This Man (This Man #1)(4)


by Jodi Ellen Malpas

‘Are they all this big?’ I ask, flexing my fingers until he releases my hand. Does he behave like this with all females? It’s really off putting.

‘Yes.’

I walk into the centre of the room, looking around. It’s a good size. I notice another door. ‘En-suite?’ I ask as I wander over and enter.

‘Yes.’

The rooms are huge, especially by hotel standards. A lot could be done with them. I would be excited, if I wasn’t so concerned with what’s expected of me. This is no Lusso. I exit the bathroom, finding Ward leaning against the wall, his hands in his trouser pockets, his eyes all hooded and dark as he watches me. My God, the man is sex on legs. I’m almost disappointed that traditional doesn’t feature in my design history. It’s of no interest to me at all.

‘I’m not sure I’m the right person for this job.’ I sound regretful. That’s okay, because I am. I’m regretful that I can’t pull myself together. He looks at me, those sludgy eyes stabbing at my defenses, making me shift on my heels.

‘I think you have what I want.’ he says quietly.

WHOA! ‘I’ve always dealt in modern luxury,’ I look around the room again, slowly dropping my eyes back to him. ‘I’m sure you would be happier working with Patrick or Tom. They deal with our period projects.’

He considers me for a second, does that head shake thing and pushes himself away from the wall by his shoulder blades. ‘But I want you.’

‘Why?’

‘You look like you’ll be very good.’

An involuntary rush of breath escapes my lips at his words. I’m not sure what to make of that statement. Does he mean for my design skills or something else? The way he’s looking at me, tells me it’s the latter. He’s a bit bloody confident.

‘What’s your brief?’ I ask, because all other words fail me. My colour is rising again.

A smile tickles the corners of his mouth. ‘Sensual, intimate, luxurious, stimulating, invigorating…’ He pauses to gage my reaction.

I frown. It’s not the usual brief. Relaxing, functional or practical were not mentioned at all. ‘Okay, anything in particular I should allow for?’ I ask. Why am I bothering with these questions?

‘A big bed and lots of wall hangings.’ he states on a husk.

‘What sort of wall hangings?’

‘Big, wooden ones. Oh, and the lighting needs to suit.’

‘Suit what?’ I can’t help the confusion in my tone.

He smiles, and I dissolve on the spot in a hot pool of hormones. ‘Well, the brief, of course.’

Oh God, he must think I’m something else. ‘Yes, of course,’ I look up, seeing chunky beams spanning the ceiling. The building is new, but they are no faux beams. ‘Do all of the rooms have them?’ I return my eyes to his.

‘Yes, they’re essential.’ His voice is low and seductive. I’m not sure how much more I can take.

I grab my client briefing pad to start making notes. ‘Are there any particular colours I should work to or against?’

‘No, knock yourself out.’

I flick my head up to look at him. ‘Excuse me?’

He smiles. ‘Go for it.’

Oh, well, I won’t be knocking myself out on anything because he won’t be seeing me here again. But I should get as much information as possible so I can pass it to Patrick or Tom, with at least a bit of willingness.

‘You mentioned a big bed. Any particular type?’ I ask, trying to remain professional.

‘No, just very big,’

I falter mid-note, slowly looking up to find him watching me. It’s making me stupidly nervous. ‘What about soft furnishings?’

‘Yes, lots.’ He starts walking towards me. ‘I like your dress.’ he whispers.

Holy shit, I’m out of here! ‘Thanks,’ I squeak, making for the door. ‘I have everything I need.’ I don’t, but I can’t stay here any longer. This man is like a sensory drain on me. ‘I’ll get some designs together.’ I exit into the corridor, heading straight for the gallery landing.

Bloody hell, when I woke up this morning, this was the last thing I expected. Posh country mansion – with a painfully handsome owner to round the package off – is not part of my regular daily routine.

I find my way to the top of the stairs, bolting down at a stupid rate, considering the tan stilettos I have on. I hit the parquet floor, wondering how the hell I got here. I’m a mess.

‘I look forward to hearing from you, Ava.’ His husky voice rolls over my flesh as he joins me at the bottom of the stairs, putting his hand out. I take it in mine for fear that if I don’t, he may well clench me and place his lips on me again.

‘You have a lovely hotel.’ I say genuinely. I’m beginning to wish that my handbag contents consisted of spare knickers, a blind fold, ear plugs and some armor. I might have been more prepared.

His eyebrows shoot up as he keeps hold of my hand and slowly shakes it. The buzz travelling through our joined hands makes me tense all over. ‘I have a lovely hotel.’ he repeats thoughtfully. The buzz transforms to a full on jolt of electricity, and I retract my hand under reflex. He looks at me questioningly. ‘It really was nice to meet you, Ava.’ He emphasises the really.

‘You too,’ I practically whisper.

I watch as his eyes dart briefly and he starts chewing his bottom lip. His shifting body eventually moves over to the centre table of the entrance hall. He pulls out a single calla lily from the huge spray that’s dominating the piece of furniture. He studies it for a few moments before he holds it out to me. ‘Understated elegance.’ he says softly.

I don’t know why, maybe because my brain is mush, but I take it. ‘Thank you.’

He puts his abandoned hand in his pocket, watching me closely. ‘You’re more than welcome.’ His gaze travels from my eyes to my lips. I take a few steps back.

