Tested in Fire (Art Medium, #2)

Test in Fire by E.J. Russell
 
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-757-3
eBook release: 
Apr 2, 2018
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Word count: 
52,000
Page count: 
206
Cover by: 
 

This title is #2 of the Art Medium series.

This title is part of the Art Medium: The Complete Collection collection. Check out the collection discount!

Ebook $3.99

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.

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

Spoilery warnings (click to read)

sex in someone else's body without their consent

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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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.”

 

Chapter Two

Luke staggered into his condo at what-the-fuck-thirty, letting his suitcase topple to the floor. He never wanted to see the crap inside it again. He’d packed the damn thing for a two, maybe three-day stay, not five weeks.

Five fucking weeks. Unbelievable. He was never taking another retrieval commission without a stack of signed affidavits in three languages—and maybe a selfie or two of him with the client to prove his bona fides. Of course, that presupposed a face-to-face meeting with the client, which was also going on his nonnegotiable list, as was a personal acknowledgement from the target venue.

Because the client—or rather the contact at the client corporation—hadn’t bothered to inform their minions of Luke’s arrival, and had turned ghost, never returning any of Luke’s twice daily voicemails and follow-up emails. Every day, Luke had shown up at the crumbling estate, only to be met with narrow-eyed suspicion and told—in Italian—to come back tomorrow. God knows why they’d finally given in. Maybe they’d gotten sick of Luke’s face, or had had a miraculous tech epiphany that allowed them to accept the original email thread printout as permission at last.

On the plus side, he now had an extensive vocabulary of Italian swear words. On the minus side, five weeks of unexpected overseas living expenses had seriously fucked up his cash flow. Since he hadn’t expected to be gone for so long, it hadn’t occurred to him to demand a per diem advance, and the penalties for changing his flight had eaten up the rest of his retainer fee. How the hell was he supposed to help Stefan with his financial problems if he made such piss-poor business decisions himself?

Stefan. God, he missed him. He’d had this fantasy that Stefan would be waiting for him at the airport. How did you expect him to do that, idiot? Get in tune with the cosmic air traffic controller? Once Luke had gotten his hands on the artifact—and after all that stonewalling, the estate staff had tried to hand over two of the damn things instead of the one Luke was contracted to retrieve—he’d been constantly on the scramble. Every time he’d had a minute to try to contact Stef, it had either been the wrong time of day, or he’d had no connectivity. Finally, he’d sent an email, although he wasn’t sure it had gone through. Half the time, their messages seemed to get stuck in a freakish time warp, not arriving until days after they’d been sent.

He limped over to the black lacquer display cabinet that took up one whole wall of the living room, the walk taking twice as long as usual. Between layovers, flight cancellations, weather delays, and mechanical difficulties, his twenty-hour flight had turned into a thirty-six-hour torture session. He hadn’t been able to sleep on any of the planes either, because for some misguided, stupidly macho reason, he’d packed his pain meds in his checked bag.

Gingerly, he extracted the bubble-wrapped artifact from his padded backpack. By this time, he’d gotten used to the shiver down his back whenever he touched the damn thing. A death mask. God. Not his cup of arsenic, thanks, and way too reminiscent of Antoinette’s work, even though it wasn’t painted and glazed. He’d only looked at it once, to make sure the minions hadn’t tried to pull a fast one on him, and that had been more than enough. What kind of psycho nutjob collected this shit anyway? Serial killers or necrophiliacs, that’s who.

Still, it represented one hell of a lot in unbilled fees at the moment, so he couldn’t afford to damage it now. He left the revolting object wrapped in its bubble-wrap cocoon and tucked it behind a blown-glass vase on the bottom shelf.

He gazed longingly at the open door to his bedroom. What he wouldn’t give to collapse onto his bed—preferably with Stefan in it. He’d be here if he’d get off his stubborn horse and move in with me. No point in having that argument with himself, though, especially in the middle of the night when he’d been awake for over two days straight.

Instead, he hobbled into his office and sat down at his desk with a groan. I may not be able to get up again. But his desire to stick a fork in this job was greater than his desire for sleep—Although sleep was starting to gain on it. He pulled his laptop out of the backpack, and while it was booting up, he checked his phone.

He’d left a dozen messages for his missing client with no response. What was one more? He dialed the number he knew by heart now. Straight to voicemail, as usual.

“Mr. Johnson, this is Luke Morganstern. I’ve retrieved your artifact and have been trying to contact you so that we can arrange—”

Beep. “Voicemail is full.”

Fan-fucking-tastic. Luke disconnected the call and plugged his phone into the charger. “Guess we’ll give email a try.”

He dashed off a message to the elusive Mr. Johnson, then shut down his laptop and levered himself out of the chair. He glanced at his phone. Should he call Stef? Not at three thirty in the morning, asshole.

He shed his clothes as he tottered down the hall. When he got to his bed, he managed to drop his pants on the floor and collapse onto his mattress in just his boxers. He let out an extended moan. Rather than get up so he could climb under the covers, he pawed at the comforter until he could flip it over himself, then rolled up in it like a burrito.

