Surrender To Me (Book One)

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Chapter 5: Getting To Know You

The rest of today and all of tomorrow passes. Jackson and I talk on the phone several times, though, never for very long at once. I get the impression he wants assurances regarding my safety and my sincerity in taking his proposal seriously. I have no idea why he’s so protective of me. It’s not like I hang out with unsavory characters.

With regards to my promise to seriously consider his proposal; I suppose he doesn’t yet know me well enough to understand I’m good for my word when I give it to someone. The short-term nature of our phone visits is Jackson’s attempt to stay in touch with me without becoming a nuisance. I have to admit to myself the angst he’s demonstrating is utterly charming and I find his struggle completely adorable.

On the morning requested by Mallory, just before lunch, I show up at Jackson’s office, unannounced. This time Jackson is alone and sees me step off the elevator. He comes to meet me, gives me a lovely welcome kiss and escorts me into his office.

His office is a gorgeous space. It’s contemporary, clean, very masculine and brightly lit thanks to all of the windows.

“Hi, Ellie. I’m so glad to see you!” he says enthusiastically. “Do you have an answer for me?”

I offer several short shakes of my head. “No, not yet,” I tell Jackson. “It’ll be a few days. I’m waiting on some information I requested.”

“Oh, really?” Jackson asks with his tone and his eyes, but he fails to pressure me for more information. I can plainly see he’s trying to give me space, but it’s hard for him.

“Yes,” I say simply, “But I was wondering if I could steal you away for a bit?”

He takes hold of me by the small of my back and pulls my body into his. He gives me one of those heart stopping kisses and says, “Absolutely. What do you have in mind?” he asks as he winks at me.

“Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. We’re not there yet,” I remind him. He fakes a frown but twirls his thumbs into the backs of my hands, letting me know he’s not really upset about the delay.

“I’m all yours. Let’s go,” he agrees, smiling at me.

On the way to the elevator Jackson tells Sarah he won’t be back for three hours and asks her to adjust his calendar accordingly.

More than once I interrupt him. I try to tell him our field trip won’t take that long, but he won’t let me speak. He ushers me toward the elevator.

Oh no! It suddenly occurs to me I’ll be alone with Jackson on the way back to the first floor. Now, though, it’s too late to avoid being alone with him without a lot of awkwardness between us and embarrassment in front of Sarah.

Another man joins us while we wait for our vertical ride. Jackson and the other guy acknowledge one another with a nod of their heads. The head nodding is such a guy thing. However, when the doors open, Jackson steps in front of our co-waiter and says, “Mike, why don’t you get the next one?”

“Sure thing, boss,” comes his immediate, steady reply.

I tug on Jackson’s shirt sleeve. “This isn’t fair, Jackson.”

Jackson replies calmly and matter-of-factly as he asks me, “I told you I’d respect your boundaries, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did,” I admit as I revel in his reminder. I think I’ve got him after all!

“Well, when did you tell me that I couldn’t ride an elevator alone with you? Did you ever set that boundary?”

UGH! I so don’t have him! I want to be mad at him, but he’s so charming and, to be honest, one of those core wrenching kisses will certainly not be the end of the world.

As soon as the elevator doors close Jackson takes hold of my face and begins to kiss me so tenderly, I fight the urge to weep. The entire trip to the ground floor is a very modest make out session.

Modest or not, I’m blushing like a school girl and my knees are shaking. When the elevator doors open Jackson places his arm around my waist and supports me for the walk to the car. He greets many of his employees and acquaintances as we exit the building.

Harcourt and his giant car wait at the curb. Once we’re tucked away inside, he pulls the luxurious monster away from the building. “Where would you like to go, Mr. Dawes?” Harcourt asks.

Jackson looks at me with recognition that he forgot to ask me earlier. “Yeah, Ellie, where are we going?”

“Covington Clinic,” I tell them. “We have to get the results of our blood tests. I thought it would be nice if we got them together.

Jackson’s eyes sparkle. “There’s nothing I’d rather do than get test results with my girl,” he jokes. He reaches for my hand and gives it a playful squeeze. Jackson whispers, “Well, maybe there’s one other thing I’d rather do.”

