I’m still carrying the sneakers, a sleek, fancy pair of high-end Adidas, when I exit the lavatory, and I bend to put them on while leaning against the doorframe.
“There,” I announce, almost defiantly. “I’m ready.”
“You’re hair’s damp,” she says reprovingly. “I hope you don’t get sick.”
“I didn’t think going out with wet hair made you sick. Hasn’t that been disproved by medical science?”
“But why take those chances?” she parries. Going into the bathroom, she comes back with one of the plush, European cotton towels, and flopping it over my head, dries my hair like I’m a child.
“There,” she says in a new, softer voice that leaves me speechless. It’s not my imagination; she’s looking at me tenderly.
I feel her gaze in every cell and atom of my overheated body.
A late-night rescue. A luxurious breakfast. New clothes. Caring actions.
She’s not wrong for me! She’s difficult, mercurial, high-handed, bossy, and, okay, even a little stalker-ish. But she is strong, dynamic, generous, fascinating, compelling, stunningly beautiful. A classic, true heroine, a lady of romantic times, a mythological goddess.
In fact, I’m beginning to think that, rather than being wrong for me, she might be the only woman who’s ever been right for me.
I’m staring at her, but she’s staring back. Oh, Lark. I want to know every secret those beautiful blue eyes are hiding from me-
“Let’s go for a walk now, Sebastian,” she murmurs huskily. “You could use some fresh air. And so could I.”
“Okay,” I breathe. She could suggest anything at this point–eating a dozen habanero peppers, ziplining from Bancorp Tower–and I’d probably say “okay.” “Where do you want to go?” I ask her
“Why don’t we just stroll,” she suggests. “Flâneur style?”
“Flâneur style?” I repeat, feeling cloddish, unsophisticated.
“It’s French,” she explains. “It means to wander without any particular destination in mind. It’s something dilletants do,” she adds, her eyes sparkling as she teases me.
I feel my face turn red yet again. “Are you never going to let me live that down?” I mutter defensively. “I’ve already apologized.”
“Oh, I know you have. But it’s hard to resist,” she continues, running a hand through her silky, golden-red hair. All I can think of is that same hand in my hair, and my whole body seems to be radioactive with desire.
Then she gives me that heartbreaking smile again. “The roof of the building here has been turned into an urban garden, with walking paths,” she tells me. “It’s all reclaimed space, green space, making use of the roof as a natural ecosystem. Environmentally friendly.”
Something about the way she says it makes me think she had something to do with it.
“Isn’t that one of your company’s projects, developing reclaimed urban spaces?” I ask her, remembering something from her talk and Aiden’s brochure.
“Mmm hmm. Indeed. So. Shall we?” she asks, tilting her head at me. “I have a private elevator, and there’s a gated section with a walking path that’s quite… secluded,” she smiles.
“All right,” I acquiesce.
Lark opens the door, and for the first time, I get a look at the rest of the apartment. It’s breathtaking, with huge windows all around, looking out onto the city, the river. The furniture is all sleek and expensive-looking, and oversized paintings and prints hang every wall. I recognize one of the Murakami she told me about, and marvel at how much it must have cost. Huge arrangements of fresh, white flowers, lilies, I think, are on every flat surface. There is an upper story area, open, and accessible by a stunning open, modern staircase. I can see through to a kitchen area, but there is no sign of the cook she mentioned, or the Asian servant, or the driver, Carter. But there is an enormous dining area, with plush grey chairs around a brushed steel table the size of our living room.
All this, just for her.
Suddenly, a vision fills my mind of Lark Blackwood, after a long day of work, coming back here to this beautiful but vast space, and sitting down to a solitary meal at that huge table that could seat fourteen comfortably, all by herself.
Unexpectedly, my heart wrenches. How lonely she must be here.
She nods at a foyer, with an elevator door on one side, and a huge oil painting of an old man seated in a leather armchair on the other.
“This way,” she directs me, pushing a call button.
