Chris was standing in the doorway of the break room holding a cup of hot strong coffee in his hand, viewing Team 7’s bullpen. The work day had just begun, and everything looked in order: the team members in their places sharing news and switching on their PCs, the files of the current case stacked on the desks waiting for attention, and that morning seemed to be like so many others. Chris’ gaze shifted from one team member to another and then rested on Vin. For the next few hours he had to forget that Vin was his lover, and Chris seized the moment to savor the pleasant sight before his eyes until he went into his office and turned into the formidable boss. If he ever was formidable for Vin. Chris smirked, and Vin looked at him as if he heard the sound despite the noise of the bullpen. Their eyes met, and Vin winked at him. Chris shook his head and sipped coffee. Damn, it was damn hard to forget that Vin was his lover and only a hour ago he had possessed that gorgeous body. Moreover, the damned Texan knew what he was thinking about and teased him, slowly licking his lips. Chris went to him and leaned over Vin’s desk pretending he was reading a file on the desktop.
“Do you want to get a reprimand?” he growled trying hard to sound intimidating.
“For driving me crazy.”
“Aw hell, Larabee, you *are* crazy.”
“And you are smug.”
Vin licked his lips again before sipping his coffee. He knew pretty well how this habit affected Chris and never hesitated to use his power. Chris was going to say something, but the ring of his cell stopped any further conversation. Chris brought the cell to his ear, and his face turned serious as he listened. After ending the call, he informed his team, “Pete Masters was found dead in his townhouse.”
“Murder?” Josiah asked.
“Not yet known. The Police are on the scene.”
“Of course it’s a murder,” Ezra drawled. “People who are behind the arms trade and controlling a few gangs don’t die in the prime of life unaided.”
“We have to find out. Let’s ride, boys.”
They grabbed their jackets and left the bullpen, and soon after three cars raced to the outskirts of Denver.
Chris and Vin left the RAM and, followed by the other Team 7 members, they entered the house of the dead gunrunner. Luxurious furnishings surrounded them, the interior looked tasteful rather than vulgar, with every item in its place and in harmony with others. Ezra looked around and nodded approvingly. On the contrary, Vin was a little stunned. He walked to the wall and stared at the painting placed there, then glanced at another one.
“How can anyone live here?” he asked. “It’s not a home but a fucking museum!”
Chris was indifferent to the interior, his interest was purely professional. His green eyes ran over the hall but there was nothing to catch his attention, so he moved forward. The policeman approached him, and Chris showed his badge.
“The corpse is upstairs in the bedroom; the Forensic guys are working there. That way,” the policeman informed him and gestured in the right direction.
Team 7 headed upstairs. Chris entered the bedroom, nodding his greeting to the Forensic team and the Police, his badge still in his hand, so no-one asked for his identity, and he looked around. The body was lying on the bed, no sign of violent death on it and no trace of fighting in the room. Everything looked like it was a natural death, but Chris’ experience and instincts told him that impression was wrong. He stepped aside, giving the space near the bed to Nathan, and turned around. His eyes fell on the wall opposite the bed, decorated with a painting. The painting dragged his attention, and he stepped closer staring at it. He couldn’t believe his eyes, but the longer he looked, the more he was sure that he knew the person painted there.
The painting depicted a young man riding a horse. The horse and rider merged into one like a centaur; it was a wild and unrestrained embodiment of the desire for freedom. The youth was dressed in clothes inherent to the Old West, the wind blowing the fringe of his buckskin coat, throwing back his long brown wavy hair. Chris knew that hair very well, as well as the youth’s face – a pretty face with a square jaw. But the youth’s eyes were even more stunning – huge, bright blue, shining like stars. Shocked, Chris turned and stared at the same eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Vin asked.
Chris turned back to the painting, Vin followed his gaze and paled.
“What the hell?” he exhaled staring at the image of the youth.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” Chris regained his composure enough to ask.
“I… I don’t know.”
“It’s you,” Chris’ voice became stronger. “No mistaking it. Your face, your body, your looks.”
Vin couldn’t argue that. The youth really looked pretty similar to him.
“But I never met any artist and sure as hell was never a model!”
“Then how do you explain this?”
The soft tone of Chris’ voice alerted Vin. He looked at Chris noticing the icy gleam in his eyes and the deadly grin on his lips. None of it was a good sign.
“Chris,” Vin’s voice was calm and quiet. “I don’t know who and why they painted it, but I have nothing to do with this painting.”
