I’m still sitting and staring at her, silent and wide-eyed, when the nervous blond waiter brings everything in at once on a tray, and when he puts the soup down in front of me, his hands are shaking a bit, sloshing the soup. “Sorry,” he stammers, darting his eyes to Lark again. “I’m new, and-”
“Just leave everything,” Lark directs him, sharp. He does, and hastily scurries away, leaving us alone in the dining room again. “I couldn’t take any more of that nonsense,” Lark tells me.
Does she mean me, too? Am I nonsense?
I stare down at the bowl of bouillabaisse. Consuming foodstuffs is the last thing I want to do right now. Okay, second-to-last thing.
“Your- the seventeen others… they… participated with…. him?” I finally quaver.
“Some did. Not all. It’s not mandatory.”
“But you- you want me to?”
“Bash,” she whispers, squeezing my hand in hers again, “I want to make sure that you feel sexual pleasure at its highest peaks. That means not being afraid to try things. This is what the negotiations phase is for. I need to find out what you liked, what you would be willing to try, what your hard and soft limits are.”
That thing about limits again. “What are hard and soft limits?”
Thankfully, this time, she doesn’t laugh at me. “A soft limit,” she says, her voice lowering to that throaty, sexy rasp that makes my blood heat up, “is something you might be willing to try. A hard limit is an absolute no.” She takes her hand away, and, as if we’re discussing the weather, she starts eating the steaming soup, filled with expensive seafood. “For example,” she says, “my hard limits are in writing in the Contract Folder. They include no knives, needles, or drawing of blood, no scarring, no urine or fecal matter or vomit, no children or animals, no burning, and nothing illegal. Sometimes an arrangement includes no limits, but it’s not recommended to start out that way.” She glances at me. “Eat, Sebastian, or it will get cold.”
I lift my soup spoon, but can’t even fathom eating. Still, I try a sip of the broth, to please her. It’s about you and I giving and receiving pleasure, she said. Testing limits. You pleasing me.
“Have you thought about what you might be willing to try with me, Bash?” she asks me in a voice that sounds almost… vulnerable. Lifting the wine bottle from the table, she pours more into my almost-empty glass. Gosh, I hadn’t realized I’d already almost finished a full glass.
I force another spoonful of broth, and chase it with wine, welcoming the fuzziness in my head that makes this kind of discussion easier to bear.
“I guess I don’t even know where to start,” I murmur, face flushing.
“What about this morning? You found it acceptable when I bound your wrists?”
I blush harder, remembering, and unconsciously, I rub my wrists where she had trussed me up like a piece of meat and had her wicked way with me just a few hours ago. Wow, that was incredibly hot.
Is that what she’s offering me with this arrangement? More of that? She already said I didn’t have to interact with her primary if I don’t want to, and I really, really don’t.
But I could certainly take more of what we did this morning. “Yes,” I admit, licking my bottom lip.
“What if I restrained you with leather ties instead? Would that be acceptable?” Her pupils are swelling, and her cheeks are growing flushed, too.
“Yes, I… I think so.”
“Cable ties or duct tape?”
Huh? “Um… I don’t know. I’m not sure. Maybe?”
Her eyes are glowing with heat. “Then would you be willing to try handcuffs?”
It’s not really much different than the bathrobe tie, is it? “I guess,” I whisper.
“What about other forms of restraints?” she continues, gesturing with her spoon for me to eat more soup.
Obediently, I try another bite. It’s delicious, but my throat feels like it’s being squeezed, and I can hardly swallow. “Like what?” I breathe, afraid of the answers.
“Chain restraints, for example. Or specially-designed ones that restrain your hands to your thighs or ankles, or to a headboard.” She laughs softly. “I must admit, I’m getting quite distracted over here, just at the thought.”
She is? Whoa….
A thought occurs to me, and, after another sip of the hot broth, I ask her, “So, you tie up… the boys so they- we- can’t touch you?” Her mouth tightens and her eyes rest steadily on mine.
“Yes. That is one of my reasons.”
“It is nothing I wish to disclose.”
“… So you will never let me touch you there? Your- your… chest?”
It’s like a punch in the throat. “Never?” I whisper.
“No, never.” Her tone is final, but her eyes are wider.
“That is not part of this discussion, Sebastian. Eat!” she orders me, and pushes the plate with chicken and vegetables in front of me.
Oh, fuck. I’m doing this all wrong.
Mechanically, I saw off a minuscule bite of the chicken, and bring it to my lips. It’s good, perfectly cooked, and delicately seasoned with tarragon, thyme, and capers, but I just… Ugh. I can’t force it in.
I poke for a few more minutes at the food on my plate until Lark says impatiently, “Why aren’t you eating, Sebastian?”
“It’s all just… a lot to think about.”
