“So… what do you think it is?” Jo leaned her head to one side and peered at the giant canvas on the wall in front of her. She couldn’t find an explanation of this one in the catalog. “Funny title—4:0045. There’s all that blue, and the green spots. Can’t see anything properly.”
“It’s a metaphor, yeah?” replied her friend. He pushed his thin wire glasses up his nose and squeezed at her arm.
She bit back a protest. He probably thought he was showing sympathy for her ignorance. She risked a look at her watch; only an hour before they had to be back for classes. And luckily, she thought wryly, they didn’t take the same ones. “What do you mean?”
“Metaphor—a symbol for something else.”
She rolled her eyes. Like she didn’t know the word. “So, it’s not a thing then?” She doubted he’d recognize humor if it bit him. “Like a pet? Like his house?”
She was right about the humor, of course. His eyes narrowed with irritation. “Christ, Jo, you are so not in tune with modern art. This ain’t paint-by-numbers. This guy is angry, you know? He’s yelling at us; he’s demanding we stand up and be counted! It’s a comment on the complexity of modern socialism, on the diversity of political versus domestic issues in the context of failing economic standards and the ravages of aimless, devastating war….”
Jo felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, and she turned to find a guy standing right beside her. His bright blue eyes flickered to her companion, then back to her. She noticed his cute nose crinkling in amused distaste; his dark auburn hair brushed away from a wide brow. He was very handsome. Very sweet. Her gaze ran quickly down his tall body, dressed in a wickedly sheer, vivid blue sleeveless shirt and skin-tight leather pants. He looked like one of the more mature art students, perhaps an adventurous young tutor, escorting his class to the gallery. Who cares? She felt a rush of excitement that went straight to her head. The leather pants on the long, lean thighs were fabulous. Totally.
He spoke to her in a low, easy voice. “It’s a picture of my last hangover, actually… uh… Jo, isn’t it? Named after the time I got thrown out of the bar. The main thing is, though, do you like it?”
“It’s cool.” She nodded, feeling a flush start high up on her cheeks. His…? “Bright. Bold. Makes me feel sort of tingly.”
Her companion made a snorting sound.
But the blue-eyed guy didn’t seem annoyed at her impulsive response. He nodded back, and his eyes widened with pleasure. He glanced again at her friend, and then turned his back on him deliberately. “Sooo, Jo,” he drawled. “I don’t know who this patronizing moron is beside you, but I think we’re both going to have to suffer more pretentious crap today than either of us deserves. Wouldn’t you agree?”
There was a brief moment of shocked silence.
The mystery guy grinned and tightened his hand on Jo’s shoulder. “You want to talk feeling tingly, just call me, okay? Number’s with the blond girl at the front desk.”
“Now wait up a minute, aren’t you…?” stuttered Jo’s friend. His glasses bounced awkwardly on his nose, and he waved the catalog in his hand toward the other guy’s face. It was folded open at the publicity photo of someone.
“Yeah.” The guy smiled. “I am. So get over it. Enjoy the exhibition.”
And then, swiftly, he turned away and dodged back into the crowd.
“He’s….” came another splutter from Jo’s young man. “Didn’t you see, for God’s sake? He’s…!”
Jo wasn’t really listening. She stared at her friend instead and wondered exactly why she’d agreed to accompany him in the first place. He never listened to her, he talked too much himself, and when he did talk, he really was a pretentious moron. It wasn’t as if he had much going for him in the romantic department either, having the charisma of a clothespin….
And then a call for quiet came from a woman wearing a badge identifying her as the promotions director. The chattering around the room slowly ceased.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please? Today is the opening of the gallery, as I’m sure you all know.” There was polite laughter from around her. “I think we can already see that this will be the first event of many, that this thrilling venture will have a glorious future ahead of it! It is supported, of course, by the brilliant family whose name it bears: the two incandescently talented Roswell brothers, whose own work is on show for us here tonight, to hang among some pretty prestigious company.” The visitors gazed around the room, and murmurs of appreciation followed.
