“WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T GET IT?!” the snarl rang out through the night, cutting through the quiet Aiden had been enjoying—though he would admit he’d been growing pretty bored, so the disruption was altogether welcome.
He glanced towards the shouting man, intrigued. He was pretty tall and his tough guy look complete with black leather jacket, white T-shirt and jeans seemed to fit the attitude he was tossing around. Blonde hair stuck out in a multitude of directions. Probably from stress and raking his hands through it if the way he did the gesture just then was any indication.
He was nose-to-nose with another man, amber eyes attempting to burn the offender alive, while he waved a fist full of papers around, crumpling them.
“Look at the play of light, the rough lines versus the smooth ones, the emotion of the piece!” Despite being in the middle of a rant, the sharp edges on the man’s face softened as he eyed the pages of what Aiden wanted to assume was art of some sort. “It’s symbolic, cocksucker! Don’t you know art when you see it?”
“Sir, this gallery is for real artists,” the man sneered, his words dripping with snobbery as he turned his nose up.
Already Aiden could tell that was a bad move.
The inevitable explosion did not disappoint. It started out small. Shock making the blonde’s face freeze, eyes slightly widening, mouth parting open, before a steely glint cut through, firming that full mouth and narrowing molten golden eyes.
Faster than could have been anticipated, an arm whipped out, snatching the snob’s face to hold it still as his other hand withdrew a marker and started drawing, seeming intent on making a masterpiece out of rather meager starting material.
His victim screamed and clawed at his shoulders. Which was pretty dumb since his struggles only made life worse for him when the marker went off track, jabbing him in the eye. Once he was finished drawing what looked like a dick on the man’s face, he went ahead and finished what had been started earlier in the process, sinking the marker in his eye.
Screams echoed all around them as he shook the man by the marker, drawing him closer to the blonde’s face so he could hiss, “I draw therefore I am a real fuckin’ artist.”
“I don’t need some pretentious prick to tell me my artistic worth. All you have to do is be creatively inclined and then act on that feeling. And there doesn’t need to be anything more to it than that,” the punch was brought down with such vicious force that the gallery snob’s neck twisted dangerously from the whiplash, making him grunt and fall to his knees.
Blood sprayed out of the man’s mouth, painting the sidewalk. The aggressive artist seemed pleased by the development, taking a few victorious struts, stalking around his victim, eyes never wavering in their furious focused intent, “Hey, look, performance art! I’m so fuckin’ versatile!” A kick to the stomach came next.
All through the display Aiden didn’t bat an eye. Merely continued taking drags off his beer bottle as he took in the night’s entertainment. It had been a while since he’d seen someone so interesting. Cold, calculated, precise punishment doled out by a man with such fierce, fiery, passionate conviction. Seemed appropriate he’d be an artist, someone just a little odd. He’d always appreciated a different perspective. Besides being incredibly awe-inspiring, the man was just plain hilarious as he kept startling held back laughs from Aiden throughout all his raging.
But, the fun wasn’t meant to last.
Security rushed to the scene causing the assailant to stumble away and curse when he lost his grip and some of his pages fluttered away from him. Knowing he couldn’t risk getting caught, he ran off down the dark, cobbled backstreets, leaving most of his beloved sketches behind. He disappeared into the shadows as Aiden looked after him, considering the situation as he swirled his beer casually, knowing he needed to make a move now if he was going to make one at all. He’d always been one for following his instincts, letting feelings guide his actions, even if his uncle thought him a dangerous idiot for the notion sometimes. There was something about a good sign from the universe that always made Aiden feel most rewarded when he took the time to look out for them. And his patience did, indeed, reward him as one of the artist’s pages floated by, landing at his feet.
Setting the beer aside, Aiden crouched down, retrieving the sketch. He tilted his head as he viewed the piece. It was a man. In the middle of transforming into a bird, it seemed. His arms spread wide, head tilted back, neck exposed as he left himself open to the feeling of feather and bone sprouting along his form. Freedom in all its splendor.
A finger stroked across the page, an unconscious, thoughtful smile playing about Aiden’s face.
Nigel inspected his sketches, muttering curses under his breath as he tried to rub the wrinkles and creases out of them. Losing his temper always only served to piss him off even more in the long run. The jackass gallery prick deserved what he had coming to him, but he still mourned his hard work, lip curling as he knew they couldn’t be restored to their original quality. He contemplated just balling them up and being done with them. After all, they certainly weren’t going to get into any art shows now. Well . . . not like they were before.
He sighed, folding his remaining sketches and shoving them in his jacket pocket, making sure his sour mood didn’t have him taking it out on his art again. He was still proud of his work. He’d meant it when he said he didn’t need some fancy asshole’s stamp of approval to know he was good at what he did. But, it’d sure as hell be nice to have a little praise and approval. Any kind of pat on the back for his talent. He didn’t need to be famous. Hell, he didn’t even need to make enough to feed himself. It’d just be nice to have someone see what he saw. Really understand for once.
He snorted, shaking his head at himself before leaning against the dirty alley wall, lighting a cigarette. He blew out a puff of smoke. Nigel bet Hannibal would have been able to get into that art show easy. All his fancy techniques, classic style. Dressing right, saying the right thing. Charming the crowds to get his way. Always so damn smug. His brother could get away with anything.
Nigel huffed, smoke billowing around him before disappearing. He’d never been like Hannibal. Opposites from the start. Hannibal called himself sophisticated, whereas Nigel just thought he looked like a self-absorbed, overdressed prick. Hannibal always called him rude. Well, the way he saw it, he preferred to call them like he saw them and bluntly let people know where he stood. Instead of dancing around an issue and playing stupid, fucking mind games.
He grinned to himself, head lolling on the brickwork. It was pretty petty, but at least he’d gotten the last one-up on ol’ Hanni before he ran off. After a lifetime of bitterly playing second-best to the dick, at least he could say, just once, he’d beaten him at something. Though, not without a bit of a helping hand.
