Soul Unique

A Contemporary Romancy

by Gun Brooke

 

Chapter One

 “Greer Landon! Finally you’re here. I’m so delighted you could make it.” A compact woman in her late fifties approached me with a broad, toothy smile. Dressed in a pink skirt suit, a pale-pink blouse, and with beads around her neck, her wrists, and in her ears, she looked like a little girl’s dream birthday cake. “The students have prepared an exhibition for you. I think you’ll be impressed.” Her nasal Martha Stewart voice was already grating on my nerves.

I moaned inwardly. It was beyond impolite to answer “don’t be so sure,” but that was how I felt. Leyla Rowe, richer than most and careful to mention just how old that money is, had laid siege at my office for the last four months, begging me to visit her establishment. In the end, India, my assistant, had threatened to take permanent leave of absence if I didn’t get Mrs. Rowe off her back. So here I was, ready to be “impressed.”

“Nice to see you again, Mrs. Rowe.” I gave her my best alligator version of a smile, knowing full well it put the fear of nameless deities into most people, but not this individual.

“Oh, do call me Leyla. This way, this way.” She waved her hand as if I were a reluctant tourist. “The students are on the second floor. As you might be aware, Rowe Art School is most selective when we screen applicants. We choose only the very best of the best.”

“Imagine that.” A groundbreaking business idea if I’d ever heard one.

“Excuse me?” Leyla’s smile was still in place, but a small frown appeared between her expertly drawn eyebrows.

“Good strategy.” Clenching my jaw, I wanted to turn and walk out of there, but no doubt the woman would chase me and drag me back. She looked like the type.

I followed her through the old, impressive hallway, up a winding, broad marble staircase. At the top, enormous mirrors with pompous gold frames lined the entire corridor. I glanced into them, wondering who in their right mind thought this gothic style would be inspiring. They confirmed that I looked the part of a wealthy, powerful gallery-chain owner. Soft gray slacks, white shirt, a darker-gray trench coat, and my signature messenger bag slung over my shoulder. A second quick glance assured me my short, strawberry-blond hair was still flawless.

“Here’s where we hold our advanced courses. Maestro Gatti is teaching this particular class.” Leyla motioned toward a closed double door.

Maestro Gatti?” I couldn’t keep the cynicism out of my voice. “As in Frederick Gatti?” If it was the man I had come across when I lived a year in Rome, this art school was in for an unpleasant awakening.

“Yes, yes. He’s new to our faculty and quite popular among the students. Of course, being such a handsome fellow, he’s surely making some of the girls’ hearts throb a bit extra, but he’s most professional about it.”

Leyla had no idea how much effort it took for me not to laugh out loud. Frederick Gatti, womanizer and wannabe painter, had already tried in Rome to pass himself off as a maestro, which didn’t fly with the Italians. Many of them knew their art very well, and for this man to cut corners and invent himself a career just hadn’t worked. So he was in New York now, trying the same thing here.

“Let’s pay them a visit,” Leyla said and knocked on the door.

“Oh, yes. Let’s.” Things were looking up. I wondered if Gatti would remember me and the part I’d played in his exit from the Rome art scene.

Leyla swept into the classroom where eight students stood behind their easels. They all focused on the man on the dais in front of them. Dressed all in black and with a classic beret to add to his maestro image, Frederick Gatti also boasted a becoming goatee. I was chuckling inside my head again. Of course he knew to dress the part. Pity he couldn’t paint.

“Madame Rowe,” he said in what even I had to concede was a charming Italian accent, and rushed to greet Leyla. “You are like the angels. I need you to solve a matter of importance.”

What on earth has you this upset, Maestro?” Leyla took his hands in hers.

“It’s that—that girl, of yours. She barged in here, frightened my students, questioned my teaching. Nobody—nobody—treats me in such a rude manner. It just isn’t done!”

So, I hadn’t been forceful enough with him in Rome. I looked around, trying to spot said rude girl, but the eight frozen-in-place students who stood there didn’t look ready to criticize anyone. Nobody moved or said anything.

“Oh, Maestro, I’m so sorry. I’ll talk to her. She’s not supposed to come down here and disturb the classes, but she forgets. You know she can’t help herself.” Leyla tapped her right temple and smiled.

“How about a guardian, or a key?” Gatti said, showing off his white veneered teeth in a snarl. “I simply cannot work under these circumstances. It’s impossible.”

