I spit toothpaste all over the mirror on a shocked gasp, the toothbrush clattering into the sink. I stare down at my left hand, which suddenly feels like lead, and clench the edge of the vanity unit to steady myself. I blink a few times and shake my head, like it might go away, like it's a hallucination or something. But no, I'm face to face and being blinded by a dirty great big diamond, sitting loud and proud on my ring finger.
'Jesse!' I screech, and then start feeling my way along the edge of the vanity unit until I'm close enough to the chaise lounge to stagger and collapse onto it. My head goes between my legs as I try to control my breathing and my sprinting heart. I think I'm going to pass out.
I hear him fly through the bathroom door, but I can't persuade my heavy head to lift from between my legs. 'Ava, baby. What's wrong?' His voice is freaked as he collapses to his knees in front of me, spreading his hands on my thighs.
I can't speak. There's a lump in my throat the size of the diamond that's weighing my left hand down.
'Ava, God help me! What's happened?' He gently pulls my head up and searches out my eyes. His are flooded with despair while mine are flooded with tears. I don't know why, I've said yes, but the sudden appearance of this ring on my finger has sent the gargantuan reality crashing down around me. 'Please! Tell me.' he pleads desperately.
I swallow in an attempt to spit some words out, but it's not working, so I resort to holding my hand up. Oh, God it feels so heavy.
I watch through glazed eyes as his frown line jumps into position and he flicks his confused eyes from mine to my hand. 'You found it then?' he says dryly. 'You took your bloody time. Jesus, Ava. I had a thousand heart attacks.' He takes my hand and presses his lips to the top of it, right next to my new friend. 'Do you like it?'
'Oh God!' I cry incredulously. I'm not even going to ask how much it cost. This is too much responsibility. A rush of breath escapes my lips as I quickly lift my hand up to my chest in search of my other friend.
'It's in the safe.' He grabs my hand and pulls it down to join my other in my naked lap. I sag in relief as he rubs his thumbs over the tops of my hands and smiles. 'Tell me, do you like it?'
'You know I do.' I look down at the ring. It's platinum, without a doubt, the flat band loaded with a dazzling square cut diamond. I feel hot. 'Wait there a minute.' I look up at him. I know my brow is wrinkled in confusion. I might need that botox voucher after all. 'When did you put this on my finger?'
His lips form a straight line. 'Right after I cuffed you.'
My eyes widen. 'That's rather confident of you.'
He shrugs. 'A man can be optimistic.'
Is he for real? 'You call it optimistic. I call it pig headedness.'
He grins. 'You can call it whatever the fuck you like. She said yes.' He dives on me and tackles my naked body down to the cold, hard bathroom floor, rolling me onto my back and burying his face between my boobs. I laugh as he ravishes me.
'No!' He bites my boob and sucks it into his mouth. 'I'm marking you.' he mumbles around my flesh. Even if I could stop him, I wouldn't. He's the only one who will see me. I let him do his thing and thread my fingers through his hair, gaping again when my eyes fall on the ring. I can't believe he put it on before he asked me, the arrogant arse. How did I not notice it?
'There.' He kisses his mark chastely. 'Now we match.'
I look down at the perfect circle he has made on my breast and then to Jesse, who's studying his handiwork with satisfaction. 'Happy?' I ask.
'I am. You?'
'Good, my work here is done. Next job; feed my temptress. Up you get.' He pulls me up to my feet. 'Are you coming down anytime soon?'
'I'll be five minutes-ish.'
'Ish.' he mouths and leans in to bite my ear. 'Be quick.' He slaps my bum and leaves me again.
A huge smile spreads across my flushed face. I said yes. I have absolutely no doubts, none at all. I belong with Jesse, it just is. How crazy.
I resume teeth brushing duties, have a quick shower and shave before grabbing his dress shirt from the floor and putting it on with some jersey shorts. I cross the landing and remember the post that I've still not given to Jesse. Taking a quick detour to the cream room, I grab the post from the unit before taking the stairs, ignoring the fact that I have been away from him for twenty minutes-ish and I miss him already.
