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ANNOUNCEMENT: Tested in Fire, by E.J. Russell

Tested in Fire

QSFer E.J. Russell has a new MM paranormal book out:

Six months ago, Stefan Cobbe was at rock bottom: grief-stricken, guilt ridden, debt laden, artistically blocked, and living on charity in an isolated mountain cabin. But after reconciling with his first love, Luke, and moving to Sarasota with him, Stefan is preparing for his first major show. Yes, he still has debts, and no, Luke doesn’t understand Stefan’s desire for independence. But compared to last year? No contest.

Luke Morganstern ought to be happy. After all, his art-investigation business has recovered and he’s got his boyfriend back. But Stefan stubbornly refuses to move in with him or accept Luke’s financial help, and it’s really starting to bug him. Who knew that the biggest test of their relationship wouldn’t be time or distance, but his own insecurities? After Luke’s next job—a trip to Italy to retrieve a mysterious artifact—he plans to convince Stefan that it’s time to totally commit.

But when Luke returns, he changes, and Stefan begins to suspect that the person in Luke’s skin isn’t Luke at all. He can hardly go to the police and claim his lover is the victim of a supernatural hijacking though. He needs alternative help to find Luke and get him back, because he refuses to let anyone—or anything—come between them again.

Art Medium Series:

Artists use all manner of materials to express their vision, to interpret the world around them, to affect the hearts and minds of their audience.

But what if the artist himself were the medium? And what if artistic inspiration weren’t the only force at work?

If painter Stefan Cobbe and art investigator Luke Morganstern don’t answer those questions fast, they stand to lose their reputations, their relationship—and their lives.

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“It’s time, Morganstern.”

Sweat broke out on Luke’s forehead at the implacable edge to that voice, and he wiped his damp palms on his chinos. He’d been played. No question. “Can’t we discuss this? Negotiate? I’m sure there’s another option—”

“We had a bet. You lost. I’m collecting.”

Luke ground his molars together. He shouldn’t have lost. He never lost. He glared at his boyfriend. “You must have cheated. The old Stefan Cobbe couldn’t beat me at poker to save his ass.”

“Meet Stefan Cobbe, new and improved.” Stefan grinned at him over his shoulder as he sharpened a drawing pencil with his pocket knife. “Come on. You agreed to the stakes.”

“Because I knew I was going to win,” Luke muttered.

“That might have been true seven years ago. Which, by the way—” Stefan pointed the blade at Luke before he tossed it on his worktable. “—I don’t concede. But didn’t you consider that I might have learned a thing or two since we played last?”

“I didn’t think you could have changed that much.” In the six months since Luke had found Stefan in that godforsaken haunted cabin in Oregon, they’d rebuilt their relationship, brick by stubborn brick. They found far more common ground than they found differences.

Except, apparently, for Stefan’s newfound cardsharp proficiency.

Stefan pointed at the dais at the far end of the cavernous studio, under the sleeping loft  that was still a point of contention between them. “Stop stalling. Strip.”

“Can I at least use the changing room?”

“Suit yourself. But the end result will be the same. You. Naked. So get to it.” He picked up a giant sketchpad. “If I could stand around bare-assed in front of first-year life drawing classes three times a week for four fucking years, you can drop trou long enough for me to sketch you.”

Luke yanked his shirttail out of his pants. “You were used to it,” he grumbled, as he unbuttoned his Oxford and tossed it on a wooden chair.

“Now you’re just whining. If you had agreed to pose for me when I asked the last hundred and seventy-two times, I wouldn’t have had to resort to desperate measures.”

Luke scowled at Stefan and hauled his undershirt over his head. “I have to be at the airport in a couple of hours, you know.”

“All the more reason to move it along.”

Bare-chested, Luke took a step toward Stefan. “We could occupy that time better.” He lowered his voice and was rewarded with Stefan’s shiver. “I could show you how.”

Stefan fended him off with his pencil. “Forget it. Pants.”

Luke unbuttoned his fly and skinned his chinos down his legs, kicking them to the side. “You are one obstinate son of a bitch.”

“Takes one to know one. Underwear.”

“I’m getting there.” He paused with his fingers under the waistband of his boxer briefs. “Why do you get to stay dressed? If I have to be naked, it’s only fair that you are too.”

“You know perfectly well it doesn’t work that way. The model is nude. The artist stays covered. Now quit screwing around and get on the dais.”

“Fine.” He shoved his briefs down, then balled them up and tossed them after his pants. As he limped across the room and mounted the platform, the dehumidified but still Florida-warm air ghosting along his bare skin, he muttered, “Why did you have to pick now to get masterful?”

“Shhh. Models should be silent. Otherwise, you distract the artist. Besides, whenever you talk about this, you tense up. Nobody holds his elbow at that screwy angle. Relax.”

Relax. Right. Easier said than done. In the concrete-floored studio, with its high ceilings and the light spilling in from a bank of clerestory windows, Luke felt as if he were standing in the middle of the Five Points Roundabout in downtown Sarasota. Compared to this, lying under a crumpled Fiat with a broken femur had almost been a piece of cake.

Okay, maybe not that. But close.

