Chapter 1-Off To A Bad Start
I hear something to the right of me, so I look sideways, across the enormous room, to find Jackson approaching me. I know what he wants the instant our gazes meet because the expression on his face easily communicates his intention.
Instinctively, I know I’m in over my head and in need of a defense, but, right now, I’m blindsided by shock and unable to think of a way to ensure my safety. Reflexively, I begin to back away from Jackson, using brief rearward glances to aid me as I feel my way around various pieces of furniture.
This type of retreat makes my exit from this intense, scary situation slow and awkward. It also leaves me vulnerable to being rushed by Jackson because he’s moving forward, straight towards me, making the most of his obvious advantage.
Again, I find Jackson’s gaze, raise my arm and extend my hand toward him in a desperate attempt to stop his advance. Of course, he ignores me.
Oh well, I guess I never really expected that to work, but hope prompted me to try.
I can’t out run Jackson, and I’m certainly unable to fight him off, so it occurs to me that I should try a logic-based defense. “Look, Jackson,” I begin, “you give the impression you haven’t thought this through. This can’t end well for either one of us. Don’t you realize the huge error you’re making?”
Even though the pitch of my voice is slightly elevated, I sound surprisingly calm and sensible. Since my fragile composure isn’t obvious, I continue with fake bravery because it’s the only bravery I have. “Jackson, you have to know this is the kind of mistake that ruins a person’s life.”
Jackson’s gaze never leaves mine. I get the impression he’s gauging his effect on me. He cocks his head to the right, shrugs and asks in a quiet serious tone, “What makes you think I don’t know what I’m doing, Ellie? What makes you think I haven’t considered the possible outcomes?”
“Well, for starters,” I say, availing myself of more logic, my new best friend, “if either of those were true, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
With utter calm and surety Jackson replies, “Obviously, it hasn’t occurred to you that we’re here because I have made those considerations.”
Uh…no. I didn’t think of that. I pause while I consider his words. I’m not thinking clearly enough to understand Jackson’s reasoning, but I do realize I’ve been bested by him and that knowledge is forming a knot in my gut.
Jackson Dawes is brilliant, wealthy, powerful and connected. He didn’t get that way by accident. His rise in the business world has been nurtured by his family, intentionally planned and executed. Why would any intelligent, educated person pursue something as counter intuitive as this type of behavior? Do the crime, do the time, right?
Suddenly, though, it occurs to me that counter intuition might be in the eye of the beholder. Somehow, this scenario makes sense to him. I’m sure his reasoning has to do with the fact that, because of his wealth and the power he wields, he can behave any way he wishes and walk away with his fortune, reputation, and freedom, his entire life, completely intact.
My arm is still outstretched so I shake my hand at him in an exaggerated attempt to stop his advance. Jackson grins slightly, but continues toward me, shrugging his massive shoulders as he says, “Ellie, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re frightened of me.”
I give him my best look of indignant surprise and manage to sputter, “How…could you possibly know better, Jackson? You’ve only ever had one…real conversation with me. I don’t believe there was anything about that conversation which left you with the impression that I’d tolerate this type of treatment. So, yes, Jackson, I’m afraid of you.”
I try to stay calm and gather my wits because I need to talk my way out of this. Attempting to do just that, I continue with more faked, forced courage. “However, this isn’t about me.”
“Oh, really?” Jackson asks with a cocky smirk on his face. Now, he seems amused. “Well, then, who’s it about? I’m a big boy. I know what I want. So, this isn’t about me and you’re the only other person here, right?”
Is he right? Of course, he’s right. I’m the only other person here and that’s not a good thing. I never could have imagined I’d ever find myself in this situation. Why in the world did I ever come here to meet him?
My ministry work, of course, is why I came, but my hindsight is kicking in with a belated fury. If I get out of this mess, I’m going to have to work on developing my foresight. In order to function safely in the financial world, I’m going to have to become savvy about it. That savvy is going to include some serious boundaries.
In this moment, however, multi-tasking proves to be my undoing. Keeping my attention on my exit, watching Jackson’s advance, participating in a conversation with him, as well as, keeping track of the conversation I’m having with myself, allows me to find an inconvenient wall. As a result, my retreat comes to a grinding halt.
