Beneath this man, p.20
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       Beneath This Man, p.20

         Part #2 of This Man series by Jodi Ellen Malpas
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Chapter 20

  I'm standing in front of the floor length mirror gazing at myself, my stomach in absolute knots. My hair has been blow dried into glossy, tumbling waves, my make-up is delicate and natural, and I'm in the dress. It feels incredible, but my nerves are all over the place. I'm not sure if it's because of where I'm going, or if it's because I'm having an unreasonable pang of anxiety that Jesse won't like the dress.

  I turn in the mirror to see the plunging back, which seems so much more revealing than it did in the store. Will he go mad? He nearly had heart failure over a cut out panel in a summer dress.

  Blowing my hair out of my face, I spray some extra deodorant. I'm roasting hot - nerves, no doubt. I put my simple white gold studs in - the lace won't allow for anything more - and transfer my gloss and powder into my clutch with my phone. The door knocks and my heart joins my stomach in the knots department.

  'Ava? Baby, we need to go. ' he says quietly through the door. He makes no attempt to come in and that small little gesture, accompanied by his soft, unsure voice tells me he might be nervous too. Why? Normally he would barge in, no knock and no gentle coaxing.

  'Two minutes. ' I call. My voice is high and shaky as I spritz myself with my favourite Calvin Klein scent. There is no growling or impatient voice demanding I should get my arse in gear. He just leaves me to sort my nervousness out.

  I take a few calming breaths, grab my clutch and roll my shoulders back. It's no good. I'm stupidly nervous. I've got to face all the members of The Manor, and I'm really not looking forward to it. Those women have made it clear that I'm a gatecrasher. I can't imagine their opinion will change just because I'm wearing a couture gown or because I'm officially Jesse's girlfriend. Girlfriend? Well, that just sounds stupid, but what else would he call me? And he seems a bit mature to be labeled my boyfriend. It just doesn't sound right.

  Okay. I gather the bottom of my gown up a little and admire my shoes before I make my way to the bedroom door and to the top of the stairs.

  As the huge open plan area comes into view, I hear the low mesmerising tones of The Moody Blues, Nights in White Satin falling over me from all of the integrated speakers. I smile to myself, and then I see him.

  I halt in my tracks at the top step and try to catch my breath. It's like seeing him for the first time all over again. He looks devastating in his black suit, crisp white shirt and black tie. He's freshly shaved so I can see him in all of his loveliness and his hair has been persuaded to the side with some wax. Oh God, I'm going to be doing some serious trampling tonight.

  He hasn't seen me yet. He's pacing slowly, hands in his trouser pockets, watching his feet. He's nervous. My confident, cocky, conceited ex-playboy is nervous?

  I watch in silence as he sits down, clasping his hands together, circling his thumbs briefly, before getting up and commencing pacing. I smile to myself and like he has sensed I'm nearby, his head snaps up to me and I get a full frontal impact of my stunning man in all of his glory. My breath hitches and I clasp the handrail on the stairs to steady myself.

  His eyes widen a touch. 'Oh, Jesus. ' he mouths, and I shift on my heels under his intense gaze. Our eyes lock and he starts walking slowly towards the stairs. I would start down to meet him, but my stupid legs are frozen firmly in place and no amount of mental encouragement is convincing them to move. He might need to carry me down the stairs.

  He takes the steps, all the time keeping his eyes firmly set on mine, and when he reaches me, he holds his hand out on a small smile. I take a deep breath and grasp my dress, placing my hand in his and letting him lead me down the stairs, my legs more solid now that he has hold of me.

  When we reach the bottom, he stops and turns to face me, running his eyes up and down my lace clad body. He takes a slow walk around to my back, and I clench my eyes shut, praying that I've not made a mammoth error with my brave choice of a plunged back. I hear him inhale sharply, and then his warm fingertip meeting with the nape of my neck. He trails a slow, languid path down the centre on my spine, setting off a flurry of pins and needles all over my bare flesh. He finishes at the base of my spine and then there is the unmistakable heat of his mouth on my skin as he drops a kiss on the centre of my back. I physically relax under the warmth of his lips. He would have disintegrated by now if he was going to.

