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Young interior designer Ava O’Shea has no idea what awaits her at the Manor. A run-of-the-mill consultation with a stodgy country gent seems likely, but what Ava finds instead is Jesse Ward–a devastatingly handsome, utterly confident, pleasure-seeking playboy who knows no boundaries. Ava doesn’t want to be attracted to this man, and yet she can’t control the overwhelming desire that he stirs in her. She knows that her heart will never survive him and her instinct is telling her to run, but Jesse is not willing to let her go. He wants her and is determined to have her.
Table of Contents
More Jodi Ellen Malpas
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I riffle through the piles and piles of paraphernalia that's sprawled all over my bedroom floor. I'm going to be late. On a Friday, after being on time all week, I'm going to be late.
'Kate!' I yell frantically. Where the hell are they? I run out onto the landing and throw myself over the banister. 'Kate!'
I hear the familiar sound of a wooden spoon bashing the edges of a ceramic bowl as Kate appears at the bottom of the stairs. She looks up at me with a tired expression. It's an expression that I've become used to recently.
'Keys! Have you seen my car keys?' I puff at her.
'They're on the coffee table where you left them last night.' She rolls her eyes, taking herself and her cake mixture back to her workshop.
I dart across the landing in a complete fluster and find my car keys under a pile of weekly glossies. 'Hiding again,' I mutter to myself, grabbing my tan belt, heels and laptop. I make my way downstairs, finding Kate in her workshop spooning cake mixture into various tins.
'You need to tidy that room, Ava. It's a fucking mess.' she complains.
Yes, my personal organisation skills are pretty shocking, especially since I'm an interior designer, who spends all day coordinating and organising. I scoop my phone up from the chunky table and dunk my finger in Kate's cake mixture. 'I can't be brilliant at everything.'
'Get out!' She bats my hand away with her spoon. 'Why do you need your car, anyway?' she asks, leaning down to smooth the mixture over, her tongue resting on her bottom lip in concentration.
'I have a first consultation in The Surrey Hills—some country mansion.' I feed my belt through the belt loops of my navy pencil dress, slip my feet into my tan heels and present myself to the wall mirror.
'I thought you stuck to the city?' she asks from behind me.
I ruffle my long, dark hair for a few seconds, flicking it from one side to another but give up, piling it up with a few grips instead. My dark brown eyes look tired and lack their usual sparkle. A result, no doubt, of burning the candle at both ends. I only moved in with Kate a month ago after splitting with Matt. We're behaving like a couple of university students. My liver is screaming for a rest.
'I do. The country sector is Patrick's domain. I don't know how I got landed with this.' I sweep the wand of my gloss across my lips and smack them together. 'One is not partial to old English and all things proper.' I give Kate a kiss on the cheek. 'It's going to be painful, I know it. Luv ya!'
'Ditto, see you later.' Kate laughs, without lifting her face from her work station. 'Don't forget your P's and Q's!'
Despite my lateness, I drive my little Mini with my usual care and consideration to my office on Bruton Street. I'm reminded why I tube it every day when I spend ten minutes driving around looking for a parking space.
I burst into the office and glance at the clock. Eight forty. Okay, I'm ten minutes late, not as bad as I thought. I pass Tom and Victoria's empty desks on the way to my own, spying Patrick in his office as I land in my chair. Unpacking my laptop, I notice a package has been left for me.
'Morning, flower.' Patrick's low boom greets me as he perches on the edge of my desk, followed by the customary creak under his weight. 'What have you got there?'
'Morning, it's the new fabric range from Miller's. You Like?' I stroke some of the luxurious material.
'Wonderful,' he feigns interest. 'Don't let Irene clap her eyes on it. I've just liquidated most of my assets to fund the new soft furnishings at home.'
'Oh,' I give him a sympathetic face. 'Where is everyone?'
'Victoria has the day off and Tom's having a nightmare with Mr & Mrs Baines. It's just you, me and Sal today, flower.' He takes his comb out of his inside pocket and runs it through his silver mop.