To my left is a huge bureau which makes escape in that direction impossible. To my right, around the corner, is the door to the elevator, but it might as well be in the basement because Jackson is near enough that I’ll never clear it before he reaches me. I swallow hard as awareness hits me: I’m stranded in every conceivable way.
Jackson’s body is now a mere twelve inches from mine. He posts one massive arm on either side of me and effectively eliminates any chance of escaping him.
I’m an optimist so, for the third time, I seek logic as my defense, because I realize it worked so well for me the first two times. Honestly, though, Jackson is huge and he’s intimidating the life out of me, so, what’s a girl supposed to do? It’s not like I have an endless supply of options.
“Okay,” I say while trying to keep my voice from shaking. “Why don’t we go over those considerations one more time?”
“I’m happy to oblige you, Ellie” Jackson agrees. “Why don’t you start down the list for me?” His voice is soft, tender even, but it’s thick with arrogance. He’s got me and he knows it. If I weren’t so scared, I’d be angry that he thinks he’s so much better than me. I’d be angry that he feels he has the right to treat me this way. I feel like a caged animal, frightened and trapped by a captor who holds the keys to my freedom.
Somehow, I manage to continue despite my struggling composure. “I…uh…we…uh… well?”
Dear God, give me the words I need.
Suddenly, inspiration hits me, and my words come together. “Well…, we can start with the obvious because it seems that you’ve completely overlooked it,” I say with energy that exudes more confidence than I really feel.
Jackson’s right hand leaves the wall beside my head and reaches over to stroke the side of my cheek. His touch is light and tingly in texture. My fear level does nothing to prevent his touch from mesmerizing me. From out of nowhere and, despite of my best efforts to prevent it, a giddy tremor runs the entire length of my body. Tiny goose bumps erupt and cover my skin from head to toe.
Dear God, help me!
I struggle in my search for one cohesive thought, but all of them have turned to vapor and flurried out of my head. I do my best to put aside the feel of his touch on my face. For an instant, I close my eyes and, with everything in me, do my best to remember the most obvious of all my objections.
Jackson must recognize my discomfort because he drops his arm to the side of his own body. His hand is behaving itself now, but the state of my situation deteriorates anyway. His body comes closer to mine as his lips find their way to my ear. “I’m listening, Ellie,” he whispers to me. “What is it that I’ve overlooked?”
I want to run, but I can feel the impending betrayal of my knees. They’re relinquishing solidarity with the rest of my body. Jackson’s posture and nearness prevent my flight so my knees giving way merely complicate what is already a no-win scenario. Being able to sit down would certainly come as a welcome relief, but the only place to sit is on the floor. Sitting will only increase my vulnerability so I’m certainly not going there.
I’m distracted, confused, and scared enough that I forget to answer Jackson’s question. Evidently, he feels the need to prompt me. “Ellie, are you there?” he whispers. His warm, poetic tone tickles my ear until my skin vibrates. More goose bumps appear.
Really? How can I be this scared and this turned on at the same time? This isn’t going well for me and I have to do something to fix it. Somehow, I need to disengage, but with fight, flight and logic eliminated as options, what other choice do I have?
Jackson is obviously enjoying the situation he’s created. He’s far too aware of the effect he’s having on me and he’s loving every second of it. I put my hands up and push against his chest. I want him away, far away, from me. My effort proves useless, though. His chest is hard and flat and immovable. It’s like he’s grounded in a cement floor or backed up against a wall of the Grand Canyon. He’s not budging.
If anything, Jackson is slightly annoyed by my effort to keep him at a distance so he leans a little closer to me simply because he can. Despite shaky legs, I consider an effort to duck underneath his arm and run toward the elevator. Somehow, though, I do something that betrays my desperate intention because Jackson lowers his hand along the wall, once again preventing my flight.
Panic tightens its grip on my emotional state and instantly reduces my breathing to short rapid efforts. A barely noticeable sheen of sweat appears in conjunction with the goose bumps that cover my skin. My eyes feel as though they’ve doubled in size.
The room around me begins to lose focus. If I pass out, I’m finished for sure.
Dear God, help me stay conscious!
Jackson observes the differences in my demeanor and breathing pattern. Without being told, he understands they reflect my fear. Surprisingly, he acts in accordance with his observation and drops his arm from the left side of my body, retreating ever so slightly. He takes hold of my left hand and very gently rubs small circles into the back of it with his thumb. The intimate gesture lessens the intensity of his nearness, but I don’t understand the familiarity of his behavior. This man, a man with whom I’m barely acquainted, is treating me as if we’re very close friends, probably even lovers.
