Artist Kellus Hardin let love and loyalty cloud his past decisions, a mistake he definitely won’t make again. Now, lost and alone, he’s left to pick up the shattered pieces of his broken heart while facing the truth of his reality.Arik Layne exudes power, confidence, and determination. But when an encounter with the guarded artist shakes him to the core and alters all his future goals, he finds more than just his heart on the line.
For Kellus, opening himself to love isn’t an option.All Arik wants is to make the artist his.Can love create a masterpiece when it’s painted on your heart?
The shrill ring of his phone should have startled him awake, but Kellus Hardin was just too damn tired to do much more than roll in the direction of the irritating sound and throw a hand out to half-ass search around his mattress for the device. When he came up empty handed, he managed to turn the other way and do the same. By the time his exhausted sleep-hazed brain identified the phone wasn’t anywhere around him, he heard the chirp indicating a voice mail. He cracked an eyelid and lifted his head enough to look over at the alarm clock. Four thirty in the morning. Seriously? Nothing good could come from a call that time of night. He collapsed back to the bed with an annoyed groan. He’d been asleep less than an hour after working the fifteen before on the pieces he had due for the art gallery opening.
“Fuck,” he growled out, turning over again. He tucked a soft pillow into his side and decided he’d deal with that call in the morning. His exhausted state gave a solid thumbs-up on the plan, and he easily drifted back to sleep. What had to be a mere second later, the ringing started again. Stupid cell phone.
Kellus threw the covers away from his body and darted off the bed, angrier than he’d been in a very long time. He was fucking tired—tired of his fucked-up life and tired of this motherfucker who wouldn’t leave him the fuck alone.
With a vengeance, he zeroed in on the location of the noise. He marched to his laundry basket by the bedroom door and began tearing through the clothes to find the stupid phone, no doubt still inside his paint-spattered coveralls where he’d dropped it not fifty-three minutes ago before he’d finally managed to crawl into bed.
Palming the device, he glared at the caller ID. John. Of course. Who else would call in the middle of the fucking night?
“What?” he shouted as he connected the call.
“Come get him.” A deep masculine voice with a Spanish accent had him pulling the phone from his ear to look down at the screen in confusion.
Wait. Great. Even fucking better—John’s dealer.
“No,” he said firmly as he stood tall and fisted his free hand at his side. His chest bowed in defiance as if the guy on the other end of the phone were right there in his darkened bedroom. “You give him that shit, you deal with him.”
The harsh laugh on the other end of the line held what might have been genuine amusement. “I deal with him and it won’t end well.” The line went dead. Kellus shoved his fingers through his hair to help push the long strands out of his eyes.
“Fuck!” he bellowed to the empty room, spinning in a complete circle, gripping his phone in his hand and punching his fist through the air. Thank God he was alone, because if anybody had witnessed that little outburst he’d have been carted off to the nearest mental facility. He was just so fucking sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Breath heaving as anger and dread coursed through his veins, Kellus stood there, staring absently at his bed. The fatigue of the day settled heavy on his shoulders. He had responsibilities. He couldn’t take on more of John’s bullshit. He jammed the heels of his palms against his tired eyes and released an exhausted sigh. After so many hours holding a brush for the fine details of his painting, his hands cramped with the movement, and the muscles in his neck and back protested the long hours he’d put in today. He needed sleep. More than the fifty-three minutes he’d gotten.
“I’m not fucking doing this again. I warned him the last time. I made it clear. No more!” Kellus sliced the hand still holding his cell through the air with finality. With that decision made, he stalked across the room and tossed his phone on the nightstand. He climbed back in his bed, whipping the covers over his exhausted body.
He hadn’t heard from John in six days.
Six glorious, productive, happy days.
Staring up at the ceiling, unable to get his mind to shut off, he told himself he’d made the right decision. John needed to stay away. Kellus forced his eyelids closed. At this point, he’d still get a few good hours sleep before he had to start his day. The longer he lay there, the more guilt crept in.
It always did.