  He slowly makes his way back around to my front and locates my eyes. 'I can't find my breath. ' he murmurs, snaking his hand around my waist and pulling me into him, taking my mouth tenderly, like I've become as delicate as the lace encasing me.

  I'm so relieved, and all knots and nerves have been chased away. All I have to worry about now are the endless women who'll be humiliating themselves at his feet. He pulls away and pushes his hips into my lower stomach, the evidence of a raging erection clear and present. He would never make me undress - not now, surely?

  'I really like your dress. ' he says on a small smile. 'You didn't try this one. I would have remembered this one. ' He looks down at the dress in awe.

  'Always in lace. ' I repeat his words, and his eyes fly back up to mine.

  'You chose this dress for me?' he asks softly.

  I nod mildly as he steps back and puts his hands back in his pockets. He starts chewing that lip, the cogs whirling around as he nods knowingly. . . approvingly.

  His eyes climb back up my body to reach mine. 'Like I chose this for you?' He pulls his hand from his pocket and I see a delicate, platinum layered chain hanging from his finger.

  I nearly choke on my own tongue as my eyes take in the piece of fine jewellery. I saw it in a glass cabinet as I passed through the jewellery department with Zoe this morning. She pointed it out and it had me spellbound immediately, displayed all on its own, with layers of delicate linked platinum and a chunky square cut diamond suspended on the end. I nearly had heart failure when I read the small piece of card detailing the price that was displayed next to it.

  My eyes jump to his. 'Jesse, that necklace was sixty grand!' I splutter. I won't ever forget. I counted the zeros repeatedly.

  Oh God!

  I start to get really hot all of a sudden as I flick my eyes from Jesse's to the swinging diamond that's still dangling from his finger. He smiles and walks around to the back of me, gathering my hair and placing it over my shoulder. My heart is performing jumping jacks in my chest as he brings the necklace over my head and it rests on my breast bone. It feels like a huge burden on my chest. I'm starting to shake.

  His hands skim my back as he fastens the clasp and then he slides his palms onto my shoulders and rests his lips on the nape of my neck. 'You like?' he whispers in my ear.

  'You know I do, but. . . ' I reach up and feel the diamond, then instantly want to get a velvet cloth and polish my finger print from it. 'Did Zoe tell you?' I feel sick. I know she is technically in sales, but to tell Jesse that I was completely rapt by an obscenely expensive diamond necklace is taking advantage. Sixty thousand pounds? Oh, heck!

  'No, I asked Zoe to show it to you. ' He turns me around in his arms and runs his fingertips over the necklace and down the centre of my chest. 'You are crazy beautiful. ' He kisses my lips softly.

  He asked her? I laugh a nervous laugh. 'Are you talking to me or the diamond?'

  'It's all about you,' he says on a raised brow. 'As it always will be. '

  My laughter abates instantly. 'Jesse, what if I lose it, what if. . . ' I'm silenced by his lips.

  'Ava, shut up. ' He replaces my hair down my back. 'It's insured and it's a gift from me. If you don't wear it, I'll be crazy mad. Understand?'

  His tone suggests I'm not to argue with him on this, but I'm completely overwhelmed and even more nervous than before, now this necklace has been introduced to this evening's party. I won't be getting on the underground or walking the streets late at night anymore, that's for sure - not with this thing hanging around my neck. Mind you, I doubt I would be doing that much, anyway. Not if Jesse has his own way, which he probably will.
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  I take a deep breath and rest my hands on his chest. 'I really don't know what to say. ' My voice is slightly shaky, matching my body.

  'You could say you love it. ' His lips tip at the corner. 'You could say thank you. '

  'I do love it. Thank you. ' I reach up and kiss him.

  'You are more than welcome, baby. It's not as beautiful as you, though. Nothing is. ' He takes my hands from his chest. 'My work here is done. Come on, you've made your God late. ' He leads me to the front door and flicks the music off before grabbing his keys and taking us out to the elevator. I notice that the glass has been fixed.