Leyla looked furious now, and something told me that Rude Girl, and not Gatti, was the reason. “Leave it to me, Maestro. In the meantime, I have a surprise to cheer you up. I’ve tried for months to get the most influential art-gallery owner in the U.S. to visit us. I’m sure you’ve heard of Greer Landon.”

“Hello again, Maestro Gatti,” I said in my best silky voice and stepped into his field of vision.

“Madame Landon.” He blanched and turned to Leyla. “This is insanity. You are trying to drive me out of my mind. You allow that girl to roam the halls of this school, and then you bring her. That woman,” he said, pointing at me with a shaking finger, “has gone out of her way to destroy my good name all over Europe.”

“Aw, come on, Maestro,” I said, making sure my voice was scathing as well as playful. “I don’t have that much influence. I merely questioned some pieces you worked on in Rome. That was ten years ago. Water under the bridge.”

“You made me into a laughingstock.”

“No, no. I can’t take credit for that.” I raised my hand to stop his flow of words. “You did that all on your own.”

“What are we talking about here?” Leyla asked, smiling too broadly. “I don’t understand.”

“Frederick Gatti is not a good artist. He’s an even worse teacher, Mother. These students are good, but since he started working here, they haven’t developed their skills,” a beautiful alto voice said very matter-of-factly.

I turned around to face the newcomer. A young woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, stood in the doorway. She regarded us all with serious, dark-gray eyes and seemed unimpressed with Gatti’s enraged growl. The woman looked over at me instead, raising her eyebrows as if my presence was a surprise, which I surmised it was.

She wore blue jeans, a black, sleeveless button-down shirt, and sneakers. I wondered if she was a disgruntled student, but Gatti’s reaction suggested this just might be Rude Girl.

“Hayden, how dare you talk to Maestro Gatti that way?” Leyla said, her anger dissolving the veneer that she was a perfect, amicable host. “Leave the school area at once and return to your wing.”

I cringed, something I never do, at the way Leyla talked to Hayden. “This girl’s right, you know,” I said, not sure if that would help. Fascinated, I saw Hayden whip her glance my way. She seemed to scan me, inch by inch, and then she left without another word.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about!” Gatti bellowed. “This girl is crazy. Absolutely crazy.”

“She seems like she knows enough to determine the level of your so-called expertise.” I was getting tired of this charade. “Mrs. Rowe, Leyla, is this screaming match what I came here to witness? So far I haven’t seen any semblance of talent.”

“These students, they’re my most advanced—”

“Yes, you keep saying that,” I said, not interested in prolonging this pain. “Yet none of them has anything remotely interesting or indicative of talent sitting on their easels. Perhaps that is Gatti’s fault, to a point, but if this is your best, I don’t see any reason for me to continue the tour. I’m sure you realize I’m very busy.”

Leyla pulled her pink lips back in a grimace of a smile. “Your lack of interest will no doubt have an adverse effect on my willingness to endorse your galleries. I’ve always sent true art lovers your way, used my good name, because I was hoping—”

“You were hoping to draw more business your way if I endorsed your art school.” I shook my head. “You show poor judgment on so many levels, and employing people like ‘Maestro’ here is just one such mistake.”

I couldn’t care less what this woman thought of what I said. I did, however, feel a little bad for the poor students who stood there like statues, no doubt seeing their dream careers as painters vaporize before them. “Keep in mind that I’m basing my opinion on what I see on your easels right now. You may have decent artwork displayed elsewhere, but if I were you, I wouldn’t use any of the techniques or advice Mr. Gatti has taught you.”

A young man standing to my far right stepped closer. “Ma’am? Ms. Landon? We do have an exhibit we want to share with you, if you would like to stay for just a moment longer?” He blushed a saturated pink. “We would value your opinion, even if it stings.” Smiling crookedly, he shrugged. He seemed like a nice young man, and I do care about painters, no matter what my reputation states.

“Very well.” I didn’t even glance over to the frantically whispering Gatti and Leyla. “As I did make time to visit you, I might as well.”

The young man looked relieved and motioned for me to walk through the door. “I’m Luke, by the way. Luke Myers.”

“Nice to meet you.” I thought I’d better be on my best behavior, as the students all followed me toward a larger room farther down the corridor. They all kept a certain distance, as if afraid I’d slit their throats if I didn’t like their paintings.

An expert had lit the room to display the art; I had to give the school credit for that. I walked up to the first piece, a watercolor painting of the Statue of Liberty.

