L.E. Blackwood. Lark Blackwood. Mega-CEO.
I think about the brochure Aiden had. What did it call her? CEO of Ellery-Blackwood Enterprises, technology, entertainment, and communications manufacturing.
No wonder she was so… so….
Aiden is practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. “So, you actually met her? And talked with her? What’s she like?”
“What’s she like?” I repeat, to stall for time. Breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful. Fascinating. Compelling.
I shake my head. “I don’t know. Very… proper and formal, I guess. But not rude. Just… intimidating,” I admit.
“And a gorgeous specimen of womanhood, too,” he adds, running his hands through his blond hair. Even though he’s sweaty and disheveled from his dash over to the venue and back again, he looks like he stepped out of one of those ads for Levis or Jeeps or something.
If only he hadn’t left me alone here, I never would have had to face Lark Blackwood, CEO, by myself.
Of course, if Aiden had been here, he would have charmed her like crazy instead of spilling drinks all over the place and mumbling stupid things. I scowl, embarrassed. Twenty years from now, I know I’ll remember that, bumbling and dropping things in front of Miss Blackwood, and want to die of humiliation all over again.
“I didn’t notice,” I lie.
“You didn’t notice?” he repeats incredulously. “C’mon, Bash, even you, the walking brain, had to notice that.” He’s firing away like a machine gun. “What did you talk about? Did she say anything about the conference? Did she like the coffee? God, do you think if she did, that maybe she’d give me some tips about branding and marketing?”
Why does he have to keep asking me questions about her?
“I didn’t know who she was,” I remind him, concentrating on cleaning up the counter with careful precision.
“But she had to have said something!” Aiden Anderson Overdrive. I should be used to it by now.
The only way to deal with it, I know, is to give him an answer as quickly as possible. “She thought we were open because you left the door unlocked. She asked for a ristretto, steamed milk on the side, and I gave it to her.” Then, because I don’t want him to think she swindled me, I add, “She gave me a twenty for it. I can ring it up when the register’s up.”
Even though the thought of parting with it makes me feel strangely sad somehow.
“Nah, it’s okay, we can spare a coffee in this case. Still,” he says, animated, “I’ll have to say something to her at the seminar.”
That makes me uncomfortable, but I don’t know why.
“So, can you prep the condiment bar?” he demands, in charge like always, but thankfully dropping the subject of Lark Blackwood, CEO.
“Sure,” I say, and resist the urge to salute him.
As I’m stocking sugar packets and refilling milk and cream dispensers, the front door — locked again — rattles. I look up, and see the smiling round face of Megan, one of the regular baristas, through the glass.
“Bash!” she shrieks, yellow curls bouncing as she waves at me.
“Hey,” I say, and go to unlock the door for her.
“I didn’t know you’d be here today,” she bubbles. She’s always like that, like a fizzy bottle of soda. Cute and bouncy, she’s studying computer engineering at Cornell, and is just home working for the summer, a few more weeks. “You working the conference for Aiden, too?”
The conference. I don’t want to think about the conference. Or its keynote speaker.
“Not exactly,” I tell her. “He was short-staffed this morning, so I’m helping out.”
“Cool!” She gives my arm a little squeeze, but I know it doesn’t mean anything. Like most of the girls who work here, it’s just a buddy-buddy thing.
I’m not the kind of guy that drives girls wild, I think bitterly.
Even so, as I lock the door behind Megan, I realize I’m looking across the plaza’s square towards the sleek, modern conference venue, and then over at the elegant facade of the Lewis and Clark Hotel.
I can’t help wondering if Lark Blackwood is in either of the buildings.
“Hey, Bash!” Megan’s perky chirp interrupts my unwanted and unwarranted thoughts. “Come help me move this box?”
Glad for the diversion, I do.
After another hour of thankful, all-absorbing work, Aiden claps me on the shoulder.
The place is bustling, and Megan, Katrina, and Chris have the morning rush under control, and Pete and Sammy are on their way in.
My work here is done, I think in relief.
Aiden has plans, though. “We’ve got just enough time to go home, shower, change, and get back here,” he tells me. “It starts at ten, and my dad’s meeting me here a few minutes before, so we have time to network.” He grins at me. “Maybe you can make some introductions?”
I wince, and he throws up his hands. “Hey, just kidding, just kidding. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
He drives us in his flashy red BMW 5 Series sportscar to the converted warehouse lofts we’ve been sharing since freshman year of college. His dad got it for a song, just as the Pearl District was being revitalized.
We zip across the Willamette River, and in just a few minutes, Aiden’s pulling the car into his spot. It’s a nice building, nothing fancy or palatial or anything, but sturdy. Dependable. We have cool-looking exposed brick and an open floor plan. Chuck Anderson, Aiden’s dad, only charges me a token rent, and says I’m doing Aiden a favor by staying here, too, so Aiden can’t turn this place into Babe Central.
