‘That’s me.’ I sound cautious which is fine because I am. I’ve just noticed the flowers are not calla lilies and they are far from fresh. In fact, they’re dead. She places the flowers in my arms and thrusts the clipboard under my nose. She wants a signature for dead flowers? I shift my full arms and manage a rough scribble across the paper.
‘Thanks’ she says casually as she turns to walk away.
I look down at the flowers a little puzzled. ‘They’re dead.’ I call to her back.
‘I know.’ she replies, not in the least bit troubled by that.
‘You think it’s okay to deliver dead flowers?’
She turns and laughs. ‘I’ve had stranger requests.’
I flinch. Like what? She carries on her way, not bothering to enlighten me, so I find the card and scramble between my full hands to remove it from the tiny envelope.
HE SAYS HE NEEDS YOU. HE DOESN’T. YOU THINK YOU KNOW HIM. YOU DON’T.
I DO. LEAVE HIM.
My heart stops beating in my chest and one name springs to mind immediately.
I should feel concerned, but I don’t. I feel deadly possessive at the suggestion. A lightning bolt of Jesse’s famous attribute flies through me, leaving me dropping everything in my arms to the floor and tearing the malicious warning up slowly. Who the hell does she think she is? A fuck, that’s what she was, nothing more than a convenient fuck. Has she been in touch with Jesse again? Should I ask him and prick his curiosity, because I don’t want him to know about this. I don’t want anything tipping him over the edge. I can deal with empty threats. Leave him, or what? I stuff the dead flowers in a bin over the road, along with the card, and make my way to the car park. The desperate urge to be with him has suddenly overwhelmed me.
I come to an abrupt halt when I see the parking space where I left my Mini this morning is empty. No car. I glace up at the board displaying the floor number and note that I’m in the exact right place. So where the hell is my car?
‘S’all good, girl.’ John’s low rumble pulls my body around to find him leaning out of the window of his Range Rover. ‘In you get.’
‘My car’s been stolen.’ I wave my arm at the empty space and turn back to check that I’m not imagining things.
‘It’s not been stolen, girl. Get in.’
‘What?’ I turn startled eyes back to the mountain of a black man. ‘Where is it, then?’
John has a clear look of embarrassment on his mean face. ‘Your mother fucking husband had it picked up.’ He nods his head to the passenger side.
‘Are you winding me up?’ I laugh.
His eyebrows appear over his wraparounds. ‘What do you think?’ he asks seriously.
I take a deep, calming breath and make my way around to the passenger side and climb in. Yes, he needs me all right. He needs me to drive me fucking crazy! ‘I might strangle him.’ I mutter, yanking my seatbelt around and clipping it in place.
‘Take it easy on him, girl.’ John commences strumming on the steering wheel as he drives out of the car park, back into the daylight.
‘John,’ I start in a matter-of-fact tone. ‘I like you, I really do, but unless you can enlighten me on an acceptable reason for my husband’s neurotic ways, then I won’t be taking any notice of your request to take it easy on him.’
He laughs a deep, rolling belly laugh, his neck retracting and revealing those chins he keeps hidden. ‘I like you, too, girl.’ he chuckles, reaching under his glasses and wiping under his eyes. I’ve never seen this big, menacing beast so vivacious. It makes me smile, thoughts of challenging husbands and threatening notes soon making way for the giggles. But then John’s face straightens all too quickly, and I’m left laughing alone with wraparounds pointed at me. The sudden change in his expression snaps me right from my hysterical state. ‘He might get worse. I believe congratulations are in order.’ His face dips, an indication that he’s looking at my stomach, before he returns to face the road.
‘He’s told you?’ I ask disbelievingly. I don’t want anyone to know yet. It’s way too soon.
‘Girl, he didn’t need to.’
‘No, when I found Harrods baby department on the screen of his computer, it kind of let the cat out the bag. That and the smile on the mother fucker’s face all day.’
I sink into my seat. I can imagine he’s got Zoe sourcing all sorts of luxurious baby equipment. I can also imagine her face when Jesse hits her with his latest shopping list, when it’s just a few short weeks since she met me and set me up with a stunning gown for the anniversary dinner. And just a few short weeks after that, she’s searching for my wedding dress, and then not long later, she’s finding our baby’s christening gown. What must she be thinking? Shot-gun, that’s what. A rush job because he’s knocked me up, just like everyone else will probably think, including my parents and Dan. How long can I hold out before I tell them?
* * *
John pulls up at The Manor, and I waste no time jumping down from his Range Rover and making my way up the steps.
‘He’s in his office.’ John calls.
‘Thanks, John.’ I use my key, pushing my way through the doors, and head straight towards the back of The Manor, passing through the summer room and smiling to myself at the sudden silence that falls. I cast my eyes across the gathering of women, all with drinks in their hands and all with sour faces. ‘Evening,’ I smile brightly and receive a chorus of mumbles in return for my trouble. My smile widens at the thought of those sour faces souring further when they learn of my pregnancy. I’m smug.
As I approach Jesse’s office, the door opens and a man exits, looking tense but relieved all at once. It’s Steve. He looks different, fully clothed and without a whip in his grasp. I halt dead in my tracks, completely shocked, mainly because he’s in one piece. He doesn’t look so cocky now. ‘Hi,’ I stammer, the surprise clear in my tone.
His eyes lift and he smiles, a little embarrassed. ‘Ava,’
I’m staring at him, and I realise it’s rude, but I’m not sure what to say. There are no bruises or black eyes, he’s not limping and he doesn’t look like he’s just been offered burial or cremation. ‘How are you?’ I ask, when my brain fails to give me anything better to say.
‘I’m good,’ He slips his hands into his jacket pockets, looking no less uncomfortable. ‘You?’
‘Yes, I’m fine.’ This is so awkward. The last time I saw him, he had me trussed up and was whipping the crap out of me. He was cocky and smarmy, but there is no trace of that man now. ‘You’ve been to see Jesse?’
‘I have.’ He laughs. ‘I’ve avoided it for long enough. I needed to apologise.’
‘Oh,’ My brain is failing me again. He looks sincere enough, but if I was a man and I had Jesse vying for my blood, I think I would face the shame of grovelling, which is no doubt what he’s done. We wouldn’t be walking if he hadn’t. It may have been a few weeks, but I know Jesse has been quietly boiling over this.
‘I should apologise to you, too.’ he stammers through his words. ‘Yeah… urm… I’m… I’m sorry.’
I shake my head. I’m the one who’s embarrassed now. I asked him to whip me. I asked for it. It’s me who should be feeling remorseful for setting him up for certain annihilation. ‘Steve, I shouldn’t have asked you. It was wrong of me.’
‘No,’ He smiles, but this time it’s a sweet offering. ‘I’d been walking a fine line for too long, getting carried away, losing respect for the women trusting me. You actually did me a favour, but, of course, I wish I’d never hurt you.’
I smile back. ‘I’ll accept yours, if you accept mine.’
He pulls his car keys from his pocket and starts to pass me. ‘Accepted. I’ll see you.’
‘See you.’ I call to his back.
I push through Jesse’s office door and find him on his knees in the middle of the floor, my mind suddenly awash with painful memories. But he’s fully dressed in his suit and there are piles and piles of paperwork spread on the floor in front of him. He looks up, and my heart constricts at the exasperated look on his beautiful face. His concentration frown is heavy.
‘Hey,’ I shut the door behind me, and his look changes from mentally exhausted to contented in a split second.
‘Here’s my beautiful girl.’ He sits or his arse, knees bent and with his feet flat on the floor. He opens his arms. ‘Come here. I need you.’
I walk slowly over. ‘Need me, or need me to sort all of this out for you?’
He pouts and waves him arms impatiently. ‘Both.’
I sit myself between his thighs and shuffle back until my back is pressed to his front. His arms wrap around my shoulders and his nose goes straight into my hair, taking a long, loud inhale. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Good, I don’t like seeing you poorly.’
‘Then you shouldn’t have been underhanded and knocked me up.’ I retort dryly, earning myself a nudge of his leg. ‘I saw Steve leaving.’
‘Hmm,’ he hums in my ear, nibbling at my lobe.
‘Did you offer burial or cremation?’ I grin to myself when I’m nudged again.
‘I offered him an olive branch, actually. Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, lady.’
I’m pretty speechless. I would’ve put my life on the imminent demise of the poor Steve. ‘What’s made you so reasonable?’
‘I’m always reasonable. It is you, beautiful girl, who’s the unreasonable one.’
I don’t bother challenging him. I don’t even bother scoffing or laughing, but his little comment has just reminded me of something. ‘What’s so reasonable about having my car stolen?’ I ask. ‘And how did you manage it without any key?’
‘Tow truck.’ he replies with absolutely no shame or further explanation.
I reach forward and pick up a few pieces of paper, anything to stop myself from countering his ridiculous claim of not being unreasonable.
‘How was your day?’ he asks.
I try to prevent the slight tensing of my body, scorning myself for the immediate reaction to withdraw from his embrace so he doesn’t sense it. Given his relaxed persona, I don’t need to worry him with trivial, empty threats from his ex-scorned lover. ‘Productive. Shall we make a start?’
He groans but releases me. ‘Suppose so.’
Over the next hour, we sort through endless papers, bills, contracts and invoices. I’ve collated them all in date order, stacked them in neat piles and secured them with elastic bands. Jesse slumps in his office chair and starts fiddling with his computer, and I watch as I finish binding the final pile of papers. He’s guiding his mouse around, his frown a perfect line on his brow. Curious, I get up to go and see what he’s so rapt with, although I suspect I already know. As I walk around his desk, he flicks his eyes quickly to me, and then hastily shuts his screen down.
‘Dinner?’ He stands.
I give him suspicious eyes and lean past him, turning the screen back on. It’s as I thought; baby paraphernalia everywhere. Multiple screens are open, and I glance across the bottom, seeing every manufacturer of baby equipment that you could possibly think of. There’s even one page dedicated to organic nappies. I turn my face to his with a questioning look, but I can’t possibly be cranky with him, especially when he shrugs sheepishly and starts biting at his bottom lip.
‘Just doing a bit of research.’ He actually looks down and starts scuffing his shoes on the office carpet. I melt at his feet. I could hug him. So I do. I embrace his excitement and embrace him. Tightly.