This Man (This Man #1)(2)

by Jodi Ellen Malpas

My fears are confirmed. This place is immaculate.

The décor is opulent, lush and very intimidating. Deep blues, taupe’s with hints of gold and original woodwork, along with the rich mahogany parquet floor, makes the place striking and massively extravagant. It’s exactly how I would have expected it to be and nowhere near my design style. But then again, looking around, why any interior designer would be here is becoming more and more confusing. Patrick said they requested me personally, so I would be inclined to think that they want to modernise the place, but that would’ve been before I got a glimpse of the exterior and now the interior too. The décor suits the period building. It’s in perfect condition. Why the hell am I here?

Big guy heads off to the right, leaving me to scuttle off after him. My tan heels clink on the parquet floor as he leads me past the central staircase, towards the back of the Mansion.

I hear the hum of conversation and glance to my right, noticing many people sat at various tables eating, drinking and chatting. Waiters are serving food and drinks, and the distinct voices of The Rat Pack are purring in the background. I frown, but then I click. It’s a hotel – a posh country hotel. My shoulders sag slightly in relief at concluding this, but it still doesn’t explain why I’m here. I’m lead past some toilets and then a bar. A few men are sat on bar stools cracking jokes and teasing a young woman, who has, apparently, returned from the lavatory with toilet roll stuck to her heel. She playfully slaps the main instigator on the shoulder, scolding him while laughing along with them.

This is all beginning to make sense to me. I want to say something to the mountain of a man leading me, God only knows where, but he hasn’t looked back once to check I’m following. Although, the clink of my heels tells him I am. He doesn’t say much, and I suspect he wouldn’t answer me if I did speak.

We continue past two more closed doors. Judging by the clanking of pots, I assume one to be the kitchen. Then he leads me into a summer room – a massive, light, stunningly lavish space that’s sectioned off into individual seating areas by the positioning of sofa’s, big arm chairs and tables. Floor to ceiling bi-fold doors span the complete face of the room, leading to a yorkstone patio and a vast lawn area. It’s really quite awe inspiring. I inwardly gasp when I spot a glass building housing a swimming pool. It’s incredible. I shudder to think how much the nightly rate is. It has to be five stars – probably more.

Once we’ve passed through the summer room, I’m lead down a corridor until big guy stops outside a wooden panelled door. ‘Mr Ward’s office.’ he rumbles, knocking the door, surprisingly gently given his mammoth size.

‘The Manager?’ I ask.

‘The Owner,’ he replies, opening the door and striding through. ‘Come in.’

I hesitate on the threshold, watching as the big guy strides into the room ahead of me. I eventually force my feet into action, moving into the room, while gazing around at the equally luxurious surroundings of Mr Ward’s office.

Chapter 2

‘Jesse, Miss O’Shea, Rococo Union.’ Big guy announces.

‘Perfect. Thanks, John.’

I’m dragged from my awed like state, straight into high alert. My back straightens.

I can’t see him, he’s obscured by the big guy’s massive frame, but that raspy, smooth voice has me frozen on the spot, and it certainly doesn’t sound like it’s coming from a cigar smoking, overweight, wax jacket wearing Lord of the Manor.

Big guy, or John as I now know him, moves to the side, giving me my first glimpse of Mr Jesse Ward.

Oh good God. My heart crashes against my breast bone and my nervous breathing rockets to damn right dangerous levels. I suddenly feel light headed, and my mouth is ignoring my brains instructions to at least say something. I just stand there staring at this man, while he stares back at me. His husky voice halted me in my tracks, but the sight of him…well, that’s just turned me into a non-responsive, quivering wreck.

He rises from his chair, my gaze traveling up with him until he’s stood at full height. He’s very tall. His white shirt is casually rolled at the sleeves, but he still wears a black tie, loosely knotted and hanging down the front of a broad chest.

He makes his way around his massive desk and slowly walks towards me. It’s then that I take in the full impact of him. I gulp. This man is so perfect, I’m almost in pain. His dirty blonde hair looks like he’s half attempted to get it into some semblance of a style but given up. His eyes are sludgy green, but bright and way too intense, and the stubble covering his square jaw does nothing to conceal the handsome features beneath it. He’s lightly tanned and just…Oh God, he’s devastating. Lord of the Manor?

‘Miss O’Shea.’ His hand comes toward me, but I can’t persuade my arm to raise and clasp his outstretched offering. He’s beautiful.

When I don’t offer my hand, he reaches forward and clasps both of my shoulders, then slowly leans in to kiss me, his lips brushing lightly over my burning cheek. I tense all over. I can hear my pulse throbbing in my ears, and even though it’s completely inappropriate for a business meeting, I do nothing to stop him. I’m all over the place.

‘It’s a pleasure,’ he whispers in my ear, which only serves to make me moan slightly. He must feel my tenseness – it’s not difficult, I’m rigid – because his grip eases up and he lowers his face to my level, looking me directly in the eyes. ‘Are you okay?’ he asks, one side of his mouth lifting into a semblance of a smile. I notice a single frown line across his forehead.

I snap myself out of my ridiculous inertness, suddenly aware that I’ve still not said anything. Has he noticed my reaction to him? What about big guy? I glance over, seeing the big guy stood motionless, glasses still in place, but I know his eyes are on me. I mentally shake myself and step back, away from Ward and his potent grasp. His hands fall to his side.

