What happens when the alpha-dynamic of erotic romance is gender flipped, turning it into a dominant alpha-woman who doesn’t take no for an answer, a sexy, controlling, powerful woman who is what every man wants, “every man’s fantasy”? Find out with tortured heroine Lark Blackwood, struggling with her demons, and innocent, daydreamy Bash Stone, perhaps the only man who can save her from them….
Lark Blackwood just asked me to accompany her.
Holy smokes, I gulp.
She could be asking Aiden, good-looking and successful Aiden, a businessman, but instead, she’s asking me. Me!
Next to me, Aiden looks almost stupefied. Take that, Aiden Anderson, I can’t help thinking.
“I’ll be right back,” she murmurs to me. “I want to check a few scheduling things first.” She nods farewell to the others, and, as soon as she’s left, the other business-types, including Mr. Anderson, drift away.
“I’ll be damned,” Aiden says, still looking at me in amazement.
My insides feel like there’s a troupe of acrobats in there. “This is- I’m not- I probably shouldn’t go,” I hedge, both wanting desperately to be alone with Lark Blackwood again, and being absolutely terrified of the reality of it.
“Are you crazy?” Aiden hisses at me. “With her connections? Of course you should!”
She’s said something to another, older-looking woman with graying hair in an efficient bun, carrying a clipboard, and is already coming back over here. The way Lark Blackwood just walks across a room is captivating.
She’s so graceful, so at easy in her own skin. With her body. Her whole physical presence. I envy her that.
“Well, Mr. Stone, would you show me where that quiet tavern is now?” Lark Blackwood asks me.
“Sure,” I stammer.
Is that scent from her cologne, or just the fragrance of her skin? No sooner has the question flickered through my mind than all my insides do that odd, twisting, pulsing thing again.
“Let’s go, then.” Wasting no time, she starts for the main doors.
“Nice meeting you,” Aiden calls, and she nods politely.
Aiden is still all smiles, but before I can take a step, he grabs my arm, and adds, only for my ears, “If you’re not back in an hour, I’ll call the authorities.” Then, louder, “See you at the luncheon!”
We make our way down the highly polished, ultra-modern corridors of the conference center, down a set of steps to another expanse of slick marble floor, and then turn down a quiet, almost hidden hallway. It leads through a pretty, old-fashioned solarium sunroom connecting the Plaza to the historic oldest part of the hotel, a glass room full of sunlight, leafy plants, and white wicker.
And on one of the couches, obviously not thinking anyone would be traversing through here at this time of day, a young couple is locked into a passionate embrace.
They spring apart, embarrassed and guilty-looking, as soon as they hear our footsteps on the parquet, smoothing clothes with hurried motions.
“Well,” murmurs Miss Blackwood as we cross the sun-dappled solarium, and I see her trying to hide a smile. “I didn’t think that was what was meant by ‘the call of nature,’” she mutters, “but perhaps I’m wrong.”
Even though her remark is funny, I’m so embarrassed by it all that I hardly know where to look.
But then she slides her arm through mine, and my breath snags in my mouth as she curls her long, elegant fingers around my arm.
The acrobats in my stomach are now using jackhammers.
“The, um, the tavern is right through here,” I manage to say. Harry’s Bar is printed in gold script on the hundred-year-old glass doors. It’s quite the nighttime hot-spot, so I hear, according to Aiden.
“You’ll be joining me, won’t you?” she asks, turning those eyes on me.
“Uh….” Joining her?!
I don’t know how to answer. She smiles, taking my silence as acquiescence.
Besides, in no way do I want to refuse.
It’s a beautiful bar, like an old fashioned speakeasy, all gleaming polished wood and mirrors. Light bounces everywhere, sunlight, lamplight, her smile, dazzling.
And, as I expected, as I hoped, at eleven-thirty in the morning, it’s empty. There is just a waiter or bartender of some kind, getting things ready for dinner and cocktails later, I assume.
Miss Blackwood doesn’t say anything, but matter of factly takes a seat at the opulent plush, leather chair at the best table in the room, in the corner, with a view of the whole place, as well as out into the gardens that separate the Lewis and Clark hotel from Del Toro Plaza.
Over our heads, a small-scale chandelier glitters in the sun. It’s not anywhere near as bright and beautiful as the sparkle in her eyes.
I sense that she finds this place acceptable. I already know how fastidious, how exacting, Lark Blackwood is, and inside, I am ridiculously happy that I have done something to please her.
I feel a foolish, giddy grin about to split my own face.
She smoothes down the skirt of her suit, and then brushes back her hair, and I can’t help being captivated by her every movement.
To my surprise, she undoes a clip in her hair, and the red-blonde tumble cascades down.
All I can think of is how much I want to touch it, to run my fingers through it.
I look down again, before my face betrays me. My cheeks are sizzling with embarrassment.
“That’s better,” she says, unsmiling. “Now. Shall we order something to drink?”
But there is something important to do first.
