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Artists, Romantics

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Picking through yet another billionaire’s private, hidden collection, searching for a masterpiece the owner would rather lock away than display, Nicky feels like he’s sleepwalking. After twenty years in the art thievery business, he’s picked more locks, bypassed more security systems, evaded more guards, disabled cameras, outran dogs, and jumped over more fences than he could remember anymore.

The money is good, and to stay at the top of his game, he keeps his body in peak physical condition. His aches and pains, though gradually increasing, are not bad enough yet to sideline him. His work brings him all over the world, so he can’t complain of lack of travel.

Yet for all the money, travel, and exercise his work entails, it lacks in meaningful human companionship. Nicky doesn’t mind exactly. He’s always been more an order-in than go-out kind of guy. But there are exactly two contacts in his personal phone: a take-out place close to his apartment in Roma, and his dry cleaner.

Nicky holds in his sigh, but still feels it, deep in his bones, and continues to search through the paintings. Most are frameless. A few have gaudy golden frames. He finds his prize tucked away in a back corner. The canvas is small, no frame, but the brush strokes are broad and bold, as confident as Nicky’s employer, Andromache. And the subject, a naked woman half covered in a sheet, is the mirror of Andomache’s wife Quynh.

“I hadn’t realized it would sell so quickly,” his employer said over the phone, during their one contact. She hadn’t identified herself but Nicky recognized her voice. Andromache, the renowned artist, is best known for her broad strokes and mostly monochromatic color palette. “We were separated. I didn’t want it around.”

“But now you do,” Nicky said.

“I do.”

Nicky would do anything for true love. And he holds no great love for the buyer, one Steven Merrick of Merrick Pharmaceuticals. Nicky hasn’t been to this particular vault before, but this isn’t the first time Nicky has lifted some of Merrick’s artistic burdens.

“It wouldn’t bother me as much if he intended to display it,” Andy said. “But he doesn’t. He doesn’t care about the art. Oddly, he doesn’t care about the money either. I tried to buy it back. I even offered twice what he paid me.”

“Steven Merrick wants to own the world,” Nicky told her, “And all the people in it.” Nicky quoted her his rate and she accepted.

Painting in hand, Nicky makes certain everything is as it was when he arrived. He closes the vault. Uncurls the rug. Removes his scrambler from the security camera. Then he creeps toward the window and escapes into the night.

With luck, Merrick wouldn’t know he was there at all.

*

Nicky sees the advertisement for Andromache’s new art show a week later, a day before he’s set to leave London. He should leave well enough alone, but he has to know.

He has to see for himself what Andy has done.

He dresses up. The opening event is invitation-only at a large art gallery, but it’s easy enough for Nicky slip inside.

Centered on the far wall, surrounded by other pictures of Quynh is the one Nicky has stolen. And standing before it, red in the face, is Merrick himself.

“I missed it so much I had to paint another one,” Andy tells him, grinning.

Nicky can’t resist a small smile of amusement at her boldness and Merrick’s humiliation.

He leaves London feeling refreshed and does not think of Merrick again.

*

A full year later, Nicky finds himself at a small gallery in New York City.

He plucks a flute of champagne from an unsupervised table, and eavesdrops on some of the patrons as they rave about the headliner of the exhibit, the rising star Yusuf al-Kaysani. He’s good, Nicky can tell, with vibrant coloration and a keen attention to detail.

One piece in particular, a landscape, catches Nicky’s eye. A rocky outcrop juts out over the sea, glowing golden in warm evening light. It pulls at Nicky’s heart and whispers, “Home.” Nicky’s never been homesick looking at a painting before. He’s never been homesick at all.

Hard to be homesick when your home is a near-empty apartment with nothing but old take-out containers in the fridge. Nicky loves to cook, but not for himself – not enough to dirty dishes he’s never home long enough to worry about cleaning.

“Do you like this one?” says a guy to Nicky’s left. Nicky ignores him, he’s eavesdropped too much already. He needs to find the piece his employer wants and think about stealing it.

The same man to Nicky’s left coughs. Nicky wishes whoever he’s with would offer him some water.

But then he taps Nicky on the shoulder.

Nicky looks to his left, and straight into a pair of kind brown eyes.

