Beneath This Man (This Man #2)(2)

by Jodi Ellen Malpas

He looks his usual laidback self, with ridiculously baggy shorts, a Rolling Stones t-shirt and his mousey brown hair a disheveled mess.

‘I’m sorry. Have you moved in permanently now?’ I ask on an arched brow. Sam has his own swanky apartment on Hyde Park with much more room, but with Kate’s workshop on the ground floor of her house, she insists on him staying at hers.

‘No, I haven’t. Kate said you would be home by six. I was hoping to catch you.’ He suddenly looks all nervous which is making me feel extremely uncomfortable.

‘Is everything okay?’ I ask.

He offers a little smile, but it doesn’t reach his dimple. ‘Not really. Ava, I need you to come with me.’ he says quietly.

‘Where?’ Why is he acting so shifty? This is not like Sam. He is usually so carefree and unapologetic.

‘To Jesse’s place.’

Sam must see the look of horror on my face because he steps towards me with a pleading expression. Just the mention of his name sends me into panic. Why does he want me to go to Jesse’s? After our last meeting, you would have to drag me there kicking and screaming. There is no chance in Hell I’m returning to that place – not ever.

‘Sam, I don’t think so.’ I take a step back, shaking my head. My body has started shaking too.

He sighs and scuffs his trainers on the pavement. ‘Ava, I’m getting worried. He’s not answering his phone and no one has heard from him. I don’t know what else to do. I know you don’t want to talk about him, but it’s been nearly five days’. I’ve been to Lusso, but the concierge refuses to let us up. He’ll let you. Kate said you know him. Can’t you just get us up there? I just need to know he’s okay.’

‘No, Sam. I’m sorry, I can’t.’ I croak.

‘Ava, I’m worried he’s done something stupid. Please.’

My throat starts to close up and Sam starts walking towards me with his hands outstretched. I didn’t realise I was moving backwards. ‘Sam, please don’t. I can’t do that. He won’t want to see me and I don’t want to see him.’

He grabs my hands to halt my retreat, pulling me into his chest and holding me tight against him. ‘Ava, I wouldn’t ask, I really wouldn’t, but I need to get up there and check on him.’

My shoulders droop, defeated in his embrace, and a quiet sob escapes, just when I thought there were no tears left. ‘I can’t see him, Sam.’

‘Hey,’ He pulls back and looks at me. ‘Just get us past the concierge. That’s all I’m asking.’ He wipes away a stray tear and smiles pleadingly.

‘I’m not going in.’ I affirm, my stomach a knot of panic at the thought of seeing him again. But what if he has done something stupid.

‘Ava, just get us up to his penthouse.’

I nod and wipe away the rolling tears.

‘Thank you,’ He tugs me towards his Porsche. ‘Get in. Drew and John are meeting us there.’ He opens the passenger door and directs me into the car.

With John and Drew meeting us there, he must have assumed I would agree. I can’t blame the guy for being optimistic.

I climb in and let Sam drive me to Lusso at St Katherine Docks – a place I swore that I would never return to again.

Chapter 2

As Lusso comes into view, I start hyperventilating. The overwhelming desire to open the door and jump out of Sam’s moving car is hard to resist. He glances at me, an obvious anxious look on his cute face, as if he senses my intention to bolt.

Once we’re parked outside the gates, Sam comes around to collect me, keeping a firm grip on me as he guides us towards the pedestrian gates where Drew is waiting.

He’s dressed in his usual finery, all suited and booted, with perfectly styled black hair, but he doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable anymore. I’m more than shocked when he takes over Sam’s hold of me, though, pulling me into him and squeezing me hard. This is the first actual contact I’ve ever had with the man. To say he was stand-offish would be a major understatement.

‘Ava, thank you for coming.’ he says, holding me in his tight clinch.

I say nothing because I really don’t know what to say. They’re truly worried about Jesse, and I feel guilty and even more anxious now. He releases me and offers a small, reassuring smile. It does nothing to reassure me, though.

Sam points up the road. ‘Here’s the big guy.’

We turn to see John pull up in his black Range Rover, skidding to an abrupt halt behind Sam’s car. He slides his big body out, removes his wraparound sunglasses and nods in greeting. This is John’s usual wordless acknowledgment. Good Lord he looks pissed. I’ve only ever got a brief glimpse of his eyes – they are always concealed behind those glasses, even at night or inside, but the sun is shining now, so why he has taken them off is beyond me. Maybe he wants everyone to know how pissed he is. It’s working. He looks formidable.

I take a deep breath and punch the gate code in, pushing it open for the guys. I wish this was as far as I had to go. Drew gestures for me to lead the way, ever the gentleman, so I pick my feet up and start my walk across the car park in silence. I see Jesse’s car and notice his window is still smashed. My stomach flips. We enter the marble foyer of Lusso quietly, except for the thumping of our footsteps. My insides start churning, my breathing speeding up. So much has happened in this place. Lusso was my first major accomplishment in design. My first sexual encounter with Jesse happened here, as did my final encounter with him. It all started and ended here.

Clive looks up from his big, curved marble desk as we approach, his expression screaming tiresome.

‘Clive,’ I say on a forced smile.

He eyes me, and then the three ominous beings accompanying me before his eyes settle on me again. ‘Hello, Ava. How are you?’

‘I’m good, Clive.’ I lie. I am far from good. ‘You?’