Soon, we’re signed in at the walk-in clinic and have requested that our test results be faxed forward for us. I’m careful to sign us in as Ellie Morgan and Jackson Lawes. I also use the phony name when requesting Jackson’s lab results. Jackson looks at me with intense curiosity but saves his question. Thirty minutes later we’re seated in an exam room when Dr. Templeton arrives.

“Good afternoon, it’s nice to meet the two of you,” Dr. Templeton states as he closes the door behind him. The doc is pushing seventy years of age and has the requisite gray hair and lined bifocals.

“Nice to meet you, as well,” Jackson responds.

“The nurse tells me you want the results of your blood tests. Is that right?”

“Yes,” we say simultaneously.

“Okay, let’s start with you Mr. Lawes,” the doctor says as he flips through paperwork looking for relevant info. “Your results are absolutely normal. Looks like you’re good to go.

Now, Mrs. Morgan, let’s see about you.” He flips over to my paperwork and says to me, “Yep, your results are normal as well. Your thyroid reading is normal, but on the low side of normal. You might want to have that looked at more closely, okay?”

I nod at the doctor, agreeing to do as he asks. “So, there are no conditions or diseases lurking in the shadows of our biochemistry?” I ask him.

“No, there’s nothing amiss here. You both are in great shape,” he confirms.

Impulsively, I ask, “Is there any way we can get physicals while we’re here?”

The doctor pauses, then says, “Yes, we can do that, but wasn’t that taken care of when you got orders for these blood tests?” He pauses momentarily, peruses our paperwork and remarks, “Actually, I don’t see a doctor’s signature ordering these tests.”

“Must be one of those freaky things that happens,” I add quickly. I have to hand it to Jackson. He plays it cool. When I look at him, he gives me a wise acre smile, but lets me deal with the unusual situation. “So, you can do our physicals now?” I ask quickly, trying to distract the doctor from the puzzle on which his brain is cranking.

Thanks, God, for overworked, tired doctors.

“Sure. It won’t take long,” Dr. Templeton readily agrees. “Who’s first?” he asks.

“I’ll go first,” Jackson offers. He removes his jacket, tie and shirt. Next, he sits his massive, toned, semi-nude frame on the end of the exam table. I gasp and catch my breath. I avert my gaze. Jackson is so incredibly perfect. When I look back over at him, he’s watching me with an expectant grin on his face. He knows he’s gorgeous. He wants me to know he knows. He’s such a brat.

Dr. Templeton puts Jackson through his paces. Blood pressure is 110/70, resting heart rate is 45 beats per second. Jackson has lightning fast reflexes and an excellent respiration rate. Dr. Templeton nods his head and says, “You, young man, are in amazing shape.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Jackson says while he grins from ear to ear, failing to drop my gaze. My oversized brat is so fond of being affirmed.

“Okay, young lady, it’s your turn,” he reminds me.

I say proactively and with great authority, “Just so you know, I’m not taking off my shirt.” Jackson and Dr. Templeton chuckle at me.

In a few minutes my exam is completed, as well. You’re doing great Mrs. Morgan, but your blood pressure is slightly elevated at 130/85.

“That’s not surprising,” I remark.

“Oh? Is your blood pressure usually high?” Dr. Templeton asks me.

I shake my head in disagreement with his assumption. “No,” I correct him, “It’s never high, but you know we’re here for premarital checkups, right?” Jackson and Dr. Templeton both look at me like I’m nuts for restating the obvious. I continue because they just don’t get it. “You just examined him bare chested. Did you see him without his shirt?”

Again, both of them laugh at me. “Okay, I see your point,” Dr. Templeton concedes, smiling. “The two of you are in great shape to get married.” He signs off on our paperwork and wishes us his best.

On our way out, Jackson pays for our office visits and escorts me back to the waiting car.

“I think we need to get a bite to eat while we’re out running around together,” Jackson says.

“I can sure eat,” I admit. “I missed breakfast this morning so I’m really hungry. Do you have somewhere specific in mind?”

“Hop in. I’ll show you,” Jackson says smiling. I oblige him with my cooperation.

We chitchat during our ride to the restaurant. Harcourt drops us off at the front door of the Border and Bay Chicago Tavern. We exit the car and, indicating I want his attention, I take hold of Jackson’s elbow.

When Jackson turns to look at me, I tell him, “I don’t really do bars, Jackson.”

