My brain hurts every time I try to unravel the mystery that is Rebecca, and Mark, too, for that matter. I glance at the clock and see that it’s already after nine. It would soothe me in all kinds of ways to reach David’s office, hear Ella is doing great on her honeymoon, and get one thing off my mind.

“I’m going after that coffee,” I announce, standing up, intending to get my caffeine fix on my way to make the call.

“Refill my cup, chica,” Ralph says, sliding his mug toward me. It reads “Numbers don’t count but I do.”

“Chica?” I query with an arched brow.

“I speak the language of many and the words of none.”

“You can say that again,” I laugh as I head for the kitchen, waving at Amanda, who has settled behind the front desk and is looking her adorable Barbie doll self in a pink dress and matching hair clip. I think of Chris’s claim that Mark is drawn to those who don’t naturally fit into his world. Mark’s choice to hire Amanda, a college student eager to please and without real life experience, seems to fit this assessment well. But why hire me? I’m no Amanda. I cannot help but wonder if my asking questions about Rebecca wasn’t the reason. He wanted me to be close so he could control what I discovered, or know what I was asking, or even who I was asking it of. Or maybe, I silently scold myself, you just impressed him with your knowledge of art and he needed a new employee. I do know art and I do belong in this world. Maybe not the Lion’s Den, or that club Mark owns, but the gallery, and the art industry, yes. I have to believe that if I’m truly going to resign my job as a schoolteacher and embrace my intended career path.

I’m busy talking myself out of a fallback into the haze of self-doubt when I walk into the small kitchen and freeze. Blood roars in my ears at the sight of Mark. He is standing with his back to me, his broad shoulders stretching the gray of his suit jacket just so. It’s the first time I’ve seen him, beyond a quick few seconds in passing the day before, since I visited his club, and I am suddenly a nervous wreck. I start to back out of the room.

“Not so fast, Ms. McMillan.”

Damn. Damn. Damn. “How did you know it was me?” I ask.

He turns, and my breath lodges in my throat with the impact of both his male beauty and steely gray eyes. Power rushes off him and he consumes the room, and me, but I’ve noted he has this impact on everyone, and I believe no one, male or female, is immune to his presence.

“I can smell your perfume,” he informs me. “And it’s not your normal scent.”

I feel a jolt of surprise at his unexpected observation. Mark knows my normal scent? That he’s this aware of me takes me off guard, but not as much as the glint in his bloodshot eyes. It has me wondering if he has actually identified the musky scent as masculine, thus assuming I smell like Chris. I decide to do what I’ve been doing a lot of lately—actually most of my life, if I’m honest with myself. I deflect. “You don’t look so good, Bossman.” I can’t seem to bring myself to call him Mr. Compton.

“Thank you, Ms. McMillan,” he says dryly. “Compliments will get you everywhere.”

It’s impossible to contain a smile at the reference to a comment I’d once made to him. “Good to know something works with you.”

His lips twist wryly. “You make it sound as if I’m impossible to please.”

I set Ralph’s coffee mug on the small table in the center of the room. “You do come across as a bit . . . challenging.”

His lips twitch. “I can think of worse things to be called.”

“Like rich and arrogant?” I tease, because I’d called him those things a few days earlier.

“I told you, I am—”

“Rich and arrogant,” I finish for him. “Believe me, I know.” I’m remarkably comfortable in this little exchange and I feel daring enough to question him. “You really don’t look like yourself. Are you sick?”

“Sometimes morning simply comes a little too early,” he says dryly, before turning away from me to fill his coffee cup, clearly not willing to supply more details.

My brow furrows. I’m certain he’s turned away from me to avoid me seeing his expression, and I don’t miss the subtle but evident discomfort in him that I’ve never seen before. I have an irrational need to pull down whatever wall he’s just erected and I joke, “Especially after the nights I stayed up studying wine, opera, and classical music so that my boss will believe I can interact with the clientele of the elite auction house his family owns.”

He turns and leans on the counter, sipping his coffee. Any sign of discomfort is gone, and his eyes blaze with power. “I’m simply looking out for your best interests.”

A sense of unease overcomes me and I know our easy conversation is over. We’re heading into quicksand territory and I already feel myself sinking. “And yours,” I point out.

He inclines his head. “Your interests are mine. We’ve had this conversation.”

He’s referring to our talk two nights before, when he’d showed me a video of Chris kissing me in the gallery and convinced me that Chris had used it to stake his claim on me. I’d felt like a token in a game that night. The same night Chris had taken me to the club. Mark’s club. A sudden rush of claustrophobia overtakes me and I reach for the coffee mug and step toward the coffeepot. Somehow, I catch my heel on what seems to be empty air and still I manage to trip. Mark reaches forward and catches my arm. The touch makes me gasp and my eyes shoot to his keen, silvery stare, more primal than concerned, and I feel as if the air has been sucked out of my lungs. I want to pull away but my hands are full.

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance