My nerves are shot to bits. I don’t know why. I know I’m doing the right thing, but damn I’m a stupid mass of nerves. I’m alone, my first few, silent, reflective moments of the day so far and probably the last. I’ve been waiting for this tiny snippet of time, begging for it among the chaos surrounding me. I need this moment, just me to myself, absorbing the massive leap that I’m taking trying to gather myself together. I know these moments will likely be precious from this day forward.
It’s my wedding day.
It’s the day I promise myself to this man for the rest of my life—not that I need a piece of paper or a metal band on my finger to do that. But he does. That’s why only two weeks after he fell to his knee on the terrace of Lusso, I’m marrying this man. And why I’m now sitting in my robe on a chaise lounge in one of the private suites of The Manor—the suite where Jesse cornered me all those weeks ago—trying to gather myself.
I’m getting married at The Manor.
The biggest day of my life is taking place at the plush sex haven of my Lord. My nerves aren’t only a result of me being the bride. My parents, brother, and family members are all roaming around the grounds of Jesse’s supposed country retreat. They’re all poking around the building and gushing at the opulent splendour. That’s why I have a five kilo padlock on the double doors to the communal room. I’ve checked it a million times, and I’ve double checked that all wooden, cross-like wall hangings and suspended, gold grid frames have been removed from all of the private suites. I’ve also grilled the staff of The Manor repeatedly. Jesse’s poor army of employees have all endured my constant whittling and persistent reminders that my family are oblivious. They humour me, just rolling their eyes and giving me a reassuring shoulder rub or a sympathetic look, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. I’m not so worried about the male members of my family, they’ll all just prop themselves up at the bar and only move on demand. But my mum and aunt are a different story entirely. My mother, with her love of all things luxurious, is gushing over the place and has suddenly taken the role of tour guide, keen to demonstrate just how magnificent Jesse’s county estate is. I wish she wouldn’t. I wish she’d join my dad at the bar. I wish I could cement her backside to a stool and feed her Mario’s Most Marvellous all day and night. Marrying at The Manor is an added stress that I really don’t need on my wedding day, but when my challenging, neurotic birthday boy had me surrounded by his hard, warm strength and sprawled across the terrace, I agreed—no sense f**k required.
I know he’s taken care of everything. The Manor really does look just like an exclusive resort, but I know what’s on the next floor, and all of those beds are currently dancing on the ceiling above me, like they’re lonely. They probably are. The Manor has been closed to members for two days so preparations could be made, and that alone has cost Jesse a small fortune in reimbursed membership fees. I might be just as unpopular with the male members as I am with the female members now. They must all hate me—the women for snatching their Lord from under their noses, and now the men for putting a halt on their preferred sexual adventures.
I look up to the ceiling and roll my shoulders in an attempt to dispel some of the growing tension. It’s not working. I’m too bloody nervous. Pulling myself up from my reclined position, I walk over to the mirror and gaze at my reflection. Despite my unease, I look fresh. I’m glowing and my make-up is light and natural. Phillipe has done an incredible job of glossing my dark hair to within an inch of its life, the long, heavy waves flouncing freely and loosely pinned on one side with an intricately jewelled hair comb. Jesse loves my hair down. He also loves me in lace.
I turn towards the door where my dress is hanging and drink in the vast expanse of lace—lots of lace, with explosions of tiny pearls sewn here and there. I smile. He’ll stop breathing. This simple gown, with delicate shoulder straps, plunging back and nipped-in waist will have my Lord on his knees.
The ivory lace sweeps over my bum, hugs my thighs, and puddles on the floor a metre in every direction. Zoe of Harrods came up trumps with this dress. She’s figured me out, even down to the simple, ivory heels. No fuss, just a classic Christian Louboutin stiletto.
I scoop my phone up from the nightstand. It’s midday. In just an hour, I’ll be meeting Jesse in the summer room and taking my vows. My stomach does a swift three sixty degree turn… again.
Slipping off my robe, I put my knickers on before taking my ivory lace, strapless corset and stepping in, pulling it up over my stomach and arranging my small cl**vage in the cups. Only just, but it does conceal the perfectly round bruise on my breast. My mark.
There’s a quiet knock at the door. My silent, reflective time is up. ‘Yes?’ I call, slipping my robe over my underwear and making my way across the suite.
‘Ava, darling, are you decent?’ It’s my mum.
I open the door. ‘I’m decent, and I need your help.’
She pushes her way in, shutting the door behind her. She looks stunning, steering away from the traditional mother-of-the-bride matching dress, jacket and hat, and instead adorning her tidy figure with a lovely oyster coloured, satin shift dress. Her short, sweeping hairstyle is arranged with a feather and pearl hairpiece.
‘Sorry, darling. I was showing Aunty Angela the spa facilities. I think she’ll be asking Jesse about joining up. She was most impressed. Do you need membership for the spa and gym, or is it just for guests?’
I cringe on the spot. ‘Just for guests, mum.’
‘Oh, well, I’m sure he’ll make an exception for family. Your grandparents would’ve thought they were in Buckingham Palace, God rest their souls.’ She faffs with my hair, and I bat her fussing hands away. ‘Have you wiggled your way into your underwear yet?’ She runs her chocolate eyes up and down my robe covered body. ‘It’s nearly time.’
I slip my robe off again and drape it on the bed. ‘Yes, I need you to fasten it.’ I turn my back to her and pull my hair over my shoulder. Two weeks of Jesse’s hands working cream into my back has cleared all evidence of my thrashing. The physical marks are gone, but that day will be forever etched on my brain.