‘Hi,’ I cough to clear my throat. ‘Ava. My name is Ava.’ I offer him my hand, but he’s unhurried in accepting it, like he’s unsure whether it’s safe to, but he does…eventually.

His hand is clammy and slightly shaky as he squeezes mine firmly. Sparks fizz and a curious look flits across his stunning face. We both retract our hands in shock.

‘Ava.’ He’s trying my name on his lips, and it takes all of my strength not to moan again. He should stop talking – immediately.

‘Yes, Ava.’ I confirm. He’s the one who seems to be off in his own little nirvana now, while I’m becoming increasingly aware of my rising temperature.

He suddenly seems to come to his senses, shoving his hands in his trouser pockets as he shakes his head slightly, retreating backwards. ‘Thanks, John.’ he nods to the big guy, who smiles slightly, softening his hard features, then leaves.

I’m alone with this man, who has rendered me speechless, motionless and pretty much useless.

He nods towards two brown leather couches, positioned opposite each other in the bay window, with a large coffee table sitting between them. ‘Please, take a seat. Can I get you a drink?’ He drags his gaze from mine, walking towards a cabinet with various bottles of liquor lined up on top. He surely doesn’t mean alcohol? It’s midday. Even by my standards it’s too early. I watch as he hovers at the cabinet for a few moments before turning to face me again, looking at me expectantly.

‘No, thank you.’ I shake my head as I speak, just in case the words don’t come out.

‘Water?’ he asks, that smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

Oh God, don’t look at me. ‘Please.’ I smile a nervous smile. My mouth is parched.

He collects two bottles of water from the integrated fridge and turns back towards me. It’s then that I persuade my shaky legs to carry me across the room to the sofa.

‘Ava?’ His voice rolls across me, causing me to falter en-route.

I turn to face him. It’s probably a bad idea. ‘Yes?’

He holds up a highball. ‘Glass?’

‘Yes, please.’ I smile. He must think I’m so unprofessional. I settle myself on the leather couch, retrieve my folder and phone from my bag and place them on the table in front of me. I notice my hands shaking.

Christ, woman. Get a grip! I feign making notes as he strolls back over, placing my water and a glass on the table. He sits down on the sofa opposite and crosses one leg over the other, his ankle resting on his thigh. He stretches back. He’s really making himself comfortable, and the silence that falls between us is screaming as I write anything and everything to avoid looking up at him. I know I’ve got to look at the man and say something at some point, but all standard enquiry questions have run, screaming and shouting, from my brain.

‘So, where do we start?’ he asks, forcing me look up and acknowledge his question. He smiles. I swoon.

He’s watching me over the rim of his bottle as he raises it to those lovely lips. I break the eye contact, reaching forward to pour some water into my glass. I’m struggling to reign in my nerves, and I can still feel his eyes on me. This is truly awkward. I’ve never been so affected by a man.

‘I guess you should tell me why I’m here.’ I speak! I look back up at him as I take my glass from the table.

‘Oh?’ he says quietly. There’s that frown line again. Even with that, he’s still beautiful.

‘You requested me by name?’ I press.

‘Yes.’ he replies simply. He smiles again. I have to look away.

I take a sip of my water to moisten my dry mouth, and clear my throat before returning my gaze to his potent stare. ‘So, can I ask why?’

‘You can.’ He uncrosses his leg, leaning forward to place his bottle on the table, resting his forearms on his knees, but he says no more. Is he not going to elaborate on that?

‘Okay,’ I struggle to maintain eye contact. ‘Why?’

‘I’ve heard great things about you.’

I feel my face burning up. ‘Thank you. So, why am I here?’

‘Well, to design.’ He laughs, and I feel stupid but slightly irritated as well. Is he making fun of me?

‘Design what exactly?’ I ask. ‘From what I’ve seen, everything is pretty perfect.’ He surely doesn’t want to modernise this lovely place. It may not be my forte, but I know class when I see it.

‘Thank you,’ he says softly. ‘Do you have your portfolio with you?’

‘Of course,’ I reply, reaching into my bag. Why he wants to look at it is beyond me. It won’t reflect anything like this place.

I place it on the table in front of him and expect him to drag it over to his side, but to my horror, he stands in one fluid movement and walks around to me, lowering his lovely lean body onto the sofa next to me. Oh, Jesus. He smells divine – all fresh water and minty. I hold my breath.

Leaning forward, he opens the folder. ‘You’re very young to be such an accomplished designer.’ he muses, slowly turning the pages of my portfolio.

He’s right, I am. It’s only thanks to Patrick for giving me free reign on the expansion of his business. In four years, I’ve fallen out of college, picked up a job in an established design company – that had the financial stability but lacked the new freshness in modern ideas – and made a name for myself on the back of it. I’ve been lucky, and I appreciate Patrick’s faith in my capabilities. That, coupled with my contract at Lusso, is the only reason I’m where I am at the age of twenty six.

I look down at his lovely hand, his wrist adorned in a beautiful gold and graphite Rolex. ‘How old are you?’ I blurt. Oh, good God. My brain is like scrambled egg, and I know I’ve just blushed a sharp shade of red. I should just keep my mouth shut. Where the hell did that come from?

He looks at me intently, his green eyes burning into mine. ‘Twenty one.’ he answers, completely pokerfaced.

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