“It’s a high-class place, Ellie. The food is great, and the atmosphere is charming.”

“I don’t know….”

Jackson reaches for my hand and encourages concession on my part. “Come on, Ellie. Will you trust me, please?” I mull things over for a moment and eventually comply. I walk forward, trusting Jackson, just like he’s asked me to.

When I walk inside, I’m pleasantly surprised by what I find. It’s an incredibly romantic setting considering it’s the middle of the day. To a huge extent, I think the charm Jackson spoke of is created by the lighting. The golden yellows, oranges and reds make the space so intimate and welcoming.

The light shines from behind the bar and from sconces placed intermittently around the natural wood walls of the room. Dozens of little single globe lights dangle from the ceiling and are complemented by the grand contemporary staircase that leads to the upper floor. The wood tones and lighting complement each other just beautifully.

The maître d’ shows us to our table and gives us menus. Jackson chooses a double-decker bacon burger and I order a Caesar salad with ranch dressing. I can’t stand anchovies, but I’m all over bacon and parmesan cheese. After we order, Jackson reaches for my hand and looks me in the eye.

I watch Jackson’s hand as he lovingly traces the length of my fingers with his own. When I realize he’s looking at my face I raise my eyes so that my gaze meets his. “How are you, Ellie? Are you doing okay?”

His question is so gentle in nature and he asks it with such intimacy that I shrug slightly at him. “Oh, I’m fine, far as I know. Is there any particular reason you’re asking?”

“I miss you when we’re not together. Also, I suppose I’m anxious for an answer to my question,” he says earnestly.

“Sorry, Jackson,” I reply quietly. “I’m not ready to give it yet. I’m still gathering information on you, but the test results are encouraging.”

Incredulous, Jackson asks, “Are you really going to let some test results decide our future?”

“Possibly,” I tell him with blunt force honesty. “Given that I’ve known you for such a short period of time, I’m doing my homework on you. I’m trying to get a feel for the kind of person you are. I owe myself that much.” I collect my thoughts briefly then continue. “After all, you sure checked me out, didn’t you? Are you going to sit here and tell me you aren’t willing to endure the same kind of scrutiny to which you subjected me?”

Jackson smirks ever so slightly and shakes his head as if though he doesn’t like being told ‘no’. He fights the urge to deflect and asks like he’s genuinely interested in what I have to say, “What have you discovered about me so far?”

The summation of my discoveries comes readily to me. “Well, I’ve learned you are an incredibly hard worker. You’re perseverant to a fault. You’ve brought Dawes a long way since you took over the company at an unprecedented young age. From what I can determine you’re well-respected in the business community. You’re perceived as an up-and-coming leader in the business world. You don’t attend many parties and you don’t hang out at bars. It seems you shake off the attention of most women. No one I’ve spoken with knows of you being involved in a single long-term relationship with anything other than Dawes. Part of me is concerned about that. The rest of me understands that you’ve been working hard to grow your company and there are only so many hours in a day. It appears nearly everyone likes you, yet you don’t seem to have much of a personal life.

“I’ve learned that you’re very generous to people you care about. I’ve determined for myself that you do not anger easily. I’ve interrupted your schedule two different days, now, requesting your cooperation on the spot. You haven’t batted an eyelash either time. You’ve been extremely kind and gracious on both occasions. In fact, you’ve given the appearance of being really glad to see me. I’m not sure what it takes to make you mad because I haven’t found it yet, but I will.”

Jackson nods his head. “You said it, Ellie. I’m always so glad to see you. Anytime, anywhere, anyway I can make it happen,” he tells me while he rubs the back of my hand with his thumb. “It sounds like you’ve been busy since we parted at the mall.”

“Yes, I have. Like I said I have more information on the way.”

“Is there anything I can tell you that will help you understand me better?” Jackson asks.

“Sure.” I tell him. “What about the women in your life?”

Jackson shrugs his large shoulders and sighs deeply. “You pretty much nailed it, Ellie. For the most part it’s been work that’s claimed my time. I’m very driven to succeed so a permanent relationship has never really appealed to me. I wanted to spend my time working so I could build my company.”

“Why does it appeal to you now?” I ask.

Jackson’s response is immediate and agonizingly sincere. “Because I met you and lost my heart.”

His answer gives me goose bumps. I shake my head disbelievingly. “What is there about me you find so fascinating?” I roll my eyes at him to let him know the idea of me being fascinating is ludicrous.

“There are so many things, Ellie. I think you’re beautiful, inside and out. I love the way your brain works, the way you look at things is new and refreshing. I love how you stand by your convictions, putting yourself in harm’s way, if that’s what it takes. Then, there’s our blatantly obvious chemical connection. Altogether it draws me right to you. I’ve never experienced anything like it, Ellie. You simply amaze me.”

I smile sweetly at him as I concede, “That was a really good answer, Jackson.” He chuckles at me, takes my hand in his and squeezes it gently.

Our food arrives and we begin to eat. Jackson looks over at me and asks, “Can you tell me about the family you grew up in, Ellie?”

“Sure, though there’s not much to tell.” I lay down my fork and organize my thoughts. Jackson watches me carefully. I think he’s wondering why I stopped eating. He’ll know soon enough.

“My dad was an over the road truck driver. He was nearly always gone. He might’ve been home one night a week while I was growing up.

“Of course, with him absent, my mom was left alone to raise us kids, to take care of the house, the bills, the homework, school functions, yard upkeep and work at a job when finances required it. She resented being left alone so much. It made her angry. So, when dad did come home all they did was fight. They fought all the time.

“Our house became a war zone. He made money and she spent it. There weren’t many hugs or kisses or much affirmation. There was lots and lots of anger, some of it poorly disguised as discipline.

“Now, with all that being said, I can and do honor my parents for seeing that I was in school and that I got good grades. I was fed, clothed and I never had to worry about someone sneaking into my room at night to harm me.

“They were both really hard workers and they taught me a really good work ethic. My mother grew up with a father who was a raging alcoholic. Because of that she never allowed liquor of any kind in our home. I know without a doubt that intervention served my siblings and me extremely well. I think the thing that I’m most thankful to them for, though, is that they had me in church every Sunday and every Wednesday night. That was my mom’s doing. Because of that influence I found my faith. I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.”

“So, are you close to them today?” Jackson wants to know.

“Oh, no, I haven’t spoken to them in years. I don’t want to.”

“Why not?” Jackson asks with surprise ringing in his voice.

Surprise? Why is he surprised? Didn’t my background check reveal the estrangement between my family and me?

Jackson continues, “I’d give anything to have my dad back,” he further admits.

“I know,” I empathize as I caress Jackson’s forearm. “I suppose one of the intrinsic aspects of being human is to want something other than what we have. I’m not angry with them, Jackson. It’s not like that. I’m not harboring a grudge of any sort. In fact, because of the resources I now have available to me, I’ve got my finger on the pulse of my family’s situation. When the time comes, I’m more than ready, as well as, willing, to supply any sort of help they might need.

“It’s just that I got so tired of all the dysfunction and pain. My mom, God love her, is a drama junkie. She thrives on it. If she got bored, she’d pick on me to start a fight. If we were already fighting, she’d pick on my brother or sister. Anytime she got into a fight with someone else, someone in the family or someone at work or church, she’d come to me expecting sympathy. She constantly put me between her and dad. The experience was simply horrible, and it lasted for decades.

“A few years back my health took a detour. Suddenly, and with great clarity, I understood the meaning of the word ‘priorities’. God helped me understand that being her emotional whipping post wasn’t my purpose in life. My parents are grown people. They’re responsible to God for themselves. I’m not responsible for them. Understanding that it wasn’t my job to carry them lifted an enormous weight off my shoulders.

“No matter how hard I tried or how much I loved them, I was never enough. I finally understood that while I couldn’t be mad at them and I couldn’t withhold forgiveness, I didn’t have to allow them to exploit me. That was such a freeing realization, and, in the interest of self-preservation, I severed ties with them.

“I stopped feeling inadequate when I stopped spending time with my parents because the constant reminder of being a failure was no longer there.”

I bring my hands to my eyes as I begin to weep. Jackson moves his chair next to mine and takes me in his arms. He gently cradles my head against his chest.

“I’m so sorry, Ellie. My God, I can’t imagine anyone thinking you’re not good enough. I just can’t get my head around that.”