He sighed. “I wish . . .”


“I wish I was still perfect.” He dropped his gaze to the canvas-covered stage under his feet. “Well, as perfect as I ever was. Unmarred, anyway. You deserve that.”

“What I deserve,” Stefan said, his tone tart, “is a boyfriend who accepts that I love him exactly the way he is. Those scars mean something else to me. They mean you survived. I love those scars. Tilt your chin up, please?”

Luke complied, but he didn’t smile. That would be asking too much. “I don’t get it. Why do you want to paint me? You’ve got models lined up from here to Orlando.”

“I’ll get to them. But I want your portrait to be the centerpiece.”

Gooseflesh rose on Luke’s skin. “The centerpiece of what?”

“The show, of course.”

“The show? The big one here next month? That show?”

“Yeah.” A smile curved Stefan’s lips as his pencil flew over his sketch pad. “My first since Marius—” His smile faltered. “My first in three years.”

“You want to paint a full-length nude of me for your fricking show? Full frontal?”

“Weeelll . . .” Stefan squinted at his drawing. “More like three-quarters.”

Luke’s gooseflesh disappeared under a flash of heat. He would be walking around the sprawling gallery downstairs sipping a plastic cup of fucking white wine and everyone in

the crowd would know what his body looked like. The twisted scars that crawled over his hip and down his leg. The patch of shiny pink skin that wrapped his ribs. “Oh, hell no.”

“Why not?”

“Have you seen my body?”

Stefan leered at him and waggled his eyebrows. “Every chance I get.”

“It ain’t pretty.”

Heaving a sigh, Stefan set his pad and pencil on his worktable, then crossed the room and stopped in front of Luke. He was tall enough that he didn’t have to lift his chin very far to meet Luke’s eyes. “I know you don’t like your scars. But do you dislike them because they remind you of your pain, or because you’re afraid that other people will find them unattractive?”

“Unattractive?” Luke scoffed. “Try revolting.”


The door opened and Antoinette Tessier, Stefan’s landlord and employer, walked in, a box cradled against her chest. “Good afternoon, Stefan.” She took in Luke in all his

unclothed glory. “Oh.”

“Shit.” Luke dropped to a crouch, angling the scarred side of his body away from the door—which resulted in his junk dangling between his legs like some X-rated door knocker.

“Hey, Antoinette.” Stefan shot Luke an amused glance. “There’s a drape right behind you,” he murmured, then walked over to take the box from Antoinette’s arms. “Is this ready to fire yet?”

As Luke fumbled with the drape, tangling it hopelessly while he tried to wrap it around his hips, Antoinette kept peeking at him from under her lashes, a mocking smile tugging

at her lips. Yeah, that’s exactly the reaction he’d expect from anyone who got a good look at the wreck of his skin.

“Not yet,” she said, trailing a finger over something in the box. “It is only leather-hard. The piece must be bone-dry before it goes into the kiln or we risk damage.” Bending over

the box next to Stefan, she tucked her long dark hair behind her ears. “I wanted your opinion. Do you think the likeness is good, or should the forehead be smoothed a trifle?”

“No, you’ve captured the client perfectly, as usual.”

The two of them began murmuring about pigments and underglazes, so Luke tuned them out, because seriously? What idiot would want their own face on a mask, especially

one as freakishly lifelike as Antoinette’s ceramics? Portraits were bad enough, but masks? Brrr. Bad enough if they were for display—the damn things were like having disembodied heads hanging on your wall like big game trophies in Hannibal Lecter’s playroom. Worse, though, if they weren’t for display. Imagine having someone else’s eyes staring at you from your own face.

Luke had already endured that nightmare with Arcoletti’s ghost. Thank God it was in the past, never to be repeated.

Antoinette clapped her hands. “Bien. I shall bisque fire it this weekend before begging your assistance in painting it.”

“Are you sure you want to hand it over to me? I’d hate to screw up something this lovely.”

“I trust you, Stefan.” She patted his arm although her glance flicked to Luke again. “I will let you return to your session. I beg your pardon for interrupting.”

“It’s all right.” Stefan smiled down at her. “I think Luke was about at the end of his patience anyway.”

She laughed. “Very well.” She picked up her box, pausing while Stefan held the door for her. “Au revoir, Monsieur Morganstern. I look forward to seeing your finished portrait. Perhaps someday you will sit for me as well? I find your . . . face quite intriguing.”

Not a chance in hell, sister. Nevertheless, Luke raised a hand in farewell, then lowered it swiftly to clutch the drape before it slithered to the floor.

She left, and Stefan closed the door on her stifled laughter.

Author Bio

E.J. Russell—grace, mother of three, recovering actor—writes romance in a rainbow of flavors. Count on high snark, low angst, and happy endings.

Reality? Eh, not so much.

E.J.’s paranormal romance, The Druid Next Door, is a 2018 RITA® Finalist. She lives in rural Oregon with her Curmudgeonly Husband, enjoys visits from her wonderful adult children, and indulges in good books, red wine, and the occasional hyperbole.

Sign up for E.J.’s newsletter at or find her online at, on Facebook at, on Instagram at, and on Twitter at


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