'I've got a midday appointment at The Manor,' I remind him. He can't have forgotten. Country pads are supposed to be his realm. 'Why am I going, Patrick?' I have to ask. I've never worked on a country property before, and I'm not sure I have the insight for old fashioned and traditional.
I've worked for Rococo Union for four years, and it was made clear that I was employed to expand the business into the modern sector. With luxury apartments flying up all over London, Patrick and Tom, with their speciality of traditional design, were missing out. When it took off and the work load got too much for me, he employed Victoria.
'That would be because they asked for you, flower.' He pushes himself to his feet, my desk creaking in protest again. Patrick ignores it, but I wince. He has to lose some weight or stop sitting on my desk. It won't take the strain for much longer.
So, they asked for me? Why ever would they do that? My portfolio holds nothing that will reflect traditional design—nothing at all. I can't help but think that this is a complete waste of my time. Patrick or Tom should be going.
'Oh, Lusso launch,' Patrick tucks his comb away. 'The developer is really pushing the boat out with this party in the penthouse. You've done an amazing job, Ava.' Patrick's eyebrows nod with his head.
I blush. 'Thank you.' I'm dead proud of myself and my work at Lusso, my greatest achievement in my short career.
Based on St Katharine Docks and with prices ranging from three million for a basic apartment to ten million for the penthouse, we're in the super rich realm. The design specification is as the name suggests: Italian luxury. I sourced all materials, furniture and art from Italy and enjoyed a week there organising the shipping schedule. Next Friday is the launch party, but I know they've already sold the penthouse and six other apartments, so it's more of a showing off party.
'I've cleared my diary so I can do the final checks once the cleaners are out.' I flick the pages of my diary to next Friday and scribble across the page again.
'Good girl, I've told Victoria to be there at five. It's her first launch so you need to give her a heads up. I'll be there at seven with Tom.'
Patrick returns to his office, and I open my email, sifting through to delete or respond where necessary.
At eleven o'clock, I pack my laptop up and poke my head around Patrick's office door. He's engrossed with something on his computer.
'I'm off now.' I say, but he just waves his hand in the air in acknowledgment. I walk through the office to see Sally fighting with the photocopier. 'See you later, Sal.'
'Bye, Ava.' she replies, but she's too busy removing the paper jam to acknowledge me with her face. The girl's a calamity.
I walk out into the May sunshine and head for my car. Friday mid-morning traffic is a nightmare, but once I'm out of the city, the drive onwards is pretty straightforward. The roof is down, Adele is keeping me company and it's Friday. A little drive in the countryside is a lovely way to finish my working week.
My sat-nav instructs me to pull off the main road and onto a little lane, where I find myself in front of the biggest pair of gates that I've ever seen. A gold plaque on a pillar states "The Manor".
Bloody hell! I take my sunglasses off, looking past the gates and down the gravel road that seems to go for miles. There's no sign of a house, just a tree lined road that I can't see the end of. I get out of my car and walk up to the gates, giving them a little jiggle, but they don't budge. I stand for a few moments, wondering what to do.
'You need to press the intercom.' I nearly jump out of my skin when the low rumble of a voice comes from nowhere, stabbing at the silent country air.
I look around me, but I'm definitely on my own. 'Hello?'
I do a full three sixty turn and see the intercom further down the lane. I drove straight past it. I run over, pressing the button to announce myself. 'Ava O'Shea, Rococo Union.'
He does? How? I look around and spot a camera installed on the gate, then the shift of metal breaks the countryside peace around me. The gates start opening. 'Give me a chance.' I mutter as I run back to my car. I jump in my Mini and creep forward as the gates swing open, all the time wondering how I'll remove the glass of port and cigar that are, quite clearly, wedged up that miserable sod's arse. I'm looking less forward to this appointment by the minute. Posh country folk and their posh country mansions are not in my area of expertise.