I find him in the kitchen with his finger in a jar of peanut butter while he looks intently at the screen of his laptop. I perform my usual look of disgust at the jar of peanut butter and my usual swoon at this beautiful man, before sitting myself on the stool opposite him.
'Here, I forgot to give you these.' I hand him the post and pour myself some orange juice.
'You open them.'
I spot my car keys on the worktop. 'My car's back?'
'John dropped it off.' he says, continuing to study whatever he has on the screen of his computer. I smile to myself and the image of Big John driving my little Mini. 'Are you religious?' he asks casually.
I frown into my juice. 'No.'
'Me either. Do you have any preference on dates?'
'What for?' I ask. I sound confused, which is fine because I am.
He looks up at me with a heavy frown. 'Is there any particular date you would like to become Mrs Ava Ward?'
Oh? 'I don't know,' I shrug. 'Next year, the year after.' I grab some toast and start buttering. He only asked me half an hour ago. I need a chance to wake up properly. There is plenty of time for all of that, and I need to speak to my parents, for a start.
He drops his jar of peanut butter on the marble island, making me jump. 'Next year?' he exclaims, with a look of pure disgust.
'Okay, the year after.' Next year is a bit soon, I suppose. I cut my toast in half and wrap my teeth around a corner.
'The year after?' he blurts.
I look at him and find his handsome face contorted in total disbelief. I really don't mind. The year after that then, it's no bother to me. I shrug and carry on chewing my toast.
His expression morphs into a scowl. 'We get married next month.' He picks up his jar and shoves his finger in aggressively. 'Next fucking year.' he mutters, shaking his head.
I nearly choke on my toast, and then chew frantically to rid my mouth of it. Next month? Is he mad? 'Jesse, I can't marry you next month!'
'Yes you can and you will.' he snaps without looking at me.
I withdraw slightly. I've not even told my Mum and Dad that I'm living with him, let alone marrying him. I need time. 'No, I can't.' I half laugh. He has to be joking.
His fierce eyes fly to mine and he smacks his jar down. It makes me jump again. 'Excuse me?' he says, his voice genuinely shocked.
'Jesse, my parents don't even really know about you. You can't expect me to call them up and break this sort of news down the phone.' I silently beg for him to be reasonable. I've seen that face plenty of times and it always suggests that he's not budging.
'We'll go and see them. I'm not pussy footing around, Ava.'
I take a nervous sip of my orange juice while he drills displeased eyes into me. The thought of introducing Jesse to my parents fills me with dread, and what do I tell them he does for a living? His suggestion of telling them that he owns a hotel won't wash forever.
I wilt under his fierce gaze, but I have to hold my own here. 'You're being unreasonable.' I protest quietly. We couldn't organise a wedding in a month, anyway. I take another bite of my toast and soak up the resentment emanating from every pore of my challenging man.
'Do you love me?' he asks sharply.
I look at him with narrowed eyes. 'Don't ask stupid questions.' He's impossible sometimes.
'Good,' he grunts with utter finality, returning his attention to his laptop. 'I love you too. We get married next month.'
I drop my toast in exasperation. 'Jesse, I'm not marrying you next month.' I get up from my stool and take my plate to the bin to get rid of my half eaten breakfast. I've completely lost my appetite.
'Come here.' he growls to my back.
I swing around to face him, finding the fierceness is back. What's wrong with waiting? It's only a year or two. I'm not going anywhere. 'No.' I toss at him. His eyes widen. 'And you are not going to be fucking an agreement out of me. Forget it.' I'm standing my ground here. Start as you mean to go on and all that. I'm not very confident, admittedly, but I'll try my hardest to fight him on this.
'Watch your fucking mouth, Ava.' His face screws up and his lips press into a straight line as he pins me with his glare. 'Three.'
'Oh no!' I laugh. 'Don't even think about it!' I start scanning the kitchen to plan my escape route, but with him nearer the exit than me, I'm facing immanent capture.
