Beneath this man, p.13
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       Beneath This Man, p.13

         Part #2 of This Man series by Jodi Ellen Malpas
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Chapter 13

  'I love you. '

  I feel familiar lush lips brush over mine as I come round, and I open my eyes to Jesse's stunning face suspended above me. 'Wake up my beautiful girl. '

  I raise my arms over my head and stretch. Oh, that feels good. I blink up at him and note he's dressed. My sleepy brain quickly registers that with Jesse dressed already, there is no danger of being dragged around London on one of his punishing runs.

  'What time is it?' I croak.

  'You're fine, it's only six thirty. I've got a few early supplier meetings at The Manor. I needed to see you before I go. ' He leans down and kisses me, and I get a taste of his minty breath.

  Supplier meetings? What sort of supplies would that be? I snap a lid on those thoughts immediately. It's too early and anyway, if it is six thirty, then it really does mean it's too late for a fourteen mile trip around London, so I couldn't care less what supplies they could be.

  'My eyes don't have to be open for you to see me. ' I complain, as I reach around his back and pull him down. He smells yummy.

  'Come and have breakfast with me. ' He pulls me up from the bed, and I wrap my naked body around him in my usual chimp-ish fashion. 'You're creasing me. ' he says with zero concern, carrying me out of the bedroom and down to the kitchen.

  'Put me down then. ' I bite back. I know he won't.

  'Never,'

  I smile smugly as I absorb him in all of his fresh water loveliness. 'I don't need a reminder fuck. You can still come to lunch. '

  'Mouth. ' He laughs. 'I'm sorry. I really needed to see you before I go. '

  I stiffen instantly at his words. Well, one word in particular; sorry. Shit! I had forgotten about his midnight meltdown. Well, not forgotten, it just hadn't landed in my morning brain yet.

  'What's wrong?' He's sensed my sudden tenseness. He places me on the cool marble, but it doesn't shock me like it did the other morning. I'm too busy searching my brain for the best way to approach this.

  'You woke up in the night. ' I inform his concerned face.

  'I did?' His brow furrows, and I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

  'You don't remember?' I ask tentatively.

  'No. ' he says on a shrug. 'What do you want for breakfast?' He leaves me on the counter and goes to the fridge. 'Eggs, bagel, fruit?'

  Is that it? 'You said you need me. ' I throw it in the air and hope he catches it.

  He doesn't. He lets it drop straight to the floor and tramples all over it. 'And? I say that when I'm awake. ' He doesn't even turn away from the fridge.

  'You said you were sorry. ' I place my hands under my thighs.

  He turns around from the fridge. 'I've said that when I'm awake too. '

  This is true, he's said it all when he's awake, but he was in such a state.

  He smiles. 'Ava, I was probably having a bad dream. I don't remember. ' He turns back to the fridge.

  'You were just a bit frantic, I was worried. ' I say timidly. It wasn't normal.

  He shuts the fridge door, harder than is really necessary, and I immediately regret bringing this up. I'm not scared of him. I've seen him go off at the deep end plenty of times, but the way he is holding himself is making me wary. I don't want to start a fresh day on a quarrel. It was just sleep talk, after all.

  He wanders over to me chewing his bottom lip, and I watch him with caution. When he reaches me, he muscles between my legs and takes my hands out from under my thighs, holding them between us and stroking the tops with his thumbs.

  'Stop worrying about what I say in my sleep. Did I say I didn't love you?' he asks softy.

  I feel my brow knit. 'No. '

  His green eyes twinkle as one side of his mouth tips upwards at the corner. 'That's all that matters. ' He plants a kiss on my forehead.

  I pull away from his lips. Yes, actually, it does matter. He's doing it again. He's evading. 'That wasn't normal. And I'm getting pissed off hearing that tone. ' I scowl, real hard, and he recoils in shock, his mouth gaping slightly, but I don't give him a chance to come back at me. 'You either talk, or I'm gone. '

  His gaping mouth shuts, but he still doesn't speak. I've shocked him.

  I raise cocky eyebrows at him. 'What's it to be?'

  'You said you'd never leave me. ' he says quietly.

  'Okay. Let me rephrase that. I won't leave you if you start answering me when I ask you something. How about that?'

  He's chewing his lip and staring at me, but I don't look away. I maintain the eye contact and keep a deadly serious face. His thumb strokes become firmer. 'It's not important. '

  I laugh in disbelieve and make to move, but he moves in closer, hampering my attempts to get myself down from the counter. 'Jesse, I'll walk away. ' I so won't, I know this.

  'I dreamt you were gone. ' He fires the words out quickly, almost panicky.

  I stop with my struggle to free myself. 'What?'

  'I dreamt I woke up, and you were gone. '

  'Gone where?'

