The cab pulled up to a building on York Avenue, and Shannon felt sick to her stomach for the umpteenth time that day.
She couldn’t believe she had done this.
Hopped on a plane and traveled 1500 miles away from everything she was familiar with, with someone who was a glorified stranger, to spend her spring break having what was a glorified, week-long, one-night stand.
But of course, Jack refused to let her refer to it that way.
This was just them getting to spend time with each other, getting to know one another, and getting to unleash all the pent-up sexual tension that had been building up since the talk on the patio.
The night before, they had come very close to unleashing it in one of the available beds at the condo, mostly at Shannon’s persistent behest.
But Jack was very much a man in control of himself. He insisted upon doing this in what he believed was the right way for both of them. And the right way included him treating Shannon to a fun and exciting week in a city she’d only dreamed of going, then taking his time to seduce her properly, without having to worry about all the people in the next room.
It was the most out-of-character thing Shannon had ever done in her life. And it was an admittedly pretty stupid thing to do.
However, Jack assured her he wouldn’t do anything she was uncomfortable with, that he’d take every appropriate and necessary precaution to ensure that, when the deed was finally done, he’d be responsible and considerate about it. And he promised her that, if she became uncomfortable at any moment, she could simply leave without an utterance of protest from him.
He also mentioned the fact that his reputation spoke for itself. He had no brood of children from a handful of women, only a series of satisfied former companions who spoke of him in a very positive light. He had a clean bill of health, no criminal rap sheet, and if he was a mass-murdering serial killer, the press would surely have picked up on it.
It all looked very good on paper.
Beyond all that, Shannon was frankly ready for a bit of sexual experience that was something she could be in control of and remember fondly.
And what would be fonder of a memory than a week-long fling with a famous hunk who wanted to spoil her a little and kissed her like she’d always dreamed of?
This was every bit a total fantasy in real life, and Shannon was going to make the most of it.
But she was still more nervous than she’d ever been in her life.
They had taken the same flight, but Shannon insisted that he pretend he had no idea who she was. The last thing she needed was to show up in some celebrity gossip mag and have the entire world find out about their little arrangement. Upon arrival in New York, she purposefully hung out in the airport for an hour or so until she took a cab to his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Shannon paused on the curb to briefly take in the sight of the busy street and towering buildings when her phone rang.
“I see you,” Jack said. She looked up at the building. There had to be hundreds of windows.
“Is that so?” she teased. “Well, where in this massive building are you?”
Top floor. Penthouse.
Damn, Shannon. What in the hell have you gotten yourself into?
* * * *
Shannon’s hands were shaking quite a bit when she heard the sound of the lock spinning open.
Here we go…
Jack opened the door with a huge grin on his face as he took one of her shaking hands and kissed it. “Hello, pretty girl.”
Then he paused briefly as a concerned look crossed his face.
“You’re shaking again,” he said in a low voice. “Are you okay? Remember, you can change your mind at any moment.”
“I’m okay,” she replied and gave him a shy smile. “I am nervous, but I’ll be all right.” She gave him a friendly squeeze of the arm as he swung the door wide and welcomed her in. “Besides,” she added, “this’ll be fun.”
Maybe she was just telling herself that.
Jack took her suitcase as she looked around.
And she’d thought the Austin condo was nice. Jack’s place was massive. Open concept with floor-to-ceiling windows lining the far wall, which displayed a breathtaking view of the city.
“Oh woooow,” she breathed, walking over to the windows.
The sun was starting to set, reflecting pink and blue hues off the glimmering cityscape.
Shannon stood transfixed for a moment, trying to remind herself that she wasn’t having some kind of incredibly bizarre, incredibly lucid dream.
This was actually happening. She had actually come to New York with a guy she had just met yesterday. She was actually staying with him for a whole week. She was actually standing in his condo, which probably cost more money than she’d ever see in three lifetimes. And, in spite of her nerves, she was actually pretty okay with everything.
She couldn’t tell if she was incredibly adventurous or just plain stupid.
I guess I’ll find out soon enough.
“I’ll show you around,” Jack said, guiding her with a firm hand on her shoulder.
They left the main room, passed a large, beautiful, immaculate kitchen on their right—Shannon wondered if Jack MacCarrick actually cooked—and he led her down a long hallway toward the bedrooms. One of the doors was plastered with stickers and pictures.
“Aiden took ownership of that one.” Jack chuckled. “He’s here quite a bit when my sister’s working and I happen to have time off.”
