They seemed to be locked in an impromptu game of chicken, each trying not to waver or show weakness first and undermine their own bargaining position.
He watched her with narrow-eyed interest for a beat or two, waiting for some further reaction, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. For reasons she couldn’t identify, it felt crucially important never to reveal weakness of any kind to Tony. If she did, she feared he’d swallow her alive in a single gulp.
When she didn’t say anything else, his lips curled with what looked like reluctant admiration, as though he’d realized that, like him, she was a player.
She tried to look bored, which was hard given the way her heart thudded with the strain of waiting.
“Additionally,” he continued, now studying the tips of his neat fingernails as he crossed his ankles and leaned against the table, “we’d like to commission a mural for the lobby of Davies & Sons. The main building over on—”
“—Madison Avenue,” she finished for him. Like she hadn’t had her nose pressed to the sleek glass windows of the auction house millions of times, desperate for a glimpse of the artwork inside.
One heavy brow rose, mocking her. “You’re familiar with it? Excellent. We thought that would be a great place to showcase an edgy new painter. We want something that’ll make people stop and stare when they walk in the building. You feel me?”
Oh, she felt him, all right. She also couldn’t breathe.
“We figure we could unveil the new lobby mural at our fiftieth-anniversary gala the week before Labor Day. The artist we choose will get a tremendous amount of exposure. Of course.”
Of course. Bastard.
Finished dangling his rotten little carrot in front of her starving face, he looked up and straightened his posture. There was a glint in his eyes that looked suspiciously like amused triumph, but, to his credit, he didn’t smirk.
“Know anyone who might be interested?” he wondered.
Interested? She was damn near frothing at the mouth.
It took everything she had to shrug and keep her face blank.
“I couldn’t say,” she lied.
“Really?” That quirked brow of his rose higher, and her fingers itched to rip it off his amused face and stomp it beneath her foot like a fuzzy caterpillar. “Why don’t you think about it for a minute.”
Oh, she was already thinking about a lot of things.
First of all, there was a silky and disconcerting note in his voice that glided across her skin like a feather’s touch and made nerve endings zing to life all over her body. Second, she’d been so sure that her path for the foreseeable future was set. She’d made her list of priorities, with no room for last-minute deviations.
She’d been working too hard, she’d thought.
Life was short and she didn’t want to miss a second of it, so she’d planned to get off the merry-go-round and travel while she could. Choose different, better goals than merely being a successful painter.
She wanted, in short, to live.
Third, her superlative deductive skills had led her to one inescapable conclusion: this mural commission was a gambit to get around what she’d told him yesterday. She’d lied and said she felt nothing romantic for him, he knew she was lying, and now he’d manufactured a reason to throw them together.
He was betting he could wear down her resistance if they spent more time together.
He was right.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked, low.
Like magic, the intensity burning behind his brown eyes died out, and his expression became as bland as a bowl of infant rice cereal with milk.
“Doing what? Proposing something that could benefit both of us?”
“You don’t really need me.”
His lips tightened into a grim line. “Is that so?”
“You’re trying to uproot my life, Tony.”
“I’m merely making a business proposition to you.”
“I’ve told you I’m planning to travel for a while.”
“Then tell me no,” he said flatly.
She opened her mouth. Nothing came out. She closed her mouth.
He watched her, unsmiling. This moment—this decision—had somehow become too important for petty things like winning or losing, and he seemed to take no pleasure in her struggle.