  'I don't fucking know,' He releases his grip of me and his hands plunge straight into his hair. 'I couldn't find you. '

  'You dreamt I left you?'

  His frown line is fierce. 'I don't know where you went. Just gone. '

  'Oh. ' I don't know what else to say. He won't look at me. He got himself in that state over me leaving him?

  'It wasn't a nice dream, that's all. ' He's embarrassed, and I suddenly feel a little guilty. This is a serious hang up.

  'I'm not leaving you,' I try to reassure him, 'but we've got to talk. I have to torture information out of you, Jesse. It's exhausting. '

  'I'm sorry. '

  I reach forward and pull him back between my thighs. This is one of those moments - the ones where I'm the strong one. They are becoming more frequent as I'm working out this man. 'Have you had bad dreams before?'

  'No. ' He accepts my hold and squeezes me tight to him.

  'Because you drank. '

  'No, Ava. I'm not an alcoholic. '

  'I didn't say you were. ' I hold him tightly, feeling a little sad for him, but quietly pleased that he's opened up. He is so strong and self-assured, but these little cracks are becoming more obvious. Am I making these cracks?

  'Can I make you a well-balanced breakfast now?' He pulls out from my clinch.

  'Yes, please. '

  'What do you want?'

  I shrug. 'Toast. '

  'Toast?' he asks questioningly. I nod. It's six thirty in the morning. My stomach hasn't woken up yet. 'It's hardly well-balanced. ' he mutters.

  'It's too early to eat. '

  'No, it's not. You'll eat. You're too thin. ' He releases me and goes to put some bread in the toaster.

  I lower myself down from the island and take a seat on a stool to admire him as he faffs around the kitchen. I'm touched. He openly admits he's crap at cooking so the fact he has offered to make me breakfast is quite pleasing. Resting my elbows on the worktop, I sit my chin in my palms and study him. He had a bad dream. Or nightmare. Either or, though, he told me, and that must have been hard. He's a big, strapping man who was reduced to a cowering mess by a bad dream. I hope they are not frequent because it was horrible seeing him like that - scared and vulnerable. I didn't like it

  I sigh to myself. He looks as handsome as ever this morning. He's not shaved, and I love the one day stubble on him. He's hasn't got a full suit on, just charcoal grey trousers and a black shirt. I might change my mind about lunch so he is forced to give me a reminder fuck.

  I watch him gather the butter, knives and plates and place everything in front of me on the island. Then he goes back to the fridge, returning to sit next to me with a jar of peanut butter. I look at him in disbelief as he unscrews the lid and dunks his finger in.

  He wraps his lips around his coated finger and looks at me with it half hanging out of his luscious mouth. 'What?' he mumbles.

  'You're giving
me a hard time about a well-balanced breakfast?' I flick my gaze to the jar in his hand.

  He swallows. 'Nuts are very healthy. And anyway, you're more important than me. '

  I shake my head and start spreading butter on my toast as he watches me. 'You're important to me. ' I grumble to my toast. I look up at him as I wrap my teeth around the corner.

  He smiles. 'I'm glad. So, what's in your diary today?' he asks nonchalantly as he dips his finger again.

  I choke on my toast and he frowns. Is he serious? I'm not telling him!

  'What's so shocking about wanting to know what you're going to be doing?' he pouts.

  I swallow my toast. 'Oh, nothing,' I chew a bit more, 'if I thought you were genuinely interested and not planning a trampling mission. ' My voice is dripping with sarcasm.

  'I am genuinely interested. ' He looks hurt.

  I'm not falling for it. 'I'll meet you at Baroque at one. I've still got to ring Kate and advise her that you're gatecrashing our ladies' lunch. '

  'She won't mind. She loves me. ' he says confidently.

  'That is because you bought her Margo Junior. ' I remind him.

  'No, it is because she told me so. ' He's so smug.

  'When?'

  'When we were out,' He pushes my hair from my face. 'The night I showed you how to dance. The night you got completely k-lined. '

  'K-lined?' I ask around my toast.

  'Drunk. ' he mouths.

  I scoff. 'Kate must have been drunk too. ' She wasn't as drunk as me, but that would be difficult. She was well on her way, though - not that it would matter. Kate wouldn't tell anyone she liked them if she didn't, and she certainly wouldn't say she loves them, even if it is a term of endearment.

  'Not just then. ' He scoops his finger in the jar and thrusts it under my nose. I screw my face up and he smirks before licking it off himself.

  'When then?' I ask casually, taking another bite of my toast. He's doing this on purpose.

  'At The Manor. ' He tosses it in the air like it's the most natural thing in the world for Kate to be at The Manor.

  My jaw hits the marble counter. I remember Kate went to The Manor on Saturday night and I remember Jesse being called away late Saturday night. It must have been then. She didn't go into details when I asked her. Fun is what she had said and she didn't elaborate further. I definitely wasn't going to push it after her contemptuous reaction to my questioning.