'Two.' He gets up and brushes his hands off.
'Jesse, you can fuck right off!' I scorn myself for my bad language, which has probably just heightened his annoyance. Swearing and defying him? Not a good combination.
'Mouth!' he barks. 'Zero.' He starts making his way around the island to me, and I instinctively start circling the other way. 'Come here.' He grinds the words out, stopping briefly before he starts coming at me from the other direction.
I ensure I remain on the other side of the island from him. 'No, what's the rush? I'm not going anywhere.' I try to reason with him. I know as soon as he has me in his potent grasp, I'm screwed.
'Damn right you're not. Why are you delaying it?' He continues calmly coming at me.
'I'm not delaying. It takes a good year to organise a wedding.'
'Not our wedding.' He thrusts his body forward threateningly, and I dive in the opposite direction. 'Stop running from me, Ava. You know it makes me crazy mad.'
'Then stop being unreasonable!' I almost laugh when he suddenly changes direction and I dive off the other way.
'Jesse!' I mock, weighing up the likelihood of making it through the arch and up the stairs before he catches me. I don't fancy my chances.
'Right!' he yells and starts sprinting towards me.
I screech and dart off towards the archway. I know I'll never make it up the stairs, so I fly into the gym and try to shut the glass door. He's up against the other side, pushing against me, but I know he's holding back so he doesn't hurt me. He could push me off my feet with a flick of his little finger.
'Let go of the door.' he yells.
'What are you going to do?'
He immediately lets up on the pressure and looks at me through the glass with slight concern etched on his face. 'What do you think I'm going to do?'
'I don't know.' I lie. I know exactly what he's going to do. He's going to hit me with a sense fuck. My busy hands pushing up against the door prevent my fingers from delving into my hair. His trepidation seems to intensify and the pressure on the door lessens further. I take advantage and slam it shut, flipping the lock.
His mouth drops open. 'You didn't just do that.' He tries the handle of the door and I step back. 'Ava, open the door.' he orders. I shake my head. His bare chest starts heaving violently. 'Ava, you know how it makes me feel if I can't lay my hands on you. Open the door.'
'No, tell me we can discuss our wedding reasonably.'
'We were.' He tries the handle again and the door shakes. 'Ava, please, open the door.'
'No, we weren't discussing it, Jesse. You were telling me how it's going to be. You've really never had a relationship, have you?'
'No. I've told you this.'
'I can tell. You're shit at it.'
His anxious, green eyes flip to mine. 'I love you.' he says softly, like that explains everything. 'Please, open the door.'
'Do you agree?' I ask. I've never had this power over him. I know how much he hates not being able to get to me and this is taking advantage of his weakness, but it's the only weakness I know, so if I have to use it, then I will, especially for something of this magnitude.
His teeth are going ten to the dozen on his bottom lip as he mulls over my demand. He sighs. 'I agree. Open the door.' He grasps the handle, but then I think of something else - something that will have cause for another countdown later. I may as well kill two birds with one stone.
'I'm going out with Kate later.' I say daringly.
His eyes bulge, as I knew they would. 'What?'
'Last night, I told you that I was going out with Kate.' I remind him.
'And? Open the door.'
'You can't stop me from seeing my friend. If I'm going to marry you, it's not so you can control my every move. I'm going out with Kate later and you're going to let me...without a fuss.' My voice is calm and assertive when inside I'm bracing myself for a sense fucking to rival all those that have come before.
'You're pushing your luck, lady.' His jaw clenches, and I exhale a weary breath.
I'm pushing my luck because I want to go out with my friend? I turn my back on him and take myself to the weights bench, sitting down and making myself comfortable. I'm not opening that door until he relents, so I might be here a while.
'Ava, what are you doing? Open the fucking door.' I watch as he shakes the door frantically. God, I love him, but he's got to ease up on the unreasonable demands and protectiveness.
'I'm not opening that door until you start being more reasonable. If you want to marry me, then you need to loosen up.'
He looks at me like I'm stupid. 'It's not unreasonable to worry about you.'