I wipe my eyes and pull away from Jackson so I can sit up straight. For some reason, one completely unknown to me in this moment, I have a deep-seated need to explain myself more fully. “See, Jackson, this is the reason I want to help kids. So many of them believe they’re not good enough. They’ve heard with their hearts their entire lives that they’re not enough. It doesn’t matter whether the message came through their ears or if it was beaten or molested into them, the damage is still the same. I know better. They matter because God made them, and Jesus died for them. Each one of them has a heart that’s hurting for love and they are loved for who they are. Truth be told, my mom is probably the way she is because deep down she feels she isn’t good enough. She won’t listen to me, though. I’m just the daughter who’s always disappointed her.

“So, you see, I stay away from my family, not because I’m mad at them, but to protect myself. A part of me will always grieve what I never got to have with my family. It breaks my heart that it’s necessary, but there it is. I tried for decades to change it, but finally accepted the fact I’m powerless to do so.”

Jackson kisses my forehead gently and says, “Ellie, that you can take your own heartbreak and use it to help others is awe-inspiring. You have to know that,” Jackson says quietly.

“I haven’t done anything yet, Jackson. I’m just getting started. He kisses each of my cheeks and eye lids.

“I’m so proud of you, Ellie,” he says. “You’re going to make a huge difference in someone’s life. Well, someone in addition to me,” he adds.

“What about your brother and sister?” Jackson asks. “Are you close with them?”

“No way,” is my simple response. “For the first ten years of my boys’ lives I was on the phone with my brother, my sister or my mother on a nightly basis. They always had some disaster they needed to be coaxed through. They needed encouragement. They needed a strong shoulder. They needed advice. Much of the time it was mom into it with one or both of them.

“At some point I found out, and honestly I don’t remember how it happened, but I learned my sister was tying up several hours a week of my time expecting me to cheerlead her and then she’d go to work and trash talk me to her friends. It devastated me. I guess that was the first real taste I had of futility and throwing your heart and love into wasted effort. My breakup with my parents came a little later.

“My brother was incredibly irresponsible. I think a lot of that was caused by my other brother’s death at age seventeen. My mom latched onto my little brother like a drowning victim. Her need has cost him more than he’ll probably ever fully understand.

“Anyway, to help me pitch my wholesale pies, he set up an appointment with the owner of the big chain restaurant where he worked. Then, for some reason, well it was because he wanted to play the big shot, he got the boss’ ear one morning and spent it talking smack about me. So Mr. big shot decided he didn’t want to meet me anymore. Did he call and cancel? Oh, no. He let me bake all morning, half a dozen different flavors of pies, and he let me drive nearly an hour and a half to his restaurant so he could stand me up.

“I didn’t even know what happened until my brother called me bragging about how he told his big shot boss a bunch of personal stuff about me.

“You’re kidding?”

“I wish. So, badly I wish. I just gave up. I got so tired of trying to be strong for everyone. I couldn’t take the emotional abuse, the workload of trying to care for them, or the pain of all the dysfunction.

“Don’t get me wrong, Jackson. I’m not saying I was perfect. I’m sure in trying to cope with all the crap that kept coming at me, I said and did things that hurt them as well.

“Regardless, I had to get away from them for my own sanity and survival.” I drop my gaze and shake my head sadly. “I always believed if I loved them enough, if I worked hard enough and waited long enough, at some point the light would come on in their brains. Suddenly, they’d realize how much I loved them and how much of myself I was giving up on their behalf. I was so stupid, Jackson. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The single biggest regret of my life is wasting all those years, all that effort and all that hope.

“I sound pathetic, don’t I? Here I am complaining about being raised in a home where I had plenty to eat and I never had to worry about being clothed or molested. Compared to so many kids today my childhood was idyllic. That’s why I try to be mindful and grateful for the things my parents did well, but I still have to protect myself from the rest of it.

“It’s all I know to do,” I say as I squeeze his hand. “So, I guess even though I know how much you miss your dad, having a parent isn’t all that great sometimes. You’ve got your mom. She’s a completely different story than your dad, right?”

“Night and day, Ellie,” Jackson says, but then qualifies his statement. “Well, from what I remember of my dad, they were as different as night and day,” Jackson agrees, but goes on to ask, “How did you know that, Ellie?”

