Blank Spaces (A Toronto Connections Novel)
This title is part of the Toronto Connections universe.
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Absence is as crucial as presence.
The decision to stop dating has made Vaughn Hargrave’s life infinitely simpler: he has friends, an excellent wardrobe, and a job in the industry he loves. That’s all he really needs, especially since sex isn’t his forte anyway and no one else seems interested in a purely romantic connection. But when a piece is stolen from his art gallery and insurance investigator Jonah Sondern shows up, Vaughn finds himself struggling with that decision.
Jonah wants his men like his coffee: hot, intense, and daily. But Vaughn seems to be the one gay guy in Toronto who doesn’t do hookups, which is all Jonah can offer. No way can Jonah give Vaughn what he really wants, not when Jonah barely understands what love is.
When another painting goes missing, tension ramps up both on and off the clock. Vaughn and Jonah find themselves grappling not just with stolen art, but with their own differences. Because a guy who wants nothing but romance and a guy who wants nothing but sex will never work—right? Not unless they find a way to fill in the spaces between them.
Winner: Best Asexual Contemporary and Historical Romance in the 2017 Rainbow Awards!
Winner: Best Asexual Book in the 2017 Rainbow Awards!
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Vaughn stood in front of the wall, the sinking feeling in his stomach rapidly turning into plunging freefall. Around him, the silence of the gallery made ample space for him to take in a deep breath. And another one. Just to make sure he was awake and seeing this right.
Because a very obvious blank space sat on the wall in front of him instead of a showcase work of art. A delicate arrangement of threads sewn from a canvas onto clear plastic piping to resemble a dark, fragmented wormhole reaching towards the viewer, to be precise. It was visually arresting in a kind of nightmarish way, and it was also one of the main pieces of this exhibit.
Despite all his deep breathing, it remained missing.
“Shit.” He looked around, but every other piece still rested safely on plinths or on the wall or in the wall, in some cases. “Shit.”
He dug his phone out of his pocket and dialled his manager, Maurice. While he waited for Maurice to pick up, Vaughn walked swiftly around the gallery, keeping a desperate eye out for black threads attached to canvas. Maybe the cleaner had lost his mind and moved it. Maybe one of the owners or the artist, Jai Yoon, had sold it but hadn’t logged the sale. Maybe, just maybe, there was a nice explanation for the disappearance.
But no, everything else was in its place, except for an empty bag of chips some cretin of a visitor had left in one corner. He dumped it in a nearby bin.
Maurice wasn’t picking up.
Vaughn tried again. And again. But by the time he’d checked the front desk, the stationery closet at the front desk, the manager’s office, and the storage closet at the back of the gallery, Maurice still hadn’t answered. He gave up. “Shiiit.”
This was the third piece this year. Not good.
He went back upstairs to the office, tapping in the entry code on the way. He was the only person there, because Vaughn Hargrave was the lowly gallery assistant (read: office grunt) responsible for opening the gallery on time. This being the art world and today being a normal working day, no one else would show up until just before lunchtime.
Not today. He had to get his manager here. Failing Maurice, the owners. The police. Somebody. He turned on his laptop and ran to the filing cabinet that contained the physical copies of sales made through their gallery. While he thumbed through last month’s receipts, he dialled Maurice again. He’d found nothing for the piece by the time the voice mail kicked in.
“Maurice,” he said thickly, “another piece is missing. The Yoon. Get here now.” He hung up, then navigated to the contact info of the owner, Angeline. He took a deep breath and pressed her name.
She picked up on the first ring. “What is it, Vaughn?”
“The Yoon’s not here.”
“Jai Yoon’s piece, Entrance. It’s not here; I’ve looked everywhere. It wasn’t sold. It wasn’t misplaced. It’s gone.”
She sucked in a breath. “What did Maurice say?”
“I can’t reach him.”
“I’ll handle him. Take down the plaque and put some folding chairs in that space. Open the gallery on time. I’ll be there in half an hour.”
“But what about—” she hung up and Vaughn exhaled heavily “—the police,” he said to his phone. It promptly vibrated in his hand and he saw Angeline’s name on his screen. He picked up.
“Vaughn.” Her voice was extra crisp. “On second thought, don’t do anything I just said. Also, do not call the police until I get there.”
“Yes, An—” She hung up. Normally her distinct lack of manners grated on him, but today he was grateful for the brevity.
Vaughn put his phone away and returned to his laptop station. As he opened his inbox, his mind raced. This was bad. This was really bad. If this turned out to be another theft, no one would want to exhibit at their gallery, and if no one wanted to exhibit at their gallery, they’d go out of business, and if they went out of business, he’d have to get another position, and he really, really didn’t want to do that. This assistant position, awful as it could be, had him working with art and exhibitions and meeting people in Toronto’s art scene; it was worth the ego management and terrible pay. Finding another job like this one? Soon? He didn’t even want to think about how difficult that would be.
And who would want to employ someone who’d had multiple pieces stolen while in their care? Not that he personally was responsible for the artworks; no, the owners Angeline and Cressida were, and perhaps the expensive security team supposedly available 24-7 to respond to breaches in the very high-tech security system they’d installed earlier this year. Only, they hadn’t responded to this because there hadn’t been a breach. Vaughn would know, because he’d turned the damn thing off half an hour ago when he’d arrived.
The security upgrade. The 24-7 monitoring team. There was an idea. He called them and asked for a system report of the last week.
Then he sat down and breathed deeply for a moment. There wasn’t any reason to panic. Not yet. Perhaps not at all. Angeline would arrive and they’d call the police and the police would pretend to do something about the gallery space—though how pictures of a blank wall would help them figure out what happened, Vaughn had no idea—and then he’d open the gallery and direct visitors and answer calls and fetch sushi for Cressida like normal. Nope, no need to panic.