“It’s my job to take care of my lad’s needs, so the very least I can do right now is take you for a decent meal and make sure you eat it before you rush off to work,” she points out.
“You need to eat to keep up your strength,” she tells me. “It’s one of my hard limits,” she adds.
“I just- I can’t,” I whisper, suddenly feeling almost near tears. I’m overwhelmed, plain and simple. It’s all been so much. Too much? I don’t know. I have no point of comparison.
In just a few days, in only one night if I think about it, my whole world has been transformed. Upended. I’ve gone from being a plain, boring, scruffy ol’ nobody, content to fiddle around with his guitar and work at the bookstore and read, to someone whose body has been awakened to things I never considered. Whose whole world has been awakened by this vibrant, beautiful, breathtaking woman with me.
It’s literally like going from black and white to dazzling technicolor.
And now, I’m actually thinking about signing a contract that would make me a de facto live-in sex slave to her, a filthy-rich and famous CEO who already has a primary relationship.
I shake my head inwardly.
I have to admit, I’m completely enamoured of this amazing, beautiful woman who made me feel such things, things beyond my belief. And yet, can I give her the things she wants and needs, or will I constantly disappoint her? Even like now, just with one meal, I do nothing but frustrate her.
She had seventeen other boys who didn’t, my Superego points out, indicating a series of new charts with his laser pointer. You’re under no obligation to be Number Eighteen. Cut your losses and end this, he advises. But my Id jumps up in protest. No, no, no, no, he hasn’t even given it a try yet! Who knows? How can we say no to a woman like Lark Ellory Blackwood?! How can we refuse negotiations with her, and go back to a bland dull, life, settling with a Chloe instead of experiencing what we did with Lark?!
Just try, I think. A little bit at a time.
With a deep breath, I force myself to cut another piece of chicken and herbed carrots, and lift the mouthful to my lips, forcing it in. I want to spat it out, but with all the will I have, I chew and swallow, relieved when I see Lark’s stunning face relax a fraction. But only a fraction.
“I wish I could turn you over my knee right now,” she hisses in a whisper. “It would do both of us a world of good!”
My mouth drops at that. I stuff in other ambrosial bite of the lunch before I can say anything stupid.
Lark goes back to her food, too. “Initial negotiations are not usually this fraught,” she informs me. To my amazement, she finally smiles again. “It’s yet another exception I’m making for you, Mr. Stone.”
Good grief, I thought she was moody, but gee whiz, she’s all over the place right now! Laughing, pissed, bossy, sexy, intense, mad, even cruel, then playful, flirtatious, concerned… I wouldn’t put up with this from anyone else, and yet I’m even more besotted by her than ever.
She keeps saying that she’s making exceptions for me, but I’m doing the same for her, too, aren’t I? It’s because I’ve never known another girl, woman, human being, like her before. Lark Ellory Blackwood, my beautiful obsession. I sigh without realizing it. She’s captivated me unlike any other, and no matter what my Superego is screaming, I simply cannot walk away from her now. Yet.
“What are negotiations usually like?” I manage to ask her a normal-ish question. All things considered.
She eats another bite thoughtfully, and sips a bit more wine before she answers. “Thorough and focused,” she finally says. “Of course, this is just informal discussion right now,” she adds. “We cannot begin formal negotiations until you’ve read the contract completely on your own.”
I stare down at my hands for a long time before I murmur, “… I’d really never have to see… him, if I didn’t want to?”
“Of course not,” she assures me. “I told you, there are hidden spaces for him to watch without you ever knowing he’s there. He doesn’t have to participate when I pleasure you and discipline you. Remember, Sebastian, this is all consensual. You have to set the limits, hard and soft. All of this is in your power.”
“I’m just not… sure I can… do the things you- you like to do. The… the whips and- It all scares me,” I admit, peering up at her through my lashes. Terrifies me beyond belief, in fact.
“Bash,” she whispers, eyes aglow, “I wouldn’t be making this proposal to you if I didn’t think you weren’t capable of it.”
“Read the materials I’ve provided you before you decide anything,” she says, taking out that damned folder again from her expensive handbag. She places the embossed leather binder in my hands. “Take it home, along with the book I gave you. Read it tonight, when you’re alone. I expect you to have looked this over thoroughly by tomorrow.”
“All right,” I quaver.
To my surprise, Lark laughs. “A good, obedient boy would say ‘Yes, Master, thank you,’ or kneel in gratitude at my side.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything yet, Madame,” I tell her testily. But then, conciliatory, I add, “It’s a big step.”
“I know,” she agrees softly. Then she rises, and holds out her hand to me. “Come along, Sebastian, it’s time I took you home. Or else I might be tempted to keep you here longer.”
