As it turned out, while Jack and Shannon had been on the patio hashing through things in a manner that was probably far too intense for two people who had just met, the group inside had decided that everyone would be heading to the swanky condo that had been rented by Jack and Dylan for the weekend. Dylan had let slip the enticing information that the condo was furnished with its very own massive flat screen TV and several gaming consoles that, apparently, the group of twenty-somethings were powerless to resist.
Not to mention the fact that everyone was completely intoxicated and had no business trying to drive anywhere. The condo was only a couple of blocks away and had plenty of free beds.
Upon hearing the suggestion, Jack turned to Shannon, as if he was asking permission with his eyes for her to join him.
“It’s fine,” she said to him quietly, reaching for his hand, which caused a smile to tug at his face.
After they’d left the pub and wandered aimlessly for a few blocks, it occurred to the group that they were completely lost.
“I think it’s around this corner here,” Dylan said, pointing down a street. He and Tommy and Niall started asking each other slurred questions in an attempt to regain their bearings while Damien hung off to the side and continued to stew.
Jack and Shannon lingered behind, walking slowly, not saying much, occasionally looking at each other and laughing a little. At one point, she reached over to hold his hand again, this time interlocking her fingers with his and leaning her head on his shoulder.
“Wow,” he said, teasingly. “So you do have a sweet side.”
“Not with everyone.”
“Well, aren’t I special?” He laughed, nudging her and putting his arm around her shoulder.
She turned to him and looked him in the eyes. “You are.”
Jack abruptly stopped walking and faced Shannon, placed his hands on her hips, and pulled her toward him.
Probably as a result of the alcohol, and in spite of the fact that she knew he was leaving, knew she’d never see him again, Shannon had done a one-eighty with regards to what she’d allow Jack to get away with. She had already decided she would let him kiss her the next time he tried, and was uncharacteristically okay with whatever else came after, so she put her hands on his chest, leaned against him, and kept herself locked in a gaze with him.
His hands moved to her cheeks, and he leaned in, but just before his lips met hers, Dylan shattered the moment by shouting at him.
“Jack, isn’t this the place? What’s the code?”
Jack threw his head back in exasperation. “Jesus fucking Christ, Dylan!”
Shannon was instantly mortified and covered her face to giggle at herself. She turned around to find everyone looking at them and pulled away from Jack with her arms folded across her chest as she smirked sheepishly. Jack stomped over to the door.
“Yes, this is the place,” he grunted. “The fucking code is hold down the call button and tell ‘em your fucking name.”
He pressed the button, and a pleasant voice asked, “Name, please.”
“Thank you, Mr. MacCarrick. Please let us know how we can make your stay more comfortable.”
The lock clicked open, and Jack opened the door. “After you guys. Top floor.”
* * * *
The condo was nice. From the looks of the main living area, the unit had to have been at least two thousand square feet. Brand-new, fully furnished, very modern. The pride and joy of the place was mounted on the main wall, in all its gleaming, eighty-inch, LCD glory. The drunken guys stood in front of it, awestruck.
“This is the greatest night of my life,” Niall whispered. He, Tommy, and Dylan scrambled to turn on a gaming console while Damien sifted through a pile of games on one of the large couches. Eventually, they fired up one of the games and became totally engulfed in it.
Shannon followed Jack into the expansive kitchen and leaned against a counter while he sorted through a large wine refrigerator. He pulled out a bottle, inspected the label, and, nodding with approval, grabbed two glasses out of a cabinet.
“Good lord,” Shannon sputtered, peering at the wine over his shoulder. “This has to be a $400 bottle of wine.”
“Almost $500 to be exact.” He smiled as he poured two glasses and handed one to Shannon. “A lovely wine to share with a lovely lady.”
“You’re a cornball.” She giggled, clinking her glass against his.
He laughed quietly. “I know,” he said then brushed her cheek with a kiss, sending shivers down her spine and making her stomach flip.