I shower in my bathroom, and run a razor over my face. I try to do something with my hair, smooth it down or back or something, but it’s hopeless.
Aiden’s actually put on a suit and tie.
“Dude, that’s what you’re wearing?” he asks me when I come out of my room.
I look down at my khakis and button-down striped shirt, and shrug.
“This is a business conference, Bash,” he chides me.
“It doesn’t matter what I wear,” I mumble.
“Doesn’t matter? Of course it does! Now get back in there and put on your suit from graduation! I mean it!” When Aiden wants to be tough, there’s no arguing with him.
“I don’t want to look too dressed up,” I protest.
If I wear my one suit, I can’t help worrying that it will look like I’m, I don’t know, trying too hard. Like I rushed home to put on my very best clothes before this thing. “Is my navy jacket okay?” I ask, seeking compromise.
“Fine, fine. You have two minutes. And put on real shoes, not Converse. Jesus, Bash,” he sighs, and I know I’m hopeless.
Still, when I go to my room for my good navy blazer, I take another minute to knot a wine-colored tie around my neck. It feels like it’s choking me.
Then again, I feel like I’m choking every time I think about going to this conference. Where she’ll be.
Like superstition, like it’s a magic trinket, I take the folded-up twenty she gave me from my jeans pocket, and slide it into the pocket of the pants I’m wearing now.
“Better,” Aiden says when I come out of my room. He’s dressed to kill, all sharp designer duds and a tie that probably costs more than my whole outfit. “You don’t need to hide in that faded, baggy stuff all the time, you know,” he adds. “There are plenty of women who notice you. You might actually land someone if you put a little effort into things.” He flaps his hands around at me, as if indicating I’m beyond help or something.
“Let’s just go, okay?” I mutter.
The conference hall is packed. Luckily, Aiden has his VIP passes, which secures us not only valet parking, but an entrance through a side door into an exclusive lounge area next to the main event space.
Everything in here is hushed, polished perfection, from the floors and tables to the people themselves. It’s all brick and industrial fixtures, very modern-looking. It’s quite a set-up in here for the three-dozen of Portland’s Very Important businesspeople. Not just Portland, I remind myself, remembering what Aiden’s told me about this conference. There are bigwigs who flew up from Los Angeles and out from New York City for this.
Oh, God. I don’t fit in.
I shake away the thought, and try not to look for… her.
Club Coffee’s kiosks are set up and doing great, I’m pleased to note, and I see Megan at her bubbly best, a clean apron tied around her, as she pours one of the popular Hazelnut Javaccinos into a sturdy cup emblazoned with the Club Coffee logo, and gives it to a shriveled old guy in a three-piece suit who could probably buy up a half-dozen properties in Arlington Heights before lunchtime.
“Back in a sec,” Aiden says, and leaves me alone to stride over to make sure everything’s as it should be.
I try not to look as out of place as I feel as I make my slow, casual way over to a bank of cafe tables, but they’re all full of more businessy types. I shove my hands in my pockets, rubbing the folded bill like it’s a rabbit’s foot. Then I meander across the lounge space to an empty settee, but before I get there, a man and woman, both carrying briefcases and looking sleek and professional, sit down.
It’s like Goldilocks in the three bears’ house. I can’t find anyplace in here where I fit in.
Awkwardly, ill-at-ease, I lean against a wall, and try not to rake my fingers through my hair again.
Despite myself, my eyes wander the room, drawn, unbidden, across all of the chatting people, networking for all they’re worth.
A group of people shift and move, and, like a movie camera is focusing in on what’s most important, I see her.
Oh, God. L.E. Blackwood. Lark. She’s actually here.
Dressed in a perfectly-tailored gray skirt and blazer, and a white silk shirt, she’s talking to a couple of portly, balding men.
They seem enthralled by her. I can’t blame them. She’s a planet, and the rest are moons, adjusting themselves to orbit her.
It’s like all the light in the room is shining on her, dancing over her autumn-colored hair that is twisted into a soft, classic chignon. She’s even more striking, more beautiful, than she was this morning, and my heart starts thumping double-time in my chest.
She looks up and sees me.
Breathe, Bash. Keep breathing, I tell myself.
That perfect, sensual mouth curves in a smile. With a nod at the Business Suit Twins, she excuses herself, and walks over.
Get it together! someone, maybe my Superego, is yelling inside my head.
Her suit-jacket nips in at the waist and emphasizes the smooth curve of her hips. A single diamond dangles at her throat. It catches the light as she ambles in my direction, flashing like a warning beacon.
“Mr. Stone,” she says, that bold, blue gaze locked tight on mine. “A most pleasant surprise.”
“Ms.- Miss- um, Blackwood,” I stutter.
“A musical artist like you, here at a business conference,” she comments. “I thought you weren’t interested in business,” she asks me, one sculptural brow arched.
“I came with my friend Aiden,” I whisper, my face flaming. Why do I keep reacting to her this way, why?!
That smile plays over her perfect face again. “Ah, yes, the coffee mogul. Good.”
Oh no! Is she interested in him?
Why would she be interested in you? my Superego demands.
“He, uh, invited me before- before I… found out you were… who you are.”
“I see. And now that you know,” she says, soft, throaty, her voice like a rich sauce, smothering me, “do you still consider me a dilettante?”
My face is so red that I should probably change my name to the Moulin Rouge or something.
I shake my head. How could I have said such a thing? And to her?
My fingers touch the folded twenty-dollar bill in my pocket that she gave me earlier and I think of something to make conversation with. “I hope you enjoyed your ristresso this morning,” I murmur, not knowing what else to say, even as I know I sound like a helpful barista. Not her equal.
“It was… exactly what I needed,” she says, as if she is concealing a secret that she’s not yet about to divulge to me.
“Are you- um. Do you live in Portland, or are you just here for the conference?” I ask her.
“I keep a home here,” she tells me. “My family is still in the area,” she adds, a bit wryly.
“Your family?” I parrot, trying to picture her with a husband, kids, my heart sinking at the thought for some reason.
“My grandfather,” she clarifies. “My grandparents raised me. My father and stepmother visit sometimes, but they live in Spain most of the year.”
“Oh. So you aren’t married?” I can’t help asking.
Her eyes seem to flash in anger for a moment. “No,” she says, her voice gone all frosty. “Men want too much from me.”
I feel the urge to crawl away, hide behind one of the leather sofas.
But she tilts her head at me, speculatively. “And what about you, Sebastian Stone? Do you live in Portland? Are you married? Where are your parents?” There’s a teasing note back in her voice again.
It’s okay. She’s not mad at me.
“It’s just me and my dad,” I explain. “I, uh, share a place with Aiden not far from here. My dad still lives in the Willamette Valley.”
She strokes her bottom lip with her thumb-pad again. “And owns a motorcycle shop?”
She remembered! an excited voice, probably my Id, shrieks.
I nod, not trusting my voice.
“What about your mother?”
I shrug. “She… went away when I was in middle school,” I explain. “What about yours?”
“Cancer. When I was five,” she says, looking away from me for the first time.
Something vulnerable seems to flicker across her exquisite face for just a second.
“My father remarried, and I stayed here with my grandparents. My grandmother’s dead, too,” she adds, curt.
Her mother and her grandmother, both dead? Oh, no.
I want to… hug her. Or squeeze her hand.
But she’s dropped the subject, and I’m not about to pursue it. “Do you have any siblings?”
I shake my head. “I guess Aiden is the closest thing I have to a brother. Do you?”
“My father and stepmother have twins, now, a boy and girl. And I have an older stepbrother.”
“Are you close to them?” I ask, without meaning to. My voice sounds soft to my own ears.
I hear her sharp intake of breath. “As close as anyone can be to their family,” she says, a non-answer, dismissing my too-intrusive question. “But you never answered my other question?”
Momentarily, I’m confused. “Uh… what other question?”
“Are you married?”
Me? Married? I want to snort at the ridiculousness of me being married, at my age, at any age! But I just shake my head again.
“Bash! So here you are!” Aiden suddenly seems to appear out of nowhere. His voice sounds too loud, too hearty to me, and I can’t help fighting an urge to shake him.
He’s giving me a secret grin, but other than that, he’s as poised and professional as someone twenty years older.
For a second, I regret not wearing my own suit to this thing.
Miss Blackwood’s face has gone all impassive, and I can’t figure out what she might be thinking of all this. Or what she had been thinking before, when it was just she and I.
“Um, Aiden Anderson, this is… Miss Blackwood. Lark, uh, L.E. Blackwood. Miss Blackwood, this is Aiden Anderson.”
“L.E. Blackwood,” she says, calmly, and extends her hand for a businesslike shake. “So you’re the coffee mogul.”
“Guilty as charged,” Aiden says without hesitation, standing straight and tall, confident and sure.
Lark Blackwood smiles a bit, as if she’s amused.
“I hope you enjoyed it,” Aiden continues, with all of the poise of his station, his family’s money and prestige behind him. A true professional.
“I did, Mr. Anderson,” she says.
“Bash treated you well?” he adds,
“Oh, indeed.” That blue, blue gaze is on me again, and I can hear my own breathing.
“You’ll both be staying for the address, of course?” she asks as if she’s talking to Aiden. But she’s looking at me.
“Yes, of course we are,” Aiden confirms smoothly. “My father, Chuck Anderson, is one of the conference sponsors, so we’ll be in the VIP seats. Perhaps you know him, Miss Blackwood?”
