A famous, erotically charged painting called The Russian Boy depicts a nude Russian noble named Alexei Dubernin, younger lover of painter Fyodor Luschenko. Their affair takes place in the elegance of a lost world, the Russian enclave on the Cote d’Azur in the years just before the revolution of 1917.
The painting, owned by the New York Museum of Fine Arts, is stolen from a restorer’s studio in Paris, bringing together three very different men, each of whom must risk his life to return this precious work of art and earn the love he deserves.
Fifty-year-old Rowan McNair was a college art history professor until he lost his marriage, his family and his job after an affair with a young male former student. Now he struggles to make a new life in New York as a journalist and art theft consultant.
Taylor Griffin is finishing his first year on a painting fellowship at the Institute des Artistes in Montmartre, sharing a tiny studio apartment with his Russian émigré boyfriend, Dmitri Baranov, a fellow student. When Dmitri steals The Russian Boy, he plunges himself, Taylor, and eventually Rowan into a dangerous world of drugs, sex and intrigue.
The Russian Boy is a sexy, romantic story about older men involved with younger men, about art and love and the risks we take when we fall in love.
This title is published by Neil S. Plakcy and distributed by Untreed Reads Publishing.
By ten o’clock at night, as Dmitri Baranov was cleaning the floor of the painting studio at the Institute des Artistes in Paris, the building was deserted, the classrooms and studios dark. The cold winter air snuck in through the centuries-old walls, making Dmitri shiver as he scrubbed a stubborn spot of dried paint on the ancient marble floor.
Or perhaps he shivered because he realized this was the last studio he had to clean before … well, better not to think about it. Just do it.
The institute was housed in a rambling four-story building with mansard roofs and tall windows, located just off the Place Pigalle in Paris, a few blocks from Sacré Coeur. Through one tall window he could see the glowing spire of the Eiffel Tower. The Institute was halfway up the hill of Montmartre and during the day offered commanding views of the grimy streets and leafless plane trees that surrounded it. He loved Paris with all his heart, and he felt at home there in a way he had never felt back in Odessa.
When the marble shone in the sharp overhead light, he stood up and stretched his back. He was only twenty-two, but hours hunched over an easel during the day, then the effort to clean studios used by dozens of messy art students, wore him down.
It did not help that he was short and slim, either. At barely five feet six, he had to work twice as hard as a taller man might to reach paint splattered on the walls, use twice as many strokes to mop the floor. But he was strong and determined.
He carried his bucket down to the second floor, careful not to slosh any dirty water on the grand staircase. He emptied the bucket in a bathroom sink, then carried it, his mops and brushes, to the janitorial cabinet on the first floor. On an ordinary night, he left the building as soon as he had everything put away.
But that night, instead of turning and walking out the tall front door with the glass fanlight, he removed a long cardboard tube from the closet, carried it back to the grand staircase and climbed back up to the third floor. The central atrium was gloomy in the darkness, the only light coming from the skylight above. It didn’t matter; Dmitri had walked these stairs and corridors so often he didn’t need light.
He had been a student at the Institute des Artistes for nearly two years, studying under a fellowship from the Russian government that barely covered his tuition. But his fellowship would run out in May, and when it did he would lose this job. Without it, he couldn’t afford to stay in Paris. And he needed to. He had entered one of his paintings, a nude study of his boyfriend Taylor, in the Grand Concours, a highly prestigious citywide art show. His painting professor was one of the judges, and he had assured Dmitri that his painting was one of the most assured debuts he had ever seen. He was confident that when judging was complete in a month, Dmitri would win one of the top prizes, which came with a gallery show.
That would shoot him from impoverished student to recognized painter. But once the show’s results were announced, in about a month, it would still take perhaps until the end of the summer to sign with a gallery that would advance him money against the future sale of his paintings. He had to find enough money to stay in Paris through the summer, and the fat Russian, Yegor, had given him the chance to earn what he needed.
