Tested in Fire (Art Medium, #2)

Tested in Fire (Art Medium, #2)

Author: E.J. Russell

Six months ago, Stefan Cobbe was at rock bottom: grief-stricken, guilt ridden, debt laden, artistically blocked, and living on charity in an isolated mountain cabin. But after reconciling with his first love, Luke, and moving to Sarasota with him, Stefan is preparing for his first major show. Yes, he still has debts, and no, Luke doesn’t understand Stefan’s desire for independence. But compared to last year? No contest.

Luke Morganstern ought to be happy. After all, his art-investigation business has recovered and he’s got his boyfriend back. But Stefan stubbornly refuses to move in with him or accept Luke’s financial help, and it’s really starting to bug him. Who knew that the biggest test of their relationship wouldn’t be time or distance, but his own insecurities? After Luke’s next job—a trip to Italy to retrieve a mysterious artifact—he plans to convince Stefan that it’s time to totally commit.

But when Luke returns, he changes, and Stefan begins to suspect that the person in Luke’s skin isn’t Luke at all. He can hardly go to the police and claim his lover is the victim of a supernatural hijacking though. He needs alternative help to find Luke and get him back, because he refuses to let anyone—or anything—come between them again.

Publisher's note: The Art Medium collection is available in both ebook and print.

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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

emotional abuse

sex in someone else's body without their consent

Chapter One

"It's time, Morganstern."

Sweat broke out on Luke's forehead at the implacable edge to that voice, and he wiped his damp palms on his chinos. He'd been played. No question. "Can't we discuss this? Negotiate? I'm sure there's another option — "

"We had a bet. You lost. I'm collecting."

Luke ground his molars together. He shouldn't have lost. He never lost. He glared at his boyfriend. "You must have cheated. The old Stefan Cobbe couldn't beat me at poker to save his ass."

"Meet Stefan Cobbe, new and improved." Stefan grinned at him over his shoulder as he sharpened a drawing pencil with his pocket knife. "Come on. You agreed to the stakes."

"Because I knew I was going to win," Luke muttered.

"That might have been true seven years ago. Which, by the way —" Stefan pointed the blade at Luke before he tossed it on his worktable. "— I don't concede. But didn't you consider that I might have learned a thing or two since we played last?"

"I didn't think you could have changed that much." In the six months since Luke had found Stefan in that godforsaken haunted cabin in Oregon, they'd rebuilt their relationship, brick by stubborn brick. They found far more common ground than they found differences.

Except, apparently, for Stefan's newfound cardsharp proficiency.

Stefan pointed at the dais at the far end of the cavernous studio, under the sleeping loft that was still a point of contention between them. "Stop stalling. Strip."

"Can I at least use the changing room?"

"Suit yourself. But the end result will be the same. You. Naked. So get to it." He picked up a giant sketchpad. "If I could stand around bare-assed in front of first-year life drawing classes three times a week for four fucking years, you can drop trou long enough for me to sketch you."

Luke yanked his shirttail out of his pants. "You were used to it," he grumbled, as he unbuttoned his Oxford and tossed it on a wooden chair.

"Now you're just whining. If you had agreed to pose for me when I asked the last hundred and seventy-two times, I wouldn't have had to resort to desperate measures."

Luke scowled at Stefan and hauled his undershirt over his head. "I have to be at the airport in a couple of hours, you know."

"All the more reason to move it along."

Bare-chested, Luke took a step toward Stefan. "We could occupy that time better." He lowered his voice and was rewarded with Stefan's shiver. "I could show you how."

Stefan fended him off with his pencil. "Forget it. Pants."

Luke unbuttoned his fly and skinned his chinos down his legs, kicking them to the side. "You are one obstinate son of a bitch."

"Takes one to know one. Underwear."

"I'm getting there." He paused with his fingers under the waistband of his boxer briefs. "Why do you get to stay dressed? If I have to be naked, it's only fair that you are too."

"You know perfectly well it doesn't work that way. The model is nude. The artist stays covered. Now quit screwing around and get on the dais."

"Fine." He shoved his briefs down, then balled them up and tossed them after his pants. As he limped across the room and mounted the platform, the dehumidified but still Florida-warm air ghosting along his bare skin, he muttered, "Why did you have to pick now to get masterful?"

