‘I haven’t.’ he quickly dismisses my question, and he’s tense. Damn him, he hasn’t learnt at all.
I remove myself from his lap and place myself to the side of him, punishing him with a stare equal to his don’t push it glare. ‘I’m giving you three seconds, Ward.’
His lips press into a straight, aggravated line. ‘The countdown is mine.’ he claims, childishly.
‘Three,’ I even hold three fingers up, in the most provoking fashion possible. I’m just as bad as he is. ‘Two,’ I lose a finger, but I don’t get to one or zero because I have an obvious moment of lucidity. ‘You’re giving him money!’
‘No.’ He shakes his head in the most unpersuasive way possible, shifting his feet in his seated position. He’s becoming as bad at lying as I am. I’m so glad.
‘You’re a shit liar, too, Ward.’ I swivel on my heels and make a run for it, mainly to catch my brother before he leaves, but also to escape Jesse before he catches me.
I take no notice of the threatening shout of my name, as per usual, and break into a full on run when I reach the summer room. I know he’s in pursuit, and not just because of his thundering footsteps, echoing behind me. I pass the kitchens, the bar and restaurant and skid on my heels when I find Dan standing by the huge round table in the entrance hall. He’s not doing anything or talking to anyone. John is here, too, and I know why that is. It’s the same reason why John accompanied me everywhere in the early days. I watch in apprehension as Dan looks around and John tries to usher him on, but he’s not shifting, not even for the big guy.
Jesse’s chest hits my back, and I’m picked up and turned in his arms. He’s not happy. ‘For fuck sake, woman! You’ll give the babies brain damage! No running!’
If I wasn’t so concerned by my brother’s location and behaviour, I would laugh at the crazy idiot holding me firmly in his arms. ‘Get a grip!’ I wriggle free and swing around, finding Dan watching us. His brow is completely furrowed, and John looks on edge.
Dan takes a leisurely gaze around the entrance hall again, then his inquisitive eyes land on Jesse. ‘If this is a hotel, then where’s the reception area?’
‘What?’ Jesse’s tone is impatient, almost defensive, and I wish it wasn’t. It’s a dead giveaway and I’m praying for him to think up something quickly.
‘Where do your guests pick up the keys to their room? And what about local attractions? Isn’t it common to have one of those stands with a shit load of leaflets in, telling people where to visit?’ He looks up at John. ‘And why the need to have a gorilla escorting me everywhere?’
I cringe, Jesse tenses and John growls. My brother is a bit quicker on the uptake than me. I didn’t consider any of those points, except John. I’m wracking my blank mind for something, anything, but it just isn’t happening. I, or we, have been caught completely off guard. And then I hear a voice and it’s the only voice in the world that I would wish not to hear right now.
I visibly sag on the spot, and I feel Jesse’s hand on the small of my back. Why isn’t he saying anything? I watch and listen in horror as Kate and Sam dance down the stairs, giggling, feeling each other up and generally looking all sexed up. This is a disaster. I can’t help elbowing Jesse in the ribs, a silent demand to say something. Oh God, please say something!
Kate and Sam are completely oblivious to the silent peanut gallery awaiting them at the bottom of the stairs, as they fondle and pet each other, saying inappropriate things, of which one sentence definitely included the word dildo. I’m in hell, and no one has even said anything, except my delinquent best friend and her cheeky chap of a boyfriend, not that they are aware… yet. I expect all of that will change soon, though, and it doesn’t look likely to be Jesse who’ll speak. He’s silent behind me, probably just as torn as me. I’m stuck in limbo. It’s the closest I’ve come to watching a train crash, all very slowly. Dan and The Manor; Dan and Kate; Dan and Sam; Dan and Jesse. The shit is going to hit the fan in a big way.
‘Oh!’ Kate’s delighted shriek echoes around the entrance hall, followed by Sam’s sexed up growl. Then they land at the bottom of the stairs in a messy bundle of entwined arms and frantic lips, eating each other alive. They should have stayed in the suite because they are nowhere near done. ‘Sam!’ She laughs and falls back over his arm, catching my eye, her happy face beaming further, until she clocks my brother. She’s not laughing now. In fact, she looks close to seizure. She scrambles up and slaps a disgruntled Sam away before smoothing down her wild red hair and pulling at her dishevelled clothes. But she doesn’t say anything and neither does Sam as he looks to and fro between the quiet observers.
Dan breaks the screaming silence. ‘Hotel?’ He’s drilling holes into Kate and Sam at regular intervals, back and forth, before turning his questioning eyes to Jesse. ‘Do you often let your friends carry on like this in your establishment?’
‘Dan,’ I step forward, but I don’t get very far. Jesse places himself in front of me.
‘I think you should come back to my office, Dan.’ Jesse’s voice is intimidating, as is his body language.
‘No, thanks.’ Dan almost laughs, keeping his eyes on Kate. I’ve never seen her looking so uncomfortable, and Sam must me wondering what’s going on. ‘You’re whoring it up at a brothel?’
‘What the fuck?’ Sam shouts, ‘Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?’ Sam’s moving forward, but Kate catches his arm, pulling him back
‘This is no brothel, and I am no whore.’ Her voice is shaky and unsure as she holds on to Sam. I want to jump to her defence, but no words are forming and Jesse saves me the trouble, anyway.
