This Man (This Man #1)(7)


by Jodi Ellen Malpas

There’s a brief silence before he speaks again. ‘Can we start again? I’ll keep it professional, of course.’

Oh no. He might be sorry, but that doesn’t extinguish the affect he has on me. And it doesn’t escape my thoughts that this is just a ploy to get me back on side so he can re-commence pursuing me.

‘Mr Ward, I’m really not the right person for this job,’ I swivel in my chair to check if Patrick’s in his office. He is. ‘Can I transfer you to Patrick?’ I push, mentally pleading for him to take the hint.

‘It’s Jesse. You make me feel old when you call me Mr Ward.’ he grumbles.

I slam my mouth shut when my lips part and that question nearly falls out. I’m still intrigued on that subject, but I’m not going to ask again.

‘Ava, if it makes you feel better, you can deal with John. What would be the next stage?’

Oh? Would it make me feel better? Big guy has intimidation in equal measure to Wards boldness. I’m not sure I would feel any more comfortable with his offer to replace himself with John. But the fact he’s prepared to do this, tells me he really does want me to do the designs and that, I suppose, is a compliment. The Manor will be a great addition to my portfolio.

‘I would need to measure the rooms and draw up some schemes.’ I spit the words out impulsively.

‘Perfect,’ He sounds relieved. ‘I can get John to take you around the rooms. He can hold your tape measure. Tomorrow?’

Tomorrow? He’s keen. As it happens, I can’t. I’ve got various appointments dotted across the day, and Wednesday’s out too. ‘I can’t do tomorrow or Wednesday, I’m sorry.’

‘Oh,’ he says quietly. ‘Do you do evenings?’

Oh, do I? Well, I don’t like doing evenings, but many clients work nine to five jobs and are unavailable during the working day. I prefer evenings to weekends. I never get dragged into weekend appointments.

‘I can do tomorrow evening.’ I blurt, turning the page in my diary to tomorrow. My last appointment is at five with Mrs Kent. ‘Seven-ish?’ I ask, already pencilling him in.

‘Perfect. I would say that I’ll look forward to it, but I can’t look forward to it because I won’t be seeing you.’ I can’t see him, but I know he’s probably grinning. I can hear it in his tone. He just can’t help himself. ‘I’ll let John know to expect you at seven.’

‘-ish,’ I add. I don’t know how long it’ll take me to get out of the city at that time of day.

‘-ish,’ he confirms. ‘Thank you, Ava.’

‘You’re welcome, Mr Ward. Goodbye.’ I hang up and commence tapping my fingernail on my front tooth.

‘Ava?’ Patrick calls from his office.

‘Yes?’ I swing my chair to face him.

‘The Manor, they want you, flower.’ He shrugs, returning to his computer screen.

No, he wants me.

Chapter 4

I fly through Tuesdays appointments, leaving Mrs Kent’s lovely new town house at just past six.

Mrs Kent is the extremely high maintenance wife of Mr Kent – MD of Kent Yacht Builders – and this Kensington house is their third home in four years. I’ve re-designed the interior on all of them. No sooner are the works completed, Mrs Kent decides she can’t envisage growing old there – she’s seventy, if a day – so the house is on the market, sold and I’m starting from scratch on their new abode. I was slightly paranoid when they up sticks, selling the first home that I worked on only a month after works were completed, especially as it was my first contract when I started working for Patrick. But she was soon scheduling an appointment for me to view their new place, crooning down the phone, “Ava dear, it’s not you. It just didn’t feel like home.”

So, I’m now on the third Kent residence, the specification being the same as the last two houses, which is convenient because I don’t have to source any freestanding furniture. It also softens the blow on Mr Kent’s wallet.

I jump in my car, setting off for The Surrey Hills. I didn’t divulge to Kate the reason why I’m going to be home late. Telling her would only fuel her curiosity as to why I’m returning to The Manor. I would, of course, lie and feed her the same crap that I’ve fed myself – that the addition of The Manor’s works would benefit my portfolio. The magnet of lean loveliness has zero influence on my decision – none at all.

I stop at the intercom this time, but as I press to release my window, the gates start opening. I look up to the camera and figure John must be waiting. I did say seven-ish and its five past now. I drive through the gates, up the gravel road until I reach the courtyard. John’s waiting on the steps for me, filling the double doorway, sunglasses firmly in place.

‘Good evening, John.’ I greet, grabbing my folder and bag. Will he speak today?

No, he nods and turns, walking back into The Manor, leaving me to follow him into the bar. It’s busier than when I was last here. It’s probably the time of day.

‘Mario?’ he rumbles.

A little man pops up from behind the bar. ‘Yes?’

‘Get Miss O’Shea a drink, please.’ John turns his concealed eyes back to me. ‘I’ll be back. Jesse wants a quick word.’

‘With me?’ I blurt, blushing slightly at my abruptness.

‘No, with me,’

‘Is he staying in his office?’ I ask nervously. I’m asking too many questions about something so trivial, but he assured me he would leave me and John to it. Even the thought of the man reduces me to a nervous wreck. I never thought I would think this, but I do actually feel more comfortable with the big guy. For a start, I trust myself with him. John’s lips twitch, clearly trying to fight a smile. I inwardly groan. He knows.

‘S’all good, girl.’ He turns, giving Mario a funny look, which the little barman acknowledges with a flick of his cloth.

What’s that all about?

John nods sternly before striding out, leaving me with Mario at the bar.

