That steely glint I know well appears in his eyes, and I watch the man transform into the Master who is intensely, impossibly provocative, able to seduce a room just by existing. “Nothing controls me but me. I am who I am and I enjoy every moment of it, and so do those who enter my domain. I make sure of it.” I am captivated by his stare, lost in this man who is all power and sexuality, but even more so by the idea of having such confidence and control myself. He seems to sense this or perhaps he can easily read my expression, and he leans in closer, softening his voice to a seductive purr. “I would never put my pleasure, or my pain, for that matter, ahead of your needs, Sara.”
I am sure that his vow is meant to lure me deeper under his spell, but it doesn’t work. It smacks me in the face with possibilities I don’t want to consider and jerks me into defensive mode. I sit back sharply. “He doesn’t do that. Chris doesn’t put himself ahead of me.”
“What do you call what he’s done, Sara?”
“He’s trying to protect me.”
“And how does that protection feel? Because you aren’t eating and you aren’t sleeping. If that is how he protects you, he’s failed.”
“Like you failed Rebecca.”
He shocks me by visibly flinching, proving again that he is not without a weakness where Rebecca is concerned. “She wanted what I don’t have to give, what I never promised.”
“Which is what?”
“The façade of love. The same poison that leaves your sandwich sitting here uneaten. Think about what this fairy tale of love you’ve created is doing to you. When you’re ready to get rid of that spiteful emotion, I’ll show you how.” He pushes to his feet. “We have the open house tonight at the property. We leave at six forty-five. I’m driving.”
It’s me who flinches as he walks away.
• • •
I’m pleased to score a large late afternoon sale, but it delays Mark and me from departing the gallery at the time planned, and we arrive at the open house with only forty-five minutes left before it ends. At the front door of the thirty-floor high-rise on the oceanfront, Mark maneuvers the Jag under the front door overhang and two valets open our doors. When Mark rounds the vehicle to join me, his hand settles a bit too possessively on my back.
The lobby is crowded, warmed by a gas fireplace framed in stone, and furnished with clusters of rich brown leather chairs and several paintings I personally selected. People mill around everywhere, drinks in hand. Mark and I make our way through the visitors, mingling and prospecting for new sales. Ryan finds us quickly, looking stunning in a striking red silk tie that contrasts with his pin-striped suit as dark as his neatly groomed raven hair.
He takes my hand and kisses it. “You look lovely, Sara.” He leans in near my ear. “Far better than any of the many masterpieces here tonight.”
My cheeks heat with the compliment I don’t deserve, considering the expensive dresses and suits being elegantly worn by the guests. “I should have changed.”
“Nonsense,” he says. “You look marvelous. Why don’t we head upstairs to the demo unit? There are a number of guests there you can impress with your knowledge of art.”
Inside the twentieth-floor apartment, I spend the next half hour happily chatting with guests and I try to lose myself in the thrill of discussing the art I’ve chosen for the project. It’s a difficult task, since the Chris Merit cityscape I purchased from a local resident for my blank wall is a constant reminder of him.
When the crowd clears I find myself alone, seduced into deep thought by the dimly lit elegant space and soft music humming in the background. I find myself dreading the empty apartment awaiting me. “It’s a wrap,” Ryan announces, and I turn to find both him and Mark walking toward me. “The lobby is clear and we’ve locked up here.”
Leaning against the mahogany railing spanning the middle of the ceiling-to-floor window, I feel a charge in the air—the sensation of being prey to not one lion, but two, as they each stop beside me, sandwiching me between them.
“The night was a success, Ms. McMillan,” Mark says in praise. “You’ve proven to be quite the asset.”
Even the caged animal I have become these past few days, more now than ever, hungers for this man’s compliments, and I tell myself it’s about my job and nothing more. “I’ve tried.” My voice comes out shaky and affected, and I can feel how losing Chris has made me revert backward, angry at how easily I still fall prey to a need for approval from men like Mark and Michael.
Ryan brushes my hair over my shoulder, and despite the gentleness of the touch, it’s too intimate, and I tense, jerking my gaze to his. “Poor Sara,” he murmurs. “You have such pain in your eyes.”
“I’m . . . I’m fine.”
“No,” Ryan insists gently. “You’re not. I’ve watched you bleeding emotionally all week.”
“You have to let him go.”
Mark proves his ease at stirring my defenses one again, and I turn to him, finding him closer than I’d thought. My thigh brushes his and I feel it like a second jolt. “No,” I choke out. “I can’t.” I back up and Ryan’s hands go to my waist. I’m that caged animal again, a deer caught by two predators.
Mark claims the space I’d created and his legs press to mine. “You can’t or you won’t?”