His nametag read "Sawyer," but he looked more like a "Sweetie," or "Cutie." Adam licked his lips as he waited for his drink, standing right across the counter from the espresso machine to let Sawyer look his fill.
The barista was fixated on his mouth, unable to look away from the M.A.C. tinted lipglass. Adam bit his lip with a perfectly-whitened tooth and cocked a manicured eyebrow. Sawyer blushed to be caught staring and knocked over the paper cup, then had to fumble it upright in order to pour the steamed milk. Adam smiled broadly, luxuriating in the option to take Sawyer for a ride. He was a little young, a little thin, a little too pretentious-NYU-film-student for Adam's discriminating tastes, but there was something about the way baristas moved their wrists, twisting and pumping as they wiped down the steam wand. He could watch Sawyer work that machine all day, and then take him home and fuck him all night.
The espresso machine hissed out the third and fourth shots, and Sawyer stirred them all into the large cup, bending down to carefully sculpt the foam. Adam looked away to hide his amused snort at the thought that if Sawyer were truly creative, he'd find a way to write his phone number in it. As it was, Sawyer wasn't enough to tempt him. …Unless his quadruple caramel non-fat macchiato turned out to be absolutely spectacular today. Adam smiled at his own generosity and licked his lips again, almost making Sawyer trip as he leaned across the bar and handed over the steaming cup.
"Here you go," Sawyer mumbled. "Is there anything else I can get you? Anything at all?" The flush was high on his cheekbones, his light green eyes popping against his red complexion, and Adam gave him a long, considering look.
"I'll let you know," he purred and took the coffee, reveling in another effortless conquest. He turned with his drink, taking his time to blow across the surface as he walked slowly to the door. The barista would still be watching his ass in the Rock & Republic jeans, wondering if Adam would turn around at the door.
And he just might, because the coffee smelled heavenly, just a hint of ground nutmeg rising with the steam, and Adam lowered his lips slowly for the sip that would decide Sawyer's fate.
Only to have the drink spilled down his shirt by the distracted guy rushing through the door, eyes on his cell phone.
Adam dropped the half-empty cup, biting back the shout of 'Fuck God Damn' because he was too high class to make that kind of scene. Instead, he shook his dripping fingers dry-ish and took stock of the ruined white Raf Simons wrap-top he'd picked out specifically for today's appointments.
"Oh crap, I'm so sorry," the asshole blurted too-loudly, apparently willing to make a scene all on his own.
Adam lifted his gaze to glare, but paused before cutting the guy down to size, because he was already the perfect size. Adorable, really; short and sturdy, strong shoulders and narrow waist, stubble and bronzed skin and messy hair begging to be laid out on Egyptian cotton sheets and tousled even further. Adam smiled at the image and cocked his head. "You should watch where you're going," he suggested mildly.
"I should, I'm so sorry. Let me get you something…." The guy ducked around him to raid the bar for a wad of napkins, reappearing in front of Adam and pawing at his cashmere sweater with thin, recycled paper, pushing the hot, soaked fabric against his skin.
"It's okay, I'll get it," Adam said, catching the guy's wrists and squeezing to get his attention. Deep chocolate eyes looked up at him and widened, followed by a gratifying flutter of eyelashes down to his lips and back. Adam squeezed again and slid his fingers higher to take the napkins for himself. "It was an accident."
"Yeah," the guy said, not looking away from Adam's face. He let go of the napkins and stood right in front of Adam as the taller man carefully lifted the shirt up and away from his stomach and dabbed. The klutz's eyes drifted lower, fascinated by the process—or maybe by the inches of skin Adam revealed.
The moment lasted a ridiculous, delightful thirty seconds, with the guy less than two feet away, blatantly staring at him. When the doors opened and a couple of women marched in, Adam took hold of the man's elbow, pulled him out of the way, and pressed the wet napkins into his hand.
"Is there anything I can do to make it up to you? Um, dry cleaning, or…."
His 'anything' wasn't as blatant at Sawyer's, but it was definitely on the table. "How about buying me another coffee?"
"Yeah, sure, I will," he nodded enthusiastically and headed for the register.
Adam took a seat at one of the small tables by the windows, making sure his best angles were properly lit. He watched the cute guy approach the cashier girl, only to be intercepted by Sawyer waving him over and handing him a replacement cup before he'd even ordered anything, or even thought to ask what Adam was drinking. Sawyer shot Adam a hopeful 'see what I did for you?' look, and Adam rolled his eyes and checked out the clumsy guy's ass. Khakis—probably Dockers or something equally unimaginative—but they fit pretty well from where Adam sat.
Sawyer mumbled something snippy, and Adam looked up, caught the jealous glare he was giving the guy. Clearly, he knew he'd just missed his chance with Adam.
Adam ignored the barista and smiled at the man bringing him his caffeine-fix. "Thanks," he said, fingers brushing over shaking hands as he took the cup. "I'm Adam." He let the invitation float there, a delicate thing.
"Um. Hi. I'm Kris."
Adam nodded and smiled when Kris's hand drifted to the back of the other chair. Kris took the hint and sat down, looking from the ruined shirt to Adam's face.
"I'm really so sorry. I wasn't paying attention, wasn't thinking—"
"S'okay, I've got time to change." Adam popped the lid off his coffee, leaned forward and licked at the foam heart on top, savoring the way Kris's eyes darkened and his cheeks took on a pink hue. He was perfect; eyes straight out of a Bernini self-portrait, and the shoulders of a David.
"Yeah," Kris said, sounding a little strangled. "I'll pay for the dry cleaning…."
"Don't worry about it," Adam said, allowing it to sound more magnanimous than the truth—that no amount of dry-cleaning in the world would save it now.
"It's a nice sweater," Kris said.
"Thank you. I'm glad you like it."
"It's unusual. It suits you."
"That it does," Adam smiled, enjoying Kris's awkward attempt at flirting. He took that first sip and closed his eyes to enjoy it. Too bad for Sawyer; even the perfect cup didn't stand a chance when compared to the shyly eager young man across from him. "I haven't seen you in here before. New to the neighborhood?" he asked after a long moment of suspense.
"Um. Yeah," Kris said, fidgeting with a used straw someone had left on the table. "Only been here a few weeks."
"Hmm. Living or working?"
Adam considered Kris's stubble and tan skin, cheap khakis, scuffed brown dress shoes, and plain button-down shirt, a cell phone and walkie-talkie clipped to his brown belt. "Construction?" he guessed. He could see that: Kris running one of the sites in the area, letting that sculpted upper-body go to waste behind a manager's desk.
Kris flushed brighter and looked out the window.
"I hope I'm not making you uncomfortable," Adam lied.
"No, it's fine. Um. So what do you do?"
"I'm in art."
"Living or working?" Kris asked, trying for suave and playful. He didn't quite succeed, but Adam acknowledged the effort.
"Both," he said and smiled at Kris's confusion. "Welcome to the neighborhood, Kris."
"Thanks, Adam." He said his name with something that sounded like awe, and Adam wasn't the kind of man to let so fortuitous a meeting pass him by.
"Do you have somewhere you need to be in the next few hours?"
Adam leaned back, stretched a long leg out to the side, made sure Kris spotted it and followed it all the way up. "Someone should roll out the welcome wagon for you. I could show you around the area, take you to all the best spots. My appointments can wait. Can yours?"
Kris was staring at him with his mouth open. Adam imagined he could see him salivating. "You would do that?"
He nodded slowly. "The question, Kris, is would you?"
Adam lifted his cup again and blew over the surface, lips pursed, eyes half-lidded.
Kris gulped. "I would, I'd love to."
"But I'm working, I have to work, I can't leave." He gestured helplessly at the walkie-talkie on his belt. "If they call…. I shouldn't have come here at all. I'm supposed to be watching—" he cut himself off guiltily.
"Would you get in trouble if I whisked you away?" Adam asked, batting his eyelashes innocently.
"I'd get fired," Kris admitted, starting to look downright anxious even as he stayed firmly planted at Adam's table. "I should go."
Kris was persuadable, that much was obvious, but Adam reluctantly decided to let this one go. He really didn't have time for a quickie, unless it was going to be here in the Café La Thé bathroom. And as a rule, Adam never fucked in public restrooms. "I wouldn't want that on my conscience," he agreed. Kris blinked at him, surprised. Adam smiled indulgently. "Far be it from me to tempt anyone to financial ruin."
"I'm. Thank you," Kris said uncertainly, his eyes falling hungrily to Adam's lips as he stood up. "I'm sorry again about running into you. I hope your sweater's okay."
Adam waved his concern off. "It was my pleasure. I'll see you around, Kris."
Kris looked disappointed—crushed, if Adam wanted to flatter himself. Adam half expected him to pull out a business card or offer his number, but Kris backed away from the table, almost slipped on the spill he'd left on the floor, and practically ran out the door. He vanished into the sidewalk bustle of 5th Avenue. Adam smiled when he realized Kris had been so flustered he'd left without getting any coffee for himself.
Sawyer dragged a mop and bucket out from behind the bar and got to work cleaning up Adam's first macchiato. He really threw himself into it, bending at the waist to thrust and sweep the mop across the floor. Adam sipped his coffee and enjoyed the show.
"Adam, I need your gold Gucci belt," Brad yelled as soon as Adam walked through the door to his condo. "And didn't you just leave?"
Adam set his briefcase and coffee down and locked the front door behind him, headed to his bedroom and found Brad kneeling in a foot-high mound of clothes in Adam's walk-in closet. He sighed. "You should've just texted. It's in the second drawer on the right."
"Thank god." Brad heaved himself up and stepped gingerly over the clothes, almost doing a split to reach the wardrobe in the back.
Adam turned away from the fabulousness of Brad's ass in tight, pin-striped pants. He stripped off the morning's casualty and tossed it in the trash can.
"What're you doing back so soon?"
"I had a coffee spill," Adam said, digging through his racks for a new sweater. The afternoon still called for cashmere, but he was no longer feeling winter white.
"You, Mr. Grace-Incarnate?"
"Mm, there was a certain gorgeous someone involved."
"Oo, anyone I know?" Adam shook his head. "You're gonna be mysterious about this one, aren't you? I know that smile…."
Adam pressed his tongue against the inside of his cheek and stayed quiet.
"Fine, leave me in suspense. But tell me what you think." Brad managed to stand upright and held Adam's gold-plated, skull-studded belt against his waist.
"Seriously?" he asked with a disapproving frown.
Brad rolled his eyes. "I know this is a disaster, but Justin's in the middle of a punk phase. Trust me, he'll love this."
"For day? Is he really that hopeless?"
"His favorite show is Jersey Shore," Brad said with an amused head shake.
"Oh God, I'm so sorry. It isn't too late to switch marks, is it?"
"He's not so bad. Hung like a stallion, so there's that. And the payoff will totally be worth a few sartorial sins."
"Alright then." Adam firmly ignored the masochistic impulse to ask his ex-lover for a comparison with well-hung Justin. He pulled out a Marc Jacobs sweater, rust colored with bold brown striping on the sleeves.
"And you pick out the troubadour shirt," Brad groaned, threading the belt around his waist.
"Fuck off," Adam said. "I'm feeling Baroque today."
"I thought you were feeling Early American. That's what Sotheby's is showing tonight, isn't it?"
Adam closed his eyes and pictured Kris again, pretty as a portrait. For the first time in a long time, Adam felt the urge to procure some art for himself. "You've should've seen his eyes, Brad. Absolutely gorgeous."
"Who, your coffee-spill someone? Are you dressing for a date, or business?"
Adam shook his head to clear the image and focused. He put the sweater down. "Business. Definitely."
"Good. Cause Mr. Hamilton's bank account is sorely lacking another Betsy Ross sewing machine or whatever."
"We'll see. Go have fun on your date. Try not to let Page Six catch you wearing that belt with those shoes."
"Oh, screw you, doll. Kisses." Brad grabbed Adam's favorite Hermès scarf and flounced out of the closet, tossing it around his neck.
Adam stepped over Brad's mess and stripped off his shoes and jeans to clean the slate. Starting over with a blank canvas would be easier than attempting to fix a ruined masterpiece.
Adam's preview of the collection at Sotheby's yielded two promising landscapes from the Hudson River School, one of which caught Gordon Hamilton's fancy when Adam showed him the photographs later that day. Adam dutifully took Hamilton's blank check to the auction that night and secured the painting after a heated bidding war with his frequent opponent Lou. By midnight the painting and receipt were safely stowed in Hamilton's vault, and Adam was taking home his broker's percentage, making a mental note to find another temptation for Hamilton in mid-November. Four weeks was more than enough time for the bloom to fade off this latest love affair.
Lou came by for her cut at 7 a.m. the next morning, looking well-fucked from her blonde bed-head to her walk-of-shame alligator pumps.
"Not Pierre again," Adam frowned, pouring her some 100% Kona roast.
She sighed happily and sagged forward in her chair, stretching across his walnut kitchen table. "Remind me why I broke up with him?"
"Because he spent half your account on other women and then ran off with your assistant?"
"But he's so good in bed," she moaned. "Seriously. If he'd just settle for being a kept man, I'd be the happiest woman alive."
"So last night was…."
"Just one of those things, you know? Ran into him in a bar, we couldn't keep our hands off each other…."
"And you've still got all your jewelry on you, right?"
"Yes," she said, swatting at him once he'd handed over her cup. "Be nice."
"I'm just saying, he ran into you. Some coincidence."
"Let me enjoy the afterglow. I can get suspicious tomorrow."
Adam shook his head and freshened up his own cup. "Want some fruit? Brad cut up a whole produce stand yesterday." She ignored the offer in favor of stealing his New York Times, dragging it over the table to read the headlines. Adam helped himself to the platter of mixed fruit in the fridge, bringing the whole plate and two forks back to the table in case she changed her mind.
"Still no lead on the Verner Gallery job, huh?" she finally asked, folding the pages inelegantly to skim the article in question.
"Guess not," Adam shrugged, sucking a slice of papaya off his fork.
"Ugh. I know Northern Renaissance is big bucks, but I really can't stand it. Who would pay a million for this?" She turned the paper around and pointed at the photos showing the front and back of the stolen Matheron Diptych. The black and white newsprint didn't do the two portraits of the royal pair any favors, and the shot of the back panels was so grainy the crown and lily devices looked like amorphous smudges, while the fleurs-de-lis in the background were reduced to polka dots.
"Nobody I know," Adam said, "but somebody must've liked it. I haven't heard a peep about it in the last three weeks, so it's probably already in its new home."
"Hmm. The Feds are on it now," she reported, reading upside down.
"Will they be rounding up the usual suspects?"
"Nobody's rounded me up yet," Adam grinned.
She looked up and winked. "Let's keep it that way. I like our Friday dates. All those horny old men with Swiss accounts and wooden paddles…."
"Be still, our beating hearts," Adam agreed and drank his coffee.
They say if you sit in one place long enough, you'll see the entire world pass by. Adam couldn't have disagreed more. On a Sunday afternoon, sitting and enjoying a plate of beignets at one of the outdoor tables in front of Nikko's on Madison, all anyone would have seen were the Manhattan socialites prowling the Upper East Side, ducking into Breguet and Bulgari with over-sized purses and exiting with miniature shopping bags. So Adam closed his eyes to better enjoy the taste of the espresso in his hand as the bells of St. James's echoed down the avenue.
