Beneath This Man (This Man #2)(5)


by Jodi Ellen Malpas

He settles at my response, and I carry on my way to the kitchen, glancing at the clock on the oven as I fetch a glass. Eight o’clock. I’ve slept for ten hours straight. That hasn’t happened since…well, since I was last with Jesse.

I grab a bottle of water from the fridge and fill the glass before traipsing back into the vast open space to find Jesse sat up on the sofa with his head in his hands, the blanket pooling in his lap.

When I reach him, he lifts his gaze to mine and our eyes lock. I hand him the water. With his good hand, he takes the glass, his fingers resting over mine. I retract mine quickly, the water splashing out of the glass. I don’t know why that happened, and the look on his face makes me feel instantly heartless. He’s shaking dreadfully, and I’m wondering if it’s withdrawal. I’m sure I read shakiness as a symptom, along with a catalogue of other signs.

He follows my eyes to his hand and shakes his head. This is weird. Things have never been like this between us. Neither of us knows what to say.

‘When did you last have a drink?’ I ask. This is pink elephant in the room territory, but I’ve got to say something.

He sips his water and then slumps back on the sofa, his abdominals looking sharper from his slight weight loss. ‘I don’t know. What day is it?’

‘Saturday.’

‘Saturday?’ he asks, obviously shocked. ‘Fuck.’

I’m assuming this means he’s lost a lot of time, but he can’t have been in this penthouse for five days solid, just drinking. Surely he would be dead?

And then the silence falls again and I find myself back on the chair opposite him, twiddling my thumbs and searching my brain for the right thing to say. I hate this. I wouldn’t usually think twice about diving on him and throwing my arms around him, letting him smother me completely, but he’s so delicate at the moment, which is crazy, considering his tall, if a bit leaner frame. My strong rogue is reduced to a shaking mess. It’s killing me. And on top of all that, I don’t even know if he would want me to. I’m not sure I really want to either. This man is not the man I fell in love with. Is this the real Jesse?

He sits and fiddles with his glass thoughtfully, the familiar sight of the cogs turning is comforting, it’s a little piece of him that I recognise, but I can’t bear this silence. ‘Jesse, is there anything I can do?’ I ask despairingly, while silently pleading for him to give me something – anything.

He sighs. ‘There are lots of things you can do, Ava. But I can’t ask you to do any of them.’ He doesn’t look at me.

I want to scream at him, tell him what he’s done to me. Sat here looking at him, all disheveled and tracing the rim of his glass, is just reinforcing the sensible side of my brain’s instinct to run.

‘Do you want a shower?’ I ask. I can’t sit in silence anymore. I’ll tear my hair out.

He leans forward and winces. ‘Sure.’ he murmurs.

I watch him struggle to his feet, and I feel like a cold cow for not helping him, but I don’t know if he wants me to, and I’m not sure that I can. The atmosphere between us is so awkward.

As he stands, the blankets fall to his feet and he looks down at his n**ed body. ‘Shit.’ he curses, reaching down to retrieve one of the blankets. He wraps it around his waist and turns towards me. ‘I’m sorry.’ he says on a shrug.

Sorry?

Like I haven’t seen it all before – lots, in fact. In his words, there is not a place on my body that hasn’t had him in it, on it or over it.

My shoulders droop and I sigh as I start walking with him up the stairs to the master-suite. It takes a while and we’re surrounded by an uncomfortable silence the whole way, but we make it, eventually. I don’t know how much longer I can stay here. This is a million miles away from what I’m used to with this man.

‘Would a bath be better?’ I ask, walking ahead into the bathroom. He looks exhausted after his trek up the stairs, so standing in the shower isn’t going to be fun. A good muscle soak in the bath will probably help.

He shrugs again. ‘I suppose.’

Okay, I’ll run him a bath, and then I’m leaving. I can’t do this. This is the man who I was beginning to think I knew, who I was desperately hoping I knew, but I’m destroyed to discover that I don’t know him at all – not even a little bit. I’ll ring John and see what he suggests. I’m not cut out for this. He is inhibited, withdrawn and all of the hurtful things that he bellowed at me during our altercation are getting louder and clearer the longer this goes on. Why did I get into that elevator?

I turn the giant mixer tap on and run my hand under it until the temperature is right, while trying my hardest not to think about tub talk and the fact that Jesse is a self-proclaimed bath man now – but only when I’m in there with him. I push the button for the plug and let the water run, knowing the giant thing will take an age to fill.

I turn and come face to face with the vanity unit. That is where we had our first sexual encounter. This bathroom is where we showered together, bathed together and had many steamy sex sessions together. It’s also where I last saw him.

Stop!

I shake my thoughts away and busy myself finding some bath soak and generally pottering about, while Jesse stands propped up against the wall in silence. As I knew it would, the bath takes forever to fill, and I begin to wish I had just shoved him in the shower.

Finally, it’s full enough. ‘There.’ I say shortly, walking out of the bathroom. I’ve never felt compelled to escape his presence. I’ve stormed off in strops and evaded his touch for fear of losing my mind, but I’ve never really wanted to leave. I do now.

‘You’re acting like a stranger.’ he says softly, just as I reach the door, stopping me in my tracks. This is so very painful.

