“What’s wrong with teaching school?” I ask, just as I had when Chris Merit had thrown the same ball at me.
I wait for him to continue and he doesn’t. He just stares at me with keen observation that makes me want to shift in my chair.
“I love teaching," I state.
He arches a skeptical brow at me in reply.
“I do,” I insist, but quickly, reluctantly add, “But no, it’s not my true passion.”
His reply isn't instant. He lets me squirm a bit under his scrutiny. “So I ask you again,” he finally repeats. “Why are you teaching school?”
For a moment, I consider some fluffy answer designed for avoidance and decide he won't let that slide. My chest tightens as I admit something that I keep bottled up where I don't have to deal with it. Something I have told no one but I am telling him. Maybe it's liberating. Maybe I need to say it out loud once and for all. I feel so damn guilty that teaching isn't fulfilling. It should be fulfilling. “Because," I say in a voice that to my dismay cracks slightly, "a love of art doesn’t pay the bills.”
If he notices my discomfort, he doesn't show it. His expression is impassive, unreadable. “Which brings my curiosity back to what we've already covered. Why not ask what wage you will be paid?"
“I have enough of an idea of the going rate to know why this has to be a summer job that I don’t do this full time.” A pinch of irritation and defensiveness sneaks up on me. "And you walked away before I could get the opportunity."
He laughs and it surprises me more than anything else he has done thus far. "I suppose I did." He turns somber quickly and considers me for so long and so intently that I feel like I’m going to lose my mind. What is he thinking? What is he about to say? I am being judged and I know it. I tell myself that I don't know him well enough for his opinion to matter, but like his approval, it does. He is of the world where I so yearn to belong.
"Perhaps," he says, "I didn't want to give you the chance to decline."
"I can certainly see you as a man who prefers to do the declining yourself," I say before I can stifle my reply.
He laughs again and sits up, scrubbing his clean-shaven jaw. "You don't pull any punches, do you?"
I shake my head. "Not today."
His smile widens and it is a gorgeous, handsome smile that could melt chocolate. "Let's see how true that is. Your top three Italian artists are whom?"
I sit up straighter, my blood pumping, immediately alert. My answer is immediate. “Present day — artist and sculptor Marco Perego. Pino Daeni for his soft romantic characters. Contemporary Italian Master artist, Francesco Clemente who is one of the most illustrious European trans-avantgarde artists today.”
He arches a brow. “No Da Vinci?”
“He’s in a class by himself and is the expected answer that tells you nothing about my personal tastes."
His eyes light and I think he might be pleased with my answer.
“Damien Hirst," he says, throwing out the name of a famous painter.
I am in my element, and I reply easily. “He’s in his forties and already one of the most acclaimed contemporary artists alive. He’s worth an estimated one billion dollars. In 2008 he sold, through Riptide which your family owns, the full exhibition Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, with 223 works for $198 million, breaking the record of the most expensive auction by a single artist.”
A smile lingers on his mouth, the same mouth that I keep looking at with ridiculous obsession, and this time, I know I see the glow of approval in his eyes. I am warm again, energized anew. Comfortable in a way I hadn’t been before this moment with this man.
“Impressive, Ms. McMillan."
I smile, not even trying to suppress my pride at his words. “I aim to please.”
"I must say, I'm getting that idea, and I like it." His voice is low, laden with silk. "I like it immensely."
Without warning, the air crackles with a charge that steals my breath. His eyes have darkened with something akin to a predatory gleam. My body responds without my permission, tingling with awareness that I don't want to feel, but yet I do. I am frustrated with myself for being affected by a man I will not dare cross a line with. A man who is dangerous to me, who might well have been dangerous to Rebecca.
“Excuse me, Mr. Compton,” Amanda says from the doorway. “But you have a call.”
“Take a message,” he replies, never taking his eyes off of me. And despite my vow, I am transfixed by their color, by the intensity of his stare.
Amanda delicately clears her throat. “It’s Mrs. Compton about the auction that begins in an hour at Riptide.”
Mrs. Compton? The spell is broken and I gape. I know I do. I can’t stop myself.
He sighs and flicks Amanda a look. ”I’ll call her back in five minutes.”
“She’s pretty clear she wants to talk now.”
His tone grows sharper. “I’ll call her back.”
“Yes,” Amanda says, looking flustered. “I’ll tell her.”
My new boss returns his attention to me as Amanda disappears. “Mrs. Compton would be my mother,” he explains, definite amusement in his eyes now. “And just to be clear, the only woman I let boss me around. Unfortunately, as the manager of Riptide, she excels at it."
“Oh,” I say, surprised, and suddenly he is not nearly as intimidating as before. “Your mother.” I smile yet again. He’s a control freak. I know this already, but I think he might not be as bad as I'd feared. I didn't miss the hint of affection to his tone that tells me he loves his mother. I’ve always thought that says something about a man. "Her skill at bossing you around has nothing to do with that maternal bond, then?" I am teasing him, and it just happens. I can't stop myself.