We’re quite high up already, I realize, and, when Lark takes me into the elevator and pushes a code into the keypad, it zips to the roof so quickly that I understand that we had been on the top floor of the building.
When the doors part, I gasp out loud.
If she hadn’t told me it was a rooftop, I’d never believe we weren’t in some secluded grove out in the mountains, and that, any minute, a deer or a black bear might wander out from the trees. It’s cool and drizzly, like something out of a fairy tale. Magic.
“It’s all ecologically landscaped,” she tells me. “We even grow vegetables and have fruit trees out here. The muffins this morning were made from fresh lemons from that tree,” she says, indicating one of the smaller trees along the winding path.
“This is incredible. It’s beautiful. I can’t believe you actually did this!”
She actually smiles at me, and my heart flips over a few times. The mist is catching on her hair, like tiny diamonds. It’s a fitting image, suitable.
We stroll along the curving stone walkway, and I can’t help wishing that we were holding hands, like something out of an old, romantic movie, as we wander. I think about gallantly offering her my arm, but somehow, that seems ridiculous, even insulting.
I finally dare to break the silence with the question that’s been most on my mind. “Where did you get these clothes for me?” I ask her, indicating the athletic sweatpants and hoodie that fit me like they were made for me.
“Oh, I have my ways,” she says lightly, and, then, at the look on my face, she says, “I sent my driver, Carter, out to acquire some things for you.”
“Oh.” You see! my moronic Id is squealing at top volume. She got them for you! “I should at least pay you back for them,” I insist. I’d already noted the expensive brand labels.
“Don’t be silly, Sebastian. I can easily afford them.”
That’s not the point, I think, but don’t want to say it. Instead, I remind her, “You never let me pay for breakfast last week, like I was supposed to, either. I still have that hundred dollar bill.” I’ve moved it to the top drawer of my nightstand, tucked in the pages of my Bob Dylan songbook, next to the lyrics for “Not Dark Yet.”
She doesn’t answer my question, though. “Do you always wear jeans and sneakers and t-shirts?” she asks me instead, that spectre of a smile on her lips.
Another one of her unexpected, odd questions! “I guess so,” I admit shamefacedly. “I guess it’s stupid, but I never really know what else to wear. They’re just comfortable, and I don’t have to think about it much. But I do wish I wasn’t so… conventional. You know, that I was more of the studded leather jacket or hipster facial hair type,” I tell her.
I’m overjoyed when she laughs out loud at this. “No,” she says. “You don’t need studded leather jackets or facial hair, Sebastian.”
I sense and opening, and decide to take it. “I don’t need a three hundred thousand dollar collectible guitar, either,” I reply softly.
She stops walking, and turns to me. Her eyebrows have shot up, but her eyes have a mischievous sparkle. “I can easily afford that, too.”
“But why? Why would you send me such a- a gift like that?”
“Because I can. Because I wanted to. Because it gave me pleasure to do so. Because,” she concludes, in that beguiling tone of hers, “I thought you would want it… and I could give it to you.”
I know we are talking about more than a collectible guitar now, and my knees are weak. “Does that mean you should?” I parry in a hushed voice.
She only gives me that oh-so-secret smile, reaching to pull a crimson and gold daylily from its stem, twirling it casually between her elegant fingers. The soft drizzle wets my cheeks.
“Why did you?” I press, my emotions and desires completely in charge of my brain right now.
She lets the flower drop to the damp walkway, and gazes at me, eyes burning.
I can hardly catch my breath with her looking at me like this.
“I felt that I owed you something, Sebastian. I wanted you to understand some things. To see that there is danger ahead. I wanted to offer you my regrets. I saw how you were looking at me when those shelves almost collapsed on you, when you were in my arms, practically begging me to kiss you.”
My face scalds with humiliation.
She looks down at the lily on the pavement. “I’m not a flowers-and-romance sort of person, and you need to know that. My lifestyle is… quite unconventional.”
Oh. What on earth does she mean by that?
