© Clare London
Miles Winter recognised that look on Zeke’s face.
Zeke Roswell was a talented, charming and very volatile artist – at least, according to his unofficial magazine biographers – but no one could deny he took his art very seriously. When he was working on a project, it would consume him for weeks. An exhibition would take more like months, as he gathered all the materials for his installation and planned its presentation to the public. He took up almost full time residence at the gallery, ignored all calls, ate nothing but junk food and could be supremely rude to anyone who tried to distract him. Even me, Miles thought, though he smiled to himself. Zeke devoted himself to the art at times like that.
And concentrated devotion described the look on Zeke’s face right now – though not in the gallery, but in their bedroom at Miles’s town flat.
Zeke knelt on the thick carpet at the foot of the bed, in front of the wardrobe door. He was naked apart from one of his trademark pairs of long, loose shorts, but it wasn’t any kind of a sexually submissive pose: he was obviously in working mode, leaning back on his bare heels, with a brush in his hand and his expression twisted by a professional frown as he reviewed the canvas in front of him.
Which was, in fact, Miles himself.
“For fuck’s sake, Miles, can’t you sit still?”
Miles bit back a frustrated sigh. He was perched on an antique trunk he used for storing his sports clothes. It had been cushioned with velvet but it had never been meant as a chair, and was uncomfortable under his arse and thighs. Of course, if he’d had more than just a pair of thin pyjama bottoms on, things might have been better. “Not easily, no. It tickles. How much longer do you need?”
“It’s not a matter of seconds, but of scope. It’s art, not a bloody telephone call.”
Miles rolled his eyes.
“No!” Zeke snapped. “Don’t do that thing with your eyes. Even that adds to the difficulty, man. You distract me.”
Miles smiled. “You’re as much of a diva as they say, aren’t you?”
Zeke made a tsking sound and moved farther behind Miles’s body so that Miles couldn’t see him as clearly.
“Is it spoilt?” Miles deliberately kept his voice steady. He had to admit he knew how much it irritated Zeke when Miles kept his cool but Zeke’s temper was riled.
“You think I’m some kind of amateur?”
Miles deemed it sensible not to reply to that.
“No, it’s not spoilt,” Zeke continued. “But it gets really difficult when I have to go farther down.” His voice changed direction as he leant down behind the trunk, somewhere near the level of Miles’s coccyx. “This probably wasn’t the best time to start this. What’s the big damn rush for Christmas anyway?”
“I just suggested a possible gift…” Miles murmured.
Zeke ignored him. “And this is definitely not the right place. I mean, I don’t have all my stuff here. The lighting’s not sharp enough.”
“Well, if it’s too much for you, you’d better leave it.”
He felt Zeke stiffen, and the artist’s hand paused. “How the hell can I? I’m almost done now. And what do you mean, too much for me?”
This time, Miles kept his smile to himself. He twisted his head very slowly and carefully until he could see Zeke’s face out of the corner of his eye. “You haven’t done any original work for a while. Let alone the fact you don’t often let me in the gallery when you’re in the middle of something. Is this how you look when you’re painting?”
“You mean pissed off and under stress?” Zeke frowned at him.
“Yes,” Miles said calmly. “I suppose that’s it. You’re very flushed.”
“Well, I’m working in very close quarters here, and my hand keeps slipping.”
“A bad workman blames his tools,” Miles murmured.
But Zeke didn’t rise to the bait this time. He hummed tunelessly under his breath as he concentrated on what he was doing. Miles felt the air from Zeke’s pursed lips run up his spine in tiny, hopping gusts. He let loose a quiet gasp.
“You’re warm enough,” Zeke said, a mischievous tone to his voice. “Why the goose bumps?”
“Don’t imagine I’m excited by this or anything.”
Zeke chuckled. “It never crossed my mind. I’m working here.”
“And we all know how single-minded you can be at your work.”
“Mm.” Zeke didn’t sound as if he were even listening. One of his knees cracked softly as he moved position. There were a few more minutes of relative silence apart from his humming and their combined breathing. Zeke’s fingertips brushed Miles’s bare skin more than once. Then at last Zeke made another, more relaxed tsking noise and Miles felt him move away.
“Is it done?”
“Almost.” Zeke waved his hand one last time. Miles felt the vibration in the air on the back of his neck. “Yeah. Done.”
Miles felt his heart beat rise with anticipation. Dammit. He weakened. “So how does it look?”
Zeke scrambled around the trunk on his knees so he faced Miles. There were dark red stains on his hands and a dirty cloth in his hand. He absentmindedly wiped off a slim brush as he talked. His expression was smug from a job well done but wary, too. “The execution is bloody brilliant of course.”
“Of course,” Miles said, drily.
“But the result’s…bizarre.”
“Bizarre? You mean it’s hideous?”
Zeke frowned. He didn’t meet Miles’s eyes and his gaze flickered to and from Miles’s back. “Nah, far from it. You look…”
It wasn’t often Zeke Roswell struggled for words. Miles thought he’d file that away for future review. “So can I see it now? I’m in considerable suspense here. But I must say, this was an excellent idea of yours.”