‘There you are!’ A woman walks out of the bar and towards Ward. She’s attractive – all blonde, mid-length, layered hair and red, pouty lips. She kisses his cheek. ‘Are you ready?’

Okay, I’m assuming this must be the wife. But there was no ring, so maybe it’s the girlfriend? Either or, I’m completely stunned when he doesn’t take his eyes off of me, making no attempt to answer her question. She turns to see what’s stealing his attention and eyes me suspiciously. I don’t like her instantly, and it has nothing to do with the man she’s draped all over.

‘And you are?’ she purrs.

I shift uncomfortably, feeling like I’ve been captured doing something naughty. Well, I have. I’ve been having extreme unwelcome reactions to her boyfriend. An unreasonable pang of jealousy stabs at me. How ridiculous!

I smile sweetly. ‘Just leaving. Goodbye.’ I turn, practically running to the door and scuttling down the steps. I jump into my car, letting out an almighty breath, and when my lungs have thanked me for the welcome air, I flop back in my seat and commence breathing regulating exercises.

I’m going to have to pass this to Tom. But then I laugh at my stupid idea. Tom’s gay. He’ll be just as affected by Ward as I am. Even knowing he’s taken, I still couldn’t work with him. I shake my head in disbelief and start my car.

As I drive down the gravel driveway, I look in my rear view mirror at the imposing Manor getting smaller and smaller behind me. And there, stood at the top of the steps watching me leave, is Jesse Ward.

***

‘There you are. I was just going to call you,’ Kate exclaims, without looking up from placing a figurine on the wedding cake she’s decorating. Her tongue’s hanging out, resting on her bottom lip. It makes me smile. ‘Do you fancy going out?’ She still doesn’t look up.

This is good. I’m sure my face will give away any attempt to feign coolness. I’m still slightly flustered after my lunchtime meeting with a certain Lord of the Manor. I don’t have the energy to get ready and go out.

‘Shall we save ourselves for tomorrow?’ I try. I know this will mean a bottle of wine on the sofa, but at least I can put my PJ’s on and chill out. After the day I’ve had, winding down my racing mind is paramount. I’ve got a headache and lacked the ability to concentrate all day.

‘Absolutely. Let me finish this cake, then I’m all yours.’ She swivels the fruit cake on the stand, dabbing edible glue onto the icing. ‘How was your day in the countryside?’

Ha! What do I say? I expected a pompous country bumpkin, but I got a devastatingly handsome, suited God. He requested me by name, his touch turned me to molten lava, I can’t look in his eyes for fear of passing out and he liked my dress. Instead, I say, ‘Interesting,’

She looks up. ‘Do tell.’ she prompts, her eyes sparkling as she bends back down, her tongue popping out again.

‘It wasn’t what I expected.’ I flick a piece of imaginary lint off of my navy dress in an attempt to appear casual.

‘Leave out what you expected and tell me what you got.’ She’s stopped trying to fix husband and wife to the top of the cake. Instead, her eyes are narrowed on me. She has icing on the end of her nose, but I ignore it.

‘The owner,’ I shrug, fiddling with my tan belt.

‘The owner?’ she asks, her lips twitching.

‘Yes. Jesse Ward, the owner.’ I flick more imaginary lint from my dress.

‘Jesse Ward, the owner.’ she mimics me, pointing to one of the flowery tub chairs in her workshop. ‘Sit, now! Why are you trying to sound cool? You’re failing miserably, by the way. Your cheeks are the colour of that icing.’ She points to a fire engine cake on the metal shelf stand. ‘Why was the owner, Jesse Ward, not what you expected?’

Because he was steaming hot! I flop into the chair with my bag on my lap, while Kate stands tapping her palm with the handle of her spatula. She finally walks over, sitting in the chair opposite me.

‘Tell me.’ she presses, knowing there’s something to tell.

I shrug. ‘The man’s attractive and he knows it.’ I see her eyes light up as the spatulas taps become faster on her hand. She wants more drama. She loves it. When Matt and I split up, she was the first on the scene to soak up the spectacle as a supporting friend. She needn’t have bothered. It was mutual, very amicable and really rather boring. No plates were flying and no neighbours called the police.

‘How old?’ she asks keenly.

Now, that one’s got me. I’m still mortified that I blurted such an inappropriate question during a business meeting. My embarrassment wasn’t even worthwhile as he was obviously playing with me.

I shrug. ‘He said twenty one, but he’s at least ten years past that.’

‘You asked him?’ Kate’s jaw hits her lap.

‘Yes, in a moment of pure brain to mouth filter malfunction, the question did slip. I’m not proud.’ I mutter. ‘I made such a fool of myself, Kate. A man’s never done that to me before. But this one, well, you would have been ashamed of me.’

A sharp shot of laughter flies from her mouth. ‘Ava, I need to teach you some social skills!’ She falls back in her chair, starting to lick the icing from her spatula.

‘Please do,’ I grumble, putting my hand out to her. She passes me the spatula, and I start licking at the edges. I’ve lived with Kate for a month and existed on wine, icing sugar and cake mixture. A loss of appetite after a break up, I don’t have. ‘He was very self-assured.’ I say between licks.

‘As in?’

‘Oh, this man knew he was sparking a reaction in me. I must have been painful to watch. I was pathetic.’

‘That good?’

I shake my head in dismay. ‘Ridiculously,’