‘Better?’ he asks, pulling me in closer.
‘Much better.’ I mumble into the towel. ‘I love you, My Lord.’ I grin.
I feel him jerk a little under me, a silent hint of his quiet laugh. ‘I thought I was your God.’
‘You’re that, too.’
‘And you are my temptress. Or you could be my Lady of The Manor.’
I jump out of his chest and find him grinning at me. ‘I am not being the Lady of the Sex Manor!’
He laughs and yanks me back down, making a meal of stroking my glossy hair and inhaling deeply on a satisfied pull of breath. ‘Whatever you want, lady.’
‘Just lady will do.’ I’m aware of my hands sliding all over his damp back, but I really don’t care. ‘I’m so in love with you.’
‘I know you are, Ava.’
‘I need to get ready. I’m getting married, you know.’
‘You are? Who’s the lucky bastard?’
I smile and pull myself away from his body again. I need to see him. ‘He’s a challenging, neurotic control freak.’ I reach up and cup his rough cheek. ‘He’s so handsome.’ I whisper, searching his eyes, which are watching me so closely. ‘This man stops me breathing when he touches me and f**ks me until I’m delirious.’ I wait for his scorn, but his lips just press into a straight line, so I lean up and kiss his chin, working my way to his lips. ‘I can’t wait to marry him. You should probably go so I’m not keeping him waiting.’
‘What would this man say if he caught you kissing another man?’ he asks around my mouth.
I grin. ‘Oh, he’d probably castrate him.’
His eyes widen. ‘He sounds possessive. I don’t think I want to take him on.’
‘You really don’t. He’ll trample all over you.’ I shrug, and he laughs. It’s that eye sparkling laugh, the one that has light creases fanning his beautiful greens. ‘Happy?’ I ask.
‘No, I’m shitting myself.’ He falls back, taking me with him. ‘But I’m feeling brave. Kiss me.’
I dive right in, smothering his face with my lips and humming in sweet contentment, but I don’t get long to indulge myself.
The door swings open. ‘Jesse Ward! Get your sweat covered body off my daughter!’ Mum’s shocked cry pierces the privacy of our moment.
I start laughing, my mum’s scorn not stopping me from getting my fix of Jesse. And he lets me.
‘Ava! You’ll smell. Get up!’ Her angry heels start thumping towards us. ‘Tessa, help me out here, will you?’
I suddenly feel a mass of hands grasping at different parts of my body, trying to pull me from Jesse. ‘Mum! Stop it!’ I laugh, gripping Jesse harder. ‘I’ll get up!’
‘Get up then! You’re getting married in half an hour, your hair is a mess and you’ve broken an ancient tradition, rolling around on the floor with your husband-to-be.’ She huffs and puffs a bit more. ‘Tessa, tell her!’
‘Yes, come on, Ava.’ Tessa’s harsh husk stabs at my skin. She’s nice enough, but the woman is frighteningly fierce with organisation.
‘Okay, okay.’ I grumble, dragging myself from Jesse’s body.
‘Oh, look at you.’ Mum moans, trying to smooth my wild mane. I struggle to keep a straight face as I watch Jesse make no attempt to leave, but rather brace his arms under his head so he can watch as my mum pulls and pokes at me. ‘You’re a pair of children.’ she continues, turning angry, chocolate eyes onto my challenging man. ‘Out!’
‘All right.’ He rises from the floor in one fluid effort, his delicious muscles bunching and rippling as he does. Tessa’s staring doesn’t escape my notice, but she soon snaps out of her dumbstruck state when she catches me watching her with raised eyebrows.
‘I’ll take care of the groom!’ she declares, diverting her eyes. ‘Jesse, come on.’
‘Wait.’ He looks at my chest. ‘Where’s your diamond?’
‘Shit!’ My hand instantly flies up to my breastbone, my eyes darting around on the floor. ‘Shit, shit, shit! Mum!’
‘Ava!’ Jesse yells, ‘Please! Watch your mouth!’
‘Don’t panic!’ Mum drops to her knees and starts looking under the bed, while I scan every inch of the plush carpet.
‘Here it is!’ Tessa sweeps it up from the floor, and Jesse abruptly snatches it from her hand before making his way over to me.
‘Turn around.’ he huffs, and I comply immediately, my heart hammering in my chest. That damn f**king diamond will be the death of me. ‘There.’ His lips fall onto my shoulder, his h*ps pushing into my bum.
‘That’ll teach you for frolicking on the floor.’ Mum huffs. ‘Now, out!’ She starts tugging at Jesse’s arm, but he doesn’t brush her off.
I turn and wave at him, then curtsy, prompting another huff from my mother and a cheeky grin from Jesse, before he lets Tessa usher him out of the suite.
‘Right. In that dress, Ava O’Shea. Where is it?’
I point to the bathroom and sit myself on the end of the bed. ‘Bathroom. And you won’t be able to call me that soon.’ I say haughtily.
She stomps across the room. ‘You will always be Ava O’Shea to me.’ she grumbles. ‘Up. Your Father will be here in a minute to escort you downstairs.’
I stand and re-arrange my underwear. ‘Is he okay?’
‘Your dad?’ she asks. ‘Nervous, but it’s nothing a few whiskeys won’t cure. He hates being in the limelight.’
He does. He’ll be keen to hand me over to Jesse so he can escape the attention and blend back into the crowd. We had a brief conversation about speeches, and I could see the fear in his face. I told him he didn’t have to, but he insisted and so did my mum.
My dress is removed from the hanger and held in front of me. I rest my hand on mum’s shoulder and step into it, letting her pull it up my front so I can slip my arms through the delicate straps before she turns me around and fastens the dozens of tiny pearl buttons running down my lower spine. Her hands move to my shoulders to straighten the straps. She’s quiet, and she’s stopped moving. I know what I’m going to see if I turn around, and I’m not sure I can cope with it. Then I hear a small sniff.