“I don’t think you’re taking it in the right spirit. My intention was to make you realise exactly what you’d look like.”
“Yes, I know.” Miles bit back a smile of fierce excitement. His enthusiasm surprised him. “I’ll look cool.”
“No. You’ll look bloody ridiculous. You’ll regret it later on in life.”
“What are you, my mother?” Miles knew that was more Zeke’s phrasing than his own, and from the flash of reluctant amusement in Zeke’s eyes, Zeke knew it too. “I’m thinking about the now, Zeke, not the later.”
“No,” Zeke repeated. Now he sounded a little worried. “That’s not you, Miles. I’m the now-and-maybe-tomorrow-morning kind of guy, not you. You’re the sensible, controlled, review-the-financials-and-make-a-balanced-decision type guy.”
“But maybe,” Miles said slowly, “I like a change now and then.”
Zeke gave a small, barely perceptible whimper.
“Anyway.” Miles turned his head again and leant backwards, this time trying to see down his back. “I’d like to see your masterpiece.”
Zeke huffed out disapproval like a human steam engine. “All right, I heard you. Just stop fucking twisting like that, you’ll dislocate something. Do you want a mirror?” He stood up in one graceful, careless movement, and looked about distractedly, as if he couldn’t see the perfectly serviceable table mirror on top of the dresser. “Oh. Right. Here you are.”
Miles also stood up and took the mirror in both hands. It wasn’t heavy, but was awkward to hold, and Zeke didn’t look like he was going to offer help any time soon. Miles turned to face the full length mirror on the wardrobe door, and tried angling the table version behind his waist.
“Jeez. Give it here.” With rather poor grace, Zeke took the mirror out of Miles’s hands and held it up behind him. Now Miles could see the reflection of his back in the wardrobe view.
He took a long, deep breath. “My God, Zeke. It’s fabulous.”
A representation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man stretched between Miles’s shoulder blades and half way down his back. The anatomical figure was immediately recognisable, framed in a circle and square, with outspread arms and its almost stern face. Yet there were enough differences in the design to qualify it as something refreshingly new. The muscular limbs had a sensual and sexual grace that went beyond the original: the curled hair had loose tendrils that seemed to caress the frame of the face. And what was that, drawn onto the character’s hip? Miles cursed the impossibility of taking a closer look, short of peeling the skin from his back. No, wait, he could see it now…it was a small art palette, like the one Zeke had tattooed on his own hip.
The drawing was a Zeke Roswell original. On his back.
“It’s superb,” he said softly. “You’ve done a good job.”
“I hope not.”
Miles half-turned at the regretful tone in Zeke’s voice. “Aren’t you proud of it? Or is it a more physical reaction?” He held out his hands as if mimicking the pose of the man on his back. “Do you find the tattooed me unattractive?”
“Miles.” Zeke shook his head, his expression tight, his eyes showing a mixture of emotions. Miles could identify annoyance, amusement and desire: but mostly annoyance. “You really can be a stupid arse.”
Miles didn’t know where the mischief bubbled up from inside him, but he allowed it free rein. Knowing he had the picture on his back was astonishingly exciting, far more than he would ever have thought. He felt somehow empowered. “I understand if you don’t like this amount of body art on a man. Or at least, not on me.” He couldn’t resist another look over his shoulder into the mirror. He didn’t know if he was talking to Zeke or to himself when he said, “But just look at that. I have a tattoo.”
Zeke gave a snort. “A mock tattoo. I’ve only painted it on. You can wash it off now you realise how ludicrous it looks.”
“Not ludicrous at all.” Miles stretched his bare shoulders one way, then back the other. The tattooed figure appeared to reach out and up in tandem with his movement. Its head turned with the creases of Miles’s skin; its naked thighs tensed. When Miles bent slightly at the waist, the painted feet planted more firmly on their ground. “Magnificent.”
“Fuck, yes, but you are.”
It had only been a whisper. Miles wasn’t sure he’s heard correctly, but he flushed.
“Miles, you’re not listening, are you? This is a lesson I’m teaching you.”
“What about your tattoo?” Mile said, his gaze still on the mirror and the flex of his muscles. “Was that a lesson?”
It was Zeke’s turn to roll his eyes. “Mine’s a small, stupid thing I had done as a dare. Doesn’t mean I’d go out and have my whole damn back inked, just for the hell of it. I can’t believe you’d be such a fucking idiot!”
There was a sudden, startled silence between them. Miles turned slowly back around to face Zeke.
“I’m sorry,” Zeke said, without any prompting. He looked shocked at himself. “God, I never knew I was such a stupid, possessive arse.”
“No. No.” Zeke was talking to his own thoughts and emotions. He shook his head vehemently. “You’re right. Who the fuck am I to try and teach you life lessons? You want to go ahead and have it done, you do it. You’re braver than I am, man.”
