Surrender To Me (Book One)

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Chapter 5a

For the next several days Jackson and I spend as much time together as possible. We go many places, always public ones. I couldn’t have been more wrong in entertaining the notion that being in public would encourage Jackson to completely behave, but I come to joyously anticipate his public displays of affection. They are all I can enjoy anxiety free, so I learn to look forward to them.

We get to know each other so much better. I keep pushing buttons, but I fail to find the point at which Jackson’s anger reveals itself. Either he’s the most easy-going guy in the world or he’s the world’s best actor. I don’t know for sure. I’m hoping more time will tell me what I need to know.

With great determination, Jackson seeks to respect the boundaries I’ve set regarding sex. Heck, I know how difficult it is. I want to be with him as badly as he does me. But the bottom line is I have to be able to face myself in the morning. More importantly, though, I have to face God and be able to justify my behavior to Him. Yeah, like that would even be possible.

Could I forgive myself if I give into Jackson’s persuasion? Yes, probably, given enough time. Would God forgive me? Absolutely. However, the idea is not to take God’s grace for granted, but to live in such a way that I demonstrate that I appreciate it for the awesome gift it is.

I mean, let’s call a spade a spade. Doing my absolute best for God will not keep me from falling short of His holy standards so I need grace to catch me when I fail trying. To not even try is to take God for granted and make a mockery of what Jesus did for me on that cross. I’m so not going there.

Besides, it’s not like one time with Jackson will ever be enough. One time will only make us want each other more. It will be much harder to resist the second or third time after we’ve experienced the kind of pleasure our bodies are sure to create for one another.

I have to be strong enough to resist, even if it’s to the point of having to be strong enough for the both of us. God will give me the strength I need. He wants me to honor Him with my life. In the meantime, though, there’s certainly no benefit to be found in being stupid. Only harm can result from creating situations where temptation asserts itself to the point of not being denied.

As it turns out, the results of my investigation are back in less than the two weeks Peyton anticipated. He calls me to schedule an appointment to go over the results of his investigation.

At one thirty the next afternoon I arrive at Peyton’s office. He meets me at his door. “Good afternoon, Eliza. It’s a beautiful day. Does the weather find you feeling well?”

I smile at his formal southern greeting. “I’m fine, Peyton. How are you?”

“Fine. Fine. Just fine,” he assures me. “Come sit right over here. Your paperwork is all in order.” He hands it to me. “That is yours to take home and read at your convenience.” Peyton takes his seat behind the huge traditional desk.

“What’s the summary of the investigators’ findings?” I ask. I’m dying to know what they uncovered.

Peyton looks me in the eye and says, “Dawes is on solid ground financially speaking. Assets total north of ten billion…

I shake my head and interrupt him. “Excuse me, Peyton. Did you say billion with a ‘b’?”

Peyton nods in confirmation of his words. “Yes, I did. In the few years Jackson’s run the company he’s doubled its net worth. While he’s not the richest billionaire on the planet he’s very good at what he does, Eliza. By the time he’s the same age as the leaders on the billionaires list, he may well best them. He has no pending litigation of any kind, which in and of itself is remarkable and speaks volumes about his business savvy, as well as, his character.

“He does employ a sizable accounting staff so as to minimize the taxes he pays, but he’s in good standing with the IRS. There are no problems there at all.

“I had two independent accounting firms study the projects recently completed at Dawes. They both concur that Jackson’s ideas and strategies are sound. Honestly, it looks like there’s no stopping him from a business standpoint.”

In anticipation of unsettling news, I’ve been holding my breath, but my lungs will no longer be denied. I take a deep breath and ask, “Wow, that’s all very impressive, Peyton. Is there anything negative I need to know?”

Peyton shrugs and shakes his head. “The investigation discovered that Jackson is indeed an impressive young man, Eliza. We were unable to uncover anything unsavory about him,” he assures me. “Jackson leads a very discreet personal life. Here again, there’s no pending litigation of any kind, Eliza. We couldn’t even find a disgruntled employee.

“His immediate family consists of his mother, Julia and his brother, Johnson. They’ve lived in the family home since the boys were born. Jackson’s dad died when he was seven. His mother saw to it that Jackson got a great education and that has served him extremely well, I think. Johnson is not as motivated towards success as is Jackson, but Jackson is generous, probably more so than he should be for the boy’s own good. All indications are that they’re not terribly close emotionally. Julia and each of the boys pretty much pursue their own objectives without much regard for each other.

“Jackson gives generously to a few charities he favors. You’ll need to speak with him personally regarding the reasons for his choices.”

So far, everything sounds great. I have to ask because I have to know. “In your investigation did you discover any proclivities such as anger issues, mental health problems, or anything remotely close to something of that nature?”

Peyton shakes his head. “No, Eliza, we did not. If Jackson were plagued by such a thing as mental illness it would be very difficult for him to function at such an exemplary level for such an extended period of time. There are no findings regarding anger, either. He seems to be well-liked and respected which wouldn’t be the case if he were prone to going off on people. Is there something that makes you suspicious about his temper?”

“No,” I answer quickly. I don’t want to leave an inaccurate impression of Jackson. “To be honest, quite the opposite is true. I’ve been trying to make him mad and I can’t seem to accomplish it.”

Peyton chuckles and smiles at me as he says, “He sounds like a nice young man, Eliza”

I keep beating the bushes. If something’s hiding in the shadows of Jackson’s life, waiting to blind side me, I’ll find it. “Did anything like a gambling problem surface? What about any other vice might be hiding from me?”

“No, Eliza. There’s no evidence whatsoever of any such problem.”

“Did you find that he’s seeing other women or even one woman?” I ask with dread in my heart.

“No, Eliza, nothing of the sort. He goes to work around eight each morning and leaves around seven in the evening. Once home he stays home. He has a very straight forward schedule. The only deviations were the times you and he were together. There’s no indication of other women or even a single other woman.”

My incredible relief is voiced by my sigh and the noticeable release of tension from my shoulders. “I’ll read your report, Peyton. Is there anything else, anything urgent I need to know?”

“That’s the nuts and bolts of it, Eliza. The specifics are in the hard copy you have. The only other thing I can add from a personal perspective is that Jackson Dawes is the kind of man who’s used to being in charge, Eliza. He’s used to making decisions. He’s used to getting what he wants. It’s not only a part of his personality, but also of his life experience. I guess what I’m saying is that you need to be aware that he’s a strong willed individual and that might be a lot to cope with on a day-to-day basis as his wife.

“Also included in your paperwork is a prenuptial agreement I wrote with your specific needs in mind. The fact that Jackson is far wealthier than you in no way negates the need for you to protect yourself financially. It’s all in order. He simply needs to sign it and you can return it to me. You’re more than welcome to call me if you have questions about anything.”

I breathe deeply and stand. I offer my outstretched hand to Peyton and say, “Thank you so much for all of this, Peyton. I appreciate your thoroughness as well as the promptness of your assistance.”

“You are most welcome, Eliza,” Peyton says smiling at me.

“Do I pay you or your secretary, Peyton?”

Peyton smiles again. “We’ll mail you an invoice, Eliza. Let me know if I can help you in some other regard.”

I rise and make my way to the door. Peyton escorts me from his office. “I will. Have a good day, Peyton.”

“You, as well, Eliza.”

When I get home, I slip into some comfortable clothes, make myself a cup of hot chocolate and read Peyton’s report from cover to cover. Everything Peyton told me is confirmed in print. There are a few interesting incidentals contained within the report. I consider them incidentals because I feel they have no bearing on the decision I have to make.

First, Jackson graduated with an MBA from Wharton. It comes as no surprise Jackson was first in his class. That’s the education to which Peyton referred. A high-end school like that has certainly had a bearing on Jackson’s ability to lead and prosper his company.

Second, Jackson is a champion archer. He’s won numerous awards and honors. I’ll have to have him show me some time. It would really be neat to watch him perform at something he excels at, other than running Dawes, I mean.

Also, I learn from Peyton’s report that Jackson has black belts in both karate and jujitsu martial arts. However, Jackson must really enjoy a combination of the two fighting styles because he’s won numerous mixed martial arts competitions. Evidently, he won them by huge margins. I find it odd, given Jackson’s abundant self-confidence, he’s never mentioned the archery or fighting skills to me.

I know less than nothing about fighting, but I’d have guessed that Jackson’s size would have impeded his ability to perform well at close contact speed sports. When I think of renowned martial-arts fighters they’re all little guys like Bruce Li or Jackie Chan. Jackson would make two each of those guys. Then again, Jackson isn’t renowned for his fighting skills. He was simply much better than the other college boys against which he competed. It’s interesting to learn how Jackson chooses to express his athleticism over and beyond his daily workout routine.

I already know Jackson is interesting, but now we have several new things to discuss. There’s absolutely nothing in this report that warns me against being with him. It’s time to make a decision about marrying him.

Everything I’ve learned about Jackson, whether it’s been through talking with others, the investigative report, or my own personal experience, screams ‘YES’ at me. There’s nothing in my reconnaissance that waves red flags or rings alarm bells. That alone makes me slightly suspicious. Jackson’s resources are so vast and interwoven it’s entirely possible that he contrived the results of the report I’m holding.

Then again, why bother? I’m just a country girl who moved to the city. He has nothing to gain financially, politically or socially by marrying me. What a joke! So, why go to all the trouble to rig some investigation? I don’t know for sure Jackson was even aware of the investigation. I hinted at its existence. I’m certain my hint didn’t go unnoticed, but I can’t be sure he cared enough to intervene.

My first problem with such a glowing report on Jackson is this: no one is perfect. I expect Jackson to have flaws, but I’d like to know what they are before I marry him. I’d like to make an informed decision about whether to commit the rest of my life to him. Are his flaws ones I can live with long term? This uncertainty is the hard part. The incompleteness of my information creates the suspicion that I’m missing something important, yet, I have no idea how to identify the missing component. I’ve covered my bases and done my absolute best to be thorough. What else can I do?

The second problem is this: Even with the niggling feeling that I’m missing something my heart still wants him. Yes, the ‘oh so easy’ part is what my heart wants. It never really occurred to me that I’d find someone else I’d ever want to marry. I’d honestly never given conscious thought to it. I suppose I wasn’t finished missing Thomas. Never in a million years could I have imagined it would be someone like Jackson. He truly appears to be the total package. For the life of me, I can’t see what he finds so fascinating about me. Maybe, that’s his most appealing characteristic of all. It’s heady stuff to be pursued with such tenacity by someone who is so appealing in his own right.

Is it possible I’m suffering from the ‘Princess Complex?’ It’s the current psychological buzz word that refers to a woman who longs for and seeks out a man who will be her white knight, a man who will battle for her honor and take splendid issue free care of her. Like ‘issue free care’ is part of any relationship, even one that’s reasonably functional. I possess enough age and wisdom to know there’s no such thing.

I have to be honest with myself. I didn’t go looking for Jackson. I tried desperately for nearly a month to get rid of him. Also, I came to the city with the express purpose of doing ministry work along with complete operational ability to take care of myself. I don’t need Jackson to take care of me. I have my own money, my own home and my own objectives to meet. So, I’m pretty sure I’m not a victim of the ‘Princess Complex.’

The easiest part of all is what my body wants. What doesn’t Jackson do to my senses? What part of me doesn’t respond to his gorgeous good looks, to his touch or the sound of his voice? The massive toned appeal of his body is an aphrodisiac in and of itself. That undeniable electrical charge between us sends my femininity looking for relief in all the obvious places. I sigh heavily. Jackson has such great obvious places. I get goose bumps just giving conscious thought to them.

I’m currently resisting the pull that Jackson has on me, but I will inevitably yield to it. I’ve got to make my decision. If I’m not going to marry him, I’ve got to send him packing so I don’t compromise my faith. I won’t let my libido decide this for me.

More honesty with myself reminds me there’s more to Jackson than mere sexual appeal. I find Jackson interesting, capable, smart, funny and enjoyable to be around. Plus, he’s really kind to me. I won’t reject him for that reason. Everyone enjoys being around those who are kind to them. It would be shortsighted, not to mention self-destructive, to marry someone who is already mean to me.

One of his most endearing qualities is that he’s extremely easy for me to talk to. There is an inordinate easy vibe that exists between us. I find this thrilling, not only because the vibe exists, but also for its depth and breadth given that we’ve known each other for such a short time. I get to be myself with Jackson. My wisdom is broad enough in its scope to grasp what a truly rare gift his acceptance is.

I mull on the information for the rest of the day. Back and forth, back and forth I go, weighing my options. Yes, I want to marry Jackson for several reasons. However, while Jackson is a first-rate choice, do I want to marry anyone? Do I want to put the time, effort and aggravation into building a relationship? Do I want to begin again, developing the nuances and fluidity that make a long-term relationship possible? Taking care of someone else is a lot of work. Do I want to put my heart and energy into Jackson, or do I want to pursue my life of service for God?

After all, serving God is why I came to the city in the first place. I could easily find my time, heart and soul overwhelmingly consumed by the task of running the three ministries I have planned, but do I want every waking minute of my life consumed by something else, even God’s work?

I’ve always been one who needs a certain amount of ‘me’ space. Does God want me burning myself out with exertion and worry on His behalf? I already know the answer to that question is a resounding ‘no’. I certainly can’t save everyone. Saving people is Jesus’ job. The very best I can do is to help the person God puts in front of me in any given moment.

Then again, does remarrying necessarily eliminate my ability to do ministry work on such an intense level? After a moment of serious thought, I realize it doesn’t. Being married this time around will be so different than before. I won’t have to spend my days cooking, cleaning, paying bills and taking care of children, a barn full of horses and a large yard. Now, with my resources, I will have people who do those things for me. Well, everything except the kid part. There will be no more kids! Yeah! Go me!

So, from my current perspective it looks as if I can have the benefits of marriage without all the collateral time-consuming labor. I have to admit Jackson’s proposal is incredibly tempting.

On the flip side, though, staying single means I can sleep late or rise early as I see fit. I can come and go as I please without considering another’s feelings or needs. For the first time in my life I could live only for God and myself while I devote my time and energies to the work He has for me. That’s true even if it means helping one person at a time. I won’t have to constantly defend my decisions or the use of my time to someone else, especially someone who doesn’t accept God as I do.

