“Here,” she says softly, picking up one of the pastry puffs and putting it on the little plate in front of me. “Eat.”
I shake my head. Not only is my stomach too nervous to find the thought of food appealing, but I really, really hate tomatoes.
“Sebastian, just try it.”
“I’d rather not-”
“Try it and tell me what you think,” she says, her eyes very bright.
Obediently, I put the tiny golden savory bite in my mouth and chew. “It’s… puffy,” I finally say, stupidly.
“Ah. I see. So, tell me about your girlfriend?”
“Huh?” I blink.
Miss Blackwood doesn’t make a move to touch the food. “The barista girl. Is she your girlfriend?”
Oh. Wow, really? Holy smokes, what a strange question. “No, Megan’s just a friend,” I explain.
“Are you sure about that? I saw the way she was looking at you. What is the phrase? Calf’s eyes.”
“She’s just a friend,” I repeat.
“I’m sure she’d like it to be more.” Lark Blackwood finally breaks off a tiny bit of a pastry, and eats it slowly.
“No,” I say again, shaking my head. “Why- Why do you want to know?”
“Because,” she observes quietly, pointedly, “you seem nervous around me. Around women, in general.” She places another tomato puff, and several spoonfuls of scrambled eggs on my plate, then adds a few slices of salmon.
I can’t believe how personal this conversation is getting!
“You do make me nervous,” I confess.
“I’ve heard that before,” she murmurs, and gives me that heart-stopping smile again. “I’m impressed you have the honesty to tell me as much. I find that… refreshing.”
She nods at my plate, and says again, “Eat, Sebastian.” When the waiter comes back to ask how things are, Lark orders glasses of wine for each of us to go with the food. “The Crémant d’Alsace rosé will do,” she says, and when the glasses of rose-colored wine appear, I manage to chew and swallow some of the delicate smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, chased with a drink of the effervescent wine.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” she says, and I get the feeling she’s talking about more than the food and the wine.
But I nod. It is.
“You’re blushing again,” she whispers, and it makes my face flame hotter. “You blush quite often, young Mr. Stone.” That smile curves her lips. “What are you blushing about? I’d give anything to know.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Holy smokes, I actually asked the question. The alcohol must be making me bold.
She gives me a look and a smile I can’t even begin to decipher. “A boyfriend?” she repeats, as if the word is foreign. She tilts her head, and blinks her long lashes.
At last, she says in a pointed way, “No, Sebastian, I don’t have a boyfriend.”
I should feel relief or promise at that fact, but I don’t.
Somehow I feel like this was a bad thing to ask her. That Lark Ellery Blackwoood would never have something as mundane and commonplace as a boyfriend. It would be lowering herself down to something almost vulgar in its banality. Such a thing would be silly for a woman such as she.
Then I think of the two guys behind me in the lecture, and blurt, “Are you gay, then?”
She sucks in a sharp breath, and her eyes narrow, cool.
“No, Sebastian,” she says, slowly, sibilantly. “I’m not.”
My heart is in free-fall.
Have I ruined everything?
What is there to ruin? My Superego grimaces at me, wagging an admonishing finger. You’re acting like this is a romantic brunch date, not a busy CEO grabbing a quick and convenient bite before another important business event!
“I just meant- I wondered if- I was curious, I guess,” I finally stammer, humiliated beyond belief.
“Ah. You’re curious?” she parrots, as if she hasn’t heard this word before, either. She puts down her fork. Her face has gone unreadable again, her eyes a blank blue.
I feel like a child who’s just been scolded. Worse. It’s like she’s snatched a priceless work of art away from me.
“Curious. I see.” She raises an eyebrow, never taking her eyes from mine. “Curiosity is an interesting quality, Sebastian Stone. You never know what it might lead to. You should keep that in mind before you ask questions out of curiosity.”
I swallow, not sure if it’s the effects of my first martini combined with the sparkling wine, or my first full-fledged female rejection that’s making my head throb and spin this way.
“I am not gay,” Lark Blackwood repeats. “And I don’t do the whole ‘relationship’ thing, either. Does that satisfy your curiosity?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I whisper, as if she’s my school principal, or my mother or something.
