When shy, unworldly, struggling musician Sebastian Stone first encounters powerful CEO Lark Ellery Blackwood, to his surprise he is immediately fascinated by the charming yet enigmatic woman. For the first time in his life, Bash realizes he wants this woman desperately, and will do anything to get closer to her. Lark, too, is unable and unwilling to ignore Bash’s quiet charm, good looks, and spirited sense of humor, and at last, she admits that she wants Bash, too… but she has conditions that must be met.
Bash is shocked and intrigued by Blackwood’s erotic sensibilities as she invites him into a sexual and sensual adventure he never considered before. He discovers, too, that despite success and great wealth, Lark Blackwood is haunted by her past and consumed with the need to dominate everything and everyone around her. When they set out together on a searing, passionate affair unlike any other, Bash, through the woman he loves, begins to explore his own darkest desires and test the limits of passion to the fullest. And Lark has to decide if she can risk sharing her secrets… and exposing her darkest demons.
My Beautiful Obsession, by Emily Barnard
As I bend to pick up another bag of whole coffee beans, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the shiny surface of the oversized espresso machine on the counter, and scowl. It was a late night last night, and I look like it: scruffy and unshaven, curly brown hair tumbling all over into my face, dark eyes sleepy and heavy-lidded.
The last thing I wanted to do today was get up before dawn and open up the coffeehouse.
At five AM this morning, barely an hour ago, my roommate Aiden Anderson pounded on my bedroom door, calling “Bash! Dude! Emergency! Two of my baristas are sick, the delivery’s late, and we have to prep stuff for that Leadership Conference!”
I groan, and lug the scratchy burlap bag over to the roaster. Hoisting the fifty pounds of coffee beans up to the counter, I slice open the bag and pour the fragrant beans into the oversized contraption. The rattle they make seems to echo in my head.
“Please!” Aiden had begged me. “I’ll give you a month’s free rent! I’ll let you borrow my car for the next month!”
“I have my bike,” I’d reminded him sleepily. A Honda Superhawk I’d rebuilt with my dad that he gave me when I graduated high school over four years ago.
Aiden widened his eyes. Even when he was completely freaking out, he still had that “I’m in control” air about him. That combined with blond hair, a great build, and his dad’s megabucks had made him irresistible to the fairer sex since we’d started college together.
He wasn’t about to give up. “I’ll tell you what, Bash, I’ll get you a VIP seat for the conference today. You’ll meet a ton of important people there. Hey, I’ll even call my dad and see if I can get you a spot at the dinner afterwards, too, okay? He’ll introduce you to everyone. C’mon, Sebastian, it’s life and death!”
What choice did I have but to pitch in? Over the last year or so, he’s let me pick up shifts for extra money, and even booked my little musical combo to play here at his coffeehouse sometimes. I owe him. Aiden is not just my roommate, but my best friend in the world.
But it’s not like I have interest in the high-powered business conference that Aiden’s coffeeshop is catering refreshments for. It’s way more Aiden’s thing: motivational stuff. Leadership. Business strategy. Team management.
“The CEO who’s speaking today is one of the superstars of the business world,” he’d already told me, showing me a slick brochure with a name in fancy font. Keynote Speaker: L.E. Blackwood, CEO of Ellery-Blackwood Enterprises, technology, entertainment, and communications manufacturing. “I’m going to get a lot out of this, especially since my dad’s arranged this luncheon afterwards.”
It’s right up his alley. Aiden is dynamic, a real go-getter. Just a few months after we’ve graduated from college, and he already owns and operates one of the most successful independent coffeehouses in Portland, Oregon, Club Coffee, with several mobile locations via food trucks, and plans to incorporate and expand in the near future. Started it in his junior year, even. A whiz-kid, just like his old man.
Me? I’m just nothing much. Sure, I was a good student and all; my own dad wasn’t thrilled that I’d majored in Music and Literature, but he was low-key about it. Like always. It takes a lot to shake up the senior members of the Stone family. Well, the one who’s around, I think with a shrug.
I’ve thought about grad school in a year or two, or a performing arts program, maybe. I had a 4.0 GPA, after all. But I promised myself that when I finished college, I’d take a year first and see what I could do with my music, so I’ve been sending out tapes, answering ads, looking for related jobs in recording studios, sound engineering, backups. Nothing yet.