Footsteps approached and faded away, high heels and sneakers, while he sipped slowly. Until one set stopped right next to him. Adam opened his eyes and looked up over the rims of his sunglasses. "Kris?"
Kris was standing next to his table and staring at him, openly covetous. "Adam."
"It's great to see you," Adam said softly, tempting him closer. "Would you like to sit down?"
"Thanks." He took the other chair eagerly.
Kris was wearing an identical pair of khakis and brown shoes to last time. They may very well have been the exact same clothes. Adam noted the walkie-talkie still on his belt, this time sticking out from under a maroon fleece pullover. The color was fabulous against Kris's skin, especially in the fall sunlight, and he decided personal beauty outweighed the tragedy of the recycled outfit. "I thought construction sites were closed on Sundays. The neighborhood committee will want to hear about this; they'll be after somebody's head."
"Are you on the committee, or just looking out for the good of the community?" Kris quipped, with none of the nervousness of two days ago.
Adam let his lips curl in pleasure. "I'm not on the committee, no. Your secret's safe with me. So what brings you to the neighborhood today? Shopping for another pair of shoes?"
Kris looked down at his well-worn browns. "Not on my salary." He peeked under the white tablecloth at Adam's brand new pair and whistled. "Alexander McQueen?"
He was truly a delight of contradictions. "Impoverished with an eye for designer labels; I love it."
Kris flushed at the compliment. Then, as though taken by an impulse, he reached out and stole Adam's last beignet off the plate and took a big bite before Adam could protest. Confectioner's sugar puffed out when he breathed, showering Kris's lips and wrist with a fine white dusting. Adam giggled at Kris's shocked, embarrassed expression, and Adam licked his own thumb, reached out and swiped it across Kris's bottom lip, and brought it back to lick the sugar off.
Kris stared, and then his tongue darted out to lick his lips clean, sucking longer on his bottom lip where Adam had touched him.
"Pastry thief," Adam smiled when Kris dropped the rest of the beignet back on the plate.
"No chance of hiding the crime, huh?" Kris asked, looking at his sleeve. "Powder residue."
"That'll teach you to steal another man's breakfast," he tsked. "Beignets are a lot more dangerous than they look."
"Dunkin Donuts have never turned on me."
"Dunkin Donuts are more buyer-friendly," he agreed, "but there's something about the finer tastes." He swiped his still-wet thumb across the plate and brought more sugar up to his tongue. Kris watched hungrily. "They're worth taking the extra time to fully enjoy."
"I see what you mean," Kris said, intent on his mouth.
"And how are you using your time today?" Adam asked. "Still on call?"
Kris followed his gaze down to the walkie-talkie on his belt and looked torn about how to answer.
"Playing hooky again," Adam concluded.
"I'm not where I'm supposed to be," Kris admitted, "but I can handle business just fine down here."
"Does that mean you can disappear for a few hours? 'Cause I'd still love to take you on a tour some time."
"I can't tell you how much I'd love to take you up on that offer," Kris said, his dark eyes even darker as he smiled, no trace of shyness left at all.
Delicious. "Maybe you'd like to take me on a tour of where you work?" Adam suggested, willing to put a little extra travel into this hookup, even at the risk to his plans for a lazy, decadent Sunday. There were other, more satisfying ways to indulge.
Kris's eyes flickered at the suggestion, considering. And then he said, "I'd love to, but there's no way that can happen."
"No, bored to tears, usually."
Adam tilted his head. Everything about Kris's body language said, yes, let's go, but the words coming out of his mouth had an inconvenient steel to them. "Now you're just being difficult," Adam chided him. "Do you think you need to play hard to get?"
Kris shook his head quickly. "I'm not, I'm not. It's just that there are rules."
"Your rules?" Adam asked.
He nodded, and then shook his head again. "I've already broken most of them just talking to you."
Intrigued, Adam leaned closer and pulled his sunglasses down his nose. "Which ones? Specifically."
"I'm…I have to go."
Adam reached out and caught his wrist in a tight grip. "Not this time you don't. Don't you go running off just when you're getting very, very interesting."
Kris twisted his hand a little, but didn't pull away. "I have to," he repeated, staring at Adam's fingers on his skin.
"And what if I won't let you?" Adam asked, wincing inside at how out of character he was acting. This wasn't his practiced balance of smolder and aloofness; this was the opposite.
Kris smiled then, like he'd been waiting for this moment. "Adam," he said warmly.
Adam let go immediately and leaned back in his chair. He raised his eyebrows, trying to reclaim some of his hauteur.
"I can't," Kris said reasonably. "I'm a federal agent."
Adam's insides froze, but survival instinct made his lips twitch into an amused smile. "So?"
"I'm with the FBI," Kris explained.
Adam popped the collar of his Cucinelli jacket a little higher against the faint October breeze. "What does that have to do with spending a little time at my table?" he asked, flirting to cover his growing nervousness.
"I know who you are."
And with that, Kris put himself squarely on the other side of the line that separated the people Adam could seduce and the people he needed to keep the hell away from. "Then you have the advantage of me." Adam made himself sip his cup instead of throwing it at his enemy and running for the Connecticut safe house.
Kris nodded. "I know. We've been investigating you for weeks. We know you have the diptych from the Verner heist and you're looking for a buyer. I've been watching you from that apartment, up there." He craned his head back and pointed straight up, at one of the windows on Madison Avenue directly opposite Adam's 6th floor condo. "I'm supposed to be up there right now, but you were just sitting here, like you wanted company. And you're so much more interesting in person, so I figured I could keep an eye on you just as well talking to you…."
There was something off about his eyes. Adam could see it now, the incongruous earnestness as Kris explained how he'd been keeping Adam under covert surveillance…until he'd gotten bored and decided to come down and flirt with him instead. Adam didn't know what to say.
"So I'd love to go with you," Kris went on, bringing it back to the explanation Adam had originally pressed him for. "I'd love to go back to your place and find out what the orchids on your desk smell like, and if those red sheets are as soft and smooth as they look, but I can't. If my partner comes back and I'm not there, I'll lose my job."
"We wouldn't want that," Adam whispered, blood running cold at the casual references to the interior of his home, his bedroom.
Kris shook his head with genuine regret. "I'm sorry."
"Me, too." He stood abruptly and dug into his pocket for his wallet. "Thanks for explaining it to me," he said with the politest smile he could muster, pinning a few bills beneath the plate to pay for his meal. "Have a nice day."
He turned on his heel and jaywalked across the street to his own building, ignoring the honking taxis. If the FBI wanted to arrest him for something, they could damn well start with crossing against the light.
There was a dirty secret to private gallery openings: no matter how rich everyone looked, no one actually had any money. At least, not the kind of money that meant something. The artist would dress in jeans, trying for I-Don't-Give-A-Fuck chic. The artist's friends would dress in all-black or neon colors, either ultra-hip or ultra-trendy. And everyone else—all the upper middle class yuppies hoping to create the illusion of wealth with a single, one-of-a-kind piece mounted above their fireplaces—they aired out their best silks and pearls.
But the real money, the kind an artist could actually live off of, kept to their mansions and charity balls. Those were the collectors who could afford multiple pieces, the ones who, if they developed a taste for an artist's work, could support a career for years.
And that was why, at Miguel Valadez's Tuesday night opening in SoHo, the only person who truly mattered was Adam.
Every eye was on him as he drifted through the rooms, every ear attuned when he deigned to share an opinion with another attendee. (The figures have the powerful musculature of an Orozco mural. The colors are jarring, yet complementary within each piece. The rebellious undercurrents of the poor crushing the rich are in tune with the latest political fashions.)
But there was only one opinion they wanted to hear: would one of Adam's clients be tempted? Could he broker a new love affair for the artist, find him someone who would fall in love with piece after piece? The artist and his friends orbited around Adam but didn't approach, lest they seem too eager. The yuppies kept their wallets tucked away and tried to get Adam to open up, to give them an idea of the future marketability of the pieces.
Adam walked among them as an idol, savoring the power and popularity of the ultimate matchmaker, the man everyone needed. He could find the artist a patron, and he could sell the next fix to a collector desperate to sate a craving, willing to pay anything to fill the bottomless hole in his collection. The percentage Adam made was almost an afterthought to the way a night like this made him feel.
After he'd made his inspection, he drifted over to the corner where the artist was huddled with his people. The friends scattered at his approach, and Valadez, in jeans and a boho beanie, straightened his shoulders and moved to shake Adam's gloved hand.
Adam had dressed for the evening in subdued gray wool and brown leather evoking a Redon landscape, with a slash of energy in his black and white tie. Valadez's eyes widened as he squeezed the supple kidskin-leather gloves, and his eyes darted over Adam's ensemble, recalculating price tags and designer labels. A shrewd man, Adam noted with satisfaction.
"Mr. Lambert," Valadez said, voice pleasingly rough from too many cigarettes. "I'm so glad you could come tonight."
"So am I," Adam said with sincerity. "I like what I've seen; you have a unique vision."
"That's a generous compliment."
Yes, it really was. Adam smiled. "Your colors in particular are exceptionally well chosen. I could see some of these side by side with Gauguin's Polynesian work."
It was to Valadez's credit that he didn't flinch at the potential marriage of his works of civil unrest to exploitative female nudes. "Yes," Valadez said eagerly, seeing not Adam's vision, but the dollar signs implied.
"Would you be willing to work on a larger scale? These are fine for medium-sized rooms, but if you had the materials…."
"Of course! I would of course be interested in working with a larger canvas."
Adam nodded, making a mental note of his eagerness to please. There were definite possibilities, here; the Fleischmanns had become bored with the Impressionists. Infusing some low-priced, Mexican revolutionary fire into the mix could reinvigorate their whole collection—and whet their appetites for the more expensive European masters once more.
"Were there any particular pieces that interested you? Personally or…professionally?"
"Yes. I'll need prints of the sunburst collage, the broken altar, and the mob on Wall Street. I'd like to take them with me tonight, if you have them."
"I have them! José Léon!" he snapped his fingers sharply, and one of his friends side-stepped along the wall to join the conversation, not meeting Adam's eyes. Valadez rapped out instructions in Spanish, and José Léon darted for the back room, practically jogging across the small, leased space.
