I’ve barely hung up with Jacob when I receive an e-mail from Mark titled “Riptide.” Tension slides through me at the timing of a message related to the famous auction house his family owns. He knows how much I want to earn the opportunity to work with Riptide and he’s too smart not to know how uneasy I am about where I stand. Anxiously, I click on the message.
Riptide has an auction planned for two months from now and I’m
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attaching a list of the items to be offered to the public, along with estimated sale prices. This should give you an idea of exactly how including a piece of art in a Riptide auction can impact its value. This should clearly show why you would want a customer, or artists wishing to sell unique pieces of their collections, to use Riptide as an avenue to do so. Furthermore, to have our gallery listed as the sale’s agent amplifies our reputation as a prestigious gallery, thus drawing high-end clientele to shop and artists to show their work here.
Consider this an invitation to seek out items that would fit this upcoming auction, and should you succeed, you will be invited to attend the event when it takes place. You will also receive a substantial commission of the sale.
The humor Mark shows in the e-mail by signing it “Bossman” does nothing to lessen my instant unease at the timing of the message. Mark stirs conflicting feelings inside me. I respect his success, and I’ve seen him act in protective ways toward me and his other employees that conflict with the man in the journal Chris insists is Mark. My gaze lifts to the oil painting on the wall in front of me, red and white roses by the brilliant Georgia O’Nay, a part of Mark’s personal collection that he’d placed in Rebecca’s office.
I am reminded of the roses Rebecca’s Master had sent her, of her words after receiving them. I do feel ready to bloom, ready to go wherever he leads me. I have the sense that Mark is trying to lead me, and my spine stiffens. I do not know if he is the man from the journal, but I do know that I am not his slave or submissive, nor do I intend to be. I do, however, fear that is where he intends to take me. I feel like this Riptide offer is about Chris, about me not saying he owns me. Mark is trying to own me. I’ve finally dared to chase my dream of a career in this industry, and he’s using it against me. He knows I know that while I could get a job elsewhere, the pay would be too low for me to consider it a viable way to leave teaching behind. I cannot just sit back and ignore what this could mean for me.
My mind is racing as I round my desk and head to the hallway. If I let fear of losing this dream control me, Mark controls me. I’ve worked too hard to make my life my own to let that happen. And damn it, if this dream isn’t going to happen for me, I need to stop teasing myself. The longer I do, the more painful my return to teaching will be. I can’t make a living on the pay I’ll get without the Riptide commissions. If I could, I’d have been working at this a long time ago.
My worries consume the short walk to Mark’s door and I am not surprised to find it shut. It’s not like the man invites a warm and fuzzy environment. Lifting my hand to knock, I pause as adrenaline slams into me and this time it’s not such a high.
Nerves assail me and I hate it. They are a weakness and I am so damn tired of weakness. Grinding my teeth through the very real fear of this meeting ending my dream job and mocking my bravado, I knock and hear Mark’s deep voice resonate a command to come in. Everything is a command with Mark.
After opening the door I step inside. I shut the door behind me before he has a chance to tell me to. Control, I think. I have to claim it. I turn to face him, taking in the oval-shaped office and the spectacular art on the walls surrounding me. Finally, I allow myself to glimpse the man behind the massive glass desk, who oozes power and sex in explosive quantities, and whom I’d dubbed “King” the first time I’d seen him behind his desk. It’s hard not to find him impressively male and highly intimidating, and to not be drawn to him. But there is something more compelling demanding my attention. My gaze slides beyond
Mark to the giant Paris-themed mural covering the entire wall and my teeth sink into my bottom lip at the delicate, familiar strokes of the brush I see in the work I know belongs to Chris.
“Yes,” Mark says, answering my unanswered question. “It’s Chris’s work.”
My attention slides to his face and I try to read him. I don’t know what happened between these two men, but I have no doubt it burns deeper for them both because they were once friends. “I assumed as much,” I reply when I can read nothing in the carefully schooled expression he wears on his too-handsome face and he seems too intent to say nothing more. “And it surprises me. You two don’t seem too close these days.”
“Money talks,” he says.
My brows dip before I can stifle the reaction, the defensive rise for Chris impossible to contain. “Chris doesn’t seem motivated by money.”