I gaze around, noticing a woman laughing with a middle aged man at a table nearby. It’s the woman I saw in the toilets when I was here last Friday. She’s wearing a black trouser suit and looks extremely professional. She must be staying a while – business, maybe? The man accompanying her rises from the table, putting his hand out politely. She accepts it with a smile as she stands, letting him tuck her under his arm and lead her out of the bar as they chat and giggle.

I perch on a bar stool to wait for John, taking my phone out to check for messages and missed calls.

‘You would like wine?’

I look up, finding the little barman smiling at me. He speaks with an accent, and I conclude that he’s Italian. He’s very short and rather sweet, with his mustache and receding black hair. ‘I could do with one, but I’m driving.’

‘Ah!’ he exclaims. ‘Just a small one,’ He holds a small wine glass up, drawing a line across the middle with his finger.

Oh, sod it! I shouldn’t drink on the job, but my nerves are shot to bits. He’s in this building somewhere and that’s unsettling enough. I nod on a smile. ‘Thank you.’

He holds up a bottle of Zinfandel. I nod again. ‘Your dress is very, urhh…how you say...striking?’ He pours a little more than half a glass. In fact, it’s full.

I look down at my black, structured, figure hugging dress. Yes, I suppose striking would be a word you could use. It’s my if-all-else-fails dress. I always feel nice in it. I ignore the little voice in my head asking me if I wore it in the hopes of seeing Ward. I snap a lid on that thought immediately and laugh at Mario’s careful choice of words, taking the glass as he passes it over the bar on a smile. I think he means tight. It shows every curve I have. Considering I’m a size ten, there are not many, but if I live with Kate for much longer, that may change. ‘Thank you.’ I smile.

‘Pleasure, Miss O’Shea. I leave you in peace.’ He picks up his cloth and starts wiping the granite counter under the optics.

I sip my wine as I wait for John. It goes down too well and before I know it, I’ve drank the lot. I can’t wait to get home so I can dig into the bottle being kept chilled in the fridge.

‘Hello.’

I swivel on my stool, coming face to face with the woman that was draped all over Ward on Friday. She smiles at me, but it’s the most insincere smile I’ve ever had the pleasure of receiving. ‘Hi.’ I say politely.

I see Mario come rushing over with a panic stricken face, waving his cloth in the air. ‘Miss Sarah! No, please. No talk.’

What?

‘Oh, shut up Mario! I’m not stupid.’ she spits.

Poor Mario flinches before returning to wiping the bar, keeping his eyes on Sarah. I want to jump to his defense, but just as I’m contemplating doing exactly that, she puts out her hand.

‘I’m Sarah, you are?’

Oh yes, the last time she asked me that I didn’t answer and left rather hastily. I accept her hand, shaking it lightly as she eyes me suspiciously. I can tell she doesn’t like me. Perhaps she sees me as a threat.

‘Ava O’Shea.’ I offer, releasing my hold of her hand swiftly.

‘And you’re here because?’

I laugh lightly. I’m sure she knows exactly why I’m here, which only serves to confirm that she’s feeling threatened and going out of her way to make me feel uncomfortable. Sheath the claws, lady. I silently smile at the thought of telling her that it’s because her boyfriend pleaded with me to be here.

‘I’m an Interior Designer. I’m here to measure up the new bedrooms.’

She arches an eyebrow, flicking her hand in the air to get Mario’s attention. This woman is something else, with aloofness in equal measure to Wards boldness. Her blonde, layered hair is flicking here and there, her lips the same pouty red as they were on Friday, and she’s wearing a fitted, grey trouser suit. I’m being unkind when I put her at forty. She’s probably mid-thirties – far closer to Ward in age than me. I quickly reign in my wandering thoughts, mentally slapping my own desperate arse.

‘Sloe gin and tonic, Mario,’ she demands past me. No please and no smile. She really is quite rude. ‘You’re a bit young to be an interior designer, aren’t you?’ Her tone is unfriendly, and she doesn’t look at me when she speaks.

I bristle. I really don’t like this woman. What does Ward see in her, apart from over inflated, pouty lips and obvious breast implants? ‘I am.’ I agree. She feels threatened by my youth as well. Good.

I’m beyond relieved when John appears in the doorway. He pulls his glasses down, giving Sarah a peculiar look before nodding at me. What’s with all these looks being thrown around? I don’t dwell on it, though. John’s nod is the cue I need to escape this woman. I place my empty glass on the bar more forcefully than I intend to. Mario’s head snaps up, and I smile an apology, lowering myself from the stool.

‘Nice meeting you, Sarah.’ I say pleasantly. It’s a lie. I don’t like her, and I know the feeling’s mutual.

She doesn’t look at me. She accepts the drink that Mario hands her, without so much as a thank you, and walks off to chat with a male business type at the other end of the bar.

When I reach John, he leads me up the grand staircase to the gallery landing and through to the new extension.

‘I’ll be fine on my own, John. I don’t want to keep you.’ I offer him the chance to leave me to it as he leads me down the corridor.

‘S’all good, girl.’ he rumbles, opening the door into the furthest room.

We start measuring up, working our way back through the rooms. John dutifully holds the tape measure for me, nodding every so often when I give direction. The phrase “A man of few words” was invented with John in mind, I’m sure. He talks with his nods, and even though his eyes are covered with his sunglasses, I can identify when he’s looking at me. I make all the notes I need in my folder, ideas thrashing around in my head already.

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