I don’t turn around. ‘I feel like a stranger.’ I say quietly, swallowing hard and trying to prevent the shakes that are threatening to invade my body.

Silence settles again, different instructions tangling in my head. I really don’t know what to do for the best. I thought the pain couldn’t get any worse. I thought I was in the lowest level of hell already. I was wrong. Seeing him like this is crippling me. I need to leave and continue with my battle to get over this man. I feel like I’ve been knocked back a few steps, now that I’ve seen him again, but the truth is, I hadn’t really made any progression in my recovery. If anything, this will make the whole painful process easier.

‘Please look at me, Ava.’

My heart sprints up to my throat at his words that are a plea rather than the usual demand. Even his voice sounds different. It’s not the familiar deep, husky, sexy rumble I know. Now, it is cracked and broken. He is cracked and broken, which means I am cracked and broken.

I slowly pivot to face the man who is a stranger to me, finding his bottom lip wedged between his teeth as he looks at me through hollow green eyes. ‘I can’t do this.’ I turn and leave, my heart hammering, but getting slower at the same time. It’s going to stop soon.

‘Ava!’

I hear him coming after me, but I don’t look back. He’s not at full strength, so this might be the only time I actually get away from him. What was I thinking coming here? Flashbacks of last Sunday overwhelm my head as I take the stairs fast, my vision blurry, my legs numb.

As I hit the bottom of the staircase, I feel the familiar grip of his hand around my wrist, and I panic, flying around to push him away from me. ‘No!’ I scream, frantically trying to release myself from his harsh hold. ‘Don’t touch me!’

‘Ava, don’t do this.’ he pleads, grabbing my other wrist and holding me in front of him. ‘Stop!’

I crumble to the floor, feeling helpless and fragile. I’m already broken, but he can dish the final blow that will finish me off. ‘Please, don’t.’ I sob. ‘Please, don’t make this harder.’

He collapses to the floor with me, pulling me onto his lap and smothering me completely. I sob relentlessly into his chest. I can’t control it.

His face pushes into my hair. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers. ‘I’m so, so sorry. I don’t deserve it, but give me a chance.’ He squeezes me hard. ‘I need another chance.’

‘I don’t know what to do.’ I’m being honest. I really don’t know what to do. I feel the need to escape him, but at the same time, I feel the need to stay and let him make things better. But if I stay, will I get dealt that death blow? Or if I leave, will that be the death blow? For both of us?

All I know is the strong, firm, assertive Jesse, the Jesse who broods when I defy him, manhandles me when I threaten to leave him and f**ks me until I’m delirious. This is the furthest away from that man

‘Don’t run away from me again.’ he begs, holding me tight. I notice his shakes have subsided.

I pull back, wiping my tear stained face with the back of my hand, my eyes fixed on his stomach, his scar bigger and more obvious than ever before. I can’t look at his eyes. They are not familiar to me anymore. They are not dark with anger or sparkling with pleasure – not narrowed fiercely or hooded with lust for me. They are empty pits of nothing, with no comfort to offer me. Despite that, though, I know if I walk out of that door, I’m finished. My only hope is to stay, find the answers that I need and pray they don’t destroy me. He has the power to destroy me.

His cold hand slides under my chin and pulls my face up to his. ‘I’m going to make this all right. I’m going to make you remember, Ava.’

I stare into his eyes and see determination through the haze of green. Determination is good, but does it eradicate the pain and madness that has come before it? ‘Can you make me remember the conventional way?’ I ask seriously. It’s not a joke, although he smiles a little.

‘I’m making it my mission objective. I’ll do anything.’

His words, a repeat from the launch night of Lusso, are spoken with as much resolve as they were back then. He kept his promise to prove that I wanted him. A small flicker of hope lightens my heavy heart, and I sink my face back down into his chest, clinging onto him. I believe him.

A quiet exhale of breath escapes his lips as he pulls me closer and holds on like his life depends on it.

It probably does. And mine too.

‘Your bath will get cold.’ I mumble into his bare chest when we’re still crumpled on the floor in a firm hold some time later.

‘I’m comfy.’ he complains, and I detect a familiar piece of Jesse in his tone.

‘You need to eat as well,’ I inform him, feeling strange dishing out instructions to him. ‘And that hand needs seeing to. Does it hurt?’

‘Like hell.’ he confirms.

I’m not surprised. It looks terrible. I hope it’s not broken because five days without any medical treatment could have the bones setting out of place. ‘Come on.’ I peel myself out of his vice grip. He grumbles but releases me. Standing up, I put my hand out to him, and he looks up at me with a small smile before taking it and lifting himself from the floor.

We walk quietly up the stairs and back to the master-suite.

‘In you get.’ I order quietly, pointing at the bath.

‘Are you making demands?’ His eyebrows rise. He obviously finds the reversal peculiar too.

‘It sounds like it,’ I nod towards the bath.

He starts chewing his lip, making no attempt to get in the bath. ‘Will you get in with me?’ he asks quietly.

I suddenly feel awkward and out of place. ‘I can’t.’ I shake my head and step back slightly. This goes against all of my impulses, but I know as soon as I surrender to his affection and touch, I’ll be sidetracked from my aim to straighten my head, to get answers.

‘Ava, you’re asking me not to touch you. That goes against all of my instincts.’