Stealing Serenity Banner, title in the center, raised, arms of a white man bound in white rope on the left, cherry blossoms on the right

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 Mason.”

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?”

”I am.”

”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.

”Yes, sir.”

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.