Painted Bare by Hayden West
General Release Date: 17th February 2023
Word Count: 16,531
Book Length: NOVELLA
Detective Liam Rourke has a hard, firm policy on not intermingling work and pleasure. Until now, it’s not been an issue to uphold it. Enter one painter and all he wants to do is spend more time around him. The lines between professional and personal are blurred.
When everything settles, what will happen to the straight-laced detective and the man whose own messy life doesn’t matter to him?
Reader advisory: This book contains instances of bullying, as well as mention of homophobia, adultery, and family/domestic verbal/emotional abuse.
“There’s a Detective Rourke here to see you, Anthony.”
Anthony Henson sighed, instantly agitated, and spun on the stool, away from the current painting he worked on. With a flick of his wrist as he got to his feet, he covered it. No one would see it until the time was right.
The words were the correct ones, even if the last thing he felt like he should be doing was entertaining another prick of a badge. Pressing the heel of his palm into his upper thigh, he sighed as he tried to work out the stiffness. When he finished on that side, he worked out the stiffness in his other leg. A sure sign he’d been immobile far too long without taking a break.
Supposedly this can be a good thing. I am getting up and moving around. This will serve as my break.
Truth was, he didn’t give a fuck if it was a good thing or not. He didn’t care. He had painting to do. The other things were naught but irritating intrusions of his time.
Marshall vanished without another word and in mere seconds, with his suit impeccable. While Anthony himself, on the other hand, looked like a day laborer. Paint staining his fingers, shirt, pants. Even his shoes.
Damnit. I forgot my shoes. Where did I leave them? In the back room? Beneath my stool?
There were two options. Go back and get them, assuming he could remember where he’d discarded them, or continue on like he was to this meeting.
It’s not like I called the cops to come out here. He’s interrupting my day. Why do I care if I’m wearing shoes? Why should I care? He may not even be a he. I suppose women can be detectives.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he should care. That would be the proper thing to do. Quite honestly, he didn’t give a fuck about social niceties. That’s what Marshall was for.
Pushing his hands into his pockets, he walked through the back of the studio to the front. Marshall pointed one finger off to his left and Anthony followed.
The man, and it was a man, stood before one of his favorite pieces. A scene in Italy, a seashore.
“Why are you here?”
Beside him, Marshall cleared his throat, softly. Anthony knew what it was, a reminder to be better behaved. Be polite. Sociable.
The man didn’t start, just slowly turned toward him, expression composed. Sharp green eyes lasered out from angular features. Deep red hair with a smattering of gray at the temples. The clothing was typical detective wear—a suit.
His voice rolled from him like a slow-moving wave, not anything to knock you over but you sure as hell knew it had been there.
“That’s who you asked to see. Why else would I be standing here?”
Marshall stepped between them. “I’m sorry, Detective. Yes, this is Anthony Henson. Anthony, this is Detective Liam Rourke.”
There was a look in Marshall’s gaze. It took him a moment before it clicked. Marshall was reminding him not to be so short.
“How can I help you?”
It grated he had to ask that, but Marshall smiled at him and that made it worth it. Being able to make Marshall smile and relax was something Anthony enjoyed doing. He didn’t have a lot of friends. There were people, acquaintances who pretended to like him because of who he was and his wealth and of course his connections, or at least those they thought would help them. But he wasn’t stupid, no matter what those same people said behind his back. He knew they were trying to use him.
The bottom line was, he didn’t give a fuck about them. But Marshall…he was different. The man had been his friend since they’d first met. He’d taken beatings standing up for Anthony and never got offended when Andrew’s bluntness had things falling from his mouth that should have been withheld.
So, no matter how he didn’t want to do something, if Marshall asked him, he would do it. He hid a smirk and tried to give the visitor his attention. It wasn’t easy. This detective was handsome.
“I’m here with a couple of questions about burglaries that have been going on at some of the local galleries.”
Anthony watched and waited, bare toes curling on the cool floor. The eyes held him. That shade of green wasn’t something he’d seen before.
He wanted to paint it.
I want to paint him.
Detective Rourke gave a small nod and pulled out a flip steno pad. “Has there been any trouble here? Any people in here that may be casing the joint under the pretense of looking at the art?”
With any movement, Anthony waited. As did the detective. The man didn’t speak, just held his gaze.
He figured it was a tactic to get suspects to talk, but personally, he didn’t give a fuck. This man didn’t intimidate him.
Arouse him? Yes, for sure.
A hint of impatience laced the man’s tone, even though it was very faint.
“Are those your only questions?” Anthony blinked, once. “Or do you have others?”
The man flattened his lips and gave a slow nod.
“I couldn’t tell you. You would be better served speaking to Marshall.” He looked away from the detective with the intoxicating green eyes. “Marshall, come answer the detective’s questions. I have better things to do.”
