“Yes,” Mark says, answering my unanswered question. “It’s Chris’s work.”
My attention slides to his face and I try to read him. I don’t know what happened between these two men, but I have no doubt it burns deeper for them both because they were once friends. “I assumed as much,” I reply when I can read nothing in the carefully schooled expression he wears on his too-handsome face and he seems too intent to say nothing more. “And it surprises me. You two don’t seem too close these days.”
“Money talks,” he says.
My brows dip before I can stifle the reaction, the defensive rise for Chris impossible to contain. “Chris doesn’t seem motivated by money.”
Mark gives me a deadpan look I think might hold a hint of irritation. “What can I do for you, Ms. McMillan?” Mark asks, clearly diverting the conversation. I get the impression he’s not pleased with me defending Chris. It’s a good reminder, though, that I’m trapped in a battle of wills between him and Chris, and it renews my resolve to get the answers I came here for.
I do not wait for him to ask me to sit. I walk forward, thankful my feet don’t trip on empty space again, and sit in one of the two armchairs in front of his desk, sinking into the expensive leather. “I want to talk about Riptide.”
He leans back, rests his elbows on the arms of his chair, and steeples two fingers together. “What about it?”
“You told me I wasn’t ready for Riptide. Why am I suddenly now?”
His expression is unreadable, unchanged. If he feels put on the spot, he shows nothing. “There is no suddenly about this.”
“You said I had to learn about wine, opera, and classical music.”
“I told you,” he says slowly. “I was testing your dedication. And I’d still like you to learn those things. I thought you’d be pleased. Unless . . . you don’t plan to stay here after the summer ends?”
“I haven’t been offered a job beyond filling in for Rebecca.” A thought slams into me with my own comment. I barely contain the urgency in my voice as I ask, “Has she resigned?” And would he tell me if she has? Or would he think I’d be less motivated to create a new spot for myself out of assumed stability?
“I haven’t heard from Rebecca in weeks,” he informs me. “If she decides to come back, I’ll make room for her, but I cannot operate a business with an absentee employee dictating my moves.”
I study him and look for some hint of discomfort, of a lie, but see nothing. I do not believe he has heard from Rebecca. “Did you expect her return, or at least some communication, by now?”
“Yes,” he replies without hesitation.
“Are you worried about her?”
“Displeased,” he says, and the tone is that and more. He is not worried about her. He’s furious that she has disobeyed him. In that instant, I am convinced he is the man in the journal, who has lost his submissive to another man. And I believe he would punish her on her return for misbehaving. Certainly disappearing is misbehaving.
“You say you can’t operate like this, but you still haven’t offered me a full-time job,” I comment, testing him, trying to see if he shows me any sign he has talked to her, that he does know she is returning.
“Because I don’t offer what I feel will be declined. Chris will have offered to get you another job, but you’re still here. I’d assume that’s because you refuse to be controlled; however, I’ve gathered you want the security Riptide commissions can offer you. Which consequently is another sign you are all about maintaining control by way of supporting yourself. I’m simply giving you what you want.”
“Translation,” I say. “This is about what you can give me versus what Chris can give me.” It is a crushing blow to believe this has never been about my work, both to my self-respect and my plans for the future. I can’t leave teaching for a career that exists only as a pawn of their play for power, and I am suddenly angry enough not to need wine to speak my mind. “It’s about the damn cockfight you two can’t get over.”
He leans forward, his eyes dark, the silver color turning a deep gray. “This is about me wanting you. Nothing else. And I go after what I want, Ms. McMillan.”
Right. He wants to f**k me. Because he knows Chris already is. And because there is an inherent weakness in me that draws men like Mark. A voice in my head adds, “like Chris,” and I crush it. Chris is not Mark. Not even close.
“Stop it, Ms. McMillan.”
My gaze jerks to Mark’s with the sharpness of the command. “Stop what?”
“Doubting yourself, which makes you doubt me. You’re destining us for failure and I do not fail. Either decide you won’t fail or you will, in which case, any talk of Riptide or this job full-time is a waste of both of our time.”
Air freezes in my lungs. I’m stunned that this man who I have compared to others I believed to be like him has just challenged me to believe in myself rather than shoving me back in a hole. I don’t know how to compute this new information. How to relate this to a man, a Master, who forces women into submission? He doesn’t force them, is the only answer. They choose to give to him as freely, as I do Chris.
“Choose success,” he says, and my eyes go wide at the word he seems to have plucked from my head.
“I do. I am.”
“Then stop questioning why you’re here. I hired you because I watched the video of you with the two customers you helped the night of the Alvarez show. You knew your art and you persuaded them to make a purchase and you didn’t even work here yet. You sold them and you sold me. You continue to do so. What happens with your job here is based on performance. Nothing, and I mean nothing, affects it. Are we clear?”