This Man (This Man #1)(17)

by Jodi Ellen Malpas

‘Better.’ he mutters, lifting my arms from my lap and placing them on his shoulders. He rests the warm, damp cloth on the inside of my thigh and begins sweeping it up and down, cleaning the remnants of him away from me. It’s a tender act and extremely intimate. I watch his face in fascination, noticing the slight crease across his forehead as he concentrates with his procedure of cleaning me up.

He gazes up at me, his green eyes soft and twinkling. ‘I want to toss you in that shower and worship every inch of you, but this will have to do. For now, anyway.’ He leans in and kisses me, lingering briefly. I don’t think I could ever tire of those simple, affectionate kisses.

His lips are so soft, his scent divine. ‘Come on, lady. Let’s get you dressed.’ He lifts me from the counter and helps me into my underwear and dress before zipping me up. My entire body convulses when he rests his lips on the nape of my neck, his warm, soft mouth having the hairs on my neck rising. I don’t think he’s out of my system – not at all. This is bad news.

I pick his pale blue shirt up from floor and shake it out before handing it to him.

‘There really wasn’t any need to screw it up, was there?’ He flicks me a grin as he pulls it on, fastening the buttons and tucking it into his navy trousers.

‘Your jacket will cov…’ I abruptly remember tossing that on the floor in the bedroom. ‘Oh,’ I whisper, all wide eyed.

‘Yes. Oh,’ He arches a brow as he snaps his belt, making me flinch and him grin. ‘Okay, you ready to face the music, lady?’ He holds his hand out to me, and I take it without a thought. The man is a magnet. ‘I’d say quite loud, wouldn’t you?’

I gape at him as he gives me a full on dazzling smile. I shake my head, quickly glancing in the mirror. Oh, I’m flushed. My lips are distended and pink, my hair is still up but with random strands curling down all over the place, and I’m creased. I need five minutes to sort myself out.

‘You’re perfect.’ he reassures me, as if sensing the panic rising in me.

Perfect? Perfect wouldn’t be a word I would use. I look thoroughly f**ked! He tugs me to the door, unlocks it and strides out, devoid of wariness, while I’m more cautious. What if our visitors where still hanging around? I see his jacket still sprawled on the floor, and he scoops it up as we pass.

When we hit the curving staircase, I suddenly register my hand still in his. I try to ease it from his grasp, but he squeezes it tighter, flashing me a scowl. Shit! He has to let go. My boss and colleagues are down here. I can’t go prancing through them holding hands with this strange man. Well, he’s not very strange to me now, but that’s beside the point. I attempt to free my hand again, but he refuses to let it go.

‘Jesse, let go of my hand.’

‘No.’ he shoots back, short and firm, and without even looking at me.

I stop, abruptly, half way down the stairs and scan the room below. No one is looking at us, thank God, but it won’t be long before someone clocks us. Jesse turns, looking up at me from a few steps below.

‘Jesse, you can’t expect me to parade through here holding your hand. That’s not fair. Please, let me go.’

He looks at our hands locked together, suspended between our bodies. ‘I’m not letting you go,’ he murmurs sullenly. ‘If I let you go, you might forget how it feels. You might change your mind.’

There is absolutely no chance of me forgetting how we feel flesh on flesh, but that’s not the part of his statement that’s bothering me. ‘Change my mind about what?’ I ask, totally perplexed.

‘Me.’ he says simply.

What about him? My mind hasn’t been made up on anything, so there’s nothing to change. I need to focus my attention on persuading him to release my hand before someone spots us. I’ll file that comment, just like I’ve filed the other strange comments he made upstairs.

Holy shit! I nearly fall down the stairs when I see Sarah breezing across the terrace. Reality has just come crashing down around me. Surely when he sees her he’ll stop being such an unreasonable fool. She’s heading back inside. I don’t have time to f**k about. I narrow my eyes on him and use brute force to yank my hand from his, nearly dislocating my shoulder in the process, but it works. He scowls at me, but I don’t hang around long enough to take much notice. I take the stairs fast, down to the vast openness of the penthouse. Even if she spots us together, she’ll be suspect. The woman has made it obvious that she dislikes me. I can hardly blame her. She saw me as a threat and as it turns out, her fear was warranted.

I hit the bottom of the stairs and see Tom come running through the crowd of people, waving his arms about frantically.

‘There you are! Where have you been? Patrick has been looking for you everywhere.’ He clasps my shoulders, checking me up and down, ever the drama queen. Noting my disheveled state, he eyes me suspiciously. I feel the heat rise in my cheeks.

‘I was giving Mr Ward a tour.’ I offer, rather unconvincingly, while waving my hand over my shoulder in the general direction of Jesse. I know he’s close behind me; I can still feel him brooding. And I can smell him too. Mind you, that could be his scent all over me. I feel like I’ve been marked…or claimed, even.

With his hands still clasped on my shoulders, Tom looks past me. He gasps, yanking me closer, so his mouth is at my ear. ‘Darling, who is that divine being growling at me?’ he asks, sniffing me.

I struggle out of his hands and turn to see Jesse drilling holes into Tom. I roll my eyes at his pathetic behavior. Tom’s the gayest g*y man in London. He can’t possibly be threatened by him. Not that he should be feeling threatened by anyone.

‘Tom, this is Mr Ward. Mr Ward, Tom. He’s a colleague. He’s also gay.’ I add the last bit sarcastically. Tom won’t care – not that it isn’t bloody obvious anyway.