Without another word, he turned and walked back toward his studio.
“Wait a minute.”
He paused outside the room and looked over his shoulder. The man strode toward him, brow furrowed.
“We’re not finished.”
Anthony narrowed his gaze. “You told me you had no more questions. I am not the best equipped to answer this, Marshall is.” He cocked his head to the side as a thought struck him. “Are you good at your job? Because you seem to be having a difficult time digesting what I told you.”
Marshall cleared his throat again.
Anthony shrugged. “What? It is a legitimate question.” He waved his hand in the direction of the sexy detective.
I do not need to think of him as sexy.
“He is having a difficult time grasping my statement.” He faced Liam. “Or did something change and you do have different questions for me?”
Liam Rourke wasn’t sure what to make of the man standing before him. He didn’t shy away from eye contact and seemed absolutely shocked Liam wanted to speak to him again. But the blue eyes holding his called to a deeper part of him. One he’d thought he’d closed down, after—
There was scruff on his face, making his jaw shadowed. Messy dark hair fell haphazardly around his features. He’d noticed a limp while Anthony had moved away from him.
Two blinks and the man he’d come to speak with walked away, leaving him there. Dumbfounded.
“I’m sorry, Detective Rourke. Anthony doesn’t mean to be rude. He just—”
“No need to explain.” He had a feeling he already knew. “Why did he tell me to speak to you?”
“Mr. Henson prefers to keep to the back, doing what he loves. Painting. He isn’t one who comes out to mingle with the patrons.” Marshall stepped back and smoothed a hand down his suit. “I handle all of that for him.”
“Okay, let me ask you.”
Liam talked to Marshall for another couple of minutes before closing up his notepad.
“I’ll be by if I have any more questions. If you do see anything, please let us know. We’re trying to stop this group before someone gets seriously hurt.”
“Will do, Detective.”
He gave him a nod and pivoted to the door. All he wanted to do was go in the back and engage with Anthony once more. He shook his head. It had been a while since he’d had a man affect him like Anthony had, despite the brief time they were together.
At the door to Arm’s Hall Gallery, he slowed, at war with himself about whether to go back and see Anthony once more. Exhaling sharply, he pushed through and stepped out into the hot summer afternoon.
Liam slid on his sunglasses and tipped his head up to the glaring sun. His mind drifted back to the paint-splattered man who hadn’t been the slightest bit impressed with having a detective there, trying to help.
He snorted. No, impressed was definitely not the word to use. Annoyed, irritated, bored. So many other ones he could choose.
There had been something sexy about seeing him there, barefoot and a bit messy, which had kicked his senses, reminding him how long it’d been since he’d had a lover. Eyes on his car, he walked toward it, mind focusing ahead to the next stop on his list for the day.
So far the four places that had been burglarized hadn’t had any injuries. In his gut, he figured it was only a matter of time before their luck ran out with regards to that. What he’d not been able to piece together yet was a connection in the art. Other than the obvious—it was art. Something told him it was deeper than how it appeared on the surface.
Not even old art, at least not all. It was like the thief or thieves weren’t after Rembrandts, probably because they were afraid they couldn’t unload them. And he didn’t get the allure of some of what he’d seen. Some of the pieces that had been stolen he personally wouldn’t wipe his ass with, but he’d never claimed to be an art critic.
Now this most recent studio, he didn’t mind what was up on those walls. Not images he would consider all abstract, for there was a definite eclectic taste to what adorned the walls.
Landscapes. People. Animals. Buildings. Flowers. You name it, Arm’s Hall probably had it, and most of what Liam had seen made sense to his mind.
Snapping his gaze up when his name was hollered, he lifted his chin in greeting to another detective, Larson, who had been at a different gallery.
Larson jogged across the street and put his hands on his hips. “Anything?”
He shook his head and pulled his notebook back out, flipping it open. “Nothing that was worth the time it took me to put it down.”
Arms crossed, Larson grunted. “Same. Although, if I wanted a painted picture of a bikini bottom, it could be mine for a measly ten grand.”
Liam choked. “I’m sorry?”
“Yeah, that’s what it was like at the last place I was at. I either make far too little or I went into the wrong business. I mean, I could paint some ladies’ drawers and would be happy to sell it for half their asking price. Christ, what the hell is the draw for something like that? I couldn’t ever put it up on my wall, not if I wanted my wife to refrain from slitting my throat at night.”
Liam laughed, knowing full well Regina, Larson’s wife, would do exactly that, and find a way to blame him for it. Woman was scary and a freaking amazing attorney. He held up his hands and shook his head.
“That’s all you, man. I’m not buying any portion of women’s clothing on a canvas. Much less for that kind of money. We have the same job. I know I don’t make that kind of money.”
“Let’s get back, see if we can’t find a lead somewhere.”
They fell into step and walked in companionable silence to the waiting sedan.