“I’m Joe,” he says. He has wild curls, a full, well-trimmed beard, and a smile better suited for lazy mornings. He’s looking at Nicky, not through him, not at all what Nicky’s used to.

Nicky blends into the background; it’s part of the job.

Nicky blinks. “Are you talking to me?”

“I’m talking to the most handsome man in the room,” Joe says, voice like smooth whiskey. When Nicky checks behind him, Joe laughs. “Yes, you.”

Nicky wonders briefly if he’s a police detective and Nicky’s been made. Maybe he should just walk right out the door and forget this job altogether.

But.

Joe is burning hot in that tuxedo, and Nicky likes to play with fire.

“I’m Nicky.”

Joe hums in a pleased sort of way. He motions toward the painting. “You like that one?”

“The artist has real skill.”

Joe laughs like he knows a secret. Nicky has plenty, too, so lets him keep it.

Instead he looks at the painting, at the long flowing strokes, and wonders after the steady hand that held the brush.

“I’ve seen you before,” Joe says.

Nicky has spent years schooling his face to hide all emotion. It is the only reason he is confident Joe cannot sense his disappointment.

They could have afforded to keep up the ruse a moment or two longer, at least.

“Once, at an art show last year,” Joe continues. “An artist named Andromache.”

“You must be mistaken.”

“I would remember any face that lovely,” Joe says now, “And I have seen none that compare.”

Nicky stares down at the bubbles rising in his glass. Seduction is a strange way to entrap an art thief, but perhaps Joe is trying to get Nicky to lower his guard enough to admit something. Nicky will die first. Even as his heart thunders and his cheeks burn.

Joe’s methods are, admittedly, effective.

“Those are kind words,” Nicky says, throat dry. “But unfortunately, I must repeat that you are mistaken.”

For the first time, Joe’s smile starts to slip. “Oh?”

“I apologize,” Nicky says, unsure why exactly. He finds he hates disappointing this man. To avoid his own feelings, he looks back to the painting.

This gallery is not his usual hunting grounds. It’s small, and though al-Kaysani is an artist of growing popularity, none of the paintings are marked as being ‘on loan,’ or even ‘on sale.’ It’s possible these are of al-Kaysani’s personal collection.

Nicky doesn’t make a habit out of stealing from artists.

“If you like that one, I think you should have it,” Joe says suddenly, and only Nicky’s training keeps him from startling.

“Sorry?”

“I want you to have it,” Joe says.

“I couldn’t,” Nicky says, but Joe is waving down one of the gallery staff. “Joe. It doesn’t say that it’s for sale.”

“It’s not,” Joe says, winking. As the attendant comes closer, he tells her, “At the end of the night, I would like this painting-” He points at the rocky seaside. “- to go to this man.” He points at Nicky.

“Very well, Mr. al-Kaysani.”

Joe gives her a smile. It’s kind but not near as soft as the one he gave Nicky only a moment ago. “Please call me Joe.”

The attendant blushes and fumbles away, and Nicky knows exactly how she feels.

“You’re not...” Nicky swallows the words, a policeman, at the last moment, and waves around them instead, covering.

Joe shrugs. “Surprise?”

Nicky frowns. He’s already half-resolved not to steal from this artist, but now that he knows the artist is Joe, Nicky’s about ready to quit the whole business instead.

“Are you terribly disappointed?” Joe asks. Nicky sees the facade Joe holds over his face, the one that hides a vulnerability underneath. He saw it before, mistook it for deceit.

“No,” Nicky says, offering his own small smile to sooth any wound he created in Joe with his previous distance. “I’m relieved.”

Joe’s face brightens. Nicky likes it so much, he keeps talking.

“I didn’t know how to tell you. Any man who could paint like that, with such soft reverence and kindness for the world, had already laid claim to my attention for the evening,” Nicky says, watching Joe’s smile grow. He turns Joe, feeling fire flickering within him. “I am pleased to discover that the artist is even more beautiful than his paintings.”

Joe’s breath catches, a gentle gasp. When he speaks again, he is winded, “I had thought I would be the one to seduce you.”

