodded assuredly. "Just the facts, ma-am."

"Okay, on top of my jetlag, to add insult to injury, I now have the assignment from hell foisted upon meŃ"

"Another of Tess's inspirations, I presume?"

"What else?" She waved off giving any details. "Then just to provide further spark to that re-baptism by editorial fireŃ"

"Somehow that's how I've always pictured you." He held up his hands and, closing one eye, framed her face. "A martyr to born-again erudition."

Abby smiled. She'd forgotten just how quick Ned's wit was. "Yes, well, I must remember to put that on my resume - especially when I come up before co-op boards."

Ned pushed up from her desk. "So you and Brad the Beautiful are buying property?"

The thing of it was, Ned wasn't exaggerating. Brad was beautiful -- thick blond hair, lantern jaw and vibrant blue eyes. A schmuck, but beautiful. More or less a golden retriever gone over to the dark side. "That sounds pretty serious," he went on. "I wouldn't have given him credit for seeing the light, which means I'm forced to take back all the mean things I've ever said about him."

Actually, Ned had never said any mean things. The two men had only met once when Abby had suggested that as a way of making nicey-nicey with her colleagues, Brad invite Ned to a pick-up game football game in Central Park -- one of those super rough games with macho-competitive lawyers and investment bankers. Ned had proceeded to make any number of shoestring catches and run for several touchdowns.

"I guess not all you fashion types are wimps," Brad had said to him.

Ned had said nothing.

Not Abby, not when she'd been so royally pissed off. "Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Ned played for the Irish National Rugby team, and only gave it up after he had to have shoulder surgery?"

Afterward, Brad had lectured her on the innate differences between rugby and football, and she'd almost upped and left him then and there. But wouldn't you know it, the next day he'd miraculously produced two tickets to a cabaret show, as well as an amazing nosegay of primroses, baby's breath and Old English roses.

How could she leave a man who did things like that?

She hadn't. He'd left her.

Abby cleared her throat. "Brad and I are buying absolutely nothing -- because there's nothing between us." She strove for a blase delivery. It wouldn't have fooled her grandmother, who bless her soul, didn't register nuance beyond crocheting one afghan to the next.

"Nothing?"

"Nothing." Abby diverted her eyes to the email memo on her computer monitor outlining the production schedule for the upcoming issue. It was so-o-o embarrassing for someone as highly driven as herself to be the dump-ee in a relationship as opposed to the dump-er. It made her seem like...well...like a failure.

Ned waited.

Abby swallowed and raised her gaze. "It seems my decision to spread my professional wings didn't suit the rising legal eagle. He broke things off right before I left for Italy."

"The cad."

"My exact words at the time - NOT."

Ned shook his head. "I must not have heard about it because I think I was freezing my butt off in Lapland for a Travel & Leisure shoot."

"Could well be. Anyway, the upside was it saved having to write a lot of postcards. The major downside was I lost my apartment. Since coming back from Italy, I've been mooching off Julia, but even she - St. Peach Cobbler of the Upper East Side - has her limits. So, unless I find a place of my own in two days time, I could be holed up in the back of a burnt-out Chevy Malibu in the seedier section of Staten Island."

Ned frowned, then looked up all smiles - quite a sight, really. "Listen, definitely forget about the Chevy Malibu."

"Delighted."

"I know the perfect solution." He paused. "Don't you see?"

"Ah-h, no-o."

"Move in with me."

"What? Are you kidding?"

"No, of course not." He plunged his hands in the pockets of his jeans - non-designer, Abby noted, because, of course, she noted these things, as well as the possibility that this was a new trend.

"I have lots of space," he continued. "Actually, I have hardly any space, but there're two places to bunk, and besides, we've always gotten on well." He waited. "So why not?"

Abby bunched up her mouth in thought. "I don't know. I don't want to get in the way of your extracurricular activities? You know, Ling Ling and the other exotic beauties?"

"If it makes you feel any better, I can put a lock on the door."

She held up her hands. "Trust me, that won't be necessary."

"That's good because I don't have a door."

Abby blinked. "What kind of place do you have, Ned? Because if it's a loft with a totally open floor plan, I'm not sure that would work."

"Don't worry. It's the farthest thing from a loft. Anyway, I'll pick you up after work?"

Abby still wasn't convinced. "I thought you were swamped?"

"I'll be late, but not that late. Why don't you give me your address? You're staying at Julia's place, right? I'll meet you there around nine."

What did she have to lose? In all likelihood, the arrangement would only last a couple of days, and she could use that time to look for a more permanent place of her own. Abby looked at her desk for something to write on. "You'd think as someone who worked at a magazine, I'd have a piece of paper."

"Here." He held out the back of his hand.

She looked dubious. "If you say so." She held his hand as she wrote down Julia's address, trying to ignore the dry heat it put off.

"This is really sweet of you," she said when she finished.

"I know." He turned to leave. "One thing though."

"Yeah?" Oh, no. Is this where he told her he commuted on the Long Island Railroad from Hicksville? That he had pet pythons in the bathtub? That he commuted with the pet pythons??

"You're not prone to seasickness, are you?"

(Copyright, Louise Handelman, 2006)

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