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Beneath This Man (This Man Trilogy)(7)

By:Jodi Ellen Malpas

He collapses to the floor with me, pulling me onto his lap and smothering me completely. I sob relentlessly into his chest. I can’t control it.

His face pushes into my hair. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers. ‘I’m so, so sorry. I don’t deserve it, but give me a chance.’ He squeezes me hard. ‘I need another chance.’

‘I don’t know what to do.’ I’m being honest. I really don’t know what to do. I feel the need to escape him, but at the same time, I feel the need to stay and let him make things better. But if I stay, will I get dealt that death blow? Or if I leave, will that be the death blow? For both of us?

All I know is the strong, firm, assertive Jesse, the Jesse who broods when I defy him, manhandles me when I threaten to leave him and fucks me until I’m delirious. This is the furthest away from that man

‘Don’t run away from me again.’ he begs, holding me tight. I notice his shakes have subsided.

I pull back, wiping my tear stained face with the back of my hand, my eyes fixed on his stomach, his scar bigger and more obvious than ever before. I can’t look at his eyes. They are not familiar to me anymore. They are not dark with anger or sparkling with pleasure – not narrowed fiercely or hooded with lust for me. They are empty pits of nothing, with no comfort to offer me. Despite that, though, I know if I walk out of that door, I’m finished. My only hope is to stay, find the answers that I need and pray they don’t destroy me. He has the power to destroy me.

His cold hand slides under my chin and pulls my face up to his. ‘I’m going to make this all right. I’m going to make you remember, Ava.’

I stare into his eyes and see determination through the haze of green. Determination is good, but does it eradicate the pain and madness that has come before it? ‘Can you make me remember the conventional way?’ I ask seriously. It’s not a joke, although he smiles a little.

‘I’m making it my mission objective. I’ll do anything.’

His words, a repeat from the launch night of Lusso, are spoken with as much resolve as they were back then. He kept his promise to prove that I wanted him. A small flicker of hope lightens my heavy heart, and I sink my face back down into his chest, clinging onto him. I believe him.

A quiet exhale of breath escapes his lips as he pulls me closer and holds on like his life depends on it.

It probably does. And mine too.

‘Your bath will get cold.’ I mumble into his bare chest when we’re still crumpled on the floor in a firm hold some time later.

‘I’m comfy.’ he complains, and I detect a familiar piece of Jesse in his tone.

‘You need to eat as well,’ I inform him, feeling strange dishing out instructions to him. ‘And that hand needs seeing to. Does it hurt?’

‘Like hell.’ he confirms.

I’m not surprised. It looks terrible. I hope it’s not broken because five days without any medical treatment could have the bones setting out of place. ‘Come on.’ I peel myself out of his vice grip. He grumbles but releases me. Standing up, I put my hand out to him, and he looks up at me with a small smile before taking it and lifting himself from the floor.

We walk quietly up the stairs and back to the master-suite.

‘In you get.’ I order quietly, pointing at the bath.

‘Are you making demands?’ His eyebrows rise. He obviously finds the reversal peculiar too.

‘It sounds like it,’ I nod towards the bath.

He starts chewing his lip, making no attempt to get in the bath. ‘Will you get in with me?’ he asks quietly.

I suddenly feel awkward and out of place. ‘I can’t.’ I shake my head and step back slightly. This goes against all of my impulses, but I know as soon as I surrender to his affection and touch, I’ll be sidetracked from my aim to straighten my head, to get answers.

‘Ava, you’re asking me not to touch you. That goes against all of my instincts.’

‘Jesse, please. I need time.’

‘It’s not natural, Ava. For me not to touch you, it’s not right.’

He’s right, but I can’t allow myself to get swallowed up by him. I need to keep a level head because as soon as he gets his hands on me, I’m distracted.

I don’t say anything. I just look at the bath again before returning my eyes to him. He shakes his head, un-wrapping the blanket from around his waist before stepping into the bath and lowering himself gingerly into the water. I collect a cup from the vanity unit and crouch by the side of the bath to wash his hair.

‘It’s not the same without you in here with me.’ he grumbles, leaning back and closing his eyes.