Around the room, there were whispers and the slithering sound of wallets leaving pockets.
Valadez's chin was high as he took note of the changed atmosphere. He smiled and brushed his fingers over the silk sleeve of Adam's Cerruti button-down and asked, "Is there anything else I can give you?"
Adam left the gallery with Valadez's prints locked in his briefcase and his private number tucked in his breast pocket. He stepped out onto the dark, windy sidewalk of Crosby Street, brisk with tourists and locals hurrying to the shops and restaurants of SoHo. Balthazar's was just around the corner, and Adam was debating stopping in for a nightcap when he noticed the lone figure leaning against the brick façade across the cobblestoned street.
The short FBI agent was unmistakable in the way he slouched off the wall and headed straight for Adam.
The heady euphoria of Adam's evening soured into anger and a fear he wouldn't admit to, and Adam stood his ground instead of walking away. He didn't wait for Kris to say something charming this time, to flirt before menacing Adam's freedom. "What the fuck are you doing here?" he snarled when Kris reached his sidewalk.
Kris opened his mouth to speak, and a woman with a stroller and a large Sur La Table bag brushed between them, her shopping bag bouncing off Kris's knee with a dull thud. Kris winced and glared after her unrepentant back before saying, "Following you."
"I'm working. This is my job," Adam hissed. "The FBI has no right to hassle a citizen going about his legal business!"
"I'm not really here on official business," Kris shrugged. "My shift ended a few hours ago."
Guileless eyes blinked up at him; Adam wanted to punch them shut. "I just wanted to see where you were going."
"You're watching me…off-shift…because you're curious?" Adam sputtered.
Adam's previous conceptions of Kris were being shot down left and right. Nothing about him made sense anymore. "Are you even a real FBI agent?"
"Yeah," Kris said, sounding surprised.
"Let me see some ID."
Kris pulled a leather wallet from his back pocket and held it open for Adam to see the badge and credentials.
Adam reached for the wallet, but Kris pulled it back.
"Hey," Adam said sharply, and reached for it again.
Kris reluctantly let Adam get his fingers on it, but held on when Adam pulled the credentials toward him to read.
Something in the apologetic set of Kris's shoulders was giving off vibes that Adam never misinterpreted. So Adam straightened up to his full height, cleared his throat, and stared Kris down. He tugged harder, pushing the agent to break another of his precious rules.
And Kris yielded, releasing the leather fold with an anxious twist to his lips. Adam smirked and took a step back so he could read it in the light pouring from the shop window behind him, and Kris followed, radiating vulnerability with every flicker of his long eyelashes. For just a moment, Adam savored the victory of having this beautiful man at such a disadvantage. He wondered if Kris had any idea how much he'd just given away, the list of things he would let Adam do to him growing longer with every passing second. Adam had always assumed FBI agents were made of stronger stuff than this.
FBI agents. Crap.
This game he wanted to play with the Fed…. Or the game the Fed was trying to run on him…. Brad was right; Adam needed to steer clear and keep his nose clean. So long as the diptych was in his possession, Adam was the vulnerable one. He needed to keep his mind on business and make sure the Feds didn't get enough probable cause to authorize a search warrant or phone tap.
Angered by his own lapse in concentration, Adam pulled his eyes from Kris's far-too-appealing face and focused on the credentials in his hand.
Adam knew from fake IDs, and these looked solid. Even still, he would have to have Brad do some double checking into this particular agent. In the meantime, he assumed the character of an indignant, innocent businessman. "Special Agent Kristopher Allen," he sneered. "With a 'K.'"
"Yeah," he nodded, empty fingers twitching in the air between them.
"Do you make a habit of spending your free time stalking your targets, Agent Allen?"
"No," he said simply.
"No," Adam repeated. "Then why are you following me?"
"Because you're you," he explained.
"So, what— You mean I'm special?"
"Yeah, you are."
For all the efforts Adam made to be special, memorable, on a daily basis, being "special" to the Federal Bureau of Investigation had never been a goal of his. Now that he'd been noticed, they would always keep tabs on him. The next time a high-profile art piece went missing, guess who they would put under surveillance. And the piece after that, and the piece after that. There was no way to turn invisible now; they would always be watching him. Adam's temper snapped, and he lashed out at the FBI agent in front of him, the one whose soulful brown eyes were threatening to ruin the life he'd worked so hard to create.
"You've got some fucking nerve," Adam snarled. "This is my life you're fucking with. I haven't done anything wrong, and you're stalking me like I'm some kind of serial killer or something. The government has better things to do with their money, and the FBI doesn't have the right to interfere with my life without just cause, and you don't have the right to follow me around off-duty. So back the fuck off before I call your supervisors and tell them how you've blown their surveillance."
Agent Allen opened his mouth to defend himself, and Adam turned his back and dropped the leather wallet and credentials into a puddle of standing water under the shop's drainpipe. He used his long legs to move swiftly down the sidewalk, flagging down a cab at the corner and not bothering to check if the agent followed him again.
"Why me?" he demanded as he paced around the kitchen table. "Why the hell are they after me?"
Brad quirked a half-smile and said, "Is that a rhetorical question, or do you really want me to answer that?"
"No, and yes. I have the Matheron Diptych," Adam admitted, "but they don't know that—they can't."
"Unless Sinclair cut a deal," Brad said, repeating his earlier warning. "I still can't reach him. Harry says he's gone off the grid."
"Asshole had better be getting a tan in Aruba and not sitting in some FBI safe house."
"Such hostility," Brad tsked. "I thought you liked him. He's one of your best suppliers—"
"I liked him a lot better before somebody tipped the Feds off to what's in my storage locker. Either he told the Feds himself, or he told somebody else about me."
"And it couldn't be any of the other dozen thieves you've worked with? With enough pressure, I'd probably give up your name to get out of an interrogation room."
Adam smiled slightly. "No, you wouldn't."
Brad played like he would deny it, and then relented. "Fine, not you. But I might give up Lou. And definitely Emilio."
"Well, he has it coming," Adam growled, fighting down the too-familiar wave of jealousy.
"Hmm," Brad said, not exactly agreeing, and giving Adam that terrible, knowing look again.
"Anyway, that's not even the point," Adam said, returning to his most pressing concern, "which is how to get rid of my creepy new FBI nemesis before he puts me out of business."
"Wait, is this the cute one? You saw the creepy cute one again?"
"Yeah, he followed me to the Valadez opening. Off-duty."
"He said he was 'curious where I was going.' So not only are the Feds spying on my place 24/7, but now I've got this guy waging a personal crime-vendetta against me."
"Have you considered it's 'cause he can't keep his eyes off your sweet, sweet ass?" Adam glared at Brad until he raised his hands. "Right, sorry. You do have a great ass, though."
Adam growled and sat his mostly-toned ass down in a chair, pushing aside the guilty thought that it was time he moved to the next setting on the Stairmaster. "I can't keep making deals when I've got some obsessed Fed trying to make his career off me, like I'm the Davidoff-Morini Stradivarius or something. And since when do the Feds target fences, anyway? They should be after the guys who stole the damned thing! Let 'em go hunt Sinclair's crew for a while!"
"And how is them tracking down Sinclair supposed to help your situation?"
"Fuck you," Adam huffed. "You know what I mean."
Brad snorted and picked up the marble rolling pin from the counter. "Yeah. You're in one of your moods," he said sweetly.
Adam glowered but didn't deny it. Nobody took the piss out of him like Brad. "Do me a favor tomorrow; find out about this guy." Adam slid his notes on Kristopher Allen across the table.
Brad glanced at the paper and made a face at it. "You're gonna stalk your stalker?"
"Have you ever heard of a Fed acting like this one?" Adam challenged his friend. "Just make sure he's legit."
"Sure thing." And then Brad arched his back that way that always got Adam's attention. "Okay, this isn't the time to be talking new business, what with…everything. But uh," Brad rolled the marble rod between his palms suggestively.
Adam kept his eyes on Brad's face instead of his body. "What?"
"I got a call from someone looking to make a sale. I told him I'd pass you the info—"
"No. No new merchandise with the Feds camped outside." Adam pushed off the table and headed for the desk in the living room, getting away from Brad's seductive proposition.
"Adam…" Brad whined, following him.
"Are you kidding me?" Adam threw back.
"Just hear me out!"
"Fine," Adam snapped, flipping through his day-planner. "Who is it?"
"Hell no," he glared at Brad over his shoulder.
"I know, worst timing ever, but he's got a rose period Picasso. Now tell me that doesn't sound like the easiest offloading since that Rodin study you had three years ago?"
Adam's heart skipped a beat, and he hesitated before saying, "Picasso?"
Brad typed on his phone for a few seconds and then held it out to Adam, a burnt orange tableau of a mother and son filling the screen.
"Fuck," Adam sighed, anger forgotten as he leaned in for a closer look.
"Exactly," Brad nodded. "I wouldn't even have mentioned it to you but...nrrgh!"
It was definitely from the rose period and worth at least $2 million. "Fuck me, you're right."
"And he's only asking 400."
Adam recoiled from the phone like it might bite him. "You're shitting me. Just how hot is this?"
"The Musée d'Art Moderne last May."
"Interpol," Adam spat, like the curse it was.
Brad pocketed the phone abruptly. "You're right. It's not worth the risk." And he turned and headed back to his bedroom as though the matter were actually settled—as though he hadn't left Adam to stew in temptation.
20 minutes later, Adam was sitting on Brad's bed asking, "$400,000 US?"—just to clarify, not because he was actually considering it.
Brad started whistling in the bathroom as he gelled his hair.
"D'you think it's the same crew? Why the hell would they still be sitting on it? And why bring it to America?"
Brad's phone flew through the open door and landed on the bedspread next to him. Of course Brad had pulled up the Picasso again. "That's all I know," he called.
Adam traced his finger over the faces. "And you didn't warn them the Feds are all up my ass?"
It was beyond beautiful. And Brad was right—it would be so easy to offload. A little shell game to get the Feds watching the wrong courier, and the piece would be out of his hands before any federal warrants got approved. And to have a Picasso to his name….
"Okay. Okay, yeah. Get back in touch and find out who's handling the authentication. As long as it's someone we trust, I'll take the sale. Don't give them any recommendations."
"Duh," Brad said, winking at him from the bathroom. "I've only been doing this since grade school."
A hot pink folder dropped onto his desk.
Adam looked up from his binder on the Smythe collection and gamely slid the folder in front of him. "What's this?"
"Everything on our Peeping Toms," Brad said, leaning against the desk and nudging Adam up out of his chair.
Adam sighed and stood up, giving Brad center stage. Brad opened the folder and started laying out papers for their perusal.
"Okay, I talked to the doorman; they've been in that apartment," his eyes flicked toward the high rise across the street but he didn't point, despite the blinds they'd kept drawn for days, "for the last two weeks. Six days after the Verner Gallery job."
"Yeah. It's definitely sounding like they were tipped off. I got this shot from the roof," he pointed to a black and white photo angled down into the Feds' apartment. "They've got a telescope and video cameras, so if they miss anything the first time, they'll catch it the second."
"Still no sign of microphones?"
"Nothing that I could see, but that's not a guarantee. And if they can hear us, we're already fucked."
Adam cracked a wry smile and shrugged. "They haven't busted down my door yet, so I guess that's a vote for no sound."
Brad nodded. "Then I'm gonna risk incriminating myself a little more: I got Jenny to run surveillance, and her girls got everyone coming in and out of the building yesterday. I've narrowed it down to these guys," he pulled out a thin stack of full-page color printouts. "Six of 'em. They're working in pairs, doing eight hour shifts."
Adam leafed through the photos, memorizing faces. Half of them were wearing trench coats, but they all had that 'federal agent' set to their shoulders, the swagger and confidence that came from knowing the Unites States government had their backs. "Who's in charge?" he asked, flipping quickly past a photo of Agent Allen in the Madison Avenue crosswalk.
"None of these guys," Brad said, taking the six photos away from him. "They don't overlap long enough for any kind of reporting out. But here's what we got on your stalker."
Brad pushed a stapled packet toward Adam, featuring a full-color close-up of Allen carrying Burger King bags into the apartment building. That was him alright, bright-eyed and innocent as he looked past the camera, just as appealing as the first time Adam had met him. When he'd just been "Kris."
Adam forced his eyes off the picture and focused on the back of Brad's head as his ex leaned down to turn the page. There was a big red mark on Brad's neck from his latest night with Justin.
"Not who I would've picked as the vigilante type, but definitely easy on the eyes," Brad continued, flipping to the second page. "From Conway, Arkansas. Parents are still married, younger brother is a college cheerleading coach—mmm, flexible. Here's his high school yearbook page. And you're not gonna believe this." Adam picked up the packet to skim the article Brad had printed off the Faulkner County Gazette's website—a story about a handful of youth group kids going on a missionary trip to Mozambique.
"Yeah. You're being chased by a fucking saint. I got you his college transcript—business major. Joined the FBI right out of college, and he's been promoted a couple times in the last five years. He's good, is what I'm saying. This isn't some slack-off drone who's gonna drop the ball."
"You're killing me."
"Hang in there, sweetie, I'm almost done. He's got a studio apartment in Brooklyn." The last page of the packet was a shot of an old apartment building on a crappy-looking street. "He's living like he's broke, so he's not taking bribes. His neighbors recalled seeing a couple of girlfriends over the last two years, but nothing that seemed to last long."
"Not that they knew about."
Adam was surprised again; Allen had seemed completely comfortable flirting with him. He couldn't decide if that meant Kristopher Allen was in the closet or a damn good actor.
Brad looked up at him. "If you can't bribe this guy, I think there's only one way to get rid of him. Lose the diptych. Get the Feds chasing somebody else so they stop the surveillance," he suggested for the third time that week.
Adam paced over to the windows and folded his arms across his chest. "It's way too hot for the market right now, and I'm not about to write off half a million just because some Fed gets a hard on at the idea of busting me."
Brad tried to stare him down, a scowl on his pretty face, but Adam wouldn't budge.
"The diptych stays in storage until I find a buyer. For full value, too."
"You're being stubborn. How about just breaking even—"
"No!" Adam's pride flared and he stomped back to the desk to jab his finger at the dossier Brad had collected. "If I'm gonna be that scared of the Feds, I may as well cut and run. And I'm not about to give up everything we've—I've got going here." He caught the inclusive pronoun too late, glared harder at the file so he wouldn't have to meet Brad's eyes.
After a long moment, Brad said, "Okay. I still love you, stubbornness and all—"
Adam coughed to cover his flinch at the pain that word caused.
"—but we've gotta be extra careful," Brad finished.
Arms slipped around Adam's waist, and he reluctantly raised his head to meet Brad's gaze. "I am," Adam said. "I'm being more honest than the proverbial honest citizen."
"Oh, the indignity," Brad snorted and leaned up on his toes, placed a soft kiss on Adam's lips before dropping back down on his heels.
"You're the one setting up buys for new merchandise," Adam said, trying to ignore his body's reaction to having Brad pressed against him again. "You're not getting a finder's fee, you know."
"I know. And I'll be good and save the laying-low lecture 'til after tomorrow's buy. Go bring home the bacon, baby." Brad pinched his ass and skipped out of reach before Adam could retaliate.