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Rough Canvas

Joey W. Hill

Chapter One


  When the shop bells over the store entrance rang, Thomas didn't pay much attention. He was in the back tagging a wood chipper for repair and Celeste was out front to handle visitors. But when he heard the customer speak to his sister, he raised his head. Everything in him went tight, alert.

  It was a male voice, the words as unintelligible as her response, but something about that voice stirred something in his lower belly. Goddamn it, there was no way it could be. . . The sprawling wooden farmhouse and barn which his father had turned into a hardware store supplying this part of rural North Carolina area was hell and gone from New York City. There was no way that voice could belong to who he thought it did.

  Thomas drew in a steadying breath, taking in the pleasing smell of old wood. The building had been designed to feel like the farm stores of a hundred years ago. He'd always loved that about it, the quiet, powerful aura of permanence, stability. It blended with the landscape and served as a landmark of a time long past. It had become somewhat of a tourist attraction, so they had a petting area fenced off beside the barn as well as a large paddock and grazing field with a pony, goats, chickens and a pack of pigs that roamed and rooted.

  There was even one gentle-eyed ancient cow Thomas' father had rescued from a slaughterhouse. An ironic compulsion for a man who regularly sat down to beef stew, but he'd seen the calf bawling for her mother, who'd already gone up the chute. He'd purchased the baby and brought her home to his six-year-old son as a gift. Though in his gruff way, the old man hadn't called the female calf that. "She's your responsibility from here on, Thomas. You have to take care of her. " A responsibility he'd embraced. It hadn't caused a jagged ache in his gut the way the responsibility of being back here some twenty years later did, despite his attachment to the place.

  An ache that was being intensified by a voice Thomas knew too well. Damn it. It wasn't him. He hadn't slept well last night and he hadn't finished breakfast. He'd just keep checking out the chipper, because it wasn't who he thought it was. If some Twilight Zone reality existed and it was him, it was better for Thomas to stay back here anyway.

  But Thomas sat there, his hand in the machine, resting on some broken but entirely forgotten mechanism as that far-too-similar voice coaxed things to life that he'd buried six feet under his heart well over a year ago.

  A murmur in the dark, the touch of a hand passing over his hair as he drifted off to sleep. Waking to that same voice whispering to him, bringing him to life with clever fingers as he was filled deep and hard from behind.

  Come for your Master.

  His "collar" had been a slim gold waist chain he wore beneath his clothes. A relief, since he wasn't comfortable wearing jewelry that didn't fit the masculine stereotype, but then he'd discovered discretion hadn't been the intent. The chain rode low on his hips, keeping him hyperaware of every shift of his ass. The three-inch double tail of excess chain beneath the joining point had a way of working its way around to brush his pubic area, keeping him semi-erect most of the time.

  When they lay in bed in the morning and he wasn't quite awake, his Master would slide the strands so they were at the small of his back, in order to tease the crease between his buttocks. He'd move his long-fingered hand from Thomas' hip to fondle his morning erection.

  The fastener had been a locked disk with one printed word. Mine. Even the press of that metal piece against his skin, reminding him that he willingly belonged to another, kept him hard.

  Jesus, what was he doing? He yanked his hand from himself. He'd been pressing the heel of it on the erection rising fast and hard under his jeans, giving himself some relief with the mild abrasion. He wished whoever the customer was would leave. That voice was too much like the voice he had to forget, would forget.

  Even as he thought it, he firmly pushed away the knowledge of how often he got himself to sleep by masturbating to that voice in his head, the remembrance of his Master's hands taking him over, taking control, taking everything and giving back mind-shattering pleasure in return.

  When Celeste giggled, he froze. An austere, never-flustered and entirely too serious girl for her twenty-one years, Les did not giggle or titter. She might chuckle, perhaps occasionally laugh if he caught her in an unguarded moment, but the obsessive-compulsive premed student helping him out on her semester break did not giggle.

  Son of a bitch. As he started to straighten, he hit the switch to the chipper with his knee.

  He jerked back as the motor roared to life, experiencing a harrowing blink of resistance as the blades caught the tip of a finger. He yanked free, stumbling away. The machine snarled its fury. Or rather, the broken part was grinding like it was dying.