Vin turned around and walked away, making clear the subject was over.
Chris didn’t follow him, instead he looked at the painting again. The artist had captured Vin’s spirit and put it into the image, and that increased the similarity between the real person and the painted youth. But at the same time there was difference – the image looked too young, perhaps Vin was in his teens when the artist had painted him.
The wave of blinding rage swept over Chris at the thought of Vin posing for a man who had traced every line of the young body with his eyes and brush. Was there only posing or something more between then? Chris knew very little about Vin’s childhood and youth, Vin wasn’t eager to talk about his life, only on occasion he had shared a fact or two about himself. Chris never forced him, respecting his privacy, but deep inside Chris knew another reason for his lack of curiosity – he didn’t want to know Vin’s secrets, he was afraid to know them. Vin’s past was too dark, and Chris wasn’t sure he could stand the desire to kill the ones who had hurt Vin. No less maddening was the thought of Vin’s former lovers. Chris knew Vin wasn’t a virgin with men when they first met, but he wanted to know nothing about the men who possessed Vin before him. He couldn't stand the desire to kill them, too. Now he was standing staring at the painted image of Vin, with all the stories about young models and artists that he had ever heard in his life flashing through his mind, and if that wasn’t enough to drive him crazy, he was keenly aware of the fact that another man had kept this painting in his bedroom surely enjoying it. He would be lucky if he restrained his temper and didn’t kill someone here and now.
Dinner at the ranch was tense. Chris was poking his fork into the food on his plate having no desire to eat, Vin was chewing his meal automatically. Finally, Chris broke the silence.
“Do you have something to tell me?”
Vin raised his eyes and looked at him across the table. “What about?”
Putting down the fork, Chris pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. Vin grimaced but didn’t object.
“About the painting.”
“I told you – I know nothing about it.”
Vin threw the fork on the table. “Even if I have something to say about it, it’s none of your business.”
His temper took over Chris and he blurted, “If your ex-lover sells paintings of you, it’s my business, at least because I’m your boss in the federal agency.”
He regretted his words immediately. Vin jumped up sending his chair flying across the kitchen and stormed to the back door.
“Fuck you, Larabee,” he said over his shoulder and slammed the door shut.
Chris stubbed out his cigarette on the plate and dropped his head into his hands. Vin was a very shy person, and he was likely having a hard time dealing with the fact that his image was publicly displayed without the addition of Chris’ jealousy, but Chris couldn’t help himself, let alone Vin. He was mad and he had to do something about it. He got up, grabbed his black coat and the keys of the RAM and left the house.
Ezra’s townhouse was dark but Chris hoped its owner was there. He rang the doorbell once and then again after his first call wasn’t answered. He was going to press the button for the third time when the door opened and Ezra, wrapped in a robe, appeared in the doorway.
“Oh my, Mr. Larabee, I believe I have never given you a reason to doubt my hearing.”
Chris didn’t answer and entered the house, not waiting for an invitation.
“Be my guest,” Ezra said after him closing the door.
Chris went to the living room and started to pace it. Ezra watched him for a few moments, and then noted, “I'm afraid, the carpet is too expensive to be treated like this.”
“To hell with the carpet. Ezra, I need your help.”
“I have to say, it is obvious that you are here not because you suffer from insomnia. Now, Mr. Larabee, please, sit down and tell me your problem.”
Chris obediently lowered himself into one of soft chairs. Ezra poured two glasses of cognac and handed him one, Chris took it but didn’t taste the expensive drink. Ezra sat in the chair opposite him and prepared to listen.
“I want to ask you to find some info about a painting,” Chris said.
Ezra wasn’t surprised. “The one depicting a young man remarkably similar to our Mr. Tanner?”
“Did you notice it, too?”
“It’s hard not to.”
“I want to know who is the artist, when and where it was painted, whether there are other paintings with… with Vin.”
“I believe you can ask Vin about it.”
“He refuses to answer. Rather, he says he knows nothing about it.”
“That can be true.”
“Do you believe it? You saw the painting, no doubt that’s Vin. No way hadn't he noticed that he was being painted.”
“Chris,” Ezra dropped his usual manner of speaking and sounded serious, “I can make inquiries, but I have to name you three reasons why what you are asking is wrong. First, Vin would never lie to you. Second, he values his privacy. Third, the past is gone.”