  'What was she doing at The Manor?' I try to sound casual, but by the look on his face, I've failed.

  He smiles. 'That is none of our business. ' He jumps up from the stool and chucks his empty jar in the bin. 'I've got to scram. '

  'Scram?'

  'Like, skedaddle. . . go. . . leave. ' He winks at me, and I pool on the stool in a soppy mess. He's in a good mood this morning, all roguish and playful. I love him. Easygoing Jesse is becoming a more regular visitor these days.

  'I've decided that maybe lunch isn't such a good idea. I don't want Kate to think we're joined at the hip. ' I turn away from him and carry on eating my toast in the most blase manner I can muster. It's hard when my man is bristling and snarling behind me.

  He grabs me, and I squeal as he flips my around and walks me to the wall, pinning me under his delicious body with my toast still in my hand. His eyes are uncertain and I almost feel guilty. . . almost.

  I know what's coming.

  I fight to conceal the grin that's tickling the corners of my mouth as he bends, leans into me and rolls his hips up so I get a full on stroke at my core. I moan in pure, sneaky satisfaction.

  'You didn't mean that. ' he says, sliding his hand over my stomach, down towards the apex of my thighs.

  'I did. ' I challenge, and then jerk as his thumb slips over my sensitive flesh. Oh God, I will never get enough of him.

  'Someone is going to be quick. ' he muses, as he continues to ride me with his hand. I sigh, savouring his talented touch working me. 'Don't play games with me, Ava. ' He withdraws his hand and steps back from me.

  WHAT!

  I want to yank him back and shove his hand down below. What the hell is he playing at? I look at him, all what-the-hell, and he smirks at me.

  'I'm already late because I wanted to make sure you ate. If I knew you were going to play games with me, I would have fucked you first and feed you after. ' He steps in and makes a point of grinding his ever loving hips against me, moaning in my ear. 'One o'clock. ' he whispers, before he bites into my suspended toast and pulls away. 'I love you, lady. ' He looks at me with utter smugness.

  'You don't. ' I snap. 'If you did, you wouldn't abandon me halfway to orgasm. '

  'Hey!' he yells. He looks pissed. 'Don't ever question whether I love you. It'll make me mad. '

  I try and plaster an apologetic look on my face, but in my unexploded state, I'm struggling to convince my brain to do anything other than yank him back into me and make him sort me out. He's turned on, I can see. How is he walking away?

  'Have a nice day. ' His eyes soften as he leans down and rests his lips on my cheek. 'I'm going to miss you like crazy, baby. '

  Oh, I know he will. But it's only six hours until our lunch date. He'll live.

  Once I'm ready, I make my way down, clinking on my heels through the foyer as I delve through my bag for my sunglasses.

  'Morning, Ava. ' I hear Clive call to my back.

  'Morning,' I slip my shades on and emerge into the sunshine, coming to an abrupt halt when I spot John leaning against his Range Rover.

  Really?

  He lifts his glasses up and shrugs his big shoulders at me. Oh good, he thinks this is stupid too, but I need my car today so I can collect my stuff from Matt's after work.

  I walk over. 'John, I can drive to work. ' I say on a tired tone.

  'I don't think you can, girl. ' he rumbles. What's he talking about? 'Your car's being valeted. ' He shrugs again and slides behind the wheel. I swing around and see an army of men cleaning my car.

  Oh, for God's sake. I drag my keys from my bag and find my car key missing. Later, I will be explaining to Mr Control Freak that snooping through a woman's handbag - and phone, come to think of it - is bloody rude. Why didn't he consult me on this? This is bad news. I could ring Kate. She'll take me. I dial her.

  'Yo!' She's chirpy.

  'Hey, can you take me to Matt's after work to get my stuff?' I spit my request out as fast as I can.

  'Sure. '

  'Great, see you for lunch. Oh, by the way, Jesse is coming. ' I hang up and jump in next to John. He is wearing his usual ensemble of black suit and black shirt. How many black suits can one man have?

  'Do you think he's unreasonable and challenging?' I ask casually, flipping the visor down to put some lip gloss on.

  'Yes, girl,' he rumbles. 'But, like I said, only with you. '

  I drop my hand into my lap and look over at John, who is tapping the steering wheel as usual. 'So, he doesn't behave like a madcap at work then?'

  'Nope. '

  I frown. 'He's easygoing?'

  'Yep,'

  I sigh heavily, just so John knows that I want more than that. 'Why?'

  He looks at me, dazzling me with his white teeth, and I catch a glimpse of the illusive gold one. 'Girl, don't be too harsh on the crazy mother fucker. He's never cared before you. '

  I sit back in my seat and listen to John commence humming to match his taps. Jesse can't have never cared for anything. He's thirty seven.

  'How old is he?' I ask on a smile, earning myself another dazzler from John.

  'He's thirty seven. But you know that now, don't you, girl?'

  Oh no!

  I die a thousand deaths on the spot and turn a thousand shades of red. I forgot Jesse had to be rescued. I bet John got a right eyeful. I start laughing to myself when I think of what John must have walked in on - a bedroom, with one naked God handcuffed to the bed, a diamante embellished vibrator,
my new black lace underwear sprawled on the floor and the aforementioned naked God making holes in the wall with said vibrator. I bet John thought it was hilarious and Jesse obviously explained how and why he ended up handcuffed to the bed.

  I'm beyond embarrassed.

  We make the rest of the journey in silence, except for John's humming. I can't look at him. He drops me off at Berkeley Square and I run to my office to escape my discomfort, giving him a quick wave over my shoulder. How am I ever going to face him again?

  I wander to my desk and see Sally at the filing cabinet. She looks suicidal. The high neck, polyester blouse is back and the fire cracker nail polish has disappeared. It is definitely as I expected. Men are such wankers. I elect not to mention it, she won't appreciate it.

  'Morning, Sally. ' I try not to sound too upbeat. She lifts a heavy head and offers a small smile before returning to her filing. I feel bad for her. 'Where is everyone?' I ask. She shrugs. Oh, this is bad, so I resign myself to shutting up and getting on with things.

  My morning is very productive. I finalise a few accounts and update myself on all of my live clients. At twelve forty five, I leave for lunch.

  I enter the bar and spot Kate at our usual table. She scowls at me as I approach. 'Your telephone etiquette needs some work. ' she snipes.

  I had been rather abrupt this morning, but I was too busy dealing with my challenging man to worry about telephone manners. 'I'm sorry. ' I sit down and come face to face with a big glass of wine. 'Fuck! Kate, get rid of it!' I shove it to her side of the table.

  She gives me daggers. 'I thought you might need it. '

  Yes, I really do, but Jesse will be here soon and what would it look like if I'm sat here slurping wine? That would be cruel and extremely thoughtless. I make a grab for Kate's glass and she throws herself on it.

  'Kate, he'll be here soon. '

  'Hey! Put the wine down!' she demands in a stern voice. 'He's not my boyfriend. '

  I can't believe she's doing this. How inconsiderate of her. She refuses to let go, and I glare at her as I release her glass. She picks it up and takes a long swig while watching me.

  'You cow!' I toss at her, and she grins around the rim. I grab my wine and down the lot in one foul swoop. Kate bursts into laughter. Oh God, that was good. It's been almost two weeks since I've had a drink which is an all-time record for me. I let out a long, satisfied gasp.

  'You did need it. ' Kate confirms the obvious.

  'Yes. And probably another. ' I sulk. Guilt washes over me at my weakness and I look over my shoulder before running to the bar to deposit my empty. I feel like a delinquent child. 'Oh, and don't tell Jesse you love him. It makes his head swell. ' I moan as I sit back down.

  She laughs. 'Shall I pick you up at six from your office?'

  Yes, let's get this conversation out of the way before Jesse gets here. 'Is that all right?' I know it will be, but after her reprimand on telephone manners, I feel like I should make the effort.

  'Sure it is. Have you spoken to Matt?'

  'Yeah, he's expecting me, but Jesse doesn't know I'm going and it has to stay that way. ' I say warningly. Kate raises her eyebrows but says nothing. 'He'll trample. ' I shrug. I think that wine has gone straight to my head. I feel woozy. 'How's Sam?' I ask.

  'He'll be here soon. I thought, as you had landed Jesse on me this morning, I would see if he wanted to join us too. ' She says it like Jesse joining us is the only reason for her inviting Sam. I know different.

  'Hey, do you know what's happened with Victoria and Drew?' I ask eagerly. Kate must know something.

  Her eyes widen. 'Oh, you won't believe it!'

  'What?' I sit forward, completely rapt with the obvious sign of dirt to dish.

  'Drew asked her to go to The Manor. Little prissy was not impressed!' Kate is delighted, but I'm suddenly filled with dread.

  If Victoria knows about The Manor, does that mean she knows who owns The Manor? Did Drew tell her everything? Has she done the math? Oh good God, I pray not. She isn't the most clued up of girls, but if she has worked it out, then there would be no doubt that she has told Tom. This is getting beyond tricky. Tom hasn't mentioned it, though, and that would be one big, juicy discovery for Tom to get his teeth into. Maybe she is stupid. I hope so because the last thing I need is Tom and Victoria on my case and spouting off around the office.

  'What do you want to eat?' Kate asks, snapping me from my worrying thoughts.

  'I'll have a BLT on granary, please. '

  'What about Jesse?'

