“So I finished a lot earlier than expected,” Shannon said into her phone as she pushed out the doors of the convention center. “Where are y’all?”
“Already?” her brother Niall asked. “That was fast.”
“Well, he’s a douchebag,” Shannon sputtered. “He hit on me immediately, and I left.”
Niall laughed. “So, what, you didn’t want a date with your favorite movie star?”
“He is not my favorite movie star!” Shannon protested. “Especially not now. Where are you?”
“We’re at the pub,” Niall said then paused. “Uhh… just so you know, Shannon…”
Shannon rolled her eyes, already knowing what he was about to say. “Ugh. What?”
“Damien ended up coming after all. If you don’t feel like joining us, I totally understand.”
Of course he came.
In her mind, she really had no business being mad. The entire situation was her fault.
You couldn’t expect to date your brother’s best friend and then think he’d just disappear forever after you broke up. Besides, Shannon had made sure Niall never knew the depths of exactly how badly Damien had hurt her. The only person who knew exactly what happened was her mother, and that wasn’t until after it had ended. All everyone else knew was that he had cheated on Shannon a few times over the course of their two-year relationship, and that caused them to break up.
Nobody else knew about the backhanded slaps, the rage-fueled kicks and punches, the belittling words and behavior intended to make her feel worthless and pathetic and like he was the only person who’d ever love her. Nobody else knew about the emotional manipulation and psychological pressure that resulted in him forcing himself on her sexually over and over and over again throughout their entire relationship.
There was an immeasurable amount of shame to have stayed in such a situation for such a length of time. Even Shannon in her abuse-warped mind knew that. So Shannon hadn’t told anyone, and nobody seemed to notice any of the physical signs of what was happening to her.
After all, it was hard for people to notice the subtle bruising of your face when you’re starving yourself into a living, breathing skeleton.
The self-starvation wasn’t a direct result of the abuse, but the abuse certainly didn’t help the situation. It took a year of therapy for her to figure out that her disordered relationship with food was a result of the first abusive man in her life—her own father. The man who was supposed to have loved and protected her, treated her—and her mother and brother—as punching bags. And, subsequently, he’d taught Shannon that such behavior was just what men do, which was why she didn’t immediately break up with Damien after the first time he slapped her eighteen-year-old face.
Her whole life had been a chaotic nightmare. She had been weak minded and weak bodied, and it had defined her for far longer than it should have.
But none of it mattered because it was a long time ago, and she didn’t want her life to revolve around such things anymore.
And when she occasionally found herself in these awkward scenarios with Damien, Shannon was polite and cordial. She refused to harp on what he’d done to her, and her making a big deal about having to be around him would only give weight to that long-gone situation. In her eyes, it was all insignificant because he was insignificant. At least to her.
Shannon sighed quietly. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’ll be there in fifteen.”
* * * *
The pub had sort of become Shannon’s home away from home for the past couple of years. It was a total hole-in-the-wall, old, dark, smelly. It could be loud sometimes, but somehow it made for a great atmosphere to study, write, read, and fantasize about all the amazing things Shannon knew she was going to accomplish in her life. Such as moving to New York to work as a serious editor or to just get a job where she could earn enough money to buy a house in the country, where she could keep her horse, Samson, and write novels for the rest of her life.
But all of that depended on her getting the degree that had been put off for far too long, so, for this period in her life, Shannon’s drive was focused with laser-like accuracy on finishing school. For now, she had to just settle on brief, intermittent daydreams at the pub.
After picking up a beer and kissing the cheek of Liam, the kindly old Irishman who ran the bar and treated her like the daughter fate had never given him, Shannon spotted Niall and his small group at the back of the bar, behind a couple of pool tables.
“Happy St. Paddy’s Day, brother,” Shannon said, giving Niall a quick hug. “How long are y’all in town for?”
“Just the weekend,” Niall replied as they took their seats. “Ma got us a huge discount on two-day passes to the festival.”
“Nice,” Shannon said. She waved to Niall’s friend, Tommy, then gave a cordial nod to Damien. Awkward doesn’t even begin to describe being stuck in social situations with your abusive ex. But Shannon loved her brother and knew this was just a package deal when it came to hanging out with him sometimes.
“So…” Tommy interjected mischievously. “I heard you had a pretty exciting interview this afternoon.”
