Welcome to Stealing Serenity, a stand alone, erotic contemporary M/M romantic suspense. This novella is releasing one scene/day (weekdays) on the blog ahead of publication. All chapters will be available for free until the book is published, then they’ll be removed. If you simply can’t wait, the complete ebook is available now on the webstore. Paperback and Subtle Cover alternate coming soon. Expected publication: July 5th
March 16, Friday—9:15 p.m.
Vault Seventeen, San Diego
The gallery was perfect. Kearin refused to allow anything less. Each finely printed photograph on the walls, every diffused spotlight, even the space between displays had been calculated to invoke a precise effect. It had taken him months to gather the appropriate photos and coördinate with each of the artists for this showing. Kearin had no doubt it would generate the effect he was looking for. The photos were magnificent, the prints high quality, his careful marketing had brought in just the right crowd of collectors–small fish in a pond where one man ruled. Unfortunately, that man was not Kearin. He had set his bait and now could only wait patiently for the trap to lure a spider from his web.
Opening night was always the busiest, and a line out the door attested to Vault Seventeen’s popularity. Only a few individuals had received his direct invitation, and fewer still were being allowed in at the door without one. At any other opening Kearin would have flung open the doors and welcomed everyone inside in the hopes of selling every print on display, but not tonight. This gallery was for a much more specific purpose, and a more delicate proposition.
”He’s at the door, Mr. Gerard,” Kathy said softly. Her long hair was done up in artful ringlets pinned with pearls and her sweeping A‑line dress was an understated champagne color. He wanted his employees to be appropriately elegant, but they weren’t allowed to stand out. Anything that distracted from the gallery needed to be muted, from personalities to color. Even the circling plates of horderves were complementary to the mood of the displays.
”Is he alone?” Kearin asked. It was better if he was, but Kearin had plans in place for any eventuality.
”Yes. And his driver dropped him off.”
Which meant he wouldn’t be driving home. Excellent. ”Circle the drinks please, Kathy.”
”Yes, sir.” She left with a whisper of fabric.
The showing had opened almost two hours ago, but Kearin had held the refreshments back intentionally. He didn’t want to waste the few expensive bottles he could get on the unimportant early birds. No, even the wine had been selected for this singular guest. A moment later, three servers with trays of wine whispered past Kearin’s position at the back of the gallery and a heartbeat after, Kathy returned to his shoulder.
”He’s inside. Justin is introducing the theme.”
”Good. Make sure none of the guests bother him. I want him to see the photos at his own pace. Keep your distance.”
”Yes, sir.” Kathy stepped away with another quiet brush of silk and Kearin watched her tall figure weave toward the front of the room.
Keeping his distance was, perhaps, the hardest part of this entire project. Especially now that the next step was so nearly in his grasp. Kearin took a deeper breath to settle himself in the moment. He had to trust his people for the next little while. It was hard to leave his trust in someone else, even people he had coached for this moment personally. No one else could read the room like he could. No one wanted exactly what he did as strongly as Kearin. It could be a few minutes or the next hour. It all depended on how well Kearin had curated the photographs. He honestly wasn’t sure which time frame would be a better sign.
He couldn’t bear it. Kearin stepped brusquely into the mingling crowd of art collectors and photography enthusiasts. A way was made for him, but he managed to contain his impatience and greet some of the more important guests in his social circle. There were longer term benefits to this gallery. Secondary benefits. He had to remember that.
Every such reminder fled as Kearin stepped around one of the center displays and the subject of his concern came into view.
Phillip Bonett stood with his back to Kearin, his hands clasped behind his broad waist–one hand gripping the other wrist–as he looked up at an over-sized photo of a man’s erect cock. Phillip’s hairline was receding, but not so much to advertise his nearly sixty years of age. He probably had implants or some kind of laser treatment to keep up appearances. His suit was well-cut and, given his size, had to be tailored. He dressed in white, which made him stand out among the tan of Kearin’s staff and the peacock colors of his guests. Phillip was a point of stillness in the gallery, a quiet moment between the hearty conversations of style, angle, color, depth of field, and subject matter.
The photograph he contemplated was only the first of several sexual subjects. Phillip had chosen the left side of the gallery to start his tour, the more… tame photos of sexual excitement and need. As he traveled around the outer edge, then through the center displays, the subjects became even more risqué.
