I know if I stretch, I'll yelp really loud. The overwhelming need to spread myself out is playing havoc with my natural instinct to remain still and curtail the aching and stinging. All of the previous day's events come crashing into my head before my eyes open - all of the hideousness, all of the sounds of whips, the flashes of pain, the anguish and torment. It has all just landed with a spectacular wallop followed by a little greeting courtesy, right in my morning brain.
My eyes open and I spy Jesse sound asleep and in the same position as I last remember him being. His hand is resting on my cheek, his face close to mine, his lips parted and breathing steady, peaceful breaths into my face. He looks so serene, his long lashes fanning his face, his hair its usual morning disheveled mop of dirty blonde. He has his morning stubble and his untroubled, handsome face close to mine brings a small smile to me. Past all of his annoying, challenging ways is a deeply messed up man, who drinks, fucks and has had himself whipped to punish himself. I'm a huge contributing factor to his sorry state, but if it's as he says and he punished himself because he thinks he deserves it, that everything happening is because of his past, then I may as well lock myself up in a glass case for the rest of my life.
I watch as his eyelids flicker and slowly open, blinking a few times before he focuses in on me. I can see from the ticking of his minds cogs that his pre-awake brain is being flooded with information and reminders that will bring him back up to speed with where we are and why. It takes a few silent moments, but he eventually sighs and inches himself closer to me until we are nose to nose, him on his side and me still on my front. I don't feel close enough. I pull my arms from under the pillow and shift myself on a few winces until I'm on my side reflecting him. His hand rests on my hip to steady me and he moves closer still, his body pressed to the front of mine, our noses touching again.
'It is possible.' I whisper through the incredible dryness of my throat. 'To understand how you feel about me, it is possible.'
'You did this to yourself to prove you love me?'
'No, you know I love you. I did it to show you what it feels like.'
His brow furrows deeply. 'I don't understand. I know what it feels like to be whipped.'
'I don't mean that. I mean the agony of seeing the man I love hurting himself.' I bring my hand up and stroke his stubble, and I see him begin to grasp my point. 'Nothing will ever hurt me as much as seeing you doing that to yourself. That will kill me, nothing else. If you punish yourself again, then I will too.' My voice is slightly shaky just at the thought of ever having to face another day like yesterday. I've just threatened him and if he loves me like he claims he does, then my request should be a very easy one for him to fulfil.
His eyes dart around a bit and he chews his lip as he starts shaking his head ever so faintly. His eyes fall back onto mine. 'You love me.'
'I need you. I need you strong and healthy. I need you to understand how much I love you. I need you to know that I can't be without you either. I would die before losing you too.'
He shakes his head. 'I don't deserve you, Ava. Not after the life I've lived. I've never had anything I've valued or wanted to protect. Now I have, and it's a bizarre mixture of total happiness and complete fucking fear.' His eyes scan every inch of my face. 'I filled an empty existence with drink and women. I've never cared. I've hurt the most precious thing in my life and I can't cope with that.'
'I've made you like this.'
His frown line slips onto his forehead, but he doesn't argue with my statement. I have made him like this. 'I crave control with you, Ava. I can't help it. I really can't.'
'I know.' I sigh, 'I know you can't.' I move into his chest and soak up his heat. For once, I feel like I completely understand him. He's had an irrepressible existence - a life of not caring, of unfeeling and complete disorder. He doesn't know what to do with all of this new found emotion.
'You're hurting because of me.' he says into my hair.
'And you are because of me.' I affirm, harshly. 'We deal with the past. As long as I have you, the strong you, then we deal with it. It's not your history that is hurting me. It's you. The things you are doing now.' I'm aware of my mind pointing out that I've been struggling to deal with Jesse's past, but that is just raging jealously, not heart splintering pain. I have to learn to deal with it.
I'm pulled from his chest. His eyes are glazed, his chin trembling. 'You're crazy mad.' he says softly, pushing his lips to mine 'Crazy, crazy mad.'
I welcome his soft lips onto mine. It's about the only part of me I can move without pain slicing me. 'I'm crazy in love with you. Please don't do that to yourself again. My back hurts.'
He pulls back on a mild scowl. 'I'm still furious with you.'
'I'm not very happy with you either.' I retort quietly.
'I can't touch you.' he grumbles, kissing me again, all over my face.
'I know. How's your back?'
He scoffs and continues covering my face with his lips. 'I'm fine. I'm just pissed at you. We need to get you moving or you'll cease up.'
