Chapter ONE

A beginning….

CHARLIE’S DOG, Mac, short for Machismo, had been acting rabbitass weird ever since the earthquake rattled the cabin along about eight o’clock that evening, scaring the holy bejeezus out of both him and the dog and jarring two of Charlie’s paintings off the wall before the shaking stopped.

Being a California native transplanted to the Midwest, Charlie was no stranger to earthquakes, but this one had been different. For one thing, what the hell was that eerie glowing light that preceded the tremor by about fifteen seconds, suffusing the cabin in a yellow phosphorescence that looked like something from a fifties horror movie? And for another thing, why had the power gone out, and why was it still out, and why, pray tell, was Charlie feeling like maybe he should get around to organizing his life—or at least his candles—so he could find one when he needed it?

It had been cloudy before the earthquake, so with the power off, visibility was zip. Charlie couldn’t see his hand before his face, and as he stumbled around in the dark fifteen minutes later, still looking for the goddamn candles, he skinned his shin on the coffee table, then stubbed a toe on the magazine rack before walking smack into the living room wall like some sort of moronic mime. As he stepped backward to get his bearings, he managed to go ass over teakettle after tripping on Mac, who let out a yelp like a piano had fallen on him. The poor dog scuttled off to the other side of the room to get out of harm’s way. Charlie picked himself up with a nervous giggle and headed for the bar in the dining room, where even in the dark he knew where the Scotch was, by God, and poured a generous portion of it down his throat straight from the bottle.

As he blinked back 80-proof tears, not for the first time in his life, the power came back on.

Charlie and Mac looked at each other for about three ticks, and Charlie was about to apologize for scaring the dog to death, when the shaking started again. Deciding to ride this one out as best he could, Charlie grabbed for the banister that followed the stairs up to the bedroom loft and braced himself while Mac let out a long, eerie yowl from the living room floor, where he had tucked himself under the coffee table, sending shivers up Charlie’s arms and making his scalp crawl like maybe he had lice or something.

“Jesus, Mac, don’t do that!” he yelled. But by the time he yelled it, the shaking had stopped again. The lights stayed on, thank God, and the night was suddenly silent. Dead silent. No howling insane dog. No crickets. No rattling windows. Nothing.

Charlie let out a sigh of relief, returned the Scotch bottle to the bar (after prying it from his own rigid fingers), and stood there for a moment, waiting for whatever came next. But nothing came. The excitement seemed to be over.

Two minutes later, as Charlie was about to set off in search of a broom (like the candles, he wasn’t exactly sure where that was either) to sweep up the broken glass from where the two paintings had crashed to the floor, the phone rang.

He figured it was either his ex-wife, Judith, asking for more money, or his ex-lover, Jason, asking for a second chance (which would be a fat one), or a telemarketer asking him to invest his hard-earned money in something he was already pretty sure he could live without. He was wrong on all three counts. It was his agent.

“Hey, Picasso! I sold the—”

“Good,” Charlie blithely interrupted. “You know where to send the check.” And with that, he hung up.

He suffered guilt pangs for all of five seconds for being so rude to the man, then completely forgot about it. He dug through the broom closet, which seemed the surest place to find a broom, but of course it wasn’t there, had probably never been there since the day it was knotted together by some underpaid Taiwanese peasant back in the eighties. Then he remembered the broom was in his studio, where he had plucked most of the straws from its head to use in applying tiny specks of color to one of his canvases since none of his brushes seemed to fit the bill quite so nicely for such delicate work. And because he was in no mood to traipse across the backyard to reach his studio and the stupid broom, which was pretty much bald now anyway, Charlie scraped up the broken glass in a dishtowel and shook it into the trash can on the back porch.

As he stood there, breathing in the night air and waiting for Mac to water the dead grass (the dog had to pee after all the excitement, and who could blame him?), Charlie watched the moon peek out from behind the clouds and illuminate the lake that bordered the back of the property.

The shimmering water seemed a little choppier than usual, probably from the earthquake, but Charlie’s small motorboat was still securely tethered to the dock where he had left it, and everything else seemed to be in order. His studio, once a two-car garage before having a thirty-thousand-dollar overhaul, still appeared to be standing. He knew he should be out there right now finishing the paintings he had been commissioned to paint to decorate the outer office of that law firm in the city he could never remember the name of—Swizzle, Pecker, and Jovanovich, or something like that—but he wasn’t in the mood. He hated commissions anyway. He only truly enjoyed painting what he wanted to paint. Having a pack of overpaid and overpompous lawyer types and their equally pompous wives telling him how his canvas needed to match the blue in the carpeting of their six-million-dollar penthouse suite of law offices made his ass pucker every time he thought about it. As he pondered that, he pulled out Charlie Junior and took a whiz off the back stoop while Mac peed on the flower bed, which Jason had planted before their relationship disintegrated into oblivion and which Charlie had subsequently let wither away with neglect. He didn’t own a garden hose, he never knew exactly where Jason had stashed the watering can, and he didn’t much care for flowers anyway unless they were rendered in tempera.