  Given the circumstances, the noise just seemed far more sentient and sinister.

  "Son of a bitch, son of a bitch. . . " It stung like hell, but that wasn't what made him shake from head to toe. My hand. . .

  "These hands are the real works of art, pet. " When his Master said that, they'd been in Thomas' tiny warehouse room, which also served as his studio. He'd guided his Master's hands into the paint and they'd stood together at the canvas, hands overlaid. They created something that, while not great art, was as much an expression of life as a child's handprint in plaster.

  His Master's white silk shirt had been open, the lean muscular slope of the chest down to the sectioned stomach muscles exposed. He'd removed the belt from his slacks so they'd dropped lower, giving Thomas even more of the mouthwatering sculpted abs and diagonal musculature angling toward the groin. The shirt was loose so there was the hint of the points of his broad shoulders, the biceps disappearing into the sleeves.

  Thomas had pressed behind his Master, turned him toward the mirror so he could trace his stomach with paint-covered fingers, taking streaks of color up over the pectorals and hard nipples, all the way to the throat. His Master had even allowed Thomas to run his hands over the expensive shirt so he left streaks of color on his clothes as well as his skin. Then his hands had overlapped Thomas', mixing the colors, making a living tapestry that reflected Thomas' passion for all that was his life.

  All that was his life then. Not now. Not ever again. Cracking open an eye, he found he still had five fingers, though the tip of his forefinger was welling blood. A slice had been taken out of the meat and part of the nail was torn. It was more blood than damage. Cursing regardless, he picked up a rag and wrapped it around his finger, holding it to staunch the bleeding. He squeezed his eyes shut so he wouldn't scream out his rage.

  Earlier this morning his mother had suggested an improvement to the paint color area. "Why don't you paint a display there, Thomas? Something that will make people see how certain colors work together for their bedrooms and trim. You're so good at that. You haven't been painting since you came home, and you used to love to do it so much. "

  He thought he might get physically ill if he walked down the paint aisle today.

  Fuck it. Whoever the hell it was, he had to see. No way Marcus Aurelius Stanton was wandering around a hardware store in the middle of North Carolina. Surely he wasn't the only one in the world with a drop-your-pants-because-I'm-going-to-fuck-you-now voice.

  Thomas strode out of the back room, maneuvered around the repair counter and nearly trampled Les, coming around the corner from the other side.

  "Oof. " She stopped herself with defensive hands against his chest. "Clumsy oaf.

  What're you doing, charging out of there like a bat out of hell? I was just coming to find - "

  He didn't hear her. Not after the first sentence, when his eyes found the customer standing in the aisle behind her about fifteen paces away, who turned from his contemplation of fixtures at the sound of her exclamation.

; Lucifer would have looked like that, Thomas was sure. Temptation, a hundred percent Grade A, tightly packaged in a hard-muscled six-foot frame. He knew what that frame looked like without a stitch on it. Marcus had a faint birthmark on the inside left thigh, but no tattoos or piercings. His lip had curled with disdain when Thomas teased him about it.

  "Art is fixed on a canvas for a reason. If well preserved, it doesn't distort or fade. I don't believe time will be as kind to this canvas. " He wasn't wrong about much, but Marcus was wrong about that. Thomas knew the man he was looking at would be riveting until the day he died, even with the sculpted lines of old age. But he didn't need tattoos or piercings. It would be like trying to touch up and improve Michelangelo's David.

  He wore his black hair loose on his shoulders. It was silk, the different lengths that fell over his brow and swept back from his aristocratic cheekbones only emphasizing his bone structure. He was the prince of every fairy tale that had ever been written. Not the prince who led the king's armies, but the one who handled his negotiations for peace with a rapier intelligence that was twice as deadly a weapon as any general could imagine. A king might gain capitulation through force of arms. Marcus could acquire surrender through nothing more than a look.

  Not only had Thomas touched those sensual, firm lips with his own, they had touched every part of his body. He remembered his arms and legs spread and bound as Marcus' mouth moved over his belly, his chest, nuzzling his throat briefly before he straddled Thomas' face and fed his thick, long cock between his eagerly waiting lips.