'I'm happy to cease up.' I argue. I'm happy to lay here and have him kiss me from head to toe.
'Not a chance, lady. You need a lavender bath and some cream on your back. I can't believe out of all of my members, you picked the most unstable one.'
'I did?' I ask. I wasn't to know. I just handed the whip to the first man who would take it.
'You did.' He drags his mouth away from my face and narrows displeased eyes on me. 'John and I were due to have a meeting today to discuss revoking his membership. We've been monitoring him for a while. His behaviour has become a little erratic lately and while some of the women welcome the rough side of his sexual exploits, others not so much. He makes some women uncomfortable and that's a problem.' A look of regret washes over his face, and I know he's thinking that he should have kicked Steve out sooner. 'He hadn't done anything to warrant us getting rid of him until last night.'
'I asked him.' I try and ease Jesse's guilt. I don't want a repeat of all this.
'There are rules, Ava.' He kisses me, biting my bottom lip lightly. 'Did he give you an out?'
'No.' I realise how stupid I was now.
'The list of his offenses goes on and on. He's broken a lot of rules. He's got to go.'
'I don't remember him. He wasn't at the anniversary party.' I would have remembered that cocky face.
'No, he was on duty.'
Jesse smiles. It's a welcome sight. 'He's a cop.'
I cough, and then wince. 'What?'
'He's a copper.' His eyebrows rise in a yes-you-heard-me-right gesture.
Steve's a policeman? 'You threatened to kill a cop?'
'I was crazy mad.' He pushes my hair from my face and gazes at me thoughtfully. 'I've been thinking.'
I don't like the sound of that. He doesn't look like he does either. 'What about?'
'Well, about a lot of things. But the first thing is that I need to talk to Patrick about Van Der Haus.'
I knew I wasn't going to like what he said, but I can't see any way around this. Mikael is probably the equivalent of Patrick's retirement fund, and I know he's going to probably pass out with shock when I tell him that I can't work with Mikael anymore. I really can't, and I've not even told Jesse about the text message. But he has just confirmed that he thinks it was Mikael in that footage too.
Oh God. 'It's Monday!' I blurt, shifting a little in an attempt to get myself up.
His hands swiftly press into my shoulders, pushing me back down. 'Do you honestly think I'm letting you go anywhere?' He shakes his head. 'Listen, that's not the only thing I've been thinking about.' He commences chomp on his lip.
Oh no. What is he thinking about? 'What?' I ask quietly. He's not even elaborated on his thoughts of Mikael, although I know exactly where he's going with it.
He pushes himself in closer to me. 'I can't ever be without you.'
'I know that.'
'But it's not because I'm worried about reverting back to my old ways. I love you because you give me purpose. You've filled a massive hole with your beautiful face and your spirit, and while I might be making your life a little more difficult with my challenging ways...' He raises a sarcastic eyebrow. 'I want to throw that right back at you.'
I laugh hard and wince immediately afterwards, but Jesse doesn't join me in my hysterics. His lips purse and his grip increases on my hip. 'I am not challenging, Jesse Ward.' His eyebrows jump higher. He obviously disagrees, but I slap my hand over his mouth to halt his counter attack. 'You just said that I've filled a massive hole with my spirit...'
'And your beautiful face.' he mumbles into my hand.
I roll my eyes. 'Part of that spirit is my incessant need to challenge your challenging ways. You'll never get rid of that tiny part of me that rebels against you and you wouldn't want to. That's what makes me different from all the women of The Manor, who've licked your boots for far too long,' It's me who raises a sarcastic eyebrow now, and his eyes narrow slightly in return. I'm delivering these words to a man who is so incredibly thick skinned and unreasonable, I wouldn't be surprised if he laughed in my face, but I continue anyway. 'I've given myself to you completely. Every part of me is yours. No one will ever take me away from you. Not ever. And I know part of your issue is keeping me as far away from what the other women in your life represent.'
'There have been no other women in my life!' he argues through my hand.
I push it harder to his lips. 'But I need to know something.'
His eyebrows rise. He can't answer because my hand is too tight on his lips.
'You want to keep me as far away from the women of The Manor, but what about the sex?' I can feel him grinning against my palm. He finds this a funny question? I take my hand away from his mouth. Yes, he's grinning that roguish grin. It's a lovely sight, even if I'm not happy about his amusement at my question. He goes out of his way to dress me suitably, according to him, makes me wear lace - that request is suddenly very obvious - and he doesn't want me to drink.
The reason for that has just landed with an enormous smack in my brain. 'You don't like me drinking because you think I'm going to do what you used to do when you were drunk. You think I'm going to want to fuck everything in sight!' I practically screech the words at him and his grin soon disappears. I've not even given him a chance to answer my previous question and I'm lobbing him another. Well not a question; more of a conclusion.
'Will you stop fucking swearing?' He rolls onto his back, without so much as a hiss or spit of pain.
Oh no. I scramble up, ignoring my own pain, and straddle him. 'It is, isn't it? That's the reason.'
I watch as he absorbs my words. He can't possibly argue with it, I know I've got him here. He takes a deep breath and opens his mouth to talk, but nothing comes out. He takes another but still, nothing comes out. He does this three times before he eventually speaks. 'It's not just that, Ava. You're vulnerable when you're drunk.'
'But it is part of the reason, isn't it?' I know the other part is men assuming I'm fair game. He already admitted that.
'Yes, I guess so.' he admits.
'Okay, what about the sex?' This I really need to know. He wants to make me the opposite of all things Manor-ish, yet he fucks me stupid.
The grin is back. 'I already told you this. I can't get close enough to you.'
'Sleepy sex achieves that.' I scoff. I'm not going to push this too far. I love dominant Jesse.
'Yes, it does, but we have an incredible chemistry. I've never felt it before.'
My heart gallops in my chest and for the first time in nearly a day, it's with happiness. He's never felt it before? But he's slept with dozens of women, or is it hundreds? My smile disappears instantly. 'What feelings?'
His hands rest on my thighs. 'It's pure bliss, baby. Total gratification. Absolute, complete earth shifting, universe shaking love.'
My smiles back. 'Yeah?'
'Oh yeah. Complete heaven.'
I fall forward onto his chest. 'Ouch!'
'Careful,' He pushes me back up. 'Does it hurt bad?' A flash of anger flies through his eyes as he waits for my answer, and I pray that John has sent Steve packing before Jesse gets hold of him. I still can't believe he's a Policeman.
'It's fine.' I shift. 'What am I going to do about work?' I ask. Where has this weekend gone? I inwardly laugh. It's gone on lavish shopping trips, lavish food, lavish jewellery, lavish lace dresses, a lavish party, a peculiar marriage proposal, lots of incredible sex, date rape, whippings...I groan. It's been one hell of a weekend.
'Unravel your knickers. I've spoken to Patrick.' Jesse sits up and shifts us to the edge of the bed.
He has? 'Is there anyone in my life who you haven't trampled?' I ask dryly.
He stands and places me on my feet, his wonderful nakedness right in front of me. 'Don't be cheeky.' He warns with total seriousness. 'There are no whip marks on your arse, lady. Anyway, why does our home look like it's been ransacked by burglars?'
Oh, I forgot about that. How could I. 'I was looking for something.'
He frowns. 'What?' he asks, but I detect a hint of cautiousness.
I study him, assessing his expression and his body language. I can't fathom it at all. 'Nothing.'
He turns me away from him and starts walking me to the bathroom with one hand on my elbow and another cupping my bum. His lack of curiosity as to what I was looking for has only heightened my suspicions. He would never usually accept such a vague answer to one of his questions.
'What did you tell Patrick?' I ask as he lifts me onto the vanity unit.
'I told him that you passed out on Saturday and put your back out.'
Oh? Good thinking. 'Did he not think it strange that you called him?'
'I don't know and I don't really care.' He starts drawing a bath and comes back over to me. 'Look what you've done to your beautiful body.' he says quietly, gazing over my shoulder to my bare back in the reflection of the mirror. 'I won't be taking you on your back for a while.'
A wave of disappointment travels through me as I glance over my shoulder. 'Is that it?' I blurt incredulously. I feel like I've been skinned alive and all I've got to show for my torture are a few long, red welts and one with a sliver of dried blood.
'What do you mean, is that it?' He sounds angry.
I drag my eyes away from my pitiful wounds on a scowl and look at Jesse, who is displaying a similar expression to mine, but probably fiercer. I grab his hips. 'Turn around.' I order as I push him to guide his reluctant, lean body away from me. His back comes into view and I gasp. Now that's what I'm talking about. He has double the amount of lash marks, more blood and generally more to show for the shitty day we had yesterday. 'See, yours are better than mine.'
What am I saying?
He flies back around and I just about manage to release his waist before I'm dragged off the unit and onto the floor. He pins me with an incensed stare and grabs the tops of my arms, shaking me slightly. 'Shut up, Ava!'
