Carey Hoffman stepped out of the air-conditioned limousine into the burning heat of a Palm Springs summer’s day. The air shimmered, and he half-expected to see a mirage in the distance along with a camel train and a bunch of wandering nomads. The sun’s intensity made the greenery around him all the more astounding. Extensive, manicured lawns stretched to either side of the sweeping drive and in front of him stood the biggest, most palatial house he’d ever seen. He could only imagine how much watering all that lush grass would need.
“It’s enormous.” Pure white, the sun reflecting off the building’s curved walls was blinding. Carey slipped on his sunglasses to reduce the combined glare of the sun and the paintwork. He couldn’t decide whether he liked the property or not. There was no doubt that it was extravagant and no question it was unique. “Probably designed by some celebrity architect for an extortionate fee,” Carey muttered. “It must be worth a small fortune.”
“I kind of like the smooth lines, it’s all curves, no harsh edges.” Alistair, Carey’s partner and submissive, joined him, slipping his hand into Carey’s. “It doesn’t come across as ostentatious as the McMansions you see in California. It’s understated, restrained somehow.”
“That’s your artistic eye at work, love. There’s way too much white for my liking. What’s wrong with a bit of color? Or at the very least a shade of white that isn’t…misty cloud or curdled milk or something. There are whole pages of so-called whites on paint charts, though they mostly look the same to me.”
Alistair gave him a gentle smile. “The heat’s getting to you, isn’t it, Sir?”
“How do people around here not combust? This place is like a furnace—I feel like I’m desiccating just standing here. What I wouldn’t give for a dose of London drizzle right now and that’s not something I ever thought I’d say.”
“We’re English. Our bodies are not equipped for more than two hot days a year—and by hot, I mean low eighties, not high nineties. Everything here seems to be air-conditioned to the point of frigidity, and I’m sure the house will be, too, once we get inside. You’ll be much happier then.”
“It’s entirely your fault we’re here, you know that? Now you’re a famous photographer, everyone wants a piece of you. Even multimillionaires. A personal invite from Taylor Denman is not to be sniffed at.” Carey gave Alistair a kiss to demonstrate his pride. “I’m so proud of you love, even if I am being fried alive.”
“Do you wish I’d turned down the invitation?” Alistair gazed at him anxiously. “I would have if you’d asked me to.”
“Absolutely not! Ignore me, sweetheart. The heat’s making me fractious. I’m very glad you accepted the invitation and I’m intrigued to meet Mr. Denman since he sponsored your exhibition in San Francisco. It was an enormous success. I’ve never seen so many sold stickers at a show before and it wouldn’t surprise me if he bought some of the pictures himself. You worked really hard to get everything set up, the launch was wonderful but exhausting. Mr. Denman’s offer to spend a few days at one of his hotels was a perfect way to end our trip so you could hardly turn down an invitation to meet him in person. It’s a small price to pay for an all-expenses paid stay in the best hotel in Palm Springs.”
They walked toward the house, glittering quartz gravel crunching beneath their shoes.
“I have to confess I’m a little nervous.” Alistair gripped Carey’s hand tighter.
“There’s no need to be. I’m here and I’ll take care of you.”
“You always do.” Alistair smiled, and Carey’s breath hitched. Alistair was beautiful, the sun glinting on his blond hair, his skin showing a hint of tan from several weeks in the sun.
“And I always will.” There was no doubt about that in Carey’s mind. Taking care of Alistair was the single most fulfilling part of his existence.
As they approached the huge front door of the property, it swung open. Carey expected to see a butler or maybe a personal assistant, but it was Taylor Denman himself who stood waiting for them. Carey recognized him from pictures he’d seen in the press. Taylor was casually dressed in jeans and a light blue shirt, the sleeves rolled up to reveal tanned arms and the curl of a tattoo. He was a striking man, about Carey’s age, his chestnut hair starting to silver at the temples. A trace of stubble shaded his jaw, and there were laughter lines around his eyes.
“Welcome, gentlemen. I’m so glad you were able to make the trip from San Francisco.” Taylor stepped forward with a welcoming smile.