Emboldened further by Joe’s reactions, Nicky reaches and smooths Joe’s lapel. It was already straight. He merely wanted an excuse to touch his chest. He leaves his hand there.

Joe looks at him, at his mouth, and says, “Would you -?”

“Yes.”

Joe leads him to a storage room. They make out against the wall near the door. Joe’s back hits the light switch. The lights flicker and they laugh. Then Nicky pulls him to the floor instead, and they get lost for a while.

*

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” Joe asks, as they stare up at the flickering fluorescent light from their pile of clothes and limbs. Their hands are together, fingers interlaced, over Nicky’s bare chest. He’s still wearing his shirt, but it’s open and pushed far back off his shoulders, bunched at his elbows. Some of the buttons are likely missing. Nicky can see one that rolled under a nearby shelf.

“Artists,” Nicky tells him, “are romantics.”

“You were alone at Andromache’s opening. Wrapped in a three-piece suit. Like tonight, holding a glass of champagne that you never drank from.”

Nicky tries to change the subject. “Your tuxedo is ruined.” The pants are down to Joe’s knees. The shirt is gone entirely. Nicky’s pretty sure they are lying on the jacket.

“You must let me paint you,” Joe says.

“Joe.”

“Tell me why you are troubled, Nicky.” Joe leans up on his elbows, looking down at him. “Do I move too quickly?”

He is moving quickly, but Nicky likes it. He likes it so much, it scares him. “There is much you don’t know about me. Mostly, everything.”

Joe hums. “You are the only person I did not know at Andromache’s event, where she unveiled a new painting that was not so new. She may have fooled the others, but not me. Though she continues to deny it, I know it is the same painting she sold to Mr. Merrick.”

“They should replace the lights in here,” Nicky says.

“Tell me, Nicky,” Joe says, “which of my paintings did you come here to steal?”

Nicky sits up. “What?” Their hands fall away from each other. Nicky grips his own knees instead.

“I’ll let you have it, whatever it is.” Joe backs up onto his heels. He holds up both hands.  “Just don’t lie to me. Please.”

A lie sits at the end of Nicky’s tongue, but he holds it.

“I know who you are,” Joe says. “I know and I do not care.”

“How can you not?” Nicky whispers. “Knowing I came here to rob you?”

“You cannot steal a gift,” Joe says. “I’d give you the entire gallery if you asked for it. So tell me, which one is it? Is it the one I gifted you, of Malta?”

Nicky’s mind goes blank. “Malta?”

“Yes. The cliff edge and the sea. I stood there at the same time every evening for a month to capture the lighting correctly.” Joe shrugs. “Is that the one?”

“No.” Nicky struggles to find his voice again. “It’s my favorite. It reminds me of home.”

A smile blooms on Joe’s lips, and Nicky believes in love at first sight. And second sight. And third.

“I will not steal from you,” Nicky tells him.

“Nicky, this is a non-issue.” Joe places his hand over Nicky’s on his knee. “You do not need to promise me that.”

Nicky spreads his fingers so that Joe’s file into the spaces between. “It is important to me.” Nicky’s used to blending into the background. This, being seen, being known, being loved, is an adjustment. And though Nicky’s not ready to say what he feels, in the wake of so many soft words, Joe must know, “I would never harm you, Yusuf al-Kaysani.”

“Oh, my heart. I know.” Joe kisses Nicky again, giving Nicky more patience and kindness than he has ever known.

And Nicky aches with a love he’s not ready to name.

*

Joe and Nicky eventually redress and return to the event. Their suits are wrinkled. Nicky’s shirt is, in fact, missing several buttons. He has to keep his jacket closed for decency’s sake.

Nicky stays for a while, watching Joe as he animatedly talks to the other patrons and in turn receives the compliments he deserves. Joe’s eyes find Nicky no matter where he is in the room, and each time their gazes meet, Nicky’s heart picks up pace.

He’ll have to return the money he was wired, he knows, but he’d give twice that – no, all that he has – as thanks for meeting Joe. He’ll also have to keep a close eye on Joe, on his work, to make sure no other thieves are sent in his stead. When he mentions this to Joe at the end of the night, Joe laughs loud and happy.

“You’ll have to remain glued to my side,” Joe says. “I expect constant vigilance.”

