Nav’s apartment key tumbled from his hand as his phone vibrated, rattling his change and his plastic swipe card from work. He fumbled in his pocket, pulling his phone out and groaning at the name on the display.
“This is not a good time,” he said as he accepted the call, sighing at the laughter that burst against his eardrum. He glanced down, searching for his key that had somehow made it halfway under his apartment door, only the jagged edge visible beneath the crack.
He really needed to get a keychain so the thing didn’t disappear on him again. He’d already gone through three keys in the last month, and the hardware store was starting to get suspicious as to why he needed so many spares. There just didn’t seem to be much point to getting a sparkly keychain if he wasn’t going to keep it for all that long.
“How did it go, Nav?” asked Sasha through the speaker.
No matter how many times Nav lost his things or moved, Sasha always seemed to track him down. He was Nav’s self-appointed best friend and number one annoyance.
Nav let out a sigh, leaning his back against the door as he looked down the hall. There were a dozen doors that were identical to his, with grungy numbers barely clinging onto their hastily painted surfaces. At one point, the doors must’ve been a dreadful forest green, but someone had decided to paint over them with a thin layer of white primer. The results were pale lime rectangles with dark corners where the primer had been rubbed raw. The red apartment numbers completed the nightmarish Christmas look with tacky gusto.
“It went great. Better than great, actually. Everette never wants to see me again, and he got his brother to throw me out of the house.” Nav rubbed at his shoulder where he was sure there was a bruise. They’d taken the throwing part a touch too literally, and Nav had found out first-hand how hard concrete sidewalks were.
“Ouch. Not unexpected, though,” said Sasha, his laughter booming through the tiny speaker. “Maybe you shouldn’t have hit on their dad?”
Nav ran a hand through his hair before he leaned back and let his head rest against the thin door. It sounded hollow to the touch, and it nearly bowed under his weight. “Maybe their dad shouldn’t have been so hot. I mean, who the hell walks around in just their boxers then gets offended when they get hit on? I didn’t know guys his age could even have abs like that. His body was just rocking.”
“Gross… I don’t need the details,” said Sasha, the phone rustling. “How many is that now, though?”
“This year or this month?” asked Nav, sliding down the door until his ass met the thin and filthy carpet. A light flickered overhead, and somewhere a baby screamed. His neighbor down the hall was making their weekly batch of boiled cabbage, if the smell was anything to go by. And who the hell had crushed packets of ketchup at the end of the hall?
“You’re such an asshole,” said Sasha. “I’ve never met someone who has as many ex-boyfriends as you have. You must run into one at every bar.”
Nav laughed, letting the grief of the situation roll off his shoulders and down the ratty hallway to find a sewer out on the street somewhere. There was hardly any grief there at all, if he were honest with himself. He’d only dated Everette for three weeks, which was two weeks longer than his usual attention span. The guy had been cute, but nothing compared to his dad.
“Most bars are out. Restaurants, too. I ran into Josh the other day, and I swear to God he spit on my salad,” said Nav. He’d still eaten the salad, of course. A little spit never turned him off a good meal.
“So, you won’t come out for drinks with us tonight?” asked Sasha. “Katie already did her hair up real nice, and I can’t wait to fuck it up.”
“Your straightness disgusts me,” said Nav, letting his eyes drift shut. It had been a long week of too many hours at work and even more wasted on another guy he knew would never work out. His shower was calling to him, and he could definitely hear the cries of his lonely pillow.
“I dunno. I’m really tired, Sash.” He leaned his head to the side to cradle his phone against his ear. A noise at the end of the hall made him startle, but he kept his eyes closed. It was probably just one of his asshole neighbors getting home after their day job. They would be able to step by him just fine.
“All the more reason to come out with us. You’re in a rut, Nav. You need to relax and stop trying to fuck your way through every gay bedroom in the city. Come out with us tonight for drinks, keep your dick to yourself and I guarantee you’ll feel better.”
“Drinks do sound good,” said Nav, pulling his feet closer when the squeak of shuffling footsteps approached him on the carpet. “Okay, I’ll be there tonight. Don’t let me fuck up again, okay?”
“Deal.” Sasha chuckled. Nav could almost see his best friend’s smirk through the phone. “I’ll keep you surrounded by women so your dick shrivels up and dies. Then I’ll get you so wasted that you forget about Tray.”
“Tray was last month, before Scott and Paul, remember? Everette was the guy whose dad I just fucked,” said Nav, lowering his voice as the footsteps came closer. He already got enough flack in his life for being gay and he didn’t need any more shit from anyone.
“You are fucked up, man. I’ll see you tonight. Nine sharp at Pinty’s. Bring your long underwear and a chastity belt.” Sasha ended the call with a click and Nav sighed, letting his phone slide to the ground with a hollow thump. He could sleep against the door, even with the floor jamming into the bruises on his ass.
Who actually threw someone? Concrete was not a fun place for his skinny ass to land. At least they had tossed him his pants.
Nav’s opened his eyes and cursed to himself, scrambling to get up to his feet.
Of course, the person to see him crumpled outside of his door had to be his smoking-hot and totally unreachable neighbor. He was gorgeous, with short blond hair that models would die for, and the softest blue eyes Nav had ever seen. Top that with thick shoulders, strong arms and thighs that could kill and he was everything Nav dreamed of.
The guy was also completely and totally unavailable. His boyfriend was the most average person in the world but had something that Nav couldn’t even fathom—commitment. Every time Nav saw his him, the boyfriend was usually close by.
“Sorry… I just lost my key,” said Nav as he pushed back against his door, his knees wobbling as his neighbor got closer. His mouth went dry, his throat constricting like nobody’s business. His palms went damp as he suddenly began to sweat, his face flushing. Hunger evaporated in his gut like he’d just gotten a whiff of fresh ass, and his priorities had spun one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.
He was also the only one who did that to Nav. The beautiful blond specimen transformed him from a bonified slut who was proud of it into a blushing virgin.
Nav had fucked and been fucked by more guys than he could remember, but something about that tall, built frame and those crystal-blue eyes sent him back to his high school days when he’d seen his first cock and decided he was gay for life.
“Oh crap, that sucks,” he said, running a hand through his blond locks that were probably softer than actual silk. “Did you call the superintendent?” He shifted a brown paper grocery bag in his hands, reaching into his pocket for something.
Of course he was environmentally aware, too, which made Nav want to drool. There was nothing worse than a hot guy who used plastic bags and drove a car that guzzled more fuel than a loaded transport truck. Can you be any more perfect?
Nav shook his head. “N-not yet. I think I probably just dropped it somewhere.” Nav wanted to crumple into a ball. His voice was so soft and weak that he probably sounded like a virgin, too.
Virgins were the literal enemy. Clingy, flustered and nervous, Nav always steered well clear. He’d been there, done that and returned the T-shirt.
Knowing how thin the walls were in the building, Nav guessed the guy had probably heard his sex adventures from across the hall, which was probably why he was looking at Nav with confusion and concern etched onto his perfectly sculpted face. Statues were probably made of this guy—hopefully the ones with the big dicks and not the little ones.
Nav slid his foot sideways to where he remembered dropping the key, hopefully concealing it. He was such a fucking idiot, but he couldn’t even think straight with his neighbor staring at him, his gaze piercing straight through his defenses.
“Did you need a hand? Just let me put my groceries in the fridge and I’ll help you look for it.” A soft smile settled on his lips as he pulled his own key out before opening his door with one hand.
“No, it’s okay,” said Nav, his face burning. He slapped his hands to his cheeks as the guy looked away, hoping to draw the heat out with his frigid fingertips. The sight of his wide, strong back had Nav flushing all over again. He looked away and into the apartment instead, his jaw dropping as something caught his eye.
There, on the wall, and hidden in the most unlikely of places, was a painting that he’d never thought he would see again.
“Oh my God, you have one of Brian Maeckery’s paintings?” He stumbled across the hall, his key and his bag forgotten as the art drew him through the open door.
Seeing it again was the same as seeing it for the first time. The piece was one that had caught Nav’s eye when it had been in the studio. His breath stuck in his throat as his cock swelled against his will, his groin pulling tight.
He couldn’t help it. The brushstrokes were perfection, each one laid with such sensual purpose that Nav could almost feel them against his skin. The lovers on the canvas were wrapped around each other in an intimate embrace that made Nav’s blood boil. They looked at each other in the peak of their pleasure, love and commitment frozen on their features. It was as unreal as a dream.
But what was his favorite painting of all time doing in a run-down apartment building? Sure, his neighbor had spruced up his place from what Nav could tell, but the painting didn’t belong.
“Yeah.” He set his grocery bag on the counter, before turning to Nav. “He’s actually a friend of mine. He owed me a favor, so he gave this to me as payment. It’s a beautiful piece.” He shifted, flickering his gaze over Nav once before he turned and started unloading his groceries.
Butterflies erupted in Nav’s belly. Brian Maeckery was nearly famous—like a shiny, untouchable doll on television. Nav would have worshiped the ground that he walked on, if only he had been able to find his house.
“I’m so jealous. I’m such a huge fan of his.” He let out a sigh, reaching for the muddled color where the lovers’ legs met. He hovered a few inches away, his hand trembling. The last price tag he’d seen on it was over one-hundred-thousand dollars. “It must’ve been one hell of a favor.”
It still smelled fresh, the flavors of the paint rolling over his tongue as he inhaled sharply. The wooden frame was pristine, without a hint of dust or fingerprints, but how long would that last? It was something that should have been hanging in a temperature-controlled gallery for the rest of its life behind a pane of thick glass, not in a shitty apartment building soaking up the faint smell of cigarettes and cat piss.
His neighbor paused, a tray of chicken breasts clutched in his fingers. He furrowed his forehead before he let out a small laugh, his eyes lighting up. “Not really, no. My fiancé and I modeled for the painting, so Brian thought it was best if we were the ones to get it.”