That’s how I’m most comfortable, when it’s just me, my guitar, and some old records on the turntable, classics like Dylan. Clapton. Nirvana. Tom Waits. Even some ‘Trane and Miles.
That’s more my style than business. That’s why I’m often up late, like last night, tucked away in my room alone, writing songs and playing Gypsy, my beloved Blueridge BD-16 acoustic guitar.
Of course, I know I’m not likely to make it big in a world as competitive as music. I’m hardly the stuff heartthrobs or celebrities are made of, anyway, all pale and too-tall, dressing mostly in old jeans, t-shirts and hoodies, sneakers. Messy hair. Scruffy-looking. Sebastian Stone, awkward, self-conscious oddball.
I suppose that’s why I like the kind of music I do. It’s not about flash and style, not intimidating. Those old guys were out of step with everyone around them, too.
“Bash, hey,” Aiden says, all bright-eyed and alert. I, on the other hand, feel like I’m operating on 33 while he’s on 78.
Coffee, obviously, would help, but I despise coffee.
“I’ve got to run across to the venue and make sure they’ve got all the tables and the mobile coffee carts set up,” he’s saying as I finish pouring in the first batch of roasting beans. “If you can just get things ready here for opening, hopefully Katrina or Megan will be in soon, and can take over. Okay?”
“Sure,” I grunt, hiding my flickers of resentment as he gives me a jaunty wave and bustles out the front door. I shake my head fondly. Besides, none of this is Aiden’s fault.
And even though I don’t drink it, I do like Club Coffee a lot.
It’s a nice set-up, and Aiden was lucky to get this space. It’s in the Industrial District of Portland, not to far from the old warehouse loft we’ve shared for four years, and part of an old renovated “entertainment space.” Aiden signed on while it was all in development, a huge risk that paid off. Of course, his father the real-estate mogul was part of it, so that helped. Anyway, Del Toro Plaza hosts all sorts of events, plus there is a, an oyster bar, a supper club, everything that the elite of Portland could desire. And right across the street, at Yamhill and Second, rises the luxury boutique hotel called The Lewis and Clark, a 1913 historic building and the only five-star hotel in the city.
It means Club Coffee is doing great business. Everyone comes in: locals, businesspeople, hotel guests, couples. I know the conference today will bring him a ton of customers, and I’m glad for him.
It’s cozy in here, even at six in the morning, with its airy high ceilings and big windows, and lots of rustic wood tables and chairs everywhere. I hook my favorite playlist up to the shop’s sound system, and the driving energy of the Foo Fighters pumps out of the speakers. Then I start steeping tea for a concoction of my own particular invention: black tea with six pumps of salted caramel sauce, three pumps of toffee, stir, then two pumps of almond, two of sweet vanilla, and half a pump of white chocolate before stirring again. Aiden makes fun of me for it, says it’s a kid’s drink, but it’s a much-needed caffeine and sugar rush to get me going when I need it.
I have barely taken my first sip when I hear the front door open, and I reach to turn down the blaring music.
I’m expecting one of the regular employees, Katrina or Megan-
But it’s neither.
It’s a woman. An attractive, extremely attractive woman.
She is tall, lithe, and even though it is only six in the morning, she’s dressed immaculately. It’s exercize clothing, I realize, black running trousers and a matching zip-up jacket, but on her, it looks as clean and crisp and tailored as the most expensive business suit. Her hair is russet, in an artless cascade, with eyes a light, clear blue.
She’s young, still in her twenties, but older than I am, I can tell, and I feel my cheeks turning red.
I’m staring at her. I can’t help it.
But she’s looking at me, too, with a shrewd, yet almost amused expression on her face.
Suddenly, I’m too aware of my old, worn-out green t-shirt, my ancient, battered jeans, the stubble on my cheeks. “Um…” I say, pushing back my hair.
Her expression remains calm, almost impassive, but I see a hint of a smile on her lips.
It must be the weather, maybe, or a shift in barometric pressure or because I feel a sudden shiver race through me.
“One coffee,” she says, her voice warm, soft, and faintly amused. At me? “Ristretto,” she adds. “Raw brown sugar on the side.”