“Of course.”

*

When the event’s over, and everyone has gone but Nicky, Joe, and a few employees, Joe and Nicky share a kiss and a promise to meet again tomorrow.

“I’ll be back for my painting, then,” Nicky says.

“You could take it now,” Joe says. “It’s yours to do with as you will.”

“It’s an excuse to see you again,” Nicky tells him, to smooth the worry line forming between Joe’s brows.

“You don’t need an excuse,” Joe says.

Perhaps, but he does need to prove himself to Joe, that he would not steal from him. Joe could say he believes him, but it is a different matter to know.

Nicky takes Joe’s hand and kisses his knuckles. “I will return in the morning. I vow to you.”

He leaves before Joe can convince him not to.

*

Nicky walks slowly down the street toward the parking garage where he left his rental car. When he reaches it, he pulls open the metal door and walks up the three flights of stairs to the top. Beyond another metal door, he sees it.

A man is there beside the car, leaning against the railing of the garage, looking out over the city.

Nicky notices the security camera by the door is busted. The lights on the floor all seem to be out. He can only see the man’s figure from the city lights. He’s bulky with muscle, and carries himself like military. Military haircut, too.

Warning bells fire in Nicky’s head, but he takes a step forward. It’s possible this is nothing. A coincidence. Nicky jumping at shadows.

The man presses back from the railing. There’s something leaning against the side of the wall, previously hidden by his body.

A baseball bat.

Nicky stops walking.

The man looks at him. “Did you have fun at the art show, Nicolo di Genova?”

“Who are you?” Nicky says.

In response, the man grabs the bat, wood scraping the pavement. His face twists, not quite in anger, not totally amusement, but some sick mixture of both. He lifts the bat with both hands. “Mr. Merrick sends his regards.”

Nicky owns a gun. He’s a good shot. He’s never needed it on a job before, especially not on a low-fee job that was supposed to be easy, practically a vacation. It’s currently in a gun safe in his apartment in Roma.

This man might have a gun, but he’s choosing a baseball bat. Somehow that makes it worse. He – or Merrick – wants this to hurt.

Nicky could try to fight him. He can throw a solid right hook. But he doesn’t like his odds against a baseball bat and the mountain of muscle behind it.

Instead, Nicky turns and runs. He’s quick. He makes it to the door, but opening it takes precious time. While he’s pulling it back, the bat catches him in the side. It wasn’t a full swing, Nicky knows, since he is still breathing, but his chest aches with the crack of a rib or two.

Nicky’s fallen from enough windows and roofs to be familiar with pain, and with the path now clear before him, he flies down the stairs.

He doesn’t slow as he pushes through the door on the main level and tumbles out onto the street. This door is easier, it turns outwards.

The street is barren as he runs down the way he came. For Joe’s sake, he half-hopes the gallery is dark when Nicky arrives there. For his own, he is relieved to find the lights still on.

Nicky runs to the door and pounds both hands against the wood.

Joe himself pulls it open. “Nicky?” His gaze swoops over Nicky, and then behind him. Whatever he sees has him pulling Nicky into the gallery and locking the door behind him. “Who is that?”

“I don’t know, but he knows me.” Nicky leans heavily against the wall. Joe approaches him, hands raised, hovering over his body but not touching.

“You’re hurt,” Joe says.

The man hammers against the door.

“Who else is here?” Nicky asks.

“No one. The others left. I asked, and they trusted me to close.” Joe looks to him again. He waves toward the door. “This man hurt you?”

“He works for Merrick.”

Joe closes his eyes and mutters something in a language Nicky does not know. “I will kill Andy myself,” he says in English.

“He has a bat,” Nicky says. “Joe, you should hide and call emergency. He’s only after me. If they get here in time –”

“I will not abandon you to face this man alone,” Joe says.

“He carries himself like a soldier.” Nicky shouldn’t have come here. No matter how his scared and wounded body reached out for that feeling of home. Of comfort and safety. Of Joe. He should have fought it. “I think he’s ex-military.”

Something hardens in Joe’s eyes. “So am I.”

The doorframe shatters, wooden pieces flying, as the door kicks inward. The man steps inside.

