“WHAT the hell is this crap? Who put this up on the wall?”
A timid brown-haired student shrank back in his chair, and the beads of sweat on his forehead had nothing to do with the scorching Florida heat. Mr. Tobias yanked one of the eighteen canvases off the critique wall, holding it up for all the students seated before him to get a closer look. “Seriously, Brandon, what the hell is this? The model looks like he’s got an elephant head between his legs. I feel like he’s about to spit water at me through his trunk!”
At the back of the room, Riley cringed. Even though he was a professional model, he couldn’t help but feel awkward when certain parts of his anatomy were brought up for discussion. A few students snickered at the instructor’s comment, and the boy named Brandon withered in his seat like last week’s produce.
“This isn’t even worth critiquing,” Mr. Tobias said, tossing the canvas onto a nearby table. “I’d expect that level of work from a freshman, but you’re going to be in the real world in less than ten months.” He went on to the next painting while Riley adjusted the belt on his knee-length robe, curling his toes in a futile attempt to keep his feet warm. Despite the high temperature that day, it never felt quite as warm when he was standing naked on a platform at the center of the room.
Riley had yet to get over the embarrassment of seeing all the merciless student renderings of him each class, but in a way he still enjoyed it. It had the same morbid appeal as looking at old yearbook photos, or perhaps a public execution. But in every session, at least a few paintings stood out from the rest, and Riley liked to use them to try to predict the art industry’s future superstars. As the brochures stated, Prestwick College of Art only accepted the finest, most qualified students—with “qualified” meaning “rich” about 75 percent of the time. Nevertheless, it was a prestigious school, and Riley himself was proud to have a Prestwick BFA listed on his resume.
“See, this is more like it,” Mr. Tobias continued as he made his way down the line. “This is professional level here, guys. This student has already mastered the basics of anatomy and value and color and has gone on to explore the matter of style.” He glanced at a shaggy-haired student in the front row. “Well done, Porter.”
A couple of boys in the back row rolled their eyes at each other, and Riley thought he knew why. In the few months that he had been posing—mostly during the more relaxed elective summer session—he’d lost track of how many times he’d already heard the phrase, “Well done, Porter.” But he couldn’t begrudge the boy. Porter was talented, and even more unusual, he was humble.
He took a few steps forward to get a better view of Porter’s painting. It was like looking in a mirror while drunk: he somehow appeared much more attractive in the painting than he did in real life. The colors were more vibrant and intense than in reality, and he hated to admit that Porter had minimized some of his flaws and added a flattering detail here and there. Riley was far from unattractive¬—twenty-five years old, soft brown hair hanging low across his brows, well-toned and lithe, with that perfect tan that everyone in Florida sought. But he could have been a bit taller, or a little less bony in the face. Although Porter had stayed true to his appearance and physique, the man in the painting put Riley to shame. At least that was Riley’s opinion.
“All right,” Mr. Tobias announced, “we have enough time left for a forty-minute painting. Standing pose. I’ll adjust the lighting after he gets into position.” He gestured toward Riley. “Ready, Riley?”
With a nod, Riley climbed onto the platform and shed his robe. He adopted a natural stance, and the students began examining him and moving their workspaces in order to paint at an optimal angle. This was the part that was most difficult to Riley; whenever he saw students moving across the room because they didn’t like his pose from their previous position, he always ended up wondering if he was doing a good enough job. But at the same time, he knew the students appreciated him. After all, he was the only nude male model under the age of seventy that the school had.
The time, as always, dragged by, and Riley’s legs quivered from the strain of standing still. He worried his upper body had begun to droop and tried to correct himself. A couple of students let out disgruntled sighs and wiped out portions of their paintings to make revisions.
When his timer let out a high-pitched ding, he lingered for a minute to oblige the handful of students who were scribbling in last-minute details on their paintings. Then he hopped off the carpeted platform and onto the cold concrete floor. He swiftly wrapped himself in his robe before heading toward the corner of the studio, which was concealed by a long, velvety curtain. In the privacy of his makeshift changing room, he dressed in a pair of loose-fitting cargo shorts and a T-shirt.
Most of the students were still packing up and cleaning their brushes, the smell of paint thinner permeating the room, as Riley scampered toward freedom. Before he could reach the exit, Mr. Tobias flagged him down. “Riley, there’s something I want to tell you.”
“Yeah?” Riley asked, a little anxious. With Mr. Tobias, it could have been anything from “You were great today” to “Maybe you should think about trimming a little shorter down there.” He’d studied under Mr. Tobias back when he attended Prestwick, and he was used to the man’s tactless approach.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but next week we’re having a painting demo during the Thursday morning session.”
