A tuxedo-clad usher greets me at the bottom of the stairs and offers me some help finding a seat. And boy did I need help. There were at least two hundred chairs lined up in front of a mini stage, set in front of a bay window that was essentially the entire wall, and almost every single chair was taken.

I squeeze into a center row, between a man that has artsy rebel, written all over him from longish light-blond hair to his jeans and a blazer, and a fifty-something woman who is more than a little irritated to have to let me pass. I can’t help but notice the man is incredibly good looking and I’ve never been one to be easily impressed. I know too well that beauty is too often only skin deep.


“You're late,” the man says as if he knows me, a friendly smile touching his lips, his green eyes crinkling at the edges, mischief in their depths. I figure him to be about thirty-five. No. Thirty-three. I am good with ages, and good at reading people. My kids at school often found that out when they were up to no good.

I smile back at the man, feeling instantly comfortable with him when, aside from my students, I’m normally quite reserved with strangers. “And you forgot to pick up your tux, I see,” I tease. In fact, I wonder how he pulled off getting in here dressed as he is.

He runs his hand over his sandy blond, one-day stubble that bordered on two days. “At least I shaved.”

My smile widens and I intend to reply but a screech from a microphone fills the air. A man I recognize from photos as Ricco Alvarez claims the stage and stands next to the sheet covering a display, no doubt his newest masterpiece. Suave and James-Bond-esque in his tuxedo, he is the polar opposite of the man next to me.

“Welcome one and all,” he says in a voice richly accented with Hispanic heritage, as is his work. “I am Ricco Alvarez, and I thank you for sharing my love of art, and children, on this grand evening. And so I give you what I call Chiquitos, or in English, Little Ones."

He tears away the sheet, and everyone gasps at the unexpected piece of art that is nothing like anything he’s done before. Rather than a landscape, it is a portrait of three children, all of different nationalities, holding hands. It is a well-executed work appropriate for the occasion, though secretly, I had wished for a landscape where his brilliance shone.

The man next to me leans an elbow on his knee and lowers his voice. “What do you think?”

“It’s perfect for the evening,” I say cautiously.

“Oh so diplomatic,” he says with a low chuckle. “You wanted a landscape.”

“He does beautiful landscapes,” I say defensively.

He grins. “He should have done a landscape.”

“And now,” Ricco announces, “while the bidding begins, I’ll be circulating the room, answering questions about my many works displayed tonight, and hoping to have the pleasure of meeting as many of you as possible. Please feel free to walk to the stage for a closer look at Chiquitos.”

Almost instantly, the crowd is standing.

“Are you going for a close-up?” I ask the man next to me.

“Not much on crowds,” he said. “Nor Ricco’s attempt at portraiture.” He winks at me. “Don’t stroke his ego when you meet him. It’s big enough as it is.” He starts moving down the row toward the exit. I stare after him, feeling this odd flutter in my stomach at his departure, curious about who he is.

I frown as I repeat part of our conversation in my mind. Ricco. He’d called Ricco Alvarez ‘Ricco’ and spoken of his ego as if he knew him. It’s too late now to find out how he knows Ricco, and portrait or not, I am eager for an up-close look at the featured painting. I have not met Ricco and it is disappointing, but I am still thrilled at the opportunity to see his work.

Sometime later, I am enjoying a lingering walk through the gallery, exploring the full Alvarez collection on display, when I spot a display for Chris Merit, whose work I studied in college. He too had once been a local, but I seem to remember him moving to Paris. Excitedly, I head toward his work. His specialties are urban landscapes—-mostly of San Francisco, both past and present-—and portraits of real subjects with such depth and soul they steal my breath away.

I join an elderly couple inside the small room, where they debate over which of several landscapes to purchase. Unable to stop myself, I join in. “I think you should take them all.”

The man scoffs. “Don’t go giving her ideas or you’ll both put me in the poorhouse. She gets one for above the fireplace.”

“Stingy man,” the gray-haired woman says, shoving his arm playfully and then eying me. “So tell me, honey.” She motions between two pictures. “Which do you think is a better conversation piece, of these two?”

I study the two choices, both black-and-white, though Merit often uses color. One is a downtown shot of San Francisco in the midst of hurricane-like weather. The other is of the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in clouds, the skyline of the city peeking out from behind it.

“A tough choice,” I say thoughtfully. “Both have a bit of a dark edgy feel to them, and both have the ‘wow’ factor.” I indicate the stormy downtown scene. “I happen to know that one depicts the impact Hurricane Nora had on the city back in 1997. To me, that makes for a conversation piece, and a little bit of history to boot, right there in your living room.”

“You are so right, dear,” the woman says, her eyes lighting up. “This is the one.” She casts her husband an expectant look. “It’s perfect. I have to have it.”

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