'Sorry!' The word flies out my mouth without much prompt. Why am I talking such rubbish? 'It just hurts so much. I thought it would look a lot worse than that.'
'It's fucking bad enough!' He drops me and returns to the bath, pouring in some lavender oil and swishing the water with his hand.
That really was a stupid thing to say. I deserved that. 'I said, I'm sorry.' I grumble, but he ignores me.
I cock my head to the side and admire his firm nakedness as I swing my legs and roll my shoulders in an attempt to work some flex back into them. I need to relax. I can feel my muscles knotting across my shoulders. I sit patiently on the vanity unit while Jesse goes about getting towels and the shampoo and conditioner, setting them on the side of the bath before collecting up the mess I've made. He does it all in complete silence, not looking at me once. He knows what I've been looking for.
'Off .' He offers his hand and an expectant face, but I decline and slide off the unit with care, removing my knickers and taking myself to the bath. I step in and gingerly lower myself into the stinging water. I ignore the grunt of disapproval that Jesse fires off at my rejection. I'm too busy clenching my teeth and concentrating on getting myself under the water which soon starts soothing rather than stabbing at my back. I lay back and close my eyes on an appreciative sigh.
I can feel him watching me. I open one eye and I'm met by two eyebrows kissing his hairline as he jerks his head in a move gesture. I make a point of demonstrating the inconvenience he's causing me by taking my time and huffing a lot as I shift forward in the bath to make room for him. I don't know why I'm being insolent. Well, I do. I'm pissed that my war wounds are pitiful compared to Jesse's and I'm the one wincing, hissing and generally behaving like I've been stoned whilst naked.
He climbs in and sinks down behind me, without so much as a huff of discomfort as the water coats his back. He clasps his hands over my shoulders and gently tugs, easing me back against him. 'Don't fight me.' He bites my ear, and I squirm. His legs bend up and he wraps his arms around my neck so I'm completely swathed in him.
Right then. Now for the tub talk.
I rest my head back against his shoulder and relish his morning stubble grazing the side of my face. 'So, Steve is out on his arse?' I ask coolly.
'No questions asked?'
'Not one, except whether he would prefer burial or cremation.' he says sardonically, and I believe him. His answer, although brutal and a tad over-the-top, is just the response I was hoping for. 'Am I hurting you?' he asks.
'No, I'm fine.' I assure him. He squeezes a little harder, but our slippery bodies are preventing the drag of skin. 'So, does the same apply to Sarah?'
He pauses mid-nuzzle, and I continue my slow, feathery circles of his thighs with my index fingers, as if I haven't just said that. What's good for the goose and all that, plus, Steve has no sexual interest in me. Sarah, quite clearly, has an active interest in Jesse and as my thick skinned man seems to be oblivious to her romantic pursuit, it's down to me to instigate damage control.
'What has Sarah got to do with this?' He sounds really perplexed.
If he could see me, he would see a screwed up face of disbelief. He cannot be serious. I must not lose my head. 'She hurt you.'
'I asked her to.'
'I asked Steve to.' I counter calmly.
'Yes, but Steve knew you were off limits, that you are mine. He crossed a clear line that I drew and not just with who he practiced his shit on, but also how he carried it out, although the former is my ultimate bone of contention.' He bites my earlobe to make sure I know he means me. Who else? 'He accepted a whip from someone he hadn't met before and never even clarified the limits. You could have been mentally unstable for all he knew.'
'I probably was at that specific moment.' I mutter. 'And anyway, you're mine. You're off limits too, you know.'
'I know.' he says softly. 'I know, baby. Never again, but I think you've demonstrated your grievance with Sarah.' he adds sarcastically.
I smile smugly. Yes, I have, but I still want her out on her arse. 'So, you're not getting rid of her?' I ask, although, begrudgingly, I already know the answer to that question.
'She's an employee and a close friend. I can't sack her for doing something I asked her to, Ava.'
I sigh heavily, blatantly wanting him to be aware that I'm not happy about this. A friend? A close friend? 'She planned it, Jesse.'
'What do you mean, she planned it?'
'The text that I got from John.'
'The one she sent from John's phone saying I should go to The Manor.' I'm going to get nowhere with this, I know it.
'You think Sarah lifted John's phone and sent you a text?'
'Don't be daft!'
'I'm not being daft!' I screech. 'I have it on my phone, I'll show you.'
'Ava, Sarah wouldn't do that.'