“Yeah, I heard. Who’s doing the demo?”
“Well, that’s the exciting part.” Mr. Tobias set a hand on his shoulder, giving him an enthusiastic shake. “We were lucky enough to convince Coliaro to come and paint for us.”
“Dude!” Porter cried, shooting abruptly to his feet and nearly knocking over his easel. He turned to Mr. Tobias with an almost comical look of shock in his eyes. A couple of other students, also having overheard, murmured softly to each other. But Riley simply stared obliviously, waiting for Mr. Tobias to continue.
“Come on, man!” the instructor said. “You went to this school. How do you not know who Coliaro is?”
“I studied illustration, not fine art. I can tell you anything you want to know about J. C. Leyendecker or James Montgomery Flagg, but Coliaro? Never heard of him.”
“You’re hopeless.” Mr. Tobias turned to Porter, and the two of them exchanged humoring glances. “Coliaro is a world-renowned figure painter from Chicago. He does alla prima oil, but it always looks like he spent weeks glazing everything.”
“He hasn’t been in the spotlight for a few years now,” Porter added as he packed away his paint tubes. “You know the story: scandal and infamy, and so on.”
Mr. Tobias shot him an irritated glance. “We don’t need to go there. The point is we have a true master coming to paint for us, and he specifically requested you as the model. He wants to paint you for the demo, and again in a private session that evening.”
“He really wants me?” Riley asked. “How does he even know who I am?”
“He’s an acquaintance of mine. He’s seen some of the paintings I did of you in class. And of course, you came with a high recommendation from me.”
“Coliaro is very generous with his models. You can expect at least double your usual pay for the private session, if not more. Think it over, and let me know if you’re up for it.”
“Think what over? I don’t need to think! I’ll do it!”
“All right, then,” Mr. Tobias said. “Remember, next Thursday.”
His face aglow, Riley left the figure studio and stepped into the stifling September heat. He should have gone out the back entrance like most of the students, as it led to an air-conditioned hall and was closer to the parking lot, but he hadn’t been paying attention. There was no point in turning around now. This time he’d just have to sweat it out.
He hoped he hadn’t kept Nick waiting. Since his battered old Corolla was still in the shop after a busted radiator, Riley had to depend on his boyfriend to take time out of his own very busy schedule to drive him to and from work. More than anything, he hated inconveniencing Nick. The man was always so generous and never complained about having to act as Riley’s chauffeur.
Relieved, he saw no gunmetal Jaguar parked by the bus stop bench at the edge of campus. There was, however, a young brunet with a French easel slung over his back. Porter was instantly recognizable even from a distance; the haphazard tangle of shaggy hair atop his lanky frame reminded Riley of a dandelion puff. As Riley approached, Porter smiled jovially at him. “Hey!”
“Hey,” Riley replied, a little stiffly.
“That was a good class today. I really liked the first pose you did—the seated one. That one was fun.”
“Thanks.” It was always uncomfortable talking to the students outside of class. Or inside. Or anywhere, really. There had been a couple of times when he’d run into a familiar face at the grocery store or the gas station, and he could never get himself to maintain eye contact. But Porter was good-natured and sociable enough that it relieved a bit of the discomfort.
For the first month in which Riley posed for Porter’s class, he was convinced Porter was the stereotypical art school stoner. His laid-back attitude coupled with his fashion sense—flip-flops, paint-stained pants, equally stained graphic T-shirt, and the occasional untidy scruff across his jaw—had Riley thoroughly fooled. First impressions aside, Porter was, in fact, driven and ambitious, always trying to improve his art, and he was also known to toss out a surprisingly lucid comment here and there, even when Riley was convinced he’d been zoned out.
“You’re really talented,” Riley said awkwardly.
Porter scoffed. “It’s not talent. I’ve just been doing this for a long time.”
“Can’t be that long. I’m older than you but nowhere near as good.”
With a chuckle, Porter took a seat on the bench, waiting as Riley sat next to him. “I heard someone say you used to be a student here. How did you end up modeling?”
“Oh….” He kind of hated telling the story. He had yet to find a way to explain himself without feeling like a failure. “I majored in illustration, but when I graduated, it was a really bad year for job-searching. I ended up going into freelance—which is basically just a code word for unemployment if you’re fresh out of school—so I’m modeling to bring in some extra income until I build up a bigger client base.”