At the third floor, Dmitri veered off to the right, traveling down a long corridor without bothering to turn on any lights. At the end of the hall, he turned right, then made a quick left to a stairway door that led to the annex building where the private studios were.
He did not know this area as well; he only cleaned there once a month, while he mopped and swept the classroom studios daily. He climbed the stairs, then hesitated in front of the fire door to the fourth floor.
This was it, he thought. His last chance to back out. Crossing this threshold was making a choice, a deliberate one, to do whatever he had to do to stay in Paris and keep painting.
He pushed the door open into a small foyer, with four doors that led to small rooftop studios. The locks were old and simple; he didn’t even use his keys when he cleaned up there. All it took was a jiggle of the handle, a little pressure against the door, a slight lift, and the lock slipped.
He thought it was foolish that there were so often fabulous works of art up here, being restored, with so little security. But the Institute had focused on protecting only the exterior of the building with an alarm and a wrought-iron fence. He had overheard the director of the institute speak disparagingly about insurance companies, and how money should be spent in support of artists rather than in protecting them.
As the door swung open, he saw floor to ceiling windows that faced the back courtyard and washed the room in moonlight. Along the left wall, he saw the painting he had come for, an oil called The Russian Boy. His heart jumped at the sight of this painting, one he had studied in class. He was moved by the boy’s beauty, but more by the subtle emotion the painter had expressed through his technique.
He smiled at the irony—a Russian boy himself, he was liberating one of his countrymen from a sort of imprisonment, allowing the handsome, naked boy in the painting to live freely in France, just as he wanted to do himself.
At least he assumed that the painting would stay in France. He had no idea where it would end up after he handed it off to the fat, sweaty Russian who had hired him to take it. He just knew that it wouldn’t be going back to New York, where it had been hung on a museum wall.
He slipped on a pair of the rubber gloves he used for cleaning, pulled his Swiss Army knife from his pocket, and walked up to the painting. His fingers trembling, he lifted it from its easel and placed it faced down on a work table. He took a deep breath, steadied himself, and began to take the frame apart.
It was as if time stopped for him as he worked. He worshipped art, and it would devastate him if he did anything to damage such a beautiful piece. When he had removed everything holding the frame together, he lifted the pieces away, leaving the canvas flat, resting against the tabletop.
He rolled the canvas carefully and slid it into the tube, turning the plastic cap to seal it. He slipped his arm through the shoulder strap, slung the tube over his arm, and left the restorer’s studio.
On his way out, he used the knife to gouge out the inside of the ancient lock. He hoped that might deflect suspicion from him.
The theft wouldn’t be noticed until Monday, at the earliest, if the elderly restorer even came in to work that morning. By then, Dmitri would have handed the painting over to Yegor, and received his payment. He would protest his innocence to anyone who asked, and there would be no evidence to connect him to the theft.
He went back down to the first floor, punched the alarm code in by the front door, and then stepped out the door, closing it gently behind him. He tightened his scarf around his neck and hurried around the corner of the building before the exterior light winked off.
He stayed inside the tall wrought-iron fence and circled to the rear of the building. A year before, he had accidentally discovered that a window in an unused storage closet was not connected to the alarm system. He leaned the cardboard tube against the stone wall and wrapped his hand in his scarf. Then he used the butt of the folding knife to smash the window.
He didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath until the window shattered without triggering the alarm. He took a couple of deep breaths and then slung the tube over his shoulder. He went back to the front of the building and let himself out the iron gate, locking it behind him with a heavy skeleton key.
The streets were narrow and dark. He started when a pigeon fluttered past him, almost in his face, and looked around nervously when he heard the pulse of a police siren blocks away. He was relieved when he reached the door to the dank, winding staircase up to the tiny, fifth-floor studio he shared with Taylor, an American student a year behind him at the Institute.
Taylor was already in bed, reading a textbook on Impressionism. He was six feet tall, blond and broad-shouldered, with a long, slim dick that was easily aroused.