Phillip moved to the next image. Kearin watched from his position in the center, his attention narrow and focused. At the edge of Phillip’s influence, Kathy successfully redirected a guest away to discuss a different photo, taking their attention off Phillip. She only needed to keep them occupied for a short time, enough to explain that Phillip was not to be bothered at this time. The guests here weren’t paparazzi; they would honor her request and assume it came from Phillip himself.
The next photograph didn’t catch Phillip’s eye long enough to make him stop. Nor the third or the fourth. Before he could sweep his way through the entire gallery, Kearin made his move.
Noting Phillip hadn’t taken food or drink, Kearin left his own hands free. He checked his posture, his expression, even the tone of his mental voice. Nothing could be left to chance. And the second Phillip’s eyes raked over the next photograph and didn’t even pause to take it in, Kearin was there to greet him. ”Mr. Bonett. Welcome to the gallery.”
”I’m disappointed,” Phillip said, his small eyes looking down his small nose even though Kearin stood at least a head over him. ”You know I’m seeking a particular aesthetic. Do you think I haven’t considered this combination before?”
Kearin’s gut tightened with fear. Of course the most prolific collector in the city would have seen these images already, probably in gallery combinations very similar to this one. Had he spent months and thousands of dollars to waste Phillip’s time? Phillip turned away from the photo and Kearin smoothly pivoted to escort him, apparently toward the door. Kearin’s heart raced. There had to be some way of salvaging this.
”A showing of original works is hard to approve in this business.”
”I’m sure you have means.” Phillip paused to take a wine glass from a passing server. He swirled it under his nose, then sipped the drink. He replaced it on the next passing tray. ”You at least have forgiving taste.” Phillip descended the gallery steps with unexpected finesse, leaving Kearin lagging behind. A black car parked at the curb awaited him. Apparently he had no intention of staying long from the start. Phillip dismissed Kearin with a wave of one hand saying, ”Contact me when you have something new.” He ducked into his seat and the driver obediently took him away.
Kearin’s guts did flips inside his body. Phillip had dismissed him. Dismissed his showing! As if the time and effort he’d put into the entire project had been nothing. He hated the man’s self-importance, but he hated Phillip’s influence even more. He was arrogant in the worst way but Kearin had no other options. Either cater to Phillip Bonett or languish forever as an unknown photographer, a nobody. He had talent and his vision was worth attention, but unless he could capture Phillip’s curiosity Kearin was stuck selling other people’s art at his auction house.
”That’s good news, right?” Justin asked.
Kearin grunted softly. ”Pardon?” His longest term employee really needed a new suit. This one was an understated grey as Kearin had asked, but it hung limply on his shoulders like it had come off of a department store rack rather than out of a tailor’s shop. Justin knew all the soft skills that kept clients happy, though, so his lack of élite fashion sense could be forgiven.
”He said to contact him when you have something new,” Justin repeated the words that Kearin had almost disregarded. ”That sounds like an invitation to me.”
”Yes,” Kearin realized, grabbing Justin’s shoulder with rising excitement. ”Yes, you’re right.” Kearin replayed the brief observations he’d taken inside the gallery. Phillip had considered the first portrait for some time. The subject had captured him. He hadn’t dismissed Kearin’s gallery as a whole, just the photos he’d seen before. ”He wants original work,” Kearin said.
He left Justin on the steps, taking them two at a time to re-enter the brightly lit gallery, and took up position before the first photo on the left side, the one that had captured Phillip’s attention.
Kearin didn’t know the model personally, but Ashton’s treatment of her subject highlighted his dark, supple skin. There was a range of color from the shadow of his balls up the long curve to the head of his cock, framed by the model’s tight abs and the straight line of a hip, an arrow pointing the eyes back down to start at the bottom again. There was some depth-of-field. There were clearly defined veins on the underside of the model’s arousal, but his torso was a bit more fuzzy so that it fell into the background. What particularly stood this piece apart from the rest of the gallery, though, was its lack of blatant sexuality in such a sexual subject. The framing Ashton had given this photo made the subject sensual rather than erotic. There was stillness in the muscles that didn’t come from the photo medium, but from the model himself.
This was the kind of portfolio Kearin had been working on, slowly, for the past several months. Stillness. Peace. Finding a balance between arousal and being consumed with lust. It was a very personal line he wanted to walk along and the models he’d been working with had come close. Some of them very close. But not quite close enough.
Kearin had an appointment with a new model tomorrow that showed promise during the interview.
