The Mask
Chapter One

The mask had started to slip. He could feel the cracks forming, the barriers dropping, but so far no one else had noticed. Not his so-called friends, the tricks, or his employees. But it was happening, and Brian knew something had to give...

Chicago, IL

Justin sighed as the professor drummed on and on. Art History of Western Europe was his last class of the day, and, by the time it rolled around, he was always hungry, tired, and had to fight to stay awake. Today seemed worse. It was one if those beautiful spring days – highs in the 70’s with a pleasant breeze blowing in off the lake – perfect to paint outside on his tiny balcony, but not any time soon.

After class, he had to be at The Gallery.

MG, the owner of MG’s Gallery, was lenient with Justin. She’d always stressed that his school work came first, but Justin loved his job at the trendy gallery – even more so now that he had a couple of his own pieces on display.

Finally, the professor dismissed class, and Justin hurried over to Erie Street to catch the bus to Dearborn. Arriving at The Gallery, he quickly went to the employee’s section in the back. Tossing book bag down, he returned to the front to help.

Working openings was one if Justin’s least favorite parts of his job but that might change if someday if it were his own showing.

Alec Hinson, tonight's artist, was a pompous ass in Justin's opinion. His work was bland and original because he spent too much time trying to recreate the feel of abstract of old without ever trying new mediums or techniques. It wasn't Justin's opinion that mattered, however, and, right now, Alec was the Chicago art scenes’ darling.

Justin was just glad the artist was not here; Alec wouldn't demean himself by showing up this early, or hanging his own stuff!

"Hey, MG," Justin called, seeing his boss bent over a large crate, struggling to lift the painting.

"Help, Justin!" MG called. Laughing, Justin rushed over to help the small, blonde gallery owner, and accepted her hug of thanks with a smile.

"There's my Sunshine!" MG said with a great deal of affection.

"How was class today?" she asked, standing back so that the workers could unpack the rest of the paintings.

Justin joined her, not saying a word as Alec's paintings were uncovered, but he was unable to keep the grimace off his face completely. With a laugh, MG rolled her eyes at him.

"It was fine," he said, smiling. "But I thought Art history would never end! So what's the deal for tonight? Where do you want me?"

"Well, I thought I'd let you direct traffic tonight. Point out pieces when someone asked. Then, for the buyers, you can direct them to the back office for the sale. How does that sound?" MG asked.

She laid a hand on Justin's arm and led him away from the movers toward the back of the gallery. Stopping at the reception desk, she picked up the shows catalog and handed it to Justin.

Justin studied tonight's layout. "That's fine; I’ll set these out and get changed. Thanks MG," he replied.

She knew how much Justin enjoyed talking with the art patrons of Chicago, and indeed, the bright, smiling, young man was a favorite of the MG Galleries customers.

*~*

The gallery atmosphere was strikingly different that evening. The usual hustle and hurried pace of its daylight operations gave way to dim lighting with spotlights highlighting the art. Black and white attired waiters circulated offering patrons champagne and canapés. Conversation was quietly carried out in small, select groups, as the Chicago art community judged and gossiped about each piece of art on display.

Justin managed to avoid Alec and his snotty comments and his lame half-ass come-ons. Alec circled the room like a shark--darting in when the slightest of interest was shown in a piece and strolling off with a smirk when a sold sign appeared. The gushing comments of ‘how original’ and ‘complex’ had Justin rolling his eyes. Alec wouldn’t know original if it bit him on the ass! He could see one critic busily taking notes, and Justin fought the urge to grab the guy and show him his own work hidden in the back. ‘There!’ he would point, ‘is an original!’ As an artist who came up with his own ideas instead of recreating others, Justin sighed, his time would come…he hoped.

Justin shook his head. He was always amazed at the customers who bought crap just because some critic in a newspaper told them to. He much more admired the buyer who couldn't care less who the artist was, but bought a painting because it spoke to them, brought out some emotion in them. To Justin, those were the type of buyers he wanted to have someday. Justin's thoughts were interrupted by a soft voice .

"Are there any works here not by this artist?" a husky voice asked.

Justin's eyes slowly rose up long, long legs, clothed in expensive gray wool, past the silk shirt with its inlay of gray and green, to finally meet a pair of twinkling hazel eyes.

Justin knew he looked like an idiot, standing there with his mouth hanging open, staring, but he couldn't take his eyes off the man in front of him. The face alone was stunning and had heat gathering in his stomach. The man’s auburn hair with its brighter highlights cried out for fingers to run through it. The red, smiling lips beckoned, and it took Justin immense self-control to resist that call.

Justin blinked, sure that this vision would disappear, but no, he was still standing there only now he was smiling.

Then the stranger’s words penetrated his thoughts, and Justin’s face broke out in his trademark smile, leaving the stranger standing, dumbfounded.

"Brian Kinney," the stranger said, holding out a long fingered, elegant hand for Justin to shake.

Justin flushed. "Justin Taylor, nice to meet you, Mr. Kinney," he answered, reaching out his own hand and placing it within the other man's.

Brian covered the blonde's smaller hand with both of his own. "It's Brian," he said, smiling at the vision in front of him.

To be continued...

To be continued...