Especially with the current economy, it was tough for brand new freelance illustrators to make a living without simultaneously holding a day job. Riley worked from home, providing various illustrations for a handful of clients, but none of them sent him enough work to cover his living expenses. It was now several years since his college graduation, and he had expected to be able to drop his day job by this time. He examined Porter’s face, waiting for a condescending reaction. But no sign of judgment came. Instead, Porter looked almost impressed.
“Man, I’d never be able to do what you do. Modeling at the school I used to go to, in front of old teachers? Yikes!”
“Mr. Tobias was actually the one who talked me into doing it. All the other models were supplied through an agency, but he went out of his way to get me a job, talking me up and telling the school I’d be a good choice.”
Porter cackled. “So he pretty much told them you’d look good standing naked in front of the class, after just having you as a student. Hell, how would he even know?”
Thankfully, Porter didn’t seem to spot the telltale blush that spread across Riley’s face. He changed the subject. “So, are you an illustration major?”
“Nah, fine art. Basically I’ll be a busboy for the rest of my life.” He shrugged. “But painting is the only thing I’m good at.”
“With the way you paint, galleries all over the place are going to want your work.”
“Eh, I don’t know.” After a pause, he turned to Riley with rapt attention. “This private session with Coliaro—do you realize you’re going to see the inside of his studio next week? I’d kill for that kind of opportunity!”
“Hell yeah!” He leaned in. “Maybe next week we can get lunch after class, and you can tell me about it!”
“Uhh….” Riley shifted uncomfortably. With Porter’s easygoing attitude, he didn’t think it was a come-on, but still it was a bit outside his comfort zone. “I’ll check my schedule.”
“Hey.” Riley paused. “What were you saying in class, about infamy and scandal?”
“I was hoping you’d ask that!” Porter said with an eager grin. He leaned in even closer, lowering his voice. “So here’s the story. Back in Chicago, about five years ago, Coliaro did a series of paintings he called Oscuro Bello. All male models, all nude. While they were up in the gallery, someone vandalized them. Made it look like all the models had been killed. And then people started turning up dead, killed in a way that looked like the paintings. They could never pin it on Coliaro, but still, it kind of put a damper on his career.” He sighed. “Most artists still respect him, even if the general public doesn’t.”
“Damn,” Riley said. He wasn’t sure what to think.
Before he could ask any more questions, he saw the slick Jaguar turning the corner and pulling up alongside the curb. Immediately, he pulled away from Porter and turned his head to see if Nick had spotted the two of them sitting so close.
“What’s up?” Porter asked.
“Nothing. That’s my ride. I gotta go.”
Porter still appeared puzzled by Riley’s abrupt change in demeanor, but he didn’t press the matter. Instead, he gave a casual wave and called, “See ya next class!”
“WHO was that guy you were talking to?”
There it was, the question Riley had been waiting for. He was surprised it took seven minutes before Nick finally asked. His boyfriend did not divert his attention from the road, but Riley could tell by the slight knot of muscle in his jaw that he wasn’t feeling quite as nonchalant as he was acting. Unable to formulate a suitable lie, Riley said, “He’s a kid in the morning painting class. He’s really, really good.”
“Good at what?”
“Good at painting,” Riley said irritably. “What else would I be talking about?”
Nick raised an eyebrow. “You never know.”
He supposed he deserved that. Early on in their relationship, shortly before his college graduation, Riley’d had a bit of a drunken fling with a certain hard-edged painting instructor while on their senior cruise. Riley and Nick were both Chicago natives, but Nick was still working in Chicago at the time and hadn’t yet moved down south. Riley hadn’t thought the fling was a big deal until Nick made the decision to find a job in Sarasota so they could be closer together. Two years after his graduation, Riley finally built up the courage to make his confession to Nick. Nick had forgiven him, saying they’d never made an official promise of exclusivity, but even with the passing of another year, Riley still didn’t feel he had Nick’s full trust back.
“Cute kid,” Nick said, eyeing Riley suspiciously.
“I guess. But not really my type.”
Nick shot him a dubious glance, but even he couldn’t dispute the fact that Porter was a far cry from the strapping, authoritative men who usually caught Riley’s interest.
Another ten minutes of driving, and this time it was Riley who broke the silence. “Hey. You know that summer before law school when you took a class at the Chicago College of Art and Design?”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“Did you ever hear about a painter named Coliaro?”
Nick glanced at him, a look of surprise on his face. “Of course I know about Coliaro! He taught at the college about twenty years before I took that class.”
“But even if I hadn’t gone to CCAD, I’d still know about him. He’s only the most famous painter to come out of Chicago in the last three decades. Everyone knows who he is.”
