A WASH of yellow light spread across Westwood’s arm, hitting with a pinprick highlight at the height of his bicep and diffusing over his taut bronze skin. Riley feathered the surface of his canvas with his dry fan brush, blending the previously rough brushstrokes for a softer finish. For a moment, he sat back to admire his subject at the far end of the bedroom. Westwood’s face was partially buried in the crook of his hefty arm, exposing the small star-shaped tattoo on the back of his shoulder. His legs were bent as he lay on his stomach. The white bedsheet laced between his muscular thighs barely covered his nudity.
A better artist would have been able to portray the chasteness of the scene, but to Riley, there was no chaste way to look at Westwood’s body, even if his most intimate areas were covered. Riley knew too well the touch of those hands, the power in those limbs. With all his bulk, Westwood would have been plenty strong as a mere human. But Westwood was no mere human, and the jutting, vein-laced curves of muscle Riley replicated on canvas did little to portray the true strength within his lover’s seemingly mortal frame.
He attempted a few more brushstrokes, but he couldn’t keep his mind from wandering, from remembering the way those arms felt last night when they squeezed him tight and pushed him into the mattress.
Five years ago, when he was in college, he could have painted an attractive nude male model without batting an eye. Then again, none of those models were anything like Westwood.
As his eyes lingered on the bare-skinned man amidst the scattered sheets, he began idly chewing the back of his paintbrush.
Blech. Oil paint doesn’t taste good.
He scrubbed at his tongue and spat. Disgusting.
Sheets rustled, and Westwood groaned like a disgruntled wolf. He raised his eyes, fixing his coal-black gaze on Riley. “The fuck are you doing?”
“Nothing!” Riley squeaked, attempting to turn his easel as if he were painting the bare wall.
Westwood scrambled up to his seat, pulling the bedsheets close in an unwitting caricature of a demure maiden. “Were you painting me while I slept?”
“Goddamn, Riley. Since when did you become a creeper?”
Riley scowled, tossing his paint rag onto the drop cloth he’d stretched across the carpet. “I think I like you better when you’re not awake.”
“Spoken like a true creeper.”
Riley scooped up his paintbrushes and shoved them into a bucket before reaching for the canvas. “Whoa!” Westwood called, rising from the mattress. “You’re not going to let me see?”
“Of course not.” Riley tried to shield the canvas with his body as Westwood approached. “You know oils aren’t my strength. I’m a digital painter. I’m really rusty when it comes to traditional media.”
“Excuses, excuses. Let me see.”
Westwood shoved him aside indelicately, eyeing the canvas with all the artistic discretion of a teen flipping through a Playgirl magazine. “Hmm. You got my nose wrong.”
“Your nose was smushed into the pillows. I got it exactly the way it looked.”
Westwood gave a careless shrug. “You know, this is the first time I’m actually seeing your artwork.”
“I guess you’re okay at it. At least you’re better than me.”
“I should hope so. I have a degree in this, you know.”
“Porter doesn’t have a degree, but he’s still better than you.”
“Porter only doesn’t have a degree because he keeps dying before he can get through college. He may look like he’s only twenty, but he’s got decades of practical experience more than me.” Riley whipped the canvas out of Westwood’s hands. “And did I ever tell you you’re kind of a dick?”
Westwood tapped the surface of the painting. “You got that part wrong too.”
“You were on your stomach.”
Westwood raised his eyebrows as Riley shoved the canvas into a narrow gap behind his computer desk. “I don’t see why you have to paint me in the first place. Why don’t you grab a bunch of fruit and stick it on your table and paint that? Isn’t that what you artist types do? Still life paintings?”
“I don’t think a couple packets of ramen and a bag of frozen vegetables would make for a very compelling still life.” He frowned. “In case you forgot, I’m no longer the kept boyfriend of a rich lawyer. I’m the single unemployed artist who moonlights as a nude model at Prestwick College of Art. Fresh fruit is a luxury I can’t always afford.”
Riley idly examined a spot on the bedroom wall where the painters had spackled over a flattened roach. Gems like this were plentiful in the new two-bedroom apartment he shared with Porter Gomez. It had only been a few weeks since they’d moved in, but he was already beginning to wonder if it was even worth the minuscule amount he’d have to scrape together for rent every month.