Without the distraction of a husband and marriage I could truly inhabit every moment given to me by God. I’d finally feel like I’m fulfilling the purpose for which He put me on this earth. For the first time in my life I’d know the satisfaction of resting in my destiny. That realization is truly thrilling.

However, for me, while I live within the parameters of my faith, being single means being celibate. EEEW! That’s definitely a con on my list, especially if Jackson is the man being considered and, let’s face it, he is.

Also, sex aside, being single means I’ll be without someone with whom to share my life. Am I ready to face a life without a human companion? I could very well live another fifty years. That’s a really long time to be by myself. Then again, if I’m devoted to ministry work won’t God

and, by extension, the kids I’m helping, be my core companions as I walk through life? Yes, in a manner of speaking, but it’s not the same. I pout big time. It’s so not the same.

Enough!! I have to stop putting myself through this emotional meat grinder. I can go on tormenting myself until I’m old and gray. By that time Jackson will no longer want me and I’ll be too old to be of any use to God. What a wasted life that would be!

I have to talk to Jackson one more time. Dear God, show me, tell me, what to do! Next, probably later than I should, I call Jackson and ask if he can meet me tomorrow morning. He happily agrees and tells me to come to his office at nine thirty.

After my somewhat restless night Harcourt picks me up and delivers me to Jackson on time. Jackson welcomes me into his office, kisses me sweetly on the cheek, and offers me a seat on his extra-large sofa. He sits next to me and puts his arm around my shoulders. I pull away and scoot forward on the cushion of the couch so I can turn to look at him. I take his hands in mine.

Jackson furrows his brow. “What’s the matter, Ellie? Are you upset with me about something?”

“No, Jackson,” I assure him. “I’m not angry. I only want to be able to see your eyes while I talk to you.”

“Okay,” he says, somewhat relieved. “What do you want to talk about?”

“I received all the information I requested about you. I’m finished with all my investigative work.”

He smiles at me. I swear he could charm an Inuit right out of her fur coat.

“That’s a good thing, right?” he answers hopefully. He sobers right up when he remembers there’s another possibility. “Or did you find something about me that doesn’t set well with you?”

“No, everything sounds perfect. You come across as perfect. Nothing I found indicates there’s anything wrong with you.”

Jackson’s smile fades away. “Why do you sound disappointed about that? That should make you happy, shouldn’t it?” he asks. He sounds so defeated.

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” I ask. “But the truth is that I know you’re not perfect, Jackson. All it means is that my work at uncovering who you are is incomplete. That kind of worries me.”

Jackson takes hold of my hands and begins to twirl his thumbs. He’s trying to comfort me.

I have to pursue this, so I take a deep breath and wade forward. “Jackson, is there anything you can tell me about yourself that you think I need to know? Do you have any insights about yourself?”

My question catches him off guard. It’s easy to tell that he’s thinking about it, giving it serious consideration.

“Well, I can be very determined, very single-minded, when I want something.”

I grin at him and say, “Thanks for pointing that out. I failed to pick up on that.” He smiles back at me and squeezes my hand.

“Is there anything else you can think of?” I ask.

Jackson shakes his head. “I’m kind of stumped, Ellie,” Jackson admits. “It’s hard to sit here and come up with a reason that you shouldn’t like me when I’m trying so hard to make you like me.”

“Yeah, I know,” I concede. “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot, Jackson.

Dear Lord, help me see what I’m missing!

God’s voice comes to me quietly as it so often does. “Jackson doesn’t know me.”

Is that it? Is that what keeps gnawing at me? Jackson isn’t a believer. I’ve known that from the get-go, but that can’t be the only thing working against him. That’s not the same thing as a flaw or personality quirk.

“Jackson?” I ask. He raises his gaze and looks me in the eye. “What are your personal beliefs regarding God?”

This question really surprises him. His eyes pop and he exhales, sitting up straight in response to my query.

“Well, to be honest, Ellie, I haven’t given Him much thought one way or another. If you want an answer right this minute, I can tell you what my thoughts are right off the top of my head. Is that okay?”

“Sure, tell me what you think,” I encourage him.

Jackson begins slowly. He’s organizing his thoughts as he speaks. “Well, if there is a loving, all-knowing God why did He let my dad leave me like that? If He’s all knowing, He could’ve prevented it. And if He’s loving He would’ve stopped my dad from dying, wouldn’t He? It seems to me that would’ve been the loving thing to do. I guess I don’t see the point of a God who allows so much hurt in the world.”

I nod my head. I totally understand what Jackson means. As an armchair Bible scholar, I understand much about the role of suffering in the lives of people, but now is not the time for that discussion.

