“WHAT ARE you doing, Cypress?” Naki leaned against the doorframe of the studio, watching him with her button black eyes. “You don’t seem the wedding vase, traditional type.”
“I need to do it. You know how that is?” He felt the urge like a fever in the base of his spine. Two spouts, one handle—Naki was right. Traditional Pueblo design wasn’t his thing, but it was what the clay needed.
“Need, as in you got a commission, or need, as in the muse is going to peck your eyes out with a skewer if you don’t?”
“God, you are a sick, sad broad. I adore you. Skewer. This is totally a skewer moment.” He smoothed out another set of coils, then stretched and listened to his back pop. “Someone will love it. I’m going to paint it with rainbows.”
“You’re so queer.” She came farther into the studio. “I’m going to go take photos in the trees. I need a model that’s willing to get naked.”
He grinned over at her. Cypress had zero issues with naked. None. “Go grab that wet cloth for me and wring it out?”
“You’ll do it? You totally rock.” She went to get the cloth for him. “I want to do this thing that evokes Pan. You’ll wear horns?”
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do with a nearly snowing afternoon.” He wrapped the vase up, protecting it. “If I freeze to death, you’ll have me cremated?”
“I won’t let you freeze. I adore you, and you’ll do anything for art.”
“Truth.” He grabbed his coat and yanked on his boots. “Let’s go play Narnia, shall we?”
Someone would want the wedding vase.
Someone would come for it.
JOSH SAT there in the office that had been his for seven years, two months, and three days, looking at the cowboy who he’d thought, once upon a time, was going to be his one and only, feeling a little like he was drunk.
He rolled the five-year-sober token between his fingers, letting it settle him. Not drunk. Not even a bit.
“What? What did you say to me?” He left off the you sorry son of a bitch part.
“We got a buyer for the gallery.” Kris stared at him, calm as could be, one hip settled on the edge of his desk.
“The gallery isn’t for sale.” He owned half, dammit. Still.
Kris nodded easily. “Frankly they just want the building. Quite an offer. I don’t see how we can pass it up.”
“The gallery isn’t for sale.” He was fairly sure the words were succinct enough for Mr. Business.
“The neighborhood has changed, Josh. It’s not a boho, arty area anymore. It’s all high-priced condos and tapas bars.” Kris’s expression softened just slightly. “I think it’s time to let it go.”
This wasn’t about the gallery. This was about them. Him and Kris.
“Josh, please at least look at the offer.” Kris stood, straightening his fancy cattleman’s. God, he looked like a stuffed suit. Kris looked better in beat-up Wranglers.
“I’m not interested.” Josh felt like sitting down and pounding the floor with his fist. This wasn’t right. None of it. He knew he was a fuckup. Had been a fuckup. But he was working his shit out.
The gallery was back to breaking even, if not making a profit. Josh thought he deserved a chance to get some good new artists in for a show.
“Then are you going to buy me out?” Kris asked.
Fuck. Kris knew he couldn’t do that. The business finances were an open book. Josh wasn’t even taking a salary for another three years to pay back Kris’s initial investment.
“I don’t have to. We’re equal partners. All I have to do is say no.”
Kris frowned, dark brows drawing together over his bright green eyes. “Dammit, Josh, how long are you going to pretend this is going to work?”
He touched the coin again. Five years. Five years sober. Five years proving he could be trusted. Five years and it wasn’t enough.
“This gallery is my life.” Simple as that. He had no friends anymore, no one. He came to work and went to meetings. He hadn’t gone out to dinner with Kris since…. Christ. Christmas? Maybe? Had they even done Christmas?
“Then what do you want me to do? The building is really the only asset.”
“I’m going on a buying trip. Santa Fe area. Why are we even talking about this?” Why are you even here? Go find another project.
Kris was, like, the king of finance now or something. He had investments all over, could probably walk away from the gallery without even taking a money hit.
“Buying? With what? Your good looks?”
Oh. Ow. It hurt, the way his lips pressed together so fast, and Josh bit the bottom one hard enough to draw blood. “Nope. I have some personal savings from when I lost Gran. I got it.”
Kris frowned harder. “No. No, if you’re going to try one more buying trip, we’ll do it with business funds. No spending your savings.” Sometimes Kris acted as though he cared.
“I’m fine. I found this guy outside of Santa Fe. He’s amazing, makes this delicate pottery, digs his own clay. It’s modern, sleek, but it feels like Pueblo work.” Josh knew it was special shit, knew Austin would fall in love with it. Knew the guy had alienated every goddamn gallery in Santa Fe and Albuquerque too.
“So, I’ll go with you. I could use a few days in the mountains.”
Jesus, Kris was giving off some serious mixed signals. What the hell?
Kris had been totally clear about him, his worth. Josh was pretty sure they weren’t even friends anymore.
“I don’t know.” Kris raised his brows as if surprised. “Maybe I just want to go to Santa Fe. Book us a hotel and let me know when, okay?”
“Okay.” Sure. Anything to stop this conversation. The gallery was his heartbeat, his baby. His reason. Josh needed it, and he didn’t know how to survive without it. “I’ll text you.”
“I’ll be here all day.” Kris stared at him, and he was getting tired of trying to read that face, those bright eyes he loved so much.
“Oh. I’ll find you, then. I’m hanging the Moreno oils for the opening tomorrow.”
“Good deal. Let me know when you have dates.” Kris hopped off his desk and headed out, probably to the little office he’d carved out behind the storage area when they’d quit sharing space.
As soon as the door closed, Josh put his head on his hands and sucked in a deep breath.
Kris will change his mind, he told himself. He won’t come.
No, there was no way, so he made himself a reservation at a gay-friendly bed and breakfast instead of the Plaza hotel Kris would no doubt rather stay in.
Maybe he’d meet someone. Someone who didn’t know anything about him, and he could get a nice handjob. Something that felt good. Nothing like a vacation romance or anything.
Josh had already lost the love of his life.
KRIS SAT at his tiny campaign desk, knowing he needed to look at the accounts, but he had to stop his hands from shaking before he keyed up his software.
He should have stopped in the gallery for one of those super froufrou cups of coffee Josh always had brewing. An espresso machine, for fuck’s sake. Those plastic cup machines were bad for the environment, Josh said.
Instead of going right to work, he grabbed his cell phone and called his twin sister, Kristyna.
“Hey, Topher. How goes? You talk to Josh about selling?”
“I did. Flat turned me down.” He’d hoped Josh would jump at the chance to split the partnership. Fuck, the guy could buy a new building and stock it to the ceiling with what they’d make selling their current location.
“Wow. I’m surprised. I mean, he’s fixated on you, so maybe I’m not.” She sighed, and he could hear her nails on her keyboard, tip-tapping away. “I’m sorry, honey. This sucks for you, I know.”
“It sucks for him too.” Josh was never gonna be happy as long as they were tied together. Kris knew that like he knew his own name.
“Yeah. You’re the best thing that ever happened to him, and he knows it.” Her voice was fierce as hell, defending him always.
He chuckled, the pain in his belly easing. “Maybe. Maybe not. I love you for saying it.”
“It’s the truth. He’s a drunk, and he hurt you, just like Mom. That’s not forgivable.” She sighed, and the pain in the sound cut off his instinctive protest. Josh had never killed anyone with his drinking, at least. Josh had been sober a while, but Kris didn’t argue that, either. That would be hypocritical of him when he didn’t trust Josh to keep the gallery without him. Once bitten….
“Can’t you force his hand? Make him do it?”
“No.” Oh, he could, but he didn’t want to yet. Somehow he wanted to go on this trip.
“Damn. We should go to Seattle for a while. We’ll spend hours in Elliott Bay and wandering aimlessly.”
That sounded so fine. Just to let all his responsibilities go and hit the road with his sister. He needed to learn to delegate. “I’m going on a buying trip, Tyna. So I can’t right now.”
“A buying trip? Why?”
“It’s a long story, and you’ll yell.” He wanted to give Josh one more chance; he wanted to see mountains.
“You’re going with him.” He could see her in his mind’s eye, rolling her eyes. “You aren’t serious. He’s going to hurt you.”
“It’s a weekend in Santa Fe, Tyna. No big deal. We’ll look at art. I’ll go to the spa.”
“Ooh. I love Santa Fe. Go to the Shed for me. I love their posole.”
“I will. Maybe have a decadent supper at La Plazuela too.” He did love their desserts. Hell, he loved all desserts.
“Uhn. Yes, please. Something with chocolate and cream.”
“I’ll send you pictures. I miss you, Tyna,” Kris told her.
“Miss you, Topher. Be careful, huh? Watch your heart.”
“With both eyes and a periscope,” he shot back, the joke as old as they were. “Love you.”
“I love you more than my luggage, old man.” Considering how much she traveled, that was saying something.
“Bye.” He hung up, then stared at his laptop for a bit.