Chris remained silent. He was sitting staring at the amber liquid in the glass in his hand, Ezra’s words sounding in his mind. Ezra was right, and he knew all those reasons by himself, but he needed to find out the truth, whatever it was. Either that or he would go crazy thinking about that painting.
“Do it,” he said flatly.
He downed the cognac in one swallow and got up, intending to leave. “I'll show myself out.”
When Chris entered the bedroom Vin was in bed looking asleep, but Chris knew him too well to be fooled. Vin was lying on his side of the bed, his back turned to Chris, a blanket was pulled up to his chin. Chris stripped off, made a quick trip into the bathroom and lay on his side of the bed. Vin didn’t stir, and Chris didn’t move closer to embrace him as usual. He was lying supine staring into the darkness of the room.
“I remembered,” Vin’s drawl broke the silence startling Chris. “The horse, Blacky. I was riding him when I was living at the Christian ranch for troubled teens. I was 16 or so back then. One day a man with a big camera came into the ranch, he said he was a reporter from Dallas and wanted to write an article about the ranch. He was shooting us, and now I remember that one shot was me riding Blacky. Never saw him again after that. Reckon he gave that photo to an artist in Dallas for some reason, and the painting was made from it.”
Chris hid his face in his hands and moaned. Vin turned to him. “Chris?”
“I asked Ezra to find out about the painting,” Chris confessed.
Vin tensed, his eyes flashed dangerously. “You didn’t believe me when I said I knew nothing about it.”
“I was mad and jealous.”
Chris was ready for an outburst of Vin’s temper, but after a minute of inner fighting Vin relaxed and fell back on the pillow. “Aw hell, Larabee, you never learn from your mistakes.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll call Ezra and tell him that I changed my mind.”
Chris reached over to the nightstand where his cell was placed, but Vin’s fingers caught his hand stopping him.
“No. I want to know about that painting, too.”
“Are you sure?”
Chris turned to him and moved closer till he was almost lying on top of Vin. He bowed his head and paused, his lips were an inch from Vin’s.
“Am I forgiven?” he whispered.
The lop-sided grin curled Vin’s lips. “Almost.”
“What should I do to deserve your forgiveness?”
“Oh, I can come up with a thing or two.”
They merged in a kiss, and all thoughts flew out of their minds as passion took over them.
On Saturday they worked in the barn doing the boring but necessary chores that had accumulated over a workweek. The routine of horse care was so different from the job of the ATF agents, and they enjoyed it as well as the peace and quiet that reigned around them. Suddenly Vin’s keen ears caught the sound of an approaching car.
“Are you expecting someone?” he asked Chris.
They cleaned themselves up a bit and headed to the front door. The Jaguar appeared in the driveway, and Chris and Vin looked at each other wondering what had made Ezra come out here. The Jaguar stopped at the front porch, and Ezra got out of his car.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Ezra greeted the hosts of the ranch.
“What are you doing here?” Vin asked straight.
“My dear Mr. Tanner, if I'm not mistaken, I had told you more than once that your lack of delicacy is ineradicable.”
“Something wrong?” Chris asked.
“No, I just have fulfilled your request,” Ezra pulled an envelope out of his jacket inside pocket. “Let’s take a seat?”
After they settled in chairs on the porch, Ezra handled the envelope to Vin. Vin opened it, pulled out a few sheets of paper and gave them to Chris.
Chris ran his eyes over the papers, and then said, “You were right. The reporter, John Gordon, gave the photo of the young rider to Jacob Barns, the famous artist who lives in Dallas, and asked him to paint it. Barns made the painting, but by the time he had finished it Gordon had died of a stroke. The painting, named “The Rider”, was first sold in an art gallery, and then to a private collection.”
“Look at the price of it,” Ezra said.
Chris named the price, and Vin gasped.
“Don’t be surprised, Mr. Tanner, Jacob Barns is one of a few modern followers of the classic painting and his works are very highly valued, even if he, as with many others, does not always uses a real model. You can appreciate his talent by the example of that notorious picture. By the way, can you give me a hand? I have something for you in my car.”
Chris and Vin followed Ezra to the Jaguar. Ezra opened the trunk, pulled out a cloth lying there hiding something, and “The Rider” appeared before their eyes.
“I believe this painting will look perfect in your bedroom,” Ezra said enjoying the effect he had caused on his clearly stunned friends.
“How did you get it?” Chris asked, unable to tear his eyes away from the painting.
“I persuaded the heir of the late Mr. Masters that that would be safer for him not to have “The Rider” in his house. Consider it my gift for your anniversary.”