He chuckled to himself, tossing the cigarette on the ground and snubbing it out with the toe of his boot. After his latest stunt, it looked like it was time to move on again. Shame. Bucharest had been kind of fun. And definitely not the sort of place Hannibal ever would have set foot in. Both were pluses. But, he was about to have another set of assault charges under his belt. And he could draw anywhere. He’d prefer not having to do so in prison.
He quirked a smile at the city full of lights outside his hideaway. “Bye bye, Bucharest.”
“Don’t say that. Bucharest is far more interesting with you still in it.”
The voice suddenly cutting through the quiet had Nigel jumping, stumbling backwards away from the sound, body tensing, ready for a fight.
“Whoa, sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you,” the figure stepped into the light and put his hands up.
He frowned at the sight that greeted him. He’d never met the man before. He definitely would have remembered if he had. Big, bright blue eyes with long, thick lashes. Plush, red “fuck me” lips. Pale skin lightly tanned with a pink dusting over the cheeks. The pretty package topped off with bouncy, dark brown curls falling messily over his head. Nigel couldn’t have done a better job if he’d made him up himself.
He coughed, attempting to cover being caught off-guard as much as his dick’s growing interest. “You didn’t scare me.”
White teeth flashed almost blindingly bright in the alleyway when the guy’s smile lit up his face. “So you always greet new people by jumping nearly three feet in the air and yelping?”
Nigel narrowed his eyes, not pleased by the joke or how lightly he was being taken. “Only the creepy ones who stalk people in cold, dark alleys.”
Another smile. “I don’t make stalking a habit. I came here for the atmosphere. And,” he shook his hand, drawing Nigel’s attention to the papers he held. “To return these.”
He cocked his head, surprised that someone had bothered to pick his drawings up let alone go through the trouble of bringing them back to him. He only slightly hesitated in approaching the man to retrieve his property, still wary of his intentions. He’d spent enough time around the block to learn a hundred times over that if something seemed too good to be true, it probably was. It seemed like a wild amount of trouble to go through just to be a good Samaritan. Still, the guy didn’t move a muscle as Nigel took his papers. Just kept on with that damn, knowing grin. It didn’t make Nigel uncomfortable, per se. More . . . he just couldn’t get a good read on it. Like, it seemed nice and friendly enough, but he got the feeling there was more to it than that. It was like the guy wanted something from him. There was something demanding and weirdly focused under that easy-going smile. Anticipation was in the air, making him weirdly feel like prey being targeted by a predator, despite him being bigger and stronger.
And damn if Nigel didn’t get suddenly turned on from the feeling.
Nigel blinked, getting back to reality. “What?”
Soft blue eyes were locked on the pages Nigel held, tracing over the lines. “Your drawings. I’ve never seen anything like it. You’ve got some serious talent.”
Nigel scoffed, wondering what the heck this guy was trying to sell. “Don’t bullshit me. There are people way more skilled at what I do.”
“Don’t bullshit me, either. False modesty doesn’t suit you.” He readjusted his red jacket along his shoulders. “You probably know way better than me that art is about more than what classes you’ve taken or what techniques are the latest trend. It’s about connecting to your audience. Making them feel—”
“What you want them to feel,” Nigel finished, disbelief still lingering but fairly impressed.
The other man nodded, unmindful of the wind blowing his curls in his face. “I’ve always been a big fan of art. Real art. I like the feeling. Being taken away to somewhere else. Someplace nice. Feeling . . . free.” He closed his eyes, his body relaxing in his imaginings much to Nigel’s awe. “No responsibilities, no cares. No pressure or expectations. Just the discovery of something great. Getting to see something new. Something beautiful. It’s amazing, don’t you think? Artists leaving the window open so, just for a moment, everyone can touch greatness.”
By that point Nigel really wasn’t sure what to do with the situation anymore. Pinch himself to make sure it was real? Roll his eyes and brush him off? Or get down on his knees and worship the man who had a mind as striking and unbelievably beautiful as the rest of him?
Rather than spend the entire night just embarrassing himself, Nigel settled on facts as he tucked his sketches away. “You’d be the only who thinks any of that about my work.”
Though, that was still super fucking great to hear. Ask and you shall receive, huh?
A shrug. “Everyone else’s loss and my gain. I try to keep my eye out for extraordinary things when the rest of the world always seems too content with routine. Makes life more interesting, I think.”
He held out his hand, cool and confident as you please. “Have I earned the right to know the name of the talent behind the genius masterpieces? Or do I need to do a little more ego-stroking?” And the son of a bitch actually dared to let a sexy-as-hell smirk flash across his face then.
Nigel felt his own smirk forming, pretty fucking okay with the idea of the minx pursuing him. He clasped his hand, giving it a firm shake, hoping he didn’t notice the shivers that coursed through his body at how much the heated touch truly affected him. “Name’s Nigel.”
“Nigel,” and fuck if he did shiver that time at the sound of his name rolling out so sensually from the angel’s mouth. The little lick he did to wet those cherry lips nearly made him groan. That wasn’t fair.
Jesus, maybe it had been too long since he’d last gotten laid.
“Is there a last name to go along with that?” Angel Face inquired, all coy, hooded glances and secretive smiles.
That cut through the delicious vibe they had going on, pouring icy water on a situation that was probably getting too hot to be smart anyway. The reminder of his brother and what could happen had him withdrawing.
“Hey, how ‘bout: ‘Do you have a fuckin’ name?’” he shot back, defensively. “Or maybe I should just keep calling you Angel Face like in my head, huh gorgeous?”
Light, musical laughter filled the air, nearly throwing him for a loop again. Did everything about this guy have to be so damn beautiful??? Did he somehow manage to shit diamonds, too, while he was at it?
“My name’s Aiden Galvin,” he smiled warmly. “But, Angel Face and Gorgeous suit me just fine.”
Hell, yes, they did.