Joe turns, blocking Nicky with his body.

The man points the bat toward Joe’s chest. “Out of the way, painter. I’m not being paid for you.”

“You hurt Nicky,” Joe says, voice a low growl.

“What do you care?” the man scoffs. “He’s a thief. He steals from people like you. Hell, he came here tonight to steal from you.”

“Did you steal from me, Nicky?” Joe asks.

“No.”

Joe shrugs. “There you have it.”

The man lifts the bat. “Guess Merrick gets a two-for-one special tonight.”

Joe dives, dodging the swing. He comes up with an uppercut under the man’s jaw. The man stumbles backwards. He trips on the doorframe. Joe hooks him across the face and he drops.

Nicky knows Joe has muscle – he saw plenty during their time in the storage room. But he never would have guessed Joe would have such deadly command of his body.

Neither, it seems, had their attacker.

As Joe stalks closer, the man recovers. He throws one punch that Joe blocks into his shoulder. A distraction. A second punch, a jab, lands on Joe’s throat. Joe steps back. The man lifts the bat.

“Joe!” Nicky runs forward and grabs the bat with both hands. The man punches Nicky in his sore side. Sharp stabbing pain pushes all other thoughts away. His world’s on fire but he won’t let go. He won’t let this man hurt Joe.

Another punch and Nicky cries out. A third, and darkness drags him under.

When he blinks awake again, Joe is kneeling beside him, holding his hand. There’s worry in his eyes, but not – not –

Nicky lifts himself onto his elbows.

Their attacker is on the ground.

“Is he...?” Nicky starts.

“Unconscious,” Joe says. He brings his forehead to Nicky’s. “You are safe.”

Nicky clutches at Joe’s hand with both of his. He feels a sag in his bones and knows, I should have retired years ago.

“Joe,” Nicky says. “Would you still care for me if I quit my job?”

Joe laughs, but it does not linger. There’s too much fear. “Nicky, there is no universe I would not care for you.”

The shriek of sirens draws closer, and soon they are surrounded by flashing emergency lights.

*

His name is Keane, and he is a hitman. Ex Special Forces.

“You’re lucky you to be alive,” the policeman tells Nicky. Nicky’s sitting in the back of an ambulance, as an EMT examines his wound.

Nicky looks at Joe standing on the sidewalk, speaking to another policeman. “I have a guardian angel.”

Later, when Keane wakes up surrounded by police officers, he will give up Merrick. Neither will bother Nicky or Joe again.

*

Nicky must stay the night at the hospital, for observation. The doctor is worried about internal bleeding. Joe insists on staying with him.

“Joe,” Nicky feels like he should argue, even if he doesn’t want to.

But Joe is firm. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Later, in the dark, Joe sneaks onto the bed and curls up behind Nicky.

“I’m sorry for all this,” Nicky says.

“I’m not.”

“You saved my life.”

“I’d do it again.”

Joe holds him in his arms, and Nicky liquefies in his embrace.

Before Nicky can fall asleep, Joe whispers against his neck, “When they release you, you should stay with me. We can return to Europe together.” He places a kiss where his words have warmed Nicky’s skin. “You did promise to watch me over me and my paintings. Protect me from all the thieves out there wishing to harm me.”

“Joe.” Nicky traces his fingers along Joe’s muscular forearm to his hands, and his broken knuckles. “I’m not certain I am the protector here.”

“Nonsense.” Another kiss, near the first. His lips linger, after. “When you grabbed for the bat, I...” His hold tightens. “Nicky, I...”

“I know,” Nicky says, soft.

A silence follows, not uncomfortable but far too long. Nicky doesn’t want Joe to linger in the past. Nicky doesn’t want to stay there either, thinking of Keane and the way he seemed to enjoy his hunt.

So Nicky clears his throat and teases, “If I go with you, aren’t you worried I might steal from you?”

Joe smiles against his skin. “You’ve already stolen my heart, Nicky. What else is there?”

The next morning, Joe will program a third contact into his personal phone. He’ll save it as Joe, with several heart emoji’s that Joe will show him how to add.

For now, Nicky snuggles closer to Joe. "I can't remember how I ever slept alone."

Joe says, "You won't have to."