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Jesse Ward drowned her with his intensity and blindsided her with his passion, but he kept her away from his dark secrets and broken soul. Leaving him was the only way Ava O’Shea could survive. She should have known that Jesse Ward is impossible to escape–and now he’s back in her life, determined to remind her of the sensual pleasures they had shared. Ava is equally determined to get at the truth beneath this man’s steely exterior. That means letting herself get close to the Lord of the Manor once more. And it’s exactly where Jesse wants her–within touching distance…
The This Man roller coaster just gets faster and faster, with more loop-the-loops and twists and turns. I never want to get off. As always, my gratitude to every single person who has joined me along the way is immeasurable.
I continue to bask nicely on Central Jesse Cloud Nine.
I’ve barely mustered up the strength to make it into work today. It’s been five days since I’ve seen Jesse Ward. Five days of agony, emptiness, and sobbing.
Every time my eyes close he’s there, the images flickering from the sure, confident, beautiful man who totally took me, to the hollow, hurtful, drunken creature who destroyed me. Without him I feel empty and incomplete. He made me need him, and now he’s gone.
In the darkness I see his face and in the silence I hear his voice. There is no escaping it. I’m unaware of the activity around me, every noise a distant hum, every image a slow blur. I’m in hell. Empty. Incomplete. I’m in absolute agony.
I left Jesse drunk and raging at his penthouse last Sunday. I’ve not heard from him since that day I walked out, leaving him yelling and stumbling around. There have been no phone calls, no messages, no flowers… nothing.
Sam is still a regular, seminaked presence at Kate’s, but he knows better than to talk to me about Jesse. He keeps quiet and well away. I must be painful to be around at the moment. How can a man who I’ve known a few short weeks make me feel like this? But in those short few weeks I have known him, I’ve learned that he is intense, hot blooded, and controlling, but he is also gentle, affectionate, and protective. I miss that Jesse so much. But the drunken, hollow man I found at the penthouse was not the Jesse I had fallen in love with. I would gladly take all of his frustrating, challenging ways over the ugliness that was Jesse drunk.
Apparently, Jesse falling off the wagon was my entire fault. He advised me, on a slur, that he’d warned me there would be damage if I left. He had. He just didn’t explain what sort of damage or why. I should have pressed for more, but I was too busy being swallowed up by him. I was distracted from everything, blinded by lust and drowning in his intensity. I never anticipated he would turn out to be Lord of the Sex Manor, and I certainly never anticipated he was an alcoholic. I was literally walking around with my eyes wide shut.
I’m lucky that I’ve managed to avoid any pressing questions from Patrick regarding Mr. Ward’s project. When one hundred thousand pounds landed in Rococo Union’s bank account, courtesy of Mr. Ward, I was immensely grateful. With so much money paid up front, I could fob Patrick off with an imaginary business trip that’s keeping Mr. Ward out of the country and the project on hold. I know I’ll have to deal with this eventually, I just don’t feel strong enough at the moment, and I’m not sure when I will. Perhaps never.
Poor Kate has tried so hard to pull me out of the black hole that I’ve put myself in. She’s tried to occupy me with yoga classes, drinks at the pub, and cake decorating. But I’m happier festering in my bed. And she meets me without fail every lunchtime. Not that I can eat anything. It’s hard enough just to swallow without trying to get food past the permanent lump that’s wedged in my throat.
The only thing I look forward to at the moment is my morning walk. I’m not sleeping, so dragging myself out of bed at five o’clock every morning is relatively easy.
In the quiet, fresh, morning air, I make my way to the spot in the Green Park where I collapsed with exhaustion the morning Jesse dragged me around the streets of London on one of his torturous marathons. I sit quietly, picking at the dew-coated blades of grass until my backside is numb and sodden and I’m ready to wander slowly back to prepare myself for another day without Jesse.
How long can I go on like this?
My brother, Dan, is back in London tomorrow after visiting my parents in Cornwall. I should be looking forward to seeing him, it’s been six months since I last did, but where am I going to find the energy to put on a front?
My mobile blurts from my desk, dragging me from my daydreams and tapping pen. It’s Ruth Quinn. I inwardly groan. Ruth is a new client and proving to be a challenge already. She rang on Tuesday and demanded an appointment for the same day. I explained that I was busy and suggested someone else may be able to make it, but she insisted she wanted me and eventually settled for my first appointment, which happened to be today. She has since called every day to remind me. “Miss Quinn,” I greet tiredly.
