This Man (This Man #1)

by Jodi Ellen Malpas

Chapter 1

I rifle 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 I’ve become use 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 f**king 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.’

‘Sure.’

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 of the main road and onto a little lane, where I find myself in front of the biggest pair of gates 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?’

‘Over here.’

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.’

‘I know.’

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.