I turn and slide my hand onto Jesse’s arm. ‘Come on,’ I say softly, tugging at his arm. He lets me take him. I’m guiding him for once, and I make fast work of it. I’m determined to remove my husband from this situation which is causing him anguish. I’ve only ever seen him like this a handful of times and every one of those times has ended in heartache. I’m not prepared to set him or myself up for any further difficulties in our relationship.
I open the passenger door and gently guide him in, while he stares blankly at the thin air in front of him. I’m more than relieved when I see Jesse’s mum come around the front of the car because it means I can hurry around the back and jump in the driver’s seat. The first thing I do is locate the door locks and flick the switch before I search Jesse for the keys. I’ve never driven on the wrong side of the road before, or on the wrong side of the car, but now is not the time to get myself in a panic over something so trivial. I start the DBS up and barely look behind me as I reverse carelessly out of the space before whacking it into first and pulling away a little more cautiously. I chance a look in the rear view mirror and see a man taking Jesse’s mum in his arms. His dad.
My eyes do a quick check of the road ahead, noting the exit gates, but I don’t have a chance to panic about finding the card that will open them. They shift automatically and I’m getting further away from Jesse’s parents by the second. I glance at him, and I don’t like what I see—a troubled man, staring blankly out of the window, showing no emotion. If he was angry I would feel better, but he’s not. The only familiarity is the deep crevice across his brow and the cogs of his complex mind spinning out of control. Strangely, these little traits offer me some comfort. What he could be thinking about, however, does not.
Another chance? That’s what she said. I can’t blame Jesse for his meltdown, not when his mother has just suggested that everything can be righted by the birth of his own twins. That’s cruel and selfish, and it will never make up for the years of sorrow and betrayal that have come before.
These babies and I are Jesse’s chance at happiness, not his parent’s opportunity to right all of their wrongs. If she intends on using my babies as some sort of family therapy, then she can think again.
* * *
I have no idea where I’m going, but I just about manage to coax directions from Jesse. The familiar fragrance of Paradise finally has me relaxing completely as I make my way up the cobbled driveway to the villa. He gets out of the car and strides towards the veranda, leaving me to follow tentatively behind. I don’t know what to do. I know we won’t be talking, so I need to do what instinct is telling me and that’s to just be there for him. Not fish for information to ease my own inquisitive mind, or stamp my feet and demand answers. I already know what I need to. I know Jesse’s parents have influenced his life too much. Now he’s making it right all on his own, just like he said, and I need to let him do that.
Following him into the villa, I find him standing in the middle of the room. I’m quiet as I approach behind him, but he doesn’t flinch when I slide my hand into his. He knew I was close, as he always does. I lead him into the bedroom and start to unbutton his shirt. There is no sexual tension ricocheting between us, or heavy desperate breaths. I’m just looking after him.
His head is dropped, he’s completely despondent, but he lets me undress him until he’s standing before me naked and quiet. I go to direct him to the bed, but he stands firm and turns me back towards him, then sets about unzipping my dress and pulling it over my head, encouraging me to lift my arms. I let him do his thing, anything to drag him from his melancholy state. I stand quietly while he sees through his task, unhooking my bra before kneeling and taking my knickers down my legs. I’m lifted to his body, my legs finding their place around his hips, and he positions himself on the bed, back against the headboard so I’m sitting on his lap, pressed against his chest. He’s not prepared to have any space between us, which is fine by me. His arms are completely encasing me, his nose is in my hair and his heartbeat is slow and steady under my ear. This is all I can do, and if need be, I’ll do it until the day I die.
I feel different this morning. I’m on my back, but I’m not sprawled across the bed with a light breeze tickling my naked skin, and I’m unable to stretch. It takes a few seconds to register why. It’s because I’m cocooned beneath Jesse, who is half laying on me, half off, so he isn’t putting pressure on my tummy. His face is nuzzled in the space between my jaw and my shoulder, his palm is flat on my abdomen and his hot, minty breath is heating my neck. Why isn’t he out running? My rousing brain is a little confused, but not for long. It speedily kicks into gear, reminding me of the events of last night, the pain, the anguish and the shock. Paradise was turned upside down. His parents now know about me, and after Jesse’s little trampling mission in the restaurant, they also know that he has twins on the way.
My fingers slip into his hair as I gaze up at the ceiling and massage gently. I don’t want to think about this. I don’t want to delve deep, and I really don’t think I need to. All I need to do is be here, listen when he wants to speak, and hold him when he needs some comfort. His pained face has brought back a whole black past of memories between us—the moment we were standing in Kate’s lounge and he begged me not to leave him, the time I left him drunk at Lusso, and the moment I found him in his office with a whip wielding Sarah. All of those incidents lead to further excruciating pain, and I need to avoid any repeat at all costs. And I will. This man has a troubled history, but I’m fixing all of that hurt and suffering. It’s no wonder he wants to keep me from it all. I’m his little piece of heaven, and I’ll never allow him to fall back into his hellish, hollow past.