“Exciting is not the word I would use,” Shannon corrected. “Obnoxious seems to be more fitting. And I didn’t even get to interview him.”
“Really?” Tommy asked. “Why not?”
“Apparently,” Niall cut in, “he hit on her.” He paused to laugh. “And Shannon is so committed to her life as a nun that she got pissed off and walked out.”
“I am not a nun,” Shannon insisted. “I’m just not interested in guys right now. They’re just an annoying distraction. I have to focus on school.”
“C’mon, Shannon.” Tommy chuckled. “Jack MacCarrick could be the long-lost love of your life! He might have wanted to sweep you off your feet and put a big diamond on your finger.”
“Nope,” Damien butted in, not even hiding the snide tone in his voice. “People like that don’t go for people like Shannon. At least not in a serious way. She’ll probably be single for the rest of her life.”
Shannon pursed her lips and clenched her teeth, maintaining her commitment to take the higher ground. “And I would be fine with that,” she retorted, waving a hand casually and turning back to her brother. “Besides, I couldn’t care less about Jack MacCarrick. The only thing I’m worried about is the fact that I now have nothing for my assignment. My boss pulled serious strings to get one of those slots. I may lose my internship over this.”
Shannon let out a frustrated sigh.
“I’m so screwed,” she muttered under her breath, feeling a bit sick to her stomach all of a sudden. “I’m gonna go to the ladies room.”
“And I’m gonna get us some whiskey,” Niall declared, pushing back from the table. “You definitely need a real drink, sister.”
Shannon chuckled as she stood up. “I think you’re definitely right about that.”
* * * *
“Here we go,” Dylan said, pulling the pub door open. “I asked around. This place is pretty dark. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
The men made their way to the bar to order some drinks as Jack scanned the room and sniffed the air.
This place was the oldest, most rickety, most hole-in-the-wall bar he’d ever been in, and Jack found it to be oddly charming in a way. The old bartender’s Irish brogue and firm handshake reminded him of his long-deceased uncle.
Jack brought the whiskey to his lips and sighed wistfully, recalling one particularly heartbreaking summer during the time he’d spent in Ireland with his older sister as a teen. He stared absently at a framed map of County Limerick for a few moments when his little daydream was shaken from his head by the voice of an exuberant fan.
“Holy shit!” the guy squawked, pointing a finger at Jack’s face. “Jack MacCarrick!”
“Back off, bro. Let the man have his drink in peace,” Dylan grunted defensively, pushing Jack behind him.
Jack chuckled and waved his arm casually.
“It’s okay, Dylan,” he said, extending a hand to the guy. “Yep. That’s me. What’s your name, man?”
“Niall,” he replied, shaking Jack’s hand.
“Nice to meet y—”
“My sister interviewed you today,” Niall interjected urgently.
“Really?” Jack asked. “Who’s she with?”
“Her name’s Shannon, and she’s just an intern, but she said you—”
“Oh!” Jack exclaimed, genuinely surprised and quite pleased with the seemingly cosmic coincidence of the meeting. “Yeah, I remember her.”
Then he became just the slightest bit sheepish, recalling his behavior, and added, “I was kind of a dick to her… maybe you could pass along my apologies.”
“Well, she’s here,” Niall offered. “And she really needs that interview. I’ll buy y’all a round of top-shelf whiskey if you can give her a few minutes to ask you some stuff.”
Jack nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, yeah! Absolutely.”
Dylan cast a subtly mischievous smirk at his friend, obviously knowing what was actually going through Jack’s head, and turned to the bartender again.
“Let’s get a bottle of this,” he said, tapping two fingers on the glass and nudging at Jack to pull out his wallet.
Jack blindly tossed a credit card on the counter as he turned to follow Niall.
“Keep it open. We’ll be here awhile.”
* * * *
Shannon had rounded the corner to head back to the table when her brother gave her a totally amused look.
“Hey, Shannon!” Niall cackled. “I got a little surprise for you.”
Shannon let out a small laugh and made a face at her brother, then caught sight of that douchebag movie star and some shaggy-haired blond guy sitting at the table with the group as if they were all old friends.
She froze for the briefest of seconds, then let out a huff as she picked up a bag from the floor and turned sharply to her brother.
“Bye, Niall,” she grunted. “Call me tomorrow before you leave.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Jack jump out of his chair and dart around the table toward her.