“Feel up for touring the city one last time before you make your escape?” Aiden asked, playfully.
Nigel eyed him suspiciously. “What’s the catch?” All this seemed too good to be true.
Big blue eyes looked at him, all innocence. “No catch,” he shrugged. “I just think you’re interesting.”
He narrowed his eyes. “There’s always a catch.” He walked half a circle around Aiden, inspecting him as if trying to find some hidden clue as to what his intentions really were. “Why all of this? Why me?”
He started ticking off on his fingers. “Let’s see, you’re talented, beautiful, and absolutely fascinating! What’s not to like?” He fluttered his lashes, a thought suddenly occurring to him. “Or, since we met in this creepy, dark alley maybe you’re concerned about my motivation?”
Nigel crossed his arms. “Maybe. You a serial killer?” They could pop up from anywhere, honestly.
“I’m Jack the Ripper on weekends.”
He choked on a laugh, the image of Aiden being capable of swatting a fly let alone killing someone hysterical. “You got a plastic suit?”
“What?” he cocked his head, all curious confusion.
“Never mind.” Nigel shook his head, grinning despite himself.
“Is that the problem? You too scared to hang out with me?”
He bristled at that one but managed to settle down into cool indifference. “No. Just still wondering on that whole motivation part.”
“Not much to it, honestly,” Aiden approached him, so very calm. “It’s this terrible habit I have. I like to go after whatever interests me. Keep what catches my eye.” He brushed a finger along the sleeve of Nigel’s leather jacket.
He hated that he preened at the attention. “See anything you like?” And he could have kicked himself for using that line.
Aiden grinned. “I think so.”
Nigel smiled, unable to help himself from being charmed by the angel that seemed to have a little devil in there somewhere.
“So, you got a little adventure in you or do you wanna hang out in this smelly alleyway all night?” The teasing shrug of his shoulders and suggestive smiles were doing him in fast.
Making one last effort to deflect the conversation, if only to not so easily give in to the siren’s desires, Nigel gruffed out, “I thought you said you were in the alley for the atmosphere.”
“I was,” he said, practically sauntering to the mouth of the alleyway. Which wasn’t necessary since Nigel’s gaze was glued to his ass the second he turned around. His eyes shot back up quickly when Aiden paused, tossing a look over his shoulder. “You’re the atmosphere.”
With that said Aiden walked away, confident Nigel would follow.
Damn if he wasn’t right.
Hours later, they were walking through the city and still talking. Like tourists. Or a fucking couple. It had Nigel baffled. How this angelic beauty was really giving him the time of day. Seeming content even in just hearing Nigel talk as he looked up at him with avid interest. Which was fucking wild since he seemed to have a knack for grating on people’s nerves and pissing people off.
“So, what brought you to Bucharest?” Aiden brought up, casually. “Your accent sounds foreign. I’m guessing . . . European? Buuuuut, with a hint of something else. Something new. American?”
“Good ear,” Nigel complimented. “I was born in Lithuania. I moved to America later on with my brother. He started some psycho-shrink bullshit and I thought my art career had a shot there. Turns out that “land of opportunity” stuff really is just a tagline.”
“Maybe it was just bad luck?” he offered.
Nigel shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter. I can’t go back to the States anyway.”
Aiden tilted his head, blue eyes gazing at him, curious. “Why not?”
He sighed, patting his jacket for his cigarettes, knowing he’d need a smoke for this one. It was only when he’d lit one and had a good couple of puffs that he continued. “I got in a fight with my brother. If I go back I’ll be arrested for assault,” he chuckled, though it wasn’t a happy sound. “Son of a bitchin’ prick’s so damn smug about it, too.”
“Oh man,” Aiden whispered, frowning. “That sucks.”
That got a real laugh out of Nigel. He really liked that honest bluntness the little angel had going for him.
The corner of his mouth curved. “Yeah, it does.”
“Why’d you get in a fight?” he seemed to backtrack, trying to put it better. “Like, what made things go so bad between you two?”
Whelp, here goes nothing, Nigel thought, blowing out a stream of smoke, carefully considering Aiden.
“He was trying to eat me.”
Aiden jerked his head back, eyes shooting open so wide they almost filled up his entire face. “His own brother?!”
He really shouldn’t enjoy shocking the precious thing so much, but he couldn’t help it. “He ate our sister years back. I think he’s got a taste for it.”
He frowned. “I don’t think he’s winning “brother of the year.””
He snorted, amazed once again by Aiden. “You’re an odd duck. Cannibalism not as hard-hitting as it used to be? I mean “eating people” whatever, but heaven forbid you keep it in the family!” A wide smile spread across his face and only grew wider when an embarrassed flush crept over Aiden’s face. Seemed like the angel could be thrown off course, too.
“I dunno. You’re pretty casual and okay with it, too, by the sound of it.” Aiden sighed. “Guess I always wanna hope the best for families. I hate hearing about those kind of things not working out. But other stuff, even crazy stuff . . .” he puffed out a breath, settling on. “I’ve been around long enough to see some weird stuff.”
Nigel considered the far off look and closed off body language his little angel was displaying and decided he didn’t like it. “That’s what you get for deciding to meet new people in deserted alleyways,” he teased, trying to coax back the seductive minx with the brilliant smiles.
He came back with a vengeance, blindingly bright smile back in place, warming Nigel immensely in ways he didn’t want to examine too closely right now. “But that’s where the interesting ones hang out. You know, the ones who stab people in the eye with markers~”
They both laughed, feeling much more at ease. It was amazing, Nigel thought. How two people really could come together like this. Talk about the weirdest, darkest shit and not make a big deal about it. He got the feeling there was more to Aiden than he let on. Something just a little off. And, the more they talked, the more Nigel was starting to look forward to finding out what.
He wondered if that was the reason why he felt such a strong urge to be so upfront with Aiden. Part of him had been wanting to scare Aiden off, but another part, he had to admit, really wanted to see how far that accepting nature could go. Maybe that was why he opened his mouth, admitting: “I was sort of asking for it.”