I wait for her to say more. To chastise me more, like I deserve. To tell me to leave. Or to get up and leave herself.
Instead, to my utter amazement, she smiles at me.
And then, before I can believe it’s happening, she lifts one finely-boned hand, and runs it down the side of my face.
The feel of her touch is unbelievably gentle.
“You’ve shaved since this morning,” she says, soft, and I can feel my jaw drop.
I completely stop breathing.
Lark Blackwood is actually caressing my face. Despite my audacious questions and her rightful anger, she has responded now with… affection.
Her touch makes me I feel like I’ve come alive for the first time. Like I’m literally brought to life. Again, I think that I’m like a creature in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, lightening bolts shooting through me, filling me with animal electricity at her touch.
Oh God, is she going to keep touching me? Or kiss me, even?
I feel my lips part, the anticipation of what her mouth on mine might feel like-
She draws her hand away, and I’m left aching at the loss.
“I hope I haven’t offended you,” she says to me.
“No,” I falter. “You haven’t.” I like you touching me. I want you to do it again. I want more.
I want you.
“I hope I haven’t offended you,” I tell her. The thought of offending her is anathema to my soul.
“Why are you blushing this time, Bash?”
She’s called me “Bash” again, and I could die right now, happy, at the way it sounds when she says it.
I open my mouth to tell her, but all I can do is draw in a breath of amazement.
“So unworldly,” she whispers to herself. Then she frowns. It’s like there is some internal battle inside her, something she doesn’t share with others.
I wonder if she needs to leave. Maybe that’s it? It’s almost time for that luncheon.
Swallowing with effort, I manage to speak. “Don’t you need to go get ready for that luncheon?” I say to her, even though the thought of ending our time together makes me heartsick in ways I can’t even explain. Or understand. “It’s in your honor, after all.
She gives me a slow smile. Like she’s enjoying this. “They can’t start until I’m there,” she points out, putting more smoked salmon and eggs on my plate.
I laugh out loud at that. I can’t help it. I’m beginning to suspect this woman has no equal.
She smiles, too. Beguilingly. “So. Why don’t you tell me more about you, my young Sebastian Stone,” she asks… no, demands, but playfully.
She DOES like you! my Id screams, twirling and waving around a couple sparklers in unbridled excitement. She really likes you! But my Superego is there, too, to shake his head and frown and point out, Remember, she said she doesn’t do the boyfriend thing, whatever that means. She’s just passing some time.
Billionaire CEO L.E. Blackwood is sitting here at a table with me–nobody Bash Stone–in an empty restaurant, sharing a plate of elegant scrambled eggs, and smiling enigmatically at me.
She’s cryptic, mysterious, and I can’t help being completely overwhelmed and bewitched by her.
“What do you enjoy?” she asks me before popping another tomato puff in her mouth.
Being with you, my Id bellows.
“Music, I’m assuming?” she goes on, because I find I’m still mute.
This gives me an opening, and I nod. “Dylan, like you said earlier this morning. Springsteen. Johnny Cash. The classics. I love those songwriter-guitarists who had so much to say to the world,” I tell her. “Whose songs live on generations later. That’s real power,” I explain.
I think this may be the most I’ve said to her at one time. Clearly my love of music has given me a bit of an opening.
“I suppose you could see it that way,” she admits. “Songs of loneliness and heartbreak, yes?”
“Yes,” I breathe.
“I can certainly… understand the appeal of that.”
Oh. She’s been lonely and heartbroken, too? Or she thinks I have been?
“Who do you listen to?” I manage to venture a question myself.
She turns her bold, blue, intense gaze on me yet again. “I have very… eclectic tastes. Nontraditional, you might say.”
I feel like she’s talking about something other than music. Something secret. Evocative.
Something dark, even.
Don’t be silly, I think as my cheeks crimson, mottled and firey.
This time, she doesn’t comment on my blush. Thankfully.
“I listen to everything from Adele and John Legend to… oh, harder things. Foo Fighters and Metallica.” She smiles at me, and I wonder if, like me, she’s remembering that I had the Foos on when she came into Club Coffee this morning.
Again, I get the uncanny feeling that she’s trying to tell me something. She’s saying more than just these words.
“You write music?”