  I frown to myself. I have absolutely no idea. I don't even know what any of his favourite foods are. 'Ask if they have peanut butter. ' I shrug.

  'Peanut butter?' She screws her face up in distaste. I'm with her there. 'Oh, here he is. ' Kate tips her glass in the direction of the door, and I turn to look. I sigh in appreciation, as does Kate when Sam follows in behind him with Drew. She's playing her feelings for Sam down, I know she is.

  Jesse plants a chaste kiss on my cheek, and then pulls over a chair from another table for himself. He sits down next to me, slightly facing me, resting his hand on my knee. The warmth of his palm spreads up my leg, smacking me straight between the thighs. He does me no favours when he slowly strokes and squeezes, strokes and squeezes.

  'You took my car keys. ' I narrow accusing eyes on him.

  'Everyone okay?' he asks, ignoring me and starting to circle his thumb on the inside of my thigh. I glance at him, finding he's smiling, knowing damn well what he's doing. I try and pull my leg away but he has none of it. He flips me a little scowl and an extra squeeze, his way for saying; whenever and wherever.

  'I'm good. ' Kate chirps. Yes, she's good now Sam's here. 'I'm ordering. What's everyone having?' She gets up.

  Everyone throws their order at her and she disappears to the bar, leaving me with the men.

  Jesse leans into me. 'You've had a drink. '

  I tense. 'It was an accident. ' I blurt.

  'I don't mind you having a drink if I'm with you, Ava. ' He turns his attention back to the boys. He doesn't mind? I shake my head to myself.

  I sit happily and watch Jesse be completely normal with Drew and Sam, talking about sports, mostly extreme, and generally carrying on like any normal man would. This is easygoing Jesse. He laughs with them, his eyes twinkling, keeping his hand exactly where it is. I smile to myself. It's a pleasure to see, and then he glances over at me and winks, and I want to straddle his hips and eat him alive.

  'So, how is Victoria?' Kate chucks the question at Drew casually as she takes her seat back up, and everyone looks at him. She is such a shit stirrer.

  'Don't ask. ' He takes a swig from his bottle of beer. I notice no one else seems to be uneasy about the whole alcohol presence. Am I handling this all wrong? 'She's sweet, but God, she's got to lighten up. ' he adds.

  I recoil in my chair. Drew's lightening up comment is a bit harsh, especially if he's hit her with an invitation to The Manor. He can't knock her for being skeptical. 'Why did you ask her to go?' I blurt the question before my brain engages. Isn't it obvious why he asked her? Jesse gives me a sideway glance, and I feel my face burning up.

  Drew shrugs. 'It's who I am, it's what I like. '

  'Amen. ' Sam says and raises his bottle.

  My eyes bulge slightly at his openness with Kate's presence, then I notice Kate stiffen slightly. I look at her questioningly, but she pretends she hasn't seen me and chinks Sam's bottle with her glass. Sam grins at her and my eyes widen further. She's had some action at The Manor!

  Holy fucking shit!

  I glare at her, but she still refuses to look at me. Does Jesse know this?

  'Anyway,' Drew continues, 'I've got to make the most of it. Get to thirty five and it's a slippery slope down to a saggy arse and man boobs. I'll think about a woman who loves me for me and not for my body when I need to. '

  I feel Jesse tense next to me, and I look at
him, but he's refusing to look at me too. He's thirty seven, but there's most certainly no saggy arse or man boobs on him. I shift my legs and cross one over the other, prompting him to tighten his grip. Out the corner of my eye, I see his lips form a straight line.

  'Well, I've only got nine years left, so I'd better get my fill. ' Kate says sardonically.

  My jaw drops. I can't believe she has just openly said that. My eyes are wide, my mouth gaping. It's obvious I'm shocked. I'm sat around a table in a normal bar, in normal London, with normal people and they're all talking about The Manor likes it's a perfectly regular set-up. No, not normal people. How can they be? These three men have all dabbled and now Kate has been dragged to the dark side too. I need more wine. What the fuck is going on?

  'It hits us women worse than you lot. ' Kate continues, waving her wine glass in the general direction of the men. I catch Sam winking at her, which only confirms for sure that she's definitely had some action. I want to drag her out of the bar and demand she explains herself. I'm not sure this is a good thing, even though Kate insists it's just fun. I can see she is playing this down.

  'Is that what happened to you, Jesse?' I ask coolly, taking a sip of my water.

  His hand shifts up my thigh slightly, and I clench my legs shut. 'No. ' He turns to me. 'Do you think I'm lacking in the body department?' He arches an expectant eyebrow at me.

  What a stupid question if ever there was one. 'You know I don't. '

  He grins. 'So, I'm still your God?'

  I flush and scowl at him at the same time. 'You're an arrogant God. ' I mutter.

  He leans in and wraps his palm around my neck, dragging me towards him and hitting me with a completely over-the-top kiss. Despite my surroundings, I let him take me. As usual, my mind goes blank and nothing else exists, except for Jesse and his power over my entire being. Swallowed, swamped, taken. . .

  When he finally releases me, I look at the others, suddenly hugely embarrassed at his blatant display of affection. There is a chorus of mushy vocals and one vomiting gesture. It's Jesse. I look at him and he grins, then pulls me into his arms.

  'Seriously, you guys. ' Kate scorns. 'Here's the food, so enough with the sloppy shit. '

  Sam reaches over and plants a kiss on her cheek. 'Feeling left out?'

  She bats him away as the waiter places our lunch on the table. 'No, I'm not!'

  Everyone tucks in, including Jesse, and we chat and laugh between eating. It doesn't escape my notice that Sam and Drew often flick fond looks over to mine and Jesse's side of the table.

  My mind starts drifting to Jesse's reaction to Drew's comment. His suggestion that it's a slippery slope after your mid-thirties is a bit over-the-top. Jesse's physique is melt worthy. I'm suddenly attacked by the very unwelcome thought that is Jesse and dabbling. What if he's given up on the dabbling and is making do with me. He's retired, so to speak. Well, that just makes me feel shitty. I feel his hand stroking over my thigh as he picks at his sandwich with his damaged hand. It's looking a lot better, all the bruising nearly gone, but the red welts on his wrists are still there. They seem to be screaming at me; look.

  My eyes snap to Jesse's when he nudges my knee with his. He gives me a questioning look, obviously noticing my line of sight and probably my reverie. I'm sure he can tap into my thoughts. I shake my head and smile, but I doubt that satisfies his worry at my daydream.

  'I better get back to work. ' I say regretfully. It's been nice being relatively normal at lunch - as normal as it can be when you're eating with the owner of a super plush sex haven and two of its members.

  'I'm coming. ' Jesse chucks the remaining half of his BLT down on his plate and gets up from his chair.

  'It's a two minute walk around the corner. ' I say tiredly. I halt any further objections when he glares at me, so instead of arguing with him, I make my way around the table and kiss them all goodbye, shoving Kate some money for mine and Jesse's lunch.

  She trusts it back in my hand. 'Jesse already settled the bill. '

  He did? I look at Jesse, but he is too busy shaking hands with the boys' to notice my reproachful stare. He collects me and starts leading me out of the bar.

  'Hey!' Kate shouts to my back. 'Saturday night, girly drinks?'

  I stop and spin round to face her, flashing a what-do-you-think-you're-playing-at look. She doesn't seem to notice my reaction. No, she is too busy watching for Jesse's reaction to her request. I turn to look up at him. He's shifting uncomfortably. Oh Kate! Fancy suggesting something so stupid. I see Sam and Drew both watching intently too, waiting for Jesse's response.

  'Maybe next week. ' I say as confidently as I can.

  'You can go. ' Jesse says from behind me.

  I can go? What does he mean, I can go? 'No, we have The Manor anniversary tomorrow. I'll be knackered. ' I affirm. I do want to go, but I know he'll prohibit alcohol, the bloody control freak. I don't get legless all of the time, and the last time I did, it was his fault. I've got so much to dump on Kate as well. Both of us have, by the sounds of things. This little lunch has only clipped the corners.

  'Hey, he said it's cool. ' Kate complains.

  'I'll speak to you later. ' I say dismissively, hoping she will take the bloody hint and shut her gob.

  'Oh, yes, of course,' She winks. 'later. '

  I want to throw my bag at her, but then I feel Jesse tug me slightly, preventing me from following through on my intention. Instead, I toss another dirty look at her before turning and letting Jesse lead me out of the bar.

  We walk out onto Piccadilly into the lunchtime crowd, and I can feel the mild tension between us. He drops my hand and drapes an arm around my shoulder, pulling me into his side.

  When we turn into Berkeley Street, I stop and face him. 'If I go out, I won't be drinking, will I?'

  'No. ' he says flatly. I roll my eyes and carry on walking. 'You can have a drink on Friday. ' He catches me up and replaces his arm over my shoulder.

  Yes, I can have a drink on Friday because he'll be there to watch over me. The problem is, I'm not comfortable drinking in front of him. It wouldn't feel right, especially knowing his little issue with control and alcohol.

  'Would you get the doormen to spy on me too?' I grumble.

  'I don't ask them to spy on you, Ava. I ask them to watch over you. '

  'And call you if I don't follow the rules?' I quip, earning myself a little nudge on the hip.

  'No, and call me if you are rolling around on the bar floor,' he says dryly, 'with your non-existent dress around your waist. '

  I look up at him and find accusing eyes. Okay, yes, I was on the bar floor, but I wasn't rolling, and I wasn't steaming drunk. Not that time, anyway. Kate was and she took me down with her, and as for the dress? Well, that's a trivial issue, and one that's now in a dozen strips after neurotic man here shredded the damn thing. I could go out, have a couple of glasses of wine, wear something acceptable and not roll around on the floor. Then, no red alert would need to be issued by the doorman. Maybe I could stay at Kate's so I'm not rubbing his nose in it. I laugh to myself at my ambitious idea. He will never let me stay at Kate's.

  I let him hold me close to his side as we carry on our way to my office. 'You've got to let me go now. ' I say as we near. Patrick might be there and I've not mentioned any sort of business lunch with Mr Ward. This is painfully difficult.

  'No,' he grumbles.

  'What are you going to do for the rest of the day?' This I really want to know. Please let him say that he's got a stack of stuff to occupy himself with so I can get to Matt's and get my stuff without worrying about fobbing him off and lying to him. Withheld information is not the same as lying.

  He pouts. 'Think about you. '

  That doesn't make me feel any better. 'I'll be back at yours as soon as I finish work. ' I say, realising instantly that I've just lied. I use every ounce of energy to stop myself reaching for my hair.

  '
Ours!' he corrects. 'What time?'

  'Six-ish. ' Give or take an hour, I add to myself.

  'You like that tag on, don't you? Ish. . . ' He narrows his eyes on me, and I feel scrutinised. He can't possibly know my plans. Only Kate knows.

  'ish. ' I counter, leaning on him for a kiss.

  He grabs me and leans me back over his arm in a ridiculous theatrical performance before kissing the life out of me in the middle of Berkeley Square. People sidestep us and tut as they pass, but I couldn't give a toss.

  'God, I fucking love, love, love you. ' he says against my lips.

  I grin. 'I know you do. '

  He pulls me back up to a vertical position and then buries his face in my neck to chew my ear. 'I can't get enough of you. Let me take you home. '

  I know he can't, he's pretty open on that fact, and I'm so tempted to jump work and let him. I've not got a massive amount to see to, nothing that can't wait, and I'm loving his mood - demands aside.

  My phone starts singing, snapping me from my rebellious brainwave, and I fish around in my bag while letting Jesse stick to my neck. When I lay my hands on it, I hold it above Jesse's head to see who it is. I groan. Of all the times Mikael could call, he calls now?

  Jesse must detect my uneasiness because he instantly pulls back and looks at me with an enquiring eye. 'Who is it?'

  'Oh, just a client. ' I shove my phone in my bag. I'll call him back. 'I'll see you at your place. ' I go to walk away, but he grasps my wrist.

  'Damn it, Ava. OURS! Who was it?' His sudden change of temper catches me off guard.

  'It's Mikael,' I grate. 'Just a client. ' I add, to reinforce Mikael's status in my life. This might be one side of Jesse that I cannot cure; his insane jealousy and possessiveness. I yank my wrist free from him and start the short remaining distance to my office, leaving Jesse on the pavement. And he called me the green eyed monster?

  My phone starts ringing again, and I retrieve it as I enter the office. 'Mikael,' I greet.

  'Ava, I'm calling to confirm our Monday appointment. ' His soft voice seeps into my ears. Jesse might see him as a threat, but he's not, although his voice is really quite sexy. 'Would midday suit?' he asks.

  I collapse in my chair and swivel to face my desk, horrified to find Jesse stood over me, prowling like a raging beast, his chest heaving. He looks incensed. I scan the office and see Tom and Victoria sat at their desks watching intently, making no attempt to hide their interest. Then I glance over my shoulder to find Patrick in his office, but, thank God, he's oblivious, looking completely wrapped up in something on his computer screen.

  'Ava?'

  With the impending drama unfolding before my eyes, I forgot that I'm in the middle of a business call. 'Mikael, I'm sorry,' I look up at Jesse questioningly, but he ignores me, continuing with his menacing performance with no regard for our location or spectators. 'Yes, fine. ' I try and sound professional and assertive. I fail miserably. I sound edgy and nervous.

  'Are you okay?' His question throws me. Clearly I don't sound okay.

  'Yes, fine, thank you. '

  'Good. So, you broke your own rule?'

  My heart skips a few beats. 'Pardon?' I squeeze the word through my sudden nervous breathing.

  'Jesse Ward. He's a client, yes?'

  I don't know what to say. No, he wasn't a client, not when I was working on Lusso, but I'm not stupid enough to point that out. Mikael knows I'm supposed to be working for Jesse. Supposed to be. I haven't been back to The Manor yet, and Jesse hasn't pushed it. 'Yes. ' It's the only word I can think of.

  'How long you have been seeing him?'

  My blood runs cold as I search my brain for the right thing to say. 'Urhhh, a month-ish. ' I stammer down the phone. Why is he asking this?

  'Hmmm. That's very interesting. ' he replies.