“On the other hand,” he continues, “I see you, Ellie. I see your great big heart, how kind and loving you are. I know those qualities in you are inspired by the love that you have for Him. You give Him the credit for your life and the way you live it. Because of that I know He’s real and can’t be discounted forever. So, having said that, I can see in front of me a time during which I’ll have to decide for myself about Him. My period of indifference with regards to God is ending. Marrying you is only going to solidify that I will have to choose for myself. I can see that it will be impossible for me to live with you and not deal with God on some level. He’s just too much a part of your life.”

“Wow,” I say as I pat his large warm hand between my two smaller ones. “So you understand my faith even if you don’t share it with me?”

Jackson nods his head as he qualifies my assessment. “I understand it, as best I can, as an outsider looking into something of which I’m not really a part.”

I ask quietly because I have to know. “Will the fact you don’t currently share my faith prevent me from pursuing the ministry plans I have?”

Jackson adamantly shakes his head. “Ellie, you get to be you. I didn’t propose because I want to change you. I want to marry you because of the person you already are.”

Well, that’s about as good an answer as one gets from a non-believer or even a believer, for that matter. Not only is Jackson not against my faith, but he’s completely open to learning about faith for himself as he embraces it as a part of me.

I drop my head and quickly utter a prayer. Lord, maybe he doesn’t belong to You, but he speaks as if that could certainly change. As his wife I can far better influence him for You. You and I both know there are lots of men who call themselves Christian who don’t have half the integrity or character Jackson does. I could do far worse finding a man who loves me.

If he told me outright that he wanted no part of You, if I knew in advance that he’d be hostile to You and, collaterally hostile to me, I’d walk. I’d turn and walk right out his door and never look back.

I can see truthfulness shining in his eyes, God. Also, there’s nothing in his behavior or demeanor that speaks contradictorily to his words. My faith in You is part of what attracts him to me. I know I’m not supposed to be yoked with an unbeliever, but I won’t discount him, Lord, simply because he doesn’t know You. Please forgive me.

Instantly, my spirit hears God’s voice, “He does not know me.”

I feel God’s nudge, but in an instant of hubris I want God to see Jackson’s heart like I do. So, for clarification’s sake I ask, “Jackson, are you willing to embrace change of that magnitude?”

Jackson looks me right in the eye and answers me. “Ellie, when it comes to accepting God as you have, I make no promises other than being open minded enough to learn about Him. When it comes to accepting change, you must understand I’m already changed in some regards and still seeking to change in others.”

I cock my head to the right as I question him with my eyes. Now, I question him with my brain. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean, Jackson.”

“Ellie, it was just a few weeks ago when the thought of getting married was foreign to me. Now, I sit before you begging you to be my wife. That is massive change on my part. I’ve already told you more about my childhood and the heartache it held for me than I’ve ever told another living person. I’m trying to open up to you, Ellie. That’s enormous change for me.

“I’ve repeatedly allowed you to interrupt my schedule and alter the course of my day. I can absolutely assure you that privilege is extended to no one else. It’s a privilege that will forever be yours and yours alone. That’s embracing change, Ellie.”

I smile at him. “Yes, Jackson, I can clearly see that you are truly trying for me. I want you to know how much it means to me. I greatly appreciate your effort. Thank you for helping me to understand.”

Jackson exhales heavily. It’s obvious that the emotional intensity of our conversation is hard on him. I squeeze his hand in encouragement.

I decide to deflect from what God is saying to me and pursue a less theological train of thought. “Jackson, what is it you hope to accomplish by pursuing me with such determination?” Hurriedly, I continue. “I mean, I know you want to marry me, but what does marriage mean to you, especially when you and I don’t share the same worldview?”

Jackson drops his gaze, making it evident that I’ve caught him off guard for the second time.

“What does marriage mean to me?” he repeats to himself.

“Yes,” I affirm. “I want to hear your philosophy on marriage. Why marriage over not getting married. I want to know if we’re remotely on the same page. And if we’re not, is it something we can rectify.”

Jackson nods his head and raises his gaze to meet mine. “For me, marriage means that I’ve chosen you to stand with me through life. If it comes down to it, Ellie, it’s us against the world.

“Ellie, you’re the one I want with me when the wonderful things happen. When it’s time to celebrate, it’s you I want to party with. When it’s time to cry, it’s you I want to hold as we get through adversity together.

“I want to entwine your intelligence, passion and worldview with mine, including your perspective, as we make decisions and chart the course of our lives together. I’m tired of charting my life alone. I’ve been doing it alone for far too long. I just want us to be together, Ellie. I want to take care of you and I only want you caring for me.

Jackson pauses and waits for my response. I guess I’m responding more slowly than he’d like so he prompts me by sincerely asking for an answer, “How’s that?”

“Sounds amazing,” I admit. He smiles at me. “How long, Jackson? How long does solidarity last in your philosophy of marriage?”

“Forever, Ellie. It lasts forever.”

“What if, in ten or fifteen years, I get ill or what if you get bored with me and you decide to wander from the promise you’re so willing to make right now?”