“Don’t leave,” he said quickly, keeping his voice low and discreet as he put a hand on her shoulder and attempted to coax her away from the table. “Listen, I know I was—”
Shannon flipped his hand off of her and dropped her bag.
“Who in the hell do you think you are?” she demanded. “First of all, don’t you dare tell me what to do. Second, you’re a dick.”
Jack was way too close to her face, and she instinctively backed away from him, but he kept moving forward. So she kept moving backward until the both of them had moved around the corner and out of earshot of the bewildered and amused group.
But Shannon didn’t notice. She was on a roll.
“I was in there today to do my job, you self-absorbed piece of shit. And you sat there smugly hidden behind those stupid sunglasses,” she barked as she flipped them off his face. “And you talked down to me like I was some trollop that existed just for your own amusement. And I don’t know how in the hell you managed to find my brother, but let me tell you something, asshole. If you followed me here thinking I’m going to sleep with you or give you a blowjob or indulge in some other lasciviousness, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Are we clear?”
Shannon snapped her mouth shut and finally noticed that she was now sort of alone with him, which caused a startling amount of anxiety to rise in her chest. She also noticed his blue eyes were ablaze and his square jaw was set and he was looking utterly pissed off. She immediately recognized this to be a very dangerous situation, and tried to flee, but found her feet to be involuntarily glued to the floor by some invisible force.
Jack finally opened his mouth to speak, and the word came out in an icy breath. “Crystal.”
Their eyes were locked only briefly, and she’d finally managed to move her feet and started to walk away from him when he grabbed her wrist and pulled her back.
The anxiety hit a climax as Shannon was instantly catapulted into a state of quiet terror. She felt as if the situation was escalating into something ugly, like all the terrifying ones with Damien from years ago.
Shannon started to panic. Her heart hammered at the inside of her chest as her breath quickened. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his hand raise up to the level of her face, and she squeezed her eyes shut and braced herself for the stinging impact of a palm to her cheek, a fist to her eye. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Again.
She held her breath. And then…
She opened one eye.
Jack had a look of utter disbelief on his face. He slowly moved his hand closer until he gently brushed her hair away from her face, then ran the back of his fingers gingerly down her arm until they met her hand.
He took her hands in his and looked down, rubbing her palms with his thumbs. He took a step toward closer, looked up, and their eyes met.
“Listen,” he began quietly. “Whatever you thought was about to happen just now is something I have never done, and would never do to anyone.”
Shannon blinked a few times and let out her breath. The rush of adrenaline started leaving her body, and she began to shiver or tremble. She couldn’t tell which. She felt wobbly, so she leaned against the wall behind her.
“I didn’t follow you here,” he continued. “But I did try to go after you earlier to apologize. I was disrespectful, and I made you uncomfortable, so I’m really sorry about that.”
Shannon knitted her eyebrows in the slightest bit of disbelief at how genuine Jack appeared to be about his apology. She briefly considered the possibility that he hadn’t meant any harm and he was just another jackass guy who acted without thinking when he opened his mouth again and confirmed that particular hypothesis.
“I can be a shameless flirt and a total jackass sometimes,” he admitted. “And when you stepped into the room, I was sort of blown away by how pretty you are, and I couldn’t help myself. It was the last thing I should have done right then, and I felt awful about ruining your assignment. So I’m just really sorry.”
Shannon was finally steady again and stood up straight, then nodded politely, as if to let him know it was okay. She also couldn’t help but notice the slight warm feeling of her cheeks at his use of the word “pretty” in regards to her.
“So if you’ll let me,” Jack continued, “I’d like to take the time to let you finish your interview.”
Shannon arched an eyebrow, surprisingly pleased with how the minor confrontation had ended. Maybe he wasn’t such a douchebag after all.
“I would appreciate that very much,” she finally said with her chin lifted somewhat defiantly.
“Excellent,” he said, squeezing her hands in a friendly manner, and then he paused as he noticed that she was trembling slightly and lowered his voice. “Are you okay? You’re shaking. I’m sorry if I scared you. I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s okay,” Shannon said quickly as she pulled her hands out of his. “You didn’t. That whole thing… that wasn’t you. That was other stuff. From a long time ago. It’s like a reflex. I get in that mode, and it just kind of takes over. Sort of like a nervous tick. I don’t think you’re the type that would hit a girl.” She paused to roll her eyes. “Those types don’t apologize,” she added in a huff.