"Shhh. Models should be silent. Otherwise, you distract the artist. Besides, whenever you talk about this, you tense up. Nobody holds his elbow at that screwy angle. Relax."

Relax. Right. Easier said than done. In the concrete-floored studio, with its high ceilings and the light spilling in from a bank of clerestory windows, Luke felt as if he were standing in the middle of the Five Points Roundabout in downtown Sarasota. Compared to this, lying under a crumpled Fiat with a broken femur had almost been a piece of cake.

Okay, maybe not that. But close.

He sighed. "I wish…."

"What?"

"I wish I was still perfect." He dropped his gaze to the canvas-covered stage under his feet. "Well, as perfect as I ever was. Unmarred, anyway. You deserve that."

"What I deserve," Stefan said, his tone tart, "is a boyfriend who accepts that I love him exactly the way he is. Those scars mean something else to me. They mean you survived. I love those scars. Tilt your chin up, please?"

Luke complied, but he didn't smile. That would be asking too much. "I don't get it. Why do you want to paint me? You've got models lined up from here to Orlando."

"I'll get to them. But I want your portrait to be the centerpiece."

Gooseflesh rose on Luke's skin. "The centerpiece of what?"

"The show, of course."

"The show? The big one here next month? That show?"

"Yeah." A smile curved Stefan's lips as his pencil flew over his sketch pad. "My first since Marius — " His smile faltered. "My first in three years."

"You want to paint a full-length nude of me for your fricking show? Full frontal?"

"Weeelll…." Stefan squinted at his drawing. "More like three-quarters."

Luke's gooseflesh disappeared under a flash of heat. He would be walking around the sprawling gallery downstairs sipping a plastic cup of fucking white wine and everyone in the crowd would know what his body looked like. The twisted scars that crawled over his hip and down his leg. The patch of shiny pink skin that wrapped his ribs. "Oh, hell no."

"Why not?"

"Have you seen my body?"

Stefan leered at him and waggled his eyebrows. "Every chance I get."

"It ain't pretty."

Heaving a sigh, Stefan set his pad and pencil on his worktable, then crossed the room and stopped in front of Luke. He was tall enough that he didn't have to lift his chin very far to meet Luke's eyes. "I know you don't like your scars. But do you dislike them because they remind you of your pain, or because you're afraid that other people will find them unattractive?"

"Unattractive?" Luke scoffed. "Try revolting."

"Luke —"

The door opened and Antoinette Tessier, Stefan's landlord and employer, walked in, a box cradled against her chest. "Good afternoon, Stefan." She took in Luke in all his unclothed glory. "Oh."

"Shit." Luke dropped to a crouch, angling the scarred side of his body away from the door — which resulted in his junk dangling between his legs like some X-rated door knocker.

"Hey, Antoinette." Stefan shot Luke an amused glance. "There's a drape right behind you," he murmured, then walked over to take the box from Antoinette's arms. "Is this ready to fire yet?"

As Luke fumbled with the drape, tangling it hopelessly while he tried to wrap it around his hips, Antoinette kept peeking at him from under her lashes, a mocking smile tugging at her lips. Yeah, that's exactly the reaction he'd expect from anyone who got a good look at the wreck of his skin.

"Not yet," she said, trailing a finger over something in the box. "It is only leather-hard. The piece must be bone-dry before it goes into the kiln or we risk damage." Bending over the box next to Stefan, she tucked her long dark hair behind her ears. "I wanted your opinion. Do you think the likeness is good, or should the forehead be smoothed a trifle?"

"No, you've captured the client perfectly, as usual."

The two of them began murmuring about pigments and underglazes, so Luke tuned them out, because seriously? What idiot would want their own face on a mask, especially one as freakishly lifelike as Antoinette's ceramics? Portraits were bad enough, but masks? Brrr. Bad enough if they were for display — the damn things were like having disembodied heads hanging on your wall like big game trophies in Hannibal Lecter's playroom. Worse, though, if they weren't for display. Imagine having someone else's eyes staring at you from your own face.

Luke had already endured that nightmare with Arcoletti's ghost. Thank God it was in the past, never to be repeated.

Antoinette clapped her hands. "Bien. I shall bisque fire it this weekend before begging your assistance in painting it."

"Are you sure you want to hand it over to me? I'd hate to screw up something this lovely."

"I trust you, Stefan." She patted his arm although her glance flicked to Luke again. "I will let you return to your session. I beg your pardon for interrupting."