“Er-” I put down my own drink, and, to my utter mortification, I knock over my cup, spilling hot tea all across the stainless steel counter. “Oh, dammit,” I mutter, my face scorching as I fumble for a towel.
How could I be such an idiot? Why am I always such a mess?
“Here,” she says, her voice still with that note of amusement in it, although the trace of a smile is gone. She hands me one of the industrial cloths we use in food service, heaped in a pile nearby.
It looks too grubby in her slim, elegant hand.
There is a pearl ring on her right hand, but nothing that looks like a wedding ring or engagement diamond on her left, I notice. For some reason, that thought makes me flush again.
“Thanks,” I murmur, hastily wiping at the spill. I’m afraid to even look up at her.
But finally, I do. My heart is hammering in my ears, probably because of my embarrassment.
She arches one eyebrow slightly as she regards me. For someone who can’t be more than, what, twenty-eight, she is incredibly poised. “Ristretto?” she finally repeats softly, well-mannered.
God. Of course! Coffee. She wants coffee.
“Uh, we aren’t- We open at six-thirty,” I stammer, red-faced.
“I see.” Her brow furrows as she appraises me. “The door was unlocked,” she points out.
Damn. Aiden must’ve forgotten to lock it behind him when he left.
“I don’t suppose I can manage to purchase something from you anyway?” She slides her hand into a pocket on her hip, and pulls out a few folded bills. Tilting her head to one side, she studies me intently as she extracts a twenty.
I’m getting increasingly flustered, anxious, embarrassed. Is it because she’s so good-looking that I’m so nervous? What would Aiden have me do in this situation? We’re closed, on one hand. But she’s a customer, so shouldn’t I try to-
“Our registers aren’t up yet,” I stutter nervously. “And, um, I, uh… I really shouldn’t.”
She lifts the twenty dollar bill in her slender fingers. “What if it were our secret?” she asks me, deadpan.
I think my mouth drops open. All I can do is blink at her.
“The hotel coffee is terrible,” she adds, with that shadow of a smile again. “They told me this place is the best.”
The way she says it is like someone who won’t settle for anything but the best. Looking at her, I can’t blame her.
I lick my lips nervously, and her eyes narrow, as if in speculation. “I… guess I… um, could probably manage something,” I chatter, kind of waving my hands around. “This is my friend’s place, so I don’t want to do anything, you know….”
“Illegal?” she queries, a slight frown on her perfect face. She slides it across the counter to me. “I intend to pay, you know. And you can keep the change. I know tips are important to baristas,” she adds wryly. “I wouldn’t want you to think I was taking advantage of you.”
Taking advantage of me?!
It feels like the room’s temperature has gone up another ten degrees.
I flush, embarrassed that this civil, cool, perfect Venus thought I thought she might be trying to cheat a free coffee from me or something. Of course she wouldn’t!
“I’m not really a barista,” I murmur weakly, shrugging, my fingers twisting together in the damp towel as I try to hide my nervousness.
She’s so poised. Polite. In control, I think again. She said she’s staying at the hotel here, too. Between that, her expensive clothing, and the folded bills, I can tell, even though she isn’t ostentatious, that she must be very well-off. She has that commanding air about her. Arrogance. Assuredness. She knows exactly what she wants at all times.
She’s never had an awkward moment in her life. Unlike me.
She raises an eyebrow at me. “No? Are you the manager, then? Or, perhaps, the owner?”
I shake my head. Of course I’m not the owner or the manager! Surely she can see that I’m not the type to own or manage anything!
“I’m just helping out a friend,” I explain.
“Can you pull an espresso shot?” she asks me.
“Of course!” I’m not that useless, jeez! I’m annoyed by her assumption.
I swallow, and she smiles that brief, faint smile again. Her teeth are white, straight and perfect. Her lips are perfect, too.
No one should be this gorgeous. It should be illegal.
“Ristretto, raw brown sugar on the side?” I ask her, summoning all of the professional-sounding calm I can. I stand tall, try to look like I’m in control of the situation. “I have to, uh, grind the beans first.”
“Mmm hm,” she says, nonplussed.
Why does she intimidate me this way?
The whole time I am moving awkwardly behind the counter, putting beans through the grinder, pushing buttons, she’s watching me. Evaluating me, it seems.
When the noise of the grinder stops, she speaks again.
“You work here to help out your friend?”