“Well,” I begin, then pause to ask myself the same question: How do I know that? My investigation into Jackson isn’t complete yet so I have absolutely no information on which to base my knowledge. Knowing myself as I do, I chalk my assessment up to intuition. “I suppose it’s an assumption, Jackson. I mean, you live in the same house as your mother because you told me you live in the family manor, but you never mention her. When I think about it, I don’t remember a single time you’ve referenced her. Same as me, you don’t spend your time thinking on or talking about the hard things in life that hurt.”

Jackson closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Slowly, he reestablishes eye contact. I’m pretty sure I’m reading admiration in Jackson’s gaze. Quietly he asks, “You don’t miss much, do you, Ellie?”

I smile shyly at him. “I try to pay attention,” I admit as I reach over and squeeze his hand a second time.

Jackson lowers his gaze again and talks to me. “My parents loved one another fiercely. After my dad died my mom lost her way somehow. She withdrew from Johnson and me emotionally. In fact, she sent us off to boarding school where we got to fend for ourselves.”

I gasp as my heart breaks for Jackson. “Oh, no, Jackson, you basically lost both parents, didn’t you?”

Jackson slowly nods his head at me. “I remember the day we left for school. Bridges, our driver at the time, collected us and our bags. He loaded everything into the car while I stood next to Johnson with my arm around his shoulder. We waited for what seemed like forever for mother to come say goodbye. She never showed, Ellie.

“I suppose she wanted us gone because we reminded her of what she no longer had. As I grew up, I filled my void with school work and with building Dawes. I finally came to understand she was grieving same as Johnson and me. I’m not really sure how, but despite feeling rejected by her, I never really doubted that she loved us. Her love of us was buried deep inside her though. She simply didn’t know how to cope with losing dad and caring for two sons that needed her.

Jackson speaks with a visible emotional distance as he finishes his story. “Of course, I’ve always wished that, as the remaining adult in our lives, she could have done a better of job dealing with dad’s passing. If she had, Johnson and I wouldn’t have felt so isolated.”

I’m not sure how he prevents it, but Jackson isn’t crying. I, however, am a soggy, weepy mess. Now, it’s my turn to hug and hold him. Jackson returns my hug with serious force. As he embraces me, I get the feeling I’m the only person alive who’s ever been privy to Jackson’s heartbreak.

Uncharacteristic of me, especially in a relationship that’s so new and uncertain, I reach up and tenderly kiss the side of Jackson’s neck. My comforting attention breaks the emotional solitude in which Jackson has wrapped himself.

Suddenly, Jackson pulls away and shakes off his sadness both physically and emotionally. He’s finished sharing for now. He shifts gears and puts the focus back on me. “Ellie, I think it’s absolutely remarkable that you were able to create such a solid marriage and a great home for your boys having come from that situation.”

“I was by no means a perfect parent,” I assure Jackson, “but I was extremely aware of what I was lacking in my own childhood. I promised myself I’d do a better job with my kids. I’m proud to say I succeeded in many, many regards. I sure made my fair share of mistakes as a parent, but my kids had a better childhood than I did. Anyone of them would tell you what an awesome childhood they had.”

I look up at him with hopeful expectation shining in my eyes. “Do you understand any better, Jackson, why I have so much trouble believing that I’ll be enough for you, that you’ll be satisfied with me?”

Jackson nods his head. “Yes, Ellie, after hearing about your family life I understand far better why you’re always doubting yourself.” He caresses my cheek and lovingly tucks my hair behind my ear. “I want to ask you something, okay?”

“O…kay, I think,” I concede as I smile shyly and untuck my hair.

Jackson smiles back at me as he holds my hand slightly tighter. “Were you enough for Thomas?”

“Oh!” I gasp in surprise. “That’s a really valid question,” I admit to him. I think for a second and nod my head. “Yes, I think I was. I worked hard at making him happy, the same as he did for me. I think if he were here, he’d tell you I was very much enough,” I answer him honestly.

“Then, why can’t you believe you’re enough for me?” Jackson wants to know.

Jackson still doesn’t get it. He still doesn’t understand. “You and Thomas come from two very different worlds, Jackson,” I tell him like the difference between them should be self-evident. “You are two very different men with vastly different backgrounds which can’t help but result in greatly different expectations.”

“Maybe so, Ellie,” Jackson concedes, “but I can guarantee you we had one massive criterion in common.”