“Wait…what?” Nav took a step back, his gaze flashing between him and the painting. The faces on the canvas were in shadow, with only their lips visible and a hint of their partially closed eyes. But it did look like them, and the hair color was spot-on. And their bodies…oh God. Was that really hiding beneath the guy’s T-shirt and jeans?
“Shit, I’ve jerked off to this painting,” said Nav, flushing as he smacked his hand to his forehead. “I-I mean, shit. You’re Theo?”
His boss had relayed the entire story as they’d hung the painting in the gallery together—how Brian had claimed that Theo was his muse and how he had called to him with each brush stroke. Nav had agreed from the bottom of his balls. That had been the first time the painting made him hard—but not the last.
Nav dropped his gaze, flushing so fiercely that he wasn’t sure his cheeks would ever cool again. He couldn’t look at him. In fact, it was probably best if he turned around and crawled back to his apartment before begging for forgiveness through the door.
Nav started as his neighbor chuckled. His gaze was dragged back to the gorgeous blond, his heart thudding as he stared at the man with his head tilted back and his lips curled and open as the beautiful sound emerged.
“Theo’s my fiancé,” he said, wiping the gathering tears from his eyes as he continued to chuckle. “I’m Maverick, but everyone calls me Trick. Thanks for the compliment.” He let out another laugh, his body shaking as his chest heaved.
“I’m so sorry. I’m just really tired, and I always say things I’m not supposed to when I’m tired.” He bit his tongue as Trick laughed even harder. Trick was stunning when he was silent, but when he laughed, he transformed into an actual Adonis.
Nav looked at the painting again, something new surging from the base of his gut.
As much as he had longed to be the one in the painting in the past, it had always remained an unattainable figment of Brian’s imagination. It had been fitting that the only thing that he would ever love was an imaginary scene with a fictional man.
But they were real…and the man he’d been fantasizing about was Trick. His heart rate picked up, his chest rising and falling like he’d just run a marathon.
Trick was obviously in love with Theo. He’d smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling when he’d said Theo’s name. And the painting…? Nav hadn’t known what true love looked like until he had seen the canvas.
An ugly green monster twisted in his gut, leaving a foul taste in his mouth. It seemed that everyone could fall in love except him, even the not-so-fictional characters in a painting. He was going to be cursed to chase brief hookups for the rest of his life, ditching them before they lost their new boyfriend smell and shine.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you by laughing at you. I was just surprised,” said Trick, his humor falling away. “You sure you don’t want me to help you find your key? Or I can get you a drink if you want to call the super and wait here.”
“No, it’s okay. I don’t want to intrude,” said Nav. He looked back to the painting, but the magic that had enthralled him for months was gone. His stomach lurched as he took a step back.
I’m just overtired. Alcohol required STAT.
“Well, it was nice meeting you…” Trick paused as if he were waiting for something.
“Nav.” He shrugged, filling the uncomfortable silence.
“Nav. Just knock if you need something or if you change your mind.” He smiled, parting his full lips to reveal white teeth that were perfectly straight. His smile was dazzling, pulling a wave of fresh heat from Nav’s core.
“Thanks. Bye.” Nav rushed into the hall, shutting the door before Trick could say anything further. His heart was still pounding, and for some strange reason, he felt the first prickling of tears at the corner of his eyes.
He took a deep breath and pinched the base of his nose. He must’ve been more exhausted than he’d thought if he was already starting to get teary-eyed. He usually didn’t hit that level until he’d worked sixty hours in one week. He’d only done fifty-five hours in the last five days, so he should have still been in the glaringly frustrated and angry phase.
He reached for his key, easing it out from where it had squirmed through the crack under the thin door. He grabbed his bag, hauling it over his shoulder and turning the key in the lock before pushing inside.
Unlike Trick, he hadn’t spiffed up his floors or counters in his apartment. There really was no point if his stay was going to be brief.
The paint was the original faded ivory with a few cracks around the corners and a smudge of purple along one baseboard. The floors were roll-on linoleum with a few holes in the kitchen where someone had repeatedly dropped a sharp knife. It could have been anyone’s apartment.
Except for the art that he’d hung on the walls. The art was all his. Most of the paintings were little pieces he’d picked up in estate and garage sales in the city, with a few originals from up-and-coming artists. His work in the studio gallery put him in reach of a few artists who hadn’t hit it big yet and had prices that were within his reach.
He stepped up to one of his favorites. The artist was known simply as Rachel, and they had a way with traditional techniques that wasn’t too common anymore. A frog on a lily pad would have made most artists scoff, but Rachel had elevated the simple idea and done something beyond anything Nav could have imagined himself. The frog was made of stars, and the lily pad was the cosmos, according to the gods. It always managed to take his breath away.
All the works he had managed to collect were beautiful and unique, but nothing like the scandalous and sensual canvas of Brian’s work. It was so far beyond his price range that he didn’t deserve to be close enough to touch it.
His throat clogged as he thought of the painting in its dismal setting across the hall.
“Christ, I need a drink.” He pulled his clothes from his body, letting them trail on the ground on his way to the shower. As the water cascaded over him, he tried to push the painting and Trick from his thoughts.