He leans forward and I can smell his clean, spicy male scent. “Sharing a cup of coffee,” he says, “is a bit like celebrating a new partnership, don’t you think?”
The challenge he has just issued crackles in the air, along with some other, unnamed electricity, that had my throat thick, and my heart racing. It’s just a cup of coffee but yet I sense that this is about so much more, that this is another test that has nothing to do with skill, but rather, him. Me. And I don’t know why I want to comply, to please him. Of course I do, I tell myself. He’s the kind of man who expects those around him to follow his lead. I cannot fight his will and be here. I tell myself that is why I comply, why I do as I wish. I tell myself I am not weak, and he is in control of the job, not me. I reach for the coffee.
I sip from the nearly cold beverage, peeking at my new boss from under my lashes as he reviews my test. He is powerful, this man, controlling, arrogant, everything I swear each day I do not want in my life, and yet I am drinking the coffee to please him. This would be acceptable if it were simply because he is my new boss. But it's not. Deep in my core, I know I am seduced by this place, and by him. He is interesting to me in ways I don't want him to be, in ways I know spell trouble.
I tip the cup back again and try to savor the bitterness as a reminder of what this kind of man does to me. It strokes my tongue with acid and it’s too much to take. I down the rest of the cup.
Immediately, his gaze lifts to mine, and I barely contain a grimace. His strong mouth hints at a curve, his eyes glint with something I can't quite identify, and I wish I don’t want to as badly as I do. “Congratulations, Ms. McMillan. You passed your first test.”
I have the distinct impression that he isn’t talking about the one on paper, but rather, something completely different. My compliance with his 'request' I drink my coffee despite my discomfort, I am almost certain.
“You doubted that I would?” I challenge, telling myself that I am talking about the questionnaire, not the coffee.
“I hired you without an interview.”
“Yes,” I say and my fear he'd done so because I'd been asking about Rebecca, that he sees me as the next her--and I'm not sure that is a good thing, in fact that I’m fairly certain that it is not--twists me in knots. I press forward with a facade of courage. “Why exactly is that? You don’t seem like a man who makes rash decisions.”
"Why did you take the job without asking how much you will be paid or even what time to arrive, Ms. McMillan?"
My heart skips a beat but I refuse to cower to this man, or any other, again. I've lived that experience too many times in my life. "Because I love art and I have the summer off. And since I know far more about the gallery than you do about me, it wasn't an uneducated decision. That puts the ball back in your court, Mr. Compton. Why hire me without an interview?"
He does not appear amused by my counter. In fact, I'm not sure he isn't a bit irritated. He studies me for an eternal moment, those silvery eyes so intense they are like ice that turns me to ice and fire at the same time. He is unnerving. I do not want this man to have the ability to rattle me.
"You want to know why I hired you?"
"It wasn't what I expected."
"Why offer your services if you don't expect them to be accepted?"
"A moment of passion," I admit. "And a summer of freedom."
He gives me a tiny incline of his chin, as if accepting of that answer. “I could feel your passion. It spoke to me."
My throat goes instantly dry as the words drop between us, heavy with implication, the air thick with a rich, creamy awareness that I tell myself I am imagining, that I reject. He is not for me. This place is not even for me. It's Rebecca's.
“You impressed me, Ms. Macmillan," he adds softly, "and that doesn’t happen easily.”
My breath nearly hitches at his words and I am shocked to realize, despite my thoughts moments before, just how much I want this man's approval, how much I need confirmation it's real. I don't want to want it. I don't want to need it. Yet…I do. I wait three beats to calm my racing heart and then ask what I must know. "How exactly did I do that in such a short time?" My voice is not as steady as it was before and he must notice. He is too keen not to.
“As I'm sure you know, there are cameras in most galleries, including this one. I was watching when you bewitched the couple that was shopping the Merit display with an absolute passion for art. If not for your guidance, they may have gone home to think about the purchase.”
Even the idea of him watching me on camera, as disconcerting as it is, doesn’t stop the warmth that spreads through me at his compliment. He is everything Amanda said he was but he is even more. He is successful and he belongs in a world I have only borrowed, but long to own. Oh yes. I so want his approval and I hate myself for needing it. Hate. It's a strong word, but I have a history that makes it so damn right for this occasion.
“Knowledge and competence are far easier to find than true passion," he adds, each word drawing me further into his spell. "I believe you have it, which is why I can't quite figure you out."
“Figure me out?” I ask, straightening a bit, uneasy that this might be headed toward my claim of knowing Rebecca. Towards the sister I don't have and haven't thought of a way around.
He sinks back into his chair, studying me intently, his elbows on the arms, his fingers steepled in front of him. “Why is someone so clearly enthralled with this world teaching school?”