So. While he waited for Angeline, he could review emails and answer inquiries like he always did. Yeah, he could totally do that. He was gonna do that right now.
The very first email he looked at was from Jai Yoon, wondering if she could bring her family for free that day, to show them the piece. They’d flown in from South Korea to visit her and wanted to see her work on display.
A strange garbled noise left his mouth, and he clapped one hand over it. Keep it together, Hargrave.
Maurice chose that moment to call him. Thank you.
“Maurice,” he answered in relief.
“Vaughn, why the hell did I just have Angeline scream at me on the phone?”
Because you didn’t answer your phone when I called, you prick. “The Yoon is missing. I looked everywhere, but it definitely is. Angeline is on her way.” He paused. “Jai Yoon wants to visit with her parents today.”
Maurice swore. “That is the last fucking thing we need. I don’t care what you tell her as long as she doesn’t come in today. Have you called the police yet?”
“No. Angeline said she wanted to be here for that particular honour.”
“Of course she did. God. Okay, I’m on my way. Don’t touch anything.” He hung up.
Vaughn looked at the email from Yoon, wondering how the hell any of them were going to tell her that her piece had been stolen. She was an up-and-coming talent, a few years out of Emily Carr University, and had been nothing but polite and friendly and accommodating; the idea of telling her Entrance was gone was physically sickening.
Nope. No way was he doing that.
He took a deep breath and typed, Due to a family emergency, we unfortunately have to close the gallery today. I’m terribly sorry about this, Jai, and about the short notice.
There, that would do. A few more platitudes, and the email was sent. Great.
How were they in this position again? Again? It was ridiculous. Perhaps it was just as well that they’d renewed their insurance and lowered the deductible. The thefts earlier this year had stung. Combined with the security upgrade, Vaughn had to wonder just how well the finances of the Delphi Gallery were doing right now.
Despite the constant worry tugging at his mind, he managed to process a few emails before he heard the click and slam of the downstairs door. He sprang up and ran down the stairs into the gallery’s ground floor.
He found Angeline standing before the blank wall, legs wide and hands on her hips. It was telling that she still had her snow boots on; normally she paused to take them off and slip into heels once out of the snow. She glared at the wall as though it had personally offended her. “This is a fucking disaster.”
“Maurice is on his way.”
“That is the least that man could do.” She glanced around the room. “Nothing else touched. Jesus. We have a carved rock estimated at $600,000, a triptych at half a mil, and this asshole takes the cross-stitch project worth a couple grand. I don’t pay myself enough to deal with this shit.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Did you check the closets?”
“No sale recorded.”
Angeline scowled, her fine dark features narrowing. “Damn it.”
“I called the security company for a log of the last week.”
She looked at him for the first time, squarely in his eyes. “Good.”
Praise. From Angeline. Vaughn would have swooned had he not been so stiff with nerves.
She turned back to the wall. “This piece isn’t necessary for the December exhibit,” she muttered to herself.
No, it wasn’t. Their December exhibitions were famous for their seasonal themes. Their annual shows were one reason Vaughn had been so happy to get the position: he’d be involved in curating the exhibition every year and organizing the Christmas party that accompanied it. Last year they’d done pagan roots, with works related to First Nation winter celebrations and druidism and even some Celtic imagery. The year before that, holiday pop art. This year it was interpretations of Christian symbolism, and some of it was very dark. Yoon’s piece certainly fit the tone of the exhibition, but not the religious theme.
“No, but we still have to do something about it,” Vaughn said.
“Is the coffee machine on?”
She turned abruptly and marched towards the office stairs. “I’ll call the police.” The gallery phone rang at the front desk. “Answer that.” She disappeared through the door.
Vaughn rolled his eyes and jogged over to the desk. He picked up the phone. “Delphi Gallery, how can I help?”
“Hi,” said a throaty voice down the line. “Could I speak to the gallery owners?”
“I’m Jules Mitchell from the Globe and Mail. I understand you have an exhibition featuring Jai Yoon at the moment, and I was hoping to interview her there with her work. Are you the right person to talk to about that?”
Fuck. Me. Vaughn wanted to slam his face into the desk. “Unfortunately we’re closed today for a family emergency.”
“Not what I asked, but okay. I wanted to arrange it for next week.”
Next week. Would that be enough time to straighten this out? Who knew. But he couldn’t turn down publicity outright. “I’ll make a note for my manager to call you back.” He took down the journalist’s details and pencilled a date into the appointment book. If Jai Yoon still wanted to be associated with them next week, they’d need the good press coverage.
Maurice arrived as Vaughn finished up with the reporter. He stomped snow off his boots in the front entrance, his habitual scowl present as Vaughn put down the phone.
“How are you so calm?” Maurice demanded. “We’ve been robbed, you know.”
Vaughn’s jaw dropped. “I’m not calm.”
“Could’ve fooled me. Look at you.” He gestured at Vaughn. “Not even a goddamn wrinkle in your jacket. Let me guess—the maid ironed that for you this morning?” He came around and scanned Vaughn from head to toe, shaking his head. “And the always-present inappropriate footwear. It’s winter, in case you hadn’t noticed.” He shook his head again. “Is the coffee machine on?”
“My God, you did something useful.”
Maurice went up the stairs to the office as Vaughn looked down at himself. He was wearing his usual workwear: a decent shirt, quality blazer, trousers, and loafers. What was wrong with dressing respectably? To give Maurice credit, it was November, so the loafers were kind of out of season. But it wasn’t like he’d actually walked here in them, he just preferred to feel the floor under his feet.
And knowing how to use an iron didn’t mean he had a maid. Jeez. Maurice could be unnecessarily grumpy without coffee.
