‘Hmmm, you taste heavenly, lady.’ He bites my bottom lip, pulling back so it drags through his teeth lightly.
‘Why?’ I press, keeping him close to me and wrapping my thighs around his narrow hips. I’m not letting go until he spills.
He gazes at me thoughtfully for a few moments before drawing breath. ‘You know when you’re a kid? At primary school, I mean.’
‘Yeah,’ I say slowly, my brow scrunched up, my eyes undoubtedly inquisitive.
‘Well…’ he sighs. ‘What the hell would I do if the babies asked me to go in for one of those open days these schools have?’
‘You know, when daddies stand up and tell their kid’s class mates that they’re a fireman or a copper.’
I squeeze my lips together, desperate not to laugh at him when it’s clearly a worry.
‘What would I say?’ he asks seriously.
‘You’d tell them you’re The Sex Lord of The Manor.’ It’s no good. I’m laughing. God love this man. My fast disappearing hipbone is grasped and my laughter increases. ‘Stop!’
‘Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, lady.’
I’m released and recovering from my bout of hysteria when I catch his concerned expression. He really is worried. ‘You would tell them that you own a hotel, just like we’d tell the babies.’ I can’t believe I’m trying to give him an out. This, obviously, has always been a concern, but I never pushed it because I know what that big country estate means to him.
He rolls onto his back, and I quickly resume position and sit myself on him. He grasps the tops of my thighs and looks up at me. ‘I don’t want it anymore.’ He’s really adamant.
‘But it was Carmichael’s baby. You wouldn’t sell it when your mum and dad demanded it, so why now?’
‘Because I have you three.’
‘You’ll always have us three, anyway.’ He’s not making sense.
‘I want you three and nothing to complicate that. I don’t want to lie to our babies about my job. I would never allow them to spend any time there, which means my time with you and the babies would be limited. The Manor is an obstruction. I don’t want any obstructions. I have a history, baby, and The Manor should be part of it.’
I feel untold relief and the smile invading my face is proof of that. ‘So I get you all day every day?’
He shrugs sheepishly. ‘If you’ll have me.’
I dive on him, smothering him all over his wonderfully handsome face. But I’m quickly sitting up again when I think of something. ‘What about John and Mario? And Sarah? What about Sarah?’ I have no loyalty to the woman, despite my compassion, but I don’t want her attempting suicide again. However, John and Mario I love.
‘I’ve spoken to them. Sarah’s taking up an opportunity is the US and John and Mario are more than ready for retirement.’
‘Oh,’ I say acceptingly, but I suspect they’ve all picked up a tidy little sum for their services to The Manor, no matter what capacity in which they served. ‘And will the members re-new under the new owners?’
He laughs. ‘Yes, if they like playing golf.’
‘The grounds are being converted into an eighteen hole golf course.’
‘Wow. What about the sports facilities?’ I ask.
‘They’re all staying. It’ll be pretty impressive. Not much different to my set up, except the private suites really will be hotel rooms and the communal room will serve as a conference room for businesses.’
I can imagine it will be impressive. ‘So that’s it, then?’
‘That’s it. Now, I need to get you ready for the rest of your day.’ He goes to sit up, but I pin him back down.
‘I need to freshen up my mark.’ I point to his pec, where my perfect circle has nearly disappeared, then I look down at my own barely visible bruise. ‘And you need to work on mine, too.’
‘We’ll do it later, baby.’ I’m lifted and placed on my feet. ‘Go take a shower.’ He slaps my bum, sending me on my way. I wander off without complaint and with a stupid smile on my face. No Manor, no Sarah, and Jesse all to myself… and the babies.
* * *
After soaking myself under the lovely hot water and shaving everywhere, I dry my hair roughly and start rummaging through the wardrobe for something to wear.
‘I’ve picked something,’ he says from behind me, and I turn to see him wearing a pair of loose swimming shorts, holding up a short lace sundress.
‘It’s a bit short, isn’t it?’ I observe, running my eyes up and down the delicate piece of clothing, with tiny straps and a floaty skirt.
‘I’ll make an exception.’ he shrugs and unzips it before holding it at my feet. By that little statement, I assume we’re not going anywhere public. I watch him kneel for me to step into the dress, and he secures me before standing back and clasping his chin in his hand thoughtfully. ‘Cute.’ He nods in approval and takes my hand, leading me to the double doors that lead to the veranda.
‘I need shoes.’
‘We’re paddling.’ He dismisses my concern and leads on, walking around the veranda and over the grass until we’re at the gate that leads down to the beach. ‘Can we paddle on our backs?’ I ask cheekily, and he stops, looking down at me with amused eyes.
‘Pregnancy does wonderful things to you, Mrs Ward.’
I know my forehead has just wrinkled. ‘I always want you this much.’
‘I know you do. You’re missing something.’ he says, producing a calla lily from behind his back and tucking it behind my ear. ‘Much better.’
I reach up and feel the fresh flower, smiling up at him a little bemused, but far too contented to enquire further. He winks, kisses my cheek and leads on, turning when we get to the sleepers to ensure I take them carefully. ‘Watch that piece of splintered wood.’ he says, pointing to a jagged edge on one of the sleepers. ‘Careful,’
‘You should have left me put some shoes on, then.’ I grumble, missing that step and leaping down to the next.’
‘Ava, no jumping.’ he huffs. ‘You’ll shake the babies up.’
‘Oh, shut up!’ I laugh, jumping my way down the rest of the steps until my feet are warm and sinking into the golden sand. ‘Come on!’ I start to run down to the shore, but as soon as my head lifts from my feet to look where I’m going, I stop dead in my tracks.
They are all looking at me. Every single one of them. My eyes run down the line of people, noting everyone I know, including Jesse’s family. I gasp, a little delayed, and swing round, finding Jesse towering over me, looking down on a smile.
‘What are they doing here?’ I ask.
‘They’re here to witness me marrying you.’
‘But we’re already married.’ I remind him. ‘We are, aren’t we?’ I’m suddenly considering the possibility of him announcing that we’re not married at all, that The Manor, in fact, had no licence.
‘Yes, we are. But my mum and dad missed our day, and we should have done it this way before.’ He takes my hand and tugs my reluctant body gently, until I follow his lead down to the shoreline, where both of our family and friends are waiting, all smiling, all relaxed. They part, letting Jesse pull me through, and I look at each of them in turn, but all I get are happy faces, my brother smiling broadest of all. I can do no more than shrug a little, demonstrating my surprise. It’s only now that I register Jesse’s shorts are white and so is my sundress. We’re getting married again?
I’m positioned in the wet sand with the gentle waves lapping at my feet, and then we’re greeted by a man who looks as relaxed in his attire as Jesse and me and all of our guests. I’m quiet and accepting as he welcomes us and joins our hands in the space between our close bodies. I’ve been caught off guard, but I accept what is happening and repeat the words being asked of me as I look up into Jesse’s addictive eyes and smile around each and every word that I say to him. I re-affirm everything. I renew my promise to love, honour and obey him and I reach up to kiss him gently on his luscious lips when I’m done. I’m on auto-pilot, just doing what is asked of me, but not because I don’t know what else to do, but simply because it’s what I’m supposed to do. Despite everything, I entrust myself to this man. He leads the way and I follow. Because I know it’s where I belong.
When it’s his turn to speak, the registrar steps away and Jesse moves in closer, lifting both of my hands with his and resting his lips on them, leaving them lingering for the longest time. ‘I love you.’ he whispers, stroking his thumbs where his lips have just left. ‘An eternity with you wouldn’t be enough, Ava. From the moment my eyes fell on you in my office, I knew things would change for me. I plan on devoting every second of my life to worshipping you, adoring you and indulging in you, and I plan on making up for empty years without you. I’m taking you to Paradise, baby.’ He stoops and clasps me under my bum and lifts me high so it’s now him looking up at me. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Yes. Take me.’ I demand, running my hands into his hair and giving it a yank.
‘Oh, I took you long ago, Mrs Ward. But right now is where it really begins.’ He kisses me hard. ‘No more digging to get beneath me. You know everything there so to know. And no more confessions because I have nothing left to tell.’
‘I think you have.’ I whisper, nuzzling into his neck and taking a hit of him in all of his fresh water, minty loveliness.
‘I do?’ he asks, carrying me into the glimmering coolness of the Med.
‘You do. Tell me you love me.’
He pulls back, green eyes sparkling, my smile gracing his perfect mouth and his dirty blonde hair a glorious, dishevelled mess with my hands tugging demandingly at it. ‘I love you so fucking much, baby.’
I smile, dropping my head back and closing my eyes as he starts spinning us in circles, the sun warming my face and his body close to mine, warming everywhere else.
‘I KNOW!’ I scream, laughing before we’re under the water and homing straight in on each other’s lips. I cling on to him like my life depends on it because it absolutely does.
* * *
This is it. This is us. This will be our normal forever and ever, no more shocking discoveries and no more confessions. His two perfect mars on his insanely perfect stomach are a constant reminder of our journey together, but the relentless gleam of happiness in his shockingly green eyes is a continuous reminder that I still have this man.
And I always will.
Fuck me, how long have I got to endure my home being bombarded and my wife and babies being hogged? Too fucking long, that’s how long. Hours, probably. I should snatch their gifts and throw them a piece of cake before shutting the door in their face. I smile on the inside, picturing Elizabeth’s face if I did exactly that. This is going to be painful, and to rub salt into my moody wounds, we have school friends this year, too. And their mothers—lots of women, who have taken Ava up on her offer to stay, if they would like to. And, of course, they would like to.
My stroppy feet are pounding down the staircase of our lovely little Manor, as I button up my shirt and chew my lip, thinking of any excuse to avoid this. I come up with nothing. My babies are five years old today, and not even daddy’s amazing negotiation tactics will convince them that a party is a bad idea—not now they have their own mind. I’ve tried for the last four years and fallen flat on my face, but only because my beautiful wife always intervened on their behalf. I know this year, though, if I got them alone, I could break them down with something. Skiing again, perhaps?