Those few words make me tense. ‘No you don’t.’ I blurt, trying to pull away from him so I can get the nurse, but I’m going nowhere.
‘Fuck!’ he spits, ‘Fucking, fuck, fuck, fuck!’ He’s still fighting against me, the stupid man, but I’m the one who relents, more concerned for him than he is for himself. ‘Just stay put and listen.’ he demands harshly. ‘You’re not going anywhere until I’ve told you about Rosie.’
Rosie. The name signifies unbearable heartache and years of self-torture. He should have confessed this long ago. It would have explained so many of his neurotic ways.
‘Lauren was the daughter of my mum and dad’s good friends.’ He begins, and I brace myself, realising that I’m about to get the whole story. Not just the bits that I’d like to hear about his daughter, but the parts about the psychotic woman who nearly robbed him from me. ‘I’m sure you can imagine the type—well-bred, rich and highly respected in the snotty community that we were forced to tolerate. We fooled around once and she ended up pregnant. We were seventeen, young and stupid. Can you imagine the scandal? I‘d really done it this time.’ He shifts, flinching and cursing some more.
‘Emergency meetings were called between Lauren’s family and my own, and her father demanded I marry her before word got out and ruined both of our families. Jake had not long died and I went along with it, hoping my compliance might build some bridges with my parents.’
I clench my eyes shut and hold on to him a little tighter, remembering our visit to my parents and his reaction to my mother implying that he’d married me because I was pregnant. ‘An arranged marriage?’ I ask.
‘Yes, but the joint effort of both families did an amazing job of convincing the community that we were hopelessly in love.’
‘She was.’ I whisper, knowing the direction in which this story is heading.
‘And I wasn’t.’ he confirms quietly. ‘I was married off and moved into her parents’ country estate within a month. Everyone was happy, except me.’ His fingers play idly with my hair, and he draws a painful breath before continuing. ‘Carmichael gave me an escape, and I finally plucked up the courage to call a halt on the whole diabolical farce, but when Rosie arrived, I was determined to be a dad. That little girl was the only person on the planet who loved me for me, no expectations or pressure, she just accepted me in her innocence. It didn’t matter that she was a baby.’
All of this is filling me with immense proudness, but this story doesn’t have a happily ever after. And it crushes me.
‘She was a real daddy’s girl.’ he says fondly. ‘I could do no wrong, and I knew I never would in her eyes. That was enough to make me evaluate the lifestyle I’d slipped into while Lauren was pregnant. Carmichael got the best solicitor involved to try and gain me full custody because he knew that she was my redeemer, but Lauren’s family dug up every dirty little secret, from Jake, to The Manor, to my brief lifestyle from when I left Lauren until Rosie was born. I didn’t have a hope.’
‘And you parents had moved to Spain by now?’ I ask.
He jerks on a hiss as he laughs quietly. ‘Yes, they escaped the shame I’d brought on the family.’
‘They abandoned you.’ I whisper.
‘They wanted me to go with them. Mum begged, but I couldn’t leave Rosie fulltime with that family. She’d be frowned upon as an illegitimate child, even though she had me. Not an option.’
‘So then what?’
‘Rosie was three and I made the worst mistake of my life.’ He pauses, and I know he’s munching on that bottom lip. ‘I slept with Sarah.’ he says quietly.
‘Sarah?’ I’m frowning heavily into his neck. How does Sarah play any part in this?
‘Carmichael and Sarah were together.’
‘They were?’ I’m scrambling with care from his hold now, but this time he lets me. He is chewing that lip and he’s holding his breath, too. ‘Sarah and Carmichael? But I thought he was a playboy.’
‘He was. With a girlfriend…’ he flinches as he inhales. ‘and a child.’
‘What?’ I’m sitting up fully now. ‘Go on.’ I push. This story isn’t taking the direction that I thought it would at all.
He takes another long, painful breath. I should tell him to stop and rest, but I don’t. ‘Carmichael walked in on me and Sarah. He hit the roof, got the girls and left.’
Oh good Lord. ‘The girls?’ I ask. I don’t know why. I know who the girls are.
‘Rosie and Rebecca.’
‘Your Rosie and their Rebecca.’ I whisper. ‘The car accident?’
He nods mildly and clenches his eyes shut. ‘I didn’t just kill my uncle and my daughter. I killed Sarah’s girl, too.’
‘No,’ I shake my head. ‘That can’t be your fault.’
‘I think you’ll find that my poor decisions have been the cause for everything, Ava. I’ve fucked up on so many levels so many times, and I’ve paid for it, but I can’t pay for it now that I have you. What if I make a bad decision again? What if I screw up again? What if I’m not done paying?’
His demand for compliance on everything is crystal clear. Too clear. He really does live in terror, but it’s far worse than I ever imagined. He blames himself for everything, and maybe his carelessness played a small part, but ultimately, he’s not responsible. He wasn’t driving the car that hit Jake. He wasn’t driving the car with the girls. He didn’t want to get married and he definitely wanted to be a proper father. And Sarah? That has totally floored me. She had a child with Carmichael, but was in love with her boyfriend’s nephew? Fucking hell, this is complicated stuff. Sarah really does have nothing and after losing both her daughter and her lover. She sought solace in The Manor, a little bit like Jesse did. Two tortured souls drowning themselves in whips, sex, and drink, but never in each other. That was Jesse’s choice, though. Not Sarah’s.
‘You are more than done paying.’ My eyes land on his stomach. He’s paid physically and mentally, and it’s made my husband a neurotic control freak now he has something he cares about again.
‘When did she hurt you before?’ I ask, needing that final piece to secure this colossal puzzle and lay it all to bed.
‘After Rosie died, she tried so hard to make me see that we needed each other. She had always been a little unpredictable, but when I continually rebuffed her advances, she really started behaving erratically. We’re talking full on bunny boiler style.’ He smiles at me, but I can’t smile back. She’s tried to kill him twice. This is no laughing matter.
‘Did she get pregnant on purpose?’
‘And she stabbed you?’
‘Did she go to prison?’
He’s sighing again. ‘Her family got her help and kept her away from me in exchange for my silence.’
‘But look at the mess she made of you.’ I point to his old scar. ‘How did you pass that off?’
‘It’s pretty superficial. She did a better job this time.’ He looks down at his stomach.
‘You didn’t even go to hospital, did you?’ I’m horrified. That is one nasty scar and far from superficial. ‘Who stitched you up?’
‘Her dad. He was a doctor.’
‘Oh my God!’ I collapse onto the chair. ‘And where were your parents whilst all of this was going on?’ I sound like a lecturing fishwife, but holy shit, where does it end?
‘They’d already returned to Spain.’
‘Jesse…’ I snap my mouth shut, trying to think hard of what I can possibly say, before I blurt just anything. As always, I’m blank. This man renders me speechless on every level. ‘Your mum in Spain.’ I think hard. ‘Second chance?’ She wasn’t referring to Jake at all. She was referring to Jesse’s lost daughter—a chance for him to be a good father again.
‘You really do know everything now.’ His dry voice is still disjointed and his searching eyes are looking for mine but not falling where he knows them to be. ‘Are you leaving me?’
If my heart was breaking for him before, then now it’s just shattered. That simple, perfectly reasonable question and the unsure tone in which he’s asked it, has tears stabbing painfully at the backs of my eyes. ‘Look at me.’ I demand sharply, and he does, showing me unthinkable hurt. It cuts so deep and the tears roll freely. So do his. I know I’m his saviour now. I’m the key to redemption for him. I’m his angel. ‘Unbreakable.’ I weep, crushed by sadness for this man. Two weeks of emptiness has been flooded by happiness, but soon replaced with sorrow.
He gasps, but I’m not sure whether it’s in pain or relief. ‘Hold me.’ he begs, weakly lifting a heavy arm out to me. The no contact will be killing him, especially when he has to depend on me to feed his need.
Gingerly crawling onto the bed, I settle carefully around tubes and dressings. I’m pulled in closer. ‘Jesse, be careful.’
‘It hurts more if I’m not touching you.’
His fingertip connects with my chin and pulls my face up to his, and I reach up to catch a stray tear before running my palm all over his overgrown face. ‘I love you.’ I say quietly, pushing my lips gently to his.
‘Don’t stay that.’ I pull back and hit him with a disappointed glare. ‘I don’t want you to say that.’
His confusion is clear. ‘But I am.’
‘That’s not what you usually say.’ I whisper, giving his too long hair a warning yank.
My savageness tips the corner of his lips. ‘Tell me you love me.’ he demands, probably using far too much of his energy to sound stern.
‘I love you.’ I comply immediately, and he breaks into his full-on, glorious smile, reserved only for me. It’s the most incredible sight, even if there are tears accompanying it and he’s a little too washed out.
‘I know,’ He kisses me sweetly, then hisses, losing his momentum, then rides out the pain to kiss me again.
‘I’m getting the nurse now.’ I tell him determinedly. ‘You need some painkillers.’
‘I need you.’ he grumbles. ‘You’re my cure.’
Reluctantly releasing his lips, I prop myself up and clasp his face in both hands. ‘Then why are you still tensing and hissing in discomfort?’
‘Because it fucking hurts.’ he admits.
I give him one last peck and peel my body away from him before re-arranging the sheets over his waist. Whilst it’s horrible seeing him so weak and helpless, the thought of looking after him and nursing him back to health is something I’ll cherish.
‘What are you smiling about?’ he asks, lifting his arms to let me tuck the sheets in.
‘Nothing,’ I reach over and finally press the call button for the nurse.
‘You’re going to love this, aren’t you?’
I pause mid plump of his pillow and break out into a smile when I catch his disgruntled face. He’s a big, powerful man, who has been reduced to a weak, injured soul. This will be hard for him. ‘I have the power.’
‘Don’t get used to it.’ he grunts, just as the door swings open and the nurse hurries in.
‘Oh! Oh my!’ She’s by his bed and checking the machinery in a second, faffing around and feeling for his pulse. ‘Welcome back, Jesse.’ she says, but he just grunts some more and looks up to the ceiling. He’s going to hate this. ‘Feeling groggy?’