He approaches Dan, wraps his palm around the nape of my brothers neck and leans in, whispering something in his ear. It’s the most threatening act possible, and I don’t even want to consider what he has said, especially when Dan shows his willingness to follow Jesse’s lead, with no further persuasion. I go to follow, too, I want to hear this, but I’m halted, as I secretly knew I would be.
‘Wait for me in the bar, baby.’ He tries to turn me, but I’m feeling a little defiant. I’m not sure that I’m happy with Jesse taking Dan to his office alone.
‘I’d like to come.’ I have no faith in my feigned confidence. I know that look. He may have called me baby to soften the demand, but I’m not fooled. I’m not going in that office. No, I’m on my way to the bar, and I’m not walking. I’m placed on my stool, Mario is summoned and I’m hit with the don’t push it look.
‘You’ll stay put.’ He kisses my cheek, like it will appease me. It won’t. My eyes are throwing daggers right at his back as he stalks out of the bar in long, even strides.
‘Ah!’ Mario’s happy sing draws my attention away from my husband’s disappearing back. ‘Look at you, all… how you say? Like a flower. Blooming!’ He clucks my cheek across the bar and passes me a bottle of water. ‘No more Mario’s Most Marvellous for you!’
I grunt but smile, taking a long swig of the icy water, leaving Mario to go and tend to other members. Sam wanders in, looking all chirpy and with his dimple in its usual spot. I’m confused. ‘Hey, Mama!’ He has a cheeky rub of my stomach. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Fine…’ The word trails from my mouth slowly. ‘Where’s Kate?’
‘Ladies,’ he replies quickly, waving Mario for a beer.
I look past him, wondering if I should go and see her. ‘Is she okay?’
‘Yeah, she’s fine.’ He doesn’t look at me, but I have a feeling he knows there’s a face full of confusion focused on him. He looks out the corner of his eye to me, and then sits on a sigh. ‘I know you all think it, but I’m not stupid.’
My back straightens. ‘I don’t think you’re stupid.’ I defend myself. He’s a little oblivious, maybe, but not stupid.
He smiles. ‘I’ve worked out Kate and Dan. I worked that out the very first time I met Kate, and his name was only mentioned then. I know why she called it off with me, and I know that something went down at your wedding.’
I know I look as guilty as sin, and I’m wondering if Kate is aware of this. ‘Why have you kept quiet?’
‘I don’t know.’ He tips his bottle to his lips, clearly pondering that, too. I know why, but should I put it out there? ‘She’s a great girl.’ he shrugs.
I nod thoughtfully, smiling on the inside. I could happily bang their heads together. I could also cry for Sam. Something tells me he’s never shared his orphan history with many women, if any, but Kate knows and whilst they both act so casual and carefree, I know there are a whole lot of feelings here that neither one of them seem to be admitting to, or doing anything about. ‘I think I’ll go and find Kate.’ I stand and give Sam a shoulder rub—a silent gesture of understanding, to which he responds with a cheeky grin, leaning down and whispering some mushy rubbish to my navel.
Leaving a love sick Sam at the bar, I go and find my dumb arse friend in the toilets. There are two other people who I feel the need to burst in on, but I plump for Kate. Neither of my potential endpoints will have people waiting with open arms, but I’m trusting Jesse to deal with this. I can’t even begin to imagine what’s being said in his office. I just hope that whatever happens, Dan doesn’t go squealing to my parents, and I have every faith my husband will stop that from happening.
I push the door open and find Kate braced over the sink, her red hair completely concealing her face as she looks into the bowl. ‘Hey,’ I tread carefully, not wanting her to go on the defensive.
She pulls her head up with some effort and shows me glass blue eyes full of despair. ‘Do you think I’m a whore?’
‘No!’ I’m shocked that she would even ask. A little reckless perhaps, but never a whore. I’ve labelled all of the women here exactly that, and in truth, Kate has been venturing into the same exploits as all of them, so how is she different? I’m awash with remorse for having these thoughts. She’s different because she’s my friend and I know her. She’s only doing this for Sam, or she thinks she needs to do it for Sam. I’m very suddenly seeing the ladies of The Manor in a different light. I know for sure that many of them are only here for one purpose and that purpose is a tall, lean God who is no longer available. He has a wife and now twins on the way which has both shocked these women and pissed them off. Memberships are being cancelled to prove it, as well as some of the relentless ones taking things further. Like drugging me, or trying to run me off the road, or sending me a threatening note. Suddenly, it becomes a very frightening thought that any one of these women could be behind this. Has Jesse got an inkling?
‘What the hell have I got myself into, Ava?’ Kate’s question snaps me from my disturbing thoughts.
‘Love?’ I blurt before I can think of whether or not it’s a good thing to say. Her wide blues tells me it’s not. ‘You’re going to deny it again, are’t you?’
‘No,’ she whispers. ‘I think we’re past all that bullshit.’
‘We’re past it?’ I laugh. ‘Kate, we were past it weeks ago.’ I’m completely exasperated, but so relieved. My blind friend has finally seen the light, or admitted that she seen it long ago—whichever. I don’t honestly care. ‘He’s at the bar, and he…’ I pause, quickly reining in what I was about to say. I’m not forewarning her that Sam knows about Dan. That’s for them to sort out.
‘He’s what?’ She looks all panicky which just reaffirms my decision to hold back. She’ll do a bunk, I know she will. She’ll assume the worst and flee, not giving Sam the opportunity to express his thoughts.