Beneath This Man

Chapter 18

My eyes are immediately blessed with masses of drool worthy handbags, but I'm not given the opportunity to look. He walks with purpose and meaning as he drags me along behind him and when we get in the elevator, he presses the button for the first floor. I scan the store guide.

'Hey, I want the fourth floor.' I would like to avoid the international collections of the first floor. They scream expensive, but he completely ignores me. 'Jesse?' I look at him and find his face is completely impassive as he keeps a firm grip of my hand. The elevator door opens and I'm pulled out behind him.

'This way.' he says, pulling me through the incredible displays of designer clothes and couture gowns. I'm glad he's bypassing those.

Oh no!

My heart sinks when I spot the sign for Personal Shopping. 'No, Jesse, no no no,' I try to stop him, but he presses forward, pulling me towards the entrance of the department. 'Jesse, please.' I plead, but again, he completely ignores me.

I want to kick him in the shins. I hate fuss and attention in stores. They kiss your arse and tell you everything looks fabulous and the whole thing makes you feel like you have to buy something. The pressure will be immense, and I dare not even think about the cost.

'I have an appointment with Zoe.' he advises the smart, suited and booted chap who greets us. Why did he ask me where we were heading if he already knew? I want to wring his neck.

'Mr Ward?' The assistant asks.

'Yes.' Jesse says, still refusing to look at me, even though he knows damn well I'm scowling heavily at him and I'm mighty uncomfortable with this.

'Please, this way. Can I get you any drinks? Champagne, perhaps?' he asks politely.

Jesse looks at me, and I shake my head. I want to cut and run straight to House of Fraser, where I can shop in peace with a can of coke and with minimum fuss.

'No, thank you.' Jesse replies. The young man leads us into a luxurious private area and Jesse pulls me over to a big, leather sofa. I sit down next to him and pull my hand out of his. This is quite possibly my worst nightmare.

'What's up?' he asks as he makes a grab for my hand again.

I look at him accusingly. 'Why did you ask me where I wanted to go if you'd already made an appointment?'

He shrugs. 'I don't understand why you would want to trail around a dozen stores when you can have everything brought to you here.'

He really doesn't understand? He's a man. What did I expect? 'Is this how you shop?' I ask. He must have more money than sense. I'm getting sweatier by the second.

'Yes, and I pay for the privilege so just humour me, will you?' he says shortly.

I look at him, completely stunned, but before I have a chance to retaliate, a young blonde haired girl appears and beams at Jesse. She's pretty and kitted out in a Ralph Lauren cream suit.

'Jesse!' she sings at him. 'How are you? He gets up and she kisses him continental style. I assume they are familiar by their exchange. How often does he come here?

'Zoe. I'm good. You?' He smiles at her. It's one of them knock out smiles - the one that reduces women to a mass of hormones at his feet.

'Great, this must be Ava. It's a pleasure to meet you.' She puts her hand out to me, and I stand to take it, offering a small smile. She's friendly enough, but I'm still not comfortable here. She sits in the chair opposite us. 'So, Ava, Jesse tells me we're looking for something special for an important party.' she says excitedly. Something special sounds like it's going to have a special price tag too.

'Something very special.' Jesse reiterates as he pulls be back down to the couch. I suddenly feel like I'm overheating, and I'm all claustrophobic in this massive room.

'Okay, what's your style, Ava? Give me an idea of what you like.' She places her hands in her lap and looks at me expectedly.

I don't know what my style is. If I like something and I feel good in it, I buy it. I can't categorise my style. 'I don't have a style really.' I shrug, and her eyes light up. That must have been a good answer.

'Lots of dresses,' Jesse interrupts. 'She likes dresses.'

'You like dresses.' I mutter, earning myself a nudge of his knee.

She smiles, revealing a perfect set of Hollywood, too white teeth. 'You're about a ten, yes?'

'Yes.' I confirm.

'Not too short.' Jesse spits quickly.

I look at him with my mouth agape. This is what I knew would happen. I'm not generally a short dress person, but he's turning me into one with his caveman attitude.

Zoe laughs. 'Jesse, she has fantastic legs. It would be a shame to waste them. What shoe size are you, Ava?'

I like her. 'I'm a five.'

'Great, let's go.' She stands, and I join her. Jesse gets up too.

'I can't believe you've done this to me.' I whine as he dips and kisses me on the cheek. I like Zoe, but I would much prefer to be left to my own devices.

He sighs. 'Ava, let me have my fun,' He leans in and crowds me. 'I get my own little fashion show with my favourite lady modeling.' He pouts.

'Who gets to pick the dress, Jesse?'

He nuzzles my nose. 'You do. I'm just observing. I promise. Go on, knock yourself out.' He sits back down on the sofa and starts making a call. I'm relieved. I don't think I could bear him following us around the store, trampling everything I give a second look at.

Zoe leads me through the department. 'So, you're being spoiled today?' she asks on a friendly smile. She is lovely, but those teeth are really very white.

'I am, under duress.' I return her smile.

'You don't want to be spoiled?' she laughs, picking up a long, green gown and presenting it to me. It's lovely but more Kate's colour than mine. I give a little apologetic shake of my head. She mirrors it. 'No, I agree. What about this one?' She places a hand on a lovely Grecian style dress.

'That's lovely.' I admit, but it also looks very expensive.

'It is. We'll try it. What about this?'

'Wow!' I blurt at the cream, tight number with a thigh high slash up the leg. 'Jesse can be a bit uptight with overexposure.' I laugh as I hold the split open. You would have to shave everything off!

'He can?' She looks at me curiously. If she says... 'He's so laidback.' she adds.

No, he's not!

I release the dress and move on to a red satin one. 'Not with me,' I mutter. 'I like this one.'

Zoe replaces her curious stare with a smile. 'Good choice. And this one?' She walks across the way and strokes a stunning cream, strapless affair. Is strapless allowed?

'It's lovely.' I agree. I can try it. I'm sure he will make it known if it's a no go. My attention is seized across the department, and I'm wandering over before I realise my legs are moving.

I run my finger lightly down the front of the black, delicate lace gown. It's beautiful.

'You absolutely must try that one.' Zoe says, joining me in front of the gown. She takes it down and turns it gently. It's attached to a security wire which can only mean one thing. 'Isn't it wonderful?' she asks dreamily.

Oh it is. It is also in the realms of ridiculously expensive if the store feels the need to wire it up. There is also no price on the tag - another tell-tale sign that I'll pass out at the price. I run my eyes down the back of the fitted dress that splays mid-thigh to pool the floor slightly. The design is simple, with a plunged V shaped back, dainty capped sleeves that fall slightly off the shoulder, and a flattering deep neckline. It absolutely screams couture.

'Jesse loves me in lace.' I muse quietly. He also loves me in black.

'Then we should definitely try,' Zoe hangs it back up. 'How long have you been seeing Jesse?' she asks casually.

The question instantly puts me on guard. What do I say? The truth is, I've been seeing him for a month-ish and a week of that was spent with Jesse drunk and me nursing a broken heart. A sudden nasty thought invades my mushy brain.

'Not long,' I try and sound as casual as Zoe when I follow it up with, 'Does he bring all of the women he dates here?'

She actually starts laughing. I don't know if that's a good thing. 'God, no! He would be bankrupt!'

It's definitely a bad thing.

She must catch my expression because she pales a little. 'Ava, I'm sorry. That came out all wrong.' She shifts uncomfortably on her heels. 'What I meant to say was if he brought all of the women he had slept...' She halts and pales further. I feel slightly sick. 'Shit!' she exclaims.

'Zoe, don't worry about it,' I turn my attention to another dress. Who am I kidding? I know he put himself about.

'Ava, he's never actually dated anyone. As far as I know, anyway. He's quite a catch. You'll be fighting the women of The Manor off, that's for sure.'

'Yeah,' I laugh lightly. I need to get away from this line of conversation. That thought - the one of Jesse with another woman - pops into my head again. Zoe clearly knows his business. 'Where to next?' I plaster on a non-jealous, unaffected face, if there is such a thing. I'm bubbling on the inside and bristling on the out. Why did he have to be such a slut?

'Shoes!' Zoe sings, leading me off towards the Egyptian elevators.

An hour later, we return to the plush personal shopping area with a young guy pulling a rail of dresses and shoes. Jesse is still sat on the sofa with his phone to his ear.

He smiles brightly and disconnects the call. 'Have fun?' he asks as he gets up and smoothers my face with his lips. 'I missed you.'

'I've been gone an hour.' I laugh and grip his shoulders as he pushes me back.

'Too long.' he grumbles. 'What have you got?' He brings me back up to vertical.

'Too much to choose from.' I say. I managed to convince Zoe to abandon the lace gown. In fact, I avoided anything that was attached to a security wire.

'Go try.' He slaps my bum, and I turn to follow Zoe and the rail into a large fitting room. Zoe's admiring face doesn't escape my notice.

For the next few hours, I'm trussed into dress after dress. I count twenty dresses, all of which are stunning and all of which Jesse approves of.

