-Art of Love Excerpt-
Demetri Stavros stepped into Premier, the most prestigious art gallery in the San Fernando Valley. He didn’t quite know what he was doing at a kid’s art opening, but his cousin Niko had invited him. And as one of the art professors at Winston College, Demetri rarely passed on a chance to see new art, even from a kid.
From what he’d heard, his Tavi, was some kind of an art protégé, so he’d come even if he’d had to come alone.
Demetri shoved thoughts of Marcus into the back of his mind and effectively put him out of his life. One or two date cancellations were no big deal, but in Demetri’s book, you don’t bail on your date on multiple occasions without notice or reason or apology and expect to remain in their lives.
“Hey, you made it,” Niko said as Demetri walked through the door.
His cousin’s smile was more genuine than Demetri had seen in a long time. It had little to do with how glad he was that Demetri had shown up and more to do with how happy his new boyfriend, Vin, made him.
Demetri was happy for them both. Really. And if he had to force a smile onto his face, he’d do it. He could go home and feel sorry for the sad estate of his own love life later.
Maybe over a glass of single malt scotch.
Demetri pulled Niko in for a hug and said, “You look good.”
Niko chuckled and straightened his black tie. “Vin said I cleaned up well.”
“It’s not the tux, it’s the grin. You look happy. I’m glad you two found each other. I really am.”
Niko glanced behind Demetri at the door Demetri knew wouldn’t open. At least not by Marcus’ hand. “Where’s—”
“He couldn’t make it.”
Niko cocked his head at the bite in Demetri’s tone. “You’re going to find someone. You’re—”
Raising a hand, Demetri shut Niko up. “It’s fine. I’m here to see some art, not talk about my crumbling love life.”
Niko leaned in. “Hey, with the new semester starting up soon, I’m sure you’ll have a whole crop of hot college guys to choose from.”
Demetri cut him a look that would have left a lesser man abraded and bloody. “I don’t date my students.”
“Yeah, I had that rule about dating my employees, and we all saw what happened there.”
Vin shouldered his way through the surprisingly large turnout with two flutes of champagne in his hands. “Oh, hey.”
Niko took the glass Vin offered and was quick to put a hand around Vin’s waist. Vin held the other flute out to Demetri. “Want one?”
When Demetri’s feeling sorry for himself, a little bubbly wasn’t his classic drink of choice. Only something stronger would do. Demetri bobbed his chin in the direction Vin had come. “I’m just heading to the bar. I’ll catch up with you guys later.”
But before Demetri could make it as far as the bar, the crowd shifted and parted. He had a direct line of sight to Tavi standing by a wall hung with his art, looking stiff in his rented tux as he plucked at his too-short cuffs again and again.
Demetri detoured. The whiskey could wait.
One of the gallery’s patrons finished up their conversation with Tavi as Demetri stepped up. Tavi tugged at the collar of his shirt, a fresh razor cut on the edge of his jaw. He was a lean fifteen-year-old with a messy mop of hair who would have looked much more comfortable behind the counter at the tattoo shop he apprenticed at than gracing the halls of the gallery.
“You hanging in there?” Demetri asked.
“I think.” It came out more like a question as if Tavi wasn’t sure how he was doing. “When I won the art contest at the Center’s fundraising event, I figured when the exhibit came, I’d be pacing an empty gallery counting the minutes until it ended. I never expected people to come and want to talk to me about my art.” Tavi raised his hands out to his sides. “I mean, I’m a kid and—”
“And naturally gifted and talented,” Demetri added. “Seriously...”
He stared at the drawing on the wall. An enlargement of Tavi’s winning illustration. The emotion in each line, each stroke was something hard to teach. It had to come from within. Demetri would love to get this kid in one of his classes when he was old enough. “You’ve got the stuff.”
Tavi’s eyes dropped to the floor, and the color rose to his cheeks, looking nothing like the defensive, hard-knock kid his cousin Sebastian and his boyfriend Grant had pulled off the streets and fostered. “Thanks.”