“Uh huh. Songs, but maybe even things for soundtracks.”
“How interesting. Is that your dream? Writing for soundtracks? And going to music school?”
I shrug. It sounds so dull. Like everything about me.
“You certainly don’t give much away, do you, Sebastian Stone?” she inquires.
“It’s just that… I know it’s probably stupid to think that.”
“Hardly stupid. Perhaps only a bit naive.” She delves into her bag again, this time taking out a business card. She hands it to me. “I know people. Maybe I can help.”
Aiden will be thrilled to hear about this turn of events. This would be his reason for spending an hour with L.E. Blackwood.
It’s not mine, though.
“That’s- that’s very generous, Miss Blackwood,” I stammer. “But-”
“No such thing as luck, remember,” she reminds me, that mocking sparkle back in her eyes again.
“I remember,” I murmur, looking at the beautifully embossed business card on heavy, expensive card stock.
“Struggling musicians need to take advantage of important connections. My business associates include producers, distributors, recording industry and A&R people.”
“I… hardly know what to say. That’s… so generous of you. I’m just not sure if I’m… the type.”
She looks at me, puzzled, brows furrowing.
“What do you mean by that?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” I’m not the type to wheel and deal with recording industry bigwigs.
She just gazes at me, like I’m a foreign creature she’s never encountered before. “No, Sebastian,” she says at long last. “No, it’s not obvious.”
Those odd feelings are racing around in my veins again as I meet her scrutiny.
“Tell me more, then. When did you start playing?”
“When I was twelve.” I’d been bad at sports, hadn’t fit in at school. My mom and dad fought all the time. Music was my refuge.
“Did your parents approve of your interest?”
“I guess. I mean, my mom left not too long after that, so, I don’t know.”
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know,” I repeat. “She just said she had to go away.”
“So you haven’t seen her since then?”
“What was she like?”
I shrug, lifting my shoulders and then letting them drop. “Fun-loving, I guess. She laughed a lot.” My dad, Keith, and I didn’t do a whole lot of laughing after she left.
“And your father? Tell me more about him,” she coaxes. “All I know is that he owns a motorcycle shop,” she prompts me.
I’m still awed that she remembers these mundane details. That she’s interested.
“Keith? He’s… low-key. Inconspicuous. His work is his whole life.”
“And you get along well with him?”
“Sure. I mean, he’s my dad. He’s always taken care of me. Or more like I’ve taken care of him, especially since my mom left.” I frown.
I want to change the subject. I’m not used to someone paying this much attention to me and my boring life. But Lark Blackwood is still gazing seriously at me.
“And how long have you known Aiden Anderson?” she inquires.
“We met freshman year of college. We were roommates at Portland University.”
“And you still are?”
“Yes. We got our place here after we graduated in June. He’s a good friend.”
“I see,” she says blandly. She nods at the food still on my plate. “Aren’t you going to eat anything else?”
“I’m not really hungry,” I tell her.
She frowns, as if she doesn’t like my answer.
“Do you always ask such personal questions?” I find myself querying.
“No. Not always,” she says dryly. “Does it bother you?”
“No. I just don’t exactly have an exciting life story.”
“I will be the judge of that, Sebastian Stone,” she says in a low murmur. Oh, this woman’s compelling charm is palpable! “Tell me more about your music. Is that what you studied at college?”
“Music and English,” I admit.
“A useful combination?” she asks me, with that hint of mocking in her voice, her eyes.
“I guess so. They do seem to go together.”
“Have you done any recording?”
“Yeah, sometimes.” When we can afford studio time, which isn’t often, I think, but don’t say it.
“Do you sing as well as write and play?”
“Not much. I can do backing harmonies, I mean. But Chloe, my partner, does most of the vocals. We’re kind of a combo, musical-duo thing,” I explain.
Chloe Huang and I have known each other since we were little kids. We’re good friends, but deep down, I know she’d like it to be more, too. But I’ve just never felt that way about Chloe. She’s talented, and, objectively, I know she’s very pretty. She’s the “All-Korean-American girl next door” type… but there’s just no attraction for me.
