Beneath This Man (This Man #2)

by Jodi Ellen Malpas

Chapter 1

It’s been five days since I have seen Jesse Ward. Five days of agony, five days of emptiness and five days of sobbing. There is nothing left in me. No emotion, no soul and no tears – nothing.

Every time my eyes close he’s there, the images flickering from the sure, confident, beautiful man who completely took me, to the hollow, hurtful, drunken creature who has destroyed me. I’m at a complete loss. 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, semi n**ed presence at Kate’s, but he knows better than to talk to me about Jesse. He keeps quiet and well away from me. 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? In those short few weeks’ I have known him, though, I’ve learnt that he is intense, hot-blooded and controlling, but he is also gentle, affectionate and protective. I miss him so much, but I do not miss the drunken, hollow man who I was confronted with the last time I saw him. That was not the Jesse who I had fallen in love with. That brief time of trading insults, though, did not even come close to eradicating the few weeks before that nightmare Sunday of just me and him. I would gladly take all of his frustrating, challenging ways over the ugliness that was Jesse drunk. Strangely, I miss those infuriating traits too.

I’ve not even thought about The Manor and what it represents. That has almost paled into insignificance. Apparently, Jesse falling off the wagon was my entire fault. He advised me, on a slur, that he had warned me there would be damage if I left. He had. He just didn’t explain what sort of damage or why. It was another one of his enigmatic brainteasers that he never elaborated on. 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. He completely consumed me. I never anticipated he was 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 eat anything. It’s hard enough 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, morning fresh 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 back slowly 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? With the added benefit of Matt’s friendly little phone call to my Mum, informing her that I was seeing another man, I’m facing interrogation. I told my mother it wasn’t true – it was true at the time, not now – but I know my Mum well enough to know she didn’t believe me, even when I’m on the other end of a phone and she can’t see me twiddling my hair. What would I tell them? That I have fallen in love with a man and I don’t know how old he is? He owns a sex club and, oh yes, he’s an alcoholic. I’ve not helped myself by not making the trip to see them, my work excuse pitiful, and I fully expect the third degree from Dan when I see him tomorrow. I need to prepare myself for his questioning. It’s going to be the grilling of my life.

My mobile blurts from my desk, dragging me from my daydreams and tapping pen. It’s Ruth Quinn. I inwardly groan. This woman is proving to be a challenge herself. She rang on Tuesday and demanded an appointment for the same day, and I explained that I was busy and suggested someone else may be able to make it, but she insisted she wanted me. She eventually settled for my first appointment, which happened to be today, and she has since called every day to remind me. I should just ignore it, but she will only call the office.

‘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.’

And there you go. She’s so demanding. I think I might be pricing myself out of this job. ‘Four thirty, Miss Quinn.’ I reiterate, for the third consecutive day.

‘Lovely, I look forward to it.’

‘Great, see you then.’ 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’s no ignoring 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 f**k 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. 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.

As four o’clock strikes, I shut down my computer and leave the office to head for Miss Quinn’s.

I arrive at a stunning town house on Lansdowne Crescent on time, and Miss Quinn answers the door. I’m completely stunned. 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, making a note of her name and address at the top. ‘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 – mid-thirties, 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.

She walks me to the front door. ‘I will 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.’

‘Of course, Ruth.’ I leave Miss Quinn, relieved that I’ve fulfilled all necessary pleasantries, for now, anyway – until I meet my brother tomorrow.

I drag myself down the street towards Kate’s house, hoping she’s not home so I can retreat to my room before she resumes mission perk-Ava-up.

‘Ava!’

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 up and gets out of his Porsche, meeting me on the pavement outside Kate’s house.