He first appeared the next day: the strange young man.

It was early morning and I’d rearranged the red canvas on my easel, examining it from a different angle. I was mixing new paints, too, with unusual concentration. When I glanced at the palette I was mildly surprised to find that they were all based on red. I’d blocked color on some of the canvas and sketched sweeps of complementary crimsons across its width. Just playing, of course. I’d probably still have to dump the fucking thing in the end. But an idea had been teasing at the edges of my mind involving a progression of scenes, based solely on feelings, on emotional threads and twists. Enthusiasm through to exhaustion; naivety through to numbness. Birth to death…

I imagined that shades of red would work well for it. For the first time in ages, my pulse quickened with a flame of artistic excitement.

He cleared his throat behind me and I nearly dropped the whole damned thing. I whirled around. “Who the fuck are you? How did you get in?”

He tilted his head, staring at me. That was the first thing I registered—the bright, wide, brown eyes under thick, arched brows. Young eyes, but full of something much older. Not startled or scared, merely curious. He wasn’t holding a parcel of art supplies or any canvases; he didn’t deliver me any message. I glanced at the board on the wall but there was no model scheduled for today.

I suppose my next look at him was in appraisal, in case he was looking for work. He was handsome, with a fine, straight nose and full lips. Average height and broad across the shoulders: stocky rather than the coltish look I preferred. His hair was uncombed, ill-cut, a mess of chocolate-brown curls. The clothes were slightly odd, of generic style, devoid of designer logos. He wore trousers of some coarse fabric and a loose shirt, buttoned from midway down his torso. A smooth, elegant throat, dusky skin, a chest almost hairless from what I could see. My eyes lingered over the creased fabric between his thighs. No jeans. It was unusual enough for me to notice.

The bare feet were even more astonishing.

“Did Macy let you in?” Bloody woman was meant to look after the house and occasionally bully me into eating, not let strangers wander through at any time. Without Ailsa to bully her, it looked like things were running wild already.

“I’m hungry,” he said. It wasn’t a moan or a plea, just a statement. His voice had a slight, lilting accent but was perfectly clear.

“So go home and eat,” I said. I probably sounded either harsh or stupid. But if the kid couldn’t even answer a simple question…

He shrugged and smiled. His toes wriggled on my wooden floor. “It’s not that easy. I do not have the funds.”

I frowned. Did he think I was born yesterday? “Get lost. I’m not interested in whatever scam you’re trying here. I don’t give to charities, and certainly not beggars. I don’t know you, you haven’t done any work for me, and I don’t owe you a thing.”

He looked confused and his gaze darted around the room. His eyes widened even farther. “Where is this?”

“For God’s sake.” I was angry and disturbed. “The door’s behind you, use it. I’m working and if you knew anything about artists, you’d know we hate being distracted.”

His gaze returned to me and he smiled as if I’d reassured, not dismissed him. “But I do know about artists. Of course I do. That’s why I’m here, obviously.” He noticed the canvas behind me. “Is that what you’re working on?”

It felt increasingly as if I’d walked into an episode of The Twilight Zone. “What? This is a mistake. It’s…”

“It’s wild.” He shook his head slowly, still smiling, and he walked toward me. His steps were confident, but his movements surprisingly graceful. I tensed but he didn’t look threatening. I can look after myself, you understand, but I wasn’t… well, it was only bronchitis, that was all, but it had weakened me this winter. I didn’t relish getting into some kind of a struggle with a burglar. Burglar? I wondered briefly what the hell I had worth stealing. Likely Ailsa would have taken it with her already.

“There are no people in it. No scene. Is it just this colour?” He lifted a hand and I nearly cried out. But he didn’t touch the painting, just traced in the air the shape of the central swirl. His fingers were thin and long, but the nails were bitten short and dirty underneath. It might have been paint, or something dirtier. “It’s very beautiful.”

“Beautiful?” Why the hell did I sound so astonished?

He laughed softly, still looking at the canvas. “You’re lucky if you can paint to life like this and still get commissions. My artist friend draws people in his work. Portraits. Scenes. He has to do them, to earn money. To earn recognition.”

Goose bumps raised the hairs on my arms. “You are a model. So who’s this artist friend of yours?”

He shrugged. His hands dropped to his waist, teasing at the hem of his shirt, his hip jutting slightly to one side. Despite having the look of an artisan, he was the perfect poster boy for healthy, sensual youth. “I modelled for him, yes, but that’s over now. He’s found other favourites, and beside…” He spun around suddenly, his smile much brighter, his eyes focused sharply on me. “But I’m not sure you need me. How will you put me in this painting?” He didn’t seem to expect an answer, but laughed again and glanced around the room. “There are plenty more though, aren’t there? You’ve got very behind in your work. You’re weary, of course. Thank God I’m here now to help you.”

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