Beneath This Man (This Man #2)(6)


by Jodi Ellen Malpas

‘Jesse, please. I need time.’

‘It’s not natural, Ava. For me not to touch you, it’s not right.’

He’s right, but I can’t allow myself to get swallowed up by him. I need to keep a level head because as soon as he gets his hands on me, I’m distracted.

I don’t say anything. I just look at the bath again before returning my eyes to him. He shakes his head, un-wrapping the blanket from around his waist before stepping into the bath and lowering himself gingerly into the water. I collect a cup from the vanity unit and crouch by the side of the bath to wash his hair.

‘It’s not the same without you in here with me.’ he grumbles, leaning back and closing his eyes.

I ignore his gripe and start washing his hair and soaping his fine body from head to toe, fighting off the inevitable fizzles streaming through me at the contact.

Lingering around his scar on his abdomen thoughtfully, I quietly hope it will prompt him to explain it. It doesn’t. He keeps his eyes closed and his mouth shut. I have a feeling this is going to be a tough ride. He never volunteers information, and he dodges my questions with a stern warning or by distraction tactics. I can’t let that happen again. This is going to take all of my strength and willpower. It’s just not natural for me to evade him.

I run my hand down his rough face. ‘You need a shave.’

He opens his eyes and cups his chin with his good hand, stroking his stubble. ‘You don’t like it?’

‘I like you however you come.’

Just not drunk!

The fleeting look that passes over his face nearly has me convinced he’s read my mind, but then he’s probably thinking the exact same thing. ‘I’m not touching another drop again.’ he declares confidently, ensuring he maintains our eye contact as he makes his vow.

‘You sound confident.’ I retort quietly.

‘I am.’ He sits himself up in the bath and turns to face me, lifting his battered hand to cup my face and wincing when he realises he can’t. ‘I mean it, never again. I promise you.’ He sounds so sincere. ‘I’m not a raving alcoholic, Ava. I admit I get carried away once I do have a drink and I find it hard to stop, but I can take it or leave it. I was in a bad place after you left me. I just wanted to numb the pain.’

My heart tightens in my chest, and I feel a sense of relief mixed with a little doubt. Everyone gets a little carried away when they’ve had a drink, right? ‘I came back,’ I look past him, trying to piece together what I need to say. Millions of words have been trampling my mind for days, but now I can’t think of any of them. ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Is this what you meant when you said I would cause more damage if I left?’

His head drops. ‘That was a shitty thing to say.’

‘It was.’

He returns his eyes to mine. ‘I just wanted you to stay. I was stunned when you told me that I had a nice hotel.’ He smiles a little, and I feel stupid. ‘Things got pretty intense, pretty quickly. I didn’t know how to tell you. I didn’t want you to run away again. You kept running away.’ He spells out the last four words, clearly still frustrated by my evasion of him. I was right, though. All along I was right to try and escape him.

‘I didn’t get far, did I? You wouldn’t let me.’

‘I was going to tell you. You weren’t supposed to come to The Manor like that. I wasn’t prepared, Ava.’

That much was obvious. All of the times I had been to the supposed hotel, I’d been chaperoned or confined to Jesse’s office. I’m sure people were warned off talking to me and no one approached Jesse when I was with him. And he’s right, things did get pretty intense, pretty quickly, but that was nothing to do with me. God, there is so much to talk about. I need to know things and he has got to tell me. The nasty little creature who Jesse pounded on at The Manor had some pretty interesting things to say. Has Jesse had an affair with his wife?

So many questions.

I sigh. ‘Come on, you’re pruning.’ I hold a towel up, and he mirrors my sigh before pushing himself up on the side of the bath with his good hand. He steps out and I run the towel over his body as he watches me closely.

The corners of his lips lift slightly into the semblance of a smile when I reach his neck. ‘A few weeks ago, I was nursing your hangover.’ he says quietly.

‘I bet your head is banging a lot harder than mine was.’ I dismiss his reminiscing and secure the towel around his waist. ‘Food and then the hospital.’

‘Hospital?’ he blurts, his voice startled. ‘I don’t need a hospital, Ava.’

‘Your hand.’ I clarify. He probably thinks I want to section him.

I see understanding surface in his eyes as he lifts his hand up to inspect it. The blood has all washed away, but it still looks nasty. ‘It’s fine.’ he grumbles.

‘I don’t think it is.’ I protest softly.

‘Ava, I don’t need to go to the hospital.’

‘Don’t go then.’ I turn and walk into the bedroom.

Following me in, he collapses on the end of the bed and watches as I disappear into his huge walk-in-wardrobe. I rummage through his clothes, finding him some marl grey sweatpants and a white t-shirt. He needs comfort. I retrieve some boxer shorts from his chest of drawers and walk back over to find him sprawled back on the bed. Just getting him upstairs and bathed has knackered him out. I can’t imagine a hangover on this scale.

‘Here, put these on.’ I place the clothes on the bed next to him, and he turns his head to inspect my selection, letting out a heavy, tired breath.

When he makes no attempt to dress himself, I pick up his boxers and kneel down in front of him, holding them at his feet. He’s done this to me plenty of times. I tap his ankle and he pushes himself up on the bed, looking down at me, a small twinkle lighting his eyes. It’s another familiar trait.