He could hear Josh’s voice—a pure tenor that never seemed harsh anymore, never sounded out of control—as he spoke to Daniel, their assistant. “… to Santa Fe to meet this guy. He’s a commune type, makes stunning pieces from local materials. I’m excited.”
“You look it. You need to go somewhere, see something new.”
“I just want to do good work, man.”
Kris got up and crept to the door of his makeshift office. He wanted to just watch Josh, look at him unobserved.
The heavy braid was neat, tied back, the damn thing a fiery copper to match the little goatee, the trimmed mustache. Josh was as hipster as they came—pork-pie hats, incredibly clever T-shirts and sweater vests over a sweet six-pack, straight-legged pants hanging off sharp hip bones, the whole look finished off with biker boots. The little glasses weren’t an affectation, though. Those were necessary.
Not so the tattoos, but Kris couldn’t imagine Josh without them now.
Kris smiled. Josh looked so much like he had when they’d first met, the puffy undereye circles gone now, the perpetual sunglasses missing. He was beautiful, truth be told.
Josh scrambled up the ladder, fearless as he leaned too far, fixing lights. The T-shirt he wore pulled up out of his pants, and, damn, that belly looked flat and firm, the tiny red hairs there calling Kris’s fingers.
He looked away. That way waited madness. An alcoholic was always an alcoholic. Look at his mom. A drunk, gone by the time they were teenagers, and taking his big brother down a few years before she drank herself to death. He knew better than to let himself in for that.
There was always going to be that one more drink. Even if five years passed between them.
Kris sighed and turned back to his desk. Work was constant. Steady. Numbers didn’t lie.
Daniel came wandering through, offering him a happy smile. “Hey, bossman. I’m going to run to the Hideout for lattes. You want one?”
“I’d love one. Something with caramel.” He didn’t indulge much in coffee, but today he needed the sugar and caffeine.
“You got it.” Daniel grinned wide. “Good to see you. I’ll be fifteen, maybe twenty. Josh is still on the ladder. If you hear a thud, call 911.”
“I’ll bury the body, I promise.”
“Works for me. I get your hat collection in the will, right, bossman?”
“Whatever turns you on, Danny-boy.”
“Cool.” Danny headed out, taking the twenty Kris offered him like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Josh was perfectly silent as he worked. That was one thing Kris remembered differently. His Josh had been a singer—loud, soft, serious, silly. There had always been music.
Had he been singing before he knew Kris was watching? Damn it.
“I was thinking about heading out early Monday morning. The opening is tomorrow. We’re closed Sunday and Monday.”
“Okay.” Not a weekend, then. Dammit, he’d have to clear his schedule. “What time and where should we meet? The airport?”
“I’m going to drive, man, so I can bring things back. You want to fly out, like, on Wednesday? I can pick you up at the Sunport. That’ll save you a ton of time. I know your time is precious.”
Did he want to fly? Yes. So why, when he opened his mouth, did he say no? “No, I’ll ride up with you.”
“Oh? Well, okay. If you want to. It’s a twelve-hour drive.”
“Sure. I can help with the driving. We can take my SUV—it’ll be more comfy.”
“Are you sure you want to be stuck with me for hours?”
He tried not to be hurt. God knew, he’d just told Josh he wanted to get rid of the gallery. His mood swings were like a sickle at harvest time. “As long as you sing or something, I’ll be good.”
Josh chuckled softly. “Early Monday, then? You want me to meet you here or at your house?”
“Let’s meet at the house. I’ll make you breakfast.” Jesus, he had run-on of the mouth. Might as well go big on their last hurrah.
“I remember those.” Josh nodded. “Sounds good. I’m going to get the rest of the lights set.”
“Okay. Look, I think I’ll head out.” Josh could handle the opening, and Kris needed to get a good four or five days’ worth of work in before Monday.
“Daniel’s bringing your coffee.”
“Right.” He grinned. “I wasn’t running away. I’m just feeling useless.”
“You do know how to hold a ladder still, right?”
“I do. I thought you were wanting to live dangerously.”
“Nope. Just trying to get the job done.”
“I’ll hold.” Kris took off his jacket.
Josh gave him an appreciative look, then blinked as their eyes met.
Kris swallowed hard. This was about moving on, not going backward. He cleared his throat. “Lights.”
“Yeah. Lights.” Josh gave him a nod and headed out to the gallery floor, then scrambled up the ladder.
Kris followed more slowly, walking over to hold the ladder, determined not to stare at Josh’s ass. God, he hoped this whole thing wasn’t going to be the clusterfuck he feared it would.
Right now, he just needed Daniel to show up with the fucking coffees so he could go without embarrassing himself.