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Beneath This Man (This Man Trilogy)(4)

By:Jodi Ellen Malpas

John clucks my cheek and hoists himself up off the floor. I’ve never heard him say so much. The big, silent giant turns out to be the big, friendly giant, but I still wouldn’t want to cross him.

‘What happened to his hand?’ Sam asks when he clocks the bloodied, bruised mess.

It really looks terrible and probably needs looking at. ‘He smashed the window on his car,’ I sniffle, and they all look at me. ‘When we rowed at Kate’s.’ I add, almost ashamed.

‘Should we get him into his bed?’ Drew asks timidly.

‘Sofa.’ John instructs. We’re back to a few words.

I watch as Sam gets up and collects an empty vodka bottle from under the sun lounger. He looks at it in complete disgust and dramatically smashes it on the side of a raised planter. I flinch at the loud noise that echoes around us, but more significantly, Jesse flinches too.

‘Jesse?’ I shake him slightly. ‘Jesse, please, open your eyes.’

Sam, Drew and John all crowd around us and Jesse’s arm starts to rise above his head, flapping around in thin air. I clasp it and place it back by his side, but no sooner have I released it, he brings it back up in front of my face, mumbling inaudibly and thrashing his legs about.

‘He’s looking for you, girl.’ John says quietly.

I throw a shocked glance at John, and he nods at me. He’s looking for me? I reach for his hand again and guide it to my face, spreading his palm against my cheek. He instantly calms. His cold palm on my face offers me little comfort, but it seems to soothe him, so I hold it there and let him feel me, horrified that he has, quite possibly, been out here on the terrace for days, unclothed and unconscious. It might be mild in the May daytime, but nightfall brings cooler temperatures. Why did I walk out on him? I should have stayed and calmed him down, not walk away.

‘I’ll go and get some bedding from upstairs.’ Drew says, heading back into the penthouse.

‘Shall we?’ John prompts, nodding at Jesse on the floor.

I reluctantly release Jesse’s hand and let Sam and John flank him on either side to coordinate a lift. As he’s lifted from my lap, I pull myself up and run ahead to make sure their path is clear. I free the entire leather corner couch of a million cushions – all courtesy of me – so it looks more like a bed when I’m done.

As Drew comes down the stairs with his hands full of blankets, Sam and John wait patiently with Jesse’s naked weight spread evenly between them. I take a velvet throw from Drew and lay it over the cold leather, and then move back so John and Sam can lower him onto the couch before propping his head up on some pillows and laying another throw over his naked body. I drop to my knees at his side, smoothing my hand down the side of his stubbled face.

Regret washes over me, tears starting to fall again. I could have stopped this. If I hadn’t stormed out, he wouldn’t be in this state now. I should have stayed, calmed him down and sobered him up. I hate myself.

‘Ava, are you okay?’ I hear Drew’s quiet voice over my suppressed sobs, and a hand starts rubbing my back.

I sniffle and wipe my nose with the back of my hand. ‘I’m fine, sorry.’

‘Don’t apologise.’ Sam sighs.

I lean over Jesse and rest my lips on his forehead, leaving them to linger for a few seconds, and as I lift myself from the floor, his arm shoots out from under the blanket and grabs me. ‘Ava?’ His voice is cracked and hoarse, and his eyes open slightly, searching around the room and when they find mine, all I can see are empty pits of nothing, his usual green, addictive eyes bordering on black.

‘Hey,’ I place my hand over his on my arm.

He tries to lift his head from the pillow, but I don’t have to reprimand him. Before I have a chance to push him back down, he gives up trying. ‘I’m so sorry.’ he murmurs pitifully, his hand starting to pat its way up my arm to find my face again. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…’

‘Stop.’ I whisper on a quivering voice, helping his hand to reach my face. ‘Please, just stop.’ I turn my lips into his hand and kiss his palm and when I turn to face him again, his eyes are closed. He’s gone again.

I take his hand and place it on the blanket, then make sure he is tucked in well, before pulling myself up and turning to see Sam, Drew and John, all standing silently watching me tend to him. I had completely forgotten I wasn’t alone with Jesse, but I’m not in the least bit embarrassed.

‘I’ll make some coffee.’ Sam breaks the silence and heads for the kitchen, John and Drew following.