He silently lifts his feet into the waiting holes and stands so I can negotiate the boxers up his legs, but then his towel drops when I’m halfway up his body and I come face to face with his huge arousal.

I release his boxers and jump back from him, like it might burn me or something. Not all of him is broken then, I think to myself, trying to ignore the steel rod of flesh within touching distance. I flick a glance up to him and for the first time, his eyes sparkle fully, but it’s not a good thing. I’ve seen that look, more than once, heaps in fact, and it’s not what I need right now, although my body is completely disagreeing with my brain. I struggle to control the urge to push him on the bed and straddle him. I’m not risking sidetracking either of us with sex. There’s a lot to talk about.

He reaches down to pull his boxers up the rest of the way. ‘I’ll go to the hospital.’ he says. ‘If you want me to, then I’ll go.’

I frown at him. ‘Agreeing to have your hand looked at won’t make me fall to your feet in gratitude.’ I say curtly.

His eyes narrow slightly at my harshness. ‘I’ll let that slip.’

‘I need to feed you.’ I mutter, turning and walking out of the room, leaving Jesse to put his sweatpants and t-shirt on.

I need him to want to sort himself out, not just do things because he thinks it will get him closer to me. That won’t help. It would just be another form of manipulation, and I’ve got to avoid anything that influences the small part of my mind that is functioning correctly.

Chapter 4

I examine the contents of his fridge. There is nothing I can do with a can of squirty cream, a jar of chocolate spread or some peanut butter. There is plenty that Jesse could do, though – like make an Ava éclair. I shake my head on a shudder.

‘You have nothing.’ I say as he approaches behind me and grabs the jar of peanut butter.

He cradles the jar under his arm and unscrews the lid with his good hand, tossing it on the breakfast bar, before perching on a barstool and proceeding to dunk and lick his finger clean.

‘I’ll go to the supermarket.’ I shut the fridge door and make my way to the stairs.

He pulls his finger from his mouth. ‘I’ll come.’

‘Okay.’ I carry on my way.

‘I’ll come because I want to.’ he says quietly.

I stop in my tracks. ‘Okay.’

‘Ava, will you look at me?’ His voice is impatient. I don’t appreciate it.

I turn to face him, silently pleading with him to instigate a talk, but he just stares at me, looking almost mad.

‘I’ll get ready.’ I turn, leaving him in the kitchen.

I shower in the spare room en-suite, leaving myself standing under the hot water for an eternity, like it might wash away all of my troubles. When I eventually emerge from the shower enclosure, I search through my bags and find that Kate has, quite literally, chucked anything and everything in. I throw on a cornflower blue fifties dress which flares at the waist and my cream ballet pumps before rough drying my hair and pinning it in a low mess at the nape of my neck. A quick flick of blusher and mascara and I’m done.

I present myself to the mirror, but I don’t look much better after my attempts to make myself appear better. My eyes are probably matching Jesse’s on the hollow scale and the empty feeling that’s been lingering since last Sunday has not been filled by Jesse’s presence. Maybe I’ve got all of this wrong. Maybe I am better walking away because I certainly don’t feel any better for being here. I sigh at my reflection, willing it to give me some answers, but I know the only place I can find the answers I’m looking for is sat downstairs feasting on peanut butter. I grab my bag and make my way down to him.

He’s asleep. I look at him sat on the sofa, one leg up, one hanging off the edge, his palm resting on his chest. His mouth is slightly parted and his lashes are flickering. I leave him, taking myself to the kitchen to down my pill and use the time to send a quick text to Kate, letting her know all is fine, even though it’s not, and then I ring my brother. With all that’s happened, I forgot I’m supposed to be seeing him today.

‘Ava?’

‘Dan!’ It’s so good to hear his voice. ‘Where are you?’

‘Well, the hotel I was booked into let me down, so I’m staying with Harvey.’ he teases.

I ignore his little dig. He doesn’t care that he’s had to find somewhere else to crash. He hated Matt. ‘How are Mum and Dad?’ I ask.

‘Worried,’ he states flatly.

I knew they would be. ‘They needn’t be.’

‘Yeah, well, they are. And me too. Where are you?’

Shit!

Where am I? I can hardly tell him exactly where I am and with who. ‘Kate’s,’ I lie. It’s not like he’ll be talking to her or visiting her to discover the truth. And anyway, Mum knows I’m supposed to be at Kate’s and I’m certain she would have told him. Is he testing me?

Silence falls down the phone line at the mention of Kate’s name. ‘I see,’ he says shortly. ‘Still?’

Oh, the detachment in his voice. They haven’t seen each other for years, but time, it would appear, is not a healer. ‘It’s just temporary, Dan. I’m looking for somewhere as we speak.’ Actually, as we speak, I’m sitting in the penthouse of Lusso waiting for the Sex Lord of The Manor – who has a raging hangover and with whom I’m in love with – to wake up so I can take him to the hospital and get his hand seen to – the one that he put through a window because I pissed him off. I start pacing around the kitchen island.

‘Have you spoken to that twat of an ex?’ he asks. The spite in his voice is palpable.

‘No, but I’ve heard he’s been in touch with Mum and Dad. That’s very nice of him.’

‘Fucking prick. We need to talk about this. Mum filled me in on her little chat with Matt. I know he’s a snake, but Mum’s worried. It didn’t help you not coming down to Newquay.’