Zoe disappears for a while, leaving me to sit and wonder which bloody dress I'm going to choose. They are all too nice. My head jumps up when she walks back in with another rail of dresses, but these ones are more day dresses and evening dresses, not gowns. I look at her, completely confused.

She shrugs. 'I'm under strict orders to make you try lots of dresses, so I got these,' she says as she goes to the back of the rail. She comes back to the front holding the lace gown. 'And this too.'

'What?' I blurt, pushing myself to my feet. I'm in my underwear and gaping like a goldfish.

'Well,' She starts towards me, 'He didn't say to try this gown in particular, but he did say you must have what you want.' She smiles brightly. 'And I know you really want this one.'

'Zoe, I can't,' I stutter, trying to convince my brain that the dress is hideous - disgusting. Damn right awful. It's not bloody working.

'If it's the price that's bothering you, then don't worry. It's within the budget.' She hangs the dress on the wall hook.

'There's a budget? What's the budget?' I ask hesitantly.

She turns and grins. 'The budget is; there is no budget.'

I groan and collapse back into the chair. 'Can I ask how much it is?'

'No.' she replies cheerily. 'Put this on.' She hands me a black lace bodice. I start to get myself into it and Zoe turns me around to fasten the row of hook and eyes trailing up the back. I'm distracted from my hesitancy with the thought of Jesse's face and all this lace. I smile. He'll orgasm on the spot.

I'm helped into the gown by Zoe and presented to the oversized mirror. 'Holy shit!' she exclaims, and then slaps her hand over her mouth. 'I'm sorry. That was so unprofessional of me.'

Holy shit, indeed. I turn slightly to view the back and gasp a little. It clings to every curve I have perfectly and skims the floor when I raise on tiptoes. The lining under the lace is matt, giving the delicate, intricate pattern a shimmery effect, and the deep neck line is perfect with the cap sleeves sitting just off my shoulders, revealing my collarbones. I hear Zoe scuttle off and return.

She kneels before me. 'Put these on.' she instructs. I pull my eyes from the mirror and look down to find a pair of black, sling back Dior heels at my feet. I feel a faint coming on. I slip them on and Zoe stands back. 'Ava, you have to have this dress.' she says, deadly serious. 'Go and show Jesse.'

'No!' I blurt rudely. 'Sorry, I know he'll love it.' It's lace and it's black. He'll pool at my feet, I know he will, but what about the slight exposure of flesh? Will that be cause for my neurotic control freak to tackle me to the ground and wrap me in his body to stop anyone from seeing my skin? And, finally, how much does the damn thing cost?

I quickly battle with my conscience over the bloody dress as Zoe hands me a clutch to match the shoes. I want to cry. I knew I shouldn't have tried it on. 'Did he see it?' I turn to face Zoe and she looks at me all confused. 'This dress, did he see it on the rail when you came back?' I ask.

'No, I think he's gone to the gents.' she replies. I raise my hand to my mouth and start frantically tapping my front tooth with my nail.

'Okay, I'm having the dress, but I don't want Jesse to know.' I'm taking a risk with this. Zoe claps her hands together, and I smile at her delighted face. 'What's all this?' I point to the additional rail she's dragged in.

'He wants you to have lots of dresses.' She shrugs.

I laugh. He is taking the instant access rule way too far. I get myself out of the dress and have another stab of uncertainty as Zoe takes it and gives strict instructions to a young girl not to let Jesse see it. I start on the other dresses. I'm having three maximum and he better not argue with me.

I work off a million calories getting myself in and out of dozens of dresses. We build up a like, no and a maybe pile, and I'm surprised that I'm enjoying myself. Jesse sprawls back on the sofa and watches as I appear and disappear, wearing a different dress each time.

'She's like a clothes horse, isn't she?' Zoe muses to Jesse when I appear in a very short, Chloe, grey dress. I love it, but like all of the other dresses that have a price tag of over three hundred pounds, it will go on the no pile.

I watch as his face turns to shock. 'Get it off!' he spits, and I return to the changing room laughing. He's right, I love it, but it is way too short. It could pass for an undergarment.

I'm whacked when I'm finally finished trying everything on. I've changed more times in a couple of hours than I have this month. I go through the yes pile with Zoe and get a bit anxious when I realise just how many like items there are. I flick through the rail and try to narrow it down.

'What have we got then?' I hear him approach. I cringe.

'Oh, she's got some fabulous pieces. I'm very jealous,' Zoe says. 'I'm just going to get this all wrapped and bagged for you.'

Oh hell!