“I’m not so sure about this apartment,” Westwood said as if reading his mind. “I thought I heard something in the middle of the night, but I was too tired to check it out.”
“Oh, that was the police. They arrested the crack dealer downstairs.”
“This was all I could afford,” Riley said defensively. “I couldn’t stay at Nick’s place, and staying with Mr. Tobias, my old painting teacher from Prestwick, was just awkward. I mean, unless you want me to move in with you….”
“Don’t even joke about that.” Westwood gave Riley a shove that was only half-playful.
Riley finished gathering his paints in uncomfortable silence. In truth, he didn’t want to move in with Westwood any more than Westwood did. The way Riley saw it, things were fine as they were. He went about his daily business, worked, chatted with his roommate, tried to navigate through the daunting world of networking with other artists, and occasionally woke up to Westwood climbing through his window and tackling him—an impressive feat considering the apartment’s location on the second floor. Riley was happy enough with their current arrangement. Even after six months, it felt like he was in a brand new relationship. Sex and independence, along with the occasional conversation. It was exciting, and he didn’t spend enough time with Westwood to get annoyed by his personality.
“You have to work today?” Westwood asked.
“Yeah.” Riley finished stowing the last of his painting supplies and collapsed his easel. As he folded the drop cloth into a crinkly square, he added, “I thought it’d be nice to get a little bit of painting in before I have to be on the other side of the easel at nine.” He glanced at the alarm clock on his thirty-dollar IKEA nightstand. “Speaking of which, I have to hop in the shower, so unless you want to join me, you should probably get going.”
“Your shower’s too small. I’ll go. But I want to get a glass of water first.”
Westwood stopped midstride, his hand on the doorknob. “What?”
“I don’t want you to scare Porter again.”
Two days earlier, Westwood had wandered naked out of the bedroom exactly as he was about to do now. Porter had been at the fridge, and upon seeing Westwood, he’d yelped like a startled Chihuahua and dropped an entire milk carton on the floor. It had been a rare half-gallon carton of organic milk from Whole Foods that Riley had been looking forward to using in his coffee. But as sad as he’d been to say good-bye to the five-dollar milk, he’d felt even guiltier for having put Porter in that uncomfortable situation.
“Porter’s had twenty years to get used to seeing me,” Westwood said.
“Not in his house without warning, though. I don’t blame him for being freaked. You were the one who took his mortality, after all.”
“You kill a guy once, and he never gets over it,” Westwood muttered under his breath.
“Twice,” Riley corrected.
“Whatever. Anyway, I don’t hear him out there. I’m going.”
Riley pulled on a robe as he followed Westwood to the door. When he stepped out into the hallway, he saw no signs of his lanky, shaggy-haired roommate. Porter usually slept late, but across the cramped living room, Riley could see that his door was wide open and the bedroom unoccupied. Unlike Riley’s room, which was still lined with unpacked boxes, Porter’s room was bare, instantly displaying his characteristic lack of personal effects.
“You think he slept over at the bar?” Riley asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t care.”
Riley cringed as Westwood helped himself to Sarasota’s questionable tap water. He then watched the water disappear from the glass in four impossibly large gulps. As Riley turned toward the bathroom, Westwood caught his arm. “One more thing before I go.”
Westwood tore open the belt of Riley’s robe, lifting him off the ground and slamming him on his back across the kitchen table. He whipped off Riley’s underwear and grabbed him below the knees, pulling him close. With a mischievous laugh, Riley dug his fingers into Westwood’s shoulders and readied himself for the ride.
BY THE time Riley chained his bike outside the figure painting studio at the west end of Prestwick’s campus, he was ready for a second shower. He’d decided to forego driving for a more cost-effective mode of transportation to work, but he hadn’t considered the way it would feel to pedal along the edge of the highway at the beginning of August, when the heat of the nearby drivers’ exhaust fumes was rivaled only by Florida’s cursedly close relationship with the sun. Thankfully, a brand new fitness center had been erected on campus, and Riley had enough time to duck in and hose off before he was scheduled to pose nude in front of a classroom of discerning students. Back when he’d attended Prestwick as an art student, he’d loved listening to nude modeling horror stories, but the last thing he wanted now as a model was a starring role in one of those stories. Better to go to work as fresh as possible.
The summer painting session was part of the Continuing Studies program. Less than half of the attendees were Prestwick undergrads. The rest were local adult hobbyists with a few professionals scattered throughout. He was happy to see at least a couple familiar faces. The redheaded Anna Maria Davis and her Korean friend, Julie, had both signed up. It seemed they had begun to panic now that their senior year of college loomed ahead. Knowing the job market awaiting them, Riley fought the urge to tell them they weren’t panicking enough. On the other hand, while he wasn’t familiar with Julie’s work, he doubted someone with Anna Maria’s talent would have any trouble evading unemployment.
“Did it start raining?” Anna Maria asked as Riley stepped into the studio.
“You’re all wet.”
Riley laughed. “Nah, I got all sweaty on the bike ride here, so I took a quick shower on my way up.”
“In the fitness center?” Julie asked. “How is it? I haven’t been in.”
“It’s really clean. Much cleaner than I expected.”
“Probably because no one’s using it yet,” Anna Maria chimed in. She turned to Julie. “Let’s go after class. I saw a teeny tiny elliptical that might not be too big for you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Julie asked with mock indignation, and soon she and Anna Maria were engaged in an animated discussion over the frustrations of being short and using oversized equipment at the local gyms. Riley smiled and nodded along, feeling as unneeded, yet conspicuous, as the third wheel on an adult tricycle. He wished there were a gracious way to duck out of the conversation. He was involved just enough to contribute nothing while still feeling it would have been rude to get up and leave. In the back of his mind, he realized how antisocial he’d become during the four years he had a steady boyfriend. He was out of practice. He had no problem talking to one person at a time, but taking on two or more was a challenge.
Thankfully, Mr. Tobias suddenly swept into the room, greeting various students as he passed and distracting Riley from the conversation. “Julie. Anna Maria.” He took a second glance at Riley. “Too much hair gel.”
“It’s just wet,” Riley said, running a self-conscious hand over his long brown bangs.
“Go stand in the sun until class starts,” Mr. Tobias called over his shoulder as he passed.
Riley let out a half chuckle before realizing Mr. Tobias was serious. Shoulders slumped, he ducked out of the room and stepped back into the sweltering heat. After waiting a minute, he heard the door creak behind him and jumped when Mr. Tobias appeared.
“Sorry to be a hard-ass,” he said. “I do want your hair to dry before class starts. But I also wanted to check in on you somewhere without people overhearing.”
“Check in on me?” Riley asked. “Why?”
“You moved out of my place a month ago, and I know you’re living in that shithole apartment on Medina. Not to mention you’re thinner than I’ve ever seen you before—and not in a good way. You just went through a horribly messy breakup, and I know you don’t have a lot of options right now.” He gave Riley a sympathetic look. “I meant it when I said I didn’t mind you staying with me until you got back on your feet.”
“I know,” Riley replied. “You’ve been really generous, and I appreciate it. But this is something I need to do. I need to stand on my own right now.”
Mr. Tobias didn’t seem convinced, but he let it slide. “Any job prospects?”
“I’ve been sending my portfolio out, but so far I haven’t had much of a response. Do you remember Matt Reddick? He was my roommate in college.”
“Straight guy, right? Obsessed with video game concept art?”
“Yeah, that’s him. Apparently he works at the Jackson Mint as an art director now, so he might be able to send me some freelance work.”
Mr. Tobias laughed. “The Jackson Mint? That kitschy collectibles dealer in Chicago? I seem to recall when Jackson came recruiting at Prestwick his senior year, Matt said he wouldn’t touch their products with a ten-foot pole.”
“Funny how a recession can change people’s minds about which jobs are acceptable.” Riley fished his modeling timer out of his bag. “Speaking of which, what do you say I go inside and get naked?”