Jack eyeballed her face in a funny manner, and Shannon could see the gears turning in his head. She knew he was about to ask her about it, so she quickly waved him back to the table.
“Let’s have a shot and a nice little talk.”
* * * *
A couple of hours had passed and Shannon had probably drunk a little too much. The earlier moment between her and Jack had been too revealing, too intimate, and too intense. Her nerves had been shot. Normally, when faced with such intense emotions, Shannon would just leave. But she needed the interview, and Jack had offered a genuine apology, so she had no other choice but to stay, and she’d eased her nerves in a most uncharacteristic fashion with what seemed like a bottomless glass of whiskey.
Niall, Tommy, and Dylan had ordered pub grub and were loudly snacking, laughing, and hollering as they thumped paper footballs made from napkins across the table. Damien was brooding, half talking to the other three, half shooting dirty looks at Jack and Shannon. He was getting slowly drunk, and his jealousy was starting to rear its ugly head. Since their breakup four years prior, he had yet to see Shannon even remotely involved with anyone, and he didn’t appear to care for it happening right in front of his face.
Shannon was hardly concerned with him, however. She was deeply engulfed in conversation with Jack a couple of tables over, out of earshot, asking him question after question. Far more questions than had been prepared in advance. She had more than enough information to write a stellar article about his new film and probably could have left if she wanted to, but she didn’t. The other interns had spoken of his charm, and Shannon was now just a bit under its spell. She was also noticing how much she liked the sound of his voice.
“Mac-Carrick,” Shannon slurred as she gave two tilts of her glass toward Jack’s face.
He chuckled. “That’s me.”
“And it’s not Mc. It’s M-A-C…C-A-R—”
Jack laughed out loud. “I know how to spell my own name.”
“That means,” she went on, pretty much ignoring him, “you are of Irish descent.”
He gave a nod. “I am indeed.”
She gaped in delight. “So am I.”
“That’s just the slightest bit obvious.” He paused to sip his drink. “Miss Shannon Callaghan, with hair of flames and eyes like the Emerald Isle.”
She snorted. “That was poetic.”
“Why, thank you.”
“And you are not at all a redhead,” she added. “You’re one of those black Irish.”
“Another astute observation.”
“Have you ever been to the old country?” she asked then tittered. “That’s what my ma calls it.” She continued to stifle laughter until she noticed an odd sort of sad look on his face, so she pressed her lips together to shut herself up. “What’s wrong?”
He hesitated a moment as the sad expression left his face, then jostled his head and took a sip. “I have. I lived there for a couple of years as a teenager. Have you ever been?”
“Nah. But Ma lived there almost her whole life. She emigrated right before Niall was born.”
“Ah,” he remarked. “So you’re a direct descendant. Where’s she from?”
Shannon lifted a shoulder in a dismissive shrug. “Somewhere in County Limerick.”
“That’s where I stayed,” he mentioned. “My mother was from there too. She came over here when she was in her early twenties. So my sister and I stayed with her brother in a little town called Ballybricken after—”
He abruptly stopped, and his gaze shifted to the right.
She raised her eyebrows. “After what?”
He waved a hand. “Just after I turned sixteen.”
She opened her mouth to interrogate him further, only for him to speak first.
“You and I sure do have a lot in common.”
“Hmph,” she uttered. “I think our common heritage is where the similarities end.”
He simpered. “I think that similarity is enough.”
“Enough for what?”
“Enough for me to be totally enchanted by you. That along with your spitfire personality.”
She rolled her eyes as her cheeks flushed. “Psshh.”
He gave a tiny smile and a shrug as he refilled her glass.
She downed the shot, then tilted the glass toward him. “Just so you know, no matter how drunk you get me, I’m still not going to sleep with you.”
“Pretty sure you already made that clear, Miss Callaghan.”
“Well, your reputation necessitates that I continue to clarify,” she retorted, then paused before her unfiltered mouth spoke without permission. “Do you want to sleep with me?”
He chuckled. “Is that an invitation?”
“No,” she huffed. “I’m just… you know, wondering.”
He continued to chuckle but didn’t answer.
“I just mean that it’s not every day that a Hollywood hotshot hits on me and then gets me all liquored up.”
“If I was planning to sleep with you, I wouldn’t have gotten you all liquored up.”
“So why do you keep refilling my glass?”
