Mark’s lips press into a thin line. “I prefer your expression to be contained on the canvas.”

“Or in your bank account,” Chris muses, and while his tone speaks of jest, there is a sharp undercurrent to his words that match Mark’s steely stare.

“Excuse me.” A forty-something female and her husband that I recognize from an earlier, rather unfriendly chat, interrupts us and their intense interest in Chris is evident. The woman is practically giddy with excitement. “Are you Chris Merit?” she asks, and good lord, she sounds breathless, when only fifteen minutes before she’d been pretentious and borderline rude to me.

Chris’s eyes hold Mark’s for several crackling seconds that the couple seems to be oblivious to, before Chris turns his attention to his admirers.

“I’ve been known to answer to that name,” he replies, offering them one of the charming smiles that I’ve learned pack a real punch.

“Oh my God,” the woman gushes, whisking a lock of red hair from her eyes, and shoving her hand at Chris. “I love your work.”

Avoiding Mark’s gaze, feeling somehow as if I will be blamed, for well, something, I watch how Chris interacts with the couple. Eventually the husband wrangles Chris’s hand from his wife’s, to shake it himself, before he turns to do the same with Mark. “You really do know how to surprise your guests in all the right ways, don’t you, Mr. Compton? You certainly have earned our business tonight.”

Chris’s eyes meet Mark’s and even in profile, I can tell Chris is barely containing a smile. “I was more than happy to attend,” Chris comments, “but I did have one condition to being here.” The couple hang anxiously on Chris’s words, and though Mark shows no reaction, I’m pretty sure he is too. “I’m supposed to have a Corona beer waiting on me.” He shrugs out of his leather jacket, a statement to Mark he is staying I believe, and a waiter quickly takes it.

The couple erupts into laughter I don’t dare indulge in, and turn expectant gazes on Mark. I wonder which is worse for Mark—the use of his first name, or the request for a beer. “Oh please,” the woman pleads,” bring us a Corona, too. What fun to tell our friends we had a beer at a wine tasting with Chris Merit.”

“Unfortunately,” Mark replies, proving he can roll with the proverbial punches, “the beer didn’t arrive as expected.” He waves at a waiter who rushes over. “But I can certainly supply wine.”

Chris doesn’t push for the beer I doubt he really wanted, and soon we all lift our glasses in a toast. “To the painting I’m going to leave with by Chris Merit,” the wife declares.

“I can’t believe you asked for beer,” I whisper when he takes my glass.

His eyes twinkle with mischief. “Believe it, baby. I’m a rebel with a cause.” He hands off our glasses to a waiter.

“And what’s the cause?” I ask, while Mark and the couple continue to chat.

“Right now,” he replies. “You.”

My lips part in surprise but there is no time for a real reaction. The fuss has garnered attention, and suddenly we are surrounded by people who want to meet Chris. Graciously, he chats with the various customers, and I am both surprised and pleased as he introduces me to each.

A good hour passes, and Chris is as attentive to me as he is the visitors. At this point, he’s doing all the selling, but the wine tastings have continued. The longer the event continues the more I think I need to learn how to avoid drinking at events like this one. I am unsteady, and in need of food.

Mark joins the small group we are talking with and Chris hones in on him. “You got a minute?”

Mark inclines his head. “Anything for the artist of the night.” And while the statement is true-- Chris is the ‘artist of the night’--his tone drips saccharine.

Mark turns and walks away, and I expect Chris to follow. Instead, he slides his fingers through mine, and pulls me with him.

Chapter Thirteen

I am all too aware of Chris’s hand intimately twined with mine as we pursue Mark, or rather, as he drags me along for the ride. There is a possessiveness to his touch and I have the sense I am a token in these two men’s ‘who’s dick is bigger’ contest, and now I am the one who is not pleased. In fact, I’m freaking out, and my heart is about to explode from my chest.

“What are you doing?” I demand, gently tugging on Chris’s hand.

Still walking, he cuts me a sideways look. “What I came here to do. Protecting you.”

I gape at this ridiculous notion. What is it with him and this ‘protection’ hangup? I contain the urge to jerk hard against him and demand he stop and explain himself, simply because we are in public. My mind races in search of a more discreet plan of escape before I end up trapped in one of the offices in the middle of their obvious war.

Mark surprises me and halts in the center of the gallery, away from the fifteen or so guests still mingling amongst themselves, where low voices mean discretion. Chris stops with him, and I don’t have an option but to do the same since my fingers remain tightly tucked inside of his.

“I came here tonight to support Sara,” Chris announces without preamble. “I expect her to get the commission off my sales.”

What? I scream in my head. Oh my God. This can’t be happening.

“Ms. McMillan and I will discuss her compensation amongst ourselves,” Mark replies, and his tone is icy, his refusal to look at me damning. My heart sinks to my feet. I am as good as fired.

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance