‘And I still want you.’
My mouth snaps shut, and John lets out a warning growl. ‘The girl is taken.’ He tries to manoeuvre me onwards, but I’m fixed in place.
‘Did you drug me?’ I ask, but the horrified look that instantly invades his pale face tells me what I need to know.
‘Ava, I would never hurt you. I’ve bought this company for you.’
I shake my head on a disbelieving laugh. ‘You’re consumed with the need for vengeance. You don’t even know me. We’ve shared no intimacy, connection or special moments. What’s wrong with you?’
‘I know a good thing when I see it, and I’m prepared to fight for it.’
‘You’ll be fighting in vain.’ I say calmly, ‘And even if you succeed in your attempts to break us—which you never will—you couldn’t have me afterwards.’
His skin gathers on his forehead when he frowns. ‘Why?’
‘Because without him, I’d be dead.’ I turn and leave my workplace, knowing I’ll never return. I’m a little sad, but knowing what’s waiting for me past this point in my life puts the biggest smile on my face.
* * *
When I’m settled safely in John’s Range Rover and we’ve pulled away from the kerb, I register my phone in my hand and remember that he’s on the other end of the line. I don’t want to hear him, I want to see him. ‘Jesse?’
It’s silent for a while, but I know he’s there. His presence travels through the line and kisses my skin. ‘I don’t deserve you.’ he says quietly. ‘He’s right, but I’m too selfish to give you up to someone who does. We’ll never be broken and you’ll never be without me, so you’ll be living forever, baby.’
Tears stab at my eyes and I think of how grateful I am that he is such a selfish man. ‘Deal.’ I whisper.
‘I’ll see you in the bath.’
‘Deal.’ I repeat because I know I’ll never manage more than one word without coughing all over them. He hangs up and I lose myself in thought as I watch London fly by the window. I feel an amazing sense of relief. For once, there’s complete silence in John’s car. There’s no humming and there’s no taping of the steering wheel. We travel in a comfortable quiet back to Lusso.
* * *
‘Let’s get you in, girl.’ John parks up and jumps out, leaving me to unbuckle and join him at the front of his car.
‘You don’t have to escort me in,’ I say, but he pulls a face that suggests he does. ‘Jesse’s told you to sweep the penthouse, hasn’t he?’
‘Just a little check, that’s all, girl.’ He takes my elbow and leads me into the foyer of Lusso. I could complain, but I don’t bother. He’s being completely over cautious, but if it keeps him and my neurotic husband happy, then I’ll comply.
I’m surprised to see Casey here, but he’s not in uniform. ‘Hi, Casey.’ I call as I’m led past, not being given a moment to converse, or maybe warn him that he’s going to be facing the wrath of Jesse very soon. I do notice how smart he looks in his suit, though, and I definitely spot the look of alarm on his face at the sight of the big guy, escorting me. John has that effect on most people, just like he did me.
John punches the code in and stands back to let me enter the elevator before he joins me. He taps the code in again.
‘You know the code?’ I ask, hoping to God he doesn’t know the significance of the code.
He smiles down at me, and I can’t work out if it’s a knowing look or not. ‘The mother fucker was sensible this time, but you’d think he would be a little bit more creative.’
I cough a little, thinking just how creative Jesse can be when he reaches that zero. Wonderfully creative, in fact. Mind-blowingly creative. I need to run that bath, but as the doors of the elevator open, I uncharitably remember that it’s early and Cathy is more than likely still faffing around the penthouse.
Letting us in, I immediately head towards the kitchen and dump my bag on the island, but I find no Cathy, so I set off upstairs in search of her, set on relieving her for the rest of the day.
‘Ava, girl,’ John’s thundering footsteps come after me. ‘Let me check.’
‘John, really?’ I stop and let him pass. ‘Are you babysitting me until Jesse gets home?’ I truly hope not. I want to have a bath before my bath with Jesse.
‘No. Peace of mind.’ he rumbles. ‘Quit with the complaining.’
I recoil a little at his shortness, but I don’t argue with the giant of a man. I let him open and close doors while I prop myself up against the glass bannister, arms folded across my chest, patiently waiting. There is no way I should be whining about this, given our surprise visitor this morning.
‘That’s a relief,’ I smile, pushing my lower back away from the glass.
John abruptly halts, his eyebrows hovering somewhere between the tops of his shades and the top of his head. ‘Don’t back chat me, girl.’ He’s really grumpy, just when I thought he and I had reached an understanding. ‘I’ll call security and get the code sorted.’
I watch him stomp off downstairs. ‘No Cathy?’ I ask his back.
‘No Cathy.’ he confirms, heading for the penthouse phone system, but his mobile starts ringing before he makes it to the landline. ‘Yes?’ he grunts, detouring into the kitchen. ‘We’re here now. Cathy’s already left, but I’ll stay until you arrive.’ His voice is getting quieter as the distance between us grows, and I know he’s talking to Jesse. ‘Blue door, needs painting.’ John says on a purposed hush. I can still hear perfectly, though. That’s the disadvantage to having such a low, rumbling voice. He may sound menacing, but he can’t whisper for shit. ‘Lansdowne Terrace. I can’t be sure. I only got a glimpse, but if it’s not her, then she has a doppelganger.’
