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Brush Strokes by Max Hudson (1)

Chapter One

"Marie, get back in here!" Tony cried to his sister, who had left after taking away all his cleaning supplies. For some reason every time she attempted to help it was like she just had to make things worse. Her idea of cleaning was... Well, as far as he was concerned it left much to be desired. She seemed to focus far too much on organizing, sorting, and moving. She had always been the sort of kid to kick a book pile under the bed rather than dust them and throw away or give away the ones she wasn't using. She had always been the sort to glare at Tony's room for having clean folded clothes on the chair in plain view, whereas she had a pile of dirty laundry inside her wardrobe.

The last artists to stay had left the studio a mess. They fancied themselves Pollacks, or something of the sort. Tony thought they were pretentious twats. But, it had resulted in a load of paint splatters everywhere, drying onto the marble floors and all but ruining the grout. And, of course, Marie felt that Tony's buckets of cleaning supplies in the middle of the studio were less clean and tidy than the literal paint staining the gray grout and fucking up the entire look of the room. So, she had taken it away before he had even really begun.

He wandered around the studio, trying to see if she was even still there or if she had walked up the hill to their parents' house again. He didn't want to go up there if she was just hiding somewhere in the cluttered studio room. But he didn't want to spend forever shouting for her if she was up at the house.

Looking for his sister, Tony spied a new pile of mess to tidy up. He was wondering if some of these artists left it on purpose. It was impossible for them to not know what they had done. Their paints were expensive. They left marks everywhere. How could they not see a fresh lime green stain all over the floor where they had literally just been working?

Perhaps it was some sort of remark about the state of the studio. They didn't feel it was cleaned often enough, even though they had a hands-off approach while artists were working. Perhaps the artists were just frustrated at their own lack of success in the area and took it out on the poor building.

Finally, Tony spied Marie, standing by a window meticulously arranging some sort of drooping potted plant. She waved at him like she hadn't heard his angry shouts, as he walked over and gave up on being angry. She was humming to herself, still wearing a bright yellow flower in her hair, which the last artists had given her as a parting gift. She had thrown away the business card with their personal phone number on the back.

Marie hugged her brother. She, like him, was tall, much taller than the locals, slender, and blonde. She was a picture of grace, and Tony was fiercely protective of her. Many of the artists who had rented the studio before had asked to paint her. Some had started asking for her to pose when she was barely pubescent, and Tony had given them two minutes to justify their request before punching them in the jaw and taking Marie home.

Too many men fancied them both. Tony grew weary of it as time passed, but Marie was still euphoric. She loved the attention, especially now that she was old enough that her brother and their parents would not step in the way every time some man so much as complimented her dress.

Tony and Marie Anderssen were third generation Swedish immigrants. He had grown up speaking Swedish, English, German, French, and Spanish, entertaining artists from all around the world. He was all but French, to be honest, at this point. His parents and grandparents were all Swedish. He was raised around so many cultures. But he had known nothing other than L'Arque, he had spoken nothing but French on a daily basis for most of his life. He had only been back to Sweden a couple of times; generally, his relatives wanted to come to warm and sunny France to see the rest of the family. And he didn't blame them for wanting to make a holiday of it. The few times he had been in Sweden himself, he had been a little underwhelmed.

Despite the way Marie and Tony had been raised, despite their awareness of the way they were seen by locals and tourists alike, they did not consider themselves French. Few people in L'Arque considered themselves French. Most were expats of some description, either artists, muses, or laborers. Even those who were children of expats, or travelers, or any other type of person who might carry a French passport, did not consider themselves French.

Many of the nearby villages and towns considered L'Arque to be a den of snobbery and anti-French sentiment. They were often accused of rejecting the culture which looked after them, which kept them alive, and had united them all here. And yet the same people saying this would vehemently reject anyone from L'Arque who called themselves French.

Much the same way, the artists who stopped by for inspiration did not treat the people of L'Arque as French or as tourists. As far as the artists were concerned, residents of L'Arque were inauthentic frauds who pretended to be French but weren't rich enough to travel continually, which wasn't far from the truth. This community of expats had established themselves in the quiet countryside to make the most of the peaceful environment and beautiful surroundings, which artists across the world sought. They set up studios and shops and caravan sites and hostels and restaurants, all catering to the sort of person who felt that spending a weekend in France would launch their art career.

Tony wished he could be disgusted by the way the artists treated him. But he was not. He drank it in like he was parched for attention. Both sides of the community, the residents and the tourists, despised one another and yet needed one another. Tony, much like the environment he inhabited, was fetishized as a model, treated like another prop or accessory by the artists his parents rented their studio to. And he used them for money and attention.

And as time passed, he grew to love some of them, to enjoy their bodies and words and to mourn their leaving. One or two of the hundreds of artists he had modeled for, of the dozens he had slept with, turned out to be decent people. And after that he felt even more torn about L'Arque. He didn't belong here. He wasn't an authentic French man, or a predatory expat businessman, or a snobbish artist. He didn't feel like any community wanted him. But he couldn't just pretend to despise the artists like he used to, like much of the community still did. Tony had often been loved by the artists he worked for. It was the way. They would learn to love him as a muse and a companion. They would grow close to him. Create masterpieces.

The community did not hate Tony for getting along with the artists. But it seemed as if a mutual hatred of their clientele was the only real bonding exercise the community shared. They tried to get him to rant about his work tending to the studio and modeling, even his parents tried to get him to complain. But he couldn't.