“Unfortunately, the older brother is unable to join us tonight. Meeting an agent, I believe. There are talks of a European tour.” More murmurs, heads nodding. “But let’s just make a toast to the younger of these two inspired young men, who is already making quite a mark in the art world and is sure to become as famous and as respected as his brother. And who is—most luckily—here with us tonight. Indeed, he has favored us with the best pieces of his recent work, and one of the main aims of this gallery is to become a showplace for his own collection.”
There was some light applause. Jo listened to the buzz of comments around her.
“They say he’s hardly more than a kid, but extraordinarily charming….”
“…exciting talent, exciting ideas….”
“He designed this whole show himself, you know.”
The promotions director’s speech resumed. “So we formally welcome the latest addition to the world of commercial modern art and wish him more of the success and praise that he is already attracting. And, of course, we look forward to his forthcoming season of new work. Here’s to many more!”
More applause, with much more enthusiasm now. There were a couple of whistles from the less inhibited guests.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Zeke Roswell!”
At the back of the room, Jo stared, entranced, at the tall, handsome, young man who moved quickly to stand beside the director. His tousled curls brushed his shoulders, a bold contrast to the vivid blue of his shirt. His movements were athletic, his arms swinging and his legs encased in leather pants. Those same leather pants that Jo had admired earlier.
He stood with the same swaggering confidence that he’d shown before, waving the hand that had settled firmly on her shoulder as he spoke to her. And he gazed around the room with the same bright blue eyes that had teased her earlier, full of the same amusement. As she stared, open-mouthed, he caught her eye.
And he winked at her.
Twelve months later
Malia Trent brushed a small mote of dust from the lapel of her designer suit jacket and cleared her throat. She didn’t think the current view needed more comment than that. Her gaze flickered over the two young men beside her, looking for their confirmation.
The three of them stood outside the entrance of the building that had just been sold, staring up at it. It was a visually striking façade with wide, high windows and pale brick walls. The upper story had a single picture window spanning the whole front of the building, embracing the sunlight like a welcome lover. But downstairs, things were less striking. The windows were dusty; there was graffiti on those same pale walls. Inside were the remnants of shop fittings and demonstration materials, suggesting it had once been busy with visitors of one kind or another. Now there were only a couple of broken chairs remaining. A single bulb hung down from the ceiling, naked of any shade. A wooden display board spanned the whole of one wall, though its fixings had obviously broken. One of the corners sagged downward, giving it a lopsided look.
There was another door at the back of the room, leading presumably to the upstairs apartment. The door was ajar.
Malia peered distastefully through the nearest window. “It’s in an appalling state.” She shifted uncomfortably. They’d left the limo back at the office and walked across town to view the property. Not for the first time, she wished she hadn’t worn her highest heels. “I can’t see what use it’s going to be to the corporation.”
The taller of the other two men turned to her. “Malia, you’ve read the documents as well as I. As, indeed, have three sets of lawyers. Please don’t imply I’m a fool. We want the access, and we need the opportunity to expand the current operations. That means we need this side of the street as well. The whole block is perfect for our purposes. This particular unit has obviously been neglected, but it can be redecorated. It’s basically sound.”
“But the corporation’s never considered a gallery, Miles. Why don’t we convert it into another set of offices? Legal Services needs some new space—”
The man beside her cleared his throat. He didn’t need to do any more. Malia felt herself flush heavily. He was the only man she’d ever known who could do that to her, outside of orgasm, and for far less pleasant reasons. She pursed her lips, biting back a sharp response.
He continued. “It was converted as an art gallery; it’s perfect for that purpose. I’m not one to pass up such an opportunity. You know my opinions on waste. I have an art collection, and this can be a promotional showroom for it. It will be a frontispiece for Media Services. We’ll use it for the entertainment of clients and for presentation events. That, of course, is your particular department.”
It wasn’t that he was asking her opinion. The decision had already been made.