As I lay giving myself a little mental pep talk, I know he’s awake. I feel the slight flicker of his long lashes against my neck, but I remain quiet, allowing him to have his thinking space, my fingers keeping up the gentle twisting of his hair and the odd massage of his head. He would know I’m awake, even if I wasn’t moving.
‘I would never have brought you here if I’d have known.’ His raspy voice breaks the silence. ‘I never wanted my life with you to be stained by my past.’
Our lives have been tarnished by his past in many ways, and I know he never wanted any of it to affect us. But it has. And now this might, too, if he allows it. ‘It hasn’t affected us.’ I assure him. ‘So please don’t let it.’
‘They have no place in my life, Ava. Not before, and even less now.’ His hand starts a slow movement across my stomach.
I know why he’s saying this. His babies will not replace Jake. They will not ease Jesse’s parent’s guilt. And I know for sure they’ll never be reason for reconciliation. Some things are unforgivable, and your mum and dad doing anything other than loving and supporting you are just a few of them. My dad has always said that he could never tell me what to do, only advise me. He has said he would never force my hand in anything, knowing it would make me unhappy. He said he would always be there, despite my choices and he would make things better if it was the wrong choice. And he did. Many times. Not for such extreme things as I know Jesse’s choices have entailed, but the principle is still the same. That’s what parents do. They don’t influence their children for their own benefit. My compassion is fierce. Jesse has always said that I’m all he needs, and I know he wholeheartedly means it. And it’s completely understandable, given what this man has been through, not just the history of women and drink, but with his parents. That is the root cause of everything.
‘You don’t need to explain anything to me. You and me.’ I repeat his words to enforce my own.
He rolls onto his back and pulls at me, encouraging me to crawl onto his chest. I find my way and start my slow, light trailing of his scar. ‘This place was Carmichael’s.’ he says quietly. ‘It was part of his estate, as was the boat.’
‘I know.’ I smile to myself. I was right on the money with my own private conclusion.
‘How did you know?’
‘Why else would you have a villa so close to where your parents live?’
I can’t see him, but I know he’s smiling. ‘My beautiful girl is frightening me.’
‘Why?’ I ask, frowning into his chest.
‘Because she’s usually so demanding for information.’
I have to agree, but I’ve found out more since I convinced myself to keep my trap shut than I ever did when I was stamping and screaming. ‘There can’t be anything else you could tell me that would convince me to run away from you again.’
‘I’m glad you’ve said that.’ he says quietly.
If there was anything he could say that would make me stiffen and wish I could retract my words, then that would be it. Instinctively I know I’m not going to like what I will hear. It’s like I’m unintentionally pulling confessions from this man.
‘Ava?’ he says quietly.
‘I need to tell you something.’ He goes to move, but I make myself a dead weight, ensuring optimum difficulty for him, not that it makes a blind bit of difference. I’m removed from his chest with minimal effort and turned onto my back. He straddles my waist, but doesn’t rest himself fully on me. He chews his lip for a few moments while I look up at him, a sceptical expression plastered all over my face. I know knowledge is power is the sensible option, but given what Jesse has presented me in the knowledge department, it scares the fucking life out of me.
He takes my hands and holds them tightly. ‘I’ve had Sarah at The Manor while we’ve been gone.’
‘WHAT?’ My head lifts and my throat is instantly hoarse.
‘She’s dealing with things while I’m gone. John can’t do it on his own, Ava.’
‘But Sarah? You said she was gone, end of!’ I’m livid. My blood is instantly boiling and it’s heating my face, all thoughts of absconded parents and painful histories eradicated at the mention of her name. ‘Why after everything she’s done would you allow that?’ I snatch my hands from his and try to push him way. ‘Get off!’
‘Ava, will you calm down! ‘
‘Why? Worried I might injure your babies?’ I spit at him.
Those words just changed his concerned look to one of displeasure. He’s scowling at me, but I couldn’t give a toss. ‘Don’t talk fucking shit.’ He manages to seize my flailing hands and secure them above my head.
‘You think it.’ I yell in his face. ‘Your constant monitoring and over-protectiveness tells me all I need to know.’
‘I’ve always been overprotective, so don’t brandish that card, lady!’
He’s right, he has, but I’m pissed and I’ll use anything against him, which reminds me that we’ve steered off course a bit. ‘She goes, or I do!’
He actually rolls his eyes. I don’t appreciate it. I buck myself, and he releases me, but it’s because he doesn’t want me to hurt his babies. It makes me madder. ‘Ava, I was in a mess, you refuse to work for me, and I need someone who knows what they’re doing.’
I stop and swing round. ‘So she’s working for you again?’ I don’t believe this. Her compassionate little speech at the coffee house stood for shit. She’s probably delighting in this. He gets up and walks towards me. ‘Stop where you are, Ward!’ I point my finger in his face. ‘Don’t try to placate me or convince me that this is all fine because it fucking isn’t!’
‘Watch you fucking mouth!’
‘No! She’s in love with you. Do you know that? Everything she has done really is because she wants to take you away from me, so don’t even think about trying to convince me that this is a good idea.’