“Hm?” Aiden hummed.
“Getting in a fight with my brother. Hannibal trying to eat me.” He waved a hand as if gesturing to all of it.
“Why do you say that?”
Nigel tossed him a cheeky grin with a wink. “I mean, I did fuck his boyfriend.”
Aiden blinked at him, but he didn’t hold any judgment or disgust in his steady gaze. Just open, honest curiosity. “Why?”
He kicked at a loose pebble, shoving his hands in his jacket pockets. “I wanted to provoke him.” He made a grumbling noise, annoyed that he decided to start the topic but determined to see it through. “Will—that’s his boyfriend’s name, but, seriously, boyfriend is not the right word for whatever the fuck they have going on. Anyway, Will hates Hannibal. I mean hates him. Way more than me, I think. Which is pretty fuckin’ impressive! I’ve known Hanni longer and I’ve had plenty more practice at hating him. So, the deal is, they like to play mind games with each other. The craziest, over-the-top, batshit stuff you’ve ever seen. And they get other people in on it all the time. Just to mess with each other. I think they get off on it. The hate-sex must be a fuckin’ dream if Will seriously keeps doing this with Hanni. But, back to business, Will’s pissed off at Hannibal, right? I’m pissed off at my brother, too, because he’s just so good at doing that to people. Me and Will get to talking. Angry, little thing gets into this huge rant and it’s hot as hell—of course, not holding a candle to you, gorgeous.”
Aiden chuckled, inclining his head for Nigel to continue, not bothered at all.
That was surprisingly soothing and made it easy for him to continue. “Now, I don’t play stupid games. I made my interest in him pretty clear and then he got this look in his eyes. And he was all over me, saying how we should fuck. And, sure, Will is a hot piece of ass. Maybe a little too bitter for me all the time, but not a bad choice, you know what I mean? But, I knew what it was. Revenge. Not sex. Not stress relief. An attack on Hannibal. Just another move in their game. That week’s pawn featuring: me. And I didn’t mind being used one bit. I think a part of me had been hoping for Will to do that.”
They were both silent a moment, just taking in the scenery, letting the information settle between them. Watched other groups of people walk along, eat at cafes or restaurants, and function like normal human beings.
Eventually, Aiden closed his eyes, an almost pained expression crossing his features. “Why would you let someone use you like that, Nigel?”
Bless such a damn angel for caring more about his emotional well-being than the fact that he was a man-stealing, cheating home wrecker.
“It was a mutual using, gorgeous.” At Aiden’s unimpressed look he went on with a deep sigh. “Hannibal has been better than me at everything my whole life. I’m strong, he’s stronger. I aced track, but he can still outrun me. I can think my way out of a hairy situation? He can do the same twice as fast and still have time to make a flower arrangement for his damn dinner party. I can charm—and I swear I can be charming when I feel like it!—some people into working with me on something. But Hannibal can make fucking cannibal puns straight to FBI agent’s faces and get away with it. I’m talking years of that shit, Aiden.” He sighed again. “He’s successful at everything he’s ever done. I’ve failed at everything I’ve ever done.”
The raw pain of getting it out in the open hit him harder than he’d been expecting. So much so that he stopped in their strolling around to lean against a building, bracing himself. He at least had the sense to make it look more like he was casually leaning, going for aloof.
“I had a girlfriend a few years back,” he gritted out through reopening old wounds. “It was pretty serious. I was thinking about marrying her. But . . . things didn’t work out. Little fights started becoming screaming matches. Throwing shit, saying things we didn’t mean. I wanted to pretend everything was okay, but I knew deep down it wasn’t. We were going our separate ways and I couldn’t accept it.” He paused, a lump in his throat. Aiden putting a reassuring hand on his shoulder gave him the push he needed. “She cheated on me with some half-cooked noodle-brained, piece of shit. I didn’t blame her for leaving me, Aiden. But it hurt so damn bad when I found out she had moved on with another guy and didn’t even tell me. I felt so betrayed. Lost. She said I couldn’t let go and it wouldn’t have mattered either way. That it was the only way to get it through my head that we were over. Maybe she was right . . . but it was the most painful thing I’ve ever felt in my life.”
When Aiden gave his shoulder a sympathetic squeeze to offer comfort, Nigel gave his hand a pat.
“I wanted, just once, for Hannibal to get it. Understand how much it sucks to not be perfect. It was driving me nuts. He flaunts how great he is, gloats about it as he mocks the rest of the world.” He growled, lurching away from the wall, pacing to the edge of the sidewalk and back. “I know I can do great things! I know I’m good at what I do, but . . . what’s the fucking point if he’s always going to be better?! I know it isn’t fair to think my life was ruined because his was so great. It was the pettiest, most fucked up shit. But . . . It’s like . . . I wanted to prove he could get hurt, too.” Lost eyes, holding a deep pain locked with Aiden. “Screwing the guy Hannibal loved so much was the worst thing I could imagine doing to him.”
He shivered, flashbacks flickering at him. “And it worked. I’d never seen Hanni so . . . wrecked. Out of control. Downright emotional. I think the worst part is that I let some stupid, petty shit ruin my relationship with my brother. I won’t lie. I still get a sick, twisted kick out of knowing I hurt him. But . . . I’m never going to get to talk to him again. Joke with him. I know he’s an asshole. Probably deserved it. But he’s still my brother.” He drew in a long breath. “He attacked me and the rest is history. If we ever see each other again, I know he’ll try to kill me.” The corner of his mouth drew up. “Probably succeed.”
He looked back at Aiden and when he saw the pain in his beautiful face—pain shared, pain caused by him—he retreated from the moment, hating that he just kept fucking things up no matter what. “Well, enough of that pity party!” He straightened, nodding, determined to be done with it.
“Nigel . . .”