“Subject is boring, but whoever painted this knows about light. Use this technique and do landscapes instead.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” a girl’s voice whispered from the back. I didn’t turn around but moved to the second piece. This one was an oil painting of a dark, gritty alley. “Shift focus. Less on the yellow tones, more on the blues. Good brush technique. Good depth.”

“Wow.” A young man high-fived another.

I walked from painting to painting, critiquing and making sure I had at least one positive thing to say about each of them. It wasn’t these kids’ fault they had an idiot for a teacher and a complete fool for a principal.

“Did you get it, Luke? Did she let you put it up?” a young woman to my left whispered.

“Yeah, it’s right behind this wall. Out of sight of Rowe.”

My curiosity rose as I turned the corner. I walked up to a canvas much bigger than the others. And stared. I stepped back to get a better overview but was unable to keep my distance for very long. I walked closer again. The colors were close to blinding in their clarity. A child stood by a window, hands pressed against the glass, and my throat clenched at the immense loneliness the painting portrayed. The glass seemed like it might shatter beneath the little girl’s hands, and the curtains framing it were of the thickest, richest velvet. The dark hair of the girl glimmered in the muted light coming from behind.

“Who—” I cleared my voice. “Who painted this?” I rounded on them, scanning the young faces. Nothing of what I had seen so far was even close to this. “Who?” I asked for the third time, my voice husky.

Luke took a step toward me. “Hayden. Hayden Rowe.”

 

Chapter Two

I blinked as I regarded the painting in silence. Hayden Rowe, the rude girl that had made Gatti almost levitate from frustration over. Leyla Rowe’s…daughter?

“And what, pray tell, is a piece of this caliber doing here, grouped with those of students who have a lot left to learn?” I turned to Luke, the unofficial spokesperson of this group.

“I’m in my third semester here,” Luke said. “During that time, I’ve managed to catch glimpses of Hayden’s work on quite a few occasions. She’s an amazing painter, but our principal, her mother, doesn’t want anyone to see any of her work.”

“That doesn’t make the least bit of sense.” I placed my hands on my hips and examined the painting of the little girl from all angles. “If the rest of her pieces are as good as this one, why haven’t I ever heard of this young woman?”

“Because her mother keeps her locked in the attic.” One of the girls, Goth inspired, black-haired, and with tons of smudged black eye makeup, spoke with disdain. “You saw her earlier.”

“Ulli, please. Nobody has locked up Hayden.” Luke shook his head. “Though, since Gatti started teaching here, who knows? He’s the one who always talks about keys and guardians.”

“That’s because Hayden doesn’t buy his credentials.” Ulli stood her ground. “Personally, I think Hayden scares the shit out of that little weasel.”

As much as I agreed with this Ulli’s assessment of Gatti, I wasn’t prepared to let these young people digress. I was standing in front of something unimaginably good, and if this Hayden had more like this, I wanted her work in my Manhattan gallery.

“How can I get in touch with Hayden Rowe?” I turned to Luke, who seemed to be the one with his head screwed on right. “Anyone have her card or her cell number?”

“Good luck with that, Ms. Landon.” Another of the students, one of the gangly young men, snorted. “I doubt if Hayden bothers with either.”

Granted, business cards weren’t every painter’s thing, but who in today’s world didn’t have a cell phone? “All right,” I said slowly. “Where does she work? Where does she live?”

“In the south wing. She has her studio there, I think. At least that’s what one of the janitors said.” Luke frowned. “I’ve never been there. None of us have.”

“I heard she used to live in this posh place right on Beacon Hill before, but she had to move here about a year ago. Not sure why.” Ulli pulled half her gum out, twirled it around a paint-stained finger, and put it back in her mouth.

“Then point me in the right direction,” I said, set on following this situation up right away, preferably before Leyla and Gatti realized what I was up to and threw me out. “I still don’t understand why Leyla Rowe doesn’t capitalize on her daughter’s talent when that would attract all the attention she wants for her school.” I gazed at the students, who managed to look ill at ease, all of them at the same time.

“Our principal is not advertising Hayden’s talent because her daughter is retarded.” Ulli shrugged. “That or insane, depending on which day of the week the subject comes up.” Flinging her hands in the air, Ulli made a face at her classmates. “Hey, I’m not the one saying this about Hayden. Her mother is, when yelling at her son.”

So Leyla and her son were arguing about Hayden. Perhaps the son felt bad for how his mother treated his sister? The scenario was intriguing no matter what.