Malia sneaked a look through her false lashes at her boss. He was young, in his late twenties, but no one would ever have accused him of being immature. Handsome…. That was a given. Private. Frighteningly smart. Single. She sighed to herself, knowing how far out of her league he was. Miles Winter’s name and reputation were known to anyone who followed the financial papers. He was the only son of wealthy parents, a father who’d made a fortune from property development and a mother who brought hereditary wealth as her dowry. In Miles’ early teens, they died in a plane crash, and he became sole heir to a large trust fund. The tabloid press cracked their journalistic knuckles and waited with glee to see how this rich young child would fritter it away. He proved them all wrong.
His lawyers appointed him an eminently sensible financial advisor, and he finished his education with a master’s in business administration. Doors opened in the city for him with alarming eagerness. Over the next few years, he was promoted as the youngest ever board director of the firm where he trained; he became one of the most innovative traders on Wall Street; the youngest man to make a million-dollar fortune from his personal portfolio. It was an astonishing progression. His trust fund remained substantial and well-invested. Business rivals underestimated him at their peril. In negotiations, they knew that the compensation they’d receive would be commercially fair but very aggressively priced.
And as an employer? Malia pursed her lips even more tightly. Miles was civil but extremely cool, sometimes hard to the point of harshness. Again, he was not to be underestimated. He paid extremely well, but he expected twenty-four/seven commitment, though he gave the same himself. He’d listen to staff feedback and reasonable suggestions, but the decisions were always his. His business instincts had been proven to be accurate time and again, so his people stayed with him. As a result, most of them had the time of their lives.
And Miles Winter was as self-controlled in his personal life as he was at work. There was no outrageous scandal in his young life, no controversy. Malia could confirm that, because she spent a lot of her time searching speculatively for evidence, hoping to find some chink in that corporate armor. Just for the hell of it, of course.
And he was so goddamned hot! Wore his designer clothes like they’d been tailored solely for him, which of course they usually had. A tall, tight body, toned and athletic limbs. Dusky skin with the shine of excellent health. His dark hair was cut beautifully, but somehow also managed to be a shaggy, sexy mass, falling over his forehead. And he had such incredible eyes. A mixture of deep blue and purple, dark pupils that reflected the subject but never exposed the watcher. They were fabulous even when they were like flints, as they were now. Malia felt the familiar, hopeless clench in her groin. She wondered—as she often did—why she never saw him with the same girl for more than a month or so. Wasn’t he dating that supermodel at the moment? Internationally famous; supernaturally thin. Malia sighed to herself. Half of her was damned glad that Miles Winter had never made a pass at her. The other half lay awake nights, tempting her with erotic dreams of what she might have expected if he had.
“The Roswell Gallery,” murmured the third member of their group, hovering behind her.
Miles Winter turned to the blond young man, focusing on him. “Do you see a sign there, Tony?”
“N—no,” Tony stammered. “Sorry, Mr. Winter. That’s just what everyone knows it as.” He hopped from one foot to another, paler than ever, and obviously wishing he could lie down and melt into the pavement to escape that glare. Malia hid her smile. Only that week Tony had confessed to her he wished he’d made a different choice at college age, staying at home to run the modest family pet food business, rather than joining the Winter Corporation and putting himself in Miles Winter’s direct line of fire.
But his boss’s anger never materialized. A thoughtful twist appeared at the corners of his mouth. “You knew Jacky Roswell?”
“Knew of him, sir. The story was all over the city at the time, when he died, you know? He was a hell of a character, always at an event, always in the public eye. Brilliant artist. Presented works to the president himself, they said. He bought this building for his family, for his younger brother.”
“The brother.” Miles nodded, but didn’t elaborate.
Tony gabbled on nervously. “I thought the kid still lived here, though he doesn’t exhibit, doesn’t even paint anymore. Just hides out here, since… well, you know. They said he—the younger brother—had a brilliant talent of his own. Very different from Jacky Roswell; much bolder. They both painted, both sketched. But the kid’s style was a different thing altogether.”
“It was,” said Miles.
Malia was startled that Mr. Winter offered any comment at all, let alone one that implied he knew of the background. “Zeke Roswell, he’s called. A black sheep. A very black sheep,” she murmured. “I met him once.”