"It's all right." Stefan smiled down at her. "I think Luke was about at the end of his patience anyway."

She laughed. "Very well." She picked up her box, pausing while Stefan held the door for her. "Au revoir, Monsieur Morganstern. I look forward to seeing your finished portrait. Perhaps someday you will sit for me as well? I find your . . . face quite intriguing."

Not a chance in hell, sister. Nevertheless, Luke raised a hand in farewell, then lowered it swiftly to clutch the drape before it slithered to the floor.

She left, and Stefan closed the door on her stifled laughter.

* * * * * * *

Stefan had to bury his own mirth when Luke glowered at him, the drape bunched around his hips. "I meant what I said. These sketches are rough, but they'll do for now. You can get dressed again if you want."

"'Intriguing.' What the fuck does she mean by that?"

"She's mentioned it before. You remind her of Jacques — that is, Signor DiBartolo."

Luke harrumphed and climbed down off the dais, unsuccessfully hiding a wince.

Stefan hurried over. "Is your hip bothering you? Maybe I should have had you pose seated."

"Nah. It's fine." But given the stiffness in Luke's gait as he hobbled over to pick up his briefs, it clearly wasn't.

"You should take some painkillers before your flight."

Luke tugged on his briefs, snapping the waistband in a way that telegraphed his annoyance. "I'll manage." He snatched his pants off the floor, but Stefan caught his wrist before he could abuse them as well.

"Sure, you'll manage. But I want you to be comfortable. There's a difference."

Luke's arm tensed, and for a second, Stefan was afraid he'd pull away. But instead, he sighed. "I know. But I hate — "

"Admitting to pain."

Luke met Stefan's gaze, his hazel eyes serious. "Looking weak in front of you."

"Hey. Remember what we agreed back in October? We're a team. Equal. That means strengths and weaknesses are irrelevant. Besides, if you're allowed to fuss over me — and don't deny it, you do — then I'm allowed to fuss over you."

This time, Luke disengaged from Stefan's hold, but gently, and put his pants on. Stefan handed him his undershirt without a word. Luke pulled it over his head, then wandered over to the worktable. He barely glanced at the drawing before he turned away. "At least that's over with."

"Oh, no. This is just the first step. I've got enough to get started, but I'll need you to pose again when I begin painting."

Luke sighed heavily. "Stef —"

The door swung open, and Antoinette's partner stuck his head in. "Tonina?"

Stefan shook his head. "I'm sorry, Signor DiBartolo. Antoinette was here a moment ago, but she left. Perhaps she's at the kiln?"

Signor DiBartolo lifted one grizzled eyebrow, grunted, and left, not bothering to close the door.

Luke scowled at the door as he picked up his shirt. "I don't like that guy. He's pretentious."

"He's Italian."

"You can be Italian without being pretentious. He drapes his coats over his shoulders, for God's sake, like some Fellini character from the sixties."

"Why does that bother you? This is Florida. He doesn't wear a coat nine-tenths of the time."

"When he does, he could put his damn arms through the damn sleeves," Luke grumbled. "Anyway, how'd he get a name like Jacques if he's Italian?"

"Antoinette calls him Jacques because she's French. His name is Giacomo."

Luke froze with his arms partway in his shirt. "You're shitting me. Giacomo?"

"No one calls him that, of course. Antoinette might call him Jacques, but everyone else calls him Signor DiBartolo."

Luke wrestled into his shirt and grabbed Stefan's arm, towing him toward the door. "You need to get out of here. Now."

Stefan laughed and disengaged his arm. "Don't be an idiot. It's only a name."

"Yeah, and the last time we tangled with someone named Giacomo who hid behind another name, it did not end well." He started buttoning his shirt, getting halfway done before he noticed it wasn't lined up properly. "Fucking Arcoletti. Fucking ghost."

Stefan stepped close, pushing Luke's hands aside to fasten the buttons. "I think it ended okay. I got you back, didn't I?" He slid his hands down Luke's chest and rested them on Luke's hips, thumbs under the waistband of his jeans.

"After nearly starting a forest fire and trashing my rental car."

He dropped a quick kiss on Luke's lips. "All that drama is behind us. We just need to live our lives now."

"I'd rather live our lives without any further Giacomo incursions, thanks."