“Ava, how are you?”
She always asks, which is nice, I suppose. I won’t tell her the truth. “I’m good. And you?”
“Yes, yes, fine,” she chirps. “I just wanted to check our appointment.”
“Four thirty, Miss Quinn.” I reiterate, for the third consecutive day. I think I might be pricing myself out of this job.
“Lovely, I look forward to it.”
I hang up and blow out a long, calming breath of air. What was I thinking ending my Friday on a new client, and a difficult one at that?
Victoria comes breezing into the office, her long blonde locks fanning over her shoulders. She looks different. She looks orange! “What have you done?” I ask, completely alarmed. I know I’m not seeing particularly clearly at the moment, but there is no denying the tone of her skin.
She rolls her eyes and retrieves her compact mirror from her Mulberry to inspect her face. “Don’t!” she warns. “I asked for bronzed.” She scrubs at her face with a tissue. “The stupid woman used the wrong bottle. I look like a cheese puff!” She continues to scrub her face while huffing and puffing.
“You need to get yourself some body scrub and head for the shower,” I advise, turning back to my computer.
“I can’t believe this is happening to me!” she cries. “Drew is taking me out tonight. He’ll run a mile when he sees me like this!”
“Where are you going?” I ask.
“Langan’s. I’ll be mistaken for a Z-lister. I can’t go like this!”
This is a complete catastrophe for Victoria. She and Drew have only been seeing each other for a week, another relationship off the back of my cluster fuck of a life. All I need now is for Tom to walk in and declare he’s getting married. Selfishly, I’m not happy for anyone.
Sally, our general office dogsbody, comes scuttling out of the kitchen and stops in her tracks when she spies Victoria. “Wow! Victoria, are you okay?” she asks, and I smile to myself as Sally gives me an alarmed look. All of this beautification stuff goes straight over our plain Sal’s head.
“Fine!” Victoria snaps.
Sally retreats to the safety of the stationary cupboard, escaping a very riled Victoria and an even more miserable me.
“Where’s Tom?” I ask in an attempt to distract Victoria from her fake-tan crisis.
She slams her compact mirror down on her desk and swings around to face me. If I had the energy, I would laugh. She looks terrible. “He’s at Mrs. Baines’s. It would appear the nightmare continues,” she huffs, ruffling her blonde locks around her face.
I leave Victoria and her glowing face, returning to staring numbly at my computer screen. I can’t wait for the day to end so I can crawl into my bed where I don’t have to see, speak, or interact with anyone.
* * *
I arrive at a stunning town house on Lansdowne Crescent right on time, and Miss Quinn answers the door. I’m completely surprised—her voice doesn’t match her appearance in the slightest. I had her down as a middle-aged spinster, piano teacher type, but I couldn’t have been further from the mark. She’s very attractive, with long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and smooth pale skin, and she is wearing a lovely black dress with killer wedges.
She smiles. “You must be Ava. Please, come in.” She directs me through to a horrendous seventies throwback kitchen.
“Miss Quinn, my portfolio.” I hand her my file, and she takes it keenly. She has a really warm smile. Maybe I got her all wrong.
“Please, call me Ruth. I’ve heard a lot about your work, Ava,” she says as she flicks through the file. “Lusso, especially.”
“Oh, you have?” I sound surprised, but I’m not. Patrick has been delighted by the response Rococo Union has gotten from the publicity of Lusso. I would prefer to forget about all things Lusso, but that doesn’t seem likely.
“Yes, of course! Everyone’s talking about it. You did an amazing job. Would you like a drink?”
“A coffee would be good, thank you.”
She smiles and sets about making drinks. “Please, sit down, Ava.”
I take a seat and pull out my client briefing folder. “So, what can I help you with, Ruth?”
She laughs and waves the teaspoon around in the general direction of the room. “Need you ask? It’s hideous, isn’t it?” she exclaims, returning to coffee-making duties.
Yes, actually, it is, but I’m not about to gasp in horror at the brown and yellow arrangement with faux brick walls.