I’m unconsciously walking towards John’s voice. I heard that right, so it’s not like I need to gain closeness to ensure my ears aren’t failing me. But his attempt to keep this from my ear shot, coupled with the mention of Ruth Quinn’s address and the fact that John obviously recognises her, makes me need to see his face to gage his expression. I know it’s not going to be good, not when he’s talking to Jesse, which means Jesse knows Ruth Quinn, too. My blood is running colder with each step I take towards John’s low, hushed tone.
‘There’s no one there?’ John’s pacing the kitchen at the far end. ‘Ruth Quinn. I already told you. I know my eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be, but I’d put my life on it. You need to call the police, not go looking for her, you crazy mother fucker.’
My blood is ice and my body frozen in place as I watch John turn slowly and register my presence. He might be black, but he has definitely just paled. ‘Who is she?’ I ask him.
His huge chest expands and he reaches up to take his glasses off. I wish he’d have left them on because the rare sight of his eyes has just confirmed my fears. They are worried, and the big guy doesn’t do worried. ‘Jesse, you need to get your arse back here. Leave it for the police to deal with.’ John’s mobile leaves his ear, and I hear Jesse’s angry yell down the phone. I can’t decipher what he’s saying, but his frustrated shout says a thousand words. The mention of police intervention can’t be good, either.
‘Who is she?’ I grate, my breathing starting to accelerate. I’m anxious and panicking, but I don’t know what about.
John sighs, defeated, yet he still doesn’t answer, instead turning his back on me. ‘It’s too late. She’s standing right here. You’d better come home.’
I hear an angry yell, and I think I catch the sound of something hitting something, like a fist on a front door—a worn, blue front door. I can feel my patience fraying. My lack of knowledge in something that I’m sensing I should know about is re-heating my frozen veins.
John hands me the phone, and I don’t delay swiping it from his hand. ‘Who is she?’ I remain calm and clear, but if I don’t get an answer, then I’ll be raging very quickly. And I already know that it’ll be the blood pressure raising kind of furious.
He’s heaving down the phone, his purposeful, thumping footsteps evident in the background. ‘I’m not sure.’
‘What do you mean?’ I’m shouting. He didn’t answer, not satisfactorily. He knows who Ruth Quinn is.
‘I’m on my way home. We’ll talk.’
‘No, tell me!’
‘Ava, I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure it’s her.’ he says, the screeching of tyres making me wince. That may be so, but John’s inability to whisper has screwed that plan up. ‘I’ll explain when I can sit you down.’
‘I’m not going to like this, am I?’ I don’t know why I’m asking. He wants to sit me down—not a good sign. There are no good signs, in fact. Even the big guy looks all concerned by what’s transpiring.
‘Baby, please, I need to see you.’
‘You didn’t answer my question.’ I remind him quietly, resting myself on a barstool. ‘What else could you possibly have to tell me, Jesse?’
‘I’ll be home soon.’
‘Will it make me run?’
‘I’ll be home soon.’ he repeats and hangs up, leaving me with John’s phone suspended limply by my cheek and a stomach churning with trepidation. I almost want to run right now. Uncertainty, mixed with incredible fear, is pushing me to run away, but not to escape him because the thought of being without him sears painfully on every fragment of my being. But there’s an aching pit, deep in my stomach that’s telling me I should protect myself from whatever is about to impact on my life. Our life.
The penthouse phone screeches, making me jump, and John’s thumps his heavy feet across the kitchen, now with his glasses back in place. I won’t waste my breath trying to extract any information from him, even though he has the information that I need.
He returns to the kitchen, looking too fraught for such a menacing man. Now I’m really worried. ‘I’m needed downstairs. You’ll lock the door behind me and you won’t answer it unless I call you to say it’s me. Where’s your phone?’
‘What’s happening?’ I stand, starting to shake.
‘Where’s your phone?’ he presses, taking his own from my trembling hand.
‘In my bag. John, tell me.’
He helps himself, tipping the contents of my bag out and quickly locating my mobile. He sits it neatly on the island and picks me up, placing me gently on the stool. ‘Ava, now isn’t the time to argue with me. There’s someone the concierge is suspicious of and I’m just going to check it out. It’s probably nothing.’
I don’t believe him. Nothing suggests I should; not the tone of his voice or his body language. Everything is suggesting that I should be terrified, and I’m beginning to feel it. ‘Okay,’ I agree reluctantly.
After nodding and squeezing my shoulder affectionately, he carries his big body from the kitchen, and I soon hear the front door close, leaving me still shaking and with a racing mind. I’m failing on every level to calm myself down. I just want Jesse. I don’t care what he’s got to tell me, I don’t give a damn. I clench my phone and run up the stairs to the bedroom, quickly locating the key to Jesse’s office from my underwear drawer before rushing back down and making quick work of unlocking the door. I know I’ll feel better when I’m sitting in his big office chair, like he’s wrapped around me in a sense.
I burst through the door, frenzied and out of breath, only to be met by a woman, who’s standing in the middle of the room, staring at my wall.