Images of his best friend came to mind. Happier times. Memories of his and John’s younger days and all the trouble they’d managed to get into. Those thoughts actually calmed his breathing. His mind drifted to the summer of their senior year. He hadn’t thought about that time in so long. He and John had gone to the lake with some friends. A healthy, glowing, handsome John had teased him unmercifully until he had finally agreed to skinny dip…
“Fuck!” Kellus whipped off the covers and rose, angry and worried.
He couldn’t leave John in that place.
Kellus stopped dead center in his bedroom, fuming; he was so pissed at himself, at his own indecision, at John. What the fuck was wrong with him? John had destroyed both their lives, shit on him over and over with absolutely no regard for his feelings whatsoever. He’d lost everything because of John. He swore he’d never do this again.
But he couldn’t leave John there.
Dejected, Kellus ran a frustrated hand over his face, sighed, then went for his closet to dress.
Topping out at max speed, Arik Layne flew down the Dallas North Tollway. Being the only one on the highway might have been the only benefit of flying home in the middle of the night from his Escape Del Mar property.
God, he was past exhausted.
Less than five minutes later, Arik parked and wearily made his way through the private entrance of his downtown Dallas high-rise, shrugging out of his hand-tailored suit jacket before he reached the elevator. At the elevator, he tossed the garment over his arm and entered his exclusive security code into the wall-mounted keypad, effectively locking the car for his personal use. The doors opened immediately. The technology didn’t require him to do anything more than step inside before the doors closed and the overhead floor-indicator light displayed each passing floor, a soft ding sounding repeatedly as he traveled non-stop up the forty or so floors to his penthouse. Arik rested against the back wall, forcing a finger into the knot of his necktie to loosen its tight hold. He then removed each cuff link at his wrist and absently dropped them into his slacks pockets. The more he removed now, the faster he could hit his perfect Vera Wang mattress and shut his tired eyes.
The entire building was quiet. Another benefit to relocating to this area. Well, sort of. Dallas as a whole was quieter than any place he’d ever lived. He walked the few steps to his front door, pulling out his wallet to wave in front of the security pad when the doors didn’t unlock at his arrival. Strangely, the key card inside his wallet didn’t trigger the lock to release. Arik let out a yawn as he entered his code into the attached keypad. He’d have to remember to check his card in the morning.
The overhead lights automatically lit as he entered his front door, and the motion sensors continued lighting his way the deeper he ventured inside his home. Arik absently tossed his suit jacket on a chair in the living room, never straying from the direct path to his bedroom. He pulled his shirttails from his slacks, his level of sheer exhaustion rising with each step he took. Honestly, that had to be the only reason he didn’t register the glow of lights coming from underneath the closed door until he’d already turned the handle.
“What the fuck?” His heart almost leaped out of his chest when he stepped inside his bedroom to find someone sprawled across his bed in what probably qualified as a seductive pose. Recognition took another second to seep in.
“Surprise!” A small pop sounded and confetti flew into the air, scattering across his bed.
Arik’s brows snapped together. Oh hell no. He loved that bed.
“What the hell are you doing?” Arik asked as he moved farther inside the room. He registered the slight look of indignation and the flip of that long, black, silky hair before Boy Toy’s face morphed again into a pleasant smile.
“I came to surprise you.” BT wiggled his sexy ass and gave a cheeky little smile.
Even as tired and annoyed as he was, Arik experienced a stir below his belt. He was human after all, and this particular BT was especially skilled. He stopped at his dresser, reached inside his front slacks pockets and casually tossed the contents on the small tray. He didn’t like surprises of any kind, and BT, short for boy toy number one hundred and—hell, he’d lost count of the willing men he’d bedded—had just shocked the hell out of him.
This one was way too pretty and so deliciously tempting that for a split second he almost gave in…almost.
No, he had to stay firm. This was utter bullshit. He couldn’t have random BTs breaking into his home, surprising him at every turn, desecrating his perfect bed with confetti.
“How did you get in here?” he asked, leaning against the dresser, casually crossing his arms over his chest.
“I’ve been planning this since you left me last week. I swiped your card from your wallet when you were in the shower.” Boy Toy lost the erotic pose, probably too much strain for his delicate body.
“I guess I need to keep a closer eye on my wallet in the future.” Arik shoved away from the dresser and headed toward his closet.