“Talk to me, Ellie,” he whispers again. He lifts my hand and kisses the palm of it. “Just open your mouth and talk to me. Tell me all about your objections. I’ll listen to every one of them, I promise.” His voice is deep and warm and recklessly tender. It flows over my ragged nerves like a warm blanket hitting cold skin on a snowy winter day.
He’s very good at this. I’ll bet he’s had lots of practice.
Here again, my body responds to his less aggressive demeanor. Even though I’m aware he’s manipulating me, my body yields and my breathing slows as the panic in me lessens somewhat. Jackson returns to rubbing my hand, which befuddles my thinking, but I’m not as fearful for my safety as I was a moment ago. I put my fingertips to my temple and squeeze slightly, trying to break the spell his nearness places on me.
Jackson’s comforting voice continues, “I’m waiting Ellie. I’ll wait as long as I have to. I’ve got today, tonight and all day tomorrow, as long as necessary. Just talk to me.”
I stare at my hands where they’re pushed against Jackson’s chest like some shadow barrier. I don’t know where else to look while I crank away on his threat to hold me against my will. Intuitively, I know if I look past him, out the wall of windows, he will only move his gaze to meet mine and meeting his gaze is certainly not a step in the right direction. Instead, I have to do something to improve my situation, something to counteract the confusion and need he pulls from me.
Finally, a clear, sensible thought finds its way to my brain. There is a fourth option available to me, one which I’ve yet to try. Maybe, if I do what he wants, the intensity of the moment will pass.
Ok, decision made. I take a deep breath, gather my courage, and do as he asks; I simply talk to him. “Look, Jackson, I’m not sure how we arrived here. Silly me, I thought I was coming to meet with you about my ministry efforts, but it’s obvious that you’re working another agenda. For the life of me I can’t understand why.”
Jackson smiles quietly and asks with utter earnestness, “What’s so hard to understand?” His tone suggests that, now, he’s the one who’s puzzled. I can feel his gaze on my face, and I know without returning it that his question is sincere and unguarded.
More mixed signals.
“Well,” I begin, as I comprehend the need to spell it out for him, “in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not like the women you ordinarily date or pursue or hunt or whatever it is that you do.”
Dear God, please help me because I sound like an idiot!
I can’t help it. I have to know if Jackson is laughing at my stupid choice of words. A quick upward glance from me finds utter sincerity resting in Jackson’s gaze. His posture and facial expression give the overwhelming impression that he earnestly wants to know what I think.
If he brought me here to molest me why does he care about my thought process?
Jackson smiles down at me as he asks, “How are you different from them, Ellie?”
I cock my head rearward as surprise captures my features, as well as, the tone of my voice. “Hello, have you met me?”
This time, for only an instant, my gaze raises to meet Jackson’s and my look of surprise collides with his gaze of kindness.
Kindness? Really? God, I need some insight. Help me understand what’s happening!
Jackson smiles at me a second time and uses no effort whatsoever to suppress a chuckle. His eyes are so big and brown and beautiful. The intricate shading of their color speaks to his intelligence and curiosity. His smile is so perfect it brings out the iridescence in his eyes. They absolutely sparkle with life and mischievousness. I have no choice but to drop my gaze. I have to sever the visual connection between us. It’s far too intense and messing with my head way too much.
Jackson answers my question, “Yes, Ellie, I’ve met you, but I want to know why you asked me that?”
I’m flabbergasted. I can’t fathom that we’re discussing something so blatantly obvious. It’s like there’s a big white elephant in the room, but Jackson doesn’t see it.
“Seriously, Jackson,” I respond, “I think you need to have your head examined.”
Jackson shakes his head in disagreement. “My head is just fine thank-you very much. Now, talk to me and tell me what you’re thinking,” he says matter-of-factly. He speaks to me like we’re sitting across the room from each other having a business meeting. The irony of my situation is not lost on me.