He really did need to get his life in order, but Charlie didn’t figure it would happen tonight, so he whistled for Mac to follow, and the two of them strode back into the cabin, one zipping his fly and the other wagging his tail. Both were as happy as clams to be in each other’s company without the annoying presence of ex-wives or ex-lovers or anybody else to mar the lonely perfection of the evening.

He was settling in before a fire newly lit in the fireplace with the latest Harry Potter book in one hand and a generous dollop of Scotch in the other, in a proper glass this time, when someone knocked at the front door.

Charlie ignored it. So did Mac.

The knock came again, and again Charlie ignored it, but this time Mac set up a wailing yowl that made Charlie’s ass pucker once more, and when whoever it was got tired of knocking and decided to jiggle the doorknob instead, Charlie figured he had better answer it before Mac had a stroke and before the person, obviously determined to gain access, opted to jimmy a window and climb on in. Charlie admired persistence, but not when it was directed at him.

With a groan of annoyance, he set the book and the Scotch on the coffee table, told Mac to please shut the hell up before he rang up a taxidermist and had him stuffed and mounted like Trigger, then headed for the door.

Upon opening it, with Mac excitedly hopping around at his feet as eager to see who was out there as Charlie wasn’t, Charlie’s eyes, previously slit in anger and no small amount of dread, opened considerably wider, and a smile of surprise lit his face.

God knows what he had expected, but it wasn’t this.

The young man, who Charlie had never seen before in his life, beamed a smile back at him, apparently unconcerned that he now stood on Charlie’s doorstep as naked as the day he was born. To Charlie’s practiced eye, he looked damned handsome doing so.

The naked stranger nonchalantly bent to pet the dog, then brushed his long dark hair from his eyes with a strong, brown hand before saying to Charlie, “May I come in?”

 

 

CHARLES ALLEN Strickland—Charlie to his friends and exes, and C. A. Strickland to the art world—had sold his first painting at the age of twelve to his mother for the total sum of seventy-five cents and a batch of Toll House cookies. Now, twenty years later, his work commanded a considerably higher price. His last painting, the one his dealer and agent, Edgar Fosse, had phoned him about earlier in the evening, a supine male nude lying in a field of wildflowers, had been listed at nine grand, and judging by the happy lilt to Fosse’s voice when he called to tell Charlie the news, it had sold for exactly that. If he ever got around to finishing the triptych—three six-by-twelve-foot panels of the Chicago skyline—for Swoozie, Peahen, and Jackass, or whoever the hell they were, Charlie would be receiving the tidy sum of twelve five.

On the average, Charlie produced about ten canvases a year, five of which he considered worthy of sale, two of which he could never bring himself to part with and kept for his own collection, and three that were just plain crap and were consequently painted over. He wasn’t exactly growing rich, but he was doing what he most dearly loved to do, and that was a wonderful position for a man to be in.

As his ex-wife and ex-lover had always told him, he could be twice as productive if he simply got his life in order and simplified his messy existence, and Charlie had accepted their advice and dumped them both, first the wife, then the lover, and it did simplify things, but not enough to make him any more productive. It did, however, make his nonproductive hours more enjoyable. His life was still a mess, of course—he couldn’t even find a broom or a candle, for Christ’s sake. But these were minor inconveniences compared to being nagged and prodded into being something he wasn’t and never would be and didn’t particularly want to be.

Organization, a concept as alien to Charlie as monochromatic art, was low on his list of priorities. His canvases, like his life, were wildly splashed with color and chaos, and as in his life, he refused to paint within the lines. There were no borders in his art and few borders anywhere else in his existence, sexually or otherwise. He enjoyed men and women equally, although lately he was beginning to understand he really needed neither, not on a continual basis, at least. His painting was his passion. The desires of his body were secondary to his need to paint, although sometimes Charlie Junior did raise his head (literally) and protest that decision.

And now, staring at this gorgeous young man with the sweet smile and luscious body standing nude on his doorstep, Charlie could sense Charlie Junior was having second thoughts yet again.

The fact that the stranger had come out of the night like some sort of visiting angel was not lost on Charlie, and while the young man now stared at him with innocently inquisitive eyes, waiting for a response to his question, Charlie could also sense that maybe the kid knew what sort of thoughts were suddenly stampeding through Charlie’s mind. Thoughts, shall we say, of a less than an angelic nature.

With an effort of will, Charlie trained his eyes on that innocent, stunning face and tried to limit their wanderings downward as he ushered his visitor inside.

Mac, never particularly good with strangers, was all but slobbering all over himself. He had a sappy grin on his doggy face and his tail was going a mile a minute as the young man stepped over the threshold and crossed the room to stand before the fireplace, hands out, absorbing the heat.

The young man’s nudity seemed of little concern to him.

“You’re cold,” Charlie said. “Let me get you something to put on.”

He found his bathrobe on the floor of his bedroom, where he had dropped it earlier after showering the paint from his body, and lugged it to the living room to drape it solicitously over his visitor’s shoulders.

The young man shrugged his arms into the sleeves, pulled it snug around his body, and only then turned away from the fire and, much to Charlie’s surprise, reached out a warm hand to touch Charlie’s cheek and say, “Thank you.”

For the first time, Charlie truly studied the face before him. It was a kind face. Heart-stoppingly handsome. Dark warm eyes studied Charlie back with no hint of embarrassment or reserve, as if the young man knew why he was there, even if Charlie did not. Long black lashes any woman in the world would have happily killed for sprang from around deep brown eyes so open and untouched by reticence or doubt. A shock of black hair fell over his wide forehead, swaying across his riveting eyes as the young man once again stooped to give Mac a friendly scratch. Then, absently pushing his hair from his forehead with long, elegant fingers, Charlie’s visitor stood upright and settled his shoulders into a comfortable stance. He gazed at Charlie with a slight smile that transformed his sweet face into a thing of utter beauty.

Charlie tore his eyes from that perfect face long enough to gesture to the sofa and say, “Won’t you sit?”

“Thank you,” the young man said again and, gently nudging Mac aside, stepped around the coffee table and lowered himself to the sofa. The long robe slid open in the front, exposing well-formed legs that were tightly muscled and only sparsely sprinkled with dark hair. He patted the seat beside him and said, “Join me. Please.”

As if coming out of a trance, Charlie began to realize how strange this whole scenario truly was, but he plopped himself down beside the stranger nevertheless, and before he could ask the young man where the hell he had come from and what in God’s name he was doing there, knocking on his door stark naked in the middle of the night, his visitor said, “You can paint me if you like.”

“Uh… thank you,” Charlie said. “But how did you know I paint?”

The young man looked around the room at the canvases stacked against every wall and then looked pointedly at Charlie’s fingernails, which were permanently splotched with just about every color in the rainbow no matter how hard he tried to clean them, and Charlie realized the young man didn’t really have to answer his question, and in fact he didn’t. Charlie also realized for the first time that the young man was exactly right. He did want to paint him. He wanted to capture that perfect innocence on canvas, if his talents would allow him to do so. He also realized he wouldn’t mind capturing the young man on bedsheets either, but perhaps that was moving forward a little too quickly even for him.

He reached out, took a long pull from his glass of Scotch, set the glass carefully back onto the coffee table, and said, “Who the hell are you, anyway? Where did you come from and where are your clothes and how did you find yourself on my doorstep and how did you know I would like to paint you even though I don’t know anything else about you? I’m beginning to think maybe I should know some of these things since you’re sitting in my living room in my bathrobe, and I feel like this is the most natural thing in the world to be doing, but in the back of my mind, I know it isn’t. In fact, it’s bugshit awkward. Or should be.”

“I won’t harm you,” the visitor said, grinning at Charlie’s long speech. “You needn’t be afraid of me.”

“I’m not,” Charlie said, knowing it was true.

Then, as if someone had slipped him a mickey, Charlie felt his eyes grow heavy, and around a barely stifled yawn, he heard himself say, “You can sleep here if you want. I’ll get you a blanket. Stay by the fire where it’s warm.”

“Only if you stay with me,” the young man said.

“All right.”

Before any of his questions were answered, Charlie stretched his long legs along the length of the sofa and the young man snuggled in alongside him, draped one arm across Charlie’s chest, tucked his head into the warmth of Charlie’s shoulder, and watched the fire for a moment before allowing his eyes to close.

Together they slept, with Mac snoring softly at their feet, as the fire popped and cracked and eventually died away to embers on the grate.