'You don't worry, Jesse, you torture yourself.'
'Open the door.' He jiggles the handle again.
'I'm going out with Kate later.'
'Fine, but you're not drinking. Open the fucking door!'
Oh yes, I should be challenging him on that too, but I think I have probably given him enough heart attacks for one morning. He looks besides himself which is ridiculous - I'm right here. I stand up and walk to the door, flipping the lock and standing back before I put him in an early grave. He barrels in and yanks me to his chest, taking us to the floor on one of the cushioned mats.
He completely smothers me with his body and breathes heavily into my hair. 'Please don't do that to me again.' he pleads, and I'm suddenly riddled with guilt. His anxiety on this matter is one of his most unreasonable parts. 'Promise me.'
'It's the only way I can get you to listen to me.' I try and placate him as I stroke his back, feeling his heart hammering against my chest.
'I'll listen. Just don't put anything between us again.'
'You can't be with me all of the time.'
'I know, but it will be on my terms when I can't be.'
I laugh and throw my arms over my head. 'What about me?'
He pulls his head back and scowls at me. 'I'll listen.' he mutters grumpily. 'You're being very challenging, wife to be.' He buries his head back into my neck on a sulk.
Oh, he is so thick skinned. I don't bother arguing with him on that, though. I had expected to be thrust up against the wall and fucked to within an inch of my life after my delinquencies, so the fact he is just holding me is a bit of a surprise. Maybe I've found my bargaining tool.
He sits up and drags me onto his lap. 'Why don't you go to The Manor for a drink?'
'Absolutely not!' I splutter.
'Why?' He looks insulted.
'So you can keep an eye on me?'
'It's logical. You can have a drink, I can make sure you're safe, and then I can bring you home.'
He really does make it sound logical, but I'm not making a rod for my own back. I'll never step foot in a bar ever again. 'No. End of.' I say firmly.
He pouts, and I shake my head to affirm my answer. And anyway, she will be there, throwing her looks and nasty little comments about. Not a chance.
'Impossible woman.' he sulks, standing with me in his arms. I'm placed on my feet and given a chaste kiss. 'I'm going to get a shower, you'll come.' He arches a suggestive eyebrow and hits me with his roguish grin. I don't mind so much when he demands things like that.
'I've had a shower.'
'Well you'll have another with me.'
'I'll be up in a minute. I need to call Kate.' I pull myself from his grip and make my way back to the kitchen. 'Where's my phone?'
'Charging on the side. Don't be long.' he calls after me.
I find my phone and ring Kate.
'Hello?' Her croaky voice comes over the phone. She sounds hung over.
'Hey, feeling bad?' I ask.
'No, tired. What time is it?'
I glance at the oven. 'Eleven.'
'Shit!' she exclaims, and I hear a commotion in the background. 'Samuel, you loser. I'm late! Ava, I'm supposed to be in Chelsea delivering a cake! I'll call you later.'
'Hey, are we still out tonight?' I shout before she hangs up on me.
'Of course. Are you still allowed?' she teases.
'Yes! I'll be at yours at seven.'
'Brill! See you then.'
I hang up and my phone immediately alerts me of a text message. I open it as the penthouse monitor system starts bleeping at me. Walking over to the cordless device that will connect me to Clive, I glance down to my screen.
My blood runs cold. It's Mikael.
I don't want to look at it, but my thumb presses down on the open button before I can convince my brain to delete it without reading it.
I can't make Monday. I'm back in Denmark temporarily. I will be in touch upon my return to re-arrange our meeting.
My stomach flies up to my mouth, choking me, and my phone starts to shake in my hand. What the hell am I going to do? I don't even consider advising Jesse of this. He'll spiral into meltdown, without a doubt. I delete the message immediately, knowing Jesse's bad phone manners will have him finding it. I don't reply either. At least I've got a bit more time to figure this out and to speak to Patrick. How long will he be gone? How long have I got to prepare for that meeting? I contemplate texting him back to tell him I already know about his wife and Jesse, but then the intercom shrieks again, startling me.