  The doors open, we step inside and I watch him punch in the code before standing back. He glances down at me and winks.

  'You're crazy handsome,' I say wistfully, reaching up and dragging my thumb across his bottom lip to wipe the remnants of my lipstick away. 'And all mine. '

  He grabs my hand and kisses the tip of my finger. 'Just yours, baby. '

  As we walk through the foyer of Lusso, Clive does a double take and gapes slightly. Jesse's arm goes firmly around my shoulder, and I know this is a sign of things to come tonight, which is fine because I don't plan on leaving his side all night.

  He helps me into the DBS and we travel to The Manor at high speed. I've made him late for his own anniversary party, but he doesn't seem that bothered. He tosses his eyes over to me every so often and half smiles when I catch him looking at me.

  I rest my palm on his firm thigh and relax completely when he places his hand on mine, giving it a reassuring squeeze. I am so in love with him right now and, unexpectedly, I'm looking forward to this evening for the first time. Fun loving Jesse is out to play tonight and it is these little snippets of time when I can see the laidback character who everyone keeps telling me about. I'm not ignorant to the fact that I only see this Jesse when things are going his way, when I'm doing as I'm told and he's getting what he wants, but I'm at my happiest, my most content when he's like this. I am well and truly in my element on Central Jesse Cloud Nine.

  I'm not surprised to see John on the steps of The Manor when we pull up. Jesse collects me from the car and leads me to the entrance where John is briefing a dozen or so men in full valet attire. Jesse chucks his keys at John, who catches them and passes them to one of the valets with strict instructions to only move the Aston Martin if absolutely necessary.

  I put my hand up to John, and he smiles broadly at me as we pass, flashing me his gold tooth. He is in his usual black suit, except he has replaced the black shirt in favour of a white one with a black bow tie. The shades are still firmly in position, though. He looks really smart. He absolutely oozes coolness.

  'There you are!' Sarah's panicked voice is the first thing to attack my ears as we enter The Manor. She is scuttling towards us, her legs restricted to small shifting movements due to the tight, red, satin dress that could qualify as a second skin. She must have poured herself into the thing. If there was any doubt previously regarding the status of her breasts, they have just been completely eradicated. They are hoist up in the strapless dress and if she lowered her lips, she could kiss them.

  She halts her hasty advance on Jesse and gives me the once over, her eyes finishing and remaining on my neck. She's spotted the necklace, which is hardly surprising, you can't exactly miss it, but she is not dazzled by the beauty or sparkle - not a chance - she is weighing up the likelihood of who has bought it and judging by her screwed by botox pumped face, she has hit the nail right on the head. I instinctively reach up and clasp the diamond, almost like I'm protecting it from her beady eyes. She flicks a begrudging stare at me and then runs her eyes down my lace clad body. I straighten my shoulders and smile sweetly.

  'I'm here now. ' Jesse grumbles, as he pulls me along beside him. We enter the bar and find Mario dishing out firm instructions to the bar staff. The bar has tripled in size and I realise that the folding doors dividing the bar and restaurant have been opened and dozens of tall bar tables and stools have been scattered between the rooms.

  'Here, sit. ' He lifts me onto a stool at the bar and calls Mario over before sitting himself opposite me.

  Sarah points at a spreadsheet in her hand. 'Can we just go through . . . '

  'Sarah, give me a minute. ' Jesse cuts her off, without taking his eyes from me. I could kiss him. 'What would you like to drink?' he asks.

  I can feel the ice emanating from Sarah as she stands there like a plum and waits for Jesse to tend to me before he gives her the attention she's demanding. I might take a while to decide. Can I have alcohol? He did say I can drink if he is around.

  Mario appears, looking rather dapper in his white waistcoat and bow tie, his hair combed precisely to the side and his moustache neatly trimmed. He smiles brightly and I remember the lush cocktail he made for me earlier today. 'I'll have a Mario Most Marvelous, please. ' I grin at Mario.

