Chloe. Oh, fuck, I haven’t spoken to her since the other night, when we were both drunk, and she-
I grimace, remembering. Even before I’d experienced Lark Blackwood’s kisses and more, I hadn’t been interested in Chloe. But now? No way. Just… no.
And she’s left me a dozen messages since then. I’ve just been too busy, and not ready, to answer.
She raises her head and looks at me, and her eyes have dark circles under them. “Hey,” she whispers.
“Hey,” I say, not sure what else to say.
“I’ve been calling and texting you,” she tells me sadly, holding up her phone. “You never responded. So I came over, but you and Aiden were both out.”
“Yeah, I was-” I was with Lark Blackwood. I was with the most beautiful, incredible woman I’ve ever known. We fucked more than once, we did things I’d never thought I’d do, and-
Chloe stands up, looking forlorn and childlike in one of her colorful anime t-shirts and a pair of battered jeans. She pushes her straight black hair back from her face, her eyes searching mine.
“Bash, please. I’m so sorry about what happened the other night. I was drunk and it’s that I thought you- we- I’m just so, so sorry. Please forgive me?”
I sigh. “Sure, Chlo, of course I forgive you. But just- don’t ever do it again. You and I are just friends. Okay?”
“Okay,” she whispers, sighing.
“How long have you been sitting out here?” I ask, fishing in my jacket pocket for keys. I keep the book and Handbook folder held close where she can’t see them.
She shrugs. “A half hour, forty-five minutes, I guess. I texted Aiden, but he was already at the Cafe. He said you were on your way back, though, so I waited around.”
“Yeah, we- um, I- stopped for lunch first-” Opening the door, I let us both in the quiet apartment. I know I’m blushing.
Chloe sees it, and looks even sadder. “There’s someone else, right?”
After a moment, I nod.
“That woman who came to the bar, is that her?”
“Look, Chloe, you know I don’t feel that way about you. It’s not- it just wouldn’t work.”
“I know. I just hoped… well, that maybe that could change.”
I shake my head. She looks so forlorn, and I feel bad, but I can’t lie. “It won’t, Chlo. I’m sorry. You’re still one of my best friends in the world, though. Isn’t that enough?”
“I guess it will have to be,” she whispers, clearly hurt.
“And we’ll still play together, right?” I prompt her.
“Yeah, sure. In fact,” she continues, as if eager to change the subject, “I may have another gig for us. I’ll know in a day or two, and then I can fill you in. Okay?”
“Yeah, great, okay!” I glance at the clock, frowning. I’m going to have to hurry to make it for my shift in time.
“You work tonight?” Chloe asks me, leaning one hip against the kitchen counter.
“Uh huh. I gotta go soon, in fact.”
“Are those books from the store?” she queries, nodding at what I’m holding.
“Er… not exactly.”
“Look, Chlo, I’m already running late. Can we… talk later? Maybe grab dinner later this week?” I add, conciliatory.
“Sure,” she says, a pathetic light of hope in her eyes. “Call me or text me and let me know.”
“I will,” I promise hastily, hurrying her back to the door. I can’t help breathing a sigh of relief as it closes behind her. I love Chlo and all, but I really can’t deal with all that right now. Not when….
I sigh, looking at the leather portfolio. Lark’s handbook. We went over those first few pages earlier, but I already know I haven’t scratched the surface yet of everything this… arrangement she’s proposing involves.
Leather restraints, ropes, chains, handcuffs. If and when you are comfortable enough to consent, you and he can both fuck me together. It’s every woman’s fantasy, being served by two men at once.
She’ll never let me touch her breasts, ever.
All of this is in my power, she said. My control. She said to trust what’s in my gut about all this, like a business deal, but, frankly, if I trusted what’s in my gut right now, then I’d run far, far away from all of this sex slave Master-and-submissive stuff.
It’s with relief and a sense of foreboding combined that I put the handbook and the vintage hardcover deep into one of my extra messenger bags, hiding them away safely, and rush to change for work.
All throughout my shift, though, I keep thinking about it. Her. All of it.
On the bike ride over, on my treasured Superhawk, all I can remember is last night, her body and mine, taking curves on the Ducati as if we were one.