I ignore his gripe and start washing his hair and soaping his fine body from head to toe, fighting off the inevitable fizzles streaming through me at the contact.

Lingering around his scar on his abdomen thoughtfully, I quietly hope it will prompt him to explain it. It doesn’t. He keeps his eyes closed and his mouth shut. I have a feeling this is going to be a tough ride. He never volunteers information, and he dodges my questions with a stern warning or by distraction tactics. I can’t let that happen again. This is going to take all of my strength and willpower. It’s just not natural for me to evade him.

I run my hand down his rough face. ‘You need a shave.’

He opens his eyes and cups his chin with his good hand, stroking his stubble. ‘You don’t like it?’

‘I like you however you come.’

Just not drunk!

The fleeting look that passes over his face nearly has me convinced he’s read my mind, but then he’s probably thinking the exact same thing. ‘I’m not touching another drop again.’ he declares confidently, ensuring he maintains our eye contact as he makes his vow.

‘You sound confident.’ I retort quietly.

‘I am.’ He sits himself up in the bath and turns to face me, lifting his battered hand to cup my face and wincing when he realises he can’t. ‘I mean it, never again. I promise you.’ He sounds so sincere. ‘I’m not a raving alcoholic, Ava. I admit I get carried away once I do have a drink and I find it hard to stop, but I can take it or leave it. I was in a bad place after you left me. I just wanted to numb the pain.’

My heart tightens in my chest, and I feel a sense of relief mixed with a little doubt. Everyone gets a little carried away when they’ve had a drink, right? ‘I came back,’ I look past him, trying to piece together what I need to say. Millions of words have been trampling my mind for days, but now I can’t think of any of them. ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner? Is this what you meant when you said I would cause more damage if I left?’

His head drops. ‘That was a shitty thing to say.’

‘It was.’

He returns his eyes to mine. ‘I just wanted you to stay. I was stunned when you told me that I had a nice hotel.’ He smiles a little, and I feel stupid. ‘Things got pretty intense, pretty quickly. I didn’t know how to tell you. I didn’t want you to run away again. You kept running away.’ He spells out the last four words, clearly still frustrated by my evasion of him. I was right, though. All along I was right to try and escape him.

‘I didn’t get far, did I? You wouldn’t let me.’

‘I was going to tell you. You weren’t supposed to come to The Manor like that. I wasn’t prepared, Ava.’

That much was obvious. All of the times I had been to the supposed hotel, I’d been chaperoned or confined to Jesse’s office. I’m sure people were warned off talking to me and no one approached Jesse when I was with him. And he’s right, things did get pretty intense, pretty quickly, but that was nothing to do with me. God, there is so much to talk about. I need to know things and he has got to tell me. The nasty little creature who Jesse pounded on at The Manor had some pretty interesting things to say. Has Jesse had an affair with his wife?

So many questions.

I sigh. ‘Come on, you’re pruning.’ I hold a towel up, and he mirrors my sigh before pushing himself up on the side of the bath with his good hand. He steps out and I run the towel over his body as he watches me closely.

The corners of his lips lift slightly into the semblance of a smile when I reach his neck. ‘A few weeks ago, I was nursing your hangover.’ he says quietly.

‘I bet your head is banging a lot harder than mine was.’ I dismiss his reminiscing and secure the towel around his waist. ‘Food and then the hospital.’

‘Hospital?’ he blurts, his voice startled. ‘I don’t need a hospital, Ava.’

‘Your hand.’ I clarify. He probably thinks I want to section him.

I see understanding surface in his eyes as he lifts his hand up to inspect it. The blood has all washed away, but it still looks nasty. ‘It’s fine.’ he grumbles.

‘I don’t think it is.’ I protest softly.

‘Ava, I don’t need to go to the hospital.’

‘Don’t go then.’ I turn and walk into the bedroom.

Following me in, he collapses on the end of the bed and watches as I disappear into his huge walk-in-wardrobe. I rummage through his clothes, finding him some marl grey sweatpants and a white t-shirt. He needs comfort. I retrieve some boxer shorts from his chest of drawers and walk back over to find him sprawled back on the bed. Just getting him upstairs and bathed has knackered him out. I can’t imagine a hangover on this scale.