‘Yes, I’m fine.’ He’s weary, no doubt after having a few heated encounters with the three men escorting me, and judging by his cold reception towards me, they were not pleasant.

‘Clive, I would be grateful if you would let us up to the penthouse to check on Jesse.’ I load my voice with lashings of confidence, but I feel anything but. My heart is speeding up by the second.

‘Ava, I have told your friends here, I could lose my job if I allow that.’ He flicks a cautious gaze to the boys’ again.

‘I know, Clive, but they’re worried.’ I say, sounding completely detached. ‘They just want to check he’s okay, and then they’ll be leaving.’ I try with graciousness as I know Drew, Sam and John would have been a lot less than that.

‘Ava, I have been up and knocked on Mr Ward’s door and got no response. We’ve checked some of the CCTV, and I have not seen him leave or return on my watch. Security cannot check five days of continuous footage. I have told your friends this. If I let you up, it’s more than my job is worth.’

I’m stunned at Clive’s sudden turnabout in concierge etiquette. If only he had been this professional and stubborn when I came to see Jesse on Sunday, then we might never have had the altercation we did. But then I would still be blissfully unaware of Jesse’s little problem.

I feel Sam press up against my back. ‘Let us up, for f**k sake!’ he yells over my shoulder.

I flinch slightly, but I can’t blame him for being frustrated. I’m feeling pretty frustrated myself. I just want to get them past Clive and go. I can feel the walls closing in on all sides of me. I can see Jesse carrying me across the marble floor in his arms. All of the images swamping my brain are now all the more clearer for being here.

I turn and see John with a face like thunder and his hand on Sam’s shoulder, his way of telling Sam to calm down. I didn’t want to do this, but tempers are fraying. ‘Clive, I would hate to resort to blackmail.’ I say tightly, turning back to face him. He looks at me in confusion, and I can see his brain ticking over, trying to think of what I could possibly blackmail him with. ‘I would hate for anyone to find out about Mr Gomez’s regular visitors, or Mr Holland’s aversion to a Thai girl or two.’ I watch as Clive’s face screws up into a contortion of defeatism.

‘Ava, you play nasty, my girl.’

‘You leave me no other choice, Clive.’ I spit.

He shakes his head and motions us on to the elevator while muttering insults under his breath.

‘Brilliant!’ Sam chants as they make their way over to the penthouse lift.

I don’t have any idea how it happens, but I find my feet lifting and taking small steps behind them, following them to the elevator. ‘Jesse might have changed the code.’ I say to their backs.

Sam swings around, looking alarmed.

I shrug. ‘If he has, then there is no way of getting up there.’

All of a sudden, I’m stood in front of the elevator, taking a deep breath and punching in the developer code. There’s a chorus of exhales as the doors open and they all get in. I stand on the outside and look up at Sam, and he smiles, jerking his head mildly, encouraging me to board with them.

I do.

I get in the elevator, Sam and Drew flanking me on one side, John on the other. I enter the code again. We travel up in an uncomfortable silence, and as the lift doors open, we’re faced with the double doors that lead into Jesse’s penthouse.

Sam is the first to exit the lift, striding towards the doors and jiggling the handle calmly before he starts hammering on the door like a madman. ‘Jesse! Open the f**king door!’

Drew and John approach and pull him away, and then John tries the door himself, but it doesn’t budge. I can’t help but think I might have been the last person to exit the penthouse. I remember making a point of slamming the door as hard as I could.

‘Sam, mate, he might not even be here.’ Drew soothes.

‘Where the hell is he then?’ Sam yells.

‘Oh, he’s in there,’ John rumbles. ‘And the mother f**ker has been drowning in his sorrows for too long now. He’s got a business to run.’

I’m still stood in the elevator when the doors start to shut, snapping me out of my dazed state. My natural reflex has my arm flinging up to stop them closing before I step out into the penthouse foyer. I know I said that I would get them up here and leave, I know I should just go, but seeing Sam in such a state has me even more worried, and John’s words are prickling me. Drowning in his sorrows or drowning in vodka? If I stay, am I going to be faced with drunken, raging Jesse again?

Drew knocks on the door calmly. It’s laughable. If Sam’s relentless hammering doesn’t get a response, then I doubt Drew’s gentlemanly tapping will.

He steps away from the door and drags Sam over to me. ‘Ava, have you tried calling him?’ Drew asks.

‘No!’ I blurt. Why would I do that? I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want to talk to me.

‘Can you try?’ Sam asks pleadingly.

I shake my head. ‘He wouldn’t answer, Sam.’

‘Ava, will you just try?’ Drew pushes.

I reluctantly get my phone from my bag and pull up my contact list, dialing Jesse and holding my phone to my ear while Sam and Drew watch nervously. I’m not sure what on earth I’m going to say if he answers.

Drew’s head snaps towards the door. ‘I can hear it ringing.’ He returns to me, obviously waiting for me to speak down the line, but it goes to voicemail. My heart constricts. He doesn’t want to talk to me. I go to re-board the elevator, the hurt enflamed by his rejection of my call, but then an almighty crash sounds out around the foyer.

Sam, Drew and I all whip our heads around to the double doors leading into Jesse’s penthouse and find John on the other side, surrounded by a splintered doorframe. He nods at us, and Sam and Drew fly forward into the penthouse. I follow tentatively behind them and the only thoughts going through my mind are of my last discovery here. Why am I walking this way?