God, I stink. Something else to worry about in the morning. Sleep. Shower. Stef. Creepy-ass artifacts and missing clients could wait.

* * * * * * *

Was that a notification beep from his cell phone? Stefan hurried over to his worktable, the bundle of just-cleaned brushes in his hand dribbling a path on the cement floor. Nothing. Great, now he was hearing things. Maybe the obsessive way he’d checked for messages all day long had finally sent him around the bend.

It seemed like Luke had been gone forever. Funny how soon you could get used to having someone around, so that their absence ached like a phantom limb.

As Stefan returned to the sink to shake the water off his brushes, Antoinette appeared in his open studio door, slumping against it and raising a hand to her forehead in exaggerated relief.

He chuckled. “I take it the kiln crisis has been averted?”

She straightened and brushed her hands down her smock. “Somewhat. But I fear Madame Gallipolis’s lopsided vase was even more poorly constructed than we imagined. It has exploded.”

Stefan winced. “Ouch. Although I can’t say it was any great loss to the art world.”

“No. However there was . . . what do you call it? When nearby pieces were . . .” Antoinette flicked her fingers outward.

“Collateral damage?”

“Yes. Some of her classmates may be a trifle disgruntled.”

“More so than usual?”

“It depends on how attached they were to their pieces.”

He dried the brush handles and his own hands. “How’s Signor DiBartolo this morning?”

She dropped her gaze, fiddling with a lock of her hair. “As well as can be expected. He is . . . not happy.”

“If there’s anything I can do . . .”

She raised her chin, her smile obviously forced. “Thank you, but I don’t wish to impose on your kindness.”

“It’s not an imposition. We’re friends. Friends help each other.” He patted her shoulder. “Whatever you need, you let me know.”

She jerked a nod, then glanced around the empty studio, avoiding Stefan’s gaze. “Has your boyfriend not returned from his journey yet, Stefan?” She always gave his name the European pronunciation. Shte-FAHN. In a way, he liked it. In another way, it kind of pissed him off that she didn’t bother to pronounce his name correctly.

“Not yet. He’s still waiting for the guy to show up, but I’m sure it’ll be any time now.”

“But you have spoken with him recently, yes?”

“Not . . . ah . . . really.” He laid the brushes on the worktable, nudging their handles until they were perfectly parallel. “He’s had trouble with connectivity.” At least Stefan preferred to think that’s all it was.

“Stefan.” She laid a hand on his arm. “Sometimes it seems as if Monsieur Morganstern does not treat you as he ought. Are you sure—”

“Yes.” He raised his chin, forcing a smile. “Absolutely. Occasionally, we hit rough patches, like any couple, but he loves me.” Does he love me enough? I was wrong about it once before.

Naturellement.” She tilted her head. “I have said so before, but he reminds me a bit of Jacques. They have the same gruff exterior. They even resemble one another.”

“You think?” Stefan pictured the two of them in his mind. “Maybe a little, or as much as any two men with Mediterranean ancestry do.”

“Ah. Well, perhaps I see them differently—from the perspective of how I would render their faces in clay.” Her hand sketched a curve in the air. “The forehead. The slope of the nose. The cheekbones.”

Stefan had never thought to paint Signor DiBartolo—it seemed presumptuous somehow—but regardless, he’d never considered his bone structure similar to Luke’s. “I guess.”

She made a moue of annoyance. “Forgive me. I am picturing Jacques as he was twenty years ago. The resemblance was much stronger then.”

“I can see that, I suppose. But hey, come here.” He caught her hand and drew her to the end of the worktable, where he’d just finished his commission for her. “What do you think? Does this look like Rudy’s skin tone?”

She caught her breath. “Oh. Stefan. It is incroyable.”

Rudy, a six foot six African American man with the shoulders of a linebacker and a penchant for cartoon-print scrubs, was Signor DiBartolo’s home healthcare nurse, and he was beautiful enough that neither Antoinette nor Stefan could resist using him as a model. In fact, he was the subject of three of Stefan’s portraits for next week’s show, as well as Antoinette’s latest mask. “My part was easy—you’d already captured his face perfectly.”

“We will fire it tonight. Without any piece by Madame Gallipolis.” She touched the mask’s forehead with a fingertip. “He is so lovely. He should be a model, not a nurse.”

“We’re lucky he can be both.”

She ducked her chin, but not before he caught the pain that flickered across her face. “Yes. Of course.”

He laid an arm across her shoulders, gave her a quick hug, and lied his ass off. “It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”

“I pray you are right.” She shook back her hair and gave him a tremulous smile. “But now, I must go. It is Rudy’s half holiday, and he will no doubt have some instructions for me.” She sighed. “I fear Jacques becomes quite agitated over his . . . limitations.”

“Understandable.” He squeezed her shoulder once before releasing her. “Give them both my best.”