  He laughs loudly. 'Yes!' He starts faffing at the bar. 'Mr Ward?'

  'Just a water, please, Mario. ' Jesse replies, leaning towards me for a kiss. I can feel Sarah's eyes drilling into me, so, of course, I oblige and let him have his way. Not that I need Sarah around to do that. He has his way wherever and whenever he chooses.

  'Sloe gin, Mario. ' she snaps petulantly, and then proceeds to huff while Jesse gets his fix of me. He really does not have any regard for this woman, and I feel all the more comfortable for it. She's not even really a threat.

  'Jesse, I could really do with you in the office. ' she presses.

  He growls, and I'm mentally willing him to trample all over her. 'Sarah, please!' he grates, standing up in front of me. 'Baby, do you want to stay here or would you like to come with me?'

  I'm not looking at her, but I know she has just rolled her eyes, and while I would love to piss her off more, I'm quite happy to sit with happy Mario and drink my Most Marvelous. 'I'm good here, you go. '

  He grabs his water and pushes his lips to my forehead. 'I'll be quick. ' He stalks off, leaving Sarah to virtually jog on her eight inch heels in order to keep up with him, but not before she leans across me to retrieve her gin from the bar on a snarl. I ignore it and accept my drink from a smiling Mario.

  'Thank you, Mario. ' I return his smile and take a sip, gasping in gratitude.

  'Miss Ava. May I say how magnificent you are looking this evening?' He smiles fondly, and I blush slightly.

  'Mario, may I say how devilishly handsome you look this evening. ' I raise my glass to the small Italian man, who I have become rather fond of.

  He slaps the bar on a sharp burst of laughter, and then his eyes fall onto the diamond that's suspended around my neck before he tips his eyes back up to me with a high raised eyebrow. 'He loves you very much, yes?'

  I give a little embarrassed shrug, feeling suddenly uncomfortable with the friendly Italian. I don't want everyone thinking the inevitable, just like Sarah did. 'It's just a necklace, Mario. ' A Sixty grand necklace, yes, but no one has to know that small detail. I reach up to grasp it again. I have to keep checking it's there, even though I can feel the weight perfectly.

  'I see that you love Mr Ward very much too. ' He smiles and tops my glass up. 'It makes me happy. '

  It does? He gets distracted by a smashed glass and goes stalking off, waving his arms around and shouting in Italian.

  I sit happily at the bar watching the staff preparing for the evening. Champagne is poured into hundreds of glasses and the bar is repeatedly wiped down by Mario. He shouts instructions around and points here and there to guide his staff. This is like a finely tuned execution of organisation - he knows what he is doing. The little Italian is a perfectionist, making everything just so. The huge room looks stunningly made up, everything obviously arranged precisely and with the utmost attention to detail. The low hanging chandeliers are shimmering subtly, giving off a soft apricot glow of light, the words sensuous and invigorating springing to mind immediately - words I have heard before.

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sp; Pete appears with a tray of canapes. 'Ava, you look wonderful. ' He presents me with the tray. 'Would you like a canape?'

  I take in the glorious smell of smoked salmon and spy the small flat breads caked in cream cheese. 'Ah, Pete. ' I place my hand on my stomach. 'I'm still full from lunch. ' I have no idea how I'm going to manage a three course meal. I'll burst out of this dress.

  'Ava, you hardly ate your lunch. ' He gives me a disapproving look and carries on his way. 'Enjoy your evening. '

  'You too, Pete. ' I reply, feeling immediately silly for telling a member of Jesse's staff to enjoy their evening of working hard, but he's right, I didn't finish my lunch. That's because I lost my appetite when Sarah rocked up and it's probably why I'm not hungry now either.

  I turn back to the bar and find my glass has been filled again. I search Mario out and spot him across the bar repositioning some stools. He catches my eye and gives me a cheeky grin, while I hold my glass up and give him a frown. He ignores it and carries on moving stools about. I'll have to be careful. I've had two glasses of this Most Marvelous concoction already, and I have no idea what's in it. I can't be falling about all over the place when people start arriving.

  'Ava!'