“You mean everyone rich?”
Nick rolled his eyes, dismissing Riley’s obvious insecurity. Nick had grown up wealthy, become a lawyer, and continued to be wealthy. Riley came from a modest family and chose to pursue a career as a starving artist. With the thirteen-year age difference between the two of them, Riley couldn’t help but wonder if people thought Nick was his sugar daddy.
“Listen,” Nick said at last, “everyone who was anyone in Chicago wanted a Coliaro painting. Those things are worth thousands. You know that painting we have in the bedroom, the moonlit scene with the two men by the lake? That’s an original Coliaro.”
“Really? You never told me that.”
“You never showed much interest in fine art.”
Riley couldn’t argue; Nick was right. “What about the murders that were linked to his paintings? Isn’t it kind of weird to have a murderer’s painting up in our bedroom?”
“The murders had nothing to do with him. They were done by fanatics who were obsessed with him, or jealous of his talent. Who knows how big he’d be now if that had never happened? It’s a damn shame.”
“Hmm. So he’s really that good?”
“Ask anyone who knows fine art, and they’ll say yes.”
“Well,” Riley began. “What if I told you that Coliaro is going to be in town next week, and he wants to paint me?”
As Riley waited for an excited response, Nick continued to stare out at the road in front of him, chewing his lip. It took a moment for Riley to notice the deep-set frown on his handsome face and the look of concern in his steel-gray eyes. “What is it?”
“Riley, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” He glanced at the young man in the passenger seat. “I don’t know if it’s safe.”
“But you just finished saying how great he is, and how the murders had nothing to do with him!”
“I don’t know how I’d feel seeing a painting of you with your heart cut out of your chest.”
“Those paintings were vandalized,” Riley argued, even as he cringed at the mental image Nick had painted. “It’s not like Coliaro’s going to paint me like that.”
“Riley, people were killed because of Coliaro’s paintings.”
“But none of his models were the victims, right?”
“Right. But that doesn’t mean—”
“Then I see no reason why it’d be unsafe.”
Nick’s jaw tightened. As he pulled into the driveway leading up to his town house and shifted into park, he turned to face Riley. “It’s just one job, Riley. Can’t you skip this one? Why do you want to do it so bad?”
“You don’t understand.” Riley gazed down at his hands. “This job is going to pay a ton of money.”
“So I really need it right now. Freelance has been slow this month, and I’m falling behind on my student loans.”
Brows furrowed, Nick said, “I don’t see why you’re so worried about money. You know I have enough to cover both of us. And I told you a million times, you don’t need to chip in on the mortgage. I have it covered.”
“Maybe I don’t want you ‘covering’ me all the time.”
Nick’s face went cold as stone. “Got it,” he muttered. He turned, opening the car door and heading up the driveway.
With a wince, Riley hurried after him. “I didn’t mean it like that! It’s not that I’m not grateful. I just don’t want to take advantage. I don’t want to be dependent on you.”
“Well,” Nick said, opening the door for Riley and motioning for him to enter, “maybe I’d like it if you depended on me a little more every now and then.”
RILEY was standing at the kitchen sink, elbow-deep in soapsuds, when Nick approached him from behind, wrapping his arms around his waist and leaning in close. “You don’t have to do those right now,” he whispered in his ear.
Feeling the touch of Nick’s breath at the side of his neck, a shiver ran down Riley’s spine. This was one of the things he most loved about Nick: the man never held a grudge, and he always found the best ways to smooth over their disagreements. But alas, Riley just couldn’t ignore the oil slick shimmering atop the sudsy water. “It’ll take me five minutes,” he said softly, wiping down a serving plate.
“Come on, you already cooked dinner. Take a break.” He nipped at the top of Riley’s ear. “Come upstairs.”
“I will. I promise.”
Nick pushed forward, pressing his pelvis against Riley from behind and pinning him against the counter. He leaned in, finding Riley’s mouth and covering it with his own. Riley moaned. The plate slipped out of his soapy grasp and clattered into the sink. He closed his eyes, opening his mouth to Nick’s. He was on fire. It was always like this, always this good with Nick. Nick didn’t just kiss him; he claimed him.
He wrapped Riley in his powerful grasp, tilting his head back. Nick’s lips pressed down on his from above, licking and nipping and sucking. Imagining those lips at work elsewhere on his body, a surge of heat shot through Riley.
At last, Nick released him, taking a step away as Riley stared longingly back at him. “Upstairs,” he whispered before disappearing around the corner.
Slinging the sponge into the sink, Riley hurried after him.