“Thank you for showing me this exhibition of yours,” I said to Luke and the others, handing each of them my card. “In my opinion you showed more hospitality and decorum than I’ve seen from the principal and Gatti. Don’t hesitate to stay in touch. Each of you has talent, but you need to develop it with other teachers to guide you rather than Frederick Gatti.”

“Thank you, Ms. Landon.” Luke smiled, and even Ulli looked pleased at what I had to say.

“Greer. Please. Now, can anyone of you show me to the entrance to the south wing?”

“Sure. We’re off to have our lunch break. We pass the south wing on our way to the cafeteria.” Another of the girls, petite and with chalk-white blond hair, took a step toward me. “And I do have a business card, Ms.—Greer.” She smiled shyly and handed over a very artsy- looking card. “Never too soon to start, I think.”

“Now that’s what I’m talking about.” I tucked her card away as we all walked out of the gallery.

The students guided me through a maze of corridors, and just as I could smell that we were nearing the cafeteria, they came to a halt next to a large oak door. “Here’s the south wing. Don’t be surprised if she doesn’t open up.”

“All right. Thank you.” I watched them disappear in the direction of the smell of coffee and French fries. Regarding the door with a sudden, and for me unusual, bout of trepidation, I lifted my hand and knocked.

How anti-climactic it was when nobody opened. I tried twice more, and then I moaned out loud when Leyla’s voice announced her approach, accompanied by the clacking of her high heels. Thinking fast, and yes, I realize, about to trespass, I tried the door handle. To my surprise and relief, the door opened. I stepped inside and closed it behind me, praying Leyla wouldn’t have the same goal as I did. She was talking to someone, perhaps Gatti, so maybe they were on their way to have lunch and bitch about me. I was sure they had plenty to talk about regarding my rudeness in particular and what a horrible person I was in general.

I looked around the hallway, which was devoid of furniture, or mirrors for that matter. Glancing into the rooms, I saw they were all unoccupied and very sparsely furnished as well. At the far end, a winding, narrow staircase led up to the next level. I figured that since I’d come this far, it’d be ridiculous not to continue. Even if Hayden Rowe wasn’t there, I might find more paintings by her.

The metal staircase led me up to an amazing room. Enormous windows let in all the light a painter could dream of. All different sizes of canvases lined the walls, facing away from any visitor. At the far end, long shelves held jars of brushes and wooden boxes of what I surmised were oils, acrylics, and watercolors. Four empty easels sat to my right, and in the center of the room, an occupied easel covered with a tarp sat, making my fingers itch.

“Why are you here?” a now-familiar alto voice said from behind me.

I turned around and finally got a good look at Hayden Rowe. Her shoulder-length dark hair wasn’t just brown. It had a multitude of shades of gold and chocolate and even some copper highlights. I suspected they were all natural. Her eyes were dark, dark gray. The curvy, full lips I remembered from earlier looked impossibly soft.

Her stance was watchful, but not intimidated or nervous. I realized she was waiting for me to answer.

“Hello, Hayden. I saw one of your paintings in the gallery. I find it amazing.”

“Why?” Hayden asked, sounding curious.

“Because it spoke to me. It filled me with emotions, and I wanted to learn more about the child in the painting.”

“You claim that my painting had a voice?” Frowning, Hayden tilted her head. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“The way you paint, the way you express yourself in your painting, makes me think of my own childhood.” I don’t know how I realized I had better keep my reasoning clear and simple. “I really liked it, Hayden. It’s a good painting.”

“Okay.” She looked less confused. “You’re Greer Landon.”

“Yes, I am. Have you heard of me?”

“My mother has often talked about you. She wants you to come and visit the school. Good for business.” She did a good impersonation of her mother with her last words, using Leyla’s inflection and voice.

“I’m pretty sure I disappointed your mother today,” I said, wanting to be honest with this unusual young woman. “I was almost on my way home when Luke and the others showed me the gallery. They had hung your painting of the little girl there as well.”

“Without telling mother.” Hayden shrugged. “Probably Luke.”

“He seems nice.”

“He acts friendly.”

Acts friendly? I tried to wrap my brain around what Hayden was saying. “He acts friendly”? That wasn’t the same as saying that someone was a friend.

“May I see some of your other paintings, Hayden?” I thought we better get back on track.

“Sure.” She seemed to hesitate. “Unless you plan to tell Mother. I don’t like it when she screams.”

“I won’t tell a soul.”

“As long as you don’t tell mother’s soul.”

I smiled at that, but she met my eyes with a serious, steady glance. “I promise not to involve your mother.”

That reassurance relaxed her and she motioned toward the far wall of the studio. “Over there is my most recent work.”

I swear my hands tingled as I strode over to the canvases. Choosing a square, rather large one, about forty inches across, I placed it on one of the empty easels and took a few steps back. And lost my breath. I had to cover my trembling lips with my hand, which shook too, as I took in the motif. Here, a long, winding picket fence started from the left and went across a field next to a gravel road. On the other side of the fence, the grass was emerald green, the trees lush in the golden sunlight. In the distance I saw a glittering sea. Then on the inside of the fence, the grass was dead, and moss and dirt covered the stones. The trees were bare, and in the center on the ground lay a doll with its hair chopped off, dressed in worn clothes, and missing an arm.

I put the painting back and grabbed another one, this one a little smaller, around thirty by forty inches. Again I placed it on an easel. Before I studied it I turned to see what Hayden was doing and found her immersed in her work over by what had to be her latest canvas.

I took another breath and turned to study the second painting. This time, unexpected for some reason, it was a portrait of an older woman. Her short, white hair framed a beautiful face where each wrinkle only seemed to add to her beauty. Dark-gray eyes, looking familiar, reflected the smile on her lips. Clearly, this woman meant something special to Hayden.

“Who is this?” I asked, too curious to even consider if my question was appropriate.

“My grandmother. Isabella Rowe.”

“I like how you painted her.” Unsure if I should say more than that, as Hayden didn’t seem interested in any detailed critique, unlike the young people downstairs, I kept rummaging through the canvases.

I looked at three more paintings, and each of them described a wealth of emotion with unbelievable range. After viewing those six paintings, including the one in the gallery, I was drained, having gone from laughter to tears and from there over to some sort of fear and even anger. I couldn’t remember feeling like this and getting so lost and wrapped up in a painting in a long time.

I made sure I placed the paintings back just as they were. For some reason that seemed important. I turned and walked toward Hayden, who was painting and not even looking at me. I made sure I stood on the other side of her canvas, as I had learned many years ago just how sensitive some painters were about anyone watching their unfinished work.

“Don’t you want to see this one?” Hayden motioned toward the canvas.

“Sure. If it’s all right?”

“It is.” She stepped to the side a little as if to give me room.

I rounded the easel and scanned the canvas, almost bracing myself. This motif was dark. And I felt my eyes widen, as I’d been to this place. A long corridor stretched into the distance, longer than in real life, but the mirrors were the same heavy, gothic gold-framed ones I’d just left downstairs. Here in the painting, each mirror showed a face. I recognized Leyla, Gatti, and some of the students. Other faces were unknown to me, but their expressions went from contemptuous and angry to friendly and even pitying.

“Oh, Hayden. It’s remarkable.”

“So you like this one?” Hayden sounded matter-of-fact, but her hands squeezed the brushes so tight, her knuckles were pasty white.

“I’m not sure ‘like’ is the right word.” I kept my gaze on her, trying to judge if she understood what I meant. “This painting brings out so many feelings in me. Anger. At your mother, to be honest. Contempt, toward Gatti. Fear of the person over there.” I indicated a woman farther away in the painting. “The boy over there makes me want to chuckle.” I pointed at a child in his early adolescence. “So you see, ‘like’ is not adequate.”

Her stance relaxed. “My mother says you’re the expert everyone else listens to when it comes to art. That’s why she wants you to endorse her school.”

“I realize that. Yes, I hold a certain position in the art world. This is true.”

“Are you going to?”

“Endorse the school? I don’t know. It depends on who’s on the faculty. Gatti’s got to go. If he stays on, I won’t touch this school with a ten-foot pole.”

Hayden frowned, and even if she didn’t say anything, I somehow grasped that I’d used too much imagery in my explanation. “I won’t endorse it if your mother keeps Gatti on the faculty. You said it yourself. After he started teaching, the students stagnated.”

“Yes. He isn’t a good teacher. His paintings are pretentious and don’t depict what he claims they do.”

“An astute observation.” I gazed around the studio. At the other end of it, opposite where Hayden kept the canvases, I spotted a cot and several half-open suitcases. “You spend the night here often?”

“I spend every night here.”

“What? You live here?” Shocked, I stared at her.

“No. I spend my days and nights here.”

Sure, who in their right mind would call it living? It was brilliant as a studio but hardly homey. “Literally living out of your suitcases?”

“My clothes are in my suitcases. I sleep on the bed.” Frowning, Hayden crossed her arms.

“Yes, of course. May I ask why?”

“My grandmother broke her hip and suffered a stroke.”

I thought fast. “And you used to live with her?”

“Yes.” Hayden looked quite relieved.

Guessing it would be a mistake to push her on further details, I was about to ask her if I could show some of her paintings at my Manhattan gallery when a furious voice interrupted me.

“What the hell are you doing here? Do I need to call the police and have them escort you from my school?” Leyla stood in the middle of the floor, her eyes narrowing into slits of fury. Gone was the pink-princess-cake persona from earlier.

“This is my room, Mother. Call the police if you like, but Greer can stay if she wants.” Hayden stepped in between her mother and me.

“Do you think the police listen to people like you, Hayden?” Leyla snorted in a disdainful and ugly way. “You forget yourself.”

“Hayden?” I walked up, standing next to Hayden, focusing my attention on her. “You don’t have to put up with anyone speaking to you like that.”

“You’re kind, but you don’t understand,” Hayden said, her eyes empty. “Perhaps it is better if you leave after all.”

  

Chapter Three

I refused to leave Hayden alone with her acidic mother. Still, if I played this wrong, Hayden could be in a world of trouble after I left. My mind raced with different possibilities, estimating the outcomes for each of them. After what seemed far too long, I had one choice left if these paintings were to find their way to a gallery.

“I have a suggestion,” I said, turning to Leyla but remaining by Hayden’s side. “You wish for me to endorse this school. As things stand right now, I can’t do that. Not by a long shot. The teaching is poor, the students aren’t where they need to be, and the management lacks insight.” I made sure my voice was matter-of-fact, but I knew for Leyla these words were daggers directed at her.

“I’m listening,” Leyla said through clenched teeth.

“If you make the changes I’m going to suggest, I can still endorse the school. They are nonnegotiable though. If you don’t agree to do this my way, you’re on your own. We both know that will be the end of the Rowe Art School—if not right away, then in a year or two.”

“So?” Tapping a pump-clad foot, Leyla showed her teeth. It would have been a smile if she didn’t so clearly want to dig her fangs into my carotid.

“I come here once a week and teach a master class, and Hayden joins me as a co-teacher.” A rattling noise made me glance at Hayden, who’d dropped two paintbrushes. They rolled across the floor and came to a halt in front of her mother. “Would you do that, Hayden?”

“The students can improve with the right tutoring.” Hayden picked up her brushes. “I don’t think my mother wants me to teach.”

“Then the deal’s off.” I shrugged, trying for casual even if my art-loving soul moaned.

“Wait. Why do you want Hayden there?” Leyla sneered. “I’m prepared to have a trained monkey assist you if that’s what it takes, but now I’m curious. Why her?”

“Have you ever bothered to examine Hayden’s work?” Appalled at the searing and cruel words, not to mention the sheer stupidity of the woman before me, I did my best to stay collected.

“A long time ago. She showed me some doodling and—

“Doodling? How old was she at the time?” I must’ve gaped for a fraction of a second.

“I don’t know? Ten? Twelve?” Leyla waved her hand, dismissing her daughter.

I couldn’t believe this woman. “And you never bothered to look again?”

“She hasn’t shown me anything.” Leyla glanced around the room, looking like she’d never noticed the canvases placed against the wall.

I turned to Hayden. “Is this true?”

“Yes.” Hayden shifted the paintbrushes from one hand to the other and back again, over and over. She refused to gaze at Leyla. “When I was eleven years and ten months old, my mother told me never to waste her time. So I don’t.” She shrugged, but it wasn’t very difficult to spot the guarded expression in her eyes.

“I don’t want to force your hand, Hayden, but if you teach a master class once a week with me, I’ll work toward exhibiting your work in my Boston gallery. I’ll endorse the school too, of course, but exhibiting your art is my main goal here.”

“A solo exhibit for her?” Leyla squeaked. “You’re joking.”

“I never joke when it comes to art. She’s very good.” I made sure Leyla was aware I meant every word. “It’d be a crime to not let the public see her work.”

“You don’t realize Hayden’s issues. She was born with a mental deficiency. She can’t handle being in the public eye—

“Hayden? What do you think?” I turned my back on Leyla and focused on Hayden. 

“I’ll do it.” Hayden placed the paintbrushes on the counter behind her.

“Excellent,” I said, and pulled out my planner from my messenger bag. “Why don’t we meet tomorrow and figure out which day will work for both of us?”

Hayden looked puzzled. “I don’t have to work it out. I’m available every day.”

“Ah. Good. Good. Let’s see.” Unable to hold back a smile, I browsed the pages of the upcoming weeks. “Then how about Thursday from eight to twelve a.m.?” I glanced at Leyla, who still looked shell-shocked.

She nodded. “Fine. How much is this going to cost the school?” Folding her arms over her chest, Leyla glared at me. “And what’s really in it for you?”

I wasn’t surprised at her reasoning, as I’d known from the first time I saw her this morning that money drove this woman. In her world, that was how the world spun. Dollars spoke louder than everything else. “Only what the students use when it comes to supplies. Paints, pencils, canvases, that sort of thing. I won’t charge for teaching. It’ll be a privilege to work with Hayden. As for what I get out of it? I expect to see young people learn and grow. Also, I believe I’ll learn tremendously from Hayden.”

Hayden blinked. Had she not understood how amazing I found her work? Perhaps she was so used to having her mother snub her, it hadn’t occurred to her that others might have a different viewpoint.

“I’ll have my lawyers contact yours for the details,” I said to Leyla and refocused on Hayden. “Do you have legal representation?”

“Of course not. My lawyers will speak for Hayden—

“No.” Hayden shook her head. “I’m going to see Isabella. She and I will contact Dominic D’Sartre.”

Leyla did yet another fish-out-of-water impersonation, and I had to force myself not to cheer as Hayden asserted her independence yet again. “But Hayden, she’s old and fragile.”

“If you had visited her, you’d know Isabella is recuperating.” Hayden’s eyes narrowed. “She is old, but the staff says she’s doing much better.”

“Of course they tell you that. They don’t want to upset you.” The sickly sweet tone was back in Leyla’s voice. “I’m sure if someone like me asked them, they’d tell a different story.”

Someone like her? This woman was insufferable, and the way she spoke to her daughter was atrocious. “I take it your grandmother has her own legal representation.” I had to interfere before I throttled Leyla.

“Yes.” Hayden glared at her mother with darkened eyes.

“Have them contact my lawyers.” I handed Hayden my business card, on the back of which I’d scribbled the name of the law firm I used. She took it and cradled it against her in an odd little protective gesture. “We’ll figure everything out.”

Hayden relaxed marginally. “Yes.” She raised her chin a few seconds later. “When do we start teaching?”

“Today’s Friday. No need to waste time. Next Thursday, if our lawyers have ironed out the kinks?”

Hayden looked puzzled, and I realized my words were too cryptic again.

“Next Thursday if everything goes well.” I tried an encouraging smile and could tell she understood.

Leyla, in turn, was once again smirking in an ugly I-told-you-so manner, which I wasn’t going to let her get away with for long. I planned to bide my time until Hayden was ready to assume her rightful place as my greatest discovery. As a nice side effect, I’d wipe that smug expression off Leyla’s powdered face, and it would be a true pleasure. 

#

I had hoped to get Hayden alone before I had to depart, but Leyla stuck around and showed no sign of leaving. This, in turn, made Hayden pull further back into her shell, and she didn’t offer up any more canvases for my perusal. I took the chance to study her furtively as her mother went on and on about what a strange idea I’d conceived, but if that was what it took, so be it.

Leyla’s voice was difficult to tune out, but I managed to reduce her chatter to a dull murmur as I studied Hayden. She was busy rearranging her paintbrushes, which occurred to me was something meditative rather than practical. With her body half turned from me, she placed the brushes in order of length, then gathered them again, only to place them in order of thickness. Next, she put them in a glass jar and arranged them until the tallest were in the back and the shortest in the front.

Her hair curled at the back of her head, folding in against her long, slender neck. I was ready to bet my new gallery in Miami on my opinion that the many highlights were natural. I couldn’t imagine Hayden having the interest or patience to do anything artificial to her hair. She wore no makeup, and her high-quality clothes were immaculate. I thought of some of the girls in the class we’d be teaching, Hayden and I, and how they used their own bodies as canvases in a way, adorning them with makeup, hair coloring, tattoos, and spectacular clothes and fashion choices. Hayden seemed content to place all her skill and emotions on the canvas sitting on the easel at any given time.

“Thank you,” I said, not caring that I was interrupting Leyla’s monologue. “I need to get going as I have business to attend to and classes to prepare.”

“Of course. Of course.” Leyla nodded eagerly and tried to place herself between Hayden and me. “This will thrill the students to no end.”

“Hayden,” I said, and rounded Leyla. “Here’s my card with my contact information. Is there any way I can reach you?”

Hayden took the card, but her mother spoke before she had a chance to respond.

“You can call the school and ask for me,” Leyla said, her voice chirping again in a way that made me have to steel myself.

“I have a cell phone.” Hayden grabbed a pen and what looked like an old receipt from her desk and wrote her number.

“Thank you. May I call you either tonight or tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow.” Hayden didn’t offer any explanation, but her quick glance in Leyla’s direction told me her mother was the reason for that.

“You have a cell phone?” Leyla stared openmouthed at Hayden in a way that was almost comical. “How did you get that?”

“Mother.” Hayden sighed. “I bought it at Best Buy.”

“You did. You did? Since when can you tolerate crowds enough to do your own shopping?” Sounding angry and hurt at the same time, Leyla took two steps closer to Hayden.

“Since I learned how to handle it and not go out during the time of day when large crowds are in transit between home and work. There is also the Internet.”

“This is something your grandma has encouraged, of course.” Leyla sneered.

“Yes.”

Leyla pressed her pink lips together in a way that smeared her abundant lipstick outside her lip line.

“Thank you.” I tucked the note with Hayden’s number into my messenger bag. After a brief hesitation, I extended my hand to say good-bye, not sure if Hayden would see this act as too invasive. Hayden shook my hand, her grip firm. However, she withdrew her hand quickly, as if she’d learned to touch a stranger in a polite manner but still disliked it.

As I made my way back through the school’s corridors, I was relieved that Leyla insisted on seeing me out, as I didn’t want her to tear into her daughter. Relatively sure this happened on a regular basis, judging from Hayden’s reaction to her mother, I didn’t like it. How the hell could Hayden be creative in such a hostile, toxic environment? I didn’t understand the protectiveness this woman stirred in me, as I wasn’t the protective kind. My image was no secret to me—no-nonsense, hard-bargaining, sarcastic, and somewhat of a bitch.

“This plan of yours, Greer, I’m not sure…I mean, far be it for me to question your professional judgment, but Hayden isn’t a trained artist. We decided to homeschool her after several failed attempts at sending her to the finest private schools in Boston. My husband taught her the first two years, and then his bat of a mother took over. Trust me, those two may have been academically qualified to teach, but they wouldn’t know the right side of a brush or yellow from blue.” She cackled. “Whatever she’s managed to put on those canvases, it’s—”

“It’s all hers.” I stopped inside the front door. “Leyla, you asked me here because your school desperately needs help. This means you must think my opinion matters, correct?” It didn’t thrill me having to deal with this unreasonable woman, but I kept going as she nodded reluctantly. “If Hayden is self-taught, she’s even more remarkable. I can’t explain to you how she can be this good other than she’s a genius.”

Leyla shook her head. “You mean an idiot savant. That would explain it. Brilliance wasted on someone who isn’t aware of her talent.”

“How can you talk like that about your own daughter?” I doubted Leyla even knew what a savant was. The way her voice oozed scorn made me want to distance myself permanently from this woman, but that would mean zero chance to work with Hayden.

“There’s a lot about my daughter you don’t know. If you’d struggled like I have during her upbringing, you wouldn’t be so quick to judge me.” Leyla pursed her lips in a strange pout. “I suppose it’s easy to paint me as the villain, but I’ve gone through hell and back for that girl.”

I couldn’t make myself believe her, and her long-suffering tone was a little too theatrical. If Hayden had some issue, I didn’t doubt there had been hard times, but nothing excused the way Leyla treated her child now.

“I try to not judge anyone,” I said and hoisted my bag. “I’m late for my next meeting. This has been most interesting, and I’ll be in touch with Hayden soon.”

“I’ll plan a function where we’ll announce our collaboration,” Leyla said, now back to her glittering self, smiling brightly.

I winced, but this was the price I had to pay for having access to Hayden and her paintings. “Very well.” I shook Leyla’s hand and walked out the door. Torn between relief at leaving the building run by this overbearing, pink megalomaniac and my desire to immerse myself in more of Hayden’s art, I made my way down the wide steps. There was also Hayden herself, on one hand strong and unafraid, and on the other, vulnerable and at her mother’s mercy. Was the latter because she was financially dependent on her mother? Or perhaps her ailing grandmother?

Determined and with my infamous laser focus, I intended to find out.

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