I'm even more mortified when Jesse hands Zoe a credit card. She takes it and leaves us alone.

'Jesse, I'm really not comfortable with this.' I take his hands and stand in front of him so I have his full attention.

His shoulders sag disappointedly. 'Why?' His voice is genuinely hurt.

I watch Zoe disappear with all of my likes. 'Please, I don't want you spending all of this money on me.'

'It's not all that much.' He tries to reason with me, but I saw the price tags. It's way too much, and I don't even know how much the gown is.

I look down at the floor. I don't want to get into a row in Harrods over this. I return my eyes to his. 'Just buy me a dress for tonight. That would be acceptable to me.'

'Just one dress?' he asks unhappily. 'Another five dresses and you've got a deal.'

I'm pleasantly surprised by this. 'Two.' I counter, anyway.

'Five.' he tosses back at me. 'This wasn't part of the deal.'

No it wasn't, but I don't care how old he is anymore, and I've done this meeting in the middle scenario before. I've learnt that while I maneuver, Jesse sticks exactly where he started.

I narrow my eyes on him. 'I don't care how old you are. Keep your silly little age secret.'

'Okay, but it's still five.' he says acceptingly. I suspect he was never going to keep his end of the deal, anyway. 'I've got to make a phone call.' He drops a kiss on my lips. 'You go and pick five dresses. Zoe has my card. My pin is one, nine, seven, four.'

I recoil. 'I can't believe you've just told me your pin number.'

'No secrets, remember?'

No secrets? Is he kidding me? He strolls off, and I have a sudden, delighted moment of comprehension. I do a quick mental calculation. 'You are thirty seven,' I shout to his back. He stops. 'Your pin number. You were born in seventy four.' I can't help the triumph in my voice. I've totally rumbled him. Men are so predictable. 'You didn't lie at all, did you?'

He slowly turns and flashes me his signature smile, reserved only for me, before blowing me a kiss and leaving me to go and pick my five dresses.

I walk out of the personal shopping area and find Jesse waiting for me. It didn't take me long to select my five favourite dresses.

I hand him his card and plant a kiss on his cheek. 'Thank you.' I'm not sure whether I'm most grateful for the dresses or for his slip up in revealing that he is actually thirty seven. Either way, I'm a very happy girl.

'You are more than welcome,' He takes my bags from me. 'Do I get another show?' He raises his eyebrows.

'Of course,' I can't deny him for how reasonable he's being. 'But you don't get to see the gown.'

'Which one did you pick?' he asks curiously. He liked all of them, but he didn't see the gown that is safely out of view in a suit bag.

'You'll find out later.' I inhale him into me as he nestles his face in my neck. 'So, my man really is knocking on forty.' I rib.

He pulls away and rolls his eyes before taking my hand and leading me through the store. 'Does it bother you?' he asks casually, but I know he's worried that it does.

It didn't bother me before and it doesn't bother me now. 'Not at all, why does it bother you, though?'

'Ava, do you remember one of the very first things you said to me?' He looks down at me.

How could I forget? And I still don't know where it came from. 'Why did you lie?'

He shrugs. 'Because you wouldn't have asked if it wasn't a problem.'

I smile. 'It doesn't bother me in the slightest how old you are. Is that a grey hair?' I ask dead pan as we board the Egyptian escalators.

He stands on the step below and turns around to face me. We're pretty much at eye level. 'Do you think you're funny?' he asks. He didn't appreciate that referral. I shouldn't tease him when he clearly has an issue.

I can't keep a straight face and when he dips and tips me over his shoulder, I suppress a squeal. He can't behave like this in Harrods! I correct myself. Jesse has no regard for public opinion on his behaviour. He'll pick me up, ravish me, or even be blood boiling mad with me wherever he pleases. He doesn't give a toss and, quite frankly, neither do I.

He carries me out of the store and on to Knightsbridge, setting me on my feet outside where I straighten my dress, take his offered hand and we start walking back towards the car. I don't even tick him off. It's fast becoming an everyday occurrence for him to hoof me about, whether it's in private or in public.

'We'll grab some lunch at The Manor.' he says as he puts my bags in the boot and then me in the car. He slides in beside me and gives me my smile before slipping his glasses on. 'Enjoying your day so far?'

I was, until he reminded me about our need to go to The Manor. I've got to endure a whole night there too. 'Absolutely.' I can't complain, though, as long as I'm with him.

'Me too. Put your belt on.' He starts the car and roars into the lunchtime traffic, cranking up the stereo and letting his window down so the whole of Knightsbridge gets a little listen of The Stereophonics, Dakota.

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