I fell back into the soft sheets beneath me, panting. “That was good.”
Beside me, Stewart chuckled. “Glad to know I can still please you.”
Rolling over to face him, I brushed my russet hair out of my eyes. “As if that is ever in doubt,” I said, nuzzling into his side. Stewart had a broader frame than myself, though not taller, and it didn’t matter if some of his muscle had become a little soft around the middle, I adored burrowing into him.
“That Sapphire the other night was a pleasant surprise. I wonder if he’ll return to the House again. Then Charles and the others could really have some fun with him.”
I ignored his words and kissed Stewart’s chest. Then paused. “I suppose if he comes back I’ll have to thank him properly for eating out my ass so well. Though being a Jewel House virgin he technically wasn’t supposed to penetrate me with his tongue, I’m surprised the stuffed shirt actually broke the rules and thrust his tongue in! then again, my ass is amazing!”
Stewart laughed and I poked his side, making him yelp. We’d been having nights at the House for a little over a year now, and I wondered how much longer we could indulge ourselves. It was fun and exciting, and because we were together and Stewart knew I’d give him his money back, he could bid crazy amounts for me to secure me for the night. The House took a cut, of course, but it was worth it. And even though someone else still could bid for me, I wouldn’t have accepted anyone else. Jewels had a right to turn any clients down.
The thrill of the Jewel House could be intoxicating, but that dynamic wasn’t the kind of relationship Stewart wanted. I told myself it didn’t matter to me… I wasn’t sure how long I could keep convincing myself of that, however.
“Not leaving already, surely?” Stewart said as I rose from his bed. He reached for me, but I slipped aside. “You sly little fox.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re ridiculous.” Dipping a small towel into the bedside basin, I wiped myself clean then tossed him the cloth. He yelped as the cold wetness touched his belly, but he got his revenge in the next moment. Lifting his arms above his head he stretched out, putting his smooth, dark torso on display. That just wasn’t playing fair.
“You prefer I call you ‘Ruby’?”
“No!” I huffed, pulling on my shirt and buttoning it up. I didn’t mind my Jewel House name, and I did adore exhibitionism, but when we’d just shared a night alone, I wanted to think of other things.
“It’s not a working day,” he pouted. Lord, he had the most gorgeous lips. Full and currently wet.
“You’re right. That means I can paint today.”
“Ahh.” He smiled now, and I wanted to roll my eyes again. When we’d first met two years before, I hadn’t planned on revealing my work to him, but he’d found a way of slipping into my life and past my defenses before I realized it. Other men, and the occasional woman, who I’d had affairs with grew annoyed that my art always came before them. Not Stewart. He was the real gem, not I.
Although… I sometimes worried that he romanticized my role as “artist” a bit too much. He hadn’t grown up in Capital City, as I had. His parents had come from a country across the sea, a place that valued art, whomever the artist was. However, in New Benzary? Who you, or your family, or your mother was, was all that mattered. I often had the feeling matters must’ve been different centuries ago. Perhaps before the war. Yet what did that matter? History wouldn’t change my current situation.
Belatedly, I noticed Stewart had gone silent. I found him staring at me. “What?”
His muscular shoulders shrugged, but I wasn’t fooled. “Out with it,” I pressed. He sighed in return.
“Promise you won’t be angry,” he said.
“That would be ridiculous to do before I even know what this concerns.”
“You use the word ‘ridiculous’ too often.”
“Oh, alright, alright. I may have, er, spoken to someone related to the Galleries about your work…”
Rather than angry, I was left confused. “I’m not Benzarian. They only showcase Benzarian artists. Everyone knows that. I suppose you can choose to waste your time, but—”
“Oh, my little fox has been in his den too long. Haven’t you heard there is a new representative for the Galleries?”
“Maybe you’ve been dragging me to a certain jeweled den too often lately, hmm? And no, I hadn’t heard. I assume he’s Benzarian?”
“Well, yes, but—”
I waved him off as I sat to pull up my socks. “Waste of your time.”
He put his hand on my arm, stopping my motions. “Rua. Be serious a moment. This is important.”
“Why?” I knew I was being difficult, so what?