‘Ah, okay.’ She commences securing all of the hook and eyes. ‘Ava, you should see the summer room. It looks absolutely beautiful. You’re so lucky to have such a wonderful place to get married. Women re-mortgage to afford venues like this.’
I’m glad she can’t see my face because she would see a painfully uncomfortable expression. ‘I know.’ I’ve seen the room and it does look beautiful—Tessa, our wedding planner, made sure of it. But then, every part of The Manor oozes splendour, anyway, wedding or not. I’ve done very little in the preparations of my own wedding. Jesse presented me with Tessa the day after I agreed to marry him, a small indication that my challenging man had already sourced her to take on the role of organising our wedding—the wedding we were supposed to discuss together like adults. And, quite conveniently, The Manor also holds a wedding licence. I didn’t even ask how he achieved that. All I’ve done for my wedding is visit Zoe to find my dress. I’ve had no planning stress, just location stress.
‘There.’ Mum turns me around and sweeps my hair back over my shoulder. She’s looking at me thoughtfully, and I know what’s coming. ‘Darling, can your mother offer you some advice?’
‘No.’ I answer quickly on a small smile.
She returns my smile and sits me on the end of the bed. ‘When you become a wife, you become the core of your husband.’ She smiles fondly. ‘Let him think he’s in charge, let him think you can’t live without him, but never let him take your independence or identity, darling. They need their ego’s stroked, these men.’ She laughs a little. ‘They like to think they’re wearing the trousers, and you have to let them believe it.’
I shake my head a little. ‘Mum, this isn’t necessary.’
‘Yes, it is.’ she insists. ‘Men are complicated creatures.’
I scoff. She has no idea how complicated my creature is. ‘I know.’
‘And whilst they maintain a strong, manly façade, they are weak without us!’ She pulls my blushing face to hers. ‘Ava, I can see that Jesse loves you, and I admire his frankness when it comes to how he feels about you, but remember who you are. Never let him change you, darling.’
‘He won’t change me, mum.’ I’m not at all comfortable with this conversation. Mum and dad stayed with us for two days after Jesse proposed, and have been back in London since Wednesday, so they have had the full-on experience of Jesse’s way with me, minus the countdowns and various degrees of f**kings. They have witnessed the smothering, the constant touching and affection, and their quiet observations haven’t gone unnoticed. Not on my part, anyway. Jesse is oblivious. No, not oblivious, he just doesn’t care, and I’m not about to stop him. I crave the constant contact, just as much as he does.
Mum smiles at me. ‘He wants to look after you, and he’s made it quite clear you’re precious to him. It makes me and your father so happy to know that you’ve found a man who adores you, a man who’ll walk through fire for you.’
‘I adore him, too.’ I say quietly. The sincerity of my mum’s words is tugging at my vocal cords, making my voice a little quivery. ‘Please don’t make me cry. My make-up will be ruined.’
She clasps my cheeks in her palms and plants a kiss on my lips. ‘Yes, let’s stop with the emotional stuff. Just don’t ever do anything that you don’t want to. I can also see he could be quite persuasive.’ I actually laugh, and mum laughs with me. Persuasive? ‘It’s such a shame his family couldn’t be here.’ she muses.
I wince a little. ‘I’ve told you, they live abroad. They’re not very close.’ I’ve only vaguely outlined the reason for Jesse’s lack of family. Very vaguely. The story that Jesse spun me when we first met sufficed. It’s perfectly plausible.
‘Money,’ she sighs. ‘It causes more family rifts than anything else.’
‘It does,’ I agree. So do sex houses and playboy uncles.
We’re interrupted by another knock at the door and Mum leaves me on the bed to answer it. ‘Oh, that’ll be Kate.’ she sings.
‘I have drinks! Wow, Elizabeth, you look incredible!’ Kate’s excited voice creeps into the room before she barrels past my mother and hits me with delighted blue eyes. ‘Aren’t you dressed yet?’ she asks, setting a tray on the wooden chest. She looks fabulous in a simple, ivory satin dress, her long curls a mass of red flames surrounding her pale face—my only bridesmaid, but with the enthusiasm of ten.
‘Just about to.’ I stand myself up and adjust my boobs in my cups again.
‘Here, have one of these.’ She thrusts a glass of pink liquid at me.
‘Oh, yes, you must!’ Mum chants, closing the door and hastily making her way over to scoop one up for herself. She takes a long sip and gasps. ‘Oh, that little Italian knows how to keep a lady happy.’
I shake my head at the glass that’s floating in front of me. ‘No, I’m fine.’ I don’t want alcohol breath under Jesse’s nose.
‘It’ll sort your nerves.’ Kate insists, taking my hand and placing the glass in it. ‘Drink.’
She knows the cause of my nerves. I’ve made Kate check the padlock and private suites a million times, too. She nods at the glass with raised eyebrows and I relent, taking a generous swig of Mario’s Most Marvellous. It tastes as marvellous as ever, but no amount of alcohol is going to cure me.
‘Where’s Jesse?’ I ask, setting my glass down. I’ve not seen him since last night. Knowing my mum’s traditional views, I insisted we sleep separately on the night before our wedding. He refused to leave my room until one minute to midnight, and then he did so in a mighty huff when my mum was banging on the door. I could see he was dying to trample all over her, but, surprisingly, he conceded without too much fuss, just a ferocious scowl at my mum as she guided him from the room.