The front of the gallery had wide glass windows that extended from the first floor up to the second floor. The desk where he currently stood faced the front door and a small reception area and coat hooks. Melting slush from Maurice’s and Angeline’s boots streaked around the door and doormat. Outside, the sun shone in a cold blue sky, making the snow glisten. People moved past on the sidewalk in bulky coats and big scarves, and the deli café opposite them had Christmas decorations up already.
Of course it had to be a beautiful day when they found out they’d been robbed. Again.
Vaughn dug into the drawer of the desk and pulled out the Closed Due to Unforeseen Circumstances sign and put it up on the front door, then locked it. That done, he reluctantly went up into the office.
Angeline was on the phone to the police, pacing the carpet near her desk in stockinged feet, and Maurice was frothing milk for his morning cappuccino. Vaughn returned to his laptop and saw a reply from Yoon: So sorry to hear that. Will the gallery be open next week? My family will still be here and I have a paper interested in interviewing me there.
“Maurice,” he began.
“Not now,” Maurice snapped. The milk spat at him.
Angeline hung up and turned to Maurice. “The police are on their way.” She gave a deep sigh, then jabbed at her phone to call another number. “Hi. I hold gallery insurance with you, and I need to report a theft.”
Vaughn’s phone buzzed and he glanced at it. His friend Devon wanted to go out tonight. That meant drinks and a club. Not really Vaughn’s idea of a good time these days, but after today? He texted back, God yes please, and put the phone down as Maurice sat next to him, cappuccino firmly in hand.
“What?” Maurice asked.
Vaughn explained the Yoon interview situation, and by the time he’d finished, Maurice looked ready to throw something. “Perfect. Just fucking perfect. Fuck you too, universe.”
“It might be really useful. I have the reporter’s details downstairs if you want them.”
“What do you mean your colleagues flagged it?” Angeline snapped into the phone. “No. That’s unacceptable. What’s your name? Jonah?”
Maurice rubbed his eyes. “Look, don’t answer Yoon yet. Wait until Angeline’s free to talk it over. We’ll have a powwow on how to handle her and the reporter.”
That seemed sensible.
“Put me through to your manager, Jonah.”
Vaughn raised one hand to run it through his hair, remembered he’d spent an embarrassing amount of time styling it full of gel, and lowered it again. “Maurice, she’s not going to be happy.”
“No shit.” Maurice sipped his cappuccino, eyebrows drawn. “We’ll tell her what we told Berkley and Katzenjammer.”
Vaughn grimaced at the memory. Both of those artists had been upset when their work had been stolen, but Berkley had been extra irate, threatening to sue and have them closed down. Delphi insured for theft, unlike most galleries, so in the end it had worked out, but the bad news had made the social media rounds anyway. Artists inquiring for exhibition space had dwindled a bit. Thankfully the Katzenjammer theft had been relatively low-key in comparison, mostly because Vaughn had managed to soothe the artist enough that he hadn’t ranted much online.
This? This could threaten the gallery’s existence. Yoon was new and exciting enough for this to be of real interest to people.
“Sorry and we’ll refund her the sale value of the piece from our insurance claim?” Vaughn said.
“What the hell else can we do?”
He had a point.
“Are you kidding me?” Angeline demanded. “Are you actually kidding me? Fine.” Her tone indicated things were immensely not fine. “I’ll expect you here exactly at eleven o’clock, Garrett, and if the police aren’t finished by then, you’ll have to wait. Good-bye.” She punched the End Call button and raised her face to the ceiling. “Fuck insurance lemmings. Fuck them all.”
Maurice raised his eyebrows at her. “Yeah, fuck them. What happened?”
“They don’t believe it’s been stolen.”
Watching this was better than reality TV. Vaughn didn’t think he’d ever seen Angeline this furious.
Wait, the insurance lemmings thought what?
“This guy said it sounds suspicious. He has to come down here to see the damage, view the police and security reports, and establish for himself that we have a valid claim.” She shook her head. “Un-fucking-believable.”
“They don’t think we have a valid claim?” Maurice was turning purple. Vaughn backed away from the cappuccino. “Our claims were plenty valid earlier this year. What makes this one different?”
“Like I know?” She turned sharply and picked up her shoes. “Vaughn, go downstairs and open the door for the police. Maurice, finish your fucking coffee and get the paperwork ready for the lemmings.” She wedged her feet into the heels. “I’ll make sure nothing else was taken and call Cress.”
Both Vaughn and Maurice winced. Cressida, Angeline’s partner in life and in the gallery, wasn’t going to be happy about this. And when Cressida wasn’t happy, no one was.
* * * * * * *
Jonah looked out of the taxi window and wanted to scowl at the gallery.
He’d had this insurance investigator gig for two months, and so far things had been pretty smooth going. He got outside the office, got to meet lots of people, and got to visit plenty of swanky places—like this one. Sure he hadn’t been doing it long, but he could spot real whiplash a mile away by now and was developing a gut instinct for the big problem claims.
Like this one. Jeez, when Customer Services had bounced him this doozy of a claim, he could’ve killed them. An art gallery—loaded if the premiums were anything to judge by—two claims already that year, and now a third one discovered literally that morning. He’d scanned their claims history when he got the phone call (of course he did, because he took his job seriously, unlike some of the hosers in the Home and Contents Department), and three in one year struck him as very, very weird, considering they’d only included theft on the insurance eighteen months ago. When Garrett had taken over the call, he’d thought the same thing.
So now he and Garrett were doing an on-site evaluation. An immediate one, which meant their other appointments were pushed back thanks to these guys being whiny and rich. Doing insurance for companies like this pissed him off.