I take another glance at Jesse, my instinct wanting me to crawl onto the sofa and snuggle up to him, stroke him and soothe him. I might just do that, but first I need to talk to the guys. I follow them into the kitchen and find Sam and Drew picking up barstools and John heaving the freezer up from the floor. It wasn’t like this when I left on Sunday. Jesse clearly flew into a rage.

‘I’ve got to shoot,’ Drew says regretfully, placing the last stool upright. ‘I’m taking Victoria out.’ He looks a little embarrassed.

‘You go, bud,’ Sam pushes as he hunts for the mugs. ‘I’ll call you later.’

‘Last cupboard on the right, top shelf.’ I give Sam the directions to the mugs and he turns, looking at me quizzically.

I shrug.

‘I’ll be off then. Speak to you tomorrow.’ Drew says.

I offer a small smile and John does his signature nod as Drew leaves us to it and Sam finishes the coffees.

He transports three mugs of black coffee to the island where John and I have taken our seats. ‘We won’t risk the milk, that’s if he’s even got any. Black okay?’ Sam asks.

I nod and help myself, John following suit, putting an incredible four sugars into his coffee. I know there is no milk, but it would be pointless sharing this.

‘So,’ Sam begins. ‘Now we’ve found him, what are we going to do with him?’ he jokes.

Carefree Sam is back and it’s quite a relief. Seeing him so fraught had only fuelled my own worry, and as it turns out, he had every reason to be anxious. I inwardly shudder at the thought of Jesse alone and suffering for the last five days. How much longer would he have been lying there if I had refused to come? They would have surely phoned the police.

John pipes up. ‘Everything is running smoothly at The Manor. We don’t have to worry about that. He’ll be back to normal after nursing a week long hangover.’

‘Doesn’t he need to go to rehab?’ I ask. ‘Or therapy, I don’t know.’ I have no idea how these things work.

John shakes his head and puts his glasses back on, and I start to wonder about his relationship with Jesse. I thought he was just an employee, but he seems to be the one in the know about all of this.

‘No rehab.’ John states firmly. ‘He’s not an alcoholic in the classic sense of the word. He’s not obsessed with alcohol, Ava. He drank to lighten his foul mood, to fill a gap. Once he starts, he can’t stop.’ He offers me a small smile. ‘You helped, girl.’

‘What did I do?’ I ask defensively. I don’t know why I sound so hurt by John’s statement. He has just told me I helped the situation, but I can’t help feeling like he’s insinuating that I might have helped with the relapse as well.

Sam places his hand over mine on the worktop. ‘His attention was focused elsewhere.’

‘But then I left him.’ I say quietly. I’m just confirming what they are both thinking. We were not together in the couple sense for me to leave him, though. Nothing had been established as to where we both stood. We never did get to lay our cards on the table or sort this shit out.

‘It’s not your fault, Ava.’ Sam reassures me firmly. ‘You weren’t to know.’

‘He never told me,’ I whisper. ‘If I had known, things would have been different.’ I’m still defending myself. I’m not sure how things would have been different if Jesse had told me, or if I had worked it out myself. I know I never want to see Jesse like he was last Sunday again. If I leave now, will that happen again? Or I could stay and help him, but would I be doing that out of guilt or because I love him? He might not even want me here. He was so mad at me. My head is a jumbled mess. I prop my elbows on the counter and plant my head in my hands. What the hell am I supposed to do?

‘Ava?’ John’s deep rumble pulls my head back up. ‘He’s a good man.’

‘What made him drink? How bad is it?’ I ask. I know he’s a good man deep down, but if I know more I might understand better.

‘Who knows?’ John muses, and then looks at me. ‘Don’t be thinking he was smashed all day every day. He wasn’t. How he is right now, that’s just because of misery, not because he’s an alcoholic.’

‘And he didn’t drink when I turned up?’ I can’t believe that.

John laughs. ‘He didn’t, although you have brought out some other rather nasty qualities in him, girl.’

I frown, but I know exactly what John’s talking about, and so does Sam by the look on his cheeky face. I’ve been told Jesse is usually quite a laidback type, but I have only ever seen snippets of a laidback Jesse Ward, and that was mostly when he was getting his own way. Most of the time, all I’ve seen is an unreasonable control freak. He even admitted himself that he’s only like it with me…lucky me.