Oh, please! She's supposed to be his friend. He obviously doesn't know her very well. I've had the pleasure of her for only a month-ish, and I worked her out within a second of meeting her. He is so thick skinned. 'Do you think I imagined it?'
'No, I'm thinking that you were drugged on Saturday night and maybe you've made a mistake.' he says all soothingly. I don't appreciate it. I didn't bloody imagine it!
'I'll show you.' I sound like a stroppy teenager. 'She wants you.'
'Well she can't have me, she knows that. I belong to you.' He presses his lips to the side of my face.
'You do.' I huff, pushing my cheek into his kiss.
This is a bit difficult. Jesse is right; he can't dismiss her from his employment for doing something that he asked her to do, which absolutely stinks because I can't imagine he would be of the same opinion if the boot was on the other foot. My only comfort is the knowledge that Jesse has absolutely no interest in her and of that, I am completely sure. I'm not going to burden him with my bitchy streak. I will reserve that for Sarah when necessary, and for all of the other women who are lacking any self-respect. Damage control will be tricky when there are so many of these bloody leeches. I'm pissed that he can't see her for what she is.
'Lean forward so I can bathe your back.' He pushes me forward by my shoulders, and I reluctantly sit up. 'I'll be gentle.'
'I like you rough.' I say cheekily.
'Ava, don't say things like that when I'm in no position to violate you.' he scorns me, and gently squeezes the sponge over my back. He drops tender kisses wherever he can between his delicate strokes, and I close my eyes dreamily. It's so easy to forget the challenges when he's like this. 'Let's get your hair washed.'
I let him bathe me, wash my hair and generally tend to my every bath time need before he wraps me in a towel and lays me on the bed. 'This might be a bit cold.' he says as he straddles my bum and squeezes some cream onto my back. My shoulder blades fly up and tense. 'Shhhhh,' he hushes me. 'You won't be doing this again, will you?' he teases as he starts dabbing the cream in gently.
'I will if you do.' I grumble, burying my face in the pillow, sending a small prayer to God that he won't.
He starts small, tender strokes across my back, getting me used to the friction before working the cream into the welts once I've relaxed a bit more. It's not bad at all. The warm fluidity of his big hands gliding all over my back soon becomes hypnotising, and I'm more than aware of something hard and moist probing at my lower back. I smile to myself. He will never keep his hands off me for long, and I hope he doesn't. But he'll be wearing a condom.
I'm massaged until all of the tightness has been rubbed away and my back feels something closer to normalcy.
Both of our heads snap up at the sound of Cathy's voice drifting into the room.
'Shit!' Jesse curses, jumping up from my body. 'I forgot to call Cathy.' He disappears into the wardrobe and reappears in some jeans and a pale blue t-shirt. 'Up you get.' He grasps my waist and pulls me from the mattress. 'I need to feed you.'
'I'm not hungry.'
'You will eat. Your stomach must be completely empty after you released the contents of it all over my office floor.'
I cringe. 'I'm sorry.' I wonder who got the pleasure of clearing that up. Sarah, I hope.
'Don't be sorry. Get some clothes on. I'll meet you in the kitchen.' He kisses me chastely and leaves me to sort myself out.
I roll my shoulders. His magic hands really are quite magic. I feel heaps better. I set about drying my hair and throwing my old soft, ripped jeans on and a white oversized t-shirt that won't grip my back too much before making my way downstairs.
'Good morning, Ava.' Cathy smiles kindly as she looks up from loading the dishwasher.
I lift myself up on the stool next to Jesse and he leans over to inhale my freshly washed hair. 'Hi, Cathy, how are you?' I beat him away, and he growls at me before wiping a blob of peanut butter across my bottom lip. My tongue automatically sets about clearing it away. 'Oh, God!' I screw my face up in distaste and he laughs before pulling me closer and licking it away for me.
'Yum.' He smiles and plants a wet peanut butter flavoured kiss on my lips. I wipe my mouth and return my attention back to Cathy, finding her regarding our little exchange with a small smile on her thin lips. I blush profusely.
'I'm very well, Ava. Would you like some breakfast? Salmon?'
'Oh, yes please.' I say gratefully and she nods her head, wipes her hands on her crisp, white apron and heads for the fridge. I glance around the kitchen and see all of my mess has been cleared up.
'We have some news, Cathy.' Jesse chirps up.
He's surely not going to be advising her of the last few days' events? I turn a frown on him, but he ignores me. 'Ava will soon be Mrs Ward.'
My mouth falls open, but he still ignores me. Blimey Christ. I'd forgotten about that. How could I?
'Oh, how wonderful!' Cathy places the eggs and salmon on the island and makes her way around to clench me into a tight squeeze. 'Oh, I'm so happy.' she sings in my ear. I clench my teeth as she makes a meal of rubbing my back while I'm still sat on the stool. She pulls back and wraps her palms around my face. 'I can't tell you how happy that makes me. He's a good boy.' She lands a sloppy kiss on my cheek and releases me. 'Come here, you.' She takes Jesse in an equally enthusiastic hug and he accepts willingly, with no sign of a hiss or wince. He looks at me over Cathy's shoulder as I gape at him.
After the events of last night, I had - quite mistakenly, it would seem - assumed that matter was up for review. My ring has disappeared from my finger and when he asked me if I would still marry him, I had said I couldn't. Don't we need to figure out the boat load of shit that has developed over the weekend? Our insecurities, Sarah, Coral, Mikael...
He has completely disregarded me. I've not even spoken to my parents yet. If I am marrying this challenging arse, then they should know first.
'My boy is finally settling down.' Cathy squeezes his cheeks and lands him with a kiss to match my own. She is behaving like a proud mother. It makes me wonder about the history of Cathy and Jesse's relationship. It seems to be more than an employee/employer concern. She releases Jesse from her slightly wrinkled hands and pulls her apron up to wipe her eyes on a sniffle. She's crying?
'Cathy, stop that!' Jesse admonishes her.
'I'm sorry.' She composes herself and returns to preparing breakfast with a wide smile on her face. 'So, where and when?'
I cringe and reach over for the coffee pot. This is where the fireworks might start flying.
'Next month at The Manor.' Jesse informs her confidently.
I clank the coffee pot against the side of the mug and then swing me eyes onto Jesse. 'Really?' I am not getting married at The Manor! Is he winding me up? Oh God, I've come over all sweaty at the thought of my parents roaming around the building and grounds. Would they work it out?
'Really.' he counters coolly. It hasn't taken long for the challenging arse who drives me insane to return.
'How lovely.' Cathy chirps.
My eyes fly from Jesse to her. Does she know what The Manor is? I feel like I'm in the twilight zone.
'It will be.' Jesse agrees. He screws the lid of the peanut butter back onto the jar and starts picking at the label, ignoring my stunned expression, which is firmly rooted on his profile. I watch as he looks at me out the corner of his eye and starts chewing his lip as he rolls up a piece of the label and flicks it onto the worktop.
I exhale slowly in an attempt to cool my fraying patience and grab the small piece of rubbish from the marble. What happened to discussing our wedding together?
Lowering myself from the stool, I head for the bin, just for something to do other than kick him in the shins. I pause behind him and push my mouth to his ear. 'Who are you marrying?' I ask quietly, before I carry on my way to the bin.
'Compensation.' he growls. 'I'll trample, Ava.'
'Pardon?' Cathy turns from the hob.
'Nothing.' we say in unison, before our scowls collide in the space between us. The hostility emanating from his body is palpable. This weekend has just proved that we need to be focusing our attentions on other more important issues, like filling each other with the reassurance that we both obviously need.
I stamp on the bin pedal and throw my miniscule piece of rubbish in, but something glimmers at me from the dark depths, catching my eye. I reach in on a frown and pull out one half of a silver and white card. It's a wedding invitation. I turn it around and tilt my head before looking back into the bin. I retrieve the other half and hold them together.
Mr & Mrs Henry Ward request the pleasure of your company to the wedding of their daughter, Miss Amalie Ward, to Dr David Garcia.
The invitation is swiped from my grasp and stuffed back in the bin, and I'm yanked back over to the kitchen island in a complete daze. 'Sit.' he demands in that tone - the one that I know not to ignore. I'm lifted onto a stool with care, and I look up to find a ticking jaw and bulging neck muscles.
'Your sister?' I ask quietly.
'Leave it.' he warns without looking at me.
My mind starts racing. We haven't spoken about his parents much, but what I do know is that he hasn't seen them for years. Is that their choice or Jesse's? If they are sending him an invitation to his sister's wedding, then I'm guessing it must be Jesse's. With the added clue of a sabotaged invite strewn without thought into the bin, it most certainly is Jesse's choice. I study his profile, but dare not say a word.
'Here you are.' Cathy presents me and Jesse with our breakfast and then stuffs a duster in the front of her apron. 'I'll leave you to eat in peace.'
'Thank you, Cathy.' Jesse says with zero gratitude.
I can't even speak. I start picking at the edges of my salmon bagel in an awkward silence and after an eternity of quiet, I finally relent and lower myself from my stool.
'Where are you going?' he asks shortly.
'Upstairs.' I make my way from the kitchen, leaving my breakfast untouched. Jesse and the constant challenges surrounding him are doing my appetite no favours.
'Ava, don't walk away from me.' he threatens. I ignore him. 'Ava!'
I swing around. 'You are more than crazy mad if you think I'm marrying you, Jesse.' I say calmly before leaving a face full of hurt in the kitchen. I half expect to get tackled to the ground, but much to my complete surprise - and worry - I'm allowed to leave the kitchen, taking myself up to the master-suite without so much as a countdown or a Jesse style sense fuck. I'm delicate at the moment so no manhandling is possible. It's probably killing him.
I see Cathy in my favourite spare room, dusting to her hearts content while singing Valarie. She brings a small smile to my face. Shutting the bedroom door softly behind me, I go and brush my teeth. I'll go to work. I'm not hanging around the tower all day like a spare part and my back feels all right, if I don't make too many sudden movements. I will just be under Cathy's feet, and I would rather face Patrick and his certain questioning with regards to mine and Jesse's relationship.
I flick through the rails and rails of new dresses and settle on one of my old ones. I get changed and slip my heels on before presenting myself to the mirror to put some make up on.
The bedroom door opens. 'Where are you going?' he asks, with a hint of apprehension in his voice. That would be the separation under his terms rule that I'm breaking.
'I'm going to work.'
'No you're not.'
'Yes, I am.' I carry on with my make-up, ignoring his imposing body behind me. The no touching will be killing him, especially now when he wants to restrain me.
'How's your back?'
I flick my eyes to his. 'Sore.' I reply, loading my voice with warning. I take my attention back to the mirror and weep on the inside for the man stood behind me, who really doesn't know what to do with himself. His ways of dealing with me are off limits. He's truly stumped.
I finish up with my make-up and start putting my bag together. 'Where's my phone?' I ask as he lingers behind me.
'It's charging in my office.'
I'm surprised he volunteered that information. 'Thank you.' I pick my bag up and walk to the door but jump back when Jesse lands in front of me, blocking my path.
'Let's talk.' he spits the words out like they are garbage in his mouth. 'Please, don't go. I'll talk.'
'You want to talk?'
He shrugs sheepishly. 'Well, I can't fuck any sense into you, so I guess I'll have to talk some into you.' he grumbles.
'That is the conventional way of dealing with things, Jesse.'
'Yes, but my way is much more fun.' He gives me that roguish grin, and I fight to keep the smile twitching the corners of my lips. I need to keep this serious. He takes my hand and moves into me. 'I've never had to explain my life to anyone, Ava. It's not something I relish the thought of talking about.'
'I'm not marrying someone who refuses to open up. You keep holding information back and then we end up in a huge mess.'
'I didn't tell you things because I was scared you would run.'
'Jesse, I've found out some pretty shocking stuff and I'm still here.'
'I know.' he sighs. 'Ava, you know more about me than any other living soul. I've never been close to anyone, not like you. You don't tend to get caught up in conversation and life stories when you're just fucking someone.'
I wince at the reminder of his dabbling days that have only recently ended. 'Don't say things like that.' I warn.
He tugs me towards the bed. 'Sit.' he orders, pulling me down. He takes a steadying breath. 'The last time I saw my parents it didn't go particularly well. My sister was a bit underhanded and set us up to meet. My father had a rant, my mother got upset and I got very drunk, so you can imagine how it ended.'
Oh? Jesse drunk? I don't envy anyone who's had to endure a round of abuse from a drunken Jesse. 'So your sister obviously wants you to make amends.' My voice is small but hopeful.
'Amalie is a bit stubborn,' he sighs, and I laugh on the inside. Like brother like sister! 'She won't accept that too much has happened, too many harsh words exchanged over the years.' He looks up at me and I see anguish in his eyes. 'It's not fixable, Ava.'
'But they're your parents.' I can't imagine my life without my Mum and Dad. 'You're their son.'
He offers me a half smile, a smile that suggests I just don't get it, which is fine because I absolutely don't. Everything is fixable.
He sighs. 'That invitation only arrived because my sister sent it behind my parent's backs. They don't want me there. Their address was scrubbed off and replaced with Amalie's.'