  I jump into standing position as Kate's excited shriek hammers me from the side.

  'Whoa!' She skids to a stop in front of me, her eyes popping out of her head. 'Fucking hell!'

  'I know. ' I grumble. 'I'm petrified of the damn thing. It should be in a safe. ' I reach up and fiddle with it again, and Kate bats my hand away to cop a feel herself.

  'Wow! That is some serious special. ' She drops the diamond and stands back to eye me up. 'Look at you! Someone has been thoroughly spoilt today. '

  I laugh. I think what I have been today is way past spoilt. 'What about you?' I grab her hands and hold them out to the side. 'I love the dress. ' I send her on a little twirl. She looks fabulous, as always, in a long, green gown, her red locks vibrant and piled high on her head. 'Do you want a drink? You have to try this stuff. ' I grasp my glass from the bar and hold it up. 'Here, sit. Where's Sam?'

  She pushes herself onto the stool and rolls her eyes. 'He wouldn't let any of the valets park his car. He thinks they're all driving morons who can't handle the power of a Carrera. ' She laughs. 'Where's Jesse?'

  My smile disappears. 'Sarah dragged him off somewhere,' I glance at the clock and note he's been gone for over an hour. 'Anyway, I couldn't help but notice a certain Carrera, with a certain red head in it, pulling into The Manor yesterday evening. ' I say casually as I sip my drink, eyeing her reaction over the rim of my glass.

  My fiery, red head friend fires me a fiery glare. 'Yes, Ava. You've already pointed that out. ' she says haughtily. 'Get me that drink. '

  I shake my head, but I don't press her. 'Mario?' I call, and he waves his acknowledgment as he walks over. 'This is my friend Kate. Kate, this is Mario. '

  'Yes, we've met. ' Kate smiles at Mario.

  'How are you this evening, Kate?' Mario blesses her with one of his lovely warm smiles.

  'I'll be better when you get me one of those. ' She points to my glass, and Mario laughs before going to fetch his glass jug of the Most Marvelous stuff.

  Of course they've met. I'm so envious of her laidback nature. Mario returns with his jug and I slap my hand over my glass when he tries and fill mine again, throwing him a playful, warning look. He shrugs, muttering something in Italian and fighting a smile, clearly trying to pretend he's offended.

  'Where's the love?'

  We both turn and see Sam stood, legs spread and arms extended in the entrance of the bar. He looks unusually smart, compared to his traditional baggy jeans and t-shirt combo. He straightens his suit jacket and waltzes to the bar confidently, shouting for a bottle of beer as he approaches. He may look smart, but his hair is its usual mop of brown, messy waves and his cheeky grin and dimple are ever present.

  'Ladies! May I say how damn fine you're both looking this pleasant evening?' He kisses my cheek and then lavishes Kate with a dramatic sloppy one. She bats him away, laughing. 'Where's my man?' he asks, glancing around the bar.

  I want to correct him and tell him that Jesse is, in fact, my man, but I think I might be in the realms of trampling if I do that. I laugh to myself and at my little mental trample. 'He's in his office. ' I say, taking another sip of my drink. I'm pacing myself, but this stuff is delicious and going down a treat. I feel better now that Kate is here, my mind distracted from the fact that Jesse is still missing.

  An hour later, the bar is crammed full and Jesse is still nowhere to be seen. Soft jazz is playing in the background and the sound of happy chatter is prominent in the air. The men all look fine in tuxes and suits and the woman have all gone to town in various gowns and cocktail dresses. I'm not ignorant to the fact that I seem to be the choice of conversation for many groups of people, particularly women, who make a rubbish job at hiding their interest. The thing that is bothering me the most, though, is my unreasonable, enquiring mind that keeps wondering just how many of them Jesse has slept with. It's a depressing thought and one I don't think I will ever shake off.

  I'm on my third glass of the Most Marvelous stuff and sipping it cautiously. Drew has arrived and actually looks no different to normal. He always looks well groomed and precise. I exhale and relax when I feel two big palms rest on my hips and his fresh water, minty loveliness drift into my nose. Where has he been?

