“Yes. Thank you.”

“Thank me by continuing to make sales, starting with a close friend of mine coming in later this morning. He has deep pockets I fully expect you to empty.”

A smile breaks unexpectedly over my features. “I’ll do my best.”

“From what I’ve seen, your best works quite well.”

I beam under his praise and it scares me how much I seem to need his approval, but I’ve done enough self-reflection over the past few years to know it’s more about me than him. About a past with powerful men that I haven’t quite erased, no matter how much I’ve tried.

“I set a meeting with Alvarez for tomorrow evening.”

“We have an event here at the gallery tomorrow night,” he says, and I do not sense pleasure at the announcement of the Alvarez meeting I’d expected.

“I really think I can get him to do the private showing our customer wants and place more art here if I do this.”

He leans back in his chair and steeples his fingers again. “Do you remember what I told you about Alvarez?”

“That if I got this meeting, I’d impress you. And from what I hear, I assume that’s because he pulled his work when Rebecca left. Are you going to tell me why?”

“He wanted her contact information after she left and I told him I didn’t have it and even if I did, I couldn’t legally give it out. He wasn’t pleased. He likes to get his way, which leads me back to—what else did I tell you about Alvarez?”

I replay our previous conversation in my mind. We do not beg, and you do not let yourself get manipulated. Period. The end. These artists know I don’t tolerate that crap and as long as they believe I own you, they won’t believe you will, either. So when I say I own you, Sara, I mean I own you.

Own. Mark likes this word far too much. However, in analyzing what I’ve learned of him as a boss, I’m beginning to believe he has some odd sense of ownership equaling protection. He owns you and thus he is responsible for your well-being. It’s not the Kool-Aid I intend to drink, but I think of how he insisted all employees and patrons take cabs at his expense after a wine tasting at the gallery, and I do believe it is how he thinks.

“We don’t beg for his business and he doesn’t own us.”

He arches a brow, but thankfully, before he can push me into some mind game sure to leave my head spinning, the buzzer on his desk goes off and he punches it. He doesn’t immediately respond; his steely, steady stare is locked on my face. Adrenaline shoots through my veins and my fingers press into my legs. I do not know what to expect from Mark besides discomfort that is darkly addictive, and I know this is a part of how dysfunctional I’ve allowed myself to become.

Without freeing me from his scrutiny, Mark punches the button on the phone. “Ryan Kilmer is here,” Amanda announces. “He says he has an appointment.”

“We’ll be right with him,” Mark replies, then releases the button, and finally blinks away our connection. “That will be my close friend and your new client, Ms. McMillan. Hurry up front and greet him.”

He’s dismissed me but I don’t move. This conversation about my job has me thinking about the decision before me. Before I talk myself out of it, I blurt, “I have two weeks to resign my teaching job to give them time to replace me for the new year. That job offer has to come by then and so does my sense of a secure earning potential. If that’s unrealistic, we should deal with that now.”

“It’s only too soon if you allow it to be.”

“That’s a nonanswer,” I reply, but what did I really expect? Men like Mark do not allow themselves to be cornered or put on a deadline and I’ve done just that.

“It’s nothing of the sort. It’s just not the answer you wanted.”

“Right. And why would you give me the answer I wanted?”

“I gave you the answer you needed to hear, not the one that makes your life easy. Easy is not better.”

These head games do not sit well. I push to my feet. “I had better go meet my customer.” I turn and head for the door, wondering how many times I’ll replay “It’s only too soon if you allow it to be,” while analyzing the meaning in it before the day is over.

“Ms. McMillan.”

I stop but I don’t turn. I’m frustrated he’s ended this meeting with me on edge and him in control.

“I go for what I want but I respect certain limits. Tell me you belong to him and I’ll back off.”

No in between, he and Chris had both said it to me, but I can’t bring myself to say I belong to Chris, like I am his property. I squeeze my eyes shut as Chris’s words replay in my mind. I want him to know you’re mine. It’s the same thing really as belonging, but it felt different when it was just us talking and Chris had declared himself mine as well. It was a defining time of commitment in our relationship that shifted the dynamic between us and the expectations we have for each other. Don’t let old skeletons destroy you and Chris. Think of how betrayed you would feel if Chris didn’t make your relationship clear in a similar situation.

I turn and make sure Mark reads how much I mean my words. “I’m with Chris and that’s as close as he or anyone will ever come to me belonging to them.” I leave, not giving him a chance to reply, and am proud of myself. Now I will know that whatever happens here at the gallery is about my job performance only. And I haven’t let the past have an impact on Chris and me. At least not this time.

Tags: Lisa Renee Jones Inside Out Romance
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