  His jaw had rubbed against the rough texture of Marcus' leg and the smoother skin of his inner thigh as he'd sucked and licked and done everything to drive Marcus mad.

  When Marcus' grip on his hair fisted and the thighs hardened to drive himself deeper into his slave's throat, Thomas had felt triumph.

  How many lips had touched that impressive cock since Thomas'? Probably more than he could count. Thomas hadn't been anything special. Lots of people knew how to give good head.

  He told himself cruel things like that and tried to paste them as words in Marcus' mouth to wean himself from the images that haunted him. He'd been successful enough that they plagued him mostly at night now, or when he'd worked a sixteen-hour day at the store and everyone else had gone home. Then it was just him and the silence of the old building, the sky dark outside and winking with stars that certainly couldn't be seen in the night sky over New York City.

  That long cock was contained in dark slacks probably custom-tailored by some impressive name like Armani. A blue T-shirt was tucked into it and Marcus wore a dark suit jacket over that. The Swiss timepiece on his wrist probably cost as much as their John Deere tractor inventory. Thomas knew Marcus would be wearing snug cotton boxer briefs in his preferred black. Glancing down, he saw Marcus wore Italian loafers.

  New York Upper East Side casual, which would be the equivalent of church clothes around here.

  "Tommy, this man had some questions I didn't know how to answer. " Les held up a small handful of clips. "How much weight can these hold if you're using grade-two nylon line? I told him he might prefer the twine stock, but - "

  "Too rough," Marcus said, his green eyes focused on Thomas' face. "I want something that won't scratch. "

  "Oh, like to protect a boat's gell coat. " She nodded. "How much weight did you say it needed to handle?"

  Marcus' gaze dropped, passed down Thomas' torso and back up again. It only took a moment, just long enough that Celeste turned to him as he reached Thomas' flushed face again.

  "About one sixty-two. Not that much, after all. " Son of a bitch. Thomas had been one-ninety before he'd come back here. How did Marcus do that?

  "Oh my God, Thomas. What's happened to your hand?" He'd been holding the rag over his fingers, but sometime during Marcus' perusal he'd put his palm on the repair check-in counter top and gripped the edge, hard. A fine stream of blood had dripped past the rag and down the side of the paneling.

  Celeste was two steps closer than Marcus, but somehow Marcus got there before her, grabbing hold of his wrist and tugging off the rag to see the bloody finger.

  He wanted to snatch back, snap at him, but the feel of those long fingers manacling his wrist, the fact he was now close enough he could smell him. . . Dry-cleaned clothing mixed with the scent of travel, that expensive aftershave and cologne he wore, just a light touch so it became part of the air around him. . . Thomas could identify him even with his eyes closed.

  The first time he'd followed that scent it had been their initial night together.

  Marcus had taken him home. The sex had been. . . Thomas could say it was the most amazing sex of his life, but it had been more than a great fuck. He hadn't even known he wanted to do some of the things he'd done that night until he found his cock responding to nothing more than Marcus' commands.

  Afterward, Marcus had given him the courtesy of his own room, but Thomas had been stirred up with all the new feelings, aching inside in a way that went beyond the physical. In the early hours of the morning, he'd found himself following the lingering scent of Marcus to his room. The door had been open and he'd gone in like a guilty thief.

  He'd hesitated at the foot of the bed, knowing he hadn't been invited. So instead Thomas knelt on the carpet and laid his head on the mattress, his hand slipping ever-so lightly onto Marcus' calf where it extended out of the folds of covers.

  About five minutes later, Marcus sat up, propping himself on his elbows. He'd reached out and touched his hair. Thomas knew then he hadn't been asleep. He'd been watching him, waiting to see what he'd do.

  Marcus had opened the covers, drawn him in and spooned around him, his hand giving Thomas' ass a proprietary squeeze that was a demand. Thomas had adjusted his leg and Marcus slid his now-hard cock into his still well-greased ass. As Thomas groaned at the feel of it, Marcus had pressed his lips to his ear and whispered that he would sleep that way. Thomas would just have to suffer with no release until the morning.

  The hard yearning ache he hadn't wanted to end that first night surged up in him now at Marcus' touch, so alarmingly intense he tried to pull away. Marcus, anticipating him, planted his feet. They eyed one another like gladiators.

  "Stop struggling. You splatter my shirt and I'll kick your ass. "

  "You could try," Thomas retorted. Under normal circumstances, Marcus' eyes would have glinted with humor and lust stirred by the challenge, but as he looked at Thomas' hand there was nothing amused in his expression. And these were definitely not normal circumstances.

  "You still have the shop bells," Marcus observed. A casual comment as Celeste came back with the first aid kit, but Thomas knew there was nothing casual about it.

  Thomas had given them to his father one Christmas. His dad had looked a little perplexed, but once the customers started appreciating them, his traditionalist of a father found he liked that alert system more than the fancy but banal electronic buzzer most stores used.

  The memory of when he got the bells swamped him like another blow to the gut, propelled by Marcus' intent, knowing expression.

  * * * * *

  Thomas had seen the bells in the window of an antique store in the Cape Cod village they were visiting. He'd ducked in, flipping Marcus off when he made a comment about gay men's obsession with antiques. Thomas got absorbed in the store, picking out some small prints of Cape Cod scenes done in pen and ink. A music box for his sister. He looked over some pieces of old farm equipment, knowing that when he went home for Christmas he'd describe to his dad how they were put together.

  He wished he could take Marcus with him. Even if that was a possibility, he knew he wouldn't dare ask Marcus. He'd think Thomas was a lovesick idiot.

  Knowing he was an idiot, he even found and bought something he thought Marcus would like.

  Outside the store there was a sprung occasional chair, a relic from the nineteen twenties obviously beyond salability, too
worn to be anything but a place for patiently waiting husbands. That significance wasn't lost on Thomas as he came out and found Marcus sitting in it, his head propped on the headrest as he caught a cat nap in the sun.

  He had an ankle balanced on his opposite knee, his slacks perfectly adjusted, one hand lying loosely on his knee, the other stretched along the chair arm.

  He still wore his sunglasses, emphasizing the relaxed curve of his mouth, the slope of his cheekbones. Thomas suspected the female foot traffic along the sidewalk in front of the store had increased exponentially since Marcus had taken the seat. Thomas managed to scare off a covey of them lingering as he stepped out.

  He heard their titters, their murmurs. "Figures. He's too gorgeous not to be gay. " He dropped to a squat by the chair. After a brief hesitation, he linked fingers with Marcus', for once trying not to care that they were on a public street. Marcus was much more relaxed about it, but then he hadn't grown up as Thomas had. Marcus had made his peace with his sexual orientation at fourteen. Even at seventeen, Thomas had been trying to bury any suspicion by being on every sports team he could find and taking girls to the prom, in order to give his mother photographs to share with relatives and linger over fondly.

  Marcus opened his eyes behind the sunglasses and lifted his head, his sleepy glance going from their linked hands to Thomas' face in a way that made Thomas think of every illicit thing they'd done in the course of the weekend. It made him glad he'd dared to touch Marcus this way.

  Get a grip. "Check these out. " He showed Marcus the bells, explained the use for them and their history for shopkeepers as Marcus straightened, touched them and experimented with the sound. "So you think he'll like them?"

  "I'm sure he will. " Marcus squeezed his hand, conveying with the simple gesture his awareness of Thomas' rocky relationship with his father.

  "I got you something too. " Thomas said it casually, even now wondering if he should have done it at all. Marcus had suits that cost as much as Thomas' entire wardrobe, starting with his first baby shoe until the present day.

  "Yeah? Do I need to search you for it?"

  When Marcus made a grab for him, Thomas fended him off with a grin and a forearm.

  "Cut it out. Here. " The gift had its own container, a pewter incense house that he now pulled carefully from the protective cardboard box. "You can burn tobacco leaves in it to drive off that flowery shit you wear. "

  That Thomas loved.

  "Redneck Neanderthal. I'll just spray your deodorant around the apartment. Eau de

  'I-am-not-gay', aka sweaty sock and pig wallow smell. " But Marcus tempered the too-close-to-home barb with a hand to Thomas' jaw. As Thomas looked down and opened the pewter box, Marcus' hand drifted to his hair, his nape.