He shook his head, dodging the kind hand that tried to comfort him again. He didn’t need any of that. He just wanted it to be over.
Aiden hesitated, clearly wanting to help.
Nigel thought that was the end of it until he heard Aiden whisper. “Families are complicated.”
He relented, bumping his arm against Aiden’s. “You got that right, Angel Face.”
They walked on, going back to taking in the sights. The more they did it, the more Nigel realized he was going to miss Bucharest when he had to leave. Though, that was more because of the company than the scenery. Hell, maybe Aiden would be open to the idea of traveling with him.
“Hey, look over there!” Aiden pointed, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him over to a window.
A window featuring a plethora of paintings. It was dimly lit from being closed, but he could tell it was a gallery. Smaller and less pretentious than where Nigel had started the night but a gallery all the same.
“What of it? Thinking I should try my luck here.”
“No!” he rubbed a hand over his face like Nigel was missing some big, obvious point. “See, this is what I was talking about. Why I like your art so much. What do you see?”
Nigel glanced back inside, perusing the displays. “Landscapes. Portraits. Abstract. And . . . I’m not sure what the fuck that is.” He craned his neck, perplexed.
“Yeah, what is that?” they tilted in sync before Aiden shook his head, curls bouncing all over the place. “No! We’re getting off track. No veering!” He playfully shoved Nigel’s shoulder. “So much of this art is . . . copies. Just a redo of what already exists in the world. And that’s an amazing talent, don’t get me wrong! But so often . . . it lacks that oomph. I’m sure all that stuff meant something to the artists and speaks to some people. It just doesn’t speak to me. But your art?” Aiden’s eyes rolled into his head as he did a spin, nearly overcome by the beauty he spoke of. “It’s vibrant! It’s alive! It has something to say. And I wanna hear it!”
“Look,” he fished for something out of his pocket and gave a little “aha!” when he found it.
Nigel gaped when he saw Aiden spread out his sketch of the man turning into a bird on the window.
“Hey, I thought you gave ‘em all back!”
Aiden ducked his head, grinning sheepishly as he smoothed the crinkles, lining it up alongside the gallery’s works. “It was my favorite. I couldn’t bear to part with it.”
Little thief. Nigel thought, amused. Hell, he could have the sketch if he liked it that much.
When he recognized he wasn’t in trouble, Aiden shot him a look full of mischief with a tantalizing body wiggle that was going to be the death of him. “Would you sign it for me? I’m your biggest fan~”
“Whatever you want, angel.”
Once he had the sketch placed just so, Aiden got back to whatever point he was dead-set on. “Do you see what I see now?” He gestured for Nigel to back up and take another look.
He did and realized the other man had made it look like his sketch had a place in the room beyond. It looked hysterically stupid and didn’t look like it belonged in comparison. Unfinished. All the mistakes glaring when set up like this.
Before he had a chance to comment, Aiden flew right in, saying his own piece. “Your art makes theirs look boring! I know I’d be falling asleep walking through this place, but if I saw yours in there, it would make me wake up and pay attention. Don’t you understand how amazing that is?! You’re a great artist! You’re better than all these professionals!” The last word dripped with sarcasm.
Nigel snorted. He appreciated the sentiment, but . . . “Hannibal’s a better artist than me.”
Aiden rolled his eyes. “You know, there can be two master artists in the world, right~?” He shook his head, pulling the picture off the window and returning it inside his jacket while putting a hand on his hip. “There’s always going to be someone better than you, Nigel. That goes for everyone in anything anyone tries to do. That’s just how things go. But, hey, it’s not about being the best. It’s about loving what you do. So, do you love drawing?”
He put his hand to Nigel’s lips, searing them with heat, making him breathe out a gentle gasp. “Then that’s all there is to it!”
Aiden took on a thoughtful expression. “I really do think you have a lot to offer, Nigel. Have you ever considered graphic novels?”
That brought a laugh out of him. “Comic books?” What was he, a fuckin’ nerd’s wet dream now? Hannibal would laugh at the artistic heights he was aspiring to.
Aiden “tsk”d, waving a finger at him. “Graphic novel. You can’t sell your art until you figure out how to be able to sell yourself on an idea first. I don’t think it’s a lack of interest in your drawings or even hopping from one prospective field to another. I think you have a problem with self-fulfilling failure. You’re shooting down every opportunity and self-destructing before you get up any hope that someone won’t reject you.”
His lip curled, giving Aiden a vicious side-eye. “You sound like my fuckin’ brother.”
Angel Face smiled again, knowingly. “And you lash out when you can’t handle the truth. Dish it out but can’t take it, hm?”
Nigel’s lips scrunched, moving from one side of his face to the other as he considered those words, bitterly. Eventually he hummed, letting the tension ease out of his shoulders, accepting Aiden’s words to be true. He relented, giving Aiden a weary smile and nod, encouraging him to continue.
Nodding back, the younger man returned to his musings. “I think there’s an amazing story you could tell somewhere in there. Graphic novels might give you the chance to explore all that lovely symbolism on a deeper level, too. Give it a shot. What do you have to lose? I think what could really help you out is having a game plan of some kind. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish. What’s the endgame here? Then set out some small, hmm, let’s call them checkpoints. It’s easier to make a big goal come true when you can focus on a series of small victories that will lead up to it. If you keep getting fixated on the ending not working out for you yet, you’ll just keep disappointing yourself. Buuut, if you constantly reward yourself with minor successes it’ll positively reinforce a good work ethic that will eventually get you exactly where you want to be.”
It was truly a hell of a sight to behold, seeing Aiden get so engrossed in his suggestions and advice. The way he flicked his hands around to emphasis his point. The way his eyes lit up and sparkled when a particularly good idea entered his mind. His mouth really was entrancing. In more ways than one.
“You sure seem to know your stuff,” Nigel pointed out, impressed with Aiden’s planning.
He smiled, pleased by the compliment to his abilities. “I went to business school.”
