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By E. J. Russell, Theresa Marie Cole
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 E. J. Russell
All rights reserved.
Holy shit on a palette knife.
Surrounded by a menagerie of chainsaw sculptures in North Coast Gallery's dingy atrium, Luke Morgenstern gazed at the painting and forgave his anonymous client everything: the bogus secrecy, the white-knuckled drive on substandard roads, even the relentless damp of late October in Oregon.
Because Jesus. An Arcoletti. An actual, honest-to-God, genuine fake Arcoletti. Luke's personal Holy Grail of art fraud.
He pulled out his cell phone and texted Mystery Client. I'm in.
Good old M.C. responded with a link to a map resembling a diagram of the large intestine. Luke's grip on his cell phone tightened. A road that tortuous screamed mountain. He rubbed his hip to ease the never-absent ache, tempted to back out, hop the next plane back to Sarasota, and tag Mystery Client with a Screw you and your games. Find another art investigator.
His thumbs hovered over the keypad. Two years ago, he'd have sent that arrogant text — or worse. But two years ago, he'd had his pick of plum jobs all over Europe. Now, his anemic bank account shared dwindling life support with his battered reputation.
But the memory of Jean-Pierre's parting taunt, his voice mocking as only the pain-free and stupidly confident could be, was the kicker that made Luke tuck the phone in his coat pocket. Afraid of a little hill? Did you break your balls as well as your leg? You are not the man you were, cher.
But an Arcoletti, damn it. Mountain or no mountain, switchbacks or no switchbacks, it was the one lure he couldn't resist.
And bum leg or no bum leg, he'd prove to the skeptical art world that he could still kick major forger ass.
Stefan peered out the cabin window, hands balled in the pockets of his sweatshirt, willing Thomas to emerge from the studio. The man had been inside there for twenty minutes, each second ticked off by the camelback clock on the sideboard and the skitter of Stefan's nerves.
The studio door opened and Stefan leaned forward, balancing on the balls of his bare feet, his fingernails jabbing his palms. Please. God, please. But when Thomas stepped out into the drizzle and frowned at the sky, brushing at the shoulders of his black duster, he was empty-handed. Stefan sank onto his heels, shoulders slumped, and let his forehead fall against the chilly windowpane with a thump.
He slid his left hand out of his pocket and uncurled it. In the gray light, a splotch of cobalt winked at him from the crease at the base of his ring finger, a sly flicker hinting he'd done more last night than simply pass out. Stupid of him to believe a spot of paint.
At the first slap of Thomas's shoes on the porch, Stefan opened the door, tugging it past the warped spot on the floor, then stood aside like an unkempt butler.
Thomas took one look at him and laughed. "Good morning, Merry Sunshine. A bit hung over, are we?"
"Maybe. I don't know." Stefan didn't remember drinking, although a bender might explain why his eyes burned and his skull felt too small to contain his brain. Headache didn't begin to describe it.
Thomas sailed past Stefan, trailing a too-heavy cloud of L'Homme. The scent didn't blend well with the smoke from the wood stove or the inescapable smell of paint solvent clinging to Stefan's clothing. Thomas's scarf, fringed silk in delicate lemon, mocked his pale blond hair, turning it drab and colorless, although it complemented the pastel pink of his bald spot.
Stefan dropped his gaze to the floor and contemplated his bare toes while contempt warred with gratitude in his chest. If it weren't for his chance encounter with Thomas, who'd remembered him from one of Marius's gallery galas, Stefan would still be living in his dead car in the parking lot behind Karla's Krab Korner, waiting for those Vegas goons to extract from his flesh what they couldn't get from his wallet. Thomas's unexpected offer of patronage, complete with studio, room, board, and unlimited art supplies, had seemed like a gift from the art gods.
But with each visit to the cabin, Thomas borrowed one more trick, one more affectation, from Marius. Marius's cologne. Marius's coat. Marius's scarf color, for God's sake. As if he were auditioning for the part of Marius now that Marius was dead and couldn't fill the role himself.
"Hair of the dog?" Thomas held up the bottle of Scotch from the sideboard.
Stefan's stomach rebelled at the suggestion. "God, no."
"Groceries are on the porch. Here's your mail." Thomas pulled a handful of envelopes out of the inner pocket of his coat and tossed them onto the kitchen island counter. "I stowed the art supplies in the studio. Good thing I made it up here today. You were getting low."
Stefan's breath caught. Supplies. He'd used supplies. "Did you ... was there ..." Ask him, you cowardly piece of shit. "Did you like ... it?"
"The new painting? Yes, indeed." Thomas's round face creased in a smile.
Stefan took his first deep breath of the day. The studio held a painting. He clenched his left fist around the tiny blot of blue that hadn't lied after all. "I wasn't sure if anything —" He coughed to cover his near-confession. "I mean, if it was ready. You didn't bring it out."
"It's dry. Ready to go. But I didn't want to carry it outside in the rain. I've got some waterproof wraps in the Caddy. I'll pull around and collect it before I go." Thomas patted Stefan's shoulder and Stefan forced himself not to pull away. "Don't worry. I'm sure we'll sell something soon."
Stefan didn't flinch at the condescension in Thomas's tone. Hell, he'd jettisoned his pride on his first visit to a pawn shop. "I'll pay you back first thing. For the supplies, the food, the rent. Everything."
"I'm sure we'll work something out." Thomas chuckled and gave Stefan's shoulder another squeeze. "As they say, I know where you live." He pulled on a pair of leather driving gloves. Marius's brand. "Could you manage two more by the end of next week?"
Stefan's belly roiled at the idea of entering the studio. He squeezed his fist tighter, clutching the stray dot of paint like a talisman. "I ... don't know. I'll try."
"Excellent. I have big, big plans for November." Thomas waggled his nearly-invisible eyebrows and bustled out. Ten minutes later, his black Cadillac purred past the cabin on the way down the hill.
Shivering in the damp chill of the morning, the wooden slats of the porch rough against his feet, Stefan asked himself what he would do if Thomas took that last step into Marius's empty shoes and added Marius's lover to his list of must-have accessories. He clamped his lips shut against a surge of nausea. Man up, Stefan. You'll do what you must. You owe him whatever he cares to ask for. Because thanks to Thomas, Stefan was finally painting again.
Even if he couldn't remember a single brushstroke.CHAPTER 2
Luke swallowed against the dryness in his throat, the steep rise of the road in front of his rental car sending him back two years to the hillside in Italy that had derailed his life — to the hours spent in the crumpled Fiat, metal ticking in the descending chill of the night, pain like fire in his thigh and hip, as he prayed for someone, anyone, to find him.
He flexed his fingers and took a firm grip on the steering wheel, the gearshift, and his fricking neuroses. It was only a mountain, for God's sake, an inanimate geological formation. Impossible for it to harbor some hidden evil agenda. He put the car in gear and crept up the first incline, the needle of his speedometer barely quivering above zero.
A big-ass black car barreled past him one hairpin curve up the hill and nearly blew his mid-sized rental off the road. He blotted the sweat off his upper lip with the back of his hand. Shit. Next time, he'd spring for the full-sized model. Hell, the biggest SUV on the lot. Then he'd load the trunk with rocks.
Nearly two hours later, he nosed the car up the last rise and parked at the edge of a rough plateau. The odometer swore he'd only driven seven miles. Luke swore back and escaped from the car, gulping in lungfuls of damp air laced with the tang of pine.
He leaned on the hood while his heart rate returned to normal and checked out the forger's setup. A post-and-pier log cabin stood off-center in a clearing ringed by shaggy evergreens. Fifty feet beyond the cabin, nearly at the forest's edge, was another structure, twice as long and half as wide, like a single-gabled house sliced in half down the roof line, with high and low banks of windows on the taller north side. Typical artist's studio, although Luke hadn't seen a telephone pole or transformer tower for miles. This whole place had to be off the grid.
A survivalist forger. Outstanding.
Matte black solar panels covered the south-facing roof slope on both buildings. Luke shot a glance at the cloud cover and spitting rain. Yeah, good luck with that. The long white lozenge of a propane tank behind the cabin and the generator behind the studio suggested Survivalist Forger wasn't a total moron. He had his backup power plan in place.
A curl of smoke drifted out of the cabin's chimney pipe, but no vehicle stood in the patch of weedy gravel in front of the shed-roofed porch. Could Survivalist Forger have been the homicidal driver who'd nearly sent Luke hurtling over the edge of the road? Unlikely. That shiny black tank didn't match these less-than-luxurious accommodations. But how else did the guy get around? Mountain bike? Pack mule? Broomstick?
He crossed the clearing under the goggle-eyed stare of the cabin's uncurtained windows, fir trees closing behind him like a ragged green cage, and mounted the sagging porch steps. The rough-hewn, unpainted door had no deadbolt or doorknob lock, and he offered a brief prayer that Survivalist Forger didn't rely on a blue-ribbon gun collection for security.
Luke knocked on the door: three sedate raps. See? I can be polite. Even to lying, cheating, scum-sucking art forgers. No response, as he expected. He raised his fist to indulge in a little cathartic door-pounding, because really, who'd complain? The raucous crows circling the clearing? The soggy squirrels eyeing him from the trees? But before he let fly, he heard the pad of feet approaching from inside.
The door creaked open, then stuck halfway on an uneven patch in the floor. "Thomas, you don't have to knock." A long fingered hand grasped the edge of the door and tugged.
Luke's stomach swooped at the sound of that voice, at the shape of that hand, and he nearly launched himself off the porch.
Shitfuckgoddamnsonofabitch. He was going to kill Mystery Client.
His Survivalist Forger was Stefan Cobb.
The door unstuck, leaving Luke face-to-face with his ex-lover for the first time in seven years. He didn't know whether to cry, yell, or run like hell.
Stefan's eyes widened and his mouth opened on a quick inhale. With his broad forehead under shaggy hair the color of brown sugar, his prominent cheekbones and those eyes, still the same blue as the Gulf beneath Luke's balcony window, he looked like an orphaned Siamese kitten.
"Luke?" Stefan's voice was a rough whisper, half wonder and half fearful disbelief. Before Luke could react, Stefan lunged and trapped him in a clinch.
With Stefan's arms wrapped tight around his ribs, the run like hell option was off the table, but Luke kept his back straight, his chin up, and his fists clenched at his sides, because, ex-lover or not, Stefan Cobb could very well be a lying, cheating, scum-sucking art forger.
But Stefan's breath hitched and he pressed a damp cheek against Luke's neck.
Luke's hands crept to the small of Stefan's back, while the same poisonous inner voice that had triggered his exit all those years ago whispered, Who's Thomas?
A dozen questions raced through Stefan's mind while he hung onto Luke like a freaking leaking barnacle: chief among them, How did you find me?, followed closely by, What took you so long? But he trapped them all behind his teeth because they no longer mattered. Not with Luke in his arms again. Stefan raised his head and angled his face for a kiss, but Luke tilted his chin far enough to make it awkward.
Ooookay, then. The lovers-reunited-at-last scenario wasn't an option, but Luke was here. Finally. That had to count for something.
Stefan backed into the cabin, his gaze never leaving Luke's face. He gestured for Luke to follow, then stumbled on the edge of the area rug.
Heat rushed up his neck, clear up to his hairline, but Luke didn't laugh or raise an eyebrow or comment on Stefan's legendary clumsiness as he once would have. Instead, he shoved his hands in the pockets of his pea coat and studied the interior of the cabin as if there'd be a test later.
He looked everywhere except at Stefan. At the open-beam ceiling festooned with cobweb swags. At the clothesline stretched down the hallway, sagging under Stefan's ratty laundry. At the sofa, its oxblood leather cracked and veined with the dirty white of ancient bones.
Stefan's face burned hotter, shame writhing like snakes in his belly. Juxtaposed with Luke, in his pressed khaki trousers and navy wool coat, the crisp waves of his dark hair beaded with rain, the cabin looked depressingly squalid.
"Interesting place." Luke's voice had an odd inflection, as if he were both accusing and questioning. "More rustic than your usual style."
Stefan shrugged and retreated behind the kitchen island. "It has indoor plumbing and a roof." Two up from some of the places he'd stayed since Marius died. "I'm good."
Luke grunted, lips flat-lined and a deep groove between his brows. He walked across the room, catching his heel on the same rough spot in the rug that had tripped Stefan. The stumble robbed him of his old predatory grace. He caught himself on the island and winced, the fleeting pinch of pain disrupting his perma-scowl.
"Are you okay?" Stefan reached toward him but dropped his hand when Luke drew away, his attention focused on the scatter of mail on the counter. He tilted his head to read an envelope, hazel eyes narrowing.
Crap. The collection notice. Stefan shuffled the mail into a messy pile and dumped it in the drawer of the battered roll-top desk. "Sorry. Wasn't expecting company."
Luke pointed at the drawer. "'Cobbe'? When'd you pick up the trailing 'e'?"
"Marius's idea. He thought it made me sound less bourgeois."
"Well, yeah. That was part of his charm."
Luke's scowl returned, darker and deeper. Stefan should have kept his mouth shut. Made something up. Said it was a typo. Luke had never been rational when it came to Marius. He opened his mouth to apologize, to change the subject, but Luke beat him to it.
He jerked his chin at the oil hurricane lantern and the low-wattage fluorescent lamp flickering on the sideboard. "That solar shit really work?"
Christ. Luke Morganstern, King of Avoidance. Stefan fought the urge to roll his eyes. If Luke had ever really talked about his resentment of Marius instead of burying it under a pile of stoic he-man bullshit, he might have never walked out.
Fine. He could play this game. God knows, he'd had enough practice back in the day. "Well enough. Keeps me out of the dark."
Luke whirled, a muscle ticking in his jaw, and finally looked Stefan in the face.
"Jesus, Stefan. What the hell are you thinking?"CHAPTER 3
Luke's blood beat in his temples, his professional fury hopelessly tangled with his personal horror. Stefan had always been lean, but he'd never been gaunt. Not like this. Back at the conservatory, he'd supplemented his scholarship by modeling for the life drawing classes, his proportions perfect. Muscles smooth. Defined, but not outrageously cut.
Now, with his cheekbones thrown into greater relief by the dark hollows under their crests and his stomach almost concave under his shrunken thermal Henley, the only thing he could model for would be a public service poster on eating disorders or, Godpleaseno, the consequences of unsafe sex in the days before antiretrovirals.
Was this why Stefan had resorted to forging? Desperation? Luke lurched forward. Stefan's eyes widened and he sucked in a breath, a hand rising as if to ward off the crazy man having a meltdown in his kitchen.
"Do you even have a phone?" Luke's voice grated on his own ears, harsh and over-loud. "I lost cell reception miles from this fricking mountain."
Stefan's forehead puckered. "I've got a sat phone, but it only works if I take it down the hill and get clear of the tree-cover. Do you need to make a call?"
Excerpted from Northern Light by E. J. Russell, Theresa Marie Cole. Copyright © 2013 E. J. Russell. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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