  His chin rests on my shoulder. 'I've neglected you. '

  I crane my neck to see him. 'Yes, you have. Where have you been?'

  'I couldn't get two yards without someone making a play for me. I'm all yours now, I promise. ' He pushes his front into my back and leans over to shake hands with the boys' before leaning towards Kate so she can kiss his cheek. I can guarantee that all of the someone's who he couldn't get two yards past were women. 'Is everyone good?' he asks as he waves Mario for some water.

  'We will be when dinner is out the way. ' Sam grins and chinks bottles with Drew. I know what he's getting at, and I distinctively remember Jesse giving firm instructions for the upstairs to remain locked until ten thirty. Now I know why; to keep keen people, such as Sam, out.

  I'm suddenly attacked with a very worrying thought. Bloody hell, will Kate be disappearing upstairs later? I look at her with wide eyes, but damn her, she won't look at me. She knows what I'm thinking - I can tell by the way she's turning her body further away from me, hiding her face.

  'Ten thirty. ' Jesse says sternly. He pulls me off the stool and sits there himself before pulling me down onto his lap and burying his face into my neck. Sam and Drew throw each other disapproving looks and Kate still refuses to look at me.

  'I want to lay you on that bar and take my time peeling all of this lace off. ' he whispers in my ear. I stiffen over him and silently wish for him to shut up immediately before I oblige and climb up onto the bar for him. He pushes his groin up into my backside. 'What's under the dress?'

  'More lace. ' I say quietly on a smile, and he groans in my ear. Why did I say that? I need to curb the sex talk, not encourage it.

  'You're fucking killing me. ' He nips my ear, causing shivers to bolt through me.

  'You have to stop. ' I warn, rather unconvincingly. It will take him a week to get me out of this dress and back in it again. Actually, it probably wouldn't take him that long at all. He'll lose his patience and rip it off, in which case, I won't be putting it back on.

  'Never. ' His tongue dips into my ear, and I close my eyes on a sigh.

  'You guys!' Kate playfully slaps Jesse's shoulder. 'Put her down!'

  'Yeah, you're restraining our sexual needs, but it's okay for you to sit there and fondle your girl. ' Sam complains.

  Jesse lands Sam with a reproachful glare. 'Try and stop me. I'll shut up shop now and take her home. '

  'You're trampling your mates now. ' I laugh, and they all start laughing with me. I feel Jesse resume nibbling at
my nape. 'Who's that?' I ask.

  'Who's who?' His head comes up from my neck, and I nod towards a woman stood in the entrance of the bar with a cream shift dress on. She's probably early thirties, with black bobbed hair and pretty features. I wouldn't have paid much attention, but she is staring straight at us and she's alone.

  She starts walking towards us, and I feel Jesse tense under me. Sam and Drew shut up immediately, which only serves to make me even more wary. Who the hell is she?

  When she reaches our group, she stops, keeping her eyes on Jesse. The tension is tangible and I glance at Kate to find a heavy frown on her forehead as she looks at the woman stood silently in front of us. Then I'm suddenly standing and being positioned back on the stool, minus one Jesse beneath me.

  'Coral, do you want to come to my office?' Jesse asks, way too soft and gently for my liking. She nods, and I can see her eyes brimming with tears. 'Come on. ' He turns to me, offering an apologetic smile before leading her away with his hand placed at the bottom of her back, leaving me sat wondering what the hell is going on and mentally demanding him to remove his hand from her.

  John gives him a nod as they pass at the bar entrance, and then proceeds to notify everyone that dinner will be served imminently. There is a bustle of bodies' that make for the summer room, the women flicking me curious stares as they pass. I ignore them; I'm too busy wondering what Jesse is doing with the mystery woman.

  The silence that has fallen in our little group is broken by Kate. 'Who was that?' She helps me down from my stool.

  I glance at Drew and Sam, who both shrug denial of any knowledge, but I can tell by their sudden discomfort that they know exactly who Coral is. 'I don't know. I've never seen her before. ' I say on a frown, following the mass of people into the summer room. 'Jesse seems to know her, though. ' I add dryly.