“Are they here?”
“Nah, he’s on spring break this week, so I think they went out of town.”
He led her to another door, opened it, and set the suitcase down.
“This one has the best view. It’s yours.” He paused and shoved a hand in his pocket, then casually leaned against the wall. “Until you decide you want company.” He gave her a little half-smile, and she gave his arm a squeeze before sitting down on the bed.
“Well…” She sighed, smoothing the linens. “What should we do now?”
“Hmm…” he said, rubbing his chin. “Are you hungry?”
He’d read her mind. “Starving.”
“Perfect. I’ll let you freshen up. We’ll go grab a bite, and then I’ll show you some sights.”
Jack slid out of the room, and just before closing the door, he poked his head back in and said, “This place can feel kind of empty when I’m by myself, so it’s really nice having you here.”
“It’s really nice being here.” She smiled. He shot her a wink and closed the door.
Shannon looked around the room. It was nice, pretty large for a guest room. Contemporary styling. It resembled a fancy hotel room. There was an en suite to the left and a large walk-in closet opposite that.
Shannon eyeballed the closet door for a few seconds. Her mind reeled briefly at how many other women before her had probably stayed in this same bedroom. She pulled the door open, expecting to see a bunch of random items left there by those previous “companions.” She was somewhat pleased to find that the closet was empty, other than a few large, framed photography prints set against the wall.
So they were going to dinner. What would one wear to dinner in New York? For that matter, what would one wear to dinner in New York whilst dining with a high-profile film star?
A little black dress was always a safe option, and fortunately, Shannon had the foresight to pack one.
Shannon slid the dress on and ran her hands over it, assessing the fit, which was just slightly snugger than she recalled. Perhaps because she was feeling just a bit self-conscious right now, as she wondered what exactly someone like Jack saw in her. But the dress was not too revealing. It was strappy, but not too low cut. Not that Shannon had much cleavage to be concerned with concealing. Martial arts kept her very lean, so she didn’t have much in the way of curves of any kind, and her mind mused over whether or not Jack would find that pleasing once the deal had been sealed.
Honestly, Shannon didn’t care one way or the other what he thought about her body. She wasn’t here for him, at least not in any way beyond what he could do for her in regards to fulfilling her needs that had been neglected for so long. Because, ultimately, Shannon was here for herself.
She washed her face and put on a little eyeliner and mascara, then slicked on a sheer lip-gloss. She hadn’t had time to blow dry her hair before leaving for the airport, so it had dried while piled up on her head. Once it came out of its bun, it was left unraveling in fat, loose curls to the middle of her back.
She stepped back in front of the mirror and hardly recognized her appearance. It wasn’t jeans and a T-shirt, which was what she could usually get away with in Austin, but she liked it anyway.
I could fit in here.
Satisfied with her appearance, Shannon grabbed a pair of strappy heels and made her way back to the main room. Jack wasn’t there yet, so she leaned against the side of the couch and slid on her shoes.
“Shannon?” he called from the hallway.
“Out here!” she answered, futzing with one of the shoe straps. She heard his footsteps approaching the room and his voice rattling off the evening plans.
“It’s this little French place, and it’s just a few blocks from Times Square. It’s pretty good, and then I thought we could—” He stopped suddenly, causing her to look in his direction.
He had a funny look on his face. One she hadn’t seen yet. She wondered if her choice of wardrobe was inappropriate. He was wearing a slate gray dress shirt, which he had left unbuttoned so that it revealed the top of his muscular chest, a black blazer, and black slacks.
Shannon paused a moment, taken aback a little by how unrealistically attractive he was, and then went back to worrying about what she was wearing. Her dress seemed comparable to his outfit, so she was more than a little puzzled.
“What’s wrong?” She stood up, looking down at her dress. “Is this okay? I didn’t really know what to wear. And you’re a bit taller than me so I thought the shoes would—”
Jack waved a hand slightly to stop her. “It’s great… you look… uh… perfect. You look perfect. You’re quite beautiful, Shannon. That’s all.” He approached her slowly, stopping at arm’s length. Then he quickly reached toward one of her hips, as if he wanted to touch her, but stopped himself abruptly before making contact and simply shoved his hand in a pocket. “Nice dress.”
They stood motionless for a minute, not saying anything.
Shannon’s eyes darted discreetly around the room.
Is this awkward or intimate, or what is going on here?
Suddenly, Jack snapped back to reality and cleared his throat.
“So, uh, you want to go?”
“I thought that was the plan,” she said, giving him a playful shove, and then she followed him out the front door, feeling just a bit mystified by his abrupt, curious shift in behavior.
* * * *
The restaurant was the nicest one that Shannon had ever been to. The food was like nothing she’d ever eaten before. And her dining companion was handsome, to say the least.
Jack was quiet for the most part as he made funny eyes at her that echoed the curious look he’d given her back in the condo. Shannon wasn’t sure what to make of it. If not for the words he’d used just then, she might have thought he wasn’t pleased with the appearance with his latest “companion,” so maybe it was something else.
She became a little stressed out over it, considering what he might be feeling and thinking, but then she remembered his thoughts and feelings were not really the point of this whole… thing. The point, at least to her, was to have an enjoyable sexual experience that Shannon was in control of. So, in an effort to keep herself focused on that, she resorted to coyly tossing flirtatious comments and sexual innuendo at him.
“Oh my word…” Shannon moaned as she dipped a spoon back into a plate of truly delicious chocolate mousse. “Pure decadence. I imagine this is what good sex tastes like.”
And Jack had to laugh at that.
“You imagine?” he asked a bit incredulously. “So, at twenty-five, you’ve never had good sex?”
She arched an eyebrow at him. “Pretty sure I told you all about the type of sexual experience I’ve had. And none of it was good.”
He pressed his lips together and took on a sympathetic expression. “What about after all of that? You never had anyone who could… oblige you?”
Shannon shrugged. “I never got involved with anyone else.”
“I find that hard to believe,” he said, narrowing his eyes just slightly.
Shannon darted a glare at him. “I beg your pardon?”
She couldn’t help feeling a bit insulted at his insinuation that she was “easy,” but then reminded herself that she had just flown halfway across the country with the sole intention of sleeping with him, and decided it was an honest assessment from where he was sitting. And once again, Shannon didn’t give a shit what Jack MacCarrick thought about her. She only gave a shit about what he was going to do for her. Or, rather, what she was going to do for herself by means of him.
Jack, however, appeared immediately remorseful as he winced at his poor choice of words and quickly reached across the table to place his hand on hers. “What I mean is,” he explained, “I guess it’s just hard to imagine that nobody else would try to make you theirs. You’re stunning, and intelligent, and incredibly endearing, and I don’t understand how anyone could see all of that and not completely fall in love with you.”
Shannon lifted her eyebrows, feeling more than a bit startled at his choice of words.
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
“But you see all of that?” she asked in a slightly alarmed tone.
And then Jack froze up completely, other than his eyes, which were shifting from side to side. He suddenly looked nothing like the confident, sexy, thirty-two-year-old man that he was, and resembled more of a child who’d been caught with his hand in a candy dish.
There was a sudden awkward silence hovering above the table, and it was more than a bit suffocating to Shannon. Fortunately, for both of them, the waiter chose that moment to bring by the check.
“Did you enjoy, mademoiselle?” he asked, smiling as he took her plate.
“I did, very much. Thank you. This was beyond delightful,” Shannon said sweetly as she dismissed the awkwardness of the previous moment.
She decided Jack could have possibly been a bundle of nerves, just as she was. Confident, sexy, thirty-two-year-old film star or not, he was still only human, and Shannon refused to think anything more of the strange shift in his behavior that had peppered several moments since leaving the condo.
* * * *
After leaving the restaurant, Jack took Shannon for a walk through Times Square, and it was probably the most exciting thing she had seen in her short life.
The lights were almost blindingly colorful, and the hum of the cabs whirring by was like music to her ears, and all she could think of was how she wanted to live here someday.
That, and the fact that her feet were killing her.
She started lagging behind him after a while, and he glanced back to chuckle at her.
“Shall we call it a night?”
“Yeah,” Shannon replied sheepishly. “I’ve gotta get out of these shoes.”
Jack chuckled again and then lifted his pinkies to his mouth to let out a shrill whistle, and a cab immediately eased up to the curb.
After about ten minutes or so, Shannon noticed Jack was bouncing one of his legs and chewing his thumbnail. She glanced out the window and rolled her eyes in amusement at his behavior, which seemed blatantly nervous.
He was the one who did this all the time. They were in his city, staying at his home. What on earth could he be nervous about?
