“I take it you’re ready for our event tonight, Ms. McMillan?”
My heart lurches and my gaze jerks from one of the first journal entries Rebecca ever penned — at least, that I have in my possession, to the doorway where Mark stands. Dressed in a pinstriped black suit, his sculpted body and broad shoulders consume the archway, just as he consumes the air around me. It is Friday evening and the first time I’ve seen him since he’d left town. I suspect my reaction to seeing him is vastly more potent for a variety of reasons. Chris’s silence. Ella’s continued lack of communication. Even Ava from the coffee shop, who teased me with gallery gossip, has been MIA. I’m swimming with sharks alone, which brings me back to my reaction to Mark’s sudden appearance, the ultimate shark.
I’m more certain than ever that Mark is the man in the journals. The evidence is overwhelming. The roses, and their connection to Mark’s art collection. His dominant personality, and the money Rebecca infers her lover possesses in many of her writings. ‘Master’ has to be Mark and it is all I can do not to blush as I remember the intimate acts I’ve read with him as her Master.
No. It’s not knowing this man is ‘Master’ that rattles me. It’s how well I relate to what Rebecca responded to in him. Her need to hand over everything to someone else, including her pleasure, and yes, her pain. To trust that much.
“Your silence is making me nervous, Ms. McMillan,” Mark chides and his voice deepens with demand. “Are you ready for tonight?”
Heat floods my cheeks as I realize I’ve simply been gaping at him, “Yes, is the right answer, correct?” I inquire, unable to keep the apprehension from my voice, so no doubt, it shows on my face. I am beyond nervous about the tasting, and fearful I will look foolish to the experts I will be interacting with.
“Yes is the right answer, Ms. McMillan, especially since the tasting begins in one hour.”
I wet my lips and his gaze follows the action, and unlike when Chris had done so, when I’d felt warm all over, Mark’s attention is unsettling. “Yes then.”
“You aren’t convincing me.”
Flattening my hands on my desk, I will myself to stand up for what I believe in, to claim control of me, and not give it to him. I am not Rebecca. “Mark,” I begin, and his brow quirks with irritation, and forces me to quickly amended my choice of address. “Sorry. Mr. Compton. I have to be honest with you. I don’t like to pretend to be an expert when I’m not. And I’m not.” He has to recognize this. The man has haunted me with emails, phone calls, and computer testing for days on end, but he says nothing in reply. “I worry I could lose credibility when it comes to what I do know, which is art.”
He studies me with an inscrutable mask on his too-handsome face, his jaw set in a hard line. I cannot read him and time stretches eternally until finally he speaks. “Do you want me to let you in on a little secret, Ms. McMillan?”
The word ‘secret’ conjures many things where Mark is concerned, but at this particular moment I cannot escape the thought of him spanking Rebecca in the storage room and clamping her ni**les. Of him punishing her, of him wanting to punish me. I see myself in Rebecca’s role, pressed against the wall, him against me, and it’s not the first time. It’s illogical because I don’t want Mark, but I am spinning out of control, spiraling into some deep, dark cavern of something I don’t understand.
“What secret?” I finally manage.
The sharpening of his gaze tells me he hasn’t missed the far too drawn out pause before my question, or the telling rasp to my voice. He is pleased with my reaction and realization slaps me in the face. The journal is lying open on the desk. How did I not think of the possibility he might recognize it as Rebecca’s, that he might know I’m reading about her, with him? I think…I think he does know. I think he wants me to know.
“Ready for the secret, Sara?”
Sara. He called me Sara. Instinctively, I know this indicates no shift in our relationship. This is his way of telling me he can call me whatever he likes, while I must call him by his formal surname. He is reminding me he is the boss, and I am subservient to him.
I swallow against the dryness in my throat, and nod. “Yes,” I manage and despite the one word reply, I feel empowered with my voice. At least, he has not rendered me mute. I am not this man’s to control. But your dreams of working in this industry are, my subconscious reminds me, and resentment burns in me at the truth inside the unwelcome thought.
“I never expected you to be ready to talk to experts tonight like you are one yourself,” Mark announces.
I blink in confusion. “I don’t understand. You said I had to study and be ready for tonight.”
“I challenged you to see what you are made of. If you hadn’t given me a valiant effort to rise to said challenge, why should I consider you for more than a mere sales rep?”
Chris’s reaction to Mark’s dangling carrot, aka opportunity at Riptide, slides into my mind. Is Mark really planning to help me do more than local sales, or is he simply manipulating me? Is he...playing with my dreams? Or has Chris simply planted the idea in my head and I’m making myself crazy because of him?
“You’ve done well this week,” he continues. “Tonight you have my permission to confess your lack of knowledge to my customers. Simply allow them to teach you. They’ll be eating out of your pretty little palm, and you’ll, without question, please me with your stellar sales.”