  He couldn't help it, he started to tense. Touching hands was one thing. This Cape Cod village was more open, but it wasn't New York City. If Marcus should try to kiss him here, on a busy street. . .

  He'd tried to mask it, but his Master was too intuitive. Marcus dropped his touch, a brief flash of disappointment on his face before it was gone, replaced by polite interest in what Thomas was offering, making him feel like crap.

  "Never mind," he mumbled. "I'll just show you at home. "

  "No. " Marcus reached out, closed his hand over the incense container. "You'll show me now. " He lifted the hinged triangular top, blinked.

  "It's stupid, nothing you have to wear. "

  "Shut up, pet," Marcus said mildly, and the caress in the words, underlined by the gentle reproof, left Thomas silent with a whorl of confusing emotions in his lower abdomen.

  Marcus lifted out the dragon tie pin and matching cufflinks. The craftsmanship was exceptional on the antique pieces. They were no bigger than a fingernail and had chips of jade for the eyes, the tiny scales individually sculpted by the long-dead artisan. But his art had lived on. No artist could hope for more than that, to know that when his bones were dust, two people would sit on a street corner and admire what he'd done.

  "You remind me of a dragon. Your eyes. " Your heat. Your intensity.

  "Sitting on a hoard of treasure?"

  That made Thomas smile, the tension in his chest easing. "That's why I brave the flame. "

  "No. No, it's not. " Marcus leaned forward then, caught Thomas' lips before he could draw back. He kissed him hard and thoroughly, his hand gripping the back of Thomas' neck so he couldn't move. He was gasping when Marcus at last pulled back.

  Their faces were still close, Thomas' vision dominated by green eyes. "That's not why at all. "

  * * * * *

  That day had come back to him with one casual comment, just as all of it came back with that one touch as Marcus held his wrist.

  Thomas had heard how your life could pass before your eyes when it was threatened. Apparently every memory of that life with someone else could do the same when your heart was threatened.

  Of course, it wasn't as if he didn't relive it all every day in his mind anyhow. He was reminded by everything he saw, every object, scent or element of nature he'd experienced with Marcus. Air, sunlight, water.

  He'd gotten better at closing memories out at work, which was why he tried to work all the time. It helped make the burning ache a sweet dull longing over which he could more easily shovel the earth of his daily life to keep what should be dead in its grave.

  "It's just a nick," he said.

  "It looks like you sliced off the top of your finger," Celeste observed, swabbing at it with alcohol. It stung, but he barely noticed. While to all appearances, Marcus was just holding his wrist as a courteous customer helping out, Thomas felt the strength in his grip. In Marcus' eyes he saw he'd welcome the fight if Thomas chose to try to get loose.

  So he stood still, glad for the counter to press against, which separated at least by a corner Marcus' body from his involuntary reaction to him.

  The desire to struggle often had been part of their more intimate moments, Marcus having to prove he could overpower and Dominate Thomas as if he was also overpowering Thomas' worries about embracing this unexpected part of himself.

  Though Marcus scoffed at "a part of".

  It's all of you, pet. You want to be my slave. You get hard every time I order you to get on your knees, to give me your wrists so I can chain you to the bed. . .

  "You two seem to know each other," Celeste commented, taping on a bandage. "Is this one of your friends from New York?"

  "I handle Thomas' work," Marcus answered with a professional nonchalance that didn't match the look he kept locked on Thomas' face. He was covering every feature, and when he lingered on Thomas' lips, Thomas felt saliva gather in his mouth. He couldn't help it, he swallowed. Marcus' fingers tightened on his wrist infinitesimally.

  From the way Thomas' body reacted, it was as if Marcus had in fact slapped a manacle on him right there.

  "He's the serpent in the desert," a voice said acidly.

  The reaction was instinctive. Just like a high-school kid surprised with his hand up his girlfriend's shirt, Thomas jerked back at the first syllables from his mother's voice.

  He succeeded in freeing himself, though he also managed to tear loose the bandage Celeste had been molding over his finger. The guilty reaction of course made the situation more apparent to everyone, including Celeste. Her eyes widened, shifting between the two of them even as Marcus gave him an unreadable look.

  "What are you doing here?"

  Marcus turned, as calm and composed as Thomas was disturbed.