Maybe he wasn’t really nervous. Maybe he was a tightly knit ball of sexual expectancy. So Shannon decided to help him loosen up by giving him a little preview of what she expected to come as soon as they got back to the condo.
Eyes still trained out the window, she reached across the seat and started blindly and slowly rubbing her hand over his upper thigh. She heard him draw in his breath sharply, which caused her to turn and face him. He had that same funny look on his face again, although now it was tinged with a bit more heat.
He didn’t make any move to touch her yet, so she leaned over and planted her lips on his neck and shifted sideways until her chest was flush against his side. She continued to kiss his neck as she moved her hand up the inside of his thigh, not quite all the way. That would come later.
His breath was steadily picking up, and he’d draped his arm around her to squeeze her shoulder as his head leaned backward just slightly.
And Shannon felt quite pleased. She was high on the feeling of being in such total control of this and prepared herself for a truly sensual close to the end of their first night together.
* * * *
By the time they’d finally made it back to the condo, Shannon had calmed down and was actually feeling kind of tired as she walked slowly down the hall to the front door with Jack trailing behind her.
He hadn’t said a word throughout the entire cab ride and remained silent as he pushed the door open for her, so Shannon figured he was probably tired as well. It had been kind of a long day, and the night before had been a really late one, so Shannon cut them both some slack as she leaned against a couch to remove her shoes.
Just as she was about to turn to him and mention her fatigue, Jack pounced on her.
She should have expected it.
She had given him a very intentional tease in the cab, so she shouldn’t have been the least bit surprised that he was apparently ready to seal the deal immediately and right there on the couch, where she was now pinned underneath almost the full weight of his muscular six-foot-one frame.
His lips had captured hers only briefly, and she tried to mentally push herself back into that sensual place on the patio, but his mouth moved too quickly from hers to her neck, to her collarbone, as he jerked the straps of her dress down and covered her breast with his tongue. His hands were aggressively pulling up the hem of her skirt, and his fingers had now slipped under her panties, and they were inside of her, strumming at something that almost hinted at being pleasurable. But none of this was pleasurable because it had suddenly become terrifying because she suddenly wasn’t in control.
She was saying his name breathlessly, but he didn’t seem to hear her because he just kept feverishly moving his lips and his tongue and his hands and his fingers, and now she heard his belt buckle opening, and hadn’t he promised to use a condom?
And this wasn’t what she’d signed up for because it was no longer gentle, and it was just like everything before because she wasn’t in control and she just needed to—
And he immediately froze.
And she realized she was crying.
He abruptly jumped off the couch and stepped away as he adjusted everything. He stared at her with a slightly different expression now as they both panted, and then he started pacing back and forth. After a while, he finally spoke in a low voice with a tone she couldn’t identify.
“I thought this was what you wanted.”
Shannon was shaking violently with tears coming silently, and she almost couldn’t find her voice. Her head was spinning, and she seemed to have an anxiety-induced fog over her eyes. She had no idea what to say to him, so she just said the first thing that came to mind.
“I did… I just… am I just supposed to sleep with you because you brought me here?”
He furrowed his brow and shrugged in what seemed to be a flippant manner. “I thought that’s why you came here. That was kind of the arrangement.”
Shannon trained her eyes on the floor as she huffed in disgust while her mind continued to race. Nothing seemed to make sense in her sudden panicked state, but a single idea seemed to plant itself in the back of her mind.
Jack MacCarrick never paid for sex. At least, not by means of a direct exchange of money. No, he got what he needed by engaging in an arrangement of bartering. He provided luxury accommodations and fancy dinners, and women provided him with physical affection at his beck and call, and on his terms. And they never said no because, frankly, why should they? They should be flattered that a rich, famous, sexy man would give them the time of day. And so should Shannon because, after all, she was apparently that type of girl, too. And he obviously didn’t care if she was having doubts or wanted to change her mind or not. Jack was basically a more suave, more slick version of Damien.
She was still in a state of shock over the whole thing but decided she would fulfill her end of the arrangement anyway. So she got up from the couch and stood across from him as he looked at her with that same strange expression.
Shannon paused for just a moment as she let out a defeated huff for putting herself in this situation. Then she reached to her back, pulled down her zipper, and let her dress fall to the floor.
He stared at her face, looking more than a bit startled as she lifted her palms in a surrendering gesture.
“That was the arrangement. So go ahead,” she stated in a voice totally void of emotion. “Fuck me.”
Then she let her eyes roll just slightly as she added, “And don’t worry about me, Jack. I’m used to it.”
He was still staring at her, but now his blue eyes had an icy glaze over them and his mouth was drawn in a firm, flat line across his face. He stood motionless for just a moment, then aggressively marched around the coffee table to stand behind her.
Shannon was still shaking violently as she heard the sound of his jacket hitting the floor and what sounded like his shirt coming off. She lifted her eyes to the ceiling as her chin quivered, and she braced herself, realizing Jack’s sexual appetite probably included things that not even Damien had had the unmitigated gall to try.
But Shannon was going to let him do it anyway. Not because she had suddenly become weak. Because she suddenly realized that she needed a fresh reminder of why she never let any man get even remotely close to her. It had been five years since this had happened to her, and the fact that Shannon had put herself in this situation at all was clear evidence that she needed further motivation to avoid involvement of any kind with anyone, ever again.
Still bracing, she let out a quiet whimper and was quite startled at the feeling not of Jack forcefully bending her over the couch, but of him placing his shirt over her shoulders and helping her arms through the sleeves.
“I am so sorry, Shannon.” His voice was low, and she couldn’t figure out what his tone indicated, so she decided it was annoyed sarcasm.
She huffed. “Sorry you brought me here.”
But apparently, she was wrong. About everything.
“No,” he said quietly.
He had moved closer to her back but didn’t let himself make contact as he reached around to blindly button the shirt closed. “I’m sorry I made you feel like that’s something I would ever do to you.”
Once she was totally covered, Jack stepped around to face her and continued. “I’m sorry I lost control. I’m sorry I made you feel like you had to do that. I’m sorry I scared you… again.”
Shannon was at a total loss for words as she stared at his face. She was finally able to place his expression. It was one of complete, blatant, utter remorse.
“I’m sorry I forgot the fact that you’ve been mistreated,” he went on. “I recognize that this is something you want. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have come here. But I have to keep in mind that this is an area where I need to proceed with caution.”
Then he lifted his shoulders in a sheepish shrug. “I haven’t even known you two days, and I’ve already done three things that I needed to apologize for.”
Shannon let out a tiny huff as she couldn’t help noticing how completely mistaken she’d been about him just now. “At least you have the ability to apologize. That’s something.”
Jack nodded. “I suppose it is something.”
He waved an arm in the direction of the hall toward the bedrooms.
“Why don’t you get some rest? It’s been a long day,” he said. “If you’re still interested in staying, I’ll take you to do something fun tomorrow. The weather’s supposed to be great.”
Shannon shook her head slightly in disbelief at how starkly everything had changed in just a few brief minutes. Casual and fun, then terrifying and panicked, then subdued and apologetic. She didn’t really know what else to say to him, so she simply shrugged and then headed to the hall.
“Good night, Jack.”
* * * *
As he watched Shannon disappear down the hall, Jack immediately regretted bringing her back home with him. This entire situation had unraveled into something that he was totally unprepared to deal with because, for the first time in his adult life, he was disgusted with his own behavior.
He should have known this was a possibility ever since Shannon divulged the information about her past that was just a little bit too similar to what his own sister, Deb, had experienced. And, much to his dismay, Jack had conducted himself in a way that was just a little bit too similar to what Aiden’s father had done.
He honestly didn’t believe it was going to be a problem. The night before, Shannon had made it clear what she wanted from him, and in spite of a bit of understandable hesitation, she’d been totally receptive to the arrangement. However, her reaction to him following through with the foreplay she offered in the cab had made it clear that she probably had slightly deeper-rooted issues. Issues that he realized even Shannon herself might not be aware of. He had seen Deb go through it. She’d tried to get involved with people, only to be unable to deal with the intimacy factor, and she ultimately ended up in some much-needed therapy.
The abusive relationship had resulted in not only the birth of Aiden but also in Deb developing a classic case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Shannon clearly exhibited the same symptoms, and Jack knew there was no way he’d be able to, in good conscience, fulfill his end of the arrangement. No matter how badly both of them wanted it, he couldn’t do that to her and potentially risk making the trauma she’d already experienced even worse.
Not only that; as Jack stood alone in his living area, he had become mildly aware of something else he hadn’t seen coming. In spite of the fact that she was still a relative stranger to him, in spite of the fact that the arrangement was just supposed to be a fling, in spite of the fact that he promised himself he would never let this happen to him again, something glaringly obvious had firmly implanted itself in the back of his mind.
Jack had feelings for her.