A destitute artist. His art investigator ex-lover. Two men haunted by more than the past.
Available now from Entangled Publishing
Stefan peered out the cabin window, hands balled in the pockets of his sweatshirt, willing Thomas to emerge from the studio. The man had been inside for twenty minutes, each second ticked off by the camelback clock on the sideboard and the skitter of Stefan’s nerves.
The studio door opened and Stefan leaned forward, balancing on the balls of his bare feet, his fingernails jabbing his palms. Please. God, please. But when Thomas stepped out into the drizzle and frowned at the sky, brushing at the shoulders of his black duster, he was empty-handed. Stefan sank onto his heels, shoulders slumped, and let his forehead fall against the chilly windowpane with a thump.
He slid his left hand out of his pocket and uncurled it. In the gray light, a splotch of cobalt winked at him from the crease at the base of his ring finger, a sly flicker hinting he’d done more last night than simply pass out. Stupid of him to believe a spot of paint.
At the first slap of Thomas’s shoes on the porch, Stefan opened the door, tugging it past the warped spot on the floor, then stood aside like an unkempt butler.
Thomas took one look at him and laughed. “Good morning, Merry Sunshine. A bit hung-over are we?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.” Stefan didn’t remember drinking, although a bender might explain why his eyes burned and his skull felt too small to contain his brain. Headache didn’t begin to describe it.
Thomas sailed past Stefan, trailing a too-heavy cloud of L’Homme. The scent didn’t blend well with the smoke from the wood stove or the inescapable smell of paint solvent clinging to Stefan’s clothing. Thomas’s scarf, fringed silk in delicate lemon, mocked his pale blond hair, turning it drab and colorless, although it complemented the pastel pink of his bald spot.
Stefan dropped his gaze to the floor and contemplated his bare toes while contempt warred with gratitude in his chest. If it weren’t for his chance encounter with Thomas, who’d remembered him from one of Marius’s gallery galas, Stefan would still be living in his dead car in the parking lot behind Karla’s Krab Korner, waiting for those Vegas goons to extract from his flesh what they couldn’t get from his wallet. Thomas’s unexpected offer of patronage, complete with studio, room, board, and unlimited art supplies, had seemed like a gift from the art gods.
But with each visit to the cabin, Thomas borrowed one more trick, one more affectation, from Marius. Marius’s cologne. Marius’s coat. Marius’s scarf color, for God’s sake. As if he were auditioning for the part of Marius now that Marius was dead and couldn’t fill the role himself.
“Hair of the dog?” Thomas held up the bottle of scotch from the sideboard.
Stefan’s stomach rebelled at the suggestion. “God, no.”
“Groceries are on the porch. Here’s your mail.” Thomas pulled a handful of envelopes out of the inner pocket of his coat and tossed them onto the kitchen island counter. “I stowed the art supplies in the studio. Good thing I made it up here today. You were getting low.”
Stefan’s breath caught. Supplies. He’d used supplies. “Did you…was there…” Ask him, you cowardly piece of shit. “Did you like…it?”
“The new painting? Yes, indeed.” Thomas’s round face creased in a smile.
Stefan took his first deep breath of the day. The studio held a painting. He clenched his left fist around the tiny blot of blue that hadn’t lied after all. “I wasn’t sure if anything—” Stefan coughed to cover his near-confession. “I mean, if it was ready. You didn’t bring it out.”
“It’s dry. Ready to go. But I didn’t want to carry it outside in the rain. I’ve got some waterproof wraps in the Caddy. I’ll pull around and collect it before I go.” Thomas patted Stefan’s shoulder and Stefan forced himself not to pull away. “Don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll sell something soon.”
Stefan didn’t flinch at the condescension in Thomas’s tone. Hell, he’d jettisoned his pride on his first visit to a pawn shop. “I’ll pay you back first thing. For the supplies, the food, the rent. Everything.”
“No worries. I’m sure we’ll work something out.” Thomas chuckled and gave Stefan’s shoulder another squeeze. “As they say, I know where you live.” He pulled on a pair of leather driving gloves. Marius’s brand. “Could you manage two more by the end of next week?”
Stefan’s belly roiled at the idea of entering the studio and he squeezed his fist tighter, clutching the stray dot of paint like a talisman. “I…don’t know. I’ll try.”
“Excellent. I have big, big plans for November.” Thomas waggled his nearly-invisible eyebrows and bustled out. Ten minutes later, his black Cadillac purred past the cabin on the way down the hill.
Shivering in the damp chill of the morning with the wooden slats of the porch rough against his feet, Stefan asked himself what he would do if Thomas took that last step into Marius’s empty shoes and added Marius’s lover to his list of must-have accessories. He clamped his lips shut against a surge of nausea. Man up, Stefan. You’ll do what you must. You owe him whatever he cares to ask for. Because thanks to Thomas, Stefan was finally painting again.
Even if he couldn’t remember a single brushstroke.