Authors: Kathryn Shay
The Ludzecky Sisters
“And the winner of the first grade prize for Excellence in Art is Salvador Pettrone.”
Simultaneously, Ben and Tommy jumped up, fists in the air. “Yes!”
Sal sat demurely in his little first grade chair and blushed.
From the gathering of parents and guests off to the side, Nia watched her son, wishing he was outgoing like his cousins but loving him
to pieces anyway
“Sal.” The deep male voice of the man at the microphone was filled with excitement. “Come up and get your prize.”
Rafael Castle gave a megawatt smile, making Paulina take in a breath. From beside her, Adam Armstrong leaned in. “Watch it, girl. You’re taken.”
Paulina laughed. “Yeah, but not dead.”
She’d been so happy all summer, now that her relationship with Adam
was blossoming. They’d met when their company, Pettrone and Ludzecky Builders, had gotten the bid on a music hall that he’d designed. Surprisingly, Nia had taken a liking to the man despite the fact that he lived in a different world from the family. It seemed that every time she saw him and Paulina together, they were closer. And he’d treated Sal just like Paulina’s boys—kind and gentle, always
Making his way to the front, Sal stood before Rafe Castle, looking up and now smiling broadly. Nia had heard a lot about the man who’d come to Benjamin Franklin Elementary School as an artist in residence for two weeks. She’d voted at the PTA meeting for him to be chosen because his artwork seemed so alive. Sal talked about him often…
Mom, he said I got talent.
Mom, he used my
picture as an example.
She’d been so grateful to the artist for helping bring her son out of his shell, for making him feel good about himself, even before she’d gotten an email from him:
Dear Mrs. Pettrone, Your son Sal is one of the most talented artists of a young age I’ve ever seen. After the Art Fair, can we talk?
Responding in the affirmative, Nia was thrilled,
and anxious to hear what he had to say.
The grades were separated in the large gym, and Sal watched as the other winners were awarded their prizes. And he cheered heartily for them.
He’s such a nice kid
, she thought for the hundredth time. Peter would have been so proud. Though her husband had been a jock, he’d have celebrated his son’s success in art, where Sal had inexplicably shown both
interest and talent. It had been one of the many things she’d loved about Peter. Sometimes, at events like this, the hole in her heart became a gaping chasm and she struggled against the emotion.
When the formal part of the presentation was over, Rafe said, “Now mingle, everybody. See what stellar work your classmates have done.” Displays of student art lined the walls. “And parents, please
browse, too. Congratulations to them all.”
The groups disbanded, and three little dark-haired, dark-eyed boys ran to where the Ludzecky family had gathered
Sal threw himself into Nia’s arms. “Mommy, I won!”
“I know, sweetheart. Congratulations.”
Sneaking around his mother, Ben went up to Adam and gave him a high-five. “We didn’t win. Mom told us last night we have other talents.”
“But we’re glad Sal won,” Tommy put in. “I like his drawings.”
Adam ruffled Sal’s hair. “We’re happy for you, kid.”
Nia glanced up to see Rafe Castle approaching them. Before he greeted any of them, he knelt down so he was eye-level with Sal.
“You did good, Salvador. Just like your namesake.”
“What’s a namesake?” Ben asked.
Sal announced proudly, “Who you’re
“Our Uncle Salvador?”
A male chuckle from the artist. “Nope. I told him I bet he has roots going back to Salvador Dali, the famous twentieth-century artist.”
“Like you, Rafe.” Nia noticed Sal used his first name. “You said maybe you got roots to…who was it?”
“A painter from the Renaissance time period. Raphael Sanzio da Urbino.”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
Rafe turned his gaze to Nia. “Mrs. Pettrone?”
Nia cleared her throat. Though she’d seen pictures of him online since the school chose him for this position, his physical presence was daunting. Those navy eyes focused on her, increasing their effect. “Yes, I’m Sal’s mother.”
“You’re son’s very talented.”
“So you said.”
Castle’s brows rose. “Adam? Hello.”
my teacher, Adam?” Sal asked.
“We’ve met. And I saw his show at the Mitchell Gallery. I bought
The Dragon Within
. His work is amazing. So individualistic.”
“What does that mean?” Ben wanted to know.
“That everybody gets something different out of it,” Adam explained.
Her sister held out her hand. “I’m Paulina Pettrone.”
When he got a look at Paulina, Rafe startled. “Wow, two
of you? How do the men in the world stand it when you’re together?”
“Excuse me?” This from Nia.
“You must bowl them over.”
Paulina rolled her eyes. “It was a compliment, Nia. Say thanks.” She focused on the boys. “Let’s go see everybody’s art before we have to leave. Nia, take your time in getting back to work. No rush.”
“Could Sal go with you?” Rafe asked. “I’d like to speak to
Mrs. Pettrone in private.”
Nia stepped back.
“It’s all positive stuff.”
The four of them left, and Nia folded her arms across her chest, watching Rafe Castle. His dark hair was long and curly, and he carried himself in the confident, masculine way that men who looked like him seemed to have. “What did you want to talk about?”
“I appreciated your letter.”
meant every word, and more. Did you notice how his paintings and drawings evolved the last two weeks?”