As soon as we are both seated comfortably, I find the courage to say what I need to. “Actually, uh, I should give this back,” I tell her, taking the money out of my pocket. Much like she did a few hours ago, I slide it across the table to her. “I didn’t realize it was that much.”
She makes no move to pick it up, or even touch it. In fact, she grins at me.
It’s completely unexpected. And disarming. I seem to feel that beautiful, open, wholehearted smile in every cell of my body.
“And now that you do…?” she queries archly.
I shake my head. “It’s… too much. It was just a coffee.”
“You don’t think it’s for me to decide if it was worth it?”
I shrug. I guess that’s a good point.
“Value is in the eye of the consumer, Sebastian,” she says in that caressingly soft voice.
“I’m just not… comfortable with it,” I try to explain.
“You don’t need to overthink it,” she smiles, but her tone is serious. “I can afford it. I’m a very wealthy woman.”
“But… it makes me feel… peculiar. Like you were, I don’t know, buying me off.”
Like a kaleidoscope, I see her features change to annoyance and, yes, anger. Oh, god, not anger again. “Buying you off from what, pray tell?” she murmurs.
I flush again at the implications. I’m somehow always outmaneuvered by her.
“Sebastian,” she continues, and my name sounds glorious the way she says it, “don’t you think that I was simply just trying to make up for the inconvenience? Compensate you for your time? Show fiscal appreciation for a quality product? That’s just good business, you know.”
“I just feel like I… shouldn’t… take it. At least, not… not a hundred dollars,” I whisper.
I try to hide my growing anxiety. “It’s not fair,” is what I want to say, but I’ll sound like a whiny brat if I do. “It’s just- I- I feel… I mean, I can’t exactly… reciprocate?”
My Superego’s eyebrows shoot up. What would you ever reciprocate Lark Ellery Blackwood for, it demands snottily.
“So… then why don’t you buy me a drink with it?” Lark Blackwood suggests, shooting me another pulse-stopping grin.
Wow. L.E. Blackwood being playful?
“Oh. Um, okay. Sure. That’s- that’s fine. Um… what would you like?” I ask, hoping I sound confident, but knowing I don’t.
She beckons the waiter over. “Order whatever you think is best,” she tells me.
What I think is best?
I can feel myself turning several gradients of red at that.
I don’t know what’s best, not here, not anywhere! I’m not like her! Surely she must know that?
I think about the crowd of Pinstriped Suits, her people, her peers. Not like me. I don’t know anything about fine liquors or restaurants, world travel, or luxury cars!
But I do my best, trying to sound like I know what I’m doing. “Hi, um, what… what’s good here?”
“Would you like me to bring you a menu, sir? We aren’t serving the full menu ‘til tonight, howev-”
“We’d like drinks,” Miss Blackwood clarifies crisply, cutting off his patter.
“We don’t have a bartender on duty until dinnertime,” the waiter says smoothly, “but I can make any number of appropriate cocktails, madam. Mimosas, Bloody Marys-”
“No,” she says in disgust. “Those kinds of drinks are just used to try to hide cheap liquor. What cognacs do you have?”
“We have Hennessy V.S., and Hardy Red, madam. And a lovely California brandy you might enjoy,” he adds, fawning.
Her aristocratic nostrils flare slightly. “No Rémy Martin?”
“I’m sorry, madam, we don’t-”
“What about Croizet?”
Her mouth has tightened in annoyance. “Do you have Bombay Sapphire gin?”
“Yes, madam, we do!”
“Bring us each a Sapphire martini, then. Dolin vermouth, if you have it. Lemon twists, not orange. I don’t want them too sweet. And please open new bottles.”
He hops to attention, respect in his eyes. “Yes, madam,” he hastens, bustling away.
“Never be afraid to ask for something that’s not on the menu,” she says to me, teasingly.
“Is that another one of your mottos?” I can’t help asking her.
“Perhaps.” Her beautiful mouth curves in a wry smile. “I’m used to getting what I want. Whenever I want it,” she adds.
Holy smokes, I think again, feeling that comment somewhere deep in my belly. Lower.
“I’m not surprised,” I blurt. “You sound like a total control freak.” Wow. That was too much. Audacious. Especially for me.
She doesn’t get angry at this, but, on the other hand, she answers seriously. “I know how to manage people, Sebastian Stone. You have to have control, even when you give the illusion of giving it up to someone else.” Her fingertips move caressingly over the polished wood of the tabletop. “That’s what it means to be strong and independent.”
The waiter comes back with our drinks, which gleam a beautiful light blue, crystal clear.
Like her eyes, I think, and can feel myself turning a contrasting bright vermillion.
The waiter places the drinks in front of us deftly, her first, then me.
I’ve never had a martini before. In fact, other than a celebratory beer with my dad on my twenty-first birthday, I don’t really drink. I know it’s pathetically silly and childlike of me, especially compared to someone like Aiden, who knows all sorts of things about craft ales and microbreweries.
He should be here, not you, my Superego decides to remind me, with a sneering expression. Perfect Aiden, with his perfect suits, his perfect haircut, business successes, family money. He’s more appropriate than you for the illustrious L.E. Blackwood, my Superego continues to torment me.