He led her out to the balcony, and they sat, opposite each other, on two cushy chaise lounges.
The night was warm and breezy. The weather, as well as the company, was positively intoxicating.
This was the last place Shannon had expected to end up that particular evening. Especially after her initial encounter with what she thought was one of the biggest douchebags she’d ever met—a Hollywood sleazeball who was obviously after only one thing.
But as it turned out, Jack MacCarrick was actually kind of… sweet. And now Shannon herself was noticing that she was very interested in that same one thing.
It was definitely not the type of thing she had ever done. Her entire sexual history was nothing but Damien relentlessly coaxing and forcing her. She’d never been able to choose when or how or with whom she had sex. All of that had traumatized her in a very real way, which was why she’d never done it with anyone else afterward.
But Shannon was now twenty-five years old and had the natural desires of a totally normal twenty-five-year-old. And, in spite of her panic in the midst of the brief, heated moment, Shannon was now feeling quite comfortable with Jack and couldn’t help noticing she wanted quite a bit more from him than just a kiss. After the emotionally intimate exchange on the patio, Shannon had made the decision to let herself have something good that night. And she was going to enjoy it. It didn’t have to be serious. It didn’t have to be love. It was perfectly okay to let a nice, good-looking guy cause her to swoon a little and make her feel wanted.
And if it happened, in spite of the fact that she knew he’d be gone forever the next day, it would be okay.
After all, she’d been through much, much worse.
“So,” Jack began after a few moments of silence, “why journalism?”
“Well, I want to be a writer or editor of some kind, and most companies require a journalism degree for that,” she explained.
“So you don’t want to make a permanent thing as an entertainment correspondent?”
She laughed. “No. Definitely not. I was assigned to the entertainment beat for my internship. I mean, the festival is cool and all, but interviewing cocky famous people isn’t exactly my cup of tea.” She smiled and kicked his foot gently. “No offense.”
He chuckled. “It’s okay. I could tell immediately that you didn’t want to be there. That’s why I tried to make you smile.”
“By hitting on me,” she retorted, trying to make it as obvious as possible that she was teasing him.
He rolled his eyes and let out a good-natured laugh. “Exactly.”
“It’s okay,” she said, reaching over to squeeze his knee. “Obviously you made up for it since I’m here right now.”
He placed his hand on top of hers and gave it a quick rub. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Even though I called you every offensive name in my lexicon?”
He shrugged. “What can I say? I have a thing for women who don’t hesitate to kick the shit out of me if necessary. Which is a rare trait, so naturally, you’re unique. And that’s why I had my personal private investigator track down Niall so I could find you.”
She rolled her eyes and kicked his foot again. “Whatever.”
“I’m just teasing.”
He flashed the same grin at her that he did when she first encountered him, and it suddenly no longer seemed cocky at all. It was actually pretty swoon inducing, and she couldn’t help unabashedly staring at him.
You are impossibly hot, she wanted to say. Can we skip the small talk and make out already?
But apparently, Jack was more interested in small talk. At least right then.
“So you live in Austin,” he mentioned, impressing her with the fact that he recalled what she figured was an unimportant detail to him. “Have you always lived here?”
“No, I grew up in the suburbs of Houston.”
“Houston, huh?” he repeated. “And that’s where you met your awesome ex-boyfriend?”
“Ha,” she huffed sarcastically. “Yeah. He’s been a family friend for a long time.”
“Some friend,” he scoffed.
She shot him a defensive look. “I know you probably think I’m stupid or something, but—”
“I don’t think you’re stupid, Shannon,” he said, cutting her off. “You’re clearly a smart girl. It’s just a difficult thing to hear, even from a total stranger. Nobody should treat anyone that way, but a guy most certainly shouldn’t treat a girl that way.”
She smiled at him. “I’m very glad you think that.”
She paused briefly as she watched his face and suddenly got the urge to explain the whole situation.