She continues, “Obviously, I’m looking for some ideas to transform this monstrosity. I was thinking of knocking through and making it a large family room. Here, I’ll show you.” She hands me a coffee and signals for me to follow her through to the next room. The décor is equally as grim as the kitchen. She seems quite young—midthirties, perhaps—so I’m guessing she’s not long moved in. This place doesn’t look like it has been touched with a paintbrush in forty years.
* * *
After an hour of discussions, I’m confident that I know what Ruth is trying to achieve. She has good vision.
“I’ll draft a few designs in line with your budget and ideas, and get them to you with a schedule of my fees,” I tell her as I’m leaving. “Is there anything in particular I should allow for?”
“No, not at all. Obviously, I want all the basic luxuries you would expect to find in a kitchen.” She puts her hand out, and I take it politely. “A wine fridge.” She laughs.
“Absolutely.” I smile tightly, the mention of alcohol making my blood run cold. “I’ll be in touch, Miss Quinn.”
“Ruth, please!” she shakes her head. “I look forward to it, Ava.”
* * *
I drag myself down the street toward Kate’s house, hoping she’s not home so I can retreat to my room before she resumes mission Perk Ava Up.
I stop and see Sam hanging out of his car window as he cruises slowly beside me. “Hey, Samuel,” I say on a strained smile as I carry on walking.
“Ava, please don’t join your evil friend in the Piss Sam Off Club. I might be forced to move out.” He parks and gets out of his Porsche, meeting me on the pavement outside Kate’s house.
He looks his usual laid-back self, with ridiculously baggy shorts, a Rolling Stones T-shirt, and his mousey brown hair a disheveled mess.
“I’m sorry. Have you moved in permanently now?” I ask on an arched brow. Sam has his own swanky apartment on Hyde Park with much more room, but with Kate’s workshop on the ground floor of her house, she insists on him staying at hers.
“No, I haven’t. Kate said you would be home by six. I was hoping to catch you.” He suddenly looks all nervous, which is making me feel extremely uncomfortable.
“Is everything okay?” I ask.
He offers a little smile, but it doesn’t reach his dimple. “Not really. Ava, I need you to come with me,” he says quietly.
“Where?” Why is he acting so shifty? This is not like Sam. He’s usually so carefree and unapologetic.
“To Jesse’s place.”
Sam must see the look of horror on my face because he steps toward me with a pleading expression. Just the mention of his name sends me into panic. Why does he want me to go to Jesse’s? After our last meeting, you would have to drag me there kicking and screaming. There is no chance in hell I’m returning to that place—not ever.
“Sam, I don’t think so.” I take a step back, shaking my head. My body has started shaking, too.
He sighs and scuffs his trainers on the pavement. “Ava, I’m getting worried. He’s not answering his phone and no one has heard from him. I don’t know what else to do. I know you don’t want to talk about him, but it’s been nearly five days. I’ve been to Lusso, but the concierge refuses to let us up. He’ll let you. Kate said you know him. Can’t you just get us up there? I just need to know he’s okay.”
“No, Sam. I’m sorry, I can’t,” I croak.
“Ava, I’m worried he’s done something stupid. Please.”
My throat starts to close up and Sam starts walking toward me with his hands outstretched. I didn’t realize I was moving backward. “Sam, please don’t. I can’t do that. He won’t want to see me, and I don’t want to see him.”
He grabs my hands to halt my retreat, pulling me into his chest and holding me tight against him. “Ava, I wouldn’t ask, I really wouldn’t, but I need to get up there and check on him.”
My shoulders droop, defeated in his embrace, and a quiet sob escapes, just when I thought there were no tears left. “I can’t see him, Sam.”
“Hey.” He pulls back and looks at me. “Just get us past the concierge. That’s all I’m asking.” He wipes away a stray tear and smiles pleadingly.
“I’m not going in,” I affirm, my stomach a knot of panic at the thought of seeing him again. But what if he has done something stupid?
“Ava, just get us up to his penthouse.”
I nod and wipe away the rolling tears.
“Thank you.” He tugs me toward his Porsche. “Get in. Drew and John are meeting us there.” He opens the passenger door and directs me into the car.
I climb in and let Sam drive me to Lusso at St. Katherine Docks—a place I swore that I would never return to again.
As Lusso comes into view, I start hyperventilating. The overwhelming desire to open the door and jump out of Sam’s moving car is hard to resist. He glances at me, an obviously anxious look on his cute face, as if he senses my intention to bolt.
