“And what am I?” I ask, thinking a pet seems right up Mark’s alley. A submissive pet, at that.
“A daring, gorgeous butterfly,” he comments, fluttering his fingers in the air.
“I’m no butterfly,” I say, laughing at his silly imitation. “And since when are butterflies daring?”
A waiter walks by with a tray of wine on a direct path to a line of servers who are waiting by the door in preparation for opening, and Ralph grabs two glasses from him. “Since you,” he replies and thrusts a drink into my hand. “Gulp that down. You’re wound too tight tonight. You need to ease up.”
My skin prickles with awareness and my gaze shoots to Mark, and I am instantly far more deer-in-headlights than daring butterfly. He eyes the glass I’m holding with an arched brow, before his mouth quirks at the corners, and he nods his approval. His approval. I have pleased him. I will not be punished. I am appalled this is the direction my thoughts have gone, and at the certainty I feel that he knows my reaction, and enjoys this control over me.
Ralph whistles low. “You have that man by the balls like very few do, honey.”
I blanch. “That’s crazy. I do not have him by his…no. I-“
“Doors are opening!” Amanda calls out to the room from the hostess desk. I down my wine and shove my empty glass at Ralph.
An hour later, I am standing with a sixty-something gentlemen whose resume includes being the ex-CEO of a rather large bank, chatting with him about the Ricardo Alvarez show, which he’d also attended. The room is swimming with at least fifty people, among them waiters who are wading through the pool of fancy dresses, expensive suits, and big pocketbooks, with selections of wine. I’ve sold two pricy paintings, neither of which were Chris’s, most likely because I’m avoiding his display for reasons I’m trying not to think about.
I’m also buzzing from several wine samples I’ve consumed, which has made me form a new respect for Mark’s insistence everyone leave their keys in the desk up front.
“So dear,” Mr. Rider, the ex-CEO continues, “I’m interested in an Alvarez painting, but I’m not certain I see the exact piece I want here on the showroom floor. Is there a way to arrange a private viewing of his more precious pieces?”
“I most certainly will see what I can arrange,” I assure him, thought I have no clue what I can, or cannot, do. “I’m sure you know the gallery’s resources are many.”
“And you, Ms. McMillan, certainly are their newest asset.” He retrieves a business card from his pocket. “Call me Monday, my dear.”
I beam at his departing form, and with the prospect of viewing Alvarez’s private collection, along with him.
“I take it your smile means that went well?”
The familiar male voice radiates through me, and I can almost feel my body quiver from inside out. I whirl around to find Chris standing behind me, a rebel in denim and leather amongst black ties, and his surprise appearance does far more to impact me than Mark’s had. Every muscle I own tightens deliciously at the sight of him, and I’m not the only one to react to his ruggedly handsome good looks. Two women walk by, their eyes raking over Chris with admiration, their heads tilting together to exchange comments.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, and yes, there is accusation in my voice. I am illogically angry with Chris and I cannot seem to figure out why. Oh wait. He told me I didn’t belong here and yet he still manages to make me hope he’d show up all week long.
His eyes meet mine and hold, and if he notices my temper, he doesn’t show it. “I came to lend you moral support.”
“Why would you want to support me?” I challenge, fighting the thrill inside me at the idea he came here for me. “You said-“
“I know what I said.” He steps closer to me, his fingers curling on my elbow, his touch unexpected, electric. My body hums in reply, and I fight the seductive lethargy threatening to consume both my anger, and my capacity for logic. He told me to leave. He told me I don’t belong.
My anger sparks all over again. “You said-“
“Believe me, I know what I said and I was trying to protect you.” His voice soft and rough at the same time, sandpaper with a silk caress I feel from head to toe.
My stomach knots and I shove aside a blast of uncomfortable emotions his words evoke within me. I am too aware of his touch to fully process what I feel. My voice softens to a whisper. “You don’t even know me.”
His eyes darken, the dim light catching on the gold specks in their depths. “What if I said I want to change that?”
His words are everything I don’t expect, and deep down, everything I had hoped for. I am shocked, and pleased, and in disbelief. More so, I am confused. The crowd, the swell of voices, and clinking glasses fall away with that question. I am staring up at him and his eyes hold me captive. No, he holds me captive, this man, this artist, this stranger, who says he wants to know me. And I want to know him. I just plain want where he is concerned.
“You do know this is a black tie event, correct?”
Mark’s voice is a splash of ice water. I jerk around to find the sharp glint in his silvery gaze fixed on Chris and Chris alone. Power and supreme agitation radiate off of my boss while Chris appears completely unaffected, or perhaps, pleased at Mark’s disdain?
Chris faces Mark, his hands out to his sides. “Artistic expression. Isn’t that what you like about me?”