“It shows,” then he threw out a casual statement, fishing for information. “For a businessman you know a lot about art.”
“I can’t have hobbies?” There was a soft chuckle and shifting of feet. “When I was little I wanted to be an artist, too. My dad stopped that real quick. He didn’t want me to be a pansy.”
Nigel sneered and he spread out his arms in his jacket. “Do I look like a fuckin’ pansy?”
Aiden grinned, shaking his head. “Nope! He just didn’t get that kind of stuff.”
“Your dad’s an asshole.”
That got a loud laugh out of him. “I’m with you on that!” His carefree smile turned inward, more contemplative. “But, it wouldn’t have panned out anyway. Art’s tough! It’s why I respect artists so much. I never got the hang of getting all the feelings in my head out onto a page. I’ve got stupid hands.” He waved them around limply to make his point, smiling once again.
Nigel didn’t know what he was thinking, but he instinctively took one of those hands, holding it gently, giving it a little stroke with his thumb. As if trying to soothe them from those words. “You don’t have stupid hands, angel. Anyone can draw. All it takes is practice and dedication. You have to have a plan and stick to it. Just like you said, eh, gorgeous~?”
Aiden was giving him a warm look and a few seconds passed between them before he remembered he was still holding his hand. He let go quickly, embarrassed by his actions. “Anyway, if you ever want to learn how to draw I can help you out.” The idea of guiding Aiden’s hands, brushing their bodies together, as he helped him and made adjustments had Nigel licking his lips.
“And I could help you come up with a timetable and goal chart. Or some sort of business plan for how to get your art out there on the market. I’ve been told I have a knack for organization.”
“Hell yeah,” he agreed. “You make it sound so easy. Manageable. Every time I’ve ever tried to go forward with my career, it’s always been a big mess.”
“I can help you with that. Have you ever considered a patron?” he suggested, casually. “I’d be interested in backing you if you’re open to the idea.”
Aiden’s proposal left Nigel floored, freezing. His sudden stillness caused the man opposite him to notice the tension and get on guard as well.
When Aiden had offered to help Nigel, he really hadn’t expected everything to go to hell. He had plenty of money and he’d always liked indulging in the arts. Nigel seemed like a good investment if he could just shake the lingering low self-esteem and throw all his passion into his work. Plus, he liked Nigel. If he could help get him on the right path, he wanted to. It would be a shame to see all that talent go to waste. If he could create an opportunity for him then why not make things happen?
Taking a deep breath and letting it go, Nigel spoke. “Listen. You don’t have to fill my head with all this graphic novel and patron bullshit if all you’re looking for is a quick fuck. I’m already interested. You don’t have to take it this far.”
“Nigel, what?!” Aiden exclaimed. “No—”
“Or,” he whipped around, checking their surroundings. “Is this some big tv joke?” He raised his voice, waving an arm. “Hi! Pretty fucking hilarious, huh? Seeing the dipshit fall for everything so easily! I mean it should have been obvious when you guys hired a fuckin’ model as your bait. Next time get a guy more plain or were you really trying to nail that guardian angel shit?”
“Nigel, calm down,” Aiden grabbed Nigel’s arm and tried to stop himself from preening at the “model” comment. “Stop yelling. There aren’t any cameras. I’m serious.”
“And I’m saying you can’t be serious. I still don’t get your deal, gorgeous.” Those amber eyes practically begged him to let him down now and get it over with. Well, he’d have to disappoint because he wasn’t going to let Nigel down. Not in a million years if he could help it.
“Why does it have to be anything more than “I like you and I like your art”?” he asked, smiling at the silly man. “It’s more simple than you’re making it out to be. I’m not just after one part of you. I want the whole thing! I think you can satisfy me on all levels. Mentally, aesthetically . . .” His grin widened and his eyes took on a heated quality. “And physically.”
The tension left Nigel’s shoulders at the reassurances even as his face took on an intensity in response to Aiden’s flirting. He loomed closer, opening his mouth to say—
But, he didn’t get the chance as a shout pierced through their private moment.
And just like that, the tension was back in Nigel making him jump away, guarded and closed off once again. Aiden closed his eyes with an irritated sigh, annoyed at whoever was interrupting their moment. He’d really been enjoying that open, exposed vulnerability in his artist.
He glanced over his shoulder to see one of the security guards from earlier stomping across the street towards them, red-faced and panting. He raised an eyebrow, admittedly impressed at the man’s tenacity.
Nigel cursed. “Aiden, I’m sorry. I have to go.”
He jerked his head up, not liking the sound of that at all. “No.”
“What? Angel, I don’t have time to argue. I’m gonna—”
“No,” he said firmly, having none of that. “You’re not going to get in trouble. You’ll be fine.”
“Don’t go.” Aiden put up a hand, instructing Nigel to stay where he was. “I’ve got this.”
At Nigel’s raised brow, obviously wondering what in the world Aiden could possibly do, he tossed him a teasing wink. “Just stand there and look pretty, gorgeous.”
Nigel flushed at having his endearment thrown back at him, Aiden mimicking his accent.
“Trust me.” He gave a playful shrug as he took a step in front of Nigel, turning towards the advancing security guard.
The light mood was ruined the second the guard approached them, reaching over Aiden like he wasn’t even there to grab Nigel by the collar, jerking him forward so that he bumped into Aiden’s back. He was proud to note that Nigel didn’t make a move to leave or fight. Just stood there, a dangerous light in his eyes flickering, promising violence.
Aiden put a hand on the guard’s arm, preventing him from taking further action and drawing his attention towards him. “I’m Aiden Galvin. This man is with me. Do we have a problem?”
The expected guffaw prickled Aiden all the same. “Pft! You’re not Aiden Galvin! You kill anyone lately, squirt? What’re you playing at?”
Aiden muttered under his breath, “No one ever believes me . . .”
“Let me make this more clear,” he offered.