“Sometimes. My friend owns this place. Um, Aiden Anderson. He’s Chuck Anderson’s son. Chuck Anderson, the real estate developer.”
“Ah, yes, Chuck. I see,” she says. Her head cocks to one side. “And who are you?”
I feel that tight sensation across my chest again, like I can’t breathe. “Bash,” I blurt.
“Bash?” she repeats, almost like it’s a joke.
“I mean, Sebastian. Sebastian Stone. My friends call me Bash. It’s a, uh, nickname.”
“Bash,” she murmurs again, her crystaline-blue eyes still amused.
Glad you think I’m so funny, I can’t help thinking, scowling as I scoop the fresh, aromatic espresso grounds.
“And what do you do when you aren’t helping out a friend, Sebastian Stone?” she querries me.
Her interest is startling. Or is she just making idle conversation out of boredom?
What do I do? Nothing much, I think. Work at the bookstore. Play my guitar. Play and sing here, sometimes. Write and play with my music buddy. Nothing special. No real future, unless….
“If I don’t get the music thing together, I guess I’ll have to think about going back to school. Or maybe working with my dad at his shop,” I muse over the portafilter.
“The music thing?” she repeats, and I realize I’ve said it out loud. “Ah. So you’re a musician, Mr. Stone?” Those crisp blue eyes seem to penetrate me. “I see.” She lingers over the word.
What does she see? That I’m nobody, especially not compared to guys like Aiden, guys who have it all together?
I tamp down the grounds in the portafilter.
Gracefully, she walks around the counter, leaning with deceptive casualness against the cashier’s desk.
Her penetrating gaze hasn’t left mine.
I fumble the filter basket, scattering espresso grounds. Dammit all to hell! “Sorry,” I mumble. “I’ll have to start over.”
“Go ahead. Take as much time as you need.”
How can she be so gracious, so nonchalant, when I’m such a klutz?
She gives me a moment to grind more espresso into the basket, then she asks me another question. “And what kind of… shop does your father have?”
“How interesting. You ride?”
“And fix them?”
“Fix and build.”
“But you’re a musician?”
“Uh huh.” I push a button, and listen to the machine hiss to life.
I manage to pour the steaming hot ristretto espresso into a short cup, cap it, and slide a paper holder around the cup without spilling it. A miracle. I take several fancy packets of sugar from the holder.
“Here. Ristretto. Raw brown sugar on the side.”
She steps closer to me, and, when she takes the cup from me, our fingers touch. I feel an electric sensation shoot up my arm, and my heart thumps in my chest like a kettle drum.
“Uh, will that be… all?” I stutter, desperately wanting this whole thing to be over so I can slink away.
“How about some frothed milk on the side?” she asks me.
“Yes, ma’am, of course,” I say quickly. “It will take a couple minutes, though. The steamer’s cold.”
“Oh, I know. You have to prime the pump first,” she murmurs.
Is she teasing me?
I get the milk out. Watching me, imperturbable, she hands me a thermometer from the holder.
Again, when our fingers brush, I feel that jolt.
Jeez. Is there static electricity in here?
Somehow, I manage to pour milk into the stainless steel pitcher.
“So, Mr. Stone, if you’re a musician, what do you play?”
“I presume you also compose and record your own songs as well?”
“Yeah.” I could be doing that right now, I think, working on a song, something for a soundtrack, maybe, instead of toting and fetching coffee like a minion.
“And tell me,” she continues, her thumb tracing over her lower lip thoughtfully, “was it Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Bob Dylan, or Stevie Ray Vaughan who first inspired you to pick up that guitar and write your own songs?”
I turn red, thinking of my collection of Dylan and Clapton albums. How does she know these things?
“Dylan,” I admit.
She starts to smile, and I can’t help responding. Deep in my stomach, something unfamiliar seems to quiver, hot.
“I thought so,” she says, blue eyes very bright.
She looks young, but she speaks with the control and courtesy of someone much older. Or perhaps from another time. Another world.
I try to match her manners, and finally ask a polite question myself. “… What do you do?”
“What do I do?” she repeats, and again, I have the feeling that she’s laughing at me. Was that too personal a question? “Various things. A bit of this, a bit of that.”
“A dilettante?” The words fly out before I’ve had time to think about them.
