I want to do none of those things. Evening guests are here, and we should socialise, but I just can’t be bothered. ‘I’m taking Ava upstairs. She’s tired.’ He doesn’t stop for my mum, and he doesn’t put me down. I’m being carried through the summer room, through all of our guests, and he isn’t stopping for anyone.
‘But it’s only ten o’clock!’ She’s horrified, as I expected. ‘What about your guests?’
‘There’s a bar, a band, and plenty to eat, Elizabeth. I’m sure they’ll survive.’ His tolerance of my mum is lessening by the hour.
‘Ava, please. Talk some sense into him.’ She’s pleading now, and I suddenly feel bad for her. This is a special day for her, too, and my Lord has trampled all over it.
I clamp my palms around his cheeks as he continues with his long strides, and mum continues to flank us. I pull his face to mine. ‘A little longer.’ I say quietly, and he halts in his tracks. ‘We can give her longer.’
‘You’re tired.’ He’s frowning a little. Yes, I am tired, but not physically. I’m mentally exhausted. ‘Let me take you to bed, baby.’
‘Dance with me.’ I run my nose up his cheek and take a full-on hit of fresh water loveliness. ‘Let’s dance.’ I feel him turning, while pushing his cheek into my nuzzle. I knew that would get him.
‘Thank God!’ Mum cries, following keenly behind.
I’m placed on my feet in the middle of the dance floor before he makes his way over to the band and speaks into the lead singer’s ear. He nods and smiles, then everyone clears the floor and it’s just me, feeling conspicuous and exposed. And then the singer removes himself from the stage, along with all of the other band members, and Snow Patrol breaks the silence with Chasing Cars. He turns to face me and just stands there, watching me for the longest time. I’m tearing up, and I know that if I look at my mother she’ll be blubbering, so I don’t. I keep my eyes on my husband and watch as he slowly walks towards me and takes me in his hold, pulling me close to his chest. My cheek rests on his shoulder, and he starts swaying us, holding me firmly in his big, strong arms. My hands slide around his back and my eyes close, my body naturally following his slow, soft movements.
‘I’m sorry, baby.’ he says quietly into my hair. ‘I’m sorry I left you earlier.’
I sigh. I know he’s sorry, but I just wish he would think before he does these things. I squeeze him a little, a silent indication of my forgiveness. ‘Let’s leave it there.’
He exhales and pushes his lips to the back of my head. ‘The harder I try not to hurt you, the more I do. I’m hopeless.’
‘Okay, but I’m still sorry.’ He holds me firmer still. ‘I can’t wait to crawl into bed with you.’
‘Me either.’ I agree. Once again, everyone is in our way. ‘Tomorrow, we stay in bed all day.’ I affirm.
‘We need to go home first.’
I sag a little in disappointment at his reminder. We’re staying here tonight. All of the rooms have been prepared for guests, mainly for my family. ‘We go home first thing in the morning, then.’ I demand quietly. I know it’s rude, leaving our guests, but I don’t want to face Kate, and I definitely don’t want to face Dan.
‘We do,’ he agrees, ‘after we’ve soaked in the bath and had breakfast with your parents.’
I let him gently rock me, my eyes closing again and my mind relaxing a little, letting Jesse draw all of my stress away. ‘I wish you’d have taken me away. Somewhere quiet, just us.’
‘I wish I had, too. But I bet your mother would’ve had something to say about it.’
I smile to myself. Yes, she would have had a lot to say about it. Opening my eyes, I see her pulling my reluctant dad to the floor, and then Kate and Sam follow with Victoria and Tom. I let my eyes close again and melt into Jesse and his movements.
‘Mrs Ward, are you falling asleep on me?’ he asks quietly.
‘Hmmm.’ I’m far too content, held tight in his arms, all of the other couples around us invisible as I remain in the dark, just feeling him, smelling him.
‘I love you.’ He pushes his nose into my hair and inhales deeply. ‘I love you so f**king much.’
‘I know.’ I whisper, turning my head into him and capturing his lips. He hums happily, pulling me up from the floor so I’m locked tightly against his chest, our tongues gliding softly between our mouths. ‘Mr Ward, you’re drawing attention.’
‘Fuck them. Wherever, whenever, baby. You know that.’ He pulls away. ‘Let me see those eyes.
I show him what he wants to see. ‘Why do you always demand to see them?’ I ask.
He only smiles mildly, but his greens still twinkle madly. ‘Because when I look into them, I know for sure that you’re real.’
I match his faint smile. ‘I’m real.’
‘I’m so glad. I didn’t tell you how beautiful you look.’ He pecks my lips and keeps swaying us gently. ‘I thought it, but my beautiful girl renders me stupid every time I lay my eyes on her. It’s like I’m looking at her for the first time all over again.’ He searches my eyes and sighs. ‘You keep my heart beating, baby. And it will only ever beat for you. Understand?’
I nod mildly. I really do understand. ‘Just for me.’ I move my hands to the back of his head and relish the feel of his dark blonde hair between my fingers. ‘I need you to take me to bed.’
The corners of his lips tip a little. ‘Will my delightful mother-in-law allow that?’
I shrug. ‘I don’t care. I just want you to myself. Take me to bed.’