“I might not mind that,” I hint, my skin heating up at the thought. She requested a private room, after all, which means-
“You are the one who insisted he has to work tonight, remember?” she reminds me pointedly.
Fuck. I did. My stomach sinks. I’m so stupid.
No bill is presented to Lark Blackwood, and I can only assume she has taken care of the cost of the meal another way. Maybe Carter handles that, too? I don’t know.
We go back out the side entrance, where Euro-Greasy Maitre ‘d bows and scrapes and fawns some more while Carter holds the Phantom’s door open for us.
It’s only a short drive to my apartment building, maybe ten or fifteen minutes, but it’s a journey to another world in those minutes. As the car pulls out of the restaurant parking lot, Lark reaches over and puts her hand on my leg, with a gentle pat. Not for long, but long enough for my body to respond and my breath to jerk.
She gives me a composed smile, then removes her hand. Turning her face away, she gazes out the window at the passing scenery, face, impassive, impenetrable.
Did she do that to reassure me? Was it a test? Did she want to know that she could get me to react physically? Why?
And now, she’s not looking at me at all. Distant. Freezing me out, in that way she has.
Coldness knifes through my heart once more, taking my breath. I hate it when she goes away like this. Even when she’s next to me, it feels like I’ve been locked in a glass cage, unable to reach her.
You’re already losing her, something inside me warns. She knows you aren’t up to her standards. It’s doomed to failure.
But I haven’t even read the contract, much less began negotiations, yet! I can’t be losing her already, can I?
Oh, God, what can I do?! I know I can’t be like the other boys she’s had, can I, bowing and kneeling and calling her “Master”–and participating with her primary! But she said we would be negotiating, and I had all the power and control. Can’t we find some space somewhere between me being her sex slave and chaining me up and whipping me while her main man watches from a peephole — or participates! — and… and what I want and need? Or is it hopeless to even think of such things? Are we just too different for anything to work between us, no matter how off-the-charts the sexual chemistry is between us?
With one phone call, she could be interviewing Number Nineteen in an hour, I know.
Panic lights in my soul. Suddenly, it’s like I’ve plowed into an iceberg and am about to sink to the bottom of the ocean, shattered into pieces. Oh, Lark, Lark, my beautiful obsession, please give this a chance! I will if you will!
Carter steers the Rolls deftly onto my street, making a smooth stop in front of my building.
“Here you go,” Lark says unnecessarily, and I don’t know what to make of her clipped tone.
Even though I was the one who insisted on it, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to be away from her.
“Would you like to- to come in for a drink or- or anything?” I manage to offer politely. Not that I have fancy wines or anything worthy of Lark Blackwood, but if it will give us a few more minutes together- give me a chance to, I don’t know, fix things?
“I think not,” she says decisively. “You have to go to work, and I have work to do, too.”
Fuck fuck fuck.
But then she turns to look at me again. My own eyes are wide with fear at what might come next. Harsh words? A curt dismissal?
To my shock, a soft smile curves Lark’s mouth, and she lays a caressing palm on my face, then trails her fingers through my hair, down my neck. Romantic. Tender. Even… caring.
My heart begins to pound quadruple-time.
“It’s been a wonderful few days with you, Sebastian Stone,” she murmurs, eyes locked on mine. “I hope this is just the beginning of many more.”
Relief and joy explodes over me.
“Thank you for giving this — us — me — a real chance,” she whispers, that girlish vulnerability back in her deep blue eyes.
Oh, Lark, my sweet Lark. My heart twists again. “Yes,” I tell her. “I will, I promise.” To show her I mean it, I lift the Handbook folder, and the old book. “I’ll- I’ll go through these tonight after work, I promise.”
“Good,” she says softly. “Don’t show them to anyone else. Just look them over quietly, when you’re alone, and think them over. Then we’ll talk more over dinner tomorrow.”
“All right,” I promise again. I draw in a shaky breath as Carter gets out to come around and open my door.
Leaning forward, before she does, Lark brushes a brief but electric kiss on my lips. “Tomorrow. Dinner. Six o’clock,” she tells me.
“Yes,” I breathe in agreement. She still wants me! She’s not ending things!
My Id has aimed cans of Silly String at my Superego, and is gloating openly, nyah-nyahing.
I float, rather than walk, to the building’s entrance, and look back to lift my hand in farewell to her.
She nods, and gives me another small smile as the Phantom pulls away.
Completely changed, holding the leather folder and the old tome she’s given me that are to instruct me about the life she leads, I shoulder open the building’s door and mount the stairs.
In fact, my head is so full of Lark, of everything we’ve shared, or everything we might share, that at first I don’t realize that Chloe is slumped outside mine and Aiden’s apartment door.
MBO Playlist, “Let It Be Me,” Ray LaMontagne