As I shelve books and ring customers at the bookstore, all I can remember is Lark there, asking about poetry. Art books. Erotic novels.
Was she testing me, even then? My face heats up, but I can’t help the small, smug smile that grows as I think about it. Lark Blackwood, secret kinky mistress of the boudoir, coming here to test me out.
She’s already shared that secret with me. Even though it’s weird and uncomfortable, I can’t help but feel special, singled out, at the thought. She said she’s wanted me from that first moment, at the coffee shop.
Then I remember that vulnerability flicking in her eyes for a split second when we said goodbye earlier. The sad, lonely figure at her easel in the middle of the night.
Oh, Lark, Lark, you are so goddamned complicated!
On my dinner break, I avoid Jasper and Sierra in the break room. I need to be alone with all of these heavy, too-personal thoughts. I go for a walk in the autumn twilight to a sandwich shop nearby, and, sitting by myself in a corner, pretending to read an opened paperback copy of The Select Poems of John Keats, I scarf down a meatball sub and two bags of chips, washing it all down with an extra-large Coke. Children’s food and drink, Lark would scoff, I know, but I’m ravenous, and the empty calories and sugar are welcome. Plus, I need to eat a meal without being under someone’s watchful eye for a change.
If you sign that contract, my Superego observes, puffing on his pipe and blowing a smoke ring, this may be the last meal you eat without her supervision. Enjoy it while it lasts.
I scowl, deciding to ignore the inner haranguings.
Idly, I check the various messages on my phone that I’ve missed in the last 24 hours. Aiden, of course, at first joking, and then freaking out, about my date with Lark and my hours of radio silence. Chloe, apologizing, crying, begging for me to call her.
Dad, a voicemail telling me he had good news about a big sale. The Ducati, I think, smiling. I already know his good news.
And in between, there is a call yesterday from Ursula Morgan at Portland Productions and Recording Engineers. “We’d like to offer you the job here at PPRE, starting immediately at your earliest convenience. Please call me back and let me know if we can get the ball rolling. We all think you’d be a great asset here!”
Wow! I got the job! A real job at a recording studio, like I’d always wanted! I can quit menial retail work, and take a huge step forward with my career!
My fingers hover over the phone, wanting to text someone to share my news. Lark, I think immediately. But… I’m not sure she’ll be as thrilled as I will. She doesn’t seem to like change, for one thing. Or the unexpected. I have no idea what her reaction to my news will be at all.
And really, why should she care about my piddly new job when she’s a major CEO of one of the biggest single-owned businesses in the country?
Instead, I opt for the safe bet, a group chat with Aiden and Chloe, who both respond with friendly enthusiasm, not to mention questions I can’t answer yet about start dates and two weeks’ notice and all that. I promise that we’ll get together soon for dinner at our place, and I’ll make my famous spaghetti carbonara to celebrate.
Not tomorrow night, though, my Id smirks, cracking his gum.
Tomorrow night is for Lark. For talking. And for-
Somehow, I manage to work the rest of my shift, and, at the end, turn in my notice to Pete. “We’re gonna hate to lose you, Bash,” he says, giving me a thump on the shoulder. “I understand, but still, it’s our loss and their gain. They’re lucky to get you.”
“Thanks,” I tell him. I’m going to miss this place a lot. Even though I’m excited about the new opportunities, I really do love this bookstore.
It’s a great night for a ride back home, and I take the quiet streets on my bike, under bubbles of light cast from street lamps, enjoying the peace that always comes to me when I’m on my bike. Sure it’s no Ducati, but I love this bike, the one I built with my dad, back in high school. It’s served me well these years, I think, patting the gas tank fondly.
I’m surprised to see all the lights in our apartment blazing when I get home. Even though it’s after midnight, Aiden’s waited up for me.
“Congrats, bro,” he says, grinning. I’m momentarily confused, thinking he’s congratulating me on last night, on losing my virginity, on sleeping with Lark.
“The job sounds amazing,” he continues, and I breathe a sigh of relief.
“Yeah, thanks! I left a message accepting it and gave notice at Powell’s. Tomorrow’s Monday- I mean, today’s Monday, so I’m sure I’ll hear back from them about when to start and all that.”