“I’m beginning to think you’re not happy that I’m here. You know I’d look good on your arm for the opening of Escape Dallas.” BT hopped up from the bed and trailed after him, following him into the closet.
“Are these your things?” he asked, nodding toward the garment bag hanging in his closet with luggage settled beneath. Arik’s things had been pushed aside and replaced with BT’s, as if the guy planned to stay awhile. First the bed, now the closet. He didn’t allow anyone to breach his private space. That crossed every line he had.
Fuck, he’d known when he first saw this guy he’d be trouble. The gorgeous ones always were. Arik shook his head.
“Yes, I put them next to yours. I arrived late and didn’t have time to unpack.”
Arik abandoned his silk tie on the built-in dresser and began to grab BT’s things. The level of pissed off coursing through him now superseded any desire he might have mustered.
“You can’t ever do this again. I told you from the beginning,” Arik said, shoving the garment bag toward BT as he went for the two suitcases, then he tossed the strap of one over his shoulder and grabbed the other by the handgrip. How long had he even planned to stay that he needed all this?
“Be careful with that. It’s got my mink inside!” BT carefully draped the bag over his arm, allowing Arik to take him by his other arm and forcefully guide him from the closet.
“Why in the hell would you bring a fur coat to Texas?” Arik kept his grip tight, even when BT tried to worm his way out.
“Why would I leave home without… What are you doing?” BT actually held on to the doorframe to keep Arik from removing him from the bedroom.
“You’re going to the guest room, BT. We’ll talk—”
A solid outraged screech cut him off.
“Stop calling me that! I hate that. I have a name.” The guy went into full-on diva mode right there in the middle of his hall.
“You’ve known the deal from the beginning. I don’t like these kinds of surprises. I was very clear,” Arik said. When he realized it might take two hands to deposit BT into the guest bedroom, he went for that door, pushed it open wide, and tossed the suitcase in his hand across the room. For a second there, he’d thought the guy planned to go back to Arik’s bedroom which would have turned things pretty shitty real quick. Luckily, BT came toward him with a very calm, patient look on his face.
“If you would just go with it, we could have a very special relationship,” BT said, placing a delicate hand on Arik’s dress shirt, letting his fingers trail down Arik’s chest as he took a step closer. “I’m good at attending events with you. I look good on your arm. Besides, I’m tired of modeling. It takes up so much of my time. And if we came to some sort of arrangement, with all my extra free time, I could take care of you any way you saw fit.”
“Not gonna happen.”
BT’s words couldn’t have been better deterrent for giving in and indulging in a quick hook-up. Arik preferred his fun with no strings attached. Not that he had anything against the whole finding Mr. Right concept. But the boy toy currently groping his ass was not anywhere close to his idea of relationship material. Arik stopped the hand at his waistband and shrugged the case off his shoulder, dumping it right inside the guest bedroom door. He left the gorgeous but clearly crazy man standing there as he headed back toward his bedroom.
“I need to leave here by eight in the morning. Be ready.’’
“Seriously? You’re just leaving? I stretched myself to be ready for you.”
Arik looked back to see BT stomp his foot for good measure, his now flaccid dick swinging in the process. BT was certainly beautifully put together, tall, lean, chiseled abs, a perfect body that Arik knew from past experience could bring a lot of pleasure.
No, Arik. That was how he’d gotten in this situation in the first place. Stop. No. Walk away.
“Goodnight, BT. Don’t come back to my room,” he said at the door.
“Stop calling me BT! I’m not just your boy toy! My name is Steffan.”
Steffan—yeah, he remembered that now. Steffan twirled around and stalked into the guest bedroom, that long hair floating out around him. The door slammed shut in his wake.
Arik closed his door and reached down to twist the lock when he heard something crashing against the guest room door. Arik chuckled at that one and quickly opened his door again.
“Be ready by eight in the morning. I won’t be happy if you make me late,” he yelled before closing and relocking the door.
He staggered to the bed. His bed. Even with taking the time to rid the bedspread of the confetti and change the pillowcases where that overly strong cologne lingered, he’d still, hopefully, get at least a couple hours’ sleep.