Hell, the mere sight of Delphi Gallery pissed him off. All concrete and glass, pretentious fancy eggshell-blue tiles on the path to the door, and a stripe of matching blue paint down one side of the façade. He supposed it was artistic or something. Along with the Yorkville address, the place looked exactly like the kind of ridiculous, trivial überwealth he detested. Not even the police car in front of the building ruined the impression.
He and Garrett left the taxi and walked towards the door.
“It’s good the police are here,” Garrett said. “We can hear their summary directly.”
“Yeah, but the official report won’t be ready for a few days. Is it even worth being here right now?” Not that Jonah would openly admit to it, but his thoughts on that were something like No freaking way.
Garrett shrugged. “Scoping things out before they have a chance to get their story together is worth doing. Take notes about the staff, the piece that’s missing, the estimated value of it, any security measures, all the usual stuff.”
“We know about their security measures. They installed a high-grade system after the second theft in order to reduce their premiums.”
“We still need to corroborate the situation for our side of things.”
Yeah, okay, true, but did that mean they had to drop everything and rush over here like the gallery was burning down?
They paused in front of the door, which had a big sign saying Closed Due to Unforeseen Circumstances in nice lettering. Through the door and the glass windows beside it, they could see a young man sitting at a desk with a laptop. Garrett rapped on the door, and the man looked up.
Jonah’s breath caught. Holy shit. The guy was hot. Tall and lean, in a form-fitting blazer over a patterned, collarless dark-blue shirt, cheekbones you could slice cheese with, and curly dark hair around his face. Grey eyes. Clear pale skin. Mmm. Jonah would bet money he looked even better without the expensive clothes. He could just picture it: a hairless chest; thin, hard torso; long cock—
The guy moved out from behind the desk, and Jonah saw he was wearing deck shoes and green pants. The shirt’s pattern was light-blue tulips. Lust careened to an abrupt halt. Who the fuck wore green pants? Willingly? And deck shoes in winter? Rich boys who don’t have to worry about wet feet or walking in snow, that’s who. This guy probably took taxis everywhere.
He shook his head to clear it. This was work, not a bar. Focus.
Gorgeous opened the door. “Can I help you?”
“We’re from Laigh and Sanders,” Garrett said.
“Please come in.” He opened the door wide for them. Jonah followed Garrett in, making sure to stamp the excess slush off his boots on the way. A place like this, dirt stains would show up like mud on snow. In fact, he and Garrett probably stood out like sore thumbs in their cheap suits and bright snow jackets.
“You may hang your coats up there,” Gorgeous (but badly dressed) said, indicating coat hooks on one wall. “I’ll inform my colleagues that you’re here.”
“And you are?” Garrett asked.
Gorgeous paused on his way into the gallery. “I’m Vaughn Hargrave, the gallery assistant. Please excuse me for a moment.”
If the shoes, clothes, and job weren’t enough, the name sealed it. Hargrave was the name on a shiny plaque on a very shiny building near Jonah’s office, one that he walked past every day. Gorgeous was Money. Jonah almost bristled at the way he sauntered off, not least because those pants showed off a mouth-watering ass. It was better than his, which wasn’t fair, as he had to spend two hours a day at the gym for his and Hargrave looked like his idea of heavy lifting was a latte instead of a cappuccino.
“You okay?” Garrett asked, shrugging off his jacket. “You look like you drank cold coffee.”
“I hate places like this.”
“Art galleries?” Garrett glanced around. “Not my favourite kind of place, but good for a date. Girls seem to like staring at random shit on walls.”
Jonah wasn’t about to tell him that he wasn’t into girls, or dates to galleries, or dating at all. His ideal date was a drink before being fucked against a wall. Definitely couldn’t tell his boss that. “I don’t get art.”
“Me either, bud.” Garrett picked up a pamphlet on the front desk. “Oh hey, a Christmas exhibition. That’s fun.” He frowned as he thumbed through the pamphlet. “Oh. None of this looks very Christmassy.”
Jonah glanced over his shoulder in time to see a picture of a naked woman on a cross, bleeding from places he’d rather not think about. That was art? He’d rather stick with insurance.
Hargrave returned. “My manager says he’ll meet you upstairs. Please follow me.”
They were being shunted out of the way already. Jonah glanced at Garrett, then decided to push back. “Do you mind if we see where the piece was?”
Vaughn smiled apologetically, smooth and practiced. “Unfortunately, the police are still surveying it.”
Garrett stepped forward. “I’ll meet with your manager while my colleague looks at the scene.”
Jonah shot him a grateful glance. He definitely wanted that spot scoped out for their own peace of mind.
Vaughn glanced between the two of them, his rich-boy good looks tugging at Jonah’s dick. Ugh, he was cute from all the angles. “If that’s how you’d prefer to do things, Mr. . . .?”
“Garrett Barlow. This is Jonah Sondern.”
Vaughn nodded. “The space where the piece was is through there, Mr. Sondern. Please follow me, Mr. Barlow.” He led Garrett to a door in the next room, punched a key code in, then ushered Garett through it.
Jonah moved in the direction Vaughn had indicated, behind the desk into the next room, which was a large clear space with paintings and random shit on the walls. Columns with stuff on top of them or pinned to them were dotted around the room, and there were two police officers talking to a fierce-looking woman in heels and a long skirt. She had to be Angeline, the owner, who he’d “spoken” to on the phone earlier.
They stood in front of an empty section of wall. There was a plaque on it, presumably for the stolen piece, and the police officers were taking pictures and notes. Jonah stepped forward, hoping to see for himself if there were any cracks or obvious smudges or scrapes in the paint on the wall.
There wasn’t anything.
So he, the police, and the gallery owner were all staring at a wall featuring a grand sum of nothing on it. What kind of information could be had from that?