“Yeah, more than a little wild, according to the press at the time,” said Tony, more confidently now. Malia knew if there was one thing her assistant was good at, it was garnering gossip. “This gallery was going to be his launch into the art world, his ticket to success.”
“But that didn’t happen, did it?” said Miles, his voice suddenly sharp. Malia turned, staring at him, trying to judge his mood. “And that was well over a year ago.”
“Yeah.” Tony sighed. “These things happen, I guess.”
Miles tugged gently at the cuffs of his elegant, understated jacket. “They do indeed. It’s never mattered to me why it’s on the market, Tony. I just needed to know that it was and that my price was accepted.” He stared once more at the grimy windows, and his voice grew more thoughtful.
“I have no interest in buying ghosts.”
Carter Davison slipped quietly into the downtown bar. It was long past midnight, and there were only a few patrons left, nursing their last drinks for the night. None of them looked up as the paneled door to the outside world creaked closed behind him. But the barman did. He half-raised a hand to Carter and nodded him toward the booths at the far side of the room.
“Asleep again, I guess. He’s not asked for more since eleven. I was gonna call you….”
“It’s okay, Marty,” Carter murmured. It said something when his local bartender had his cell number. “I went around to his place, and he wasn’t there, so I guessed he’d be here. Anyone else?” He knew Marty would understand.
“Nah. There was a kid with him earlier. They were… you know… kinda interested in each other. Fact is, I had to ask him to keep his hands on the table for the sake of the other customers getting irate. But the two of ’em had words, and the kid left hours ago.”
“Fine.” Carter sighed. He knew his tone showed it was anything but. “I’ll take him now.” He was in his comfortable jeans and a loose T-shirt, but his whole body felt weary and tense. He rummaged in his jeans pocket, pulled out a few bills, and placed them on the counter to settle the tab. Marty nodded to him, closing the agreement they had between them.
Carter moved quickly toward one of the corner booths. All he could see there was the crown of an auburn-haired head, the face buried deeply into the owner’s folded arms, resting on top of the stained table. Carter could hear quiet snoring. The lean young body was folded uncomfortably on the seat, but obviously not uncomfortably enough to prevent him from sleeping where he sat.
Carter moved a half-empty beer glass to the other side of the table and looked down on the sleeper. “Stupid asshole,” he murmured. It wasn’t as if he expected his words to be heard. “You’ve got a bed at home, haven’t you? And a friend to come look after you. A real one, not the kids you pick up and caress when the fancy takes you. So why’re you hanging out here again?”
The sleeping man must have registered something, because he stirred. And groaned. One of the arms peeled itself out from under his heavy head and stretched out straight with an ominous crack of the joint.
“Shit. Carter, is that you? Where the fuck am I?”
“Where do you think?” Carter sat down beside the waking man and sighed. “Thought you’d given this up after the last time. Drinking yourself stupid at Marty’s.”
“Am not,” mumbled the other man. “Not stupid at all… else he’d be yelling at me for the check.” His face was visible now, though he kept rubbing a hand over it, obviously trying to wake up properly. There were tired bags underneath the bright blue eyes and the smooth, tanned skin was dull in the dimming lights of the bar. His fringe hung limply over his forehead, and as he tugged at the rest of his hair, the auburn curls tangled in a weight at the nape of his neck. “Fucking hair… pulled it the wrong way. It’s killing me.”
“Something is,” said Carter, grimly. “Can you walk? Go home, Zeke.”
Zeke Roswell groaned again and sat up. It seemed to nag at some pain in his lower back, because he grimaced a little. “Got no home, though, have I? Going to sign it all away tomorrow. Lose the whole fucking lot.”
“Zeke, you did that some time ago. You lost it all, or rather you played and drank it all away. Don’t play the innocent victim with me. You’re no fool. You had a chance, but you fucked up. Right? You’ll get another. So get over it.”
“Is this your Kindly Friend approach, Carter?” Zeke sighed wearily. “Or you practicing for Oprah?”