I shrug my shoulders and roll my eyes like this is the most senseless conversation I’ve ever had, but words are my only defense so I can’t afford to give up on them. “The kind of woman you pursue is young, toned and beautiful. She has big breasts, a tight behind, and everything else about her is slick and shiny. She’ll also come from money and is socially connected, as well as, intellectually and educationally gifted. There isn’t one single thing about me that’s connected to those women, parallel or equal to them, or to you, for that matter.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Jackson states quietly. Now, his tone indicates sadness, like he’s grieving something.
Why is he sad? What the heck is going on?! Dear God, help me understand!
The futility of my predicament causes me to sigh. It’s like we’re having two different conversations, the verbal one and the physical one. Jackson’s kind gentle voice and caressing words belie his aggressive actions toward me. He continues to rub the back of my hand with his thumb and, now, his other hand leaves the wall and cradles my cheek. Tenderly, he tucks my hair behind my ear.
I hate the feel of my hair trapped behind my ear, so I reach up and untuck it. Jackson chuckles at me and slowly, with agonizing thoroughness, caresses my facial features with his eyes. After what seems like forever, his gaze comes to rest on my lips.
I know with every ounce of femininity coursing through me that Jackson wants to kiss me. As if his commanding posture and nearness aren’t pressure enough on my mental status, the realization of an imminent kiss causes the temperature in the room to rise by twenty degrees, making things even worse.
Everything combined causes the panic in me to build again. As the rate of my breathing increases, my eyes dart around the room, desperate to find an escape. The air becomes stifling and I’m unable to consume enough of it. My lungs work faster, but less efficiently, so my breaths are shallow and not giving me what I need in the way of oxygen support. The room gets swimmy a second time.
Jackson leans closer and another whisper comes to me. “Ellie, you don’t need to be afraid,” he says as his silken tone saturates my ear and cascades down the length of my neck. “I didn’t bring you here to harm you. Will you please calm down? I need you to trust me, okay?”
Trust him? Did he really just ask that of me? How do you trust someone you barely know? I mean, a person can trust someone with the intent to do charity work together, but then there’s the need to trust someone in a situation like this, which is a horse of an altogether different size. The charity trust horse is a miniature horse, tiny and manageable. This shanghaied trust horse is a Clydesdale, a big one, not a baby Clydesdale or a normal, mama sized Clydesdale, but a mammoth, daddy sized Clydesdale.
“No…, Jackson. I don’t… trust you,” I sputter earnestly in spite of my shaky demeanor. “I don’t know you well enough to trust you. All I know of you is what little I’ve learned for myself and that isn’t nearly enough to bear trust of you in a situation like this. To be honest…, you’re not doing much yourself to build the trust you say you want. So, right now, trust in you is not possible.”
Jackson flinches as my words hit his consciousness. It’s so obvious they’re not words he wants to hear. He seems so disappointed, but says, “Give me the chance to change your mind, Ellie. Give me the chance to prove I’m trustworthy.”
I find it strange that I hear an easily identifiable plea in Jackson’s tone. It’s a plea which validates his words, but only causes more confusion. Either this guy is the consummate actor, or he genuinely cares about my opinion of him. Why would he put so much effort into me when there are countless women who are far more user-friendly?
Jackson rubs the back of my hand with his left thumb as he continues to caress the side of my face with his right hand. I can tell he’s listening to me and, without looking, I also know that his gaze has never left my lips. The intensity of his focus is incredibly unsettling. I’ve never been so rattled in my life.
Before I can do anything more to free myself from the confines of his arms, Jackson lowers his face so that his lips are positioned directly in front of mine. Our lips aren’t touching, yet. All I have to do, though, is tilt my face ever so slightly in order to make contact. I can feel his warm breath and practically taste the spearmint flavor of his expensive mouthwash. He’s baiting me, just daring me, to accept his offer.
What is it with this guy? Why does he want me to kiss him?
My heart is beating so hard I can feel its jackhammer impact in my head. My knees are faltering again as I stay positioned against the wall in front of Jackson. In spite of the fact that I’m teetering physically and emotionally, my dignity swoops in from out of nowhere and allows righteous anger to well up inside me. I make up my mind. I will not give Jackson what he wants. There are so many reasons I can’t risk the costs of surrender.
My newfound resolve creates a different kind of tension in my body. I know the light of new resolution shines in my eyes. I’m uncertain which aspect of my demeanor tips off Jackson, but my decision to resist him does not go unnoticed. Jackson silently asked me to cooperate, and now that I’ve I refused to do so, he covers my lips with his own.