Once the gates are fully opened, I drive through and continue on the tree lined, gravel driveway that seems to go on forever. With mature Elm trees lying on either side of the lane at regular and even intervals, you would think they had been strategically placed to conceal what lies beyond. After a mile or so of sheltered driving, I pull into a perfectly round courtyard. I take my sunglasses off and gape at the huge house that looms centrally and demands attention. It's superb, but I'm even more apprehensive now. My enthusiasm for this appointment is dampening further by the minute.
The black doors—adorned with highly polished gold furniture—are flanked by four giant bay windows, with pillars in carved stone guarding them. Giant limestone blocks make up the structure of the mansion, with lush bay trees lining the face. The fountain in the centre of the courtyard, spraying out jets of illuminated water, tops the sight off. It's all very imposing.
I stop, cut the engine and fumble with the door release to get out of my car. Standing and holding on to the top of my car door, I look up at the magnificent building and immediately think that this has to be a mistake. The place is in amazing condition.
The lawns are greener than green, the house looks like it receives daily scrub downs and even the gravel looks like it receives a daily hoover. If the exterior is anything to go by, then I can't imagine the inside needing any work. I look up at the dozens of sash bay windows, seeing plush curtains hanging at them all. I'm tempted to call Patrick to check I've got the right address, but it did say The Manor on the gates. And that miserable sod on the other end of the intercom was obviously expecting me.
While I'm pondering my next move, the doors open, revealing the biggest black man I've ever seen. He saunters out to the top of the steps. I physically flinch at the sight of him, stepping back slightly. He has a black suit on—specially made for sure because that's no regular size—a black shirt and a black tie. His shaven head looks like it's been buffed to a shine, and wraparound sunglasses conceal his face. If I could build a mental image of who I would have expected to walk out of them doors, he, most definitely, would not be it. The man is a mountain, and I know I'm stood here gawking at him. I'm suddenly slightly concerned that I've turned up at some mafia control centre, and I search my brain trying to remember if I transferred my rape alarm to my new handbag.
'Miss O'Shea?' he drawls.
I wilt under his massive presence, putting my hand up in a nervous wave gesture. 'Hi.' I whisper, my voice laced with all of the apprehension I truly feel.
'This way.' he rumbles deeply, giving a sharp nod of his head and turning to walk back into the mansion.
I deliberate on cutting and running, but the daring and dangerous side of me is curious of what lays beyond those doors. He's no butler. I grab my bag, shut my car door and check for my rape alarm as I walk towards the house, only to find I've left it in my other bag. I carry on anyway. Pure curiosity has me walking up the steps and crossing the threshold into a huge entrance hall. I gaze around the vast area, and I'm immediately impressed by the grand, centrally position, curved staircase that leads up to the first floor.
My fears are confirmed. This place is immaculate.
The décor is opulent, lush and very intimidating. Deep blues, taupe's with hints of gold and original woodwork, along with the rich mahogany parquet floor, makes the place striking and massively extravagant. It's exactly how I would have expected it to be and nowhere near my design style. But then again, looking around, why any interior designer would be here is becoming more and more confusing. Patrick said they requested me personally, so I would be inclined to think that they want to modernise the place, but that would've been before I got a glimpse of the exterior and now the interior too. The décor suits the period building. It's in perfect condition. Why the hell am I here?
Big guy heads off to the right, leaving me to scuttle off after him. My tan heels clink on the parquet floor as he leads me past the central staircase, towards the back of the Mansion.
I hear the hum of conversation and glance to my right, noticing many people sat at various tables eating, drinking and chatting. Waiters are serving food and drinks, and the distinct voices of The Rat Pack are purring in the background. I frown, but then I click. It's a hotel—a posh country hotel. My shoulders sag slightly in relief at concluding this, but it still doesn't explain why I'm here. I'm lead past some toilets and then a bar. A few men are sat on bar stools cracking jokes and teasing a young woman, who has, apparently, returned from the lavatory with toilet roll stuck to her heel. She playfully slaps the main instigator on the shoulder, scolding him while laughing along with them.
This is all beginning to make sense to me. I want to say something to the mountain of a man leading me, God only knows where, but he hasn't looked back once to check I'm following. Although, the clink of my heels tells him I am. He doesn't say much, and I suspect he wouldn't answer me if I did speak.
We continue past two more closed doors. Judging by the clanking of pots, I assume one to be the kitchen. Then he leads me into a summer room—a massive, light, stunningly lavish space that's sectioned off into individual seating areas by the positioning of sofa's, big arm chairs and tables. Floor to ceiling bi-fold doors span the complete face of the room, leading to a yorkstone patio and a vast lawn area. It's really quite awe inspiring. I inwardly gasp when I spot a glass building housing a swimming pool. It's incredible. I shudder to think how much the nightly rate is. It has to be five stars—probably more.
Once we've passed through the summer room, I'm lead down a corridor until big guy stops outside a wooden panelled door. 'Mr Ward's office.' he rumbles, knocking the door, surprisingly gently given his mammoth size.
'The Manager?' I ask.
'The Owner,' he replies, opening the door and striding through. 'Come in.'
I hesitate on the threshold, watching as the big guy strides into the room ahead of me. I eventually force my feet into action, moving into the room, while gazing around at the equally luxurious surroundings of Mr Ward's office.
'Jesse, Miss O'Shea, Rococo Union.' Big guy announces.
'Perfect. Thanks, John.'
I'm dragged from my awed like state, straight into high alert. My back straightens.
I can't see him, he's obscured by the big guy's massive frame, but that raspy, smooth voice has me frozen on the spot, and it certainly doesn't sound like it's coming from a cigar smoking, overweight, wax jacket wearing Lord of the Manor.
Big guy, or John as I now know him, moves to the side, giving me my first glimpse of Mr Jesse Ward.
Oh good God. My heart crashes against my breast bone and my nervous breathing rockets to damn right dangerous levels. I suddenly feel light headed, and my mouth is ignoring my brains instructions to at least say something. I just stand there staring at this man, while he stares back at me. His husky voice halted me in my tracks, but the sight of him… well, that's just turned me into a non-responsive, quivering wreck.
He rises from his chair, my gaze traveling up with him until he's stood at full height. He's very tall. His white shirt is casually rolled at the sleeves, but he still wears a black tie, loosely knotted and hanging down the front of a broad chest.
He makes his way around his massive desk and slowly walks towards me. It's then that I take in the full impact of him. I gulp. This man is so perfect, I'm almost in pain. His dirty blonde hair looks like he's half attempted to get it into some semblance of a style but given up. His eyes are sludgy green, but bright and way too intense, and the stubble covering his square jaw does nothing to conceal the handsome features beneath it. He's lightly tanned and just… Oh God, he's devastating. Lord of the Manor?
'Miss O'Shea.' His hand comes toward me, but I can't persuade my arm to raise and clasp his outstretched offering. He's beautiful.
When I don't offer my hand, he reaches forward and clasps both of my shoulders, then slowly leans in to kiss me, his lips brushing lightly over my burning cheek. I tense all over. I can hear my pulse throbbing in my ears, and even though it's completely inappropriate for a business meeting, I do nothing to stop him. I'm all over the place.
'It's a pleasure,' he whispers in my ear, which only serves to make me moan slightly. He must feel my tenseness—it's not difficult, I'm rigid—because his grip eases up and he lowers his face to my level, looking me directly in the eyes. 'Are you okay?' he asks, one side of his mouth lifting into a semblance of a smile. I notice a single frown line across his forehead.
I snap myself out of my ridiculous inertness, suddenly aware that I've still not said anything. Has he noticed my reaction to him? What about big guy? I glance over, seeing the big guy stood motionless, glasses still in place, but I know his eyes are on me. I mentally shake myself and step back, away from Ward and his potent grasp. His hands fall to his side.