  We find our table, and I'm beyond relieved to find myself sat with Kate, Sam, Drew and John. I'm not so pleased that Sarah is also with us, though. Another man, who I've not met, joins us. He's introduced as Niles - a cute, floppy haired public schoolboy type, not the kind of man I would expect to find at The Manor at all. But what is The Manor's type?

  The summer room has been completely emptied of sofas and occasional tables, and in their place are masses of round tables, seating between eight and ten people. I can't even count them, I lose track at table thirty. The colour scheme is black and gold. I wonder if that's an accident.

  Candles are burning everywhere, enhancing the key ingredient; sensual. It was on Jesse's specification for the extension and at the time, when I was oblivious to The Manor's activities, it was a weird request, but now the descriptor it cropping up everywhere I look.

  A band is set up in the corner, but it's the four men with saxophones who are providing the music throughout dinner. The chair next to me is still empty and the one next to that has Sarah perched neatly on it. I'm guessing she arranged the seating plan and was most pissed off when she had no choice but to sit me on the other side of Jesse.

  Where is he?

  Kate picks up a gold, structured, satin bag and waves it in the air at me. They must be the gift bags. I decide that I'm not even going to look inside mine, and my decision is only reinforced when Kate shoves her nose in and then snaps the bag shut with wide blue eyes. Sam tries to snatch it from her, but she bats him away and he grumbles, grabbing the men's black equivalent that's positioned at his place setting. He does the same little rendition as Kate, but instead of a wide eyed, stunned look, he looks at Kate and grins from ear to ear, prompting her to make a grab for his bag. He pushes her away.

  A starter of scallops is served, and I'm momentarily distracted from my speculating by the divine dish. The Manor really does do food very well.

  'So, Ava, I'm told you carried out the works at Lusso. ' Niles says across the table. 'Quite a feat. ' He smiles, raising his glass to me.

  'It didn't hurt the portfolio. ' I reply casually.

  'You're modest. ' He laughs.

  'She's good,' Kate pipes up. 'She's working on the extension upstairs. ' Kate points her fork towards the ceiling of the summer room in the most unladylike manner.

  'I see. Is that how you met Jesse?' Niles asks, a little surprised.

  'It is. ' I confirm politely but elaborate no further. I'm not comfortable talking about me and Jesse, especially with a stone faced Sarah within touching distance. Niles has also just reminded me that he is still nowhere to be seen. 'What do you do?' I ask to steer the conversation away from Jesse and my curious mind.

  He puts his fork down and wipes his mouth with his napkin. 'I supply Jesse's stock. ' he says on a small smile.

  I just about manage to stop myself from asking the most stupid question I ever would. He doesn't supply food or drink to The Manor. No, Niles supplies other essentials - essentials for the top floors of The Manor. I nod my acknowledgment, not wanting to push that line of chat any further.

  Sarah jumps into the gap of conversation, asking Niles how his recent trip to Amsterdam went. I'm thankful, even though I quickly turn my attention away from where that discussion is heading too.

  I look over at Kate, who tosses me a filthy look and then nods towards Sarah while cupping her breasts on a grin. I try not to smile, but I can't help the corners of my mouth tweaking at her brashness. She is so unaffected by everything. I love her.

  I finish my Most Marvelous and accept the glass of white that the waiter offers, taking an immediate sip and laughing when Drew stabs at his last scallop with his fork and it flies into the middle of the table. He gets rather mad with the slippery culprit as he tries to retrieve it, grumbling sulkily as he stabs at it, eventually giving up and grabbing it with his hand. He throws it on his plate in a mood, then glances up at the rest of the table who, with the exception of Sarah, are all delighting in his little performance. He relents and stands to bow, restoring his refined character. His fun, lighthearted performance is a mile away from the stand-offish Drew I know.