He lost himself for a moment in considering the photograph, wondering how he could find just the right emotion like this. He wanted to draw it out of the men before his camera, but so far he hadn’t managed to pull anything out of them but crude lust. Kearin huffed and shook his head. There was more nuance to sexuality than rutting against the closest surface in pursuit of unfulfilling release.
Kearin turned away from the photo. Now that he’d concluded the meeting with Phillip, his anxiety and hyper-awareness also settled down. The gallery in whole had reverted to a simple, brightly-lit room. He could be pleased with the level of attendance without worrying he might somehow miss his most important guest. Kearin sighed.
”Excuse me, sir?”
That voice didn’t belong to one of his staff, but there was just enough deference in the tone that Kearin turned curiously. His guests tended to address him by name. Bright, unflinching eyes struck him first. They were depthlessly blue and met Kearin’s with confidence. Now here was something new. Something with nuance. Kearin had to stop himself from grabbing the man’s chin to tilt his cheekbone to the light. How had someone so perfect for his project come to be here? Kearin noted a comfortable stance, his tailored suit, and a discrete portfolio tucked under one arm. Ah. This was an aspiring photographer, come to impress Kearin for a place in the gallery. It wasn’t his, though, something a simple internet search would have revealed.
”Do you have a moment to speak about Gerard Photography?”
Kearin blinked. That wasn’t the approach he expected, but again, this wasn’t the place to beg for his philanthropic side-company’s attention. ”You can submit a proposal for a civic improvement through the website,” he said, expecting that to be the end of it.
”Yes, sir.” The stranger’s blue eyes stayed on his and oddly, there was a long beat of silence.
Kearin turned to give his full attention. It was unusual to find a man that could stand next to his own silence comfortably and his curiosity was further piqued. ”What’s your name?”
Daniel hadn’t pressed a handshake into Kearin’s space, which he appreciated, but the moment Kearin moved to offer his hand, Daniel’s was there, firm and warm as if he’d been waiting the whole time. That level of attention stirred pleasantly in Kearin’s chest. If half of his models took as much care, Kearin would have been done with his project weeks ago. Daniel’s grip was just as measured: tight enough to draw attention, but not so tight that he imposed himself. He didn’t overstay, but nor did he pull away first. The sheer perfection of the interaction had Kearin craving more, but he couldn’t just ask a stranger to strip naked for the camera.
He wanted to see Daniel naked and needy in his rope.
Instead he said, ”How can I help you?”
Daniel smoothly offered his portfolio, flipped open to his chosen page. Kearin accepted it. ”I’ve been following your branch’s work for a couple of months now. I admire the dedicated effort to improve your community and pick up the slack in corners where our government lets us down.”
He was talking about the recently renovated queer youth center. Kearin paged through the portfolio, comparing before and after photos that were eerily similar to the project photos he kept on his own wall in the office. Like Daniel had seen those results and replicated the images from slightly different angles.
”I’m seeking a position with Gerard Photography.”
”It doesn’t pay much,” Kearin said with a bit of a wry smile. He closed the portfolio and offered it back.
Daniel took it without breaking eye-contact. ”I’m more interested in expanding the influence of my photography. An image can speak a thousand words, but images are far more powerful in connection with good work that takes a stand. I think Gerard Photography does that.”
The man had clearly done his homework, which was a point in his favor, but Kearin had made his decision the second he recognized Daniel had that elusive something he’d been seeking. ”You’re familiar with the office?”
”Come by tomorrow morning at eight.”
Daniel tucked his portfolio under his arm and smiled gently. Almost shy. It drew Kearin in even closer, a lean he couldn’t quite help. He knew the technique; he’d used it before, but Daniel still hooked him.
Those words pleased him on a fundamental level. Daniel didn’t say them in reverence, he offered them as an equal inclined to recognize that Kearin had something he wanted. Well Daniel had something that Kearin wanted too, and after he had a chance to know the man a little better, Daniel would fall into his rope, and his portfolio, willingly.
If Daniel’s modeling didn’t capture Phillip’s attention, Kearin really was in the wrong line of business.
He nodded subtly, releasing Daniel from his space and his attention. The man turned away. Kearin brought his focus back to the gallery. This night had become something far more successful than he had expected. He knew that breaking into Phillip’s circle of trusted collectors wouldn’t be easy. Now his new challenge for Kearin to bring something new to the table had sparked a determined fire in his soul. Phillip was a spider at the center of a web that Kearin was rapidly learning how to navigate without getting caught. And Daniel would be the bait that drew Phillip out.
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