Tyler Williams's sister bounded into his apartment with a sickening cheerfulness, considering he and Craig had been hauling boxes and furniture for the past eight hours in the sweltering heat. The A/C window units were taking a damn long time to start working, although Ty hadn't bothered turning them on until they were almost finished moving.
Mandy's glossy black hair was normally tamed, but the humidity had it swirling about her head in reckless waves, much like Ty's own did, but on a full-time basis. Most people thought they were twins, but Mandy was three years older than his thirty.
"Hi, Craig," she said as she swiped Ty's beer from his hand and took a swig.
"Hey!" Ty protested. "There's more beer in the fridge."
"Then go get one." Mandy stuck her tongue out at him.
"So help me, sis, you do that again and I'll grab it," he threatened as he walked the short distance to his new kitchen. This apartment suited him much better than his previous modern suburban atrocity. In spite of the weird dimensions from creating six apartments from one old house, he loved it. For a change, he could walk to work or the subway, and he'd never have to drive in the winter again. The place was perfect.
"Ooh. I'm so scared."
"Bring me another one, Ty," Craig called out.
Ty smirked and handed bottles around, having anticipated the request. Craig, a big, sexy Italian cop, had been his best friend since grade school, and Ty knew what he wanted. If the man weren't straight, he'd be perfect.
Mandy leaned down and kissed Craig on the cheek. "How are ya, big boy?"
"Same old, same old," Craig replied.
"Okay, Tyler, show me around, quick-quick, because I got you the best housewarming present. Although this house doesn't need any more warming. Did you get a break on the rent because your apartment's in hell?"
Craig snorted from his corner of Ty's brand-new couch. "Air-conditioning, my ass. May's fucking hot to move."
"I just turned on the A/C a few minutes ago. And I wasn't going to break my lease for you." Ty turned a mock glare on both of them. The truth was, sticking out the end of his lease had been monstrously difficult. Preston had fucked him in every room, on every surface, before finally fucking him over. By Christmas, everything had gone to shit, and he'd wanted to run. He was no longer in love with Preston, if he ever had been, but the memories of his foolishness were hard to handle.
"Can you pop down to my car and bring up Tyler's housewarming present?" Mandy dangled her car keys at Craig.
Warmth spread in Ty's chest. They might torment each other like any other siblings, but he and Mandy had always been close. She'd stuck by him when his parents hadn't, but he still hadn't expected a housewarming gift.
"What does it look like?" Craig asked.
"You won't be able to miss it." Mandy pasted on her version of a mysterious smile. Ty reminded himself to avoid that one--made her look like a demented imp, and it might look similar on him.
This better not be a setup. His sister had super-shitty taste in gay men. 'Course, so did he, as evidenced by Preston. Probably they shared a genetic defect.
"Yep. So, show me the place. I want to see the den of loving."
"The what?" Ty knew he shouldn't ask, but if he didn't, Craig would as soon as he stopped choking on his beer.
"Hey, when you signed the lease on this place, the master bedroom was all you could talk about. I figured you were planning on hosting crazy orgies or buying a sex slave or something."
Blood rushed to his cheeks. Mandy was the crazy one, judging from her extremely uncensored stories, which had gotten even more graphic after she married Craig's partner on the force. Jake would have been helping with the move too, but he'd dislocated his shoulder a week ago in a tussle with a suspect and couldn't do any heavy lifting yet.
"A sex slave?" Craig finally caught his breath. "Yeah, that sounds like our Tyler." The sarcastic tone was a bit insulting.
Were they saying he was repressed? He'd had a boyfriend and his share of one-night stands. So what if his share could be counted on one hand? He was single, one hundred percent out of the closet, and ready for lots of sex--as soon as he got up the courage to go out and get some.
"Why are you both picking on me?"
"Mmm, just because you're you, little bro. C'mon. Show me the sex cave."
Ty let loose a chuckle. Sex cave. That had a nice ring to it.
After a quick tour, they stood in the master bedroom.