Her eyebrows shoot up in surprise.
“Ah,” she says slowly, without a trace of humor. “One might say that I cultivate multiple interests. But never, ever make the mistake think that my interests are superficial.”
I redden in shame.
“I am a businesswoman, Sebastian Stone,” she says, tersely. “I manage several different operations. It requires a great deal of skill, tenacity, control, and drive.”
“And luck?” I can’t help saying, stunned at her lack of humility.
“There is no such thing as luck,” she says, and her voice has gone cold. “Not in business, not in life.”
I realize, belatedly, that this is a woman no one should ever cross.
“I guess I… don’t know enough about it. Business, I mean. That’s Aiden’s thing.” I feel like I’m about five years old right now.
She brings the cup of espresso up to her mouth, and sips, contemplating me.
“And what about life? Or luck? Do you know enough about those things, Sebastian Stone?” Something in her tone sounds… concerned? Or, no, maybe it’s a challenge.
Or a threat?
“Um….” I don’t know what to say.
Another hint of a smile touches her lips again. “How about that steamed milk now?” she says, as if to let me off the hook.
Relieved to turn away from her deliberating blue gaze, I turn the steam wand on with a whoosh, frothing the milk in the pitcher. Then I pour it into another cup for her.
I’m afraid of what will happen if I touch her hand again, so, stupidly, I just place the cup in front of her. “Here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stone,” she says politely, formally.
“Of course, Miss- Mrs.-, um…”
“Blackwood. Miss Blackwood, Lark Blackwood,” she says, and my heart seems to flip over at the discovery of her name.
Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I think the name sounds familiar, but I’m too distracted by the way her mouth shapes the words.
What is it about her mouth? Her eyes?
“Here,” Lark Blackwood says. She’s picked up that twenty dollar bill when I was busy with the coffee, and folded it up into a neat, compact rectangle. “For your troubles.” She slides the folded bill across the counter to me.
“Oh, no- I couldn’t take- It’s okay, really,” I murmur.
“I insist,” she said. “I always pay my way.”
“You sound very sure of yourself,” I blurt without thinking.
“I’ve learned not to take no for an answer,” she tells me seriously, picking up both covered cups. Then she holds up her espresso, like she is toasting me. “Thank you for the coffee, Mr. Stone.”
“My pleasure, Miss Blackwood,” I say, my cheeks so hot you could probably roast the coffee beans with them instead of the machine.
“I can assure you, the pleasure was mine. Besides,” she continues, and she sounds less… autocratic, “I have a long day of work ahead of me. Without my morning coffee, this would be a very trying morning indeed.”
“Then it was lucky you came in.”
“It’s like I said, Sebastian. There is no such thing as luck,” she tells me.
She’s said my name.
“There’s no such thing as luck,” she repeats. “There’s only finding out what you want. And going for it,” she adds, with a glint in her eye.
And then Lark disappears out the front door before I can think of the right response.
I am still standing there, gaping, trying to calm myself, calm my thoughts, when Aiden comes back in, already babbling.
“Place is all set up, servers arrive in an hour, pastry delivery taken care of, and everything’ll be ready to go by 10am, just like planned!”
Ah, the Aiden Anderson Play-by-Play. Boom, boom, boom.
“So, who was that breathtakingly beautiful creature who just left?” he asks me.
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.
“Bash? Woman? Just left?” he repeats.
“Just a- someone who wanted a coffee,” I stammer. I’m sure Aiden can see right through me, can see that, for some inexplicable reason, I’m affected by this woman unlike anyone else before.
To hide this from him, I quickly palm the folded-up twenty before he can see it and shove it in the back pocket of my jeans.
It’s proof that she was real. She was really here.
“Just someone?” Aiden presses, relentless. “She looks kinda familiar.”
“She- There wasn’t coffee at the hotel, so she came here.” I stumble, flustered. “Her name’s Lark,” I add. I’m not sure why.
“Her name’s… Lark?” Aiden shakes his head. “Bash, seriously? ” Aiden says slowly, his eyes bright. “Dude, don’t you know who she is?”
“Bash, that was L.E. Blackwood. Today’s keynote speaker. The mega-CEO herself.”
MBO Playlist, track one: Foo Fighters, “Times Like These”
Click here for Chapter Two