This time I don’t try to control the curve of my lips. “Glad to hear you think so. I don’t know who drilled me harder about my knowledge of art, you or Mark.”
His eyes narrow. “Does he let you call him Mark?”
I cringe inside at my slip. “Ah, no. Mr. Compton.”
“Of course he doesn’t.” The snideness to his tone is hard to miss. “My friends call me Ricco, Sara, and so shall you.”
“Does this mean you will let me show your work to my client?” I ask hopefully.
“You may show my work. Mark may not. I’ll give you a private commission of twenty-five percent. Mark I will give nothing.”
I blanch and every muscle in my body locks up. He’s using me to get back at Mark for some sin he perceives he’s committed against him. “I can’t do that. I work for him. That wouldn’t be right.”
“Mark is out for Mark. You’ll learn that soon enough or you’ll end up crushed like everyone else around him. Don’t let that happen, Bella.”
I’m desperate to get this meeting back under control and reach for a way to mend his and Mark’s relationship. “Didn’t you do a charity event with Mark? That was a good thing you did together. What if we started out with something like that again?”
“Rebecca set that up, and I can donate my work for a good cause through many venues. I chose to do it at Allure because Rebecca asked me to.” He changes the subject back to his offer. “Let me show you how to scout and sell on your own.”
“I appreciate the offer, but—”
“Don’t let him suck you into his world. It’s dangerous and so is he.”
What is it about artists warning me off Mark? “Unless he brings a machete to work,” I joke weakly, “I can handle him.
“Men like Mark do not need machetes to dice your independence and self-respect. They mind-fuck you.”
No matter how true his claim might ring, I feel it like a slap, and I barely stop myself from taking a step backward. “I should go, but please know that I love your work. I mean that. I’d be honored to represent it.”
“And you can. You and you alone.”
“I’m not going to do that.”
He studies me for several tense seconds and waves me forward. “Very well. I’ll show you to the door and let you go home and think on this.”
We walk side by side again, and when I’m ready to exit the studio, he reaches for my coat and helps me put it on. Immediately I feel my pocket vibrating. Oh crap. How much time has passed? I slide my briefcase onto my shoulder and my hand slips into my pocket. I close my fingers around my cell, cringing because I’ve failed to communicate with Jacob.
Alvarez pauses with his hand on the doorknob. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, even if the outcome wasn’t what either of us had hoped for.”
“I’m going to try to get your business again, you know.”
He opens the door for me and I step outside, and we say a quick good-bye. I’m about to start for the stairs when a question comes to mind that has me hesitating on the porch. The charity event he did at Allure was for the same children’s hospital Chris champions, but since they don’t seem to be friends, I’m curious about how this came about. I turn to the door to knock and my phone buzzes against my palm again.
I pull it from my pocket and see a text alert and six missed calls. I hit the text from Chris.
Don’t go back in that door.
My heart leaps to my throat and I whirl around to scan the driveway. A shadowy movement draws my eyes and I see the Harley parked in the shadows behind the 911, with Chris leaning against it.
I start down the stairs of Alvarez’s house and my chest is so tight it feels like I have the damn art tape Chris seems to love binding me with around my ribs, and around my control over my own life. I’m furious that he’s here. I’m embarrassed that Alvarez most assuredly has cameras and will know about this, if not now, then at some point. The line in the sand between my job and our relationship is beyond blurred. In fact, I’m pretty darn sure I’m the only one who’d imagined it ever existed.
The idea that I’ve convinced myself he is less controlling than he is has my heels colliding heavily on the driveway. I charge toward the 911, the car I’ve let myself drive instead of holding on to my own identity. I don’t look at Chris but damn him, I can feel him all over, everywhere, inside and out, and in intimate places I can’t convince my body he isn’t welcome. It’s beyond frustrating to know that anger this potent isn’t enough to stop the thrum of awareness that just being near him creates. Not for the first time, I feel Rebecca’s words from that first journal entry I’d read deep in my soul. He was lethal, a drug I feared. I relate to her, and I understand the inescapable passion she felt and lost herself inside. I don’t want to be her. I’m not her. And for the first time since my initial first few encounters with Chris, I wonder if I am drawn to him because I’m self-destructive, and he to me for the same reason.
I reach the side of the car and in my haste to seek the shelter of the 911, I haven’t retrieved the key. Without looking at Chris, I fumble with my key. I know he will be standing by his Harley, all decked out in leather and denim, looking like sex and sin and my satisfaction. The key falls on the ground. I squat to retrieve the key and my composure.
Suddenly Chris is there, at eye level, as he had been the first night we’d met, when I’d spilled my purse. My gaze lifts and meets his, and a blast of awareness shakes me to the core. My br**sts are heavy, my thighs achy. My skin tingles. A fine line between love and hate, Alvarez had said, and I understand them in this moment. I stare into his eyes and I wonder if he too is thinking about the night we met and the many ways we’ve made love. The many we have not and I want us to, when I should not. I should be seeking space, independence, and my own identity, which he is threatening by taking over my life. It makes no sense how I feel in these eternal moments. How can I be this furious with Chris and still powerfully, completely lost in him?