'Hi,' I cough to clear my throat. 'Ava. My name is Ava.' I offer him my hand, but he's unhurried in accepting it, like he's unsure whether it's safe to, but he does… eventually.
His hand is clammy and slightly shaky as he squeezes mine firmly. Sparks fizz and a curious look flits across his stunning face. We both retract our hands in shock.
'Ava.' He's trying my name on his lips, and it takes all of my strength not to moan again. He should stop talking—immediately.
'Yes, Ava.' I confirm. He's the one who seems to be off in his own little nirvana now, while I'm becoming increasingly aware of my rising temperature.
He suddenly seems to come to his senses, shoving his hands in his trouser pockets as he shakes his head slightly, retreating backwards. 'Thanks, John.' he nods to the big guy, who smiles slightly, softening his hard features, then leaves.
I'm alone with this man, who has rendered me speechless, motionless and pretty much useless.
He nods towards two brown leather couches, positioned opposite each other in the bay window, with a large coffee table sitting between them. 'Please, take a seat. Can I get you a drink?' He drags his gaze from mine, walking towards a cabinet with various bottles of liquor lined up on top. He surely doesn't mean alcohol? It's midday. Even by my standards it's too early. I watch as he hovers at the cabinet for a few moments before turning to face me again, looking at me expectantly.
'No, thank you.' I shake my head as I speak, just in case the words don't come out.
'Water?' he asks, that smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
Oh God, don't look at me. 'Please.' I smile a nervous smile. My mouth is parched.
He collects two bottles of water from the integrated fridge and turns back towards me. It's then that I persuade my shaky legs to carry me across the room to the sofa.
'Ava?' His voice rolls across me, causing me to falter en-route.
I turn to face him. It's probably a bad idea. 'Yes?'
He holds up a highball. 'Glass?'
'Yes, please.' I smile. He must think I'm so unprofessional. I settle myself on the leather couch, retrieve my folder and phone from my bag and place them on the table in front of me. I notice my hands shaking.
Christ, woman. Get a grip! I feign making notes as he strolls back over, placing my water and a glass on the table. He sits down on the sofa opposite and crosses one leg over the other, his ankle resting on his thigh. He stretches back. He's really making himself comfortable, and the silence that falls between us is screaming as I write anything and everything to avoid looking up at him. I know I've got to look at the man and say something at some point, but all standard enquiry questions have run, screaming and shouting, from my brain.
'So, where do we start?' he asks, forcing me look up and acknowledge his question. He smiles. I swoon.
He's watching me over the rim of his bottle as he raises it to those lovely lips. I break the eye contact, reaching forward to pour some water into my glass. I'm struggling to rein in my nerves, and I can still feel his eyes on me. This is truly awkward. I've never been so affected by a man.
'I guess you should tell me why I'm here.' I speak! I look back up at him as I take my glass from the table.
'Oh?' he says quietly. There's that frown line again. Even with that, he's still beautiful.
'You requested me by name?' I press.
'Yes.' he replies simply. He smiles again. I have to look away.
I take a sip of my water to moisten my dry mouth, and clear my throat before returning my gaze to his potent stare. 'So, can I ask why?'
'You can.' He uncrosses his leg, leaning forward to place his bottle on the table, resting his forearms on his knees, but he says no more. Is he not going to elaborate on that?
'Okay,' I struggle to maintain eye contact. 'Why?'
'I've heard great things about you.'
I feel my face burning up. 'Thank you. So, why am I here?'
'Well, to design.' He laughs, and I feel stupid but slightly irritated as well. Is he making fun of me?
'Design what exactly?' I ask. 'From what I've seen, everything is pretty perfect.' He surely doesn't want to modernise this lovely place. It may not be my forte, but I know class when I see it.
'Thank you,' he says softly. 'Do you have your portfolio with you?'