“Thank you for inviting us, Mr. Denman,” Alistair said. “We’re so happy to meet you.”
“Call me Taylor. You’re Alistair of course, I know you from your catalog picture, so this must be Carey.” He shook hands with Carey first, then with Alistair. “Come inside, it’s hotter than the surface of the fucking sun out here, excuse my language.”
Alistair giggled. “You and Carey are going to get along really well.”
“I thought it was only us rain-soaked Brits who couldn’t handle it,” Carey said, following Taylor into the icy-cool interior of his home. “I’m melting.”
“I was born in Canada. Alberta. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the heat, but my business interests make having a home here convenient. I keep an apartment in New York but I thought you’d appreciate a few days here in Palm Springs after the bustle of San Francisco. It’s a lot more relaxing than The Big Apple.”
“We certainly appreciate it,” Carey said, gazing around the entrance hall. “It’s rare that we get to spend a few days alone together, and the exhibition was a little frantic. Thanks to you it drew a lot of attention.” He was impressed by the cool colors and sleek minimalist design. The area managed to be welcoming even though the cathedral-like ceiling height could have made it intimidating.
His eye was drawn to a wall displaying a single large picture. Carey smiled. It was one of Alistair’s photographs, blown up to huge proportions. The original was one of Carey’s favorites. It showed a vast, ancient oak, standing alone in a rural landscape at twilight, its gnarled limbs outlined against the sky. A silhouette of a fox was just visible at its base. Ironically, it hadn’t taken hours of patient waiting for an animal to appear. He and Alistair had driven out to the Chiltern hills one afternoon and had been taking a stroll after an early dinner at a nearby restaurant. Alistair, his photographer’s instinct always active, had lifted his camera and taken the snap after spotting movement. He hadn’t even known it was a fox until he’d looked at the digital image. It had been pure luck that the picture had come out so well. It had sold at a London gallery, but the buyer had remained anonymous.
Alistair edged a little closer to Carey’s side, blushing. “Now you know what happened to the picture,” Carey said with a chuckle.
“I was curious,” Alistair admitted. “Anonymous buyers are intriguing.
“The original is in my study,” Taylor said. “I had this print made specifically for this space, and you have no idea how many compliments it draws. I’m loath to praise your work in public, Alistair because it never fails to increase competition for the pictures I want to buy. I’m a covetous man—I want the best for myself.”
“I’m so flattered. The picture certainly suits this space. I’m glad it went to someone who appreciates it.”
“Well, I’ve added several more to my collection thanks to the San Francisco exhibition. Shameless self-interest got me involved and as sponsor I got first pick, which caused huge annoyance to several acquaintances. An added bonus, I admit.” He grinned, mischief glittering in his eyes. “But I have to confess that it’s not the reason I’ve invited you both here. I’m afraid I have been somewhat dishonest. Of course, I sponsored the exhibition for absolutely genuine reasons, but over the last year things have come to light that I think you may be able to help me with. A personal matter.”
“You have my attention,” Carey said. “Does this have something to do with Alistair’s photography skills?”
“No. Actually, Carey, it’s you that I think can help. Let’s go sit in the sun room. I have light snacks set out in there, and cold drinks. We can relax and you can hear me out.”
Carey exchanged a curious glance with Alastair who shrugged, apparently unconcerned by the mystery. They both followed Taylor through the house pausing to admire the pictures and sculptures that were displayed everywhere.
The sun room proved to be constructed entirely of glass but managed to remain ice-cold. Several comfortable loungers surrounded a low glass table and there was a magnificent view of the sweeping grounds. Carey guessed that the hint of glittering water in the distance must be a pool.
They settled into their seats, Carey and Alistair next to each other, Taylor opposite them. Taylor offered them a selection of drinks. Alistair opted for chilled mango juice while Carey accepted a light beer, mirroring Taylor’s choice. On the table sat several platters of cold finger food, which was tempting but Carey wanted to hear what Taylor had to say before switching his attention to snacks.
“How do I start?” Taylor leaned forward, steepling his fingers.
“I find it’s always best to be direct,” Carey said.