Once we’re parked outside the gates, Sam comes around to collect me, keeping a firm grip on me as he guides us toward the pedestrian gates where Drew’s waiting.
He’s dressed in his usual finery, all suited and booted, with perfectly styled black hair, but he doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable anymore. I’m more than shocked when he takes over Sam’s hold of me, though, pulling me into him and squeezing me hard. This is the first actual contact I’ve ever had with the man.
“Ava, thank you for coming.”
I say nothing because I really don’t know what to say. They’re truly worried about Jesse, and I feel guilty and even more anxious now. Drew releases me and offers a small, reassuring smile. It does nothing to reassure me.
Sam points up the road. “Here’s the big guy.”
We turn to see John pull up in his black Range Rover, skidding to an abrupt halt behind Sam’s car. He slides his big body out, removes his wraparound sunglasses, and nods in greeting. This is John’s usual wordless acknowledgment. Good Lord, he looks pissed. I’ve only ever got a brief glimpse of his eyes—they are always concealed behind those glasses, even at night or inside, but the sun is shining now, so why he has taken them off is beyond me. Maybe he wants everyone to know how pissed he is. It’s working. He looks formidable.
I take a deep breath and punch in the code, pushing the gate open for the guys. I wish this was as far as I had to go. Drew gestures for me to lead the way, ever the gentleman, so I pick my feet up and start my walk across the car park in silence. I see Jesse’s car and notice his window is still smashed. My stomach flips as we enter the marble foyer of Lusso quietly, except for the thumping of our footsteps. My insides start churning, my breathing speeding up. So much has happened in this place. Lusso was my first major accomplishment in design. My first sexual encounter with Jesse happened here, as did my final encounter with him. It all started and ended here.
Clive looks up from his big, curved marble desk as we approach, his expression screaming tiresome.
“Clive,” I say on a forced smile.
He eyes me, and then the three ominous beings accompanying me, before his eyes settle on me again. “Hello, Ava. How are you?”
“I’m good, Clive,” I lie. “You?”
“I’m fine.” He’s weary, no doubt after having a few heated encounters with the three men escorting me, and judging by his cold reception toward me, they were not pleasant.
“Clive, I’d be grateful if you would let us up to the penthouse to check on Jesse.” I load my voice with lashings of confidence, but I feel anything but. My heart is speeding up by the second.
“Ava, I’ve told your friends here, I could lose my job if I allow that.” He flicks a cautious gaze to the boys again.
“I know, Clive, but they’re worried,” I say, sounding completely detached. “They just want to check he’s okay, and then they’ll be leaving,” I try with graciousness as I know Drew, Sam, and John would have been a lot less than that.
“Ava, I have been up and knocked on Mr. Ward’s door and got no response. We’ve checked some of the CCTV, and I have not seen him leave or return on my watch. Security cannot check five days of continuous footage. I have told your friends this. If I let you up, I could lose my job.”
I’m stunned at Clive’s sudden turnabout in concierge etiquette. If only he had been this professional and stubborn when I came to see Jesse on Sunday, then we might never have had the altercation we did. But then I would still be blissfully unaware of Jesse’s little problem.
I feel Sam press up against my back. “Let us up, for fuck’s sake!” he yells over my shoulder.
I flinch slightly, but I can’t blame him for being frustrated. I’m feeling pretty frustrated myself. I just want to get them past Clive and go. I can feel the walls closing in on all sides of me, and I can see Jesse carrying me across the marble floor in his arms. All of the images swamping my brain are now all the more clear for being here.
I turn and see John with a face like thunder and his hand on Sam’s shoulder, his way of telling Sam to calm down. I didn’t want to do this, but tempers are fraying. “Clive, I would hate to resort to blackmail,” I say tightly, turning back to face him. He looks at me in confusion, and I can see his brain ticking over, trying to think of what I could possibly blackmail him with. “I would hate for anyone to find out about Mr. Gomez’s regular visitors or Mr. Holland’s fondness of a Thai girl or two.” I watch as Clive’s face screws up into a contortion of defeatism.
“Ava, you play nasty, my girl.”
“You leave me no other choice, Clive.”
He shakes his head and motions us onto the elevator while muttering insults under his breath.
“Brilliant!” Sam chants as they make their way over to the penthouse lift.
I don’t have any idea how it happens, but I find my feet lifting and taking small steps behind them, following them to the elevator. “Jesse might have changed the code,” I say to their backs.
