Dropping Dan’s hand and lifting my dress, I step over a large twig and catch my heel, causing me to stagger slightly. ‘Oh!’
‘Careful.’ Dan grabs my elbow to steady me. ‘I don’t think those shoes were made for hiking.’ he quips on a small smile.
I relax immediately. ‘No,’ I laugh, straightening myself out.
‘Ava…’ he trails off.
I give him a tired look. ‘Just say it, Dan. Whatever you’ve been dying to say since you’ve met Jesse, just say it.’
‘Okay. I don’t like him.’
I recoil a little. He hardly knows him. ‘Okay,’ I laugh uncomfortably. ‘I didn’t think you’d be so blunt.’
He shrugs. ‘What do you want me to say?’
‘You don’t even know him. The only attempt you’ve made to speak with him, to get to know him, was when you tried to warn him.’ I accuse. My mum might have intercepted Dan’s older brother speech, but he still made a start, and Jesse’s ticking jaw was a clear indication of what he thought of Dan’s intended caution.
‘Explain about this drink issue, then.’ he challenges.
My eyes widen. ‘What are you talking about?’ I don’t like the reproachful look on his face, not at all.
‘I’m talking about the drink issue Matt brought up—the drink issue that hasn’t been mentioned since. The fact he hasn’t touched alcohol all day hasn’t gone unnoticed, Ava. Not on my part, anyway. Mum’s probably too wrapped up in mother-of-the-bride duties to see it.’
I knew it was too much of a good thing. After Jesse’s sly stunt of getting my parents to London, they fell in love with him and the drink issue wasn’t mentioned again. They put it down to Matt being spiteful. I don’t need Dan unearthing an issue that really isn’t an issue. Jesse hasn’t had a drink since I found him at Lusso. He doesn’t need it if he has me, and he most definitely has me.
‘And where’s his family?’ he asks.
‘I’ve told you. He doesn’t speak to them.’
‘Right.’ He laughs. ‘That’s convenient. And to think I disliked Matt.’
‘So now you’re suddenly a Matt advocate, are you?’ I snipe nastily. I point my finger in his face. I feel really f**king mad, and I’ve never been mad with Dan. ‘There is no issue. He has no family, so back off. Let’s talk about what’s really eating you up. Let’s talk about Kate.’
It’s his eyes that are wide now. Yes, I’ve just homed in on the real issue here. I’m not going to let him ruin my day with his judgments. They’re not valid, and I don’t want to hear them.
‘Nothing’s eating me up!’ he yells. ‘I couldn’t give a f**k about Kate!’
‘Of course!’ I laugh. ‘That’s why you’ve barely pulled your eyes away from her all day.’
‘Who the hell is that Sam?’ His tone only confirming I’ve hit a nerve.
I might not be thrilled with Kate’s life direction at the moment, but I would prefer her carrying on with Sam, rather than heading for guaranteed disaster with Dan. It ended in tears before and it will again. ‘He’s good for her.’ I spit. I can’t believe I’ve just said that. Dan would die on the spot if he knew the ins and outs of Kate and Sam’s relationship. I don’t even know the extent of it myself, but I have a good idea. ‘You need to leave this exactly where it is.’ I gather my dress up, ready to make a retreat, but he grabs my arm.
‘What if I don’t want to?’
‘Get your f**king hands off her.’ The familiar growl pulls my head around fast. Jesse is standing nearby. His chest is heaving, and he has a murderous look on his face.
‘It’s fine. We’re done.’ I say, yanking my arm free. I need to get Jesse away before he tramples all over my brother. And it won’t just be a verbal trample.
Dan steps forward. ‘She’s my sister.’
Jesse closes the gap between them, his eyes black. ‘She’s. My. Wife.’
My brother laughs a little, not a good thing, judging by Jesse’s darkening glare. I need to intervene, but stepping between these two angry men is not a thought I relish. But then I see Jesse’s fists balling, and I know I need to remove him now.
I place my hand on his arm and he flinches, too focused on Dan to realise it’s me. As soon as he does, though, he breaks the glowering deadlock and turns his eyes to mine. They soften immediately.
‘Let’s go.’ I say quietly, sliding my hand down his arm to grasp his.
He nods and turns with me, not giving Dan another look. I’m grateful. Dan’s obviously not in a good place, and I know how tenacious he can be when he’s on the defence. Kate’s not trying to, but she’s screwing with his head again, and Dan’s trying to bat it away by focusing his attention on me.
We make our way towards The Manor, leaving Dan behind. ‘Give me your hand.’ Jesse orders, reaching down. I let him take it and re-cuff me. ‘Don’t ask me to remove them again.’
‘I won’t’ I grumble. I wish he’d never released me in the first place, then I might not be seething with both Dan’s obvious issue with Kate and his inquisitiveness with regards to Jesse’s issue. ‘Throw away the key.’
His eyebrows rise. ‘Wishing you’d have stayed nailed to me?’
‘Yes.’ I admit. ‘Don’t free me again.’
‘Okay,’ he agrees. ‘Would you like a drink?’
We continue towards the house, re-cuffed and re-united. ‘I’d love a drink.’ I’ve hardly touched a drop all day, and I’m a little surprised that he’s offered.
‘Come on.’ He pulls me in and kisses my forehead. ‘I won’t stand for it, Ava. Even if he is your brother.’