'But Amalie obviously wants you there. Don't you want to see her get married?'
'I would love to see my little sister get married, but I also don't want her wedding ruined. If I go, it will end only one way. Trust me.'
'What happened to make it like this?'
His shoulders drop spectacularly and he starts circling his thumbs over my hands. I can see this is painful for him which makes it all the more frustrating to me because it shows that he does care.
'You already know that Carmichael left me The Manor when he died. Of course, when I told you that, you thought it was a hotel.' He raises his eyebrows in a semi amused gesture. I roll my eyes. Okay, so I was blind as a bat. I want to point out that it was his fault I was walking around completely oblivious, but I don't. I let him continue. 'Things were already strained after they moved to Spain and I chose to stay with Carmichael. I was eighteen, living at The Manor and I understand that it was any parent's worst nightmare.' He laughs lightly. I can imagine too. 'I slipped into a playboy lifestyle and fell harder when Carmichael died. If it wasn't for John, there probably wouldn't be a Manor. He practically ran it while I gorged on too much drink and too many women.'
'Oh.' I whisper. He gorged? I prefer dabbled.
'I calmed it down, but my parents offered me an ultimatum; The Manor or them. I chose The Manor. Carmichael was my hero, I couldn't sell up.' He finishes his little speech with utter finality.
'Your parents knew you were carrying on...' I clear my dry throat. 'Well, like you were.' I can't say it. It makes me feel sick.
'Yes and they predicted it, so you see, they were right and they've never let me forget it. I've lived a pretty sordid lifestyle, I admit that. Carmichael was the family black sheep. No one spoke to him and the family disowned him. They were embarrassed of him and then he died and I filled the shoes of the black sheep. My parents are ashamed of me. That's it.'
I recoil at the last part. 'They shouldn't be ashamed of you.' That kind of makes me mad.
'It's just the way it is.' He shrugs.
'So you've known John a long time?' If he helped run The Manor in the early days, we're talking sixteen-ish years.
'Yes, a long time.' he smiles fondly. 'He was great friends with Carmichael.'
'How old is he?'
He looks up and frowns. 'Fifty-ish, I think.'
'Well, how old was Carmichael?' I ask.
'When he died? Thirty one.'
'That young?' I blurt. I imagined him to be a long silver haired, tanned, smarmy type.
He laughs at my stunned face. 'There were ten years between my father and Carmichael. He was an afterthought on my grandparent's part.'
'Oh,' I do a quick mental calculation. 'So, there was only ten years between you and Carmichael too.'
'He was more like a brother.'
'How did he die?' I'm probably pushing my luck now, but I'm intrigued. I'm beginning to build a picture of Jesse's history, and now I'm like a dog with a bone.
Sadness washes over Jesse's face. 'In a car accident.'
'Oh.' I whisper, but then realisation dawns. My eyes drift down his stomach and linger in the area where I know his scar to be. Jesse was in the car with Carmichael. Oh God. All of those times I've probed him and badgered him about it, he said it was too painful to talk about and it really is. My one million piece Jesse jigsaw puzzle is all starting to fit together. His Mum and Dad moved to a different country, he refused to go because he wanted to stay with his uncle, who was more like a brother - I will disregard the fucking about part - and then three years later, he lost Carmichael in a tragic accident that caused major injuries to him too. It's no wonder he fell deeper into the pit of drink and sex afterwards. It all makes perfect sense now. I feel like a huge weight has just been lifted from my shoulders. Of course there is a reason for why he is like he is.
'Don't go to work.' He pulls me over onto his lap with care and nuzzles my nose with his. 'Stay at home and let me love you. I want to take you out for dinner this evening. I owe you some special time.'
I melt all over him. My new found knowledge, coupled with his reasonableness, refuses to let me say no. 'I go back to work tomorrow.' I say assertively. I need to sort out some seriously troubling issues at work. Namely...Mikael Van Der Haus. I can't even begin to imagine what Patrick is going to say.
'Fine,' He rolls his eyes. 'Right, I'm going for a run to alleviate some of the pressure that my challenging temptress presents me with, and then we snuggle all afternoon and go out for dinner. Deal?'
'Deal, but I challenge the middle part of that statement and trump it with a deluded God.'
He gives me his smile, reserved only for me, and falls back onto the bed cautiously. 'Kiss me, now.' he demands, and I dive straight in with an appreciation kiss. He's opened up and I feel so much better. Basking on Central Jesse cloud nine has resumed.