She nodded and left, closing the studio door behind her.

Stefan checked the clock. Jason, his next model, wouldn’t arrive for another hour, so he had enough time to clean up a little. He’d been afraid to take even a short shower this morning in case he missed Luke’s call, but morning had stretched to afternoon with no word. And I smell like acetone and probably look like a vagrant.

He started the coffee maker in his abbreviated kitchenette and left it to burble away in solitude while he headed into his tiny bathroom. If I moved in with Luke, at least I wouldn’t bang my elbows on the shower stall every damn day. But if he moved in with Luke before he could arrive free and clear of all his debts, he might just as well still be with Marius.

No. That’s not true. It’s not the same, had never been the same. Stefan preferred Luke’s temper and occasional chest-pounding to Marius’s patronizing, dismissive possessiveness. When Luke argued with him, it meant he valued Stefan’s opinions enough to acknowledge them and engage. Marius had simply ignored them.

Stefan stepped out of the bathroom into the attached changing room to towel his hair dry because doing that in the bathroom just begged for bruises. Besides, it gave him a chance to make sure the room was set up for his models—clean robes, baskets for their belongings, nothing left over from prior sessions. It was amazing the things people forgot, as if their possessions weren’t really attached to them. Even the ubiquitous cell phones frequently got left behind. Stefan had had to set up a freaking lost-and-found.

Wrapping a towel around his waist, he pushed aside the curtain and stepped into the studio proper. The aroma of coffee beckoned him across the room. He poured himself a cup as he checked the schedule pinned to the bulletin board over the counter. After Jason’s modeling session, he could—

Arms wrapped around his waist and warm breath tickled his ear. “The coffee smells great but you smell better.”

Stefan’s heart bounded up to his throat, and a smile split his face. “Luke.” He turned into Luke’s embrace and was met with a knee-melting kiss. When he could come up for air, he said, “Well, hello to you too.”

“Mmm.” Luke nuzzled the curve of Stefan’s shoulder, trailing open-mouthed kisses up his neck. “Sorry about the surprise attack. I got home in the middle of the night. Meant to be here first thing, but jet lag kicked my ass. Then I forgot to call because I was too excited to see you.”

The evidence of that excitement was hard behind Luke’s fly. Stefan’s own cock rose in response as he threaded his fingers through Luke’s overlong hair. “I’ll forgive you.” He captured Luke’s mouth in another kiss, pressing their groins together. “This time.”

Luke’s chuckle vibrated Stefan’s bones. “I like this outfit you’re wearing.” His hands wandered down Stefan’s back and grabbed the towel, whisking it away to drop on the floor at their feet. “I like it even better now.”

Stefan shivered. “Luke. Antoinette could walk in—”

“Nope.” Luke grinned, cupping Stefan’s ass with both hands. “I remembered to lock the door. Who says Luke Morganstern can’t be taught? Now . . .” His voice dropped to that rough gravel that melted Stefan’s bones. “I’ve heard a rumor . . .” He caressed Stefan’s skin, fingers wandering between his cheeks, behind his balls. “. . . that this studio has a bed in it somewhere. You wouldn’t happen to know anything . . .” He pressed a fingertip against Stefan’s hole, causing Stefan’s breath to hitch. “. . . about that, would you?”

“I—” Stefan had to brace himself on Luke’s shoulders when Luke’s other hand skated across Stefan’s hip to grip his cock. “I might have heard something, yes.”

“Suppose you show me then.”

“It’s— Christ, Luke, how can I even think when you’re doing that?”

Immediately, Luke let go and retreated a step, leaving Stefan to sway drunkenly at the loss of heat and sensation. “Far be it from me to interfere with your thought processes.”

“Asshole,” Stefan muttered. But two can play at that game. He turned his back and bent over—all the way over, keeping his knees locked—and picked up the discarded towel. His cock was so hard it ached—Christ, it’s been so long—but judging by the state of Luke’s pants, he wasn’t in any better shape. Good. “Now let me think.” He strolled toward the changing room, the towel trailing on the floor behind him. He leaned forward, back arched, and poked his head through the curtain. “Not in here.”

He was rewarded by Luke’s growl, which caused his cock to pulse, bobbing against his belly. Soon. He straightened, then turned, draping the towel around his shoulders like a shawl, leaving his arousal on obvious display. He deliberately didn’t meet Luke’s gaze as he meandered around his easel, peering at the windows, under the worktable (another chance to bend over there), even behind the refrigerator. “I’m not sure where it could be, although—”

Luke grabbed his waist and backed him across the room until Stefan’s back was pressed into the lumpy metal stair railing. “If you don’t get up those stairs and into that fucking bed in the next thirty seconds, I’m going to take you on these stairs, and then we’ll both be sorry.”

Stefan widened his eyes in mock astonishment. “My stars. You knew where it was all along. If only you’d said something . . .”

“Stefan,” Luke growled.

Stefan laughed and ran up the stairs with Luke on his heels.