RILEY lucked out that session. Most of the class consisted of a reclining pose in which he nearly fell asleep, and only one of the day’s poses made him feel like he was snapping his vertebrae apart. As he headed around the corner to his makeshift changing room and pulled on his low-riding baggy shorts, he felt a sharp buzz against his hip. It was an incoming call on his cell phone, a number he didn’t recognize. Cautiously, he raised the phone to his ear. “Hello?”
“Riley?” came the reply. “It’s Matt. Matt Reddick.”
“Matty!” Riley cried, unable to hide his excitement. “It’s so good to hear your voice. How’ve you been, man?”
“Been pretty good. Making money. I got promoted last month.”
“Yeah…. I really want to quit, but I have an awesome condo downtown, and there’s no way I could afford it without this job. So I guess I’m stuck here for a while.” He laughed briefly. “How about you? Still in that fancy town house?”
“No. Nick and I broke up. I’m staying in an apartment on Medina.”
“East or west of the tracks?”
Matt let out a low whistle. “I didn’t know you were that hard up.”
“Student loans, man. You know the deal. And the T-shirt company in New York that always sent me the fun design jobs is going out of business. Ninety-nine percent of my income right now is coming from nude modeling.”
“You’re still doing that?”
“I don’t have a choice. And it’s still not enough. I even put up an ad on Craigslist to see if anyone needed a model. A guy answered my ad a couple days ago, and after we talked for a few minutes, I found out he doesn’t want to paint me. He wants me to sit naked at the table during a four-hour black-tie dinner party, without moving, while he and his friends talk and drink wine.”
“Ha! So what did you tell him?”
Riley’s face reddened. “I told him I’d see him Friday.”
There was a pause on the other line; then Matt cleared his throat. “You know, I showed your portfolio to my boss. She didn’t really understand your work because it’s not the type of thing we do at the Jackson Mint, but I convinced her to let me send you a job. If I’d known about your Craigslist story, I’d have shown her your portfolio a lot sooner. But anyway, the job’s yours if you’re interested.”
“Of course I’m interested!”
“I don’t know if this is really your kind of thing.”
“If it pays in legal tender and I get to keep my clothes on, it’s my kind of thing. What do you need? Whatever it is, I can do it!”
“All right, Riley. All right.” Riley heard the faint sound of flipping papers. “So here’s what I need. Have you ever heard of reborn dolls?”
“No. What’s that? Like a zombie thing?”
Matt cackled, and Riley had to pull the phone away from his ear. “I tell you, Riley, it might as well be. No, reborns are super realistic baby dolls. Like, insanely realistic. People buy them for thousands of dollars. Sometimes they even commission people to make a doll that looks exactly like one of their children that died or grew up too fast. Or they could never have babies, so they buy these dolls instead. Some people even take them out in public and push them in strollers.”
“So anyway, I got transferred to the doll team last month, and we’re making affordable alternatives to the reborns you find at fairs and high-end online shops. They want me to come up with a line of holiday dolls. It’s too late to produce one for Christmas, so we’re starting with Easter. I need a concept sketch yesterday. Creepy cute baby in a bunny suit. Can you do that?”
“You need me to draw a baby doll in a bunny suit?”
“Yes, as realistic as you can make it. Check out the Jackson Mint website and take a look at the dolls we already sell. We need something that’ll fit our current line. Make it as sickeningly cute as you possibly can. Give it one floppy ear or something. Make it pouty and big-eyed and all that shit.”
“You sound like you love your job.”
“I love it to tears, man. Genuine tears.” There was a pause, followed by the clicking of a computer mouse. “So it’s Monday today. If you can get it to me tomorrow, that’d be ideal. Wednesday at the very latest. And if you do a really kick-ass job on this one, my boss will be more likely to let me send you more work. You got it?”
“Got it. I’ll start working on it right away.”
“Cool. Call me or e-mail if you have any questions. I gotta run. Okay?”
“Thank you so much, Matty! I’ll talk to you later.”
As Riley stowed his phone, a smile spread across his face. True, he’d be spending the afternoon researching and drawing creepy babies, but he knew the Jackson Mint was more than generous with their freelancers. He did a little happy dance in his seat as he thought of a check coming in the mail with his name on it.