“Because this rep supports non-Benzarian artists—specializes in them, in fact.”
The bright spike of hope that lanced my heart was too much. No, it would lead to disappointment. Be practical, little Rua.
Looking down at my shoes, I shook my head. “That doesn’t mean he’ll see me.”
“No more, Stew,” I told him, in my end-of-the-conversation voice. Leaning down, I kissed his cheek and stepped toward the door. “I’ll send you a note.” And I was off.
It was earlier in the day than I would usually be up on a free day. The sun hadn’t risen above the double-story buildings quite yet, and the shadows were still chill. The streets were being cleaned of the banter, celebration, and drunkenness of the night before. In the air was an odd mixture of alcohol, piss, fresh flowers, and fresh fish—and perfume. I grinned at Mother Violet’s Perfumery shop just across the street. I did so adore that Stewart lived so close to it. My family had gone on trips to the countryside when I’d been a child, and I dearly missed the scent of fields of wildflowers. Perfume didn’t really do them justice—too cloying for my taste, though I would never tell her that.
Walking on, I hopped between loose stones and mud as I made my way across the bustling neighborhood and entered my own, the ‘Artist’s Gallows’ as it was charmingly known. The area was south of Gaylord Street and further west, closer to the docks. Irreputable or not, I felt comfortable here. Mostly.
I was lucky enough to have my own apartment, small but clean, and on the second story. Most importantly, it had good light, as the windows faced a wide street with single-story buildings that didn’t block the sun.
There was more crime in the area, and Stewart wasn’t fond of me living there, but it was my own, I had worked hard for this space, and it was my sanctuary. Stripping of my coat and cravat, I rolled up my sleeves and pulled out a fresh canvas.
I groaned. So much for sanctuary.
Stepping over to the door, I creaked it open and a bright blue eyes in a deep brown face sparkled up at me. “Morning, Marl,” I told him. “I’m working.”
“This early?” he asked, obviously baffled. “Open up, I baked and I know you haven’t eaten.”
I wasn’t getting out of this. “Fine.” Opening the door, Marl squeezed in between the door, canvas, and paints to the small counter that served as my kitchen.
“Just wait ‘til you taste these! Better than any meat in your mouth,” He said with a wink and a wiggle of his lean hips. Oh, Marl. He was incorrigible. Though one couldn’t blame him. He’d been born in a Benzarian household, but it had been obvious upon his birth that his father hadn’t been of the blood. Though I’d never gotten the whole story, I believe he’d said once he’d been raised by his true father, or his father’s sister. Someday maybe I’d hear the full tale.
“Open wide!” Marl said with a grin, pushing a muffin towards my mouth. Grabbing it, I broke off a piece, and my eyes went wide. “That’s spectacular!”
“Of course it is!”
With a chuckle, I finished the rest of the nut and berry muffin and listened to Marl rant. He always had a good yarn to spin. Soon enough, however, I had to shoo him out. He’d stay all day if I let him.
“I must work now.” I patted his back and guided him towards the door.
“Painting isn’t “work” for you. That’s why you have that boring office job doing accounts for Stewart, I mean Mr. Hops.”
Rolling my eyes, I opened my door and nudged him—as politely as possible—through the doorway. “Goodbye, Marley. Thank you for the muffins.”
With a groan he stepped out, but quickly turned to face me. “You used my full name just so I’d be mad and leave!”
“Later, Marl.” Closing the door, I heard a huff, then footsteps, and thankfully I was finally alone.
Setting up paints, palettes, brushes, cleaning rags, and all the rest always took more time than I anticipated, or wanted. Eventually, however, I was set and began painting. Well, sketching first, really. I had to get the basic idea roughly on the canvas first. This prep step took far too long, in my opinion, even if necessary. If I’d been using a different medium, maybe it could have been quicker, though I doubted it. I preferred oil paints, which could be done layer upon layer, meaning it didn’t matter if I decided to change something later, I could simply paint over that section—or somehow blend it in.
I adored how flexible oils could be, how they could lead an artist in directions they never anticipated. A stroke here or there blended in a new way, or one’s fingers led the brush into a different color, a different angle. Such unexpected changes were the true beauty of art, at least for myself.