“Yes, I did. Some got more realistic. Some more abstract. I liked the latter best.”
His eyes glistened like sapphires, as if she’d said the right thing. “I have a proposal for you. I’d like to continue working with Sal. Free of charge.”
“Why on earth would you do that? Adam said you
He winked at her. “I am.”
“Oh, I meant your reputation. But back to Sal.”
“He’s a prodigy. And that kind of talent needs to be cultivated.”
Feeling guilt take root inside her, she sighed. “I’ve thought about getting him art lessons, but we’re so busy…”
“I’ll come to your house. And yes, I’d expect an adult to supervise us, so you’d have to arrange that.”
live with my mother and sister. It wouldn’t be too hard to get coverage.” She raised her chin. “But I insist I pay.”
“Then I retract the offer.”
“I won’t take your money.”
“Mr. Castle, I might be a widow, but we have enough funds to live on.”
His gaze darkened. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know Sal’s father died. He’s only talked about you, but…please, accept my condolences.”
Nia could feel her face redden. “No, let me apologize. I jumped the gun. The boys told us some things they overheard people saying about them not having a dad, and I’m too sensitive.”
“I don’t think you can be too sensitive about your kids.” He cocked his head. “So, the lessons?”
“I’ll think about it.”
His brows rose, indicating surprise at her statement. “All right.” He took out
a card and handed it to her. “Let me know.”
“One thing, Mr. Castle. Thanks for not asking in front of Sal.”
“Of course not. We’re buddies. He’ll want to do this. But it’s your decision. I respect that.”
“Do you have kids?”
“No, never married. So none yet.” A big male grin. “Someday, though.”
As he walked away, Nia stared at his long male stride. And okay, his butt, encased
in soft denim, and his broad shoulders in a chamois shirt. But that wasn’t the matter at hand. Now, once again, she’d have to make the right choice for her child alone. She wished Peter was here to help with that and a million other things. Which was enough to worry about. But more pressing was the issue that Nia had not gotten beyond her grief enough to move on like Paulina had and that was as big
an issue as the solo responsibility she now had.
After the art fair, Rafe drove back to the city in the sporty little BMW he’d bought when he’d sold several paintings at the Mitchell Gallery, some at the exorbitant prices that the owner insisted on. (He’d been right, too.) In just two months, Rafe had come to love this little baby.
Do you have kids?
Nia Pettrone had asked
Sometimes, he wished he did, but mostly, he was enjoying his bachelorhood. Even unmarried at thirty-five, he was happy with his life, for which he was eternally grateful. His childhood had been a nightmare, but with help, he’d gotten past that.
And he sure did like that little Sal Pettrone. Probably because the boy reminded him of himself at that age. Shy. Loving to draw and paint.
At least the kid had family around who seemed to encourage him. He hoped that pretty Mrs. Pettrone would let him work with Sal.
He wondered what Adam Armstrong was doing at the school. He seemed close to the family. Hmm. Maybe close to the twin? Did Mrs. Pettrone—Nia—also have a boyfriend? She was a stunner, and he’d love to see her with her hair down and not back in a braid. Maybe he’d get
a glimpse of it if he helped Sal with his art.
Because the boy made him think of Jonas, he took the next exit instead of going to his loft in SoHo. He drove down Jonas’s street and made a right turn at the luxury condos Jonas had moved to five years ago. He exited the car and walked up the sidewalk. Rafe had a key, but he knocked anyway
He knocked again.
Still no one
came to the door
His heartbeat escalating, he reached for his key ring just as the door opened. Jonas stood before him in tailored black pants and the Ralph Lauren knit sports shirt Rafe had bought him for Christmas last year. At sixty-five, he still had a full head of hair but now all gray. “Rafael, my boy. I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I know. I came by on a whim. Am I interrupting anything?”
Jonas Crane had stopped painting at sixty, mostly because of his bypass surgery and the strain creating blockbuster art had put on his heart. He’d also said he was ready to retire and moved into a smaller place. He’d given Rafe the loft he’d previously resided in. “No. I’m quite alone. Come in.”
Rafe entered the condo. It was exquisitely decorated with Italian furniture and unique area
rugs that were works of art themselves. The most special thing about the place was its huge windows, now letting in tons of sunlight.
“Can I get you something?”
He checked his watch. “I’d have a beer.”
“I’ll join you.” Jonas started for the kitchen.
“No, sit. I’ll get them.”
After retrieving the pale ale Jonas favored, Rafe dropped down on one of the leather couches and faced
his friend and mentor, who relaxed in his favorite lounger. “Feeling good?”
“Right as rain. You know I just had a checkup.”
“You shouldn’t concern yourself with that.”
“Yeah, like that’s going to happen.” Rafe had freaked over Jonas’s heart attack and the serious operation it required and still worried about him. “What’s new?”
Jonas grunted. “I’ve been asked to sit
on the board of the Mitchell Gallery.”
“Yes. Not sure I’m going to do it, though.”
“What kind of time would it entail?”
“They said not much, but…” he shrugged. “I like my books these days, my biopics of all the great artists.” He grinned at Rafe. “And the women in my life.”
Rafe knew Jonas didn’t lack for female companionship. “Then, think about it. Maybe you don’t
want to spend your time there.”