They had met a year before, when Taylor began his fellowship at the Institute as Dmitri was entering the second year of his. There was an immediate attraction between them, and they’d gone to bed together the night of their first date, screwing each other behind a curtain in the living room of a rundown flat where Taylor was staying.
Within a month they had found the studio and moved in together. It was tiny as a closet, barely large enough for their double bed and a rickety wardrobe they shared. Taylor thought it was romantic, living like that, but Dmitri had seen the way the wealthy lived and he longed for space and luxury.
“You’re late,” Taylor said in French, closing the book and setting it on the floor next to the bed. “Lot of mess to clean up?” Dmitri’s English was limited, and Taylor’s Russian non-existent, so they spoke to each other in the language they had in common.
“Yes, much work.” He considered himself lucky to have the job. Other students at the Institute waited tables, moved furniture, or worked outdoors in the cold Parisian winter, freezing their fingers sometimes so that they had trouble holding brushes in painting class.
His job was indoors, and there was no commuting time between class and work, no need to pay a Metro fare or waste time on buses or trains. He often rescued nearly-new brushes with a few bristles missing, and not-quite-empty tubes of paint, from the trash. On a good day, he found a discarded energy bar that had slipped under a table, or a half-empty bottle of Evian water, to supplement his meager food budget.
He placed the cardboard tube against the wall, and then began peeling his clothes off. The room was cold, and he wanted to huddle under the covers and warm up next to his boyfriend.
“What’s in the tube?” Taylor asked.
“Just canvas.” Taylor had been in the Café SiSi when Yegor approached Dmitri, and he’d been vehemently opposed to any contact with the fat Russian. But Taylor had the luxury of morality. If he needed money, he could call his mother in the US, while Dmitri wouldn’t waste the cost of a call on his alcoholic mother—if she was even still alive. He hadn’t spoken to her since he left Odessa two years before.
“What kind of canvas?” Taylor asked.
Dmitri could tell his boyfriend was suspicious. There was one way to short-circuit this conversation. He kicked off his shoes, then dropped his jeans and peeled off his briefs. “Forget about canvas. Let’s fuck.”
He pulled the covers back; Taylor was naked beneath them, and Dmitri hopped into the bed next to him, pressing his mouth to Taylor’s. With his lips open, he snaked his tongue into Taylor’s mouth, rubbing his nose against Taylor’s.
Beneath him, he felt Taylor’s body reacting to his own. Taylor kissed back, his own tongue dueling with Dmitri’s. His cock rose and pressed against Dmitri’s abdomen.
Taylor reached down and grabbed Dmitri’s erect cock, stroking it roughly up and down as they kissed. Because Dmitri was so much smaller, he was almost always on top, Taylor below him like a pile of Christmas presents just waiting to be enjoyed.
Dmitri grabbed Taylor’s cock just as roughly, squeezing it until Taylor shuddered and winced under him. They both enjoyed this kind of rough and tumble love, though sometimes Taylor complained that he wanted to take things slower. Dmitri didn’t care; to him, sex was a power struggle, the chance to vanquish a stronger man by appealing to his deepest needs.
He gnawed on Taylor’s lower lip, inhaling his lover’s breath, which tasted like stale wine. Taylor reached up and pinched Dmitri’s left nipple, and Dmitri squirmed at the roughness, but loved it. It made his dick even harder.
Each of them jerked the other as they kissed. It was a fast and furious kind of lovemaking, a way to release the sexual energy that accumulated in them both. Taylor began to whimper and squirm as his body tensed, then he ejaculated into Dmitri’s hand.
That was enough to send Dmitri over the top, too, and he came on Taylor’s hand and his belly. He wiped his hand on Taylor’s chest, then sunk down on top of him, their sweat and cum mingling together. “Clean up on aisle seven,” Taylor mumbled in English, one of those strange expressions Dmitri, with his limited command of the language, could never figure out.