He shrugged. “I want to keep talking to you. But I may or may not try to make out with you later.”
She glowered at him in spite of her stomach doing a flip. “Then I may or may not bite your lip.”
He grinned. “If that’s supposed to deter me, you may want to rethink your strategy.”
She laughed in spite of herself.
“So you’ve never been married,” she interjected, desperately needing to switch topics. “But do you have any kids?”
“No, but I have a nephew,” he replied. “My older sister’s son, Aiden. Sometimes I feel like he’s my own kid. She’s a single mom and travels a lot because she does work within the fashion industry, so they spend a lot of time with me back in New York.”
Shannon’s ears immediately perked up. “New York?”
“Yeah,” he said, then took a small sip of whiskey.
“Is that where you live?”
“Yeah,” he repeated.
Shannon gaped at him slightly in a bit of delight and a smattering of jealousy.
“You live in New York?” she asked a third time.
Jack chuckled. “Yes.”
“You don’t live in LA or something?”
“No.” He laughed. “I’ve always lived in New York other than the two years I spent in Ireland.”
Shannon was still gaping and let her chin rest on her palm as she gazed across the table at his eyes, which, in her now borderline intoxicated state, seemed to be holding her in a bit of a trance.
“I have always wanted to go to New York,” she said breathlessly.
Jack lifted one eyebrow and leaned into his elbows to get closer to Shannon’s face.
“You should come visit me there sometime,” he suggested casually while wearing a totally mischievous look on his face.
Shannon let out a laugh as she leaned backward into her chair. “Yeah, right.”
“I’m serious,” Jack insisted.
“Whatever,” she said, waving a hand flippantly. “Don’t you have a supermodel girlfriend with a tiny dog living with you or something?”
“Nope,” he said quickly. “I’ve never had a girlfriend.”
“Oh, right. Lest I forget that reputation of yours.” She snickered, and he gave her a good-natured laugh. “But you’ve never had a girlfriend? Like ever?”
Jack scoffed. “I have zero interest in girlfriends. I don’t do relationships.”
Shannon chuckled. “I know what you mean. Relationships are pretty much the worst concept ever invented.”
“So you are single,” Jack declared, pointing an accusing finger at her.
“And happily so.”
“And why is that?”
Shannon groaned and pressed her face into her palms. “Because all men are assholes.”
Jack became silent for a while. So long that Shannon peeked between her fingertips to look at his face. He looked only marginally insulted.
“I mean… in my own personal experience,” she muttered apologetically.
“So you had a bad relationship,” Jack deduced.
Shannon shook her head in disgust. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”
“So what happened?”
She huffed as she downed another shot and flipped her eyebrows in the direction of the other table. “He happened.”
“Damien or Tommy?”
“Damien,” Shannon grunted. “And he’s like the devil himself. I mean… at least he was to me.”
Jack narrowed his eyes. “Really?”
“Yup,” Shannon said in a low voice and then leaned across the small table to whisper in his ear. “And he’s responsible for why I thought you were gonna slap the shit out of me earlier.”
She lingered next to his face for a moment, watching him cast a disgusted look toward Damien. She then wondered exactly what came over her that caused her to say such a thing. Nobody else besides Ma knew, and it was beyond Shannon what had possessed her to offer such an admission to someone who was essentially a glorified stranger.
Too late now.
Shannon flopped backward into her chair and groaned as she rested her head back in her hands.
Jack ignored her half-hearted apology and shot a piercing blue stare at her after she’d looked back up at him. “He used to beat up on you?”
Jack leaned in close and looked her square in the eye. “Then why the hell are you still friends with him?” He had lowered his voice, but it was full of intensity.
“Well… I’m not friends with him. They all live in Houston. He’s been Niall’s best friend since long before we dated. We all sort of grew up together. That’s how I know him.” She wagged her index finger at Jack. “And that’s why you don’t get involved with family friends. They have a curious tendency to stick around after the breakup.”
Jack huffed, shook his head in obvious disgust, and downed the rest of his drink. Shannon grimaced just slightly as she suddenly felt overwhelmed with guilt from unintentionally introducing him to the slightly less horrifying aspects of her past drama.
“Why would your brother stay friends with him after he did that to you?” Jack asked, apparently unable to wrap his brain around the whole thing.