I answer to Clive. 'Ava, there's a delivery here for you. I'll be up in a minute.'
I don't have a chance to ask what it is or who it's from. Clive hangs up. I walk back into the kitchen, apprehensive and nervous, and start scrolling through my phone, searching for the PIN facility so I can prevent Jesse from intercepting any more messages that Mikael might send. He's going to get so suspicious when he finds it's got a lock on it, but I would rather deal with his slighted state than deal with a six foot three inch whirlwind flying through the penthouse. He knows that his bad phone manners annoy me, so it shouldn't be very difficult to brush this off. I have no other choice.
I make my way to the door. I'll deal with this on Monday morning when Jesse isn't within such close proximity of me and my phone. Until then, I need to put on an unaffected, relaxed face, and I really must speak to Patrick.
I open the door and hear the elevator arrive, then the unmistakable sound of Clive grumbling. Curiously walking towards the elevator, I find Clive heaving box after box and bag after bag.
'Ava, you have a serious problem. I think you are what they call a shopaholic. Do you want it all inside?' he huffs.
'Urh, yeah.' I look and see Harrods bags and gift boxes everywhere. What the hell? I'm like a spare part, holding the door open, mouth gaped, as Clive hoofs them all through and dumps them in the penthouse.
I can't believe he's done this. Why didn't I suspect something was amiss when he so willingly let me have my way when bargaining with him? Or let me think I got my way, more to the point. The man must have blown a ridiculous amount of money yesterday.
Clive dumps the last bag and starts making his way back to the door. 'That's your lot. Was there anything left?'
I look bewilderedly up at Clive's back. 'Pardon?'
He turns and frowns. 'At the store, did you buy them out?'
'Urhhh, yeah. Thanks, Clive.'
'Oh, a young lady stopped by.' Clive informs me, but then instantly snaps his mouth shut, obviously realising his error.
That soon snaps me from my dazed state. 'Really?' I blurt.
His old eyes are wide. 'Urm...I don't know...' He starts walking back. 'Actually, maybe it was for a different resident. Can't be sure.' He laughs nervously. 'It's my age.'
'Yeah, whatever, Clive. Short black hair?' I ask. He said mature when referring to the blonde wavy one, who I now know to be Mikael's wife - or ex-wife.
'Can't be sure, Ava.'
I actually feel a little sorry for him. The poor man shouldn't have to deal with this. 'Let's keep this quiet, shall we?'
'Oh?' He looks relieved.
'Yes, you don't tell Jesse about the young woman, and I won't tell anyone about our neighbours habits.'
He sucks in a sharp gasp. Oh yes. I play dirty, old man. I walk over and shut the door in his face. Can my poor brain cope with much more. I'm not telling Jesse. I don't want him contacting Coral, helping her, seeing her. I'm brimming with uncertainties and fear, battling raging jealousy and I've just set myself up for a lifetime of this. I agreed to marry him. Am I stupid?
Jesse's phone starts screaming from the kitchen, and I find myself following the ringtone until I'm stood at the island looking down at the screen. I knew who it would be before I even got a glimpse of the display. Rightly or wrongly, I answer it, disregarding my conscience that is currently advising me I'm a hypocrite.
'Coral?' I say, evenly and clearly. There is silence, but she doesn't hang up. 'Coral, what do you want?'
'Is Jesse there?' Her voice is small, and I'm a touched surprised that she hasn't hung up. I realise now that I was expecting her to, once she heard my voice. Maybe I just wanted her to be aware that I'm aware, I don't know, but she's certainly got some balls.
'He's in the shower. Can I help you?' I sound polite, but with an edge of irritation.
'No, I need to speak to him.' She doesn't sound polite. She sounds affronted.
'Coral, you need to stop bothering him.' I need to make myself clear here, seeming as Jesse has suddenly grown a conscience.
'Ava, isn't it?' she asks.
I'm not sure I like her tone. 'That's right.' I try to maintain my evenness, but I have no idea where this conversation is leading and it's making me incredibly nervous.