  Starters are swiftly removed from the table and replaced with salmon and an array of colourful vegetables. I'm thankful dinner is relatively light. I couldn't stomach much more and with Sarah sat next to me, my appetite is not improving. She hasn't said one word to me during dinner and has not enquired as to Jesse's whereabouts, so I assume that she knows. She advises the waiter to remove Jesse's untouched starter and hold off on his main for the meantime. If Kate wasn't here, I would be getting really cranky now.

  'You didn't bring Victoria?' Kate tosses the question at Drew and he catches it without an ounce of shock or surprise.

  'No, she's sweet but hard work. ' He takes a swig of wine and sits back in his chair. 'I'm happy exactly where I am at the moment. ' He raises his glass and everyone joins him, including me, even though I'm not particularly happy about where I am at the moment. Drew continues, 'Anyway, she wouldn't let me lay a hand on her without the lights off. '

  I nearly spit my wine all over the table, then proceed to laugh - really hard.

  'I told you!' Kate screeches, throwing a napkin over the table at me.

  I grab it and start mopping up the wine dripping down my chin, still laughing.

  Drew looks at me and Kate in turn, a smirk breaking the corners of his serious face. 'You kind of need to see what you're doing for what I had in mind. '

  'Stop!' I howl, trying desperately to rein in my chuckles. I glance across at Sarah, and I'm met with a filthy glare. I ignore her and resist the killing temptation to smash her face into her salmon.

  I sit bolt upright - as does Sarah - when I spot Jesse and the mystery woman emerging from the corridor that leads down to his office. John must catch our sharp reaction because he jumps up from the table and makes his way over. They have an exchange of quiet words before John takes over responsibility of the woman and leads her out of the summer room.

  Jesse looks across the room until he finds my eyes, and then starts making his way over. He's stopped a d
ozen times by various men and women as he passes tables, but he doesn't hang about for conversation. He just shakes hands with the men and leans down to kiss the women, smiling politely before searching me out again. Why can't he shake the women's hands as well? He eventually makes it to me and sits himself down, grabbing my knee under the table. Sam cheers his arrival and pours some water into Jesse's wine glass, Kate frowns at me and Sarah drops all conversation with Niles in favour of Jesse.

  He turns into me and gives me very sorry eyes. 'Forgive me?'

  'Who was that?' I ask quietly.

  'No one for you to be concerned about,' He nods at my half empty plate. 'How is the food?'

  No one for me to be concerned about? Well, that just makes me all the more concerned, but is this really the time to be pushing this? 'It's good, you should eat. ' I say shortly, looking for a waiter, but I'm a bit slow on the uptake. It seems Sarah has taken care of that already. His salmon lands in front of him and he tucks in, keeping his palm firmly on my knee, chopping and forking with one hand. I'm prepared to leave this for now, this is not the time or the place, but I want to know what that was about.

  When John returns and does his signature nod at Jesse, I throw him a curious stare which he catches and tramples all over by leaning in and lavishing me with his lips. I only half-heartedly return his kiss, fully aware that he's trying to distract me again.

  He pulls back, giving me an enquiring eye. 'Are you holding back on me?' he asks sharply.

  'Yes, are you?' I toss back at him, unimpressed by his attitude towards my concern.

  'Hey,' he grates, quite loudly, considering the close proximity of our company. 'Who do you think you're talking to?' he asks on a scowl, his grip on my knee tightening.

  I shake my head. 'Let's see what your reaction would be if a mystery man pulled me away from you for over an hour. ' I look him straight in the eye, noticing Sarah's sly smile behind him. She can fuck off. I'm in no mood for her.

  His eyes soften, his tense jaw easing up a bit. He releases his grip of my knee and strokes up to the juncture of my thighs. I tense. He knows what he's doing. 'Ava, please don't say things that will make me crazy mad. ' His voice has softened, but I can still detect the slight anger in his tone. 'I've told you not to worry so you shouldn't. End of. '

  'Stop kissing all of the women. ' I turn back towards the table, ignoring his hot touch through my dress. I'm simmering on the inside with possessiveness. I'm getting as bad as him, and this conversation is going to get us nowhere - not here and now, anyway.

 
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