Though he enjoyed sex with Taylor, Dmitri did not respect him. His American boyfriend was too commercial in his art—and Dmitri didn’t just think that because Taylor always sold more paintings, for more money, to the tourists. He, Dmitri, had the greater artistic soul. Taylor was a cute boy with a dick and an ass, and it worked out that they shared expenses and got along so well sexually. But it wasn’t love.
Both of them supplemented their income by drawing and painting outside Sacré Coeur, just a few blocks away through the steep, narrow streets of Montmartre, and selling their work to tourists.
People thought Dmitri cute and charming, and they liked the way his heavy Russian accent colored his French. He flirted with young women—and a few men, too, usually older ones. He made the middle-aged parents think of him as a son. With his mop of dark curls and cherubic face, he was a great contrast to Taylor, who worked next to him.
Taylor had an innocent American quality, and handled all transactions that needed English language skills. Dmitri could speak a little English—enough to negotiate a price, for example—but he preferred to leave the business to Taylor.
Next to him in bed, he heard Taylor drift into sleep, his slow, rhythmic breathing mixing with the creaks and groans as the old building settled around them. Dmitri himself was just dozing as the ring of the disposable cell phone that Yegor had given him startled both of them with its shrill tone.
“What the fuck?” Taylor groaned in English, as Dmitri scrambled out of bed and searched for the phone in his discarded pants.
“Allo?” Dmitri said, finding the phone.
“There has been a change of plan,” Yegor said in Russian. “I must leave Paris immediately. You will have to bring the painting to me in Nice.”
“Yes. Write this down. The Bar Les Sables, 18 Rue du Vieux Fort. It’s in the old part of the city. Be there Sunday afternoon.”
Dmitri tried to argue, but the phone went dead in his hand.
“Who was that?” Taylor asked in French, sitting up in the bed, his blond hair and pale skin shimmering in the light from the dormer window.
“Nothing. Wrong number.”
“Don’t lie to me, Dmitri. You don’t even have a phone. Where did you get that one?”
“Don’t bother yourself.” Dmitri felt dirty and sticky, from the sex and his work and the theft. There wouldn’t be any hot water until morning, but maybe he could take a cold shower in the stall one floor down.
“It was that Russian guy, wasn’t it?” Taylor asked. “Yegor. The one who came up to you in Bar SiSi. The one who wanted you to steal the painting. The Russian Boy.”
“You don’t know my life,” Dmitri snapped. “I can’t go back to Odessa when fellowship runs out. I won’t.”
“I told you, we’ll find a way to work it out,” Taylor said. “All it takes is for one gallery to accept some paintings from either of us, and we’ll have our start.”
Taylor was a skilled mimic—he could paint in the Parisian streetscape style of Maurice Utrillo, or with the Impressionist flair of Claude Monet. He painted the church in the watery light of Frederick Constable and the dark shadows of Edward Hopper. The tourists ate it up, often buying several canvases in different styles.
Dmitri could only paint in his own manner, heavily influenced by the German expressionists like Edvard Munch and Kathe Kollwitz. His pictures were not as much in demand as Taylor’s, but both of them knew that Dmitri was the more talented. Not that Taylor was a hack; he had a perceptive eye and excellent technique. But he had yet to find his true artistic voice, which was why he painted in imitation of the masters.
“You go back to America when your fellowship finishes. You paint your boring commercial paintings and make pots of money. And I am in Odessa struggling to paint from my heart and shivering in lousy shithole like this one.”
“You did it, didn’t you?” Taylor nodded toward the cardboard tube. “You stole the painting for Yegor. And that was him on the phone.”
“Like I say, do not bother yourself.” It was as if the future had opened up for him in a flash of lightning, and he knew that his relationship with Taylor was over. He got down on his hands and knees and pulled his cheap suitcase out from under the bed. Then he began throwing clothes and art supplies into it.
“Where are you going in the middle of the night?” Taylor asked. “Nice? Is that what you were talking about on the phone?”
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“I leave. That’s all.” As Taylor sat on the bed, Dmitri finished packing, threw his clothes back on, and stalked out the door.