The guard howled in pain, blood gushing from his nose at the force of the jab. Quick as a flash, Aiden pulled his gun out of his jacket, shoving the barrel against the man’s forehead.
“Believe me now?” he clipped out.
The man whimpered, holding his broken nose. “I’m s-sorry, Mr. Galvin. I didn’t kn—”
Aiden cut him off, brushing the gun threateningly down his face to rest at his throat. “So, I’ll ask again: Do we have a problem?”
“N-no, Mr. Galvin!”
“Good,” Aiden nodded, putting his gun away before he drew more attention to them than he wanted. “Also, be sure to let your boss know that there’s no need to press charges. Though, if he still has any complaints, I can send Darko his way to discuss it with him.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary, sir!”
He gestured his head, commanding the guard to leave. He was readily obeyed. He watched the guard scamper off, stumbling over himself.
“Where the fuck did that come from?!” Nigel demanded, eyes wide open in shock, righteous tone trying to cover a slightly nervous one.
Aiden sighed and grinned sheepishly. “I may have a bit of a reputation around here.”
When Nigel didn’t say anything, only waited for him to come out with it, Aiden continued. “I’m a . . . you might say businessman of sorts. I run an organization that distributes . . . substances in high demand. Such work requires a certain amount of aggressive reinforcement.” He patted the concealed gun in his jacket.
Everything seemed to click in Nigel’s mind, realization flickering over his features. “You’re a drug lord?”
Aiden scratched at his head, ruffling brown curls. “That’s one way to put it, yes.”
Whatever reaction he’d been expecting he hadn’t expected to be laughed at right to his face. Sure, people had not believed his claim plenty of times before. It came with the territory when you had a pretty baby-face and easygoing personality. But never when he’d just pulled a gun on someone and broke a guy’s nose. In truth, not being taken seriously ruffled his feathers, but, at the same time, he really liked hearing Nigel laugh. So, Aiden didn’t mind the hit to his ego if that was the result.
He put his hands in his pants pockets, jacket bunching up, as he admired the deep belly laughs, full of honest joy that softened the man’s face, creating crinkle lines in the corners of his eyes. “Something funny about my job?”
Nigel shook his head, wiping a tear from his eye, his grin bright, bold and beautiful. “No, it’s just my shit luck is worth fuck all. I knew there had to be some kind of fuckin’ catch. I have a serial killer cannibal for a brother, so why not a drug lord as a potential—whatever this is!” he gestured between them. “It can never be simple! I can’t just meet a nice guy who makes my shit-day—hell, shit-year—better. Someone who likes my drawings and can actually see the shit I’m trying to convey. Like really understand that shit.” He came down from his laughing fit, shaking his head, still trying to process everything.
Aiden’s mouth firmed. “I happen to think simple is boring.”
He knew Nigel was just upset, but he couldn’t help the sting that shot through him at the words. He did understand and he did want to make things better for Nigel. His job didn’t define him.
“Don’t get in a huff, gorgeous. I have a cannibal for a brother, remember? This isn’t going to make me run for the hills. It’s just so in-fucking-credible.” He shot Aiden a sleepy-eyed look full of exhausted acceptance with a sprinkle of amusement still lingering in the depths. “So . . . what’s a pretty thing like you doing in a job like that?”
A self-conscious smile tugged at his mouth as he glanced to the side, mulling over the events that had lead him to his career. “Kinda complicated. This started out as my uncle’s business. I only wanted to . . . dabble a bit.” He rubbed a hand over his face, trying to find the words to explain. “You see, my dad was an addict. And he used to beat the shit out of me. Tell me every day how worthless I was. Too much of a pansy to ever make it as a real man. That I didn’t have the “right stuff” in me.”
Aiden tried to avoid looking at Nigel as he revealed everything, but from out of the corner of his eye he caught Nigel’s smile fade into a frown. His face hardened and Aiden couldn’t tell what the look meant. Concern? Pity? He didn’t mince his words long enough to find out.
“I started working for my uncle so I could become my father’s dealer. Make sure I had something over him so he couldn’t risk hurting me anymore.” He explained, trying not to get too heavy into it. It happened years ago and it was over. No use making a big deal like people always wanted to. “I . . . liked having that power over him. To make him have to beg me for help. And, well, he eventually didn’t like that. Having his weak, worthless son hold his own weakness over him. We got into a fight one night. Turns out I’m a lot more capable than he thought.”
Aiden looked up, catching Nigel’s eye, prepared to take being open and honest all the way.
“I killed him.”
Not giving Nigel time to respond, Aiden decided to finish things up quickly, “After that, I needed protection, so my uncle looked after me. He liked my “initiative.” Especially in that he’d never been a fan of my father, either. I made my way up the ladder, proved myself a pretty capable businessman who could hold my own if things got rough. And a few years back my uncle got arrested on some minor charges that authorities are determined to keep him locked up for as long as they possibly can. So, he’s had me cover things for him until he gets back out. Aaaaannnndddd that’s that.” He bounced on his feet, happy to have that conversation done with.
Nigel seemed to mull it over, not frightened off in the least. “I really wasn’t expecting any of that from you, Angel Face.”
Aiden gave a single, short huff of a laugh, amused at the timing of that nickname Nigel seemed so fond of for him. “No one ever does.”
“Not saying you can’t kick ass and take names. I’ve already seen you do that,” he added, smiling. “And remember when I called your father an asshole?”
“He’s the biggest asshole ever!” the sudden seething fury that came rolling off Nigel in waves nearly made Aiden fall back a step in surprise. “Seriously, he makes my brother look like a fucking saint and he’s a giant prick! Who the fuck did that son of a bitch think he was?! Laying a hand on such a gorgeous, perfect fucking angel!” Nigel growled, offended to the max as he huffed and paced, running a hand through his hair in irritation. “And calling you weak and worthless?!” He pointed at Aiden. “You just let a guy twice your size have it like nobody’s business. You met me in an alleyway after I stabbed a guy in the face like you were meeting up with somebody to go to the movies. You didn’t know me! You had no idea what I was capable of! And what you’d seen already made a pretty bad impression that would have had most people running with their tails between their legs. You’re not afraid of anything! You’re so damn brave, sweetheart.” A soft, affectionate look filled his face when he whispered that last line.