Lark Blackwood lifts her glass with ease, and sketches a gesture with it, for me to pick up my glass.
I lift mine, too. The cocktail smells acrid, and I wince, but try to hide it.
I know already that I’m hopelessly unsophisticated compared to this woman sitting here with me.
“Hopefully it’ll be a decent martini,” she said, giving it a little swirl.
“Actually… I’ve never had one.”
“No?” she looks mildly surprised, one sculpted brow arching. Then she nods at my glass. “Try it. You’ll like it.” She clinks her glass lightly against mine, and a chime rings out. “To new experiences,” she toasts me.
“Cheers,” I mutter, blushing again, and sip.
Hm. Sharp, stinging, but… okay, I can get used to this, I think. I take one small swallow, then, after I manage not to cough or cringe, another, and then another.
Not bad. Perhaps I do like it.
“What do you think?”
“It’s good,” I tell her.
“It’s nice to have a few minutes during a work event like this to have a quiet drink.”
Happiness shoots through me like an explosion. She means that she’s enjoying being here with you, my Id squeals in glee, bouncing around like a hyperactive puppy.
“I can imagine,” I tell her, taking another sip of the cold, bracing drink. “You… gave a powerful presentation.”
That suggestion of a smile crosses her lips again. “Did you find me believable, then?”
“Yes, Miss Blackwood. Everyone thought so. You made a very compelling argument.”
“For a dilettante?”
Shit! “I’m sorry I said that,” I murmur.
She nods slightly. “Apology accepted.” She gazes at me again, and then asks, “A penny for your thoughts? Or, maybe I should say, a hundred dollars for your thoughts,” she adds, and another smile glints across her face.
Lark nods at that hundred-dollar bill in the middle of the table.
I hear myself give a kind of breathless laugh.
“Nothing much. Just… surprised, I guess.”
“This. You.” In a sudden burst of candor, I say, “I’m surprised you’d want to come here. With me.”
“You surprise me, too, Sebastian Stone,” she says, between sips of her drink. It makes her lips glisten, and I can hardly bear where my own wayward thoughts are going at the sight of them.
“You’re very enigmatic. Intriguing.”
Me? There’s nothing about me that’s surprising, intriguing, or enigmatic! But her, on the other hand…
To my complete amazement, she reaching with one graceful hand, and touches the tips of my fingers, brushing her own over them.
I hear my own sharp gasp.
“Guitar calluses,” she says wryly. “So you weren’t lying about being a musician.”
“No.” Can she tell how her touch has affected me? I take another swallow of my martini in hopes it will calm me down. Already, I can feel a welcome fuzziness in my brain.
“You already know about me and how I make my living,” she breathes softly, leaning closer. “What about you? Are you a dilettante musician?”
I shake my head. “I play at Club Coffee and other places around town when I can. I compose at home. I’d like to apply to music school in a year or so, but I wanted to see if this works out first. If not, I can work in a studio, maybe.”
“So you’re a starving musician type?” she queries.
“Not exactly. I mean, I’m not-” I’m not rich, like you. Or Aiden. Working at the bookstore fills in where gigs don’t, but I don’t want to tell her I’m just a lowly retail worker. “I’m not starving. I can take care of myself,” I say.
That beautiful, sphinxlike mouth twitches up again. “Are you hungry now?”
“Not… really. No.”
“No?” She cocks her head to one side, scrutinizing me as she drinks. I’m mesmerized by the movement of her throat as she swallows down the cold liquid. “Did you have breakfast at your friend’s cafe?”
“No, I skipped breakfast.” After meeting L.E. Blackwood, I’d been too nervous to think of eating.
“Mm. That’s not healthy, you know. ” She raises a hand to gesture the waiter over again. “Perhaps we should order a little something light.”
“Oh, it’s not nec-” I start, but Miss Blackwood is already asking the waiter about food options at this early hour, before the kitchen is open. He hesitates until she takes another bill out of her wallet. Yes, another hundred dollar bill.
The one I tried to give back to her is still sitting forlornly on the tabletop, and I feel sorry for it.
“One portion of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs,” Miss Blackwood tells the waiter, decisively, “and the heirloom tomato puff pastries.”
“Right away, madam,” he promises, scurrying off again.
“What about that luncheon?” I can’t help asking her.
“Food at luncheons like these are notoriously vile,” she murmurs. “And everyone is too busy talking to be able to eat anything. This is better.” Her eyes link with mine. “You should finish your drink while it’s still cold,” she adds, and obligingly, I gulp.
No sooner are our glasses empty than the food arrives. It looks delicious, a golden mound of scrambled eggs, pink slices of smoked salmon, and the little puff pastries centered with tomatoes. The waiter places everything in the middle of the table, giving us each empty small plates of our own.
Wow. I am going to share a meal, share these dishes with Lark Blackwood.
I don’t know if I can even lift a fork.
To be continued next week!
MBO Playlist, track four: Neil Diamond, “Solitary Man”