His heart had been broken a few times, sure, but he even relished that, in a way. It just felt so alive to do this. It felt so wonderful to leap from man to man, to fall in love over and over again, to strike a pose, to be covered in paint, to see his face and body portrayed by hundreds of pairs of hands for millions of eyes worldwide. And then, when it all fell apart, the pain was almost delicious. It spurred him on. Drove him to do it all again. He was caught up in a whirlwind of love and thrill, of excitement and joy. Of pure, raw pleasure.

Sometimes his parents or the townspeople asked him what he expected to get out of all of this. To which he shrugged and said he was happy to get paid to model, the sex was a bonus. In that community, the reply was hardly considered shocking. Far too many of the locals were retired hippies and the idea that he wanted money was more surprising to them than the idea that he wanted to have consequence-free sex.

Truth be told, not even that was the truth. He lived for love and attention, and a part of him hoped every time that the relationship would go somewhere. Maybe someday one of these flings would come to fruition. But not today, not yet. At twenty-six, Tony was still young and living life. The pain of a break up was just part of that.

"Where are my cleaning things?" he asked.

Marie pointed to the table in front of the next window over. "Under there. They were in the way."

"Marie, just... clean the windows, please," he said, looking at the carefully arranged plants in front of the streaky, fly-specked windows.

She rolled her eyes. "They'll just get dirty again," she protested, still picking up the window cleaner and a rag.

Tony didn't argue back. "So long as you do your job, I really don't care." He made his way over to the table and took the buckets out, so he could see them. Then he turned his attention to the center of the room. Every piece of furniture he pushed aside was just revealing more and more paint and dust. He groaned as he moved the last heavy table across the room. Most artists enjoyed working with a blank slate, so he and his family tried to provide one. So, they had to move all the furniture to the walls and scrub the floor until he could see his reflection in it.

Tony wasn't sure how the Anderssens had made such a name for themselves as art studio managers. None of them were artistic, not in the true sense of the word. Tony had modeled, and his father mixed paints as his mother managed the studio. Mr. and Mrs. Anderssen had only become involved in the art community as a business venture. Tony and Marie had become involved as cleaners for the studio, and later on as models. As a whole, the family had made quite a living for themselves.

At first Tony had wanted to be an art model. Then a fashion model. But the more time passed, the more he saw the sense in his father's choice of career. Setting up a studio felt like a much better use of his time, to be fair. It felt like it would give him something better to work on. Something more solid, more reliable, less emotionally exhausting. He wanted that. He wanted the same sort of life his parents had built for themselves. And when the subject of inheriting the studio came up, for the first time he was starting to consider it.

It was fun to get into exciting flings with beautiful young artists and powerful older men. But it was also utterly draining. Work and romance were not supposed to overlap like that. He wasn't supposed to be investing so much of his heart and soul into what was basically a job. And, even though he would swear up and down that it was just casual sex, a natural result of modeling for these men who loved and lusted for him, he knew that it was emotional too. He knew he also loved them and gave away a little part of himself when they finally packed their bags and went back home or resumed their travels.

Tony lived for these highs and lows, and he even felt a vague romanticism in the loss and loneliness he experienced. If he were an artist himself, he would no doubt want to pour these emotions into words or lines, to use them to build a career. But he wasn't an artist. He was at best someone who vaguely understood the artistic process. So, he kept these feelings to himself. He waited for the emotions to subside and if they didn't, he would go out partying and drinking until the next artist arrived. Then he would just hope that the next artist wanted a male model and lover, which, seeing as word got around, many of them did.

Not that there was any risk of it happening with this new guy, of course. He was pretty established as a straight man. Divorced, sure, but straight as they came. Tony had looked the new artist up, as he did with everyone who rented the studio. He always claimed it was to work out what supplies and setup they would want, to make sure they were stocked and comfortable. But in part it was also to scope them out. And why not? If there was a chance of a new, fresh, exciting relationship, then Tony wanted to be prepared.

But not this guy. He had only ever dated women, only been married once, to a woman, never even experimented, or so he said, no involvement in the LGBT community. Just the most milquetoast of middle-aged heterosexuals.

He probably wouldn't even want Tony as a muse. His works were usually focused on the beauty of the female form, and after a divorce they might be even more so. This artist's work was absolutely everywhere. He usually took vast canvases and painted women life size or larger, transformed into mythological beings, lying seductively, or hiding themselves from the viewer's eyes, inhabiting oddly familiar, natural settings. The gallery photos looked like at any moment one of these eight-foot tall goddesses would stand up, step out of the frame, and walk around among the visitors who had come to see her.

Tony doubted that he would be considered as a model for one of these works.

He glanced over at the floor by the door. A letter had just been pushed in, the first one to arrive in the new resident's name. A lot of artists liked to redirect their snail mail for the few weeks or months they lived there, so even if they tried to stay anonymous at first, eventually point Tony would know exactly who he was preparing the studio for.

Usually they were up and coming young artists or spoiled middle class brats who wanted to play at being artists, or older artists of moderate fame. This time it was someone a little higher in status, slightly more well-known.

This time the man had given his real name when reserving the studio. The letter just confirmed it. Frankie Lloyd... He was a fairly famous artist. Not renowned, but in their little village his arrival would no doubt cause a stir.

Tony moved the letter into the little wicker basket on the desk as he started scrubbing the paint off the floor.

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