‘I know.’ I agree quietly. I’m pleasantly surprised by his self-control. It doesn’t matter to Jesse who he eliminates, and Dan has not helped his cause. He’s just tried to restrain me, the worse thing he could do. I don’t want my husband and brother to battle, but I know Jesse would never back down when it comes to me, and Dan would never lose face.
The evening guests have arrived. As we make our way through the bar, we’re accosted, kissed and wished well with every step we take. When we finally make it to the bar, I’m placed on my stool and handed a glass of water. Water? I look at the clear glass and back to Jesse, who is doing a damn fine job of ignoring my obvious disbelieve. Water?
Tessa comes steaming over, looking as wound up as poor mum. ‘Where have you been?’ she asks incredulously, flicking her eyes from me to Jesse and back again. ‘You were supposed to cut the cake!’
Jesse opens a bottle of water and takes a long swig, not in the least bit perturbed by Tessa’s concern. ‘It’s fine.’
Tessa shakes her head in disbelief and stomps off towards the entrance hall. She may as well leave. It looks like her services are no longer required.
‘Don’t you want to cut the cake?’ I ask, my wrist being lifted as Jesse secures the lid on his water bottle. ‘Kate went out of her way to make it on such short notice.’
He reaches forward and straightens my diamond. ‘Then let’s not ruin it.’ he says seriously.
‘You’re impossible.’ I sigh, glancing across the bar, spotting Sam and Drew entertaining my dad, who’s looking a little rosy cheeked. My mum is revelling in the attention, undoubtedly offering tours of the grounds, and Kate is looking drunk. Tom flaps a limp wrist at me, Victoria gives a girly wave before looking across the bar towards Drew and smoothing down her blonde locks, and poor Sal just looks like she’s trying to fit in, although she’s still sparkling, but her new fellow isn’t here. I smile and turn my attention back to Jesse, just a Tessa storms back into the bar.
‘Okay. I’ve spoken to Elizabeth,’ Tessa huffs. ‘We’re cutting the cake and having the first dance shortly, so don’t be disappearing on me again.’ She storms off, and I smile. She’s definitely regretting taking this job.
‘You okay, baby?’ His warm palm slides across my cheek.
‘Yes, fine.’ I answer, but I’m not. I’ve fallen out with my brother, and that has absolutely never happened.
‘You don’t look fine. I said I wanted you to enjoy today.’
I inwardly laugh. Then he should let me have a drink and he shouldn’t have broached the subject that has my brain the most twisted at the moment. ‘I’m fine.’ I sigh, taking a long sip of my water. Fucking water.
Patrick and Irene approach, my cuddly bear of a boss brandishing a huge ivory gift bag, his wife adorned in a mass of animal print material. I think it might be a dress. It’s extremely distracting. I quickly direct my eyes to Jesse. ‘Here’s Patrick. You said Monday, remember?’ I need to get that in quickly.
Jesse looks over his shoulder. ‘Yes, Ava. Just till Monday, though.’
‘Flower!’ Patrick thrusts the gift bag at me, kisses my cheek, and then holds his hand out to Jesse. ‘Mr Ward.’ he greets, a frown popping up onto his wrinkled forehead when he clocks the cuffs.
‘Please, it’s Jesse. Thank you for coming.’ Jesse takes Patrick’s hand.
‘Yes, Jesse.’ My boss drags his eyes away from our wrists. ‘This is Irene.’ He signals to his wife as she wobbles over with the biggest grin on her face. I smile to myself. She’s affected.
‘Nice to meet you.’ she practically giggles.
‘And you.’ Jesse hits her with his smile, reserved only for women, and she disintegrates on the spot. He’s unbelievable. ‘Please, the bar staff will see to you.’
‘Thank you!’ she gushes. ‘This hotel is just wonderful!’
‘Hello, Irene.’ I say on a smile. She drags her greedy eyes away from my husband and brings them onto me. She’s a frightening woman, but not at the moment. She’s too busy straightening her back and pulling in her stomach. ‘How are you?’
‘Delightful!’ she sings in my face. ‘Ava, you look stunning.’
‘Thank you.’ I blurt, completely surprised. She has never paid me a compliment, not ever, and I didn’t expect her to now. She mostly just rabbits on about her social life and gossips about her fellow ladies of leisure.
Patrick grasps his wife’s elbow and guides her away. ‘We’ll get a drink.’ He rolls his eyes, and I smile fondly at my boss. I know he finds his wife exasperating.
‘Interesting woman.’ Jesse muses, looking a little alarmed at her leopard print body, wobbling away from us.
I laugh. ‘She makes Patrick’s life miserable.’
‘I can imagine.’
‘Here’s John.’ I say, glancing past Jesse. The big guy is strolling over, wraparounds in place, and with his usual menacing expression plastered all over his face. His stare is pointed at the cuffs before he gives me the nod. I nod back.
‘A word, Jesse.’ he rumbles. He’s too serious. I don’t like it, and Jesse’s quick flick of his eyes to me doesn’t make me feel any better.
Jesse reaches into his pocket and pulls out the key to the handcuffs, and I watch as he brings it to my wrist. ‘What are you doing?’ I ask, yanking my arm away.
‘John wants a quick word.’ His teeth are clenched.
‘Oh no,’ I laugh. ‘You don’t get to release me when it suits you. No way, Ward.’ I look at John, who’s still expressionless.
‘Ava, I’ll be back shortly.’ He pulls my wrist back to him.
‘No! Where are you going?’ I look at John. ‘Where is he going?’
‘S’all good, girl.’