“Niall doesn’t know. Nobody actually knows about any of that stuff except for my ma. I never wanted to make all of that shit public. I don’t think I even meant to tell you that just now. I’d rather leave the past in the past where it belongs. And he’s a perfectly normal person as long as you’ve never been involved with him in an intimate nature.” Shannon nodded toward Damien’s table. “See? You never would’ve had any idea he was like that if I hadn’t said something, would you?”
Jack shook his head again and started to light a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in here,” Shannon informed him.
He threw his hands up in annoyance.
“Where can I then?” he demanded, the cigarette flipping between his lips. He was really exasperated, so Shannon seamlessly transitioned out of her indifference and stood up to run her fingers through his dark hair, then patted his cheek.
“Over here,” she said then called over to the other tables, “We’re going outside. Do y’all want us to bring back anything else?”
Nobody even acknowledged her, as they were still deeply enthralled by their paper football game. Jack stood up, and Shannon guided him toward the back patio with a hand on the small of his back.
Jack took hold of Shannon’s hand as he followed her through the dark, narrow hallway that led to the patio. Just before they reached the door, he quickly glanced around the small space, pulled her close to him, and backed her up against one of the walls.
He moved in close to her face, his parted lips hovering right above hers, as his fingers stroked at her hair. He let his thumbs glide down the sides of her face, below her chin, as he planted his lips on the spot just below her earlobe and slowly made his way down the side of her neck.
Shannon’s eyelashes fluttered as her breath came in quiet hitches and stunted gasps. She instantly felt as if her knees were about to give out, so she grasped at his elbows to steady herself. Nobody had touched her like this in a very long time.
Actually, nobody had touched her like this ever. Everything before had been rushed and scary and not the least bit sensual.
And while it was incredibly enticing and desirable, it was also so unfamiliar that it was simultaneously terrifying to Shannon, and she felt an instant need to stop what was happening.
Jack moved back to her face and ran a thumb over her bottom lip, looking deep into her eyes. He tilted her chin up toward his mouth, and just before he made contact, she sharply turned her face.
“Jack, I can’t.”
He ceased all of his movements, and she turned her face back to see him piercing her eyes with his.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He stepped back forcefully, paused for a second, and then shoved through the exit, letting the door slam behind him. Shannon stood there motionless for a moment, suddenly completely sober, wondering what the hell just happened, then gathered herself and went outside after him.
After scanning the patio, she spotted him in a corner, leaning against a wall and smoking.
“I’m really sorry—”
He waved the cigarette as he cut her off. “Save it.”
“What’s your problem?” she asked, suddenly pissed off. “I told you I wasn’t going to—”
“Yeah, I know. I got that, loud and clear.” He flicked the cigarette down and ground it out with his heel.
“Why are you so mad?”
He laughed, almost mockingly, and started pacing around the patio. “Why am I so mad? Why…? Huh.”
“Will you just talk to me, please?” she pleaded with him, causing him to march over and get right up in her face.
“I don’t understand you,” Jack said in a voice thick with exasperation. “I have been nothing but nice to you since the second we met and—”
“No,” Shannon rebutted harshly. “You hit on me. While I was trying to do my job.”
“I complimented you,” he growled. “And then I apologized. And then I did what I needed to in order to make it right.”
Jack continued to stare at her harshly before letting out an agitated grunt and whipping his head away from her gaze.
“I know you think all men are assholes, but I’m not. I thought we had a nice little connection going, and when I attempted to feel that out just now, you were reduced to some kind of borderline catatonic state. For the second time tonight. So apparently you’re just terrified of me, and I have no idea why. Since the one horrible thing I did to you was call you beautiful and sweetheart.”
Shannon instantly felt a little bit guilty for the fact that she had been kind of rude to him all day long and tried to make amends by reaching for his face. He waved his arm in front of her hand, making it clear that a simple touch of his cheek wasn’t going to make up for the fact that she’d apparently hurt his feelings.
“And yet,” he went on, taking a few steps back away from her, “you willingly put yourself in a situation with some asshole who inflicted physical harm on you, and you think it’s just no big deal.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and exhaled loudly. “All I wanted was to see if something was here. Between you and me. And for a second, I thought there was, and I thought maybe you felt it too. But I guess I was stupid to believe such a thing.” Jack turned sharply and started to exit the patio. “Good luck with your article, Shannon.”