I look at Tom, who’s grinning widely, then cast my eyes over to Jesse, who’s stopped growling but doesn’t look any less pissed. Tom prances forward, grabs Jesse’s shoulders and air kisses him. I stifle a laugh, watching as Jesse’s eyes bulge and his shoulder tense.

‘It really is a pleasure,’ Tom sings in Jesse’s face while stroking down his biceps. ‘Tell me, do you work out?’

A burst of laughter falls from my mouth and, rather immaturely, I decide to leave Jesse to cope with Tom’s outrageous flirting on his own. I catch his eyes as I turn to leave, seeing I’m being thrown daggers. I couldn’t care less. He’s being stupidly unreasonable.

I find Patrick in the kitchen, chatting with the developer. He waves me over and hands me a glass of champagne. It looks like the car will be staying here tonight.

‘Here she is,’ Patrick announces, draping his arm around my shoulder and hugging me against his big body. ‘This girl has transformed my company. I’m so proud of you, flower. Where have you been?’ he asks, his blue eyes twinkling brightly and his cheeks bright red – a clear sign that he’s had too much to drink.

‘I’ve been giving a few tours.’ I lie, smiling sweetly as I’m squeezed against him.

‘I’ve just been talking about you. Your ears must have been burning,’ Patrick says. No, not my ears! ‘I was just saying to Mr Van Der Haus, you’ll be more than happy to assist on their new venture.’

Mr Van Der Haus? Oh, he’s the other partner. I’ve not met him.

‘My partner insisted on it.’ Van Der Haus says, smiling broadly. He’s very classy – all tall and white blonde, with a bespoke suit and dress shoes. He’s quite handsome…for a mid-forties man – Another older man.

I blush. ‘I would be delighted, Mr Van Der Haus. What have you got in mind for the next project?’ I ask eagerly.

‘Please, call me Mikael. The building is nearly complete,’ He broadens his smile. ‘We have settled on traditional Scandinavian. We’re going back to our roots.’ His mild Danish accent is really sexy.

Traditional Scandinavian? Okay, this most definitely panics me. Does this mean I’ll be hijacking Ikea? Shouldn’t they employ someone Scandinavian for this? ‘It sounds exciting.’ I say, turning to place my glass on the worktop, spotting Jesse across the room with Sarah as I do.

Oh God. He’s drilling holes into me, and Sarah’s stood right bloody there. I swivel back to face my audience. The panic must be clear on my burning face.

‘I think so,’ Mikael agrees. ‘Once I’ve discussed a favourable fee with Patrick,’ He points his champagne glass at my boss. ‘We can start building a specification, then you can get started on some designs.’

‘I look forward to it.’ I shift on the spot. I can still feel Jesse’s eyes burning into my back.

‘She won’t disappoint you, Mikael.’ Patrick chirps.

He smiles. ‘I know she won’t. You’re an exceptionally talented young woman, Ava. Your vision is impeccable. Now, if you’ll excuse me,’ I feel the colour deepening in my face as he shakes Patrick’s hand and then mine. ‘I will be in touch.’ he says, holding my hand in his, a little longer than necessary, before releasing it, strolling off and greeting an Arab man.

I’m still tucked tightly under Patrick’s arm as Victoria approaches us and leans against the worktop on a huff.

‘My feet are killing me.’ she exclaims.

In unison, Patrick and I look down at her six inch leopard print platforms with blood red piping. They’re ridiculous.

Patrick looks at me, shaking his head, before releasing his hold and declaring his departure. ‘Irene will be waiting for me downstairs. I’ve got all the photographs,’ He waves his camera at me. ‘I’ll see you on Monday morning.’ He kisses each of us. ‘You’ve both worked hard tonight. Well done.’ He takes his big body out of the kitchen, staggering slightly as he does.

Worked hard? I cringe.

‘Oh, I nearly forgot,’ Victoria drags my eyes away from Patrick’s swaying body, back to her. ‘Kate said she couldn’t wait around for you anymore, something about ice cream.’ She shrugs. ‘She said that she hopes you’ve had fun and she’ll see you at home.’

Hopes I’ve had fun? Sardonic cow!

‘Thanks, Victoria. Listen, I think we’re done here.’ I pick up one more glass of champagne as the waiter passes. I can’t drive, so I may as well make the most of it. And damn, I need it. ‘I’m heading home. Go when you’re ready. I’ll see you on Monday.’ I kiss her cheek.

‘I’m going to hang around for a bit with Tom. He wants to go to Route Sixty for a dance.’ She shakes her bum.

‘Be prepared for a late one.’ I warn. Once Tom’s on the dance floor you need a bulldozer to get him off.

‘No! I told him, I can’t stay late. I’ve got too much to do tomorrow. And I can hardly walk in these stupid shoes.’

‘Good luck with that. Say bye to Tom for me.’

‘I will when I find him.’ She limps off in her ridiculous heels, leaving me to finish my last glass of champagne.

I glance around the kitchen, but I don’t see Jesse or Sarah. I’m relieved. I don’t think I could look Sarah in the eye. I need to go and kick my loser arse around the house for being so weak and easy.

I reach the penthouse elevator and punch in the code. It’ll be changed tomorrow for the new owner. I huff a little burst of laughter. Of course, Jesse Ward is the new owner. It’s been one hell of a day. And now that I’m alone, I can feel the foreseeable guilt begin to tumble over me. Oh, what a foolish, desperate woman I am.

‘Leaving so soon?’

My shoulders raise and I wince at the cold, unfriendly voice of Sarah. Straightening my expression, I turn to face her. ‘It’s been a long and tiring day.’ I offer, inwardly cringing at my own double meaning statement. If only she knew how long and tiring.