Miles drew another deep breath. “I have no intention of doing anything of the kind.”
Zeke stared at him. The brush and cloth fell from his hand to the floor, but he didn’t seem to notice. “What the hell? You said getting a tattoo was on your wish list for the year, and you’d go for the largest design they had in the shop. You said there was no point having a tiny-arsed star on your bum – okay, so I’m paraphrasing – but it might as well cover your whole damned back.”
“And you believed me.”
The wind must have blown through the room, because Zeke’s face seemed stuck in a gobsmacked stare. “And I believed you. Right.”
Miles gave a gentle sigh. He put his hand on Zeke’s wrist: ran it slowly up and down Zeke’s arm. The bare skin was warm and tight with muscle and tension. “I said it was on my wish list, once – I don’t make a habit of lying to you, Zeke. But I decided long ago it wasn’t for me. And seriously…would I let a random artist drill trails of ink all over my back when I can have you stroke over me with your fingers instead?”
“Let me get this clear.” Zeke still looked stunned. “You let me go ahead, painting your naked body for the last hour, knowing all the time that you had no intention of actually having a tattoo.”
“Clear as crystal, Zeke. You are a very talented and also articulate man.”
“Don’t patronise me, man.”
Miles shook his head. “I didn’t mean to. It was a genuine comment.”
Zeke let his gaze run down Miles’s chest. Miles had already seen the view in the wardrobe mirror. Nude, lightly tanned skin, apart from a couple of crease marks from where he’d been sitting, and the teasing trail of dark hair below his navel. And an increasingly tented groin beneath the pyjama bottoms.
Zeke gave a long, slow exhalation of breath. “Well. I deserved everything I got, didn’t I?”
“It was a mere misunderstanding, Zeke, that’s all.”
“That’s all.” Zeke nodded thoughtfully. “So that sweat all over your bloody skin…”
Miles felt himself flush. “Yes. I couldn’t help that. Your touch…” He let the shiver run through him: it was part of the foreplay, and always had been. “You have a marvellous touch. Firm yet gentle.”
Zeke raised his eyebrows. “But then I’m a very fine artist.”
Miles couldn’t tell whether Zeke was annoyed. It was his turn to feel worried. “Yes. Of course, I was talking in a professional sense.”
Miles let loose the shiver again. He couldn’t help it, pinned under Zeke’s lascivious gaze. Remembering Zeke’s hands on his torso, the brush strokes across his spine. Wishing for more. “It was a very, very fine way to spend an hour, I can tell you.” He gazed back at Zeke: let his own view run down Zeke’s body. The lean muscles, the brown nubs of his nipples, the occasional splatter of the henna paint on his breast and belly. Zeke’s shorts were suspiciously tented in the groin area, too.
“You set me up for this.”
Miles caught his breath.
“You’re a real bastard, you know that?” And then – thankfully – Zeke laughed. Loudly and uninhibitedly. The room vibrated warmly with it.
Miles smiled with more than a little relief. “I have dreamed of it, though.”
“Having a tattoo?”
“The needle on my skin. My flesh as canvas.” He flushed again, this time with some embarrassment. “I wonder if it would be a way to experience what you have.”
Zeke looked puzzled. “My art?”
“Yes. That’s something I can’t share, except for a role as spectator. It can be lonely, Zeke, being on the other side of your talent.”
Zeke tipped his head to one side, as if considering this. He took a step nearer Miles, only a few inches between them. His hip brushed against Miles’s. “You caught me out, man.”
“I didn’t mean –”
“It was fucking hot.” Zeke trailed a finger slowly along the seam where Miles’s belly met his thigh. He hissed through his teeth and grinned wolfishly.
Miles’s shiver was more of a shudder.
“And maybe it’s not a bad idea after all. Maybe this whole exercise has converted me.”
“What about a small tattoo one day on your hip?” Zeke continued, his voice just a breath on Miles’s earlobe. “Or on the inside of your thigh? Just something to make you think of me whenever you touch down there.”
Miles didn’t recognise the strange gargling sound from the back of his throat. “Careful,” he ground out, as Zeke’s hand snaked around his waist and gripped him. Hard. “It’s not dry yet, is it? You’ll truly spoil it.”
“Nah. I took pictures on my tablet as I went. I always do.”
“Pictures?” Miles’s voice was higher than usual.
“Every step of the way.” Zeke licked slowly down the sinews of Miles’s neck. “We can review them later, can’t we? One by one. Stroke by stroke.” He tugged Miles back towards the bed. Their steps were clumsy and stumbling. Zeke’s breath was hot and getting shallower by the second.
Miles felt sexual desperation like a lit fuse, sparking through his veins. He slid a hand to Zeke’s groin and caressed his cock through the shorts. Before he could stop himself, he gave a short, happy laugh.
Zeke paused, panting. “What the hell?”
“Just checking,” Miles said. He didn’t think Zeke was in the mood to argue, at least not for a while yet. “It looked like you’d enhanced the genitals on that model by a couple of extra inches!”