  His mother had been gardening, he saw. Wearing her neat jeans and smock printed with wildflowers, she carried her garden gloves in one hand with her dusty spade.

  While she colored her hair now to keep it ebony, her skin, tanned from her time outdoors, showed attractive lines around her blue eyes.

  The deep lines around the corners of her mouth were not as appealing, particularly since she didn't often smile since his fathe
r had died and Thomas' brother Rory ended up in a wheelchair from a tractor accident. An accident Thomas knew she felt wouldn't have happened if Thomas had been here. And of course she was right. Right or wrong, it wouldn't have happened.

  "The last time I checked," Marcus responded, "you weren't my mother. So I don't see that why I'm here is any business of yours. "

  "Marcus. " His face might be inscrutable, but Thomas knew the reaction simmering under the surface. For all his polish, Marcus became a mean son of a bitch when his temper was provoked. He could wound a person terminally with the clever cruelty of his tongue, and his mother was far too vulnerable a target.

  "New York fag," Rory snarled. He'd been just behind Thomas' mother, so he rolled forward now, jutting out his chin and pinning Marcus with a glare.

  Marcus swept him with a dismissive glance. "But one who can walk. Would you prefer being a New York fag if you could walk again? Or punch someone in the face who told you to fuck off?"

  Celeste drew in a horrified breath. No one talked to Rory like that. In fact, he'd been pretty much coddled like a newborn since the accident. He was drowning in self-pity.

  As his brother and the de facto head of the family now, Thomas knew it was something he should be doing something about. But with the store and everything else, and his own pain. . . he just hadn't. Maybe Rory wasn't the only one with a self-pity problem.

  "Marcus - " Thomas warned as his mother stepped forward, her expression taut with anger. Her hand automatically landed in reassurance on Rory's stiff shoulder.

  "Your mother asked what I was doing here. Fine. " Marcus drew a check out of his coat, turned and handed it to Thomas. "I thought I'd personally deliver your earnings from the work you left with me. "

  "But we pulled my work. . . months ago. "

  Before Thomas left New York, Marcus had decided to include him in an upcoming gallery showing with bigger names. While Thomas' credentials from art school and awards had been exceptional enough to make his presence in the show acceptable, he was an unknown. Therefore, he'd worked his ass off on the handful of pieces, knowing Marcus was giving him the type of break most artists didn't get offered twice.

  His walking out after finishing only half of the promised work brought an end to that. Not to mention it was a credibility blow to Marcus as a gallery owner. Marcus had been in the business long enough to weather such things with a shrug, especially from a nonestablished artist, but Thomas was fairly sure Marcus had never had a lover do it.

  While Thomas had missed his chance at the show when his father had the heart attack, it was when Rory's accident brought him home again less than a month later he knew his career as an artist was over. He'd come close, but it wasn't meant to be. He'd known then he wouldn't be going back.

  "Since you said you didn't care what was done with them, I decided to feature the pieces in a recent show I held, for deceased artists. " The light trace of sarcasm would go undetected by his family. Not by Thomas. Even as Thomas' jaw tightened, Marcus continued. "I set the prices at what I felt they were worth. I thought you might appreciate the extra income. "

  Thomas still hadn't looked at the check, but then Celeste's hand was on his, tilting it. "Oh my God, Thomas. Twenty-five. . . It's twenty-five thousand dollars. "

  Pandemonium broke out. Rory pushed his chair forward, nearly running over Les'toes while she continued to exclaim. "Thomas, this is. . . oh my God. Your art. . . " His mother stood there speechless, though he could tell a hundred thoughts were rocketing through her head like mortar fire, her body stiff as if having to withstand the barrage.

  But he couldn't help looking down at it himself, touching the ink. Five figures. Five fucking figures for work he had done.

  A gallery check. Marcus' logo. Marcus' signature. Thomas' lips tightened, anger filling his mind with heat.

  Give him the damn check in front of his family. Like a gift from God.

  Pulling the check away from Celeste and Rory, he strode through the store, hearing the shop bells chime as Marcus exited the building ahead of him. His mother called after Thomas, her voice stammering as she tried to Marshall her defenses, but he was already past the defensive line. His own fury could carry him through this. He would handle it.