“It didn’t start out that way at all,” she went on. “He seemed like a nice kid, and he used to be very charismatic and charming, which was why I started seeing him. But I began getting really sick, and I had a bunch of issues, and I think he just got frustrated with me.”
Jack lifted his eyebrows. “So you being sick was a good reason for him to beat you up? That’s sterling logic.”
“Well, it wasn’t like normal sick…” she stammered. “It was like self-inflicted sick.”
“And that makes it okay?”
“No…” she trailed off sheepishly. He probably did think she was stupid. And maybe she had been. The whole situation had been stupid.
Jack, however, suddenly appeared remorseful and picked up one of her hands to rub his thumb over the back of it. “I’m sorry. So, what do you mean by self-inflicted sick?”
Shannon stared at his face, weighing the idea of spilling her guts, and finally decided she didn’t care if he knew everything. He’d probably forget about all of this by the next day anyway.
“Well, I just didn’t eat for a while,” she stated matter-of-factly. “There was a lot of chaos when I was growing up. My dad was the same type of guy as Damien. Said a lot of detrimental things since as far back as I can remember, in addition to being a totally abusive bully, and then my mom left with Niall and me when I was about twelve. So I had a lot of issues with the way I looked, and it just unraveled from there. It became kind of a control issue because everything in my life felt out of control. When I started seeing Damien, I didn’t want him to touch me because I was so insecure about everything, and that pissed him off, so he slept around while we were together. I confronted him about it, and that’s when he became scary. He would either hurt me physically or just belittle me. After every fight, he became sweet and apologetic, and then he’d use that as an opportunity to try to get me to have sex with him, but I just didn’t want to. Eventually he got so fed up with me telling him no that he just forced himself on me. And that was pretty disgusting. I was too physically weak to fight him off of me, so I just gave up and cried. After that, it seemed pointless to resist, and I just let him do it whenever he wanted to.”
By that point Jack was staring at her with a horrified expression, and she didn’t quite know how to respond, so she shrugged and lifted a flippant palm in the air. “What?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
She peered at him. “Why would I kid about something like that?”
He exhaled a long sigh, downed his entire glass of wine, and dropped his forehead into his palm. Eventually, he looked back up at her with an empathetic face. “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
She smiled at him and patted his leg. “It’s okay now. It was a long time ago, and I got better. I had to spend some time in a clinic for a while, and I put on some weight. Then I started studying jiu jitsu and karate as a way to learn how to center myself and respect my body, not to mention defend myself. That ultimately cleared my head enough to make me realize how bad things had gotten with him, and I broke up with him, which he wasn’t happy about. We got into a full-blown fist fight, and I laid him out. Since then, he’s left me alone, other than making a few dickhead comments every so often when I’m around him.”
Jack gave another exasperated sigh. “Did you ever press charges or anything?”
She tilted her head. “I didn’t want anyone to know, Jack. If I called the police, Niall would know and my friends would have known, and it would have been horrible.”
He shook his head and clenched his jaw a couple of times. “What he did was far more horrible than that would—”
She threw a hand up to stop him mid-sentence. “You don’t understand what being a victim of something like that feels like. It’s shame like you wouldn’t believe. And that’s if it just happens once. Never mind the fact that I was so weak and my mind was so warped that I stayed with him for so long. I just wanted it over with, and I made sure he’d never be able to hurt me again.”
Jack exhaled loudly and rubbed his chin. “I don’t understand that at all.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Well… you don’t have to. It doesn’t concern you.”
“Actually, it does concern me. It concerns me quite a bit,” he retorted. “But… it’s not my place to tell you what you should do about something like that.”
“No, it’s not your place,” she asserted. “But I do appreciate your concern.”
Jack stared at the sky for a minute, and then glanced back at her face. “I still really don’t like the idea that you’re currently occupying the same space as that piece of shit. I kind of want to go in there and kick his ass. But I suppose that’s not my place either, is it?”
She smirked. “Right, but I appreciate the sentiment too. Honestly, I don’t like it either. If I had my way, I’d never be around him. But he’s Niall’s friend, so I just have to tolerate it once in a while.”
