I veer toward one of the free-standing easels and stare blankly at the painting. It depicts a nude woman kneeling on a hard tile floor. Her arms are raised above head, her wrists bound by a red ribbon.
The ribbon is attached to a chain that rises vertically out of the painting, and there is tension in her arms, as if she’s tugging downward, trying to get free. Her stomach is smooth, her back arched so that the lines of her ribcage show. Her breasts are small, and the erect nipples and tight brown areolae glow under the artist’s skill.
Her face is not so prominent. It’s tilted away, shrouded in gray. I’m left with the impression that the model is ashamed of her arousal. That she would break free if she could. But she can’t.
She’s trapped there, her pleasure and her shame on display for all the world.
My own skin prickles and I realize that this girl and I have something in common. I’d felt a sensual power crash over me, and I’d reveled in it.
Then Stark had shut it off, as quickly as if he’d flipped a switch. And like that model I was left feeling awkward and ashamed.
Well, fuck him. That twit on the canvas might be embarrassed, but I wasn’t going to be. I’d seen the heat in his eyes, and it had turned me on. Period. End of story. Time to move on.
I look hard at the woman on the canvas. She’s weak. I don’t like her, and I don’t like the painting.
I start to move away, my own confidence restored—and I collide with none other than Damien Stark himself.
His hand slides against my waist in an effort to steady me. I back away quickly, but not before my mind processes the feel of him. He’s lean and hard, and I’m uncomfortably aware of the places where my body intersected his. My palm. My breasts. The curve of my waist tingles from the lingering shock of his touch.
“Ms. Fairchild.” He’s looking straight at me, his eyes neither flat nor cold. I realize that I have stopped breathing.
I clear my throat and flash a polite smile. The kind that quietly says, “Fuck off.”
“I owe you an apology.”
“Yes,” I say, surprised. “You do.”
I wait, but he says nothing else. Instead, he turns his attention to the painting. “It’s an interesting image. But you would have made a much better model.”
“That’s the worst apology I’ve ever heard.”
He indicates the model’s face. “She’s weak,” he says, and I forget all about the apology. I’m too intrigued by the way his words echo my earlier thoughts. “I suppose some people might be drawn to the contrast. Desire and shame. But I prefer something bolder. A more confident sensuality.”
He looks at me as he says this last, and I’m not sure if he’s finally apologizing for snubbing me, complimenting my composure, or being completely inappropriate. I decide to consider his words a compliment and go from there. It may not be the safest approach, but it’s the most flattering.
“I’m delighted you think so,” I say. “But I’m not the model type.”
He takes a step back and with slow deliberation looks me up and down. His inspection seems to last for hours, though it must take only seconds. The air between us crackles, and I want to move toward him, to close the gap between us again. But I stay rooted to the spot.
He lingers for a moment on my lips before finally lifting his head to meet my eyes, and that is when I move. I can’t help it. I’m drawn in by the force and pressure of the tempest building in those damnable eyes.
“No,” he says simply.
At first I’m confused, thinking that he’s protesting my proximity. Then I realize he’s responding to my comment about not being the model type.
“You are,” he continues. “But not like this—splashed across a canvas for all the world to see, belonging to no one and everyone.” His head tilts slightly to the left, as if he’s trying out a new perspective on me. “No,” he murmurs again, but this time he doesn’t elaborate.
I am not prone to blushing, and I’m mortified to realize that my cheeks are burning. For someone who just a few moments ago mentally told this man to fuck off, I am doing a piss-poor job of keeping the upper hand. “I was hoping to have the chance to talk to you this evening,” I say.
His brow lifts ever so slightly, giving him an expression of polite amusement. “Oh?”
“I’m one of your fellowship recipients. I wanted to say thank you.”
He doesn’t say a word.
I soldier on. “I worked my way through college, so the fellowship helped tremendously. I don’t think I could have graduated with two degrees if it hadn’t been for the financial help. So thank you.” I still don’t mention the pageant. As far as I’m concerned, Damien Stark and I are deep in the land of the do-over.
“And what are you doing now that you’ve left the hallowed halls of academia?”
He speaks so formally that I know he’s teasing me. I ignore it and answer the question seriously. “I joined the team at C-Squared,” I say. “I’m Carl Rosenfeld’s new assistant.” Evelyn already told him this, but I assume he hadn’t been paying attention.
The way he says it suggests he doesn’t see at all. “Is that a problem?”
“Two degrees. A straight-A average. Glowing recommendations from all your professors. Acceptance to Ph.D. programs at both MIT and Cal Tech.”
I stare at him, baffled. The Stark International Fellowship Committee awards thirty fellowships each year. How the hell can he possibly know so much about my academic career?
“I merely find it interesting that you ended up not leading a product development team but doing gruntwork as the owner’s assistant.”
“I—“ I don’t know what to say. I’m still spinning from the surreal nature of this inquisition.
“Are you sleeping with your boss, Ms. Fairchild?”
“I’m sorry. Was the question unclear? I asked if you were fucking Carl Rosenfeld.”
“I—no.” I blurt the answer out, because I can’t let that image linger for longer than a second. Immediately, though, I regret speaking. What I should have done was slap his face. What the hell kind of question is that?
“Good,” he says, so crisply and firmly and with such intensity that any thought I have of verbally bitch-slapping him vanishes completely. My thoughts, in fact, have taken a sharp left turn and I am undeniably, unwelcomely turned on. I glare at the woman in the portrait, hating her even more, and not particularly pleased with Damien Stark or myself. I suppose we have something in common, though. At the moment, we’re both picturing me out of my little black dress.
He doesn’t even try to hide his amusement. “I believe I’ve shocked you, Ms. Fairchild.”
“Hell yes, you’ve shocked me. What did you expect?”
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