“Dammit, Zeke.” Carter frowned. “Do you want me to go on lying? Go on pandering to you? You know you’re a bright, smart guy with talent the rest of us would kill for. Instead, you drink your checks away, bury yourself inside a filthy apartment, and snarl at anyone who gives you the time of day. Or you try to fuck them; seems those are the only two approaches you have in your repertoire.”
Zeke growled back at him, but the sound was tired. “I’m getting the feeling you’re pissed at me, Carter. And I can walk, you know. You won’t need that fireman’s carry you used last time.”
Carter rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to carry you anywhere, Zeke. Physically or metaphorically. Drop the past and move on. I’ve tried, haven’t I?”
“Guess so,” replied Zeke, a thread of anger in his voice now. He pushed at the table and lurched up on unsteady feet. “Guess you think you’re better than me. But this was just a farewell drink, you know? Because I am making the break. I’m changing my life. Aren’t you pleased with that?”
Carter stared at his friend. He clenched his fists at his sides. “I don’t think I’m better than you, Zeke….”
“Sure,” replied Zeke. He looked steadier on his feet now, and his mouth quirked with a sly smile. “After all, you ain’t got the looks, boy. And I bet the last thing you painted was something your mom put up on the door of the fridge.”
Carter smiled, responding to the younger man’s bluster. In his opinion, Zeke had more charm than was fair, at least when he was sober enough to use it properly. “As a friend, you’re a real pain in the ass, you know.”
“Yeah, I am. Guess if I had more friends, they’d tell me that as well as you.” Zeke sighed and spoke more quietly. “Can I come home with you tonight, Carter?”
Carter started. “I don’t think….”
Zeke’s deep blue eyes latched on to him, and the depth of misery Carter saw there took his breath away. It was all so very reminiscent—heart-wrenchingly so.
“’s corny, I know, but I don’t want to be on my own. Don’t get excited, now. I’m not making a pass at you, nothing like that….”
Carter slipped an arm around Zeke’s shoulder. For a second, his fingers brushed at Zeke’s sallow cheek. He wondered if Zeke realized sometimes the effect he had on people, on him. “Please. I’m far from excited, Zeke. You’re not exactly at your best right now. I doubt you’d do yourself justice in bed. Or me, for that matter.”
“Fuck that,” said Zeke, but rather fondly. “Can still get it up, you know. I like boys and girls, Carter. Never been one to restrict my options.”
Carter smiled, trying not to show his deeper emotions on his face. But it was damned hard. Zeke’s voice held traces of another voice, another time. Carter’s memories piqued him with small stabs of both delight and pain. “I’ll give it serious thought, bright boy. But not tonight, eh? Let’s get going, if you’re coming home with me. I’ll need to get the spare bedding out of the cupboard again.”
He dropped his arm down to hold on to Zeke’s waist, so it didn’t look quite so obvious that he was helping him stand up. Not that he and Marty didn’t know the score, but Zeke had his pride—even if he drowned it rather too regularly.
Zeke coughed, and Carter felt the other man’s body vibrate against his own. “I am doing the right thing, aren’t I? It’s all the past now. Right? I’ve got to drop it and find something new.”
“Jacky said the same, Zeke. All the time. Find something new, move on. You remember how he was, what he’d say. No regrets.”
Zeke’s head turned sharply toward Carter, startling him. “Easy for him to say, though, eh? Mr. Happy Corpse. Mr. Leave It All Behind for some other poor fucker to suffer. For someone else to sign over all our worldly goods.”
“Zeke….” Carter didn’t like the edge to Zeke’s voice. There wasn’t just pain there, but something more aggressive. He glanced over at Marty, wondering if he’d need the older man’s help after all.
But Zeke’s voice calmed again. “I’m okay, Carter. Don’t get all tense on me. I’m just a little more honest than you, eh?”
Carter stared at him, startled again.
“I really do want to move on, you see,” Zeke muttered, holding Carter’s gaze. “I’ve got no fucking interest in ghosts, my friend. None at all.”
The cab pulled up at the front entrance of the Park Gate Apartments, and the doorman bent quickly to get the door. Miles stepped out, smoothing down his jacket, allowing his case to be lifted out for him. The doorman greeted him