“And you can take care of yourself, right?”
He grinned at her again and refilled both of their glasses. As he did, Shannon found herself more than a bit transfixed by how attracted she was to him and considered leaning over to finally kiss him. It seemed, however, that Jack was still more interested in sipping wine and casually conversing with her, which was fine for the time being. But Shannon was now positive this particular evening was going to end with her first and only fling, so she was content to do the obligatory pretending-to-get-to-know-each-other song and dance until they eventually took advantage of one of the many bedrooms in the condo.
“So,” he continued as he handed the glass back to her, “are you in your master’s program?”
She had to laugh. “Is that your way of politely asking how old I am?” She gave him a nudge in the arm. “Don’t worry, Jack. I’m very legal.”
His jaw dropped open as if he feigned being offended. “That’s not at all what I meant. Besides, you said that was not happening.”
She snickered as she stood up from the chaise to go lean against the railing.
Oh, that is so happening.
“I’m not in a master’s program. I just got a late start in school,” she explained. “I spent the first couple of years after high school recovering from everything. So now I’m just the old lady in all of my classes.”
She felt him step up behind her as he placed one of his hands on hers and kissed the side of her face.
“You’re not old.”
She turned to smirk at him. “I’m twenty-five. And I feel ancient already.”
He took her glass from her and set it on a neighboring table, then laced his fingers around hers as they both took in the sight of the lit-up city.
“Maybe,” he said quietly, lips right next to her earlobe, “you feel that way because of everything that’s happened to you.”
“That’s possible,” she replied in an equally quiet voice.
“But what you should feel is proud. Because everything you’ve accomplished is completely inspiring.”
Shannon never would have thought that two sentences could have the power to seduce a person, but that was exactly what happened when the words left his mouth. So she turned her face and kissed his jawline, hoping he’d take a hint.
And he did.
He turned his face into her cheek and closed his eyes. She felt , his lashes dust her temple, which caused her to release a quiet breath as she became totally seduced. He reached his right hand over and placed it on the left side of her jaw, lightly stroking the side of her neck, and gently turned her face toward his.
“I’m going to try this again,” he said softly as he smiled at her. “Hopefully, third time’s a charm.”
“Oh, I think it is…” she murmured, smiling back at him.
Taking her face with both of his hands, he turned her chin up to his and planted a single, soft kiss on her mouth. And with the combination of his lips and his breath and his gentle stroking of her neck, Shannon felt as if the towering condo had been struck by lightning. She was very thankful for the railing that seemed to be the only thing holding her up.
Jack pulled away slightly as he looked in her eyes, as if searching for reassurance that she was okay with what he was doing. And she most definitely, definitely was. Her gaze traveled back and forth between his eyes and lips. She managed to stand back up from the railing and brought her arms around his neck, pressed herself against his chest, and lightly stroked the back of his head with her fingernails while he placed his hands on her waist and ran them firmly to the small of her back.
They just stood there for a moment, breathing each other in, irrecoverably lost in each other’s eyes, and Shannon’s attraction to him took over. She pulled his mouth to hers and kissed him with a hunger and passion which surprised her more than a little, and which he reciprocated with equal intensity.
At some point, she grabbed him by the shoulders, swung him around, and pushed him up against a wall while their lips were still tangled up. She asserted herself as the one in control of the situation. It was the first time she was ever in control of a situation like this, and it shocked her just a bit how good it felt to be the one holding the reins for once. So she decided, right then and there, that she was long overdue to feel totally, completely good for the first time in her life.
Throwing caution to the wind, she pulled her lips away from his and held his face in her hands.
“Is it too late to change my mind about what I said earlier?” she asked in a breathy voice. He looked at her for a moment as his eyes softened. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close and kissing her sweetly. Then he lowered his forehead to hers and smiled.
“I’m not letting you do that.”