“If illness comes,” Jackson responds, “and it will, probably to both of us at some point, then, we’ll care for each other like we promised.”

I sit in front of Jackson with my gaze focused on our entwined hands. I’m spellbound by every word that leaves his mouth.

“Ellie?” I look up at him. Jackson sounds frustrated as he asks me, “Why do you keep coming back to infidelity? Why are you so worried I’m going to cheat on you?”

I shrug my shoulders. The weight of this marriage decision sits heavily upon my one hundred-and-twenty-pound frame. It sits even heavier on my anxious soul, but I won’t back away from full disclosure. This is way too important. “The same reasons it worries anyone else I suppose. The pain of betrayal and the loss of something you believed in so mightily. Then, too, there are the medical concerns.”

Jackson raises his eyebrows at me, asking for clarification, so I explain. “If you wind up with someone else after we’re married, you’ll bring home all kinds of germs and potentially life altering diseases. I don’t want to have to deal with any of that, Jackson. There’s no way I’m going down that road,” I say with all the earnestness of which I’m capable.

As respectfully as he can, while asking a direct question, Jackson counters, “Ellie, how do I know you’ll remain faithful to me?”

With complete surprise I cock my head rearward. Has he forgotten all he put me through? Am I talking to the same guy? I take a deep breath as I do my best to remove frustration and near offense from my tone. “Isn’t that what the test at the hotel was designed to help you determine? You needed to be convinced I was trustworthy, right? I fully

understand my accountability to God when I make a promise, Jackson. As an extension of that awareness I can say I’m the one with a proven track record. You’re the one who’s never committed. What if you still can’t?”

“Okay, Ellie,” Jackson says as he nods his head. “I understand your logic.” He squeezes my hands and kisses them. He looks me in the eye and says, “My logic is this: I have no track record such as yourself because, until you, I’ve never been captivated by anyone.

“It’s incomprehensible to me that I could become bored with someone who is so intrinsically fascinating. I can’t even begin to get my head around the idea that there would ever come a time when I didn’t want you anymore, Ellie. We are both such passionate people. We are the gender versions of one another, Ellie. That’s how connected to you I feel. I thought I had everything in life I’d ever want. Then, I met you and realized how bankrupt my life truly is. To live without you is to live half a life. That’s what you’ve taught me.

“I would never subject you to the betrayal of infidelity, Ellie, because I know how I felt when my dad died. I felt betrayed by him. To cause you that kind of pain…,” Jackson pauses and vehemently shakes his head, “to be honest, I don’t think I’m even capable of such reprehensible behavior.” He kisses my hands again, pulls me into him and kisses my cheek, my lips.

His answer sounds so wonderful. It’s exactly what I want to hear, but I ask weakly, “What about the women who are always throwing themselves at you, Jackson? What about them?”

Jackson shakes his gorgeous head. “Ellie, I’ve been dealing with them since I was a teenager, because that’s when it started, believe me….”

I have to ask because I have to know. After all, isn’t that why I’m here? “How is it that none of those women ever captured your attention? How have you dealt with your needs as a man?”

“Ellie,” Jackson begins, “I’ve always been singularly focused. I suppose that my dad’s death is responsible for the intensity I’ve applied toward building Dawes. When he died, he left behind this enormous legacy. This huge company that was his life’s work was sitting there waiting for me to step forward and care for it.

“I worked hard in school. I took my studies very seriously because I innately knew that I’d need every ounce of knowledge, wisdom, business acumen and luck I could accumulate. I was young, but I knew the odds of succeeding were against me.

“I couldn’t let down my dad, Ellie. I couldn’t drop this enormous ball he’d thrown me. To have failed him would have destroyed me on two levels. The first wave of damage would have come as a result of losing Dawes. If I’d have lost the legacy my dad left me, letting down thousands of employees who count on me for their livelihoods and leaving my mother and Johnson without a source of income, I’d have been inconsolable.

“However, that damage was the lesser of the two waiting to swallow me. The far more important one was the fear of letting down my dad as my dad. If I couldn’t be the person needed to make all this work, then I’d have failed him as his son, not just as his business heir.

“He was my friend, Ellie. I adored him. At times, I imagine him watching my progress. The mere possibility of seeing disappointment in his eyes pushed me. It pushed me hard so that causing that kind of disappointment could never happen. To disappoint my dad like that would have crushed me beyond recovery. My whole life, until you, Ellie, has been about making my dad proud of me. I don’t know where he is, but I want him to smile when he thinks of me.”

In an effort to stay his tears, Jackson drops his head and pinches the inside corners of his eyes. His shoulders shake slightly. Oh, dear God, what a horrific burden to place on the shoulders of a little boy! I know Jackson’s dad never intended to leave his son at such an early age. He fully well planned to be here to help his son grow into the responsibilities expected of him, but for a reason known only to You, it didn’t work out that way. Please ease his burden, Lord!