As he started to disappear into the darkness, Shannon was gripped with an urgency that he couldn’t leave. She didn’t want him to, and she wasn’t sure what she could do to stop him, so she just shouted the first thing that came to mind.
He stopped and turned slowly, giving her a look like she’d sucker-punched him.
Shannon winced. Maybe not the best choice of words.
“I’m clueless,” he repeated, raising his eyebrows.
Actually, he was clueless. There was a reason she did the things that she did, and something in her was screaming at her that it was imperative that he know why, even if he still insisted upon leaving.
“Yes!” she hissed after marching over to him and getting a little too close to his face. “You’re clueless.”
“Care to explain that to me?” he asked almost sarcastically. “Actually, don’t. I think I’d rather just get the hell out of here.”
He’d started to turn away again when she gripped his arm, causing him to shoot her a look of incredulousness and raised eyebrows. But to her relief, he didn’t pull away from her.
She let out a sigh and lifted her shoulders in a defeated shrug.
“I’m kind of fucked up,” Shannon began. “At least I was. And sometimes it just comes out. Like I said earlier, it’s not you, or anything you did. I’ve just avoided stuff like this for a very long time, and I wasn’t prepared for that just now. I don’t think you’re an asshole. It was very kind of you to apologize and let me do that interview. I know you didn’t have to do that, and it probably saved my internship. And honestly, I should’ve been more mature than to walk out in the first place.” She paused briefly to let out a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m the one who was supposed to be the professional in that situation. I should have been able to brush off a few harmlessly flirtatious words.”
As she was speaking, Jack’s expression grew less harsh as he appeared to soften toward her just a bit. But as he softened, she bristled, when the other thing he mentioned came to mind.
“And as for Damien,” she went on, shaking her head in disgust, “I ultimately put him in his place a long time ago, and I’ve just learned to tolerate being in his vicinity for the sake of Niall. And maybe I’m stupid for that, but I refuse to give Damien any more consideration than he deserves. And he deserves absolutely none as far as I’m concerned.”
Jack gave her an understanding nod but still remained silent, as if sensing she might need to spill her guts some more.
“So.” Shannon sighed again, then spoke gently, but firmly. “If you want to leave, I understand. But that’s on you. I realize I’m probably a lot more than you care to deal with, but this is just who I am, and I survived because of it.”
He nodded a second time, looking expectant, as if he was waiting for her to continue.
But that was all Shannon needed to say. It was probably far more than she should have said to someone she barely knew. And maybe it was all that damned alcohol, but she’d somehow managed to tell this relative stranger far more than she’d ever told almost anyone else in her life.
So yes. Yes, that was quite enough.
She shrugged. “That’s all.”
Jack nodded once more, and the corners of his mouth turned up slightly before returning to their previous, neutral position. He took her hand, which had been firmly gripped on his bicep throughout her entire spiel, and lifted it to his lips to kiss it gently, then let his thumb run back and forth across the back of it a few times.
“I’m glad you told me that,” he said. “I get it. It’s okay—”
He cut himself off, pausing contemplatively for a second.
“I mean it’s not okay… what happened to you, that is. I’m sorry I flew off the handle. I just… I guess…” he stammered and then let out a deep sigh. “I’m just glad you told me.”
Shannon smiled. “You already said that.”
“I know,” he said, chuckling at himself.
He looked at her for a moment and then pulled her close to him. She was apprehensive for a second, thinking he was going to try to kiss her again, but he didn’t. He simply placed his arms around her shoulders and held her flush against his chest.
Shannon hesitated and then nervously placed her arms around his waist. Her head was nestled beneath his jaw, her cheek pressed firmly into his chest.
The patio was silent, other than the distant static of cars driving by and jukebox music pouring out the open doors of the pub. She could hear his heart thumping out a steady, hypnotic rhythm.
This was a weird feeling. She felt… safe. Not like Jack was some kind of protective force against anything. Nobody could protect Shannon but Shannon. That had been long established.
It was more like she could trust him beyond just not physically hurting her. Like she could trust him enough to let down her guard a bit. He seemed more and more like he was a genuinely nice guy. A good person. Someone she could open up to. Possibly even more so than she already had.
They held each other for a long time, and then the stinging realization hit.
No. She couldn’t.
Because of New York.
The place Shannon had so often dreamed of going was Jack’s actual home. And that was where he’d be going the next day.
And she knew that, after tonight, she’d never see him again.