'Of course,' I reply, reaching into my bag. Why he wants to look at it is beyond me. It won't reflect anything like this place.
I place it on the table in front of him and expect him to drag it over to his side, but to my horror, he stands in one fluid movement and walks around to me, lowering his lovely lean body onto the sofa next to me. Oh, Jesus. He smells divine—all fresh water and minty. I hold my breath.
Leaning forward, he opens the folder. 'You're very young to be such an accomplished designer.' he muses, slowly turning the pages of my portfolio.
He's right, I am. It's only thanks to Patrick for giving me free rein on the expansion of his business. In four years, I've fallen out of college, picked up a job in an established design company—that had the financial stability but lacked the new freshness in modern ideas—and made a name for myself on the back of it. I've been lucky, and I appreciate Patrick's faith in my capabilities. That, coupled with my contract at Lusso, is the only reason I'm where I am at the age of twenty six.
I look down at his lovely hand, his wrist adorned in a beautiful gold and graphite Rolex. 'How old are you?' I blurt. Oh, good God. My brain is like scrambled egg, and I know I've just blushed a sharp shade of red. I should just keep my mouth shut. Where the hell did that come from?
He looks at me intently, his green eyes burning into mine. 'Twenty one.' he answers, completely pokerfaced.
I scoff mildly, and his eyebrows jump up questioningly. 'Sorry.' I mutter, turning back to the table. I'm feeling flustered. I hear him exhale heavily as his lovely hand reaches back down to my portfolio to start turning the pages again, his left hand resting on the edge of the table.
I notice no ring. He's not married? How can that be?
'This, I like a lot.' He points to the photographs of Lusso.
'I'm not sure my works on Lusso would fit in here.' I say quietly. It's way too modern—luxurious, yes, but too modern.
He looks up at me. 'You're right, I'm just saying… I really like it.'
'Thank you.' I feel my colour deepen as he studies me thoughtfully before returning to my portfolio.
I make a grab for my water, resisting the temptation to chuck it down my front to cool me off, but very nearly do when his trouser clad thigh brushes against my bare knee. I shift quickly to break the contact, glancing out the corner of my eye to see a small smirk breaking at the edge of his mouth. He's doing this on purpose. It's too much.
'Do you have a toilet?' I ask as I place my glass back on the table and stand. I need to go and compose myself. I'm a ruffled mess.
He rises from the couch swiftly, moving back to let me pass. 'Through the summer room and on your left.' he says with a smile. He knows he's affecting me. The way he's smiling at me, knowingly, I bet he has this sort of reaction from women all of the time.
'Thank you.' I edge out of the small gape between the table and the sofa, my task hampered as he makes no attempt to give me more space. I have to virtually brush past him, and that has me holding my breath until I'm clear of his body.
I walk towards the door. His eyes are on me; I can feel them burning a hole through my dress. I roll my neck to try and rid myself of the goose bumps jumping onto my nape.
Stumbling out of his office, I head down the corridor before wandering through the summer room and staggering into the ridiculously posh lavatories. I brace myself over the sink and look in the mirror. 'Jesus, Ava. Pull it together!' I scorn my reflection.
'Met the Lord, have we?'
I swing around and find a very attractive business lady, faffing with her hair at the other end of the room. I have no idea what to say, but she's just confirmed what I already suspected—he does have this effect on all women. When my brain fails to deliver on anything suitable to say, I just smile.
She returns my smile, amused and knowing of the reason for my flustered state, before disappearing from the toilets. If I wasn't feeling so hot and nervous, I might be embarrassed at my obvious condition. But I am hot, and I'm very nervous, so I brush off my humiliation, take some steady breaths and wash my clammy hands with the Noble Isle hand wash. I should have brought my bag. I could do with some Vaseline on my lips. My mouth is still dry and my lips are suffering as a consequence.
- "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
- Oct 22, 2013
- Page Count
- 480 pages