“It’s like I told you before,” she murmurs, still not looking at me. “I’m not the woman for you. I’m not what you should need or want. You should keep your distance from the likes of me.”
Then she darts a look at me, and I see the tip of her tongue touch her lips. “But no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I fight it, something keeps pulling me back to you, Bash,” she confesses. “I just can’t seem to stay away from you.”
My heart literally stops.
It’s the words I’ve always dreaming of hearing from her. She can’t stay away from me. Me.
She wants me.
“I don’t want you to stay away,” I whisper to her.
Her eyes go wide and startled. “Oh, Sebastian, you’ve no idea what you’re saying, what you’d be getting into.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You don’t. You can’t. An innocent boy like you-”
“I’m not an innocent little boy, you know!” I flare at her, feeling insulted by her comment. “I’m twenty-one years old, and I can vote, enlist in military service, drink legally-”
She shakes her head, “You can’t begin to understand what my life entails. My needs. My demands.”
Holy smokes! “Then tell me! I want to know.”
“It’s not just a matter of telling,” she says. “There are… many things involved, and you will need to demonstrate fitness and consent- No!” she interrupts herself. “No, Sebastian. You’re too young-”
“Too naive?” I interject. “Right? Isn’t that what you said, before?”
“Yes,” she says, and it sounds like a caress, her voice lingering over the sibilant hiss of the word. “And yet, despite knowing that, I keep coming back to you, like I’m possessed. Like last night. All I could think about was that you might be in trouble, and I had to get to you as soon as possible.”
Even my Superego is raising an interested eyebrow at this, while my Id does ecstatic pirouettes and ninja-jumps all over the place.
She’s telling me that she cares about me.
“And then this morning… I knew I should let Carter take you home first thing after you woke, and yet I kept you here.”
“Why?” I gasp.
“Because, admittedly, I am enjoying the pleasure of your company, young Mr. Stone, and I know that after we… discuss certain matters, you very likely will never want to see me again.”
I almost want to laugh at the impossibility of that, but I’m too mesmerized by her.
It’s starting to rain harder, and I pull the sweatshirt hood up, but Lark stops me. “Don’t,” she murmurs. “I want to see your eyes.”
Her eyes cling to mine.
“Lark,” I breathe, and I can hear the longing in my own voice.
If she does, too, then she chooses to ignore it. But her hint of a fraction of a smile is very soft.
“No,” she says again, so close that I can smell her sweet breath. “No, Sebastian. Not until we’ve discussed matters, and you know what you’re getting into. It’s a different world, Bash, and you need to make an informed decision.”
What decisions could there be to make? Besides, my heart, my soul, my body, have already made the decision for me.
I want this woman, and, if by some unbelievable miracle or happenstance, she wants me, too, then I am incapable of refusing her.
She turns from me, and continues on down the flagstone path until we stop at a tree bearing ripe apples, beautiful red apples.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” she murmurs quietly.
“It’s beautiful,” I admit, knowing I’m talking about more than an apple tree in a garden. Without thinking, I reach for one of the ripe, full, red apples, glistening with recently-fallen raindrops….
“Oh, my dear Sebastian,” Lark whispers, shaking her head with a rueful smile, and pushing my hand away from it. “So quick to reach for the fruit, to eat from the tree of knowledge.” Her cool hand touches my cheek again, her knuckles skimming over my cheekbone, my jaw, before her thumb traces my lower lip.
She’s touching me again, and my whole body is aflame.
Here, in this private, secluded garden, we are alone together in Paradise.
I tilt my face towards hers, and I feel her bending towards me, too, closer, closer, until her lips are almost touching mine-
“No,” she whispers once more, eyes boring into mine, almost agonized. “I can’t touch you until we have discussed all of the issues. Until I’ve established I have your unequivocal consent.”
What does that even mean? Haven’t I consented just by being here with her?!
“Come, Sebastian, let us go… before the danger is irrevocable,” she tells me, leaving me bewildered, off-kilter.
I follow her back to her private elevator, and, too quick to be believed, we’re back in her spacious apartment.