Eight Years Later
Xavier pulled back the curtain across the kitchen window, trying to peer out onto the porch.
Behind him, the children were going wild. Violet was seven and a half years old – strange to think that Jonny had once been that young – and the twins, Daisy and Marty, were five years old. They were currently racing each other round and round the table, but it would only take one look from their mother to calm them down immediately. They were supposed to go and play with Emily and Maxwell Silver’s two children later, to burn off some excess energy.
Xavier couldn’t wait. He’d forgotten how tiring small children could be, even if Violet was showing strong inclinations to be bookish. Distracted again, Xavier turned back to the window, peering through. It was no good – he could only see Jonny’s elbow as he moved his paintbrush, and the wild, black curls of Isabella Martinez, standing quite still beside him.
“What are they talking about out there?” Xavier muttered, half to himself.
Charlotte, who was brewing coffee and setting out a plate of seedcake, sighed. “They’re probably talking about art, Xavier. Your son is a very accomplished artist, you know. He’s only fifteen years old, and already Isabella is talking about scholarships and apprenticeships and art colleges. I can hardly believe it.”
Xavier swallowed hard. Panic was clawing its way up his throat at the thought of Jonny receiving a scholarship to an art college. It was a different world; one he couldn’t possibly understand. Of course he knew Jonny was a talented artist, of course he wanted him to do what he loved, but leaving home? Not just leaving home, but going to New York to study? Xavier had always imagined watching his son progress, smiling proudly. Not waiting by the mailbox every day for a letter.
Not missing him so much it hurt.
Plus, it would be miles and miles away from here. A pang of fear squeezed Xavier’s heart.
He let the curtain fall back. “I wish she’d never come.”
Charlotte glanced up sympathetically. “Isabella is a decent woman, Xavier. Besides, she really can help Jonny with his art career, if she chooses to do so.”
Even in a place like Cicero’s Creek, people had heard of Isabella Martinez, the famous female artist whose paintings were taking the world by storm. Noted for their brushwork and vivid use of colors, a Martinez painting could fetch quite a pretty price. In a world geared towards men, Xavier had to admire the woman for advancing as far as she had, when everything was conspiring to hold her back.
But then she came to Cicero’s Creek to view a house and swathe of land – which she had not bought after all – and happened to see some of Jonny’s paintings on display in the village hall. She had asked to see the artist, and Xavier had happily complied, glad to show off his son’s skill.
Then Ms. Martinez had started to talk about scholarships and colleges, and Xavier began to panic.
Maybe she was persuading his son at this very moment to run away from home and apply to an art college.
I won’t let him go, Xavier thought furiously. I won’t.
Something nudged his back, and he turned to see Charlotte smiling up at him, a tray in her hands. She had a coffee pot, mugs, and a selection of cake on the tray.
“Come on,” Charlotte said, “let’s go out and talk to her.”
Xavier followed, more because he had to than because he wanted to.
Outside, Jonny was working on a canvas, with Ms. Martinez leaning over his shoulder, tapping her full lips.
She was a beautiful woman and could have been aged anywhere between twenty-five and forty, depending on the light and her own mood. She had dark hair, deeply tanned skin, and large, jet-black eyes. She was watching Jonny’s painting intently, following every brush stroke.
Charlotte had to clear her throat twice before either of them looked up. When they did, Jonny’s face fell.
Xavier couldn’t help but feel ashamed. Only a few days ago, he’d told his son exactly what he thought of art college and Isabella Martinez, and Jonny had burst into tears.
When she spotted him, Isabella’s expression hardened, too.
Naturally, Charlotte saved the day, smiling and talking, setting down the tray of goodies on a low table, and pouring out cups of coffee.
“Jonny,” she said lightly, “could you go in and watch the kids while we talk?”
Jonny swallowed hard, eyeing his father warily. There was a rift between them, since the argument over art college, and it hurt Xavier’s heart.
“Sure,” Jonny said, and went back inside the house.
He’s growing up so fast, Xavier thought miserably. His son’s voice was already beginning to crack, and he was as tall as his father, although lanky with it. Some days, there seemed to be no resemblance at all to the big-eyed little boy who’d lived with him even before Charlotte arrived.
“Please, Isabella, take a seat,” Charlotte said, gesturing to a faded old rocking chair. “I thought we could all sit down and talk about Jonny’s future. I know you’re keen for him to attend art college…”
“And I know you aren’t keen for that to happen,” she responded hotly, then flushed. “I’m sorry, I know I’m too outspoken. But your son has talent.”
Xavier opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
“We know,” Charlotte said mildly. “We’ve always known.”
She made small talk while she poured out the coffee, and some of Isabella’s tension seemed to fade. Xavier decided to keep his mouth shut for now and looked at Jonny’s half-finished painting instead.
It was breathtaking. It was a scene obviously conjured from Jonny’s imagination rather than reality, with vibrant colors and bold, assured brushstrokes. Xavier remembered the wobbly portrait of Charlotte and himself that Jonny had made at the age of nine, which Xavier still kept, treasured, in a drawer in his room.
He swallowed past a lump in his throat.
They grow up so fast, he thought wearily. It felt like only yesterday he was holding baby Jonny in his arms, then the rest of his children, then he was telling Maxwell and Emily how quickly time went by when their first baby was born.
With a start, he realized that Isabella was addressing him.
“I understand your concerns, Mr. Collins,” she said, a speech which was obviously well-rehearsed. “I’m not trying to pry your son away from his family. I’m not suggesting that he come, unaccompanied, with me back to New York. I’m just saying that he has talent, and I think you know as well as I do that talent needs to be nurtured. He can’t stay here in Cicero’s Creek, not if he wants to be an artist. He’ll be wasted if he spends his life plowing fields and raising cattle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” she added hastily, flushing. “Just that Jonny’s talents lie elsewhere. He has a calling, Mr. Collins, Mrs. Collins. A true calling, and those are very rare indeed.”
Xavier met Charlotte’s eye, not entirely sure what to say.
Charlotte was aging too, of course, but neither of them were old. She had a few lines around her face, certainly, and both of them had noticed a very gradual thickening of their bodies, veering away from the whip-thin physique of youth.
And yet Charlotte seemed to be even more beautiful than the first day he saw her. Xavier had to smile at that.
“We want Jonny to have the best chance in life,” Xavier said hesitantly. “But… but New York? That’s so far away.”
“I agree,” Charlotte murmured. “I spent my youth in a big city, and it was not… it was not pleasant. Or easy. I was very lonely, and very unhappy.”
Xavier placed his hand over hers, a reassuring weight. Isabella’s eyes dropped curiously to their hands, before she recollected herself.
“Of course, of course. But the art school in New York, the one I’m talking about, is the finest one in the country.”
“And… and you think that Jonny can get in?” Xavier hazarded.
Isabella gave a short laugh. “Oh, certainly. With his talent and my patronage, there’s nothing he can’t do. He’s sensible and personable, and surprisingly humble. I like him a great deal, as does everybody else in the village. Of course, he couldn’t attend the school until he was eighteen, but there’s lots to do to prepare him for it. Besides, he can apply now, and get the wheels in motion.”
A flash of panic rolled through Xavier’s stomach, making him feel sick. His son, eighteen years old. He was already fifteen. The three years in between would melt away, and then what?
“I…” Xavier glanced down at Charlotte for help. “We want him to be happy, of course we do, but… well, Ms. Martinez, do you have children?”
She bit her lip. “No, I haven’t. I always thought I might have them, but I haven’t. I suppose I chose my art instead. It’s a choice that makes me happy.”
“I’m glad you’re happy, truly. But imagine if somebody was trying to take your art away from you, trying to separate you from somebody or something that you loved. How would you feel? That’s how I feel when you talk of taking Jonny away.”
Isabella considered this for a long moment. “It would be awful,” she admitted, “but don’t you see that’s what you’re doing to Jonny? Soon he’ll be old enough to work properly, whether it’s on your ranch or somebody else’s, or maybe in an office somewhere. He’ll work hard – he’s a hard worker – and he won’t have time for his art anymore. Life drains us, Mr. Collins, and when something you love is relegated to a hobby, you often no longer have time for it at all. When Jonny gets older still, he might want to get married. Once he has a wife and children, he’ll never touch a paintbrush again, I can guarantee it. I’ve seen it happen, again and again, to men and women. Life gets in the way of what they love. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to divide between work, family, and rest, and find time for something as mentally and emotionally exhausting as art. Jonny has a chance to avoid all that, but he has to act now.”
She leaned back in her seat after this little speech, somewhat breathless. She’d clearly spoken from the heart, and it was hard not to shrink back at the gray, miserable picture of life without art.
She can paint just as well with words as she does with brushes, Xavier thought wryly.
He glanced down at Charlotte, who was already looking up at him, eyebrows raised.
“We want him to be happy, don’t we?” she murmured. “If this can make him happy… we aren’t losing him, Xavier. We’ll miss him, of course we will, but we won’t lose him. But if we get in the way of his dreams now, we will lose him. He’ll never forgive us.”
Xavier swallowed hard, a lump forming in his throat. He felt tears pricking at his eyes.
Three years will melt away, and then he’ll be gone.
He glanced back at Isabella, who looked troubled.
“I… I don’t mean to hurt anyone,” she said carefully. “I just saw Jonny’s talent, and I knew… I knew I had to help him. Please understand that I don’t mean any harm.”
Xavier let out a long, shaky breath. “This… this college. Jonny truly wants to go, doesn’t he? He wants to be an artist? It’s his dream?”
“It is, Pa.”
They all flinched, turning around. Jonny stood at the door; the screen door closed behind him. His three siblings had their faces pressed up against the screen, clearly engrossed in what was going on even if they didn’t fully understand it.
Jonny drew in a breath, taking a step closer.
“I love you, Pa, you know I do, and I love you too, Charlotte. But I’ve only ever wanted to be an artist, if I can. And I think I can, and so does Ms. Martinez. Let me try, Pa. Please. I know… I know that New York is a long way away, but I won’t stop loving you, any of you. But please let me try.”
Xavier swallowed hard, eyes blurring with tears. He glanced at Charlotte and saw that she was smiling tearfully at him. She gave him a short nod, and a flash of understanding passed between them.
Xavier held out his hand, and Jonny took it. Charlotte took his other hand, just like she had when he was a little boy and squeezed it gently. Together, the three of them turned back to Isabella Martinez, who also seemed a little affected by the scene before her.
“Right,” Xavier said, letting out a shaky breath. “This college, then. This art college, and the scholarship. What can you tell us about them? Because I think my son is going to be attending.”