“WHAT DO you do for a living?” Cal asked abruptly.
Teo smiled secretively. “I’m… a bit of what you said, actually. I promote Porvunian tourism, in a way. I am a cultural ambassador.”
A nonanswer, but Cal wasn’t surprised. Most of Merc’s friends lived off their family wealth while claiming dubious careers such as social media influencer, entrepreneur, or promoter.
Cal lifted his empty glass, stared mournfully at it for a moment, and set it down again. “Okay, so promote. Suppose I’m not interested in quaint villages, and nature gives me hives. And California has plenty of cultural stuff to keep me busy. Why should I go to Porvunia? What’s there to interest me?”
That got him a cat-ate-the-canary smile that morphed into a full-on flirtation. “I’m there,” Teo said.
Geez. Cal snorted.
The waiter appeared with their plates and, after a bit of ceremony in laying everything out, uncorked the wine and poured a small amount for Teo. After his nod of approval, the waiter filled their glasses, confirmed that all was well, and slipped away.
The food was delicious—and exotic by Cal’s standards. The yellowtail certainly surpassed the fish cuisine of Cal’s childhood, which was mainly fish sticks and tartar sauce, with rare forays into lake trout or catfish. This dish was served with plantain fritters and a tropical fruit sauce. It looked beautiful, tasted like a really good vacation, and had been arranged to perfectly show off the interesting shapes and colors.
“Would you like to try some of my geoduck sashimi?” Teo asked.
Cal eyed the long strips of raw… something. “No, thanks.”
“It’s very good. I enjoy the variety of seafood when I’m here. Porvunia is landlocked, and although we certainly have things flown in, they never seem as fresh.”
“We ate a lot of beef in Nebraska. And pork. What do most people eat in Porvunia?”
“It’s a varied central European cuisine with Italian and Slavic influences.”
Cal didn’t know exactly what that meant, but he nodded.
“Do you like the wine?” Teo asked as he topped off their glasses.
Cal hadn’t paid much attention to the taste. He sipped again and tried to think of words to describe it. “Um, yeah. It’s… crisp? A little like lemons and apricots, but not sweet.”
That seemed to please Teo. “I’m glad you like it. It’s from my family’s vineyards. We primarily grow red varieties, but several years ago my brother opted to expand to a few whites. I think it was a good idea.”
Of course he owned the winery. Cal tried not to roll his eyes. “What do you do when you’re not crushing grapes or telling people how great Porvunia is?”
“Oh, the grapes are my brother’s responsibility. I just enjoy the products.” He took a long sip, then set down his glass. “I spend a lot of time traveling. I enjoy exercising—running and weights, primarily, although I also like to ski and hike. Mostly, though, I’m a student of culture and the arts—both visual and performing.”
In other words, he did the usual rich playboy stuff and made sure he looked good to boot. Cal silently cursed himself. Even though Teo annoyed him, Cal couldn’t help but notice his upper body. He was wearing a lightweight cashmere sweater that would undoubtedly feel heavenly soft against Cal’s skin. The gray-green color highlighted Teo’s eyes, and the sweater fit as if it had been knitted right onto his body. It left no question about his strong pecs and muscular upper arms.
With effort Cal turned his gaze away, and for the first time, he noticed the only other table in view. Two large men sat there, dressed in nearly identical dark suits, white shirts, and navy ties, each with a glass of water and a plate of antipasto in front of him. Instead of sitting across from each other, they were both angled toward Teo and Cal.
“Is your family still in Nebraska?”
Cal returned his focus to Teo and considered his answer. He certainly didn’t want to unload his unhappy background. “My grandmother’s there. She raised me.” There. Short version.
“Do you have the chance to visit her often?”
“Not really.” He missed Gram, but getting to Peril was a pain in the ass, and trips to his hometown dredged up old memories he’d prefer to keep buried.
“Do you have siblings?”
“No.” Not that he knew of, anyway. He supposed his father might have spawned others before or after impregnating and then abandoning Cal’s mother, but since Cal had never met the guy, he had no idea whether half-siblings dotted the landscape. “You have one brother?”
“Three, as a matter of fact. And two sisters. I’m the youngest.”
“It’s somewhat of a tradition for us.”
“Are you guys close?” Don’t sound wistful, Calvin.
Teo hesitated briefly. “Yes, I suppose. We get along well and see one another often, but we’re… well, we’re unusual. Our situation creates constraints that aren’t always ideal.”
For the first time since Cal had met him, some of Teo’s self-assurance slipped, leaving him looking a little sad. Which only increased his attractiveness, dammit. Now Cal wanted to give him a reassuring hug.
But when the waiter reappeared, so did Teo’s easy charm. He continued asking questions, mostly things like what music Cal listened to and what movies he enjoyed. They had some favorites in common, although Teo also liked bands and films Cal had never heard of. Then the discussion turned to travel.
“I went to Paris last year, right after I graduated,” Cal said. “And I’ve been to Chicago and New York. That’s about it, aside from California.”
“You don’t enjoy traveling?”
“No, it’s cool. Just couldn’t afford it until recently. And I’ve been busy.” Cal longed to see some of his favorite artworks in person—and discover new ones—but even now that he had some money, he tended to squirrel it away. Today’s hot new artist could easily become a flash-in-the-pan has-been. “You’ve probably been everywhere, huh?”
“I’ve never visited Nebraska.” Blinding smile. If Teo’s family ever went bankrupt, he could earn a good living modeling for orthodontic or teeth-whitening ads.
“It’s not much of a tourist destination.”
“Maybe. But I believe every place has its own charms and attractions.”
Cal huffed a laugh. “We have cows. Corn if you head to the eastern part of the state.”
“You did a painting of the area near your home, I believe. I like it very much. It’s… haunting. Like a dream one barely remembers but cannot forget.” Teo had leaned forward as he spoke, his expression focused and intent, as if the painting were truly important to him.
“Oh.” Cal slowly let out his breath. He’d titled that piece simply Sandhills. It was an uncomplicated image, a vista of the sun just risen over snow-dusted grassy dunes, with a low-hanging mist bleeding pale orange into the whites, browns, and grays. It was a personal work, and he’d wanted to keep it. But a real estate speculator had offered way too much money for Cal to turn down, so he’d sold it. He hoped the woman hadn’t stuck it in a guest bathroom or something. It was interesting that Teo was aware of that particular painting, and that he’d mentioned it rather than one of Cal’s flashier works.
The waiter cleared away their empty plates and offered dessert menus. Cal wasn’t hungry, and his canvas awaited him, but he didn’t mind gazing at Teo awhile longer. Maybe he’d remember enough later to draw his face. Well, not an exact rendition, which would require at least a photo, but he could capture the essence of him. The strong features and assured expression, the sensual fire that smoldered deep in those multichromatic eyes.
“Tiramisu, please,” Cal told the waiter. “And espresso.”
“I’ll have the same.” After the waiter walked away, Teo dimpled at Cal. “Caffeine this late in the evening. Quite daring of you.”
“I’ll be up late.”
“Oh?” A lifted eyebrow.
Cal rolled his eyes. “Working. I’m a night person. Not a huge fan of painting under artificial lights, but it’s a great time to prep canvases and sketch. It’s when I do most of my household chores too.” He’d open the windows, breathe in the briny air, and listen to waves crash, even if he had to wear an extra sweater to stay warm. It was a peaceful time to get things done, and sometimes he’d stay up until sunrise just to watch the sky change colors. Besides, a long night of work made him less apt to notice the loneliness of his bed when he crawled into it, exhausted.
“I often stay up late as well, especially in the US. It makes the time difference easier to tolerate.”
“Have you been here long on this trip?”
“I arrived this afternoon.”
“What brought you here?”
Teo leaned forward. “This. You. Our date.”
“You came all the way here from Porvunia to have dinner with me.” Cal was skeptical.
“Well, I’ve been in Vienna these past few days, but yes, essentially. I have a flight home tomorrow morning.”
“I disagree. I’ve gone farther than that in pursuit of valuable objectives.”
“Objectives!” Recognizing that his annoyance and incongruent attraction were pushing him to the verge of a noisy tantrum, Cal abruptly slid out of the booth.
Teo stood at once—as did the men at the nearby table, watching intently. “I’m sorry,” Teo said, placing a hand on Cal’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean to insult you. I was just being clumsy with my flirting. Please forgive me.”
Although Cal was tempted to sweep melodramatically out of the restaurant, he’d only end up waiting on the sidewalk for Merc to pick him up, which kind of took the oomph out the gesture. And really, he wasn’t fond of making a scene. Besides, Teo appeared genuinely distressed. Maybe Cal was overreacting. “I need to go the john,” he mumbled.
Apparently relieved, Teo let his hand drop. “All right. But please, I am sorry.” He sat down again—and so did the men in dark suits.
Cal nodded briskly at Teo and stalked to the bathroom. He calmed down slightly while he was inside. But on his way back to the table, he turned a corner and saw the two men standing beside the booth, speaking with Teo. Were they Teo’s bodyguards? Why the fuck would Teo need bodyguards?
Then it struck him. Lots of money. Little sign of a legit job. Family in a weird situation. Far too much self-confidence. Bodyguards.
Holy shit! Was Teo a mobster?