Forgive me, God. I’ve been so selfish. I’ve never once stopped to consider the enormity of Jackson’s life. It’s so easy to see the money, the power, the glam and glitz of it all, but it’s just as easy to overlook the essence that makes all the obvious possible. I chastise myself Lord, for anguishing over the decision I have to make without once considering the heart of the man before me. Then again, I can’t, nor will I ever, know his heart unless he shares it with me. That’s why we’re here today. I’m so glad I came to see Jackson this morning. It was so necessary and has been so worthwhile. Thank You, God.

I reach over and repeatedly stroke Jackson’s right shoulder. I lean into him and give him a tender, loving kiss on his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Jackson. I didn’t realize all that’s been involved in your life. From the surface it all looks so easy. You are such an incredible man that you make it look easy. I’m sorry I didn’t understand. Thank you for telling me about your struggles and explaining your heart to me.”

Jackson looks up at me with tear stained eyes and takes hold of both my hands. “So, you understand, Ellie, that to make this work, to make Dawes work, I had to be extremely, even overtly, focused?”

I nod at him. “Yes, Jackson, I understand much better,” I admit to him.

Jackson picks up my left hand, kisses the palm of it twice and continues, “The sexual encounters I’ve had have been with a handful of discreet women who were part of my social circle. I promise you, Ellie, it was just sex….”

I hear stress in Jackson’s voice. He’s genuinely concerned he’ll disappoint me. I comfort him as best I can. “It’s okay, Jackson. I never expected you to be celibate. Really, I promise you. I just needed to know that’s all,” I assure him.

“I never wanted more than sex, Ellie, not until I met you. I’ve had lots of women chase me over the years. I’ve dealt with their intrusive, greedy behavior without ever having any particular interest to protect, other than myself and Dawes. Now, you are my interest to protect.

“Because of you I’m more motivated than ever to be free of those kinds of entanglements. Ellie, you are the only one I want, sweetheart. I’m asking you to trust me. I’m not a kid, Ellie. You’ve got to give me credit for being a grown man who knows his own mind.

I know what I want, Ellie. I want you.”

I drop my head, squeeze Jackson’s hand and smile to myself. When I look back up at him, I smile and say, “Jackson, that was some kind of answer, thank you.”

“Only the best for my girl,” he assures me.

“Well, I guess that leaves only two more things to discuss.”

“What’s left?” Jackson asks. He shakes his head slightly so as to dispel the last of his emotional offering. “Let’s deal with them and mark them off your list,” he says.

I take another deep breath and look into Jackson’s eyes with low level trepidation. “I have a prenup prepared for me by my attorney. It’s very simple and straightforward. It protects the money that I bring into the marriage. Will you sign it?”

Without any hesitation whatsoever Jackson tells me, “Done deal. Do you have it with you?”

“No, I don’t have it with me now, but I can bring it next time I see you. You’re sure you don’t care to sign it?”

“Absolutely not, I refuse to let a piece of paper stand between us.”

“Would you like me to sign a prenup for you?”

“No, Ellie, it’s not necessary.”

“Are you sure? I’ll be happy to sign one if it will make you feel better.”

“I’m absolutely sure, Ellie,” Jackson states then changes the subject. “What’s left for us to discuss?”

I take my third deep breath because this subject makes me nervous. I’m so afraid I already know what his answer will be. I look him straight in the eye and ask him, “In the event we marry where will we live?”

Jackson’s answer is instantaneous. “That’s easy. We’ll live at Dawes’ Manor. There’s all kinds of room.”

I shake my head at him. “I don’t think so, Jackson. Newlyweds need a home to call their own. It’s so important to get up and running without interference from family on either side.”

“Ellie, trust me. We’ll have the entire east wing of the place to ourselves. It has its own kitchen, laundry and garage. It’s like an entirely separate house. You’ll never see my mother or brother. You’ll see. Living there will be fine.” He sees the doubts lurking in my gaze. “Trust me, sweetheart, this will work,” he tells me as he squeezes my hand and twirls his thumb.

In a counter to Jackson’s assumption I ask hopefully. “Can we move into our own place if it doesn’t work out?”

Jackson cocks his head at me and strokes the back of my hand. “I promise it will work out fine, Ellie. Please trust me on this, will you?”

I’m not sure why, and against my better judgment, I concede. “Okay, we can give it a try.”

Suddenly, with a wounded aspect present in his gaze, Jackson asks me, “Ellie, why are you so determined to find something wrong with me?” My skin tingles with the realization that Jackson has dropped his guard again. In this instant, he’s being as vulnerable to me as he’s ever been.

I don’t like the hurt I see in his eyes. I like even less that I’m responsible for it. I say as compassionately as I can, “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings Jackson. That’s the last thing I want. But I know you’re not perfect. No one is perfect. I’m only trying to determine if I’ll be able to live with the flaws you possess, should I commit myself to you. My brain wants something different than what my body wants. I really need to reconcile the two halves of myself.”