‘Mum, please don’t.’
Her hands kick back into action. ‘What?’
I turn around, and my suspicions are confirmed. Her eyes are clouded and she lets out a small sob. ‘Mum.’ I warn softly.
‘Oh, Ava.’ She runs to the bathroom, and I hear the frantic yanking of toilet paper from the roll, and then the blowing of a nose. I knew she would do this. She appears in the doorway, dabbing under her eyes with some tissue. ‘I’m sorry. I was doing so well.’
‘You were.’ I confirm. ‘Hey, help me out here.’ Distraction, that’s what she needs.
‘Yes, yes. What should I do?’
‘Shoes.’ I point to my shoes where I kicked them off, and she scoops them up, placing them at my feet.
‘Thank you.’ I lift my pooling dress and slip my feet back into my Louboutins. ‘How’s my face?’ I ask.
She laughs. ‘You mean after you’ve just rubbed every inch of it all over Jesse’s?’
‘Yes.’ I answer, walking across to the bathroom to inspect it myself.
‘You could probably do with an extra brush of powder.’ she calls.
She’s right, I could. I look a little flushed. I grab my make-up brush and sweep it across my cheeks before refreshing my nude lips and applying a little extra mascara. My hair isn’t as silky smooth after my little roll around on the floor, but the comb is still securely in place. I feel better. He does that to me. He draws all of the anxiety right out of me with his presence, and now I can’t wait to get my lace clad arse downstairs to meet him.
I pull up the hem of my dress and walk out of the bathroom, flicking my hair over my shoulder and blowing out a calming breath. ‘I’m ready.’ I declare, coming to an abrupt halt when I see that my mum is no longer alone.
‘Oh, Joseph, look at her!’ Mum cries, turning into my dad’s shoulder and blubbering all over his charcoal three piece suit. Kate reaches up and strokes mum’s back on a small eye roll, and dad tenderly wraps his arm around her waist. This is rare. He’s not a touchy-feely man at all.
I smile at him, and he returns my beam. ‘Don’t you start,’ I warn him.
‘I’m saying nothing.’ He laughs. ‘Except, of course, how beautiful you look. Really beautiful, Ava.’
‘Really?’ I ask, shocked by his open display of affection, even if it is just words.
‘Yes, really.’ He nods sharply. ‘Now, are you ready?’ He shifts my mum away from his body and brushes his suit down, pretending he hasn’t just said some loving words to his daughter.
‘Yes, I’m more than ready. Dad, take me to Jesse.’ I demand, and that has the desired effect, everyone laughing at my order. Much better. I can’t cope with all of this intensity. Jesse provides me with enough of that.
Tessa barges in. ‘Come on, then. What’s the hold up?’ she asks, scanning the bodies that are all staring at me. ‘Elizabeth, Kate, downstairs, please.’ She escorts them from the room. ‘Ava, I’ll meet you at the summer room in three minutes.’
She leaves me and my dad alone. ‘You know, dad, you have to link arms with me now.’ I tease.
His face screws up. ‘For how long?’
‘Well, for however long it takes you to walk me downstairs.’ I pick up my calla lily—just one calla lily.
‘Let’s get our arses in gear, then.’ He cocks his arm to the side, and I link it with mine. ‘Ready?’
I nod and let my dad lead me down to the summer room, where my Lord of the Sex Manor is waiting for me.
Kate and Tessa are waiting for us outside the doors to the summer room, my wedding planner looking pleased, Kate looking tipsy. I maintain my steady breathing, feeling my dad getting all tense next to me. I flick a glance up to him, but he keeps his attention directed firmly forward.
‘Ready?’ Kate asks, bending down to spread my dress neatly. ‘I can’t believe you’re not wearing a veil.’
‘Oh no,’ Tessa pipes up. ‘This dress doesn’t need a veil.’ She starts flicking my hair and brushing at my cheeks.
‘He wants to see my face.’ I say quietly, clenching my eyes shut. The enormity of what I’m about to do is suddenly overwhelming me. This is it. I can feel my chest expanding, and I’m beginning to shake. I’ve known this man for only two months, and now I’m walking down the aisle to him. How did this happen?
The doors to the summer room open, music immediately drifting to my ears. Only now when I’m hearing Etta James’ At Last does it occur to me I didn’t even pick the music for my wedding. I’ve done absolutely nothing. I have no idea what’s happening or when. My eyes are flying all over the floor at my feet and I’m feeling tearful all of a sudden.
I feel my dad nudge me with his elbow, and I glance up at him, finding soft, reassuring eyes. He cocks his head to the side on a small smile, and I follow his indication to look, clenching my lips together and slowly turning my eyes. Damn, I’ve done so well. I know all heads are turned in my direction, but it’s the green eyed man at the end of the aisle who holds my attention. His hands are joined and draped loosely in front of his silver-grey, three piece suit, his body turned fully towards me. His lips part and he shakes his head a little, never taking his eyes from mine. Dad nudges me again, and I let out the breath I’ve been holding. I see Kate walking in front of us, but I can’t make my legs work. I snap out of my trance, forcing my feet to lift and carry me onwards, but I only make it two steps before he starts towards me. I hear my mum’s shocked gasp, no doubt reeling at Jesse’s lack of respect for tradition, and I stop, halting my dad’s progression to wait for him. His face is completely straight, and when he makes it to me, he blisters my skin with his scorching gaze, his eyes running over every part of my face before settling on my lips. Slowly lifting his arm, his hand cups my cheek and his thumb runs over my flesh. I nuzzle into it; I can’t help it. All anxiety is drawn from me by his touch, my heart steadying and my body starting to relax again.