I smile into his handsome, serious face. I can’t begin to imagine that Thomas and Jackson have anything in common. “Okay, I’ll take the bait. What commonality do the two of you share?”

“Just like Thomas, I’m simply a guy who wants to be loved. You, Ellie, are the first and only woman I’ve ever met who is truly capable of loving me. You’ve got a heart made for loving people, Ellie. I’m so sorry your family didn’t see that,” Jackson says quietly, but shifts direction and, then, continues. “On second thought, though, maybe they did see your heart, Ellie. Maybe that’s why they took advantage of you.” Jackson strokes my cheek again. “Thomas saw your loving heart. Your boys see it. I see it. Seeing your heart is how I know you will always be enough for me.”

Jackson has me weeping. I drop my head into his large warm chest and cry quietly. Jackson wraps his arms around me. The ease I find in being with him is overwhelming. Talking to him comes as naturally as breathing. I don’t really understand why I’m baring my emotional soul to him the way I am. It could be the kindness he shows me. He’s so gentle, so accommodating.

Maybe it’s because my overtly direct personality doesn’t seem to scare him. I always say what I’m thinking and often express it without the benefit of the kind of filter others might employ, but Jackson never flinches. He takes me in stride. No one does that for me or themselves. No one hangs around long enough to get past my crusty exterior.

Maybe it’s the sincerity I find in his eyes, his touch and his voice. It’s so blatantly obvious his interest in me is genuine even if I don’t fully understand it.

Maybe it’s simply the act of sharing my pain with someone else. Without Thomas, I’m really very much alone in this world. True, I have my boys, but they’re grown men with their own lives. That’s as it should be. True, my solitude is largely self-inflicted, but it’s easier to live in solitude than it is to open up and trust others only to be rejected and betrayed by them at some later time.

I’m sure I’m quite the spectacle as I sit here crying into the chest of my intended. Ordinarily, I’d be mortified that others are watching me in this intensely private moment. While I hate that I’ve interrupted lunch for other people, and I’m truly sorry for that, right now I just don’t really care all that much that they bear witness to my pain.

Accepting consolation in this public place would be upsetting if it were offered by anyone else. With Jackson, though, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. His voice and his touch are so soothing to my tired spirit. He makes me feel safe and cared for.

Suddenly, and with great relief and a surprising sensation of comfort, I realize that, from the standpoint of an emotional connection, Jackson reminds me very much of Thomas. My birth family never understood me. Thomas was the initial person who saw my individual attributes and then understood and accepted me as a whole person, the bad along with the good.

Sitting here in this moment, it appears as if Jackson is capable of the same kind of understanding. Is it possible Jackson’s promise is manifesting itself? Am I learning I can’t live without him? How could Jackson have known that I’m in such desperate need of solidarity in my life? How could he have known I’d so readily accept his offer of friendship? How is Jackson so far ahead of me in his understanding of our emotional compatibility?
Jackson caresses the side of my face and pulls me from my reverie. “I’m sorry this upset you so much,” he tells me. “I had no idea asking about your family would keep you from enjoying your lunch.”

I take a deep breath and try to explain further. “It’s only upsetting because I worked for decades to make it happen, only to realize it was never going to work. I guess I’m still grieving the loss of something I’ll never have. I don’t want to talk about this anymore, Jackson. Let’s find a more cheerful subject, okay?”

“Sure, sweetheart. Anything you want.”

I pause and do a mental double take. “What did you say?” I ask him.

Jackson smiles at me. He intuitively identifies the reference of my question. “I called you sweetheart. Aren’t you my sweetheart? I mean you’re considering my proposal of marriage, right? Doesn’t that make you my sweetheart?”

I offer Jackson a quick head nod of my head and look him in the eyes. “Now, that I stop to think about it, I guess, yes, it does make me your sweetheart. I was just surprised to hear you say it, that’s all. I must admit, though, that I like the sound of it when you say it out loud.”

“That’s useful information, sweetheart,” he says as he grins at me.

Forty-five minutes later Harcourt stops the limo in front of the Dawes building. Jackson reaches over and pushes a button. A nontransparent divider rises between Harcourt and the two of us.

Jackson slides across the seat of the car and comes for me. He captures my neck with his right hand and uses his left on the small of my back to pull my torso into him. He kisses me tenderly. “I don’t want to leave you, Ellie,” he says as he nuzzles my forehead with his own.