To soften the impact of my words I touch his cheek and continue. “I’ve really grown to care about you, Jackson, but I have this feeling I’m missing something very important where you’re concerned. Truthfully, it worries me.”

Jackson deflects and changes the subject matter. “So, you admit to wanting me on some level?” he goads me while grinning like a Cheshire cat.

I can’t tell if Jackson changed the subject on me because he’s actively hiding something or simply because he’s uncomfortable. “You know I do. Don’t pretend this is new information for you.” He uses my hands to pull me forward where he lays butterfly kisses on each side of my neck. Goosebumps erupt all over me. With each passing kiss I care less about his reason.

“That’s what I like to see,” Jackson whispers against the sensitive stimulated skin of my neck.

Suddenly, I remember where we are and how observable our affection is. “Jackson, everyone outside of your office can see in here!” I scold him. He reaches over and picks up a remote. He pushes a button and massive draperies appear from cavities hidden within each end of the room. In a few seconds there is a wall of heavy fabric between us and any set of prying eyes.

Immediately, I stand up and step back from out of his reach. “Jackson, I didn’t come here for this,” I remind him.

“I know, Ellie. But does it hurt to spend a few minutes loving each other?” He asks so politely, so honestly with his eyes, his tone and his demeanor.

I’m such a sucker. “G-rated?” I ask.

“Absolutely,” comes his answer. I nod my head and indicate my concession.

He comes to me, picks me up, and sits me on the corner of his desk. He plants his hands on either side of my hips and leans into my neck. Tender, gentle, fluttering kisses cover my cheeks and neck line. Goosebumps consume me. My heart rate shoots skyward and I notice how incredibly warm it’s gotten in Jackson’s office.

I grip the front of his desk for all I’m worth. I know my knuckles have to be white with the effort of my restraint and the level of my anticipation. The kisses stop suddenly. I slowly open my eyes to find Jackson looking back at me. Instantly, I know what he’s going to do.

He comes for my lips and covers them with his own. This kiss is still gentle, but more demanding. He really wants me, but not just my body. He wants all of me. It’s written all over the way he’s not touching me. There’s no groping or disrespect. It’s simply an urgent request filled with longing.

I reach up and cradle his face with my hands. I can’t help myself. My longing for him is as fierce as his for me. Jackson picks me up and pulls me against the front of his body. My legs instinctively know to wrap themselves around his torso. Heat shoots through me like a lightning bolt the instant my crotch meets his abs. I catch my breath, come to my senses and push against his chest.

“No! Jackson, No!” I tell him. “You promised. G-rated, remember?”

“It’s okay, Ellie, I’ve not forgotten,” Jackson reassures me. He stops kissing me and pulls my upper body close against him. He wraps his arms around me and holds me tightly against his torso. He drops his forehead into my shoulder.

“You feel so damn good, sweetheart. I want you so badly, Ellie, I can’t think straight.”

“I know, Jackson. I know. I’m the same way in wanting you, but I won’t compromise on this. It’s a deal breaker for me.”

Instantly, Jackson stands me on my feet and backs away from me. “Okay, then. I’m not compromising this deal for one quick romp. There’s just too much at stake,” he says as he moves farther away from me.

I see the sincerity and earnestness in Jackson’s gaze. “Oh, my gosh! You really mean that, don’t you?” I ask him, incredulous.

“You bet I mean it. I want you, Ellie, all of you. I won’t jeopardize having you forever over an impulsive quickie. No way. It’s not going to happen,” he says as he adamantly shakes his head.

I go to him and hold him tightly. “Thank you, Jackson, so much, for understanding. Thank you for being so good to me.”

He tilts my chin until our eyes meet. “Anything for you, Ellie. Anything. Ever. All you have to do is ask.”

I squeeze his torso again, grab my purse and tell him goodbye.

“I’ll call you, soon,” I promise as I leave his office.

When I get to the sidewalk Harcourt opens the limo door for me. As he pulls the car away from the curb I look down at my left hand.

Goodbye, Thomas. I miss you, but it’s time to move on with my life. Silently, without any tears or guilt of any kind, I remove the ring Thomas gave to me on our wedding day and place it in a pocket on the back of my wallet. When I get home, I’ll put it somewhere safe, a forever place.

I look up at Harcourt in the rearview mirror. “Harcourt?”

“Yes, Mrs. Morgan?”

“I’ve made my decision.”

“Do tell!”

I pick up my phone and call Jackson’s private line.

“Hello, sweetheart,” comes his silky sexy voice. “I miss you already. Is there something I can do for you?”

“You can ask me again,” I reply quietly. I disconnect the call and smile at Harcourt.

“Do tell,” he says, grinning back at me.

“Do tell,” I repeat to Harcourt as I sit here quite satisfied with myself and my decision.

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