“You do know you live in wine country, right?” he teases. There is a sultry flirtation to his voice that I hope I am not imagining.

“Neither my apartment, nor the school where I teach sport vineyards in the backyards. I suppose I’m highly uncultured.”


His mood turns somber. “You’re not uncultured, far from it, but I assume you feeling that way is the whole idea in all of this. Mark looks for a weakness and uses it to disarm people. Not that a lack of knowledge in those areas is a weakness. Not unless you allow it to be.”

I tilt my head, studying him. “You don’t like Mark, do you?”

“Liking him is irrelevant. He gets the job done.”

In other words, he doesn’t like Mark. “Has he tried to find your weakness?”

“He tries to find everyone’s weakness.”

He’s avoiding a direct answer and I can’t think of a way to ask again. “I fear he’s found my weakness, or rather weaknesses, rather easily.”

“You’re better off to let your customers be experts in everything else, while you ask questions, and feed their egos. You stick with art and you’ll be golden.”

“A brilliant plan if I ever heard one.”

His lips quirk. “Brilliant? I like your choice of words.”

I purse my lips. “Like you don’t hear brilliant about your art all the time.”

“I don’t listen to my own hype. Besides, for every ‘brilliant’ there’s a critic.”

I study him a moment, his strong jaw, his intelligent green eyes and I realize I’ve stopped being all nerves and fear. I’m remarkably at ease right now considering Chris has managed to wake every hormone I own and some I didn’t know I had. “I sold two more of your paintings today.”

His eyes soften and warm at the same time. “And you did it without any knowledge of wine and opera. How is that possible?”

I find myself laughing easily and it feels good. Until this moment, I didn’t realize just how tense I am, how on edge, and it amazes me that this man I barely know has disarmed me. Our laughter dissolves into crackling current that steals my breath away. Our eyes lock and heat pools low in my belly. I want this man but I am so out of my league. I know this but my body doesn’t seem to care. I am but a ship passing by, a teacher headed back to class, and he is talented beyond belief, a man who’s worth millions, who has seen things I have only read about.

“Are you one of those wine snobs?” I ask, hungry for details about what makes a talent such as his tick.

His mood shift is instant, the shutters over his eyes dropping, the tension in the air almost palpable. I regret the question though I don’t know what was wrong with it.

“I know wines very well,” he says, his tone flat as he glances at the thick leather watch he’s wearing that is far more biker than the millionaire he is, and then back at me. “I’m booked for a meeting with your boss I need to get to.” He studies me for an intent moment and his eyes warm again, and I can almost see the ice melting before me. “Don’t play his games, Sara, and he can’t beat you at them.” He pushes to his feet. “Until next time.”

“Next time,” I repeat softly, wondering if there will be a next time. He saunters to his table and grabs a leather backpack and leather coat. He is wearing biker boots, black leather, with silver buckles. I’ve always favored men in suits, men who were refined, and well, like Mark. Chris isn’t those things, and yet he intrigues me in every possible way.

I expect him to pass my table, and I hold my breath, waiting, trying to think of some witty, cool something to say to him, wondering what he will say to me. Instead, he disappears down a back hallway I assume must be an exit. He is gone and I am left wondering if it’s for good, if I will ever see him again.

***

An hour after my encounter with Chris, my cell rings, and Mark orders me back to the gallery. Like a good little soldier, I pack up my things, and prepare to do as told.

“Okay,” Ava declares, appearing by my side, “we have to do lunch. I’ve never seen Chris Merit talk to anyone as long as he did you. I want the scoop.”

I blink at her. The scoop? I do not have a scoop to give, but if I did, my little encounter with Chris feels private and personal. I wouldn’t want to share it. “There’s nothing to tell. I sold several of his paintings and he was thanking me.”

She wiggles a dark brow. “You made him richer than he already is. Now there’s a way to get a man’s attention. And boy did you grab his attention. He looked like he wanted to gobble you up. I’ll call you tomorrow so we can set up lunch, unless I see you here first.” She rushes away and I stare after her.

Gobble me up? Chris looked like he wanted to gobble me up? I replay my encounter with Chis in my mind, and try to think of a steamy moment she might have witnessed. There were times when I thought I‘d felt a spark between us, but didn’t dare believe it was more than my wishful thinking.

My phone buzzes with a text from Mark. Still waiting. I grimace. He is such a control freak that I have no problem seeing him as the dominating man in the journal. It is an idea I find both erotic and scary at the same time because I do not know where Rebecca is. Deep in my core, I am certain she is lost forever, damaged in an irrevocable way.

I shake off the grimness of my thoughts and head back to the gallery to find Amanda packing up her things for the day behind the counter.

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