“I do,” she agrees.
“And I hope you saw that Club Coffee is providing refreshments this morning, too,” he goes on. I admire his nerve, his go-getter attitude. “If you’d like something before your presentation, I’d be more than happy to see that you’re taken care of.”
She flicks her blue gaze in Aiden’s direction. Then she looks back at me. “By all means,” she says.
As we cross the room with L.E. Blackwood, I am too aware that all eyes in the room are turning on us.
Lark, gorgeous, perfect, and, frankly, hotter than any woman has a right to be. Aiden, model-perfect in Armani.
And me, scruffy, and trying too hard in my tie and jacket. Everyone must be laughing at the contrast.
The kiosk is packed, and Megan and two other part-time guys I don’t know are serving drinks for all they’re worth. Almost immediately, Aiden is dragged away by one of them with questions, leaving me and Lark Blackwood standing together next to the ornate machinery.
“Hey, Bash!” Megan says, giving me a twinkly-bright smile and a hip-bump. “Want something before things start?”
“No, I’m fine,” I say, smiling back. Then I turn to Miss Blackwood. “Woud- would you like a Javaccino? It’s the specialty. We- They aren’t serving espresso here,” I add apologetically.
“Regular, hazelnut, and salted caramel. We also have lattes, cappuccinos, and hot tea,” Megan says, pointing to the abbreviated chalkboard menu.
“Oh, I’ll try the specialty,” Lark Blackwood says coolly, looking from me to Megan and back again. “
“This is Megan Hendricks, head barista,” I introduce.
“It’s a pleasure,” Megan says brightly, and then gives me a saucy wink, as a joke.
“Megan,” Miss Blackwood inclines her head.
“Regular, hazelnut, or caramel?” Megan asks her.
“Mm?” She glances from Megan to me, and then back again. Her face has gone all impassive again, marred by the slightest frown. Her eyes hood over, distant, like she’s looking at something a thousand miles away.
Then, to me, she says, “On second thought, I shouldn’t have any more coffee. Perhaps later.”
Her refusal seems to be about more than coffee. My heart does a free-fall to the pit of my stomach, sinking into a dark pool of forlornness. I swallow. I get the feeling I’ve offended her in some way.
Before I can say anything else, another man, too-tall, lanky, and odd-looking, like a modern-day Abe Lincoln, strides over with overly long steps. “Ms. Blackwood! We’re almost ready for you.”
Lark Blackwood gives a brief nod. “Do excuse me,” she says, zapping me with those crystal-blue eyes again ever so briefly.
And then she’s gone.
“Wow, so that’s the business-lady?” Megan whispers.
“Yeah.” One syllable is all I can manage. My insides feel like they’ve been pulped. Desolation is crawling over me, reaching for me with zombie-like hands.
Megan continues to prattle, “Pretty impressive, isn’t she?”
Yes. Yes, she is.
I watch the door to the backstage area where she’s gone, feeling suddenly bereft. It’s like all of the light has gone out of the room.
She left so abruptly. Why?
Does she hate me? Did she want to get away from me?
Why do you care? sneers my Superego.
I don’t have an answer.
Megan’s cheerful speech breaks into my thoughts. “Bash, so, hey, you want to grab a drink or dinner or something with me later tonight, after all this is over?”
I’m jolted back to here-and-now. I’ve known Megan for ages, and, whenever she’s home from school, she makes this suggestion a couple of times. She’s sweet and nice and all, but I’ve never seen her as more than a friend. She’s fine, but she’s like all the other girls I’ve known. Nice, but just not… special.
I think about all the famous songs written about women over the years, the women who inspired some of the greatest artists of all time to write the world’s best love songs. Women like Pattie and Jenny Boyd, Judy Collins. Like Donna, Annie, Sharona, Delilah, Roseanna….
I’ve never met a woman who made me feel that way. Who made me feel inspired. Alive.
Except for Lark Ellery Blackwood, my nebulous Id hisses at me.
I feel my face turn scarlet.
“Not tonight, Megan, but thanks. Maybe some other time,” I lie, to spare her feelings.
“Sure, Bash,” she says, agreeable and perky, like always. She’s a sweet kid, and I know she probably asks me stuff like this to be nice. Or because I’m Aiden’s friend.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” an official-looking woman in a uniform for the Plaza announces from the double doors. “We will beginning our program in just a few minutes. Please make your way to your seats.”
I can see Aiden is waving at me, beckoning me over, from where he is standing next to his father, Chuck Anderson, where they’ve been working the room. Like father, like son, I think, the two of them in power suits, looking ready to take on the world.
Taking a deep, steadying breath of air into my lungs, I rub my damp hands on my trousers, and amble over to join them.
To go inside, and listen to L.E. Blackwood, CEO and entrepreneur.
MBO Playlist, track two: Eric Clapton, “Layla”