I’ve never met any woman who affected me in that way, that goosebumps-and-skyrockets thing. I’ve resigned myself to just being alone. A solitary man, like the song says. Even though Aiden used to tell me that I should give Chloe a chance, there was nothing there for me. She’s like a sister, a little sister I’ve known forever.
Chloe and I are just good pals who enjoy music, and, when we were both starting to play, found that we worked well together at it. That’s all.
But to my shock and growing horror, I realize that Lark Blackwood doesn’t see it the same way.
“Your partner,” she enunciates, clear and carefully. “I see.”
It’s like clouds in front of the sun…. No, it’s like a supermassive black hole, like every light in the universe has been extinguished.
The heat in my blood has immediately turned to arctic ice.
“My music partner,” I hasten to clarify. “We’re not- She’s not- She’s just a friend.”
“Like the barista girl?” Lark’s voice sounds like liquid nitrogen.
I shake my head, almost desperately. “No, I mean- Our parents are- our fathers were friends, too, so we kind of grew up together. But we’re just music partners. It’s a- a business relationship,” I try to explain, hoping she’ll understand “business.”
I don’t think she does, though.
Or maybe she does all too well? my Superego is quick to point out with a smirk.
Casually, she finishes the last swallow of wine in her glass, and then checks the Cartier Tank watch on her wrist. “This has been an interesting morning, Mr. Stone,” Lark Blackwood says to me, “but I think I must be going.”
“Of course,” I stumble, flustered yet again, “the luncheon is at one o’clock, it should be starting soon-”
To my shock, however, Lark Blackwood pulls out her top-of-the-line cellular phone, and pushes at some buttons. Her voice, when she speaks, is curt and ultra-business-like. “Jason? Yes. Please give my apologies to everyone, but I’m afraid I’ve been called away, and won’t make the luncheon after all. I’ll reschedule something later this month, at my own expense. And do order a dozen good bottles of wine for the table, and charge it to Blackwood as well. … Just tell them I can’t make it. A business emergency. Everyone should understand that.” She clicks the phone off.
My heart is pounding like bombs have gone off all around me.
Oh, no. Oh, God, something is really, truly wrong. Miss Blackwood has gone all distant again, her visage impenetrable, her eyes cloaked, her mouth impassive.
It’s like the lecture earlier, but a million times worse. She’s… disappeared on me.
Cut me off entirely.
After sharing a meal, after asking all those questions, seeming interested and concerned, she has withdrawn, pulled away.
I stare down at my lap, afraid to look at her and see the blank look on her face.
I never should have come here with her! I never should have gotten my hopes up that she- that this was anything more than a megalomaniacal CEO killing a little bit of time and stoking her own ego until my presence grew too wearisome and juvenile for her.
Throw yourself at her feet! demands my Id. Beg her to stay here! Apologize for whatever you said that’s angered her! Tell her you’ll do anything she wants–eat a dozen tomatoes, accept hundred dollar bills without question, drink all the bitter cocktails she wants you to try–if she will just smile at you again!
You fucked up royally, my Superego counters, the two of them squared off like dueling bandits on either side of the OK Corral. How could you think even for a fraction of a second that someone like her would want someone like you? You’ve annoyed and bored her, so you can’t blame her for leaving.
“Miss Blackwood-” I quaver, hearing the shaking in my voice, to my mortification. My eyes are earnest, my face pale.
“No, Sebastian,” she interrupts me. But oddly, she doesn’t sound angry.
She sounds bleak. Anguished. “No,” she says again. “I can’t do this. And you shouldn’t. I’m… not who you think I am. I’m not what you think I am. And you’re too naive for me to think- No.”
In another swift motion, she drops enough bills on the table to cover the food and drink we’ve had, not saying a word about that hundred dollar bill that I’d meant to use to pay for this.
Her stark, blue eyes meet mine briefly. Then she turns and strides away, heels clicking on the floor, staccato.
She leaves, leaves me haunted, in agony.
Lark Blackwood. The most intriguing, beautiful, dazzling woman I’ve ever encountered. The only woman who’s made my heart hammer in my body, who’s made me feel like the sun and the moon and the stars had all come together in one whirling eruption.
In just a matter of hours, I’ve found her, and then lost her forever.
MBO Playlist, track five, the Chris Isaak eye candy version: