Mark’s lips quirk. “I don’t bite, Ms. McMillan.”
“Somehow, I doubt that’s true.” It’s out before I can stop it.
Mark arches an arrogant brow and Ryan laughs good-naturedly. “Oh yes. I do love a woman with some bite of her own. But before you run off to the gallery, Sara, the art you ordered for the demo unit came in. If you come back to the property with me, you can help direct the maintenance team to place it where you want it.”
I cast Mark a questioning look. He motions me onward. “Go. See the art you loved enough to buy and make us all money by completing the deal. It’ll make you feel better. I know it will make me feel better.”
The only thing that is going to make me feel better is hearing from Chris. “Then I guess I’m going to the property. Should I follow you, Ryan?”
“Sure.” His hand settles casually on my shoulder, a bold touch when he barely knows me, but he’s a friendly guy. “Let me just get some coffee for the road. You want some?”
“More caffeine is always on my to-do list,” I joke, then turn to head to the counter only to find that Ava is no longer here. It strikes me as odd, albeit for no identifiable reason. Even odder, it’s an impression that I don’t shake until I’m at Ryan’s property, directly over the ocean, inside the elegant apartment with a wall of windows much like those at Chris’s apartment. I walk over to the white marble fireplace, which contrasts with the deep mahogany floors, and stare at the blank wall above it. I intended the wall to hold a Chris Merit original. It’s as empty as I am.
Six days after Chris’s departure, and only a few days until the October 1 start of school for Ella, I am climbing my office walls, willing both of them to call me. It’s Thursday and nearly noon, and for the first time all week, I try to truly prepare myself for this breakup with Chris. I even dress in my old clothes, a simple black skirt and red silk blouse. Arranging to have my things moved back to my apartment is inevitable. I’d rather do it now than have Chris return and do it for me.
Feeling more like the kept woman my mother was to an absent man, I am eager to escape the confines of the gallery. Out of worry for Chris’s peace of mind, I do as I have been for days, and report to Jacob before heading to the deli three blocks down the road. Once there, I order an egg salad sandwich and find a back corner table and shove my food aside. I can’t eat. I haven’t been able to eat since Chris left.
The bell on the door chimes and I look up to find Mark and Ava walking into the deli. The way she’s looking at him scorches me from clear across the restaurant. I feel sorry for her husband, trying to compete with Mark. He doesn’t have a chance.
Mark’s gaze lifts and collides with mine. He whispers something to Ava and steps away from her, and for a moment I see a spark of something that looks downright evil on Ava’s face. Whoa—that’s new. I think I’ve sensed this in her, but seeing it is a jolt of reality. She hates me.
Mark joins me without asking, sitting directly across from me at a table more for one than two. “You plan to eat that sandwich or watch it like TV?”
“Ah, now there’s that sense of humor I thought you reserved only for e-mails and text messages.”
He doesn’t laugh. “You look thin.” He shoves the sandwich toward me. “Eat.”
Surprisingly, he’s been quite the doting daddy for a Master who wields a wicked whip, but he’s right in this case. I’ve dropped five pounds I didn’t have to lose, but regardless of his good intentions, I truly am not in the mood to be pushed. “I don’t want to eat and don’t order me around like I’m your submissive. I’m not.”
“Sara,” I snap, on edge, and irritated that I feel like we’ve created a friendship this past week and he still can’t use my name. “Why can’t you call me Sara like you call Amanda, Amanda?”
He gives me one of those unreadable, impossible intense gray stares. “All right then, Sara. I’m worried about you.”
He leans in closer. “What can I do?”
“Nothing. Nothing that you haven’t already. I know you convinced Ryan to let me decorate the lobby of the property. It helped. It kept me busy and I do appreciate that.”
“Ryan’s fond of you. We have to milk it for all the business we can.”
“Right.” I give a laugh. “It’s always about money for you, isn’t it?”
“Money is power.”
So Chris once told me. “And we both know how much you like power.”
His brows lift. “Do we?”
“We do,” I assure him.
He leans back in his seat and his lips twitch. “Well, as long as we have that settled.” He pauses, his mouth tightening, and I sense the subject change before it comes. “Have you heard from him?”
“No.” I try to laugh without humor but it comes out as more of a strangled sound. “I guess I didn’t do a very good job of getting through to him like you thought I would.” I rub at the tension in my shoulder. A burning question constantly on my mind presses me to take advantage of having Mark’s rare casual mood and full attention. “Why, Mark?”
“Why what, Sara?”
“Why do you both need that place?”
He appears undaunted by the question. “I told you. It’s different for everyone, and Chris and I are as night and day as it comes. He wants to punish himself. The pain is who he is. It controls him.”