"Oh my God, Ty, this place is awesome! I thought it was weird you weren't making the second bedroom into an office, but you've got tons of room here. And when you mentioned a whirlpool tub, I thought you were talking about a bathtub with jets. You could swim laps in that damn thing. I'm insanely jealous. Put a fridge in here, and you won't have to let your sex slave out of this room for days."
"Shut up about the sex slave!" But he laughed as he said it. It was true. Find the right man, and they wouldn't have to leave for anything except to eat. Stupidly, the romantic idea that the apartment was designed for a couple had been the deciding factor for taking the apartment. But how could he trust another man after Preston? Love 'em and leave 'em--that was safer for his heart.
"This is perfect. I can't believe how awesome my gift will look in here."
"I can take a hint." Craig left, jingling Mandy's car keys.
"Modest much, Mandy?" Inside, Ty was quaking. She hadn't gotten him a prostitute, had she? Was that what all the sex-slave talk was about? Shit. He wasn't ready. Not for the one-night stands he hoped to have, not for a paid date. Nothing. He hadn't had sex since...well...since weeks before his breakup with that cheating bastard.
"Hey, when you're as good as I am, modesty is just a ridiculous lie." Mandy grinned at him.
"Uh-huh. Let's see it. It better be good." It also better not be a man, or he was going to kill his sister. He was sweaty and hot, and his hair was plastered to his head. None of which did a thing for his self-confidence.
Ty flopped down on his bare mattress and thought about looking for sheets. Nah, he didn't have the energy right now.
"Seriously, how are you doing?" Mandy perched on the edge of the mattress next to him.
"I'm okay. Great apartment, great job."
She inspected his face as though searching for a lie. He wasn't lying, much. But it had been six long months since his life fell apart, and he was getting tired of reassuring people.
Craig's heavy tread alerted them to his return, and Ty wanted to see what Mandy had gotten him, if only to keep her from looking at him with that pitying expression.
Ty sat up as Craig wrestled an enormous rectangular package wrapped in brown paper into the bedroom.
"Holy shit, sis. It's bigger than Craig." And it wasn't some random man his sister thought he should hook up with. "What is it?"
Mandy ignored him as she peered at the wall beside the bed. "Here. Right here." She pointed, talking to Craig.
"Here, what?" they both asked in unison.
"Hang it here. It's perfect."
Craig propped the package against the wall and retreated, presumably to locate Ty's toolbox.
"Let me see." Anticipation was making Ty twitchy. Mandy slapped his hand as he reached for the paper covering.
"Just wait. It'll be like one of those fancy unveilings."
"Uh-huh. Right." Ty fell back on the bed while Craig began measuring and hammering. "So, you got me a painting." Paint by numbers? Black velvet? One that only showed its best features under black light?
"Shut up, Tyler. Just wait a few more minutes, okay?"
Ty shut up. As long as it wasn't a picture of a six-foot-tall clown, it didn't matter much what it was.
Finally the painting was hung to Mandy's satisfaction. Craig sat down beside him on the bed while Mandy reached dramatically for the brown paper cover.
"I give you Maxwell Friedland." She ripped the paper away, leaving Ty speechless.
"Holy shit," Craig muttered beside him.
The man in the painting was breathtaking. Ty didn't know a lot about painting, but he didn't think he'd seen one as lifelike, almost a photograph. The mop of blond hair, highlighted with honey and gold, looked soft and real enough to run his fingers through. The bright blue eyes glowed like star sapphires. Tyler's cock flexed slightly, and his face flushed between the conflicts of lust and embarrassment. Lust whispered in his ear that the "painting" was hung to Tyler's satisfaction and then some. He wasn't aware artists painted life-sized portraits of naked men who were...blatantly aroused.
Ty found his voice. "Mandy, what the hell?"
"Isn't he gorgeous? What better way to celebrate your new life?"
Ty bit his lip. He understood Mandy's motivation. He was finally out--to everyone--and it was a relief not to hide anymore. But the process of coming out had been painful and humiliating. Hell, this way he'd never have to announce it again. Anyone who saw this painting would know.
Craig shook his head and downed the last of his beer.
As Ty gazed at the spectacular specimen, he sensed Mandy's mood deflating.
"You don't like it?"
"No, Mandy, it...he is gorgeous. It's a great way to celebrate. You said Maxwell...Friedland? Is that the painter?"
"Nope." Mandy's smile returned full force. "Maxwell is the man in the painting. It's a stunning picture, isn't it?" Mandy's tone was self-congratulatory, like she'd painted the damn thing herself.
"Yes, but that's not what's got you all hyped." Ty knew his sister well. "Why is he so sad?"
The more Ty looked at the painting, the more he sensed despair, the hopelessness of the subject. Maxwell appeared to be in his early to mid-thirties and had the kind of physique Ty drooled over on construction workers and firefighters.
"Sad?" Craig scoffed. "If that dude were any happier, the painting would be in 3-D poking your eye out."
"He looks quite happy to me too." Mandy smirked and drew her finger along the impressive erection.
Ty grabbed her wrist and pulled her away from the painting. "Mandy, cut it out!"
The strange surge of anger came out of nowhere, but if it was his painting now, he'd have some say about who touched it.
"Possessive already? I love it. Anyway, like I said, I don't think he's sad, but there's definitely a mystery surrounding old Maxwell here."
"A mystery?" He glanced over at the bookshelf destined to contain his collection of mystery novels. Damn. His sister knew him as well as he knew her. Craig sat up a little straighter beside him.
"Historical mystery--right up your alley."
Hmph. Well, maybe. Even if his field was medieval Europe, not twentieth-century artwork. "What's the mystery?"
"You know I've been hoping to get the Victor Cranston estate, right?" Mandy had been salivating over Cranston's estate, and repeatedly bitching about the contested will, since the man had died six years ago. "Well, the estate's finally cleared, and the heirs agreed to let me broker the sale. But this particular piece is a bit of an embarrassment for everyone. It seems that Uncle Victor was gay and quite flagrant about it."
"Congrats, but so what if Uncle Victor was gay? It's not a bad thing." Ty frowned. He was sympathetic to the lack of familial tolerance. Just look at his own parents.
Mandy smacked his bicep, and he howled in fake agony. Craig was left to play peacemaker. "Okay, kids, knock it off."
Mandy glared at both of them before she continued. "No, being gay and open is not a bad thing, Tyler, but the estate had to pay off half a dozen harassment suits in the final decade of Uncle Victor's life. The heirs had a hard time keeping publicity down, and this painting represents the pinnacle of the Cranston scandal, even though it happened in the thirties."
"And? Were any of those heirs even alive at the time? Why do they care that Cranston kept a painting of his lover?" Because there was no doubt in Ty's mind that Maxwell was Cranston's lover.
"Well, the painting is a little over the top, don't you think?" Mandy asked. "After all, not everyone would want this around. Not even these days, never mind seventy-plus years ago."
But somehow his sister thought he did. She wasn't exactly wrong, but what did that say about him?
"Anyway, Maxwell was one of the artists Victor Cranston sponsored during the Depression. When he mysteriously disappeared, most people believed Victor killed him for sleeping with another man, but the police were never able to prove anything. The heirs wanted to destroy the painting rather than having the speculation resume at auction, but I convinced them to let me have it. I paid them a fair price, and they were happy to have it off their hands."
Ty moved to take a closer look. It was excellent work, not that he was an expert on art. "Who painted it?"
Mandy tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "No clue. It's not signed."
"Where would you even keep such a painting?" Tyler asked.
She snorted and waved her hand. "In the bedroom. From the discoloration on the wall when I went to assess the estate, Victor had it hanging above his bed for years, decades probably."
What? That was completely fucked up. Ty glanced over at Craig and saw puzzlement on his face too. "Why would he do that?"
Mandy didn't understand his question. "I don't know, maybe he needed a little encouragement of the porn type? Maxwell is really put together."
"Oh for Christ's sake," Craig said. "Mandy, do you honestly think a full-size naked picture of an ex-boyfriend--looming over the bed--would in any way be conducive to getting it on with a new man?"