‘Deal.’ He drops me to my feet and swoops down to kiss me chastely. ‘You don’t have to ask me twice, Mrs Ward.’
‘I just did.’
He frowns. ‘That’s your f**king mothers fault.’ I’m turned in his arms and led from the floor, sidestepping all of the couples in tight clinches. ‘Oh, look at Clive and Cathy!’ I say, spying our concierge and Jesse’s housekeeper stuck together as Clive shuffles her from side to side. They look so sweet. I hear Jesse laugh a little as I spy Kate being held up by Sam. And then I spot my brother in the distance, his attention and scowl pointed directly at my best friend and her cheeky boyfriend. My attention is pulled from my brother when Jesse gives me a little tug. I look up at him and see he has noticed who I’m focused on. ‘It doesn’t look like history to me.’ He raises his eyebrows.
He’s right. It doesn’t, but I don’t confirm it.
He’s just lowering to pick me up when Snow Patrol fades out and is replaced with something else—something much louder and upbeat. I can feel my face breaking out in a smile as I watch Jesse freeze mid bend, and then the male’s voice kicks in.
‘Hello, Justin.’ I say quietly, watching him straighten up. He steps back thoughtfully and grabs the lapels of his suit jacket, giving them a little tug before brushing them off and hitting me with wide, excited eyes.
‘Oh, Mrs Ward.’ He shakes his head mildly. ‘I’m about tear that floor up.’ He grabs my hand and pulls me urgently back to the dance floor, weaving us through the crowds of drunken dancers until we’re right in the middle of them. I’m grinning like a complete idiot as I watch him shrug his jacket off and dust his hands down before I’m seized and reminded of my God’s moves. He does, indeed, tear the floor up.
A whole hour later after Jesse has won my mum over and graced everyone with his dance floor presence, I’m finally on my way upstairs in Jesse’s arms. My heels have been kicked off and Jesse is holding them as he takes the staircase. My heavy head feels like lead against his shoulder and my eyes won’t stay open. I hear my heels tumble to the floor and a few moments later, I’m placed on my feet.
My forehead falls straight to his chest. ‘We need to consummate our vows.’ I mumble into his chest, rolling my head and drawing his scent into me. It’s the most soothing smell in the world.
He laughs lightly. ‘Baby, you’re too tired. We’ll consummate in the morning.’ He clasps the back of my neck and pulls me out of his chest so he can look at me. I try my hardest to open my eyes fully, but it’s just too much like hard work.
‘I know.’ I try to push my forehead back, but he holds me firmly in place, scanning my face—every square inch of it. ‘What?’ I ask quietly.
‘Tell me you love me.’ he demands.
I don’t falter in the slightest. ‘I love you.’
‘I need you.’ I interrupt him. I know the drill.
He smiles thoughtfully. ‘You’ll never know how happy that makes me.’
‘I do know.’ I correct him. I know very well because I feel exactly the same. He dips and kisses me lightly. ‘I want you n**ed and spread all over me. Let me get this dress off.’ He turns me around and starts unbuttoning the dozens of tiny pearls running down my spine. ‘What’s happening with your brother and Kate?’ he asks.
The question immediately snaps my sleepy eyes open. That’s a damn fine question. Nothing, I hope, but I won’t hold my breath. ‘I don’t know.’ I’m being honest. I really don’t. I won’t be telling Jesse about what I discovered in the toilets.
‘Either you’ve learnt to control your bad habit, or you’re telling me the truth.’ He pushes my dress from my shoulders and takes it down to my feet so I can step out of it.
‘I’m telling the truth.’ I say, turning to face him. He straightens himself up and walks over to the door to hang my dress. ‘I think seeing each other has sparked memories, that’s all.’
‘Memories?’ he asks, making his way back to me.
I’m turned around again so he can access my bodice. ‘They were bad for each other.’ I say. ‘You know Kate, and Dan isn’t the most tolerant man on the planet. They clashed terribly. It was best for them both when Dan left.’
‘But now he’s back.’
‘Yes, but he’ll be gone soon. What about Kate and Sam?’ That’s another disaster waiting to happen.
‘I’ve told you, that’s none of our business.’
‘But she’s a member of The Manor.’ I sound accusing, which is fine because I am. ‘Why did you allow that?’
‘It’s not my job to ask potential members why they want to join. I check for criminal records, medical issues, and financials. If they can pay, they’re clean, and have no serious offences, then they’re in.’
I scowl at thin air in front of me. ‘Members could screw anything between visits to The Manor and catch something, or be arrested for violence. How would you know?’
‘Because they’re required to undertake monthly tests, and I obtain regular reports. There is no penetrative sex without condoms, and their honesty and disclosure form part of their agreement.’ He reaches the final fastener and removes my corset. ‘These people are respected members of society, Ava.’
‘Who love having kinky sex with strangers and weird contraptions?’ I grumble.
‘None of my business.’
That’s just it. It is his business, and it was also his pleasure. I wince at the direction of my thoughts and try to concentrate on the feel of him gathering my hair and pulling it to the side. The unmistakable heat of his lips on my nape dispels them completely. I shiver, and he laughs.
‘She’s going to get hurt.’ I say quietly.
His arm snakes around my bare tummy, pulling me back against him. I’m more than awake now. ‘What makes you think that?’