Mark gives me a deadpan look I think might hold a hint of irritation. “What can I do for you, Ms. McMillan?” Mark asks, clearly diverting the conversation. I get the impression he’s not pleased with me defending Chris. It’s a good reminder, though, that I’m trapped in a battle of wills between him and Chris, and it renews my resolve to get the answers I came here for.
I do not wait for him to ask me to sit. I walk forward, thankful my feet don’t trip on empty space again, and sit in one of the two armchairs in front of his desk, sinking into the expensive leather. “I want to talk about Riptide.”
He leans back, rests his elbows on the arms of his chair, and steeples two fingers together. “What about it?”
“You told me I wasn’t ready for Riptide. Why am I suddenly now?”
His expression is unreadable, unchanged. If he feels put on the spot, he shows nothing. “There is no suddenly about this.”
“You said I had to learn about wine, opera, and classical music.”
“I told you,” he says slowly. “I was testing your dedication.
And I’d still like you to learn those things. I thought you’d be pleased. Unless … you don’t plan to stay here after the summer ends?”
“I haven’t been offered a job beyond filling in for Rebecca.”
A thought slams into me with my own comment. I barely contain the urgency in my voice as I ask, “Has she resigned?” And would he tell me if she has? Or would he think I’d be less motivated to create a new spot for myself out of assumed stability?
“I haven’t heard from Rebecca in weeks,” he informs me. “If she decides to come back, I’ll make room for her, but I cannot operate a business with an absentee employee dictating my moves.”
I study him and look for some hint of discomfort, of a lie, but see nothing. I do not believe he has heard from Rebecca. “Did you expect her return, or at least some communication, by now?”
“Yes,” he replies without hesitation.
“Are you worried about her?”
“Displeased,” he says, and the tone is that and more. He is not worried about her. He’s furious that she has disobeyed him.
In that instant, I am convinced he is the man in the journal, who has lost his submissive to another man. And I believe he would punish her on her return for misbehaving. Certainly disappearing is misbehaving.
“You say you can’t operate like this, but you still haven’t offered me a full-time job,” I comment, testing him, trying to see
if he shows me any sign he has talked to her, that he does know
she is returning.
“Because I don’t offer what I feel will be declined. Chris
will have offered to get you another job, but you’re still here. I’d assume that’s because you refuse to be controlled; however, I’ve gathered you want the security Riptide commissions can offer you. Which consequently is another sign you are all about maintaining control by way of supporting yourself. I’m simply giving you what you want.”
“Translation,” I say. “This is about what you can give me versus what Chris can give me.” It is a crushing blow to believe this has never been about my work, both to my self-respect and my plans for the future. I can’t leave teaching for a career that exists only as a pawn of their play for power, and I am suddenly angry enough not to need wine to speak my mind. “It’s about the damn cockfight you two can’t get over.”
He leans forward, his eyes dark, the silver color turning a deep gray. “This is about me wanting you. Nothing else. And I go after what I want, Ms. McMillan.”
Right. He wants to fuck me. Because he knows Chris already is. And because there is an inherent weakness in me that draws men like Mark. A voice in my head adds, “like Chris,” and
I crush it. Chris is not Mark. Not even close.
“Stop it, Ms. McMillan.”
My gaze jerks to Mark’s with the sharpness of the command.
“Doubting yourself, which makes you doubt me. You’re destining us for failure and I do not fail. Either decide you won’t fail or you will, in which case, any talk of Riptide or this job full-time is a waste of both of our time.”
Air freezes in my lungs. I’m stunned that this man who I have compared to others I believed to be like him has just challenged me to believe in myself rather than shoving me back in a hole. I don’t know how to compute this new information. How to relate this to a man, a Master, who forces women into submission? He doesn’t force them, is the only answer. They choose to give to him as freely, as I do Chris.
“Choose success,” he says, and my eyes go wide at the word he seems to have plucked from my head.
“I do. I am.”
“Then stop questioning why you’re here. I hired you because I watched the video of you with the two customers you helped the night of the Alvarez show. You knew your art and you persuaded them to make a purchase and you didn’t even work here yet. You sold them and you sold me. You continue to do so. What happens with your job here is based on performance.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, affects it. Are we clear?”
“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.
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.