Aiden stared at him, stunned.
Nigel clenched his fists. “You see the best in me when no one else ever has. You see beauty everywhere and you’re not afraid to live life to the fullest and go after what you want. That’s the most amazing shit I’ve ever witnessed in my life. You’re so amazing, gorgeous, and if your father couldn’t see that then he’s a fuckin’ idiot who’s better off dead. And another thing . . .” His eyes darkened dangerously, an inner viciousness yet untapped bubbling to the surface. “If he was still alive I’d kill him myself.”
Then it was Aiden’s turn to burst out into laughter. It started out as rumbling shakes before he couldn’t hold it in anymore and tossed his head back, chestnut curls bouncing along with his mirth. “You really don’t hold back, do you!”
Nigel scowled, obviously not happy at his declarations being taken so lightly.
“No fun getting laughed at when you’re serious, huh?” Aiden waggled his eyebrows to wipe the displeasure off Nigel’s face. “But, yeah . . . thanks, you know? For what you said. That means a lot.”
And it really did. It was nice to have someone be so openly, honestly caring towards him. Nigel getting all overprotective of him made something inside Aiden flip. No matter that he could handle himself just fine. He liked that he could make urges like that well up in his sweet artist.
“Hey, if you wanna see something actually funny, you should see Darko—he’s my number two—when I’m in meetings with associates. Now, he’s a scary guy whose got one of those resting bitch faces. Either that or nothing.” He snapped his fingers, waving a hand in front of his face.
“Like Hanni,” Nigel said under his breath with a fond expression.
“And when I take over to manage things he makes these faces like “what the heck am I doing working for this guy?!” “Where did I go wrong that this is my life?!” Aiden snickered. “I’ll admit that I don’t take my job as serious as I should. I’ve always been easy-going. ‘Free-spirited’, my uncle used to say. I dunno. I like to do what I want, when I want, who I want.” He winked at Nigel.
Their soft chuckles filled the air between them, both enjoying the story and comfortable in each other’s company.
“I’ve always been that way. But I think I drive Darko up a wall when I change plans or skip out on him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to do a takeover on me, but I think the guy’s too loyal to ever do it. Even if he really, really wants to.” Aiden grinned, enjoying the struggles of his number two.
Aiden wasn’t sure what had gone wrong when Nigel tensed up as his finished talking about his long-time friend. “Hey, Nigel, what’s up?”
“Are your boys going to be okay with this?” He looked . . . concerned.
“What?” he cocked his head questioningly.
“Us.” Nigel clarified. “Being together.”
“They’re not going to be in the room with us,” Aiden teased. “And I know Darko is into some kinky stuff, but I don’t think he’s into voyeurism.”
At Nigel’s unimpressed look he took the question more seriously. “It’s my business, Nigel. Not theirs.”
“Isn’t this going to be bad for your reputation?” he snapped, obviously frazzled. “That Darko guy doesn’t sound like he’s on board with you. You said so yourself! He sounds like bad news. What’s a guy like you have to do to keep control of guys like that?!”
Aiden popped his lips. “Be myself? Get results? Don’t take crap from anybody? What are you expecting out of me? It’s not like I need to drop a certain amount of bodies each month to keep their respect. That’s not how this stuff works.”
“I don’t know how I fit in with any of this!” Nigel was back at it again. “When we started this night you were just a guy. A crazy, beautiful, amazing guy. You liked my work and got under my skin like nobody’s business, darling. We’ve known each other, what, a few hours? It feels like forever. You don’t even know all the things I’ve thought about when it comes to you! You’ve the face of an angel and a body hot as sin. Making me constantly think of bending you over and fucking you so hard and good that everybody around here’ll know you’re mine,” he sighed, toeing the ground with his boot. “And it turns out you’re a big, hotshot crime boss who’s probably gonna kick my teeth in for even thinking shit like that. But, if I’m gonna go out then I’m gonna speak my mind,” he shrugged, weary acceptance. “I thought I had a chance at getting lucky tonight, but I should’ve known that I’d be getting fucked by fate because I’m the universe’s bitch.”
He grinned, shaking his head at his mess of an artist. Such a sourpuss. With the dirtiest mouth he’d ever heard. He liked the idea of making it dirtier.
“You’re perfectly safe, Nigel,” Aiden’s smile softened, affection spreading through him. “And you can say that kind of stuff to me all you want. ‘M not offended. Kind of turned on, actually. In my line of work you learn to appreciate a lack of bullshit.”
He almost laughed again when Nigel’s lips parted in shock, but he managed to keep it down to a few mild chuckles.
“It’s really okay? You’re not fucking with me?” he asked, bewildered.
Aiden shook his head, smile only growing wider.
“Are you sure you’re a crime boss???”
Aiden snorted. “Do I need to whip my gun out again to give you a reminder?”
Gaining confidence and recovering fast, Nigel crowded into Aiden’s space, leaning over him. “I’d rather see you whip out something else right about now.”
Aiden stayed where he was, perfectly relaxed and comfortable with the looming man. His face took on a mischievous expression, eyes glinting with excitement. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to make fate jealous. Sounds like the universe needs you~”
A heated grin stretched, revealing sharp teeth. “Fuck the universe.”
He tilted his head back, inviting, taunting. Amusement playing about his lips as they got closer. “Sounds like that would be a change of pace for you.”
Warm breath fanned over him, blonde bangs tickling his cheeks. “It’s good to switch things up.”
“Yeah, it is,” Aiden agreed before he grabbed Nigel by the back of the head and kissed him, roughly slamming their mouths together.