He’s taking my ability to breathe. “I… I… know what you mean, Jackson I wish you could stay with me.”

“I can stay, Ellie. You just say the word and I’ll spend the rest of the day with you. I’d love to show you what you mean to me. I’d love to take away the tears of pain over your family. Let me show you that you are enough. You are my dear, sweet, beautiful, Ellie. Oh, my God, you’re more than enough.”

He kisses me again. A moan full of longing escapes me. “Oh, Jackson, you have me hurting so badly.”

“Let me sate your ache, Ellie. Please let me take care of you,” Jackson begs of me.

“Jackson, what I want and what I can have are two different things. I can’t let you have me until were married, if we marry at all. I won’t sacrifice my faith for sex, no matter how badly I want you. You’re going to have to be patient, okay?”

Jackson sighs deeply, nuzzles my forehead again, and says, “I’ll do my best. I’ll do my best. I will do my best.”

I chuckle at him. “Are you trying to convince me or yourself?” I ask him.

“Both, I guess,” he admits sheepishly. “If you turn down my proposal it’s going to kill me, Ellie. You know that, don’t you?”

I shake my right forefinger at him. “Don’t get bummed out just yet. So far, things are looking really good,” I remind him.

“When can I see you again?” he asks.

“When do you want to see me again?” I inquire.

“I’ve already told you I don’t want to leave you at all, so, can I see you tonight?” He pleads using both his eyes and his voice.

“Tonight, huh?”

“Yes, tonight. I’ll pick you up and we’ll do anything you like. All that matters to me is that I’m with you.”

“We have to go somewhere very public.”

“Why?” he asks as he cocks his head rearward. He seems almost offended.

“Because I don’t trust myself to be alone with you, that’s why,” I tell him honestly.

“Am I that tempting?” he asks as he gives me a huge grin, obviously quite proud of himself.

Oh, he knows how cute he is and he’s milking it for all it’s worth.

“You have no idea,” I say, caressing his cheek.

Jackson closes his eyes against my touch. “Oh, I think I might have some idea, Ellie.” He kisses me tenderly. “Yeah, I think I get it. Okay, then, very public. Will you leave it up to me?”

“Absolutely, but I get veto power.”

Jackson laughs heartily. “So much for leaving it up to me!” he exclaims.

I wave my forefinger at him because I understand what he means, so, I clarify. “As long as you respect my boundaries, your decision will be fine. I promise.”

“Okay, then. I’ll see you at seven?”

“See you at seven,” I confirm.

Jackson taps the window with the knuckle of his forefinger, Harcourt’s cue to open the door. Jackson kisses me one final time. “I’ll miss you sweetheart,” he tells me breathlessly. He really doesn’t want to leave me. He really doesn’t want to end our time together.

Dear God, help me understand his fascination with me. I’m hoping if I understand it better it will be easier for me to trust him.

“I think I’ll miss you, too,” I confess. I’m not sure if he catches it or not, but my admission of missing him is a huge step for me. He may not be aware of it, but our lunch together accomplished much toward his objective. For the first time since I met him, I’m seeing past the arrogant bulldozer to the quiet, sensitive, substantive man behind the persona of Jackson Dawes, business tycoon. An unexpected realization that Jackson is truly leaving me for the afternoon makes my heart, my spirit and my body long for a reunion that isn’t even necessary yet.

“See,” Jackson teases me, “I told you I’d convince you that you can’t live without me.”

Okay, maybe he is capable of picking up on the nuances I send his way.

“Looks like we’re right on track,” I return his tease.

Reluctantly, Jackson exits the car. He squeezes my hand goodbye. “Tonight, Ellie.”

“Tonight,” I reply.

Suddenly, Jackson turns back to me and bends over so he’s looking back into the car at me. “Oh, Ellie, one more thing…,” Jackson requests.

I smile up at him fully expecting another one of his heart pausing kisses. “Yes, Jackson…?”

“You do know my name is Dawes, with a ‘D’, don’t you?”

I give him my best grin. “Yeah, I got that part,” I tease him.

“Ok, then,” he says, “I just didn’t want there to be any confusion,” Jackson says as he grins back at me.

I chuckle at him and say, “Tonight, Jackson.”

“Tonight, sweetheart.”

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