“If you need me to help you negotiate salary, just say so,” he assures me, puffing out his chest.
I laugh. For the first time in over 48 hours, since that drunken call to Lark from the bar, I find myself really relaxing. It’s like putting on a favorite old sweatshirt, ratty, but familiar and comfortable.
“I gotta hit the hay in a few,” Aiden says. “I’m opening in the morning, and then Ari and I are going out. Um… are you… are you seeing Lark again?”
I flush and nod. “We’re having dinner together tomorrow- er, today. Tonight.”
He lets out a low whistle. “Ariana says Lark… has never had a serious relationship before that she knows of. She said she doesn’t date, that she’s never seen her with a guy or anything.”
I know more about Lark than her own sister, I think in amazement. I mean, half-sister, I correct myself, remembering Lark’s rectification from earlier. But another salient fact sticks. Lark doesn’t date. Her family has never seen her with a guy.
She dated me, I think proudly. And we have another date, for dinner.
“So, you and Ariana seem to be hitting it off,” I say, to change the subject.
I expect Aiden to grin or go all mooney. He smiles, but it’s reserved. Hmm, that’s different. “We have, but… well, we’re going to take things slow. I mean, we’re having a good time, but… I’ve screwed things up before by rushing. And she came out of a bad relationship a little while ago, so… yeah. Proceeding with caution. One day at a time. All that. She’s a great girl, though. Funny, smart, the works. Wants to go to law school. There’s the family baggage, though, which- well, I guess you already know about that from Lark…?”
I opt to shrug noncommittally. Hell, I don’t know what I can and can’t say because of that damned NDA I signed, or what’s in the handbook folder.
“Anyway, I really like her, and I don’t want to fuck everything up right away. We agreed to keep it casual and just enjoy being friends with benefits for a little while, get to know each other.”
“Oh. That sounds… reasonable,” I fib, not sure what to think. At least he hasn’t already had his heart smashed yet, I can’t help but think. I’m not sure I could deal with his histrionics post-break up what with all that’s going on with me and Lark.
Or what might be going on.
Suddenly, I wish I could ask Aiden about Lark and me. About what we’ve done already, and what she wants to do. To me.
Is this what Aiden is dealing with, with Ariana? Negotiations? Limits? Is sex like this for everyone?
I smile to myself again. I can’t imagine anyone feeling the amazing sensations that Lark made me feel last night. If it was really like that for everyone else, I wonder, how is it people don’t spend all their time in bed together?
Or in the shower. Or on the floor-
“You’re turning all red. Dude. What is up?!” Aiden waggles his eyebrows in that knowing, annoying way he has. “Are you going to tell me what happened last night with the CEO?”
“Well, uh… we had dinner.”
“Her place,” I admit.
“Bash! Did you go to bed with her?!”
“I can neither confirm nor deny,” I say, opting to play it for humor, since I have no idea if I CAN legally confirm or deny it at this point!
“Ohmigawd,” Aiden chortles. “You did! You finally got laid! Awright, way to go!”
“How was it?”
“It was… amazing.” I guess I can tell him this much without any contractual breeches. “It was worth waiting for,” I add.
“Did she go down on you?”
“Hey, some women won’t, especially at first, or not unless they want something, so it’s good to see if it’s mutual from the beginning. Did you go down on her?”
I’m scarlet. “Aiden, dude-”
“You didn’t, like, go soft or come too quick or anything, did you?” Jeez, he’s so- so- so Aiden about things sometimes!
Bright red, I shake my head, unable to say anything else.
It’s hard to put into words. It’s also so very private, for many different reasons. Although part of me wishes I could just say to him, “Hey, she wants me to sign on for being her kinky boy-toy for a few months. Should I do it?”
“My first time was a disaster,” he says, hoisting himself up on the counter. Oh, god, I thought he said he was going to bed soon? Instead, it looks like I’m going to be in for a whole sharing-feelings session with him. Aiden laughs. “High school girlfriend. Neither of us knew what we were doing. We eventually figured things out, but for the first few times, it was pretty bad. Accidental biting my dick and her nips, hymen blood all over, premature ejaculation, all that usual teenaged awkward fumbling. I guess it’s good you never went through that, huh?”
He’s giving me his sharp-eyed Aiden Anderson x-ray look, like he wants to see into my brain. After a minute, he asks me, in a quieter tone, “What’s she like, Bash?”
What can I say? That she’s a dark and dangerous dungeon-master with a whole arsenal of perverted weaponry, already in a primary relationship with some older guy? That she’s mercurial as hell, and I hardly know if I’m coming or going? That I’m overwhelmed, scared shitless that I’m going to lose her, scared shitless that I’m going to do the things she wants me to, and completely in her thrall?
That I don’t think I ever felt truly alive before I met her?
“She’s… special. Very. Smart. Funny. Generous.” Beguiling. Mesmerizing. Mysterious. Enchanting.
A sex goddess.
“What all did you guys do?” he asks me. “I don’t mean just sex,” he adds placatingly.
“We- we took a long bike ride,” I say, editing out certain specific details for Aiden’s sake. And mine. “She has a Ducati.” Aiden gives a long, low whistle. “We… had a quiet dinner together. Talked a lot. You know.”
“Hey. You really like this woman, don’t you?”
Yeah. I do. Swallowing, I nod.
“I guess if you’re going to get broken in, it’s probably best to start with a woman like her, who probably knows what she’s doing,” Aiden muses. “I mean, she just has that air about her, knowing what she wants and taking it. It’ll be good for you to have fun with her. Learn about sex stuff. They say every guy should experience an older woman for that at least once in their lives! Of course, I wouldn’t expect a woman like her to be your soulmate or anything. Based on what I’ve seen and what Ariana’s told me, I’m guessing you and she don’t have a lot of common ground, but still, you can have a helluva good time with her, live the high life-”
Fury has begun a slow boil, and even though Aiden is my dearest friend in the world and I am not a violent or physical person, all I want to do right now is punch him in the face.
How dare he?!
He’s fucking Lark’s sister, but that’s so totally different?! Okay, fine, Lark’s older than me, and mega-rich, but those aren’t the things that matter!
As if he senses that he’s pushed me too far by the look on my face, Aiden stops. “Bash, hey, I’m sorry. I’m not suggesting you’re, like, after her for the bucks or anything.”
“I’m not,” I snap.
“I know, I know,” he soothes. “All I meant was… she’s… in a league all her own. Have fun, but just be careful. She could really hurt you if you- if you, you know, get too attached.”
“Maybe we’re just going to be friends with benefits too,” I say tightly, fists clenched. “Are you with Ariana for the money?”
“She’s not loaded like Lark is, dude. She’s got a modest trust fund, but she’s using that for school.”
Just like Aiden, I think with bitterness. It’s another reminder that Aiden is suited to the life Lark leads better than I ever will be.
Even though he still orders sodas, too, my Superego points out snarkily, and I almost laugh.
“But Lark’s a different story, what with being their grandfather’s sole heir and all, plus her own corporations and stuff. She’s worth billions.”
Oh. Whoa, she is? … Billions?!
“I can handle it,” I tell him. “At least, I think I can,” I have to admit it out loud.
But deep down, I know he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about, because he doesn’t know Lark, really know her, like I do.
“Hey, Bash, I’m just trying to help,” Aiden says, hopping down from the counter and giving me a light, brotherly punch in the arm. “You haven’t had a whole lot of experience with women and relationships, after all, and starting off with Lark Blackwood is like learning how to swim in the Mariana Trench. Taking your driver’s test in an Aero-engined vehicle. Playing your very first gig at Madison Square Garden-”
“I get it the idea,” I cut in, trying to be patient. But it’s been a long day, and I don’t think I can take anymore.
Peering at me again, Aiden seems to come to a silent conclusion. “Okay,” he says. “But I’m here if you need me. Any time. Yeah?”
“I gotta get some sleep, but- hey. Congrats on the new job and… I’m really happy for you about everything, okay?”
He gives me another pat on the arm before disappearing into his bedroom.
With a heavy breath, I collect my stuff, and grab a Diet Coke from the fridge before heading to my own room.
Ah, peace and quiet in my own space, at last.
MBO playlist: “Bright,” Echosmith