When I worked, the paint, the brush, the muses all wrapped around me and perhaps I forgot other matters, such as meals, or the outside world in general. When another knock came at the door, I cursed, finished my stroke, and grumbled to the door.
“What is—Stewart?” I blinked.
He lifted a hand, a sandwich box in hand. Resigned, I stepped back to let him in. “I’d rather keep working through lunch. You can set that on the counter,” I said, moving back to sit before the easel.
“I thought as much,” Stewart replied, “that’s why I waited until supper to come by.”
“Huh?” Reluctantly, I looked up, noticing for the first time how low the sun’s position in the sky. “Oh.”
“Eat. Even little foxes need food.”
I pursed my lips in irritation, but was betrayed by my own body as my stomach growled.
“Your insufferable.” But I stood and grabbed the small wooden box.
“So you say,” he chuckled.
The food was gone in record time and I muttered a “thank you” because I’d needed the meal. He knew me too well.
Before I could move back in front of the canvas, Stewart caught my wrist. “We’re back to the office tomorrow.”
Sighing, I nodded. “I know.”
Stewart frowned. “I actually enjoy the structure of going there and organizing all the shipments, and you’re damn good with the accounts, but you still don’t enjoy it, do you?”
Another sigh escaped me. “No—but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate that I was hired there. The money allows me to buy all this.” I swept my hand over the jumble of canvases and paint supplies.
“But you could take another route.”
It was hard to refuse him when those beautiful dark eyes of his held mine. Someday I would paint him, or at least sketch him. I’d show him how lovely he was, the self-conscious, gorgeous idiot.
“That route is a dead end and you know it,” I told him, but I didn’t let go of his hand.
“I just told you today there is the new rep at the Galleries. What is the harm in trying?”
Oh, there could be harm in it, though I refrained from saying it aloud. I wasn’t that I didn’t believe in myself or my work, but words didn’t need to be true to sting. I had enough experience to know that at least. Childhood bullying over being labeled a “foreign, sissy bastard” wasn’t a valid reason for side-stepping opportunities as an adult, but it certainly didn’t make it easier.
“You’re right, of course.” I looked up at him. “That doesn’t mean I want this interview, though.”
“Rua… Come now, why not?”
“Perhaps I’m a coward,” I replied with a shrug. “I’d rather have hope to look forward to than have them crushed.”
Shaking his head, he reached a hand to stroke my face. “You are such a fatalist.”
“Well, you’d best get past that. I’ve already made an appointment for you. The rep has seen your work and wants to speak with you.”
Shoving him, I snapped. “What?! Sneaky bastard.”
All he did was laugh and grab hold of me while I squirmed and pretended to fight. I should’ve been genuinely angered that he’d been so heavy-handed, so why wasn’t I?
“Fiery little fox,” he chuckled, nudging me up against the wall. “Say you’ll go.”
Refusing, I simply pouted up at him.
“You know I love to bite those pouty lips.”
Rolling my eyes, I fought a grin. His head dipped to my neck. “Say it.”
“You’re a sneaky bastard?”
I earned a sharp nip for that. “Stewart…”
Straightening, he sobered. “Do you really not wish to go?”
Did I? Drawing in a breath, I shrugged. “I know it sounds simpleminded, but I can’t see any Benzarian taking me serious as an artist. Even if this rep of yours does, what about the audience?”
Stewart saw right through me. His hands came up to frame my face. “I wish I’d met you when we were younger. I would’ve punched the mouth of anyone who spoke badly of you.”
I had to chuckle. “Even the girls?”
“You went to school with women?”
With a soft snort, he bent down to nuzzle my ear. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
I shook my head and grinned. “That I can believe.” I bit my lip. “Though I may need some enticing.” He looked up at the wall behind me. “Do you think this wall can withstand us fucking against it again?”
“I think there’s already a crack in the ceiling…”
“Guess there’s only one way to find out if we can make it worse—before you move out after selling a fortune in your art, that is.”
I broke into a laugh. Ridiculous. “You’re incorrigible.”
Stewart grinned back at me. “You like me that way.”
Wrapping my arms about his neck, I gave him a soft kiss. “Maybe.”