"Exactly," Ty agreed.
"What if Victor loved Maxwell?"
Ty grimaced. He'd loved Preston, or at least thought he could. "Mandy, if that were a picture of Preston up there, the canvas would be hanging in shreds right about now."
Mandy's mouth rounded into a small O as she put the pieces together. "I guess I didn't think about it. I just thought, picture of naked man in gay man's bedroom, why not?"
Ty rolled his eyes and caught Craig doing the same thing. They grinned at each other. Craig understood. Ty was gay and Craig was straight, but they were both men. No way was a prospective partner going to be comfortable with such clear and obvious competition.
"Right, well, I haven't been out for a long time, but I've known I was gay since puberty. And I can tell you, I don't think most men would be different than women in this respect. Even if Victor had been in love with Maxwell... How would you have felt if the first time you went into Jake's bedroom, you were confronted with a life-sized nude picture of his ex-girlfriend? This"--Ty gestured expansively at the painting--"this is not the same as pornography, let me assure you."
Craig nodded. "This convinces me that Victor did kill Maxwell."
Those words stabbed Ty in the heart. Maxwell would likely be dead of old age by now, but imagining the vibrant, beautiful, melancholy man murdered pained him.
"Why do you think that?" Mandy asked.
"Feels like a souvenir to me. Lots of killers keep something from their victims. Anyone want some more beer or water?" Craig asked.
"Sure, thanks. I'll take a beer," Ty replied while Mandy shook her head.
After Craig left the room, Mandy turned to Ty, her face pale and eyes stricken. "Tyler, I'm sorry. Maybe this wasn't such a good gift after all. I thought you'd be, I don't know, intrigued or something. But now it seems crass and gruesome."
He pulled his sister into a quick hug. "Don't be silly. I am intrigued. In fact, I think I might read up on the scandal."
"Oh, okay. Should we get Craig to hang it somewhere else?"
Ty sighed. When had Mandy got it in her head that he was completely incompetent? He was a gay history professor. Didn't mean he couldn't hang his own damn paintings.
"No, I like it there. He's not my ex-boyfriend, and I didn't kill him. For me? In my room? This is life-sized porn, although I'm guessing if the 'rents should ever forgive me, this will ensure they'll stay out of my room."
Mandy snickered. "Yeah, I have to admit, irritating Mom and Dad had crossed my mind. They'll come around. You'll see." She patted his shoulder. Ty was less confident, and wasn't sure he'd forgive them even if they did come to accept him.
"Hey, I've got your beer out here," Craig called from the living room.
Mandy followed him out of the bedroom.
"What, afraid if we drink under the shadow of that enormous cock, you'll start getting ideas?" Ty waggled his brows at his best friend.
"Shut up." Craig tossed a couch cushion at Ty's head while holding out a freshly opened beer.
Ty threw the cushion back before he sat down on the couch. They talked about nothing of significance for a few minutes before Craig slapped his thighs.
"Okay. I gotta get home and have a shower. Ma will kill me if I'm late for dinner."
Ty half thought about inviting himself along, but he wouldn't be able to relax, knowing all his stuff was still in boxes.
"Make sure you eat something." Craig mothered him more than Mandy or his parents had ever done, but Ty couldn't say he disliked it.
"What if I want to sit here and drink all night?"
"Right, sure. Drink yourself into a stupor with all this unpacking? Not a fucking chance. You'll be up all night as it is." Craig stood, clapped his hand on Ty's shoulder, and held out his other hand to assist Mandy to her feet.
Ty thanked them both again, without the energy to even follow them to the door. As soon as it clicked shut, he surveyed the boxes littering his apartment. The disorganization disturbed him, but his joy at living in an apartment without any haunting reminders of Preston fucking him was more than worth the temporary chaos.
A bath, with its whirlpool action, would revitalize him enough to get a few more hours' work in; the sweat and grime and heat were making him lethargic and lazy. No matter what Craig said, he wasn't going to stay up all night. He wasn't that obsessive. Really.