  My blood runs even colder. Why would that be very interesting? I'm still staring into the green eyes of the man I would die for, and I've got another man on the end of the phone sounding like he's got something to tell me - something that's going to send me crashing and burning from Central Jesse Cloud Nine, not that I'm on it at this particular point in time.

  'Why would it be?' I ask. I sound terribly nervous, which is fine because I am. What does he know?

  'We will discuss that when we meet. '

  'Okay. ' I hang up. That was unbelievably rude, but I don't know what else to do or say. Jesse is crowding my desk, looking like he might rip my head off, but for what? Bloody hell, in the space of five minutes, we've gone from cavorting on the pavement to a Mexican stand-off.

  We stare at each other for a while and I flick my gaze over to Tom and Victoria, who seem to have settled in for the show. To be fair, it is pink elephant room territory. He's not to be ignored, and even if their heads were down, I know their full attention would still be on the brooding man looming over my desk, emanating hostility. Their brazenness could be classed as brave.

  I settle my eyes back on Jesse, but I'm reluctant to make the first move for fear of it all blowing up and Patrick coming to investigate the commotion. I can't sit here all day looking at him, though. 'I'm at work. ' I say quietly and tightly. I've no faith in my feigned stanchness. He looks fit to burst with rage.

  'Who was that?' He nods at my phone.

  'You already know the answer to that question. ' I say, placing my phone on my desk. Was his performance in front of Mikael anything to do with this? Mikael knows something and Jesse knows he does. That much is obvious.

  'You won't see him again. ' he grinds the words out, clearly and slowly.

  Okay, now I'm very worried. 'Why?' I don't bother pointing out that Mikael is a client. He knows that and judging by the look on his face, he doesn't care.

  'You just won't. It's not a request, Ava. You won't defy me on this. ' He starts chewing that fucking lip, still brooding, still shaking with anger.

  I can't do this here - not in the middle of my office. I also can't withdraw from the Life contract. I'm totally fucked - completely fucking screwed. I need a drink, more now than ever. 'I'll see you at Lusso. ' I say quietly.

  'Yes, you will. ' He turns and stalks out.

  I flop back in my chair and release a long rush of breath that I hadn't realised I was holding. Life with Jesse is a frigging roller coaster and now he's stropped off, I'm going to be worried about him for the rest of the afternoon. I'm bursting with uncertainties, but I know one thing for certain. I'm not going back to Lusso tonight. I need time, clear thinking space to sort myself out before I'm landed with more shit. He answers a question, then another pops up.

  'Gosh, that man can do a sexy brood,' Tom chirps. 'Been back to The Manor lately, darling?' He lowers his glasses, and I know immediately that Victoria isn't as stupid as we all think she is. Victoria starts giggling for the first time in two days.

  I want to rant at her and accuse her of prissiness, and then tell Tom to get a personal shopper fast, but that would be childish, and I don't know if I can trust myself to stop there. I feel fit to burst with frustration and stress, so whoever is unlucky enough to tip me over the edge will be copping it in a big way. Luckily for Tom and Victoria, Patrick saves their bacon before I let loose on them.

  'Flower,' he says as he perches on the corner of my desk. It creaks its customary protest, I wince my customary wince and Patrick performs his customary ignorance. 'Now, Mikael Van Der Haus has been in touch and insisted on a research trip to Sweden. '

  Oh fuck. I didn't see that coming.

  After being awarded the design contract at Lusso, Mikael's partner had insisted on genuine Italian everything, so I was sent to Italy on a research and sourcing trip. Mikael has stressed his desire for sustainable materials on Life, but I didn't anticipate this.

  The complexity of this proposal hits me hard in the stomach. The fact that the trip will be in aid of Mikael's project will probably send Jesse to the grave, and if I go by what has just transpire
d, I will probably be in that grave with him.

  'Is it really necessary?' I ask. Please say no, please say no.

  'Absolutely, Mikael insisted on it. I'll look at flights. ' He creaks his way back up from my desk and takes himself back to his office.

  Mikael insisted? I'm in trouble here. There is not a chance in hell that I'll get to Sweden, not with Jesse to stop me, and then where will that leave me? I know where. . . job-less, that's where. I break out in a sweat.

  'Coffee, Ava?' Sally appears from the stationary cupboard, looking as miserable as she did earlier. I need wine desperately.

  'No thanks, Sally. ' I answer.

  I look up and see Tom and Victoria with their heads down. Good. I can spend the rest of the afternoon worrying about my life drama in peace. I suddenly wish I didn't have to pick my stuff up after work. Seeing Matt is the last thing I want to do.

  'Here you are, flower. Some flight details. Let me know what suits. ' He hands me a print out of scheduled flights and I shove it in my bag. I'll think about that later. He leaves me in peace and I feebly try to carry on with my work.

 
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