Stefan tweaked a lock of Luke's hair with a grin. "I didn't realize you were so superstitious."

"Superstitious, my ass. You were there in that clearing. You know what was living — or rather not living — in that studio. Giacomo, aka Jeremiah, Arcoletti, could have had the fucking courtesy to stay dead and not complicate our lives with his bullshit oversharing. We dodged more than a literal bullet when Thomas Boardman sounded so batshit crazy, carrying on about his uncle the ghost painter, that the police weren't interested in us."

Stefan shivered, still unwilling to think about that time, and how close they'd come to disaster with the authorities after they'd vanquished the ghost. Luckily, the condition of the cabin — and its lack of building permits — made the police believe the faulty-wiring-and-paint-fumes excuse for the fire, and assign the blame to Thomas as the negligent owner.

"All the more reason for us to put it behind us." All Stefan wanted — all he'd ever wanted — was a long, uneventful, even boring life with the man he loved, in a world where the only thing you had to worry about was stupid stuff like how to pay your bills, and whether you had enough phthalo-blue to finish your painting without a trip to the art supply store. Not whether some guy who'd been dead for over half a century might come waltzing out of the woods and make himself at home in your head. "Besides, it's not like it'll ever happen again."

Luke sighed. "Yeah, I guess."

Stefan kissed him and patted his chest. "Anything I can do around your place while you're in Milan? Take in your mail? Water your plants? Oh, wait. You don't have any plants. They're too needy for you."

Luke caught Stefan's hand, opening his mouth as if to say something, and Stefan braced himself for another rendition of Luke's constant refrain: "You could move in." But instead, Luke clamped his lips shut and shook his head. "Nope." He kissed the angle of Stefan's jaw. "I should only be gone a couple of days. We'll talk when I get back."

Stefan nodded, although his chest felt tight. The unsaid words floated almost visibly in the air between them. Thank God, he hadn't voiced it this time, or they'd have parted in anger and frustration, with Stefan insisting that they live apart until he was clear of all his financial baggage, and Luke declaring that Stefan's debts didn't matter. But Stefan had learned his lesson about dependence — both economic and emotional — and he'd never go there again, not even with someone he trusted so completely. He lowered his forehead against Luke's. "You'll be home in time for the show, though, won't you?"

"Wouldn't miss it."

"Good. Call me when you land in Milan?"

"I'll try. But my international calling plan sucks, and your domestic plan sucks worse."

"It sucks, but at least it's cheap. One step closer to fiscal self-sufficiency, right?"

As Stefan had hoped, Luke laughed at that. "Every penny counts, I guess."

"Yeah." Stefan sighed. "Especially since I've given up on prying my last four paintings out of Marius's sister's perfectly manicured hands. She probably burned them anyway. Or gave them to Goodwill." He met Luke's gaze.

"Nah," they said simultaneously.

"She'd definitely have burned them first." Luke straightened his collar. "Listen, communication may be iffier than we expect since I won't be in Milan proper. It's some village to the west, in the mountains near the French border."

"You sure you're up for that?" Luke's accident had given him a phobia about driving mountain roads.

Luke nudged Stefan's chin with his knuckle. "Hey. I got cured of that shit in October, remember? Hairpin turns and steep drop-offs don't freak me out anymore."

Stefan grinned. "Just guys named Giacomo."

"What can I say?" Luke cupped Stefan's jaw and kissed him. "We all have our quirks. See you in a couple of days, babe. Love you."

Stefan walked him to the door and stole another quick kiss before Luke left. He sighed and wandered to his worktable, tracing the sketch of Luke with the tip of a finger. A couple of days. That's not so long.

Behind him, the studio door burst open.

Stefan grinned, warmth gathering in his chest. "I knew it. You want me to take you to the airport after all."

"Stefan."

Not Luke. Stefan whipped around at the note of panic in Antoinette's voice. She sagged against the wall, one hand clutching the edge of the door, her face as white as a blank canvas. "Christ. Antoinette." He hurried over to wrap an arm around her before she slid to the floor. "What's wrong?"

She gulped. "Please. Can you come? Something is wrong with Jacques. I think…I think he may be dying."

General Details

Word Count: 52,000

Page Count: 206

Cover By: L.C. Chase

Series: Art Medium

Ebook Details

ISBN: 978-1-62649-757-3

Release Date: 03/31/2018

Price: $3.99