Talk about feeling like a chump.
Angeline caught sight of him. “Who are you?”
“Jonah Sondern, claims investigator from Laigh and Sanders.” He had the full intro down by now.
Her lip curled. “Ah. You. Vaughn should have taken you to see Maurice.”
“My colleague’s with him. I’m here to survey the site.” He nodded at the police officers, who were giving him that steady, expectant look law enforcement seemed to do so well. “Officers, we’re here from the insurance company to investigate the legitimacy of the claim. I wanted to ensure we’re all seeing the same thing.”
The officers glanced at each other, then at Angeline. She looked ready to throw something.
“We’ve searched the building and the piece is not here,” one of the officers said. “How it happened is the real question.”
Yeah, the million-dollar question for his company.
Jonah scanned the room. There was some crazy shit in here. One piece looked like someone had scrawled black pen on a canvas, but the pen marks were actually black threads. One painting was of mangled shapes in shades of yellow and orange. Another painting was literally a huge wall’s worth of white paint and one smear of red. And one of the columns had a gigantic Q hanging from it. What is that even supposed to be? Hopefully the stolen piece wasn’t as nutty as the rest of the art here. He had no way of judging how valuable any of this stuff was, not beyond I wouldn’t pay a dime for it.
“No break-in?” he asked.
“We’ll provide details in our report,” the officer said smoothly.
Vaughn appeared beside Jonah, startling him. Shit, he was tall—Jonah’s eyes were level with Vaughn’s chin. Damn it, not only was the guy loaded and a clothes freak, Jonah also had to look up at him? Nope, seriously not fair.
“I have the security log here.” Vaughn held up papers in one hand, then gave them to the police officers.
“We’ll need that,” Jonah said to him.
“I left a copy with my manager to give to your colleague.”
Jonah tried not to glare (up) at him. For someone who willingly wore tulips on his shirt, Money was organized.
And really handsome up close, which meant he was leaving unfair and travelling into downright unjust territory.
“We’re done here,” the officers said to Angeline. “You’re free to open the gallery to visitors; we’re not going to get any more information.”
Angeline walked the officers to the door, which meant Jonah found himself in front of an empty wall with Vaughn. He took his phone out and snapped a few pictures, then put it away, feeling silly. This wasn’t exactly a straightforward burglary; there wasn’t a sign of breaking in and none of the other pieces seemed to have been touched.
Also, standing next to what had to be the son of the guy who ran that expensive-looking company near Laigh and Sanders was awkward. Jonah eyed him and wondered what he was thinking. He didn’t look at ease; his arms were crossed and he had the slightest frown on his face as he gazed at the wall. Jonah half wanted to sigh; he even looked hot frowning. Just how beautiful was a guy allowed to be?
“What did it look like?” Jonah asked.
Vaughn jumped, then collected himself. “The piece? It was a three-dimensional construction of plastic and thread on canvas.” He uncrossed his arms and made a roughly tubular shape in the air in front of him. “It looked like the tunnel to a warren or another place on the other side of the canvas. It represented the experience of reality shifting, of travelling from one place to another despite physically staying put.”
What the . . .? “So . . . like a portal?” Portals he roughly understood. He’d enjoyed what little he’d played of the Portal games, though the physics of them had made his head hurt.
Vaughn smiled. Jonah’s breath caught again. Whoa. A smile like that could blind a guy. “That’s exactly right,” Vaughn said warmly.
“But what did it look like?”
Vaughn frowned, then pointed at the artwork with the thread on the canvas. “That’s a similar piece from a different artist. Similar black thread, only sewn through clear plastic tubing attached at a right angle to the canvas. It looks like the threads are hanging in the air. Quite remarkable.”
It kinda sounded creepy as fuck, actually.
Heels clicked behind him and Jonah turned to see Angeline. She came up to him with her hand outstretched, a piece of paper in it. “The case number,” she said icily.
He took it. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“I suggest we join Maurice and your colleague upstairs.” She turned and walked away.
Clearly not a suggestion. Jonah followed, noticing how Vaughn fell into step behind him. He automatically gave a small hip wiggle, then reminded himself he was working and that he didn’t like moneyed brats who didn’t understand the concept of warm shoes in the winter, no matter how beautiful or smiley they were.
He did glance back as they climbed the stairs, just to see if the guy was checking him out. How could Vaughn not, when Jonah’s ass was in his face? But no, the guy was looking down. Jonah turned to the front, a little confused. He had a great ass, as qualified by a vilifying number of men who’d know. And Vaughn was gay, right? Dressed like that and working in an art gallery, he had to be. Jonah’s gaydar was pitch-perfect, and it had twanged the moment he saw the guy.
Or maybe that had been his dick.
Anyway, it didn’t seem to matter what Jonah’s gaydar had picked up—Vaughn hadn’t noticed any of Jonah’s more prominent attributes by the time they reached a small office on the next floor of the gallery. He barely looked up from the ground, let alone at Jonah.
Angeline led them to a small meeting room where Garrett was sitting opposite a weaselly-looking guy with a bad haircut and a permanent scowl. Jonah figured this was the famed Maurice.
“Angeline. You’re finally done with the police?” Maurice said as they entered.
Garrett stood, extending a hand. “Good morning. I’m Garrett Barlow.”
Angeline briskly shook his hand. Jonah stepped forward and introduced himself to Maurice.
The guy had a handshake like a wet noodle. “Maurice Palomer.”
Jonah resisted the urge to wipe his hand on his pants after Maurice let go, then sat next to Garrett, who shot him a grim look.
“Anyone want coffee? Water?” Vaughn asked.
“We’re fine,” Angeline said, sitting down. Maurice just waved his hand at him.