Sam swings around, looking alarmed.
I shrug. “If he has, then there is no way of getting up there.”
All of a sudden, I’m standing in front of the elevator, taking a deep breath and punching in the developer code. There’s a chorus of exhales as the doors open and they all get in, and I stand on the outside, looking up at Sam. He smiles, jerking his head mildly, encouraging me to board with them.
I get in the elevator, Sam and Drew flanking me on one side, John on the other, and I enter the code again. We travel up in an uncomfortable silence, and as the lift doors open, we’re faced with the double doors that lead into Jesse’s penthouse.
Sam is the first to exit the lift, striding toward the doors and jiggling the handle calmly before he starts hammering on the door like a madman. “Jesse! Open the fucking door!”
Drew and John approach and pull him away, and then John tries the door himself, but it doesn’t budge. I can’t help but think I might have been the last person to exit the penthouse. I remember making a point of slamming the door as hard as I could.
“Sam, mate, he might not even be here,” Drew soothes.
“Where the hell is he then?” Sam yells.
“Oh, he’s in there,” John rumbles. “And the motherfucker has been drowning in his sorrows for too long now. He’s got a business to run.”
I’m still standing in the elevator when the doors start to shut, snapping me out of my dazed state. My natural reflex has my arm flinging up to stop them closing before I step out into the penthouse foyer. I know I said that I would get them up here and leave, I know I should just go, but seeing Sam in such a state has me even more worried, and John’s words are prickling me. Drowning in his sorrows or drowning in vodka? If I stay, am I going to be faced with drunken, raging Jesse again?
Drew knocks on the door calmly. It’s laughable. If Sam’s relentless hammering doesn’t get a response, then I doubt Drew’s gentlemanly tapping will.
He steps away from the door and drags Sam over to me. “Ava, have you tried calling him?” Drew asks.
“No!” I blurt. Why would I do that? I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t want to talk to me.
“Can you try?” Sam asks pleadingly.
I shake my head. “He wouldn’t answer, Sam.”
“Ava, will you just try?” Drew pushes.
I reluctantly get my phone from my bag and dial Jesse while Sam and Drew watch nervously. I’m not sure what on earth I’m going to say if he answers.
Drew’s head snaps toward the door. “I can hear it ringing.” He returns to me, obviously waiting for me to speak, but my call goes to voicemail and my heart constricts. He doesn’t want to talk to me. I go to reboard the elevator, the hurt enflamed by his rejection of my call, but then an almighty crash sounds out around the foyer.
Sam, Drew, and I all whip our heads around to the double doors leading into Jesse’s penthouse and find John on the other side, surrounded by a splintered doorframe. He nods at us, and Sam and Drew fly forward into the penthouse. I find myself following tentatively behind them, remembering the last time I was here.
Turn around! Get in the elevator! Go, NOW.
But I don’t. I stand in the doorway and from what I can see, nothing has moved. I step a little bit farther into the open area and hear the guys running around upstairs and down, searching for Jesse. And as the bottom of the stairs comes into view, I notice the empty bottle of vodka is still on the console table. Then I see the terrace doors wide open. I take cautious steps toward them, still hearing the guys running around the penthouse, doors opening and closing, his name being called.
I, however, am pulled toward the terrace. I know why. It’s the same magnetism that pulls me toward Jesse every time he is near. Only this time I know it won’t be my Jesse. Do I want to face him again when he is in such a terrible state, when he is so vicious and hateful? No, of course I don’t, but I can’t seem to turn away.
As I approach the doors, I try to prepare my eyes for a drunken mess, sprawled across one of the sun loungers, clenching a vodka bottle. But instead, I’m greeted by Jesse’s naked, unconscious body face down on the decking.
- "You can't help but fall in love with these characters."—ScandaliciousBookReviews.com
- "I couldn't tear myself away."—FictionVixen.com
- "This Man was a sexy, infuriating, wild ride. The back and forth in this book gave me whiplash ... I cannot wait for Beneath This Man!"—TheBookListReviews.blogspot.com
- "This Man by Jodi Ellen Malpas really hooked me right from the beginning. It's erotic and passionate and romantic ... it'll also leave you wanting more."—BookishTemptations.com
- On Sale
- Nov 26, 2013
- Page Count
- 544 pages