God dammit. What happened to the notorious ladies’ man that summed up his entire reputation?
“Ugh, are you serious?”
Jack gave a small laugh and placed a kiss on her jawline, then held her hands, bringing them to his lips, kissing the right and then the left.
“That’s really not how I like to do things.”
Shannon sighed in frustration as she gave him an incredulous look, and then Jack smiled at her warmly.
“I’m not saying I don’t want to,” he went on. “I just have a hard, fast rule. No one-night stands.”
“Really?” she stated, still incredulous. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find that somewhat hard to believe.”
He chuckled and cocked his head to one side. “Why is that?”
Shannon waved an arm at him as she picked up her wine. “Because you’re the guy who’s more famous for his arrangements than his movies. I have serious doubts that all of that is some kind of publicity move and you’re secretly maintaining a celibate lifestyle.”
She stepped away from him and flopped back onto one of the chaise lounges then shot him a look. “Maybe you’re just not that into me.”
“No…” Jack said, crossing the balcony and sitting down on the foot of the chaise. “I’m definitely into you. And I never even suggested that I was celibate. I just said I don’t do one-night stands.”
Shannon’s eyes darted back and forth in confusion. “So what do you do, then? What are these arrangements if they’re not one-night stands?”
Jack smiled at her sweetly and let his hand rest on one of her shins.
“I travel a lot,” he explained. “So whenever I’m in one place for more than two days or so, I try to find a… companion.”
Shannon raised her eyebrows. “A companion,” she repeated. “Such as an escort.”
“No,” he stated firmly. “I’ve never paid for sex.”
Shannon narrowed her eyes skeptically. “Something about this isn’t adding up.”
Jack chuckled and patted her leg as he went on. “So what happens is, I go out, usually with a group, just like any other normal single person, and if I happen to hit it off with someone, I explain exactly where I’m coming from. Sometimes she’s cool with it, sometimes not. If she is, I get her phone number and take her out the next evening, and see her exclusively for the brief time that I’m in town. And after I leave, that’s it. But I never move forward unless I know for sure that she’s okay with everything. No strings attached, but not a one-night stand.”
Shannon scoffed. “Actually, that sounds kind of like a glorified one-night stand.”
“Not really.” He shrugged. “I always remember their names, I get to know them, learn details about their lives, so on and so forth. Most of the time, it’s someone who’s just as busy as I am and who’s pretty independent and not interested in something serious either. It’s totally consensual, totally safe, and everyone enjoys themselves. Everyone needs a little physical affection sometimes. Including busy people who are turned off by relationships. Such as yourself.”
Shannon scoffed again as her jaw fell open. “I am not like that!”
Jack lifted an eyebrow in amusement. “You really think so? Because your behavior just now seemed to indicate that you were okay with something even more casual than that.”
Shannon couldn’t help gaping at him and feeling just the slightest bit offended. But then she realized he was right. Mere moments before, she had decided for herself that she was going to sleep with this guy knowing that she’d never see him again, and she was perfectly fine with it. And in spite of the fact that he had totally different reasons for doing it, Shannon was hit over the head by the fact that she and Jack were very similar in this regard.
And suddenly, Jack MacCarrick’s lifestyle in terms of his interaction with women seemed like a pretty brilliant idea, and Jack MacCarrick himself seemed like the perfect place to start.
Except there was only one problem.
Shannon laughed softly and shrugged. “Well… you got me there,” she admitted. “But we only have tonight. You don’t have an opportunity to take me out and get to know me. You’ll be gone by this time tomorrow.”
“Well…” he began. She detected a hint of caution in his voice as he started running his finger over the tiny ridges of denim on her jeans. He took a deep breath and captured her eyes with his own.
“What if you came back to New York with me?”
She blinked as his statement didn’t entirely register. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. It’ll be fun.” Jack’s icy blue eyes darkened to a a sapphire hue as he casually hitched one shoulder. “I know you’ve been burned, Shannon. So why not let me set you on fire?”