Vaughn nodded and left the room. Jonah settled fully into the meeting, taking in Garrett facing off against Maurice and Angeline, and the stack of documents in the middle of the table.
Maurice sat forward with an insincere grin. “We were almost done here, weren’t we, Garrett?”
“Not really,” Garrett said.
“As done as we could be without the police report.”
“I’m not certain we have full details of the—”
“The police have confirmed the theft, right?” Maurice said.
“Yes.” Angeline’s tone was hard. “They’re doing the report right now.”
Garrett picked up the documents in front of him. “I still have to verify the documentation you’ve provided us.”
Maurice smiled. “We can leave you here to look through it if necessary.”
Garrett returned the smile, but his was as false as Maurice’s. “Could you also provide the reference numbers for the claims earlier this year?”
Maurice and Angeline glanced at each other. Angeline narrowed her eyes at Maurice, who stood. “I’ll get them for you now.” He walked out the door. “Vaughn, why didn’t you—” The door shut behind him, cutting off the rest of his sentence.
The three of them sat in tense silence. Angeline glanced at them. “You’re not the people we met last time.”
Jonah put on his most winning smile. “We’re in the Investigations Department. This is the first time our company’s flagged your claims as worth investigating.”
Angeline raised an eyebrow. “You don’t say. Jonah, right?” She didn’t sound impressed with him. Then again, she hadn’t been impressed on the phone either.
Jonah tried not to visibly bristle.
Garrett passed the papers to him. “We’re just following procedure, ma’am.”
“Really? Isn’t procedure us sending in scans of all that documentation in front of you? And maybe a few calls to ensure you have everything you need to process our claim?”
“After you upgraded your security system,” Garrett said, “we didn’t expect another claim.”
Angeline shot him a hot glare, then abruptly sat back against the chair. “Honestly? We didn’t expect to be filing another one.”
Unlike Maurice, who reeked of insincerity, she seemed genuine in her anger, so Jonah believed her. She was moving from anger to frustration and disbelief, which was a typical emotional trip people took during visits like this. It wasn’t like he didn’t get it: theft was nasty. Made you feel dirty and exposed. Evidently even rich people felt that.
Jonah flipped through the papers. He found a paper-clipped log from the security company and put it on top of the stack. Hopefully there was a nice entry of someone tripping the system, and they could settle this quickly.
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Garrett said.
“It’s weird.” Angeline was frowning. “Our security system is top-of-the-line. It should’ve caught a fucking mouse moving around, let alone a person and a painting with a goddamn tube sticking out of it. Vaughn says the system was turned on when he arrived this morning.” She leaned back, took a deep breath, then forcibly relaxed into her chair. “So why the need for a personal visit?”
Garrett shifted in his chair. “We—personally—feel this needs a personal touch.”
Angeline raised an eyebrow. “You personally do, eh?”
Jonah did a mental head slap. Nice one, Garrett.
Garrett glanced at Jonah. “We like to look after our clients, Ms. Dufort, even though this doesn’t seem straightforward to us. It helps to meet the people actually affected.” He gave a warm smile, no indication whatsoever that Dufort’s wealth said jump and they were jumping. “However, I feel I should warn you that if we’re not convinced by this—” he tapped the papers in front of Jonah “—and the police report, then we’ll have to refuse to pay out for this claim. I hope, of course, that it won’t come to that. We’ll be sure to investigate this thoroughly.” He stood, which was cue for Jonah to stand. “Thank you very much for your time, Ms. Dufort.”
Maurice opened the door, a piece of notepaper in hand. “I have the references . . . here,” he said slowly, obviously realizing they were about to leave.
Jonah took the paper and added it to the stack with an overbright smile. “Thanks!”
Maurice’s eye twitched.
They all went through the office to the stairs. Vaughn was nowhere in sight. Jonah was a little disappointed; he’d kind of wanted to cruise that ass again. Then they came in view of the front desk and saw Vaughn there, standing and tapping at the laptop, ass nicely showcased in those dumb green pants. Another breath escaped him.
Vaughn looked up and watched them as they retrieved their coats. “I hope you got everything you needed.”
Ever so polite. Was this guy even real?
Garrett nodded absently. “Yes.”
“When can we expect to hear from you?” Angeline asked as she and Maurice stopped next to Vaughn. Jonah pulled on his coat, surveying the scene: the three art gallery staff in one line beside the desk, watching him and Garrett pulling on coats with papers firmly in hand.
“The normal timeframe is six to eight weeks,” Garrett said. Angeline’s brows drew closer together warningly. “But, uh, given the, ah, delicate nature of this claim—”
“And the amount we pay each month,” Angeline added.
Jump, monkeys, jump.
“—we’ll fast-track it,” Garrett finished.
Angeline’s smile could have frozen meat in seconds. “I would greatly appreciate it.”
“Thank you,” Vaughn added.
Jonah zipped up his coat. “Yeah, thanks. Bye.”
And with that they left the art gallery and its badly shod, gorgeous-assed assistant.
Garrett breathed a heavy sigh of relief as soon as the door closed behind them. “Oh my God. She’s more intense in real life than on the phone.”
Jonah couldn’t agree more, but unresolved frustration niggled at him. Not that it took much to get him horny, but shit, that guy really got to him. He couldn’t say why—normally he stayed clear of the moneyed guys, because he hated the little differences that reminded him of just how dirt-poor he was in comparison—but this one had slipped past. Then again, hot is hot. Money and terrible clothes didn’t make him any less objectively good-looking.
Once they got back to the office, he was going to jerk a quick one out in the washroom, then make plans for the evening. And those plans were going to involve his favourite pastimes: friends, dancing, drinks, and sex. He grinned to himself as Garrett hailed a taxi. Yup, he’d process the paperwork, make a few more claims visits, head home, pretty up, and work this out of his system tonight.
Vaughn stood in the club entrance, surveying and judging. It was so new it still smelled faintly of varnish and paint, and it was filled with the kind of people who watched Toronto’s nightlife like hawks, swooping in on anything fresh and exciting. People like his friend Devon, who currently led him and their friends into the place as though he’d been here dozens of times before. Retro neon lights illuminated booths and seats and the bars, while men—and some women—ground to decent trance music on the dance floor.
Yes. After today, Vaughn wanted nothing more than to let go and dance.
But first they had to do the drinks and shouting-over-the-music stuff. His friends were largely people from LGBT groups at his university and accompanying partners or friends; despite working in the art industry, Vaughn hadn’t picked up any new queer friends to bring to one of these nights. Possibly because he seemed to fly under the radar in the industry. Artists and the people who worked with them tended towards eccentric and open-minded anyway, so it was difficult to put labels on people from the get-go. Identifying them and inviting them to these kinds of nights wasn’t worth the effort or embarrassment if he gauged wrongly.
Really, if he had to be honest, he’d found it increasingly difficult to label himself these days. Standing here, gazing at the dance floor and aching for a drink to help him chill out, Vaughn was very aware that his friends were here for other things, things that didn’t occur to him until he caught sight of people on the dance floor touching each other in ways that were decidedly not dance-related.
But now wasn’t the time to nitpick or get deep about the nature of nightlife venues. He was with friends, there was booze to drink, music to dance to, and a rough day to forget. He could certainly be here for those reasons alone.
Devon flirted with one of the bartenders and got them a free round of shots on top of their order. Vaughn knocked his back, then washed the cheap, sugary taste out of his mouth with a vodka mixer. The guys moved to a table near the dance floor and immediately lined up to survey the offerings.
“Interesting crowd,” James judged.
Devon scoffed. “Please. It’s full of twinks.”
“You like twinks,” Vaughn said.
Devon winked at him. “Yes, but I wouldn’t call them interesting.”
“It’s full of twinks with good taste,” André said, a grin lighting up his face. “And good stylists.”
Vaughn scanned the dance floor. Young, lithe men threw themselves into the rhythm of the music and into each other. Bodies undulated, hands sneaked past collars and under hems, lips grinned or kissed, and chests were slowly bared. And yes, the majority of them were unusually good-looking, typical of the kind of people who chased the new and undiscovered. Shiny shoes, form-fitting shirts and pants, the odd vest top despite the winter snow outside, and artfully mussed hairstyles. Dotted among them were a few older men looking for action and women giving themselves up to the music, free from any undue attention.
He envied them slightly.
Banish the thought, Vaughn. Being touched by complete strangers was part of the gay-bar experience. And while he wasn’t here to pick anyone up, being admired wasn’t a bad thing.
“Anyone promising?” Devon asked him.
“I should ask you,” Vaughn replied.
Devon was fastidious in two things: his choice of clothes and his choice of hookup. If Vaughn had a dollar for every time Devon had pointed out an exceptionally beautiful young man to him, he wouldn’t need to worry about paying his bills. Devon had been like that for as long as Vaughn had known him, which was since Vaughn’s first year of university. Devon had been the student union president, president of the LGBT group, and head of his business class; now he was circulating the departments in his father’s pharmaceutical company in preparation for running it. If he dedicated as much time and energy to that as he did to circulating the Toronto gay club scene, Vaughn had yet to see proof of it.
“You said you needed to blow off steam.” Devon waved at the crowd below. “Go blow.” His grin was sharply illuminated by pink neon, and Vaughn rolled his eyes.
“I’d like to have a civilized drink first.” He held up his vodka.
Devon barked out a laugh and clapped his shoulder.
Energy thrummed under his skin, and he suddenly needed to get out there. Work had turned almost farcical by the end of the day—Angeline in a terrible mood, Cressida in a worse one when she eventually showed up, and Maurice griping about every little thing, while Vaughn tried to welcome visitors, make sense of the log from the security company, and manage more media requests to see Jai Yoon’s exhibition. God forbid any interest happen before one of the major pieces was stolen.
At least he hadn’t had to tell Yoon about the theft; he’d been at the front desk when Angeline had made that call. He’d still received a furious email cancelling the interview, with a promise to never exhibit at Delphi again, but that did mean he hadn’t had to speak to her.
Of course, after that, the same reporter had wanted to come in anyway to do a piece on theft and insurance. Maurice had said no, Angeline had said no, but Cressida had said yes, and somehow that meant the rest of them were outvoted. Vaughn didn’t want to imagine the inbox the next day, once the news hit the arts and culture circuit.
Stop. None of that now. Time to forget all the bullshit of working life.
He knocked back his drink and set the glass down, the buzz from the alcohol adding to the buzz in his skin. No one else seemed ready to dance, though. He turned to Devon. “Another?”
Devon grinned and raised his glass. “Absolutely, compadre.”
Vaughn returned to the bar, bought a round for everybody, and carried it back to their section. In that short time, Devon had attracted the attentions of a young man with earrings, blue hair, and the impossibly toned body of a dancer. Another of their crew was leading someone else into the fray of the dance floor. People were acting quickly tonight. Vaughn set the drinks down and handed one to Devon.
“Thanks, babe,” he said.
“No drink for me?” Toned pouted, brushing a finger down Devon’s T-shirt.
Devon took a hefty gulp, then pressed his mouth to Toned’s. Vaughn saw liquid dribble from one corner as the gulp passed from mouth to mouth. His stomach rolled. That couldn’t be hygienic.
Judging by the stars in Toned’s eyes as he swallowed, he didn’t give a shit. “Oh honey,” he breathed, gripping Devon’s shirt and kissing him fiercely.