An older couple approached, and Demetri knew they would have questions for Tavi. He took a step away. “Enjoy your night. You deserve this.”
Demetri backed up and leaned against a pillar, taking in the drawing from afar. He couldn’t take his eyes off of it. The contest prompt had been ‘family,’ and Tavi had nailed it in the scene of himself, his boyfriend, Grant, Sebastian, and his Nana in a booth at a local pizza joint.
The way Tavi had captured the love in Sebastian’s eyes as he glanced over at Grant brought a lump to Demetri’s throat that only the whiskey would wash down.
Demetri turned and started a determined walk toward the cash bar set up at the back of the gallery, pointedly avoiding Grant and Sebastian as they stood hand in hand beside Grant’s grandmother and talked to a couple Demetri didn’t know. He’d swing back through the gallery and speak to them later, but not before he had a drink.
Demetri waited in the short line, watching the twenty-something bartender work. He watched the play of the man’s biceps as he poured and mixed drinks. The tight white shirt across the man’s chest contrasted with his dark skin. He looked like he belonged naked under the lights on the dais in Demetri’s live drawing class, not behind a bar.
The line shifted, and Demetri found himself at the front of the line, staring into the most mesmerizing green eyes he’d ever seen before.
“What can I get for you?”
An EKG, Demetri wanted to say, because, fuck, his heart had just quit on him. “Um... I...” He couldn’t spit the word ‘whiskey’ out. Instead, he said, “Surprise me.”
The man grinned, and Demetri’s heart jolted, thumping against his sternum. Guess you haven’t died and gone to heaven after all.
“Enjoying your night?” the man asked as he pulled out a stainless-steel shaker and poured in different liquors, a mixer Demetri didn’t immediately recognize, and a few cubes of ice.
“It’s improving.” Demetri held in the eye roll.
Cheesy ass line, Stavros. No wonder you’re not getting laid.
Demetri waited for his drink, then he’d go find Sebastian. The bartender was here to work. Not flirt.
The man put a wedge of lime on the rim of the glass and set it on the narrow bar top, his grin impossibly wide. “Funny, I was going to say the same.”
Demetri handed over his cash along with a healthy tip and took a sip of the mystery concoction. It had a bite and a tang, that made the alcohol slide down smooth. If he wasn’t careful, he’d could quickly get drunk on it and never see it coming. “What do you call this?”
“Why don’t we call it The Spice of Life.”
“Never heard of it.”
“That’s because it’s a one-off I made just for you.”
The bartender probably said that to all the guys he served drinks, even if he’d said it in such a way that Demetri felt like he’d been the only one.
Demetri held up his glass and started to leave. “Thanks for this.”
“Come back and see me,” the man said. Was the guy interested in Demetri’s generous tip or was he interested in Demetri’s? Or maybe that was just dickful thinking on his part.
Demetri returned to the main gallery, nursing his drink as he circulated among his family and colleagues from the art department, his attention divided the whole time between the conversation, the drink in his hand, and the captivating man who’d made it.
As the evening wore on and the crowd thinned, Demetri wandered back to the bar and the bartender stacking dirty glassware into bins for the caterers.
The bartender glanced up and smiled as Demetri approached. “If it isn’t Mr. Spice of Life. I thought you’d forgotten about me.”
Forgotten about him? Not likely. And Demetri sported a semi behind the flat front of his tux pants to prove it. “What was in that drink, anyway?”
“My little secret. Everyone needs a little mystery in their lives, don’t you think? ”
“Maybe.” Was the bartender flirting with him?
The man leaned against the bar and gave Demetri a glance up and down. “Want more?”
They weren’t talking about drinks anymore.
“Does anyone tell you no when you ask that?”
“I’ve never asked anyone that before.” The bartender’s voice dropped low, an intimate growl meant only for Demetri’s ears. “At least not while I’m working.”
From somewhere behind him, Demetri heard Sebastian laugh, reminding him he hadn’t come to the gallery tonight looking to hook up.
But then again...
“What time do you get off?”