I can barely believe he’s telling me to do exactly what Chris suggested days before. My emotions twist in knots. I’m not sure how to react and I respond on auto-pilot, a soldier trying to please her new captain. “I’ll…do my very best.”
Satisfaction slides over his features. “I cannot wait, Ms. McMillan, to see what you are truly capable of.” His lips twitch. “I have a feeling we’ll be discussing your reward for a night well done, tomorrow.”
“And if I fail?” I ask. “Will I be punished?” I have no idea where my boldness has come from, but the question is out without me thinking.
His eyes narrow on me. “Do you want to be punished?” His tone is low, gravely, and rather than him being angry at the question, I read a sexual undercurrent in his reply. Or maybe I’m suffering delusions born of a combination of Chris’s warnings and my obsession with the journals.
“No,” I answer, and this time there is no hesitation in my response. “I do not wish to be punished.”
“Then continue to please me, Sara,” he comments softly, and there is a hint of both satisfaction and reprimand in his tone. I can see this moment foreshadowing another, where he will say ‘you were warned’. You know I have to punish you.
He shoves off the doorjamb he’s been leaning against. “In case you’ve not been informed, as a precaution, limo and cab service will be provided for my staff and guests this evening. You’ll need to leave your car key in the front desk.”
“But how will I get my car tomorrow?”
“You can expense a cab.” His silver eyes darken to a deep gray. “It’s a small price to pay for safety. I take care of those under my protection, Ms. McMillan.”
He leaves without another word.
Forty-five minutes later I am on the main floor of the gallery worrying over the exact alignment of napkins and forks on one of several tables set up in front of a large oval window overlooking the courtyard. The lighting above my head is dim, the music non-existent until the doors open, when a violinist will perform.
Nearby, Mary, the main salesperson for the gallery, and the one person who hasn’t been overly friendly to me from the staff, as well as several of the interns, are chatting amongst themselves. They don’t appear nervous, or to possess the same desire as I do to stay busy. My nerves are jangling louder than one of the San Francisco trolley bells. Even without the pressure of being a wine expert, at least tonight, I’ve read between the lines with Mark. I’m living one big test I can’t afford to fail. I glance at the girls again, all in sparkly cocktail numbers that make my basic black skirt and light blue silk blouse look out of place.
“You look like you’re about to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Ralph appears by my side and I finish placing a final fork, and turn to find his black bow tie from earlier in the day has been replaced with a red one.
“Compliments always help soothe my nerves,” I say sardonically, but then I love the man’s wit and honesty. “I thought you stayed behind your desk?”
“If the bossman wants to fill me with expensive drink and pay for my ride home, who am I to argue? You’ll learn to love these events. A little alcohol and people open their wallets and it puts the ’Beast’ in a good mood.” He studies me intently. “Now. Talk to me. What’s got you so worked up?”
I straighten his bow tie purposely. “It appears I didn’t get the memo on the spiffy evening dress code.”
His gaze flicks several feet away to where Mary is in animated conversation with Mark, before returning his attention to me. “She’s in charge of preparing the staff since Rebecca disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” I ask, alarmed.
“Mary thought Rebecca leaving was her chance to grab the bossman’s attention and it’s been a big fail for her.” He shrugs. “She’s bitter and doesn’t want competition.” He points at me. “That’s you, honey.”
“Are you saying she has a crush on Mark or she wants the top spot at the gallery?”
“She has a crush on him, his money, and the job. Mark barely gives her the time of day while Rebecca was a star who helped him with Riptide.”
Disappointment tightens my chest. No matter how I frame my duties, I am simply a fill-in for the summer. “Why Rebecca and not Mary for Riptide?” Why me and not Mary? “I get the impression Mary does well on the sales floor.”
“Sales people are a dime-a-dozen, easily replaced by a herd of interns dying to be in this business, and willing to work for pennies. Mary fits that bill in Mark’s eyes.” He presses a finger to his chin and considers me. “You though, are different. Mark sees something in you.” His lips twist. “Mary knows it, too. I do believe she’s ready to stomp on you like a cigarette.”
My eyes go wide. “Stomp on me like a cigarette?” I ask, concerned for myself, but more so for Rebecca.
He rolls his eyes. “Has anyone ever told you you’re melodramatic today?”
“No,” I say, but then I’ve never been living someone else’s life. “Has anyone ever told you you’re melodramatic?”
He winks. “All the time and to put your mind at ease. The harshest thing Mary has in her is messing with your understanding of the evening’s dress code. At heart, she’s nothing more than a submissive little pet.”