“It’s so fucking unfair,” James shouted to Vaughn as he accepted a glass from him. James raised his drink in thanks, then sipped it. “Ten minutes and he’s pulled the hottest queen in here. How does he do it?”
Vaughn shrugged. “Maybe you should have done it in five.”
James shook his head. “Yeah right. If I tried that trick, I’d have spit rum all over myself and him.”
They regarded Devon and Toned as they made out, then James shook himself and downed the drink. “Come on, let’s dance.”
Finally. Vaughn finished his too and followed James into the heaving mass of the dancers. Alcohol and sugar lit up his nerves and heightened his senses.
Being part of a hot, almost claustrophobic press of people was perfect—he was lost in the collective sway of humanity, movements orchestrated by rhythm and beats, bouncing and dancing. So good. He ground against James, who wouldn’t get the wrong idea, working himself into a sweaty, pulsating state of thoughtlessness.
The odd hand wormed over his ass or stomach or pec, but Vaughn gently pushed them away and they stayed away. This place was great, he decided. Not as handsy as some of the other bars in town. The music was decent too.
James backed away, prompting Vaughn to check on him. A guy behind James was rubbing his stubbly jaw against James’s neck, and James practically swooned into his arms. Vaughn grinned and turned to give him some privacy.
Only to be confronted by the sight of a blond man sandwiched between two taller, dark-haired men. Blondie kissed one of them fiercely, hand digging into the guy’s jeans, while the guy behind him pressed closely up to him, groin rubbing against his ass, one hand stroking Blondie’s dick through his obscenely tight pants. Jesus.
Vaughn began to move away, because watching sex on the dance floor wasn’t ever his idea of fun, when he realized he recognized the sandwich filling. It was the insurance guy from earlier that day, the short one who’d aggressively worked his way into the gallery.
He stole another look. Yes, it was him. The straw-like hair, the compact, lean body—now on display in very tight clothing—and the strong jaw and nose. Muscular arms reached down towards cock and up into hair. The guy was just as consumed and lost to the world as Vaughn had been moments ago.
What was the guy’s name again? Barlow? No, Sondern. Jonah Sondern.
Vaughn felt the beginnings of an evil grin. So, Jonah the intense insurance lemming was into men. Plural. At once. Who’d have thought?
The guy at Jonah’s back tapped Jonah and the other man on the shoulder and leaned forward to speak. Vaughn turned quickly, not wanting to be seen by Jonah.
Ugh. He couldn’t linger on the floor now that Jonah was there. Given James was otherwise occupied and Vaughn was suddenly very aware of how thirsty he was, it seemed a good time for a break.
Weaving his way off the dance floor, he found his friends still talking over drinks, and he sat down. A few waters later, they headed back onto the dance floor, where he got one glimpse of Jonah and his partners before the crowd obscured them.
After the third song, the drinks caught up with him and he beelined for the washroom. Inside, the stall at the end of the row was locked, moans issuing from within. Vaughn spotted a few rolled eyes from guys leaving the place as he took a spot at a urinal.
“Shit, I’m coming,” someone in the stall groaned.
Vaughn was abruptly very tired and ready to call it a night. This had been good, but peeing into a grimy urinal while men fucked in the stall behind him suddenly seemed a complete waste of time. Did he really want to keep doing this? Coming to places like this, watching his friends pair off for a few hours or the night, listening to other people have sex in a washroom, for God’s sake. How could anyone be aroused in a place that stank perpetually of piss and pubes, let alone consummate that arousal with other men peeing around them? It was beyond him. Maybe there were other ways to burn off a crap day. He should take up a sport. Running. Rock climbing. Or he could try a straight club with some of his school friends; sex in straight places just didn’t happen with the regularity of sex in gay clubs. He could dance and pee in peace.
Better yet, he could try to actually focus on painting. Be more consistent about it. Work it into a schedule and get pieces done. It wouldn’t burn off energy like dancing would, but it would definitely leave him feeling better and not being exposed to other men’s bodily fluids.
He shook himself and zipped up. He was washing his hands when the end stall unlocked and two men left with a spring in their step; Jonah the insurance lemming followed with a victorious grin lighting up his face. He looked like a tomcat fresh off a successful hunt. Every line of his body radiated languid ease and satisfaction—until his eyes met Vaughn’s in the washroom mirror and the victory dropped from his face.
Vaughn felt his blood freeze. The guy’s mouth was swollen, there were burgeoning love bites on his neck, and his hair was mussed beyond redemption—there was no doubt about what he’d been doing. The satisfied expression was gone; now he looked like he’d seen a ghost.
Or rather, his client.
This had to be embarrassing for him. Vaughn would’ve been embarrassed for sure, so the best thing to do was probably ignore him. Jonah’d appreciate that, right? Tactful silence could cover a lot of sins. He washed his hands and walked out without a backwards glance.
Outside the door, he managed about two steps towards his friends, but found his arm gripped from behind.
Evidently Jonah had other ideas.
Vaughn was yanked to the left and pulled through a door to the smoking area outside the club, the hand painfully tight around his arm, and he didn’t resist as Jonah marched him into a shadowy corner. The smoking area had two die-hard smokers shivering in the cold air, and Vaughn could taste smoke in each icy breath, the harsh chemicals adding to his unease. His heart beat quicker—what was Jonah doing? What was happening here?
An unlikely romance between two beautifully written characters will leave readers swooning.
Lennox’s story of attracted opposites, enhanced by her engagingly wry humor, progresses rapidly, keeping readers absorbed and entertained.
There is a tangible sweetness to this romance that I found charming and compulsively readable.
Whether it was a combination of all those things, or some indefinable spark some authors have to catch me and never let me go, this book was damn great.