'Ava, he'll make you need him, then abandon you. Walk away while you still can.' She hangs up.
I stand with Jesse's phone still suspended at my ear, my eyes darting around the kitchen, my mind swamped again. I can't walk away. Not now, not ever. And he would never let me; I don't want to. I try to convince my brain that she is just envious, all of these women are jealous and slighted because Jesse played them all off, used them and tossed them away when he was bored or finished with them. That's the logical reason. I know how I felt when I was without him, so if that is how all of these women feel, then I completely get it. I also feel very sorry for them, but it's not my fault they can't stand the fact that he has changed his ways for me - not for any one of them...for me. He has stopped drinking for me. He has stopped his dabbling for me. It's his history, a nasty history, but it's his history, nevertheless. It's all historical, and I can't hold his past against him. I straighten my shoulders in my own little private display of determination. I will never walk away from him. He has made me need him, but I know he needs me too. I'm going nowhere.
Sliding his phone on the counter, I walk back into the living space and I'm instantly reminded of what had my brain in meltdown before the call from Coral. I stand with my arms hugging my body, looking at the mountain of shopping bags and boxes before me. I don't know whether to be excited or furious. He disregards my opinions and wishes at every turn, with his neurotic, challenging ways, and now I fear I'm becoming neurotic and challenging as well. He brings out the worst in me, and I know damn well I bring out the worst in him. John said as much. Easygoing, laidback Jesse Ward? No such man exists. Well, he does, when I'm complying, I saw him last night, but its times like this I easily forget about that man.
I kneel on the floor and gingerly poke one of the bags, peeking inside cautiously, like something could jump out and attack me. Huh? That wasn't in my like pile. I pull out a silk, navy Calvin Klein dress. That was in my maybe pile. I open a box and find a Chloe, structured, cream and black dress. That was in the no pile. It was way over my set price threshold.
Oh no. They've mixed it all up. I pull another bag towards me and find a pair of Diesel, baggy fitting jeans. Okay, they weren't in any pile. I work my way through all of the bags and boxes, also finding lace underwear in every design and colour you could imagine.
God only knows how long later, I'm sat in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a mass of clothes, shoes, bags and accessories. Every single item I tried on is here, except for the gown - all of the likes, the no's, the maybes and a whole lot more that I didn't try. I know there must be a mistake because even the slate Chloe dress is here, and Jesse would never have willingly bought that for me. I do love it, though.
Oh God! I flop back onto the floor and gaze up at the high ceilings of the penthouse. This is just way too much; the gown, the necklace, the ring, and now all of this. I am completely overwhelmed and feeling a bit suffocated. I don't want all of this stuff. I just want him, without the history, without the other women and without Mikael poking about.
'Hey, baby.' Jesse's wet, handsome face appears, floating above me. 'I've been waiting for you. What's up?' He pouts.
I scoff and signal in the general direction of the designer jumble sale surrounding me. Can he not see it all? He looks around, completely unfazed by the piles and piles of women's wear flanking me.
'It arrived then?' he says coolly. I make a dramatic display of throwing my arms back in exasperation, and he exhales to match my drama before lying down next to me. 'Look at me.' he orders softly. I turn my face to his and get an injection of his fresh, minty breath. 'What's the problem?'
'This is too much.' I complain. 'I just want you.'
He smiles, his eyes twinkling with pleasure. 'I'm glad, but I've never had anyone to share my money with, Ava. Please humour me.'
'People will think I'm marrying you for your money.' I say it as it is. I've already encountered the accusation.
'I couldn't give a fuck what people think. It's all about us.' He twists onto his side and pulls at my hip so I'm mirroring him. 'Now, shut up.'
'You won't have any money left if you spend like you did yesterday.' I grumble quietly. If Zoe works on commission, she could probably retire after Jesse's spending splurge yesterday.
'Ava, I said shut up.'
'Make me.' I counter on a half-smile.
And he does.
He crowds me completely and eats me alive among half of Harrods women's department.