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Ashleigh knew something was wrong as soon as she entered her parents" house on Friday evening after work.
"Mum?" she dropped her bag to the floor, her gaze sweeping the hall for her three-, nearly four-year-old son before turning back to her mother's agitated expression. "What's going on? Where's Lachlan?"
Gwen Forrester twisted her hands together, her usually cheerful features visibly contorted with strain. "Darling" She gave a quick nervous swallow. "Lachlan is fine Your father took him fishing a couple of hours ago."
Ashleigh's frown deepened. "Then what on earth is the matter?You look as if you've just seen a ghost."
"I don't quite know how to tell you this" Gwen took her daughter's hands in hers and gave them a gentle squeeze.
Ashleigh felt her heart begin to thud with alarm. The last time she'd seen her mother this upset had been when she'd returned from London to deliver her bombshell news.
Her heart gave another sickening thump and her breathing came to a stumbling halt. Surely this wasn't about Jake Marriott? Not after all this time It had been yearsfour and a half years."
"Mum, come on, you're really freaking me out. Whatever's the matter with you?"
Ashleigh felt the cold stream of icy dread begin to flow through her veins, her limbs suddenly freezing and her stomach folding over in panic.
"He called in a short while ago," Gwen said, her soft blue eyes communicating her concern.
"What?" Ashleigh finally found her voice. "Here? In person?"
"Don't worry." Gwen gave her daughter's hands another reassuring squeeze. "Lachlan had already left with your father. He didn't seehim."
"But what about the photos?" Ashleigh's stomach gave another savage twist when she thought of the virtual gallery of photographs her parents had set up in the lounge room, each and every one of them documenting their young grand-son's life to date. Then, as another thought hit her like a sledgehammer, she gasped, "Oh, my God, what about his toys?"
"He didn't see anything. I didn't let Jake past the hallway and I'd already done a clean-up after your father left with Lachlan."
"Thank God" She slipped out of her mother's hold and sank to the telephone table chair, putting her head in her hands in an attempt to collect her spinning thoughts.
Jake was back!
Four and a half lonely heartbreaking years and he was back in Australia.
She lifted her head from her hands and faced her mother once more. "What did he want?"
"He wants to see you," Gwen said. "He wouldn't take no for an answer."
So that much hadn't changed, she thought cynically. Jake Marriott was a man well used to getting his way and was often unashamedly ruthless in going about it.
"I can't see him." She sprang to her feet in agitation and began to pace the hall. "I just can't."
"Darling" Her mother's tone held a touch of gentle but unmistakable reproach. "You really should have told him about Lachlan by now. He has a right to know he fathered a child."
"He has no right!"Ashleigh turned on her mother in sudden anger. "He never wanted a child. He made jump off the done it.'she much" inbuilt pragmatism yet again coming to the fore. "You will see him because, if nothing else, you owe him that. He mentioned his father has recently passed away. I suppose that's why he's returned to Sydney, to put his father's affairs in order."
Ashleigh's brow creased in a puzzled little frown as she followed her mother into the kitchen. When she'd asked Jake about his family in the past he'd told her that both his parents were dead. During the time they'd been together he had rarely spoken of his childhood and had deliberately shied away from the topic whenever she'd probed him. She'd put it down to the grief he must have felt at losing both his parents so young.
Why had he lied to her? "Did he say where he was staying?" she asked as she dragged out one of the breakfast bar stools in the kitchen and sat down.
Gwen busied herself with filling the kettle as she answered. "At a hotel at the moment, but I got the impression he was moving somewhere here on the North Shore."
She stared at her mother in shock. "That close?" "I'm afraid so," Gwen said. "You're going to have a hard time keeping Lachlan's existence a secret if he ends up living in a neighbouring suburb."
Ashleigh didn't answer but her expression communicated her worry. "You really have no choice but to see him and get it over with," Gwen said as she handed her a cup. "Anyway, for all you know he might have changed."
Ashleigh bit back a snort of cynicism. "I don't think people like Jake Marriott ever change. It's not in their nature."
"You know you can be pretty stubborn yourself at times, Ashleigh," her mother chided. "I know you've needed to be strong to be a single mother, but sometimes I think you chop off your nose to spite your face. You should have been well and truly married by now. I don't know why poor Howard puts up with it, really I don't."
Ashleigh rolled her eyes, gearing herself up for one of her mother's lectures on why she should push the wedding forward a few months. Howard Caule had made it more than clear that he wanted to bring up Lachlan as his own, but every time he'd tried to set a closer date for their wedding she'd baulked. She still wasn't entirely sure why.
"You do love him, don't you, Ashleigh?" "Who?" She looked at her mother blankly. "Howard," Gwen said, her expression shadowed with a little frown. "Who else?"
Ashleigh wasn't sure how to answer.
She cared for Howard, very deeply, in fact. he'd been a wonderful friend to herstanding by her while she got back on her feet, offering her a part-time position as a buyer for his small chain of antique stores. But as for love Well, she didn't really trust such volatile feelings any more. It was much safer for her to care for people in an affectionate, friendly but slightly distant manner.
"Howard understands I'm not quite ready for marriage," she said. "Anyway, he knows I want to wait until Lachlan settles into his first year at school before I disrupt his life with any further changes to his routine."
"Are you sleeping with him?" "Mum!"Ashleigh's face flamed with heated colour. Gwen folded her arms across her chest. "You've known Howard for over three years. How long did you know Jake before you went to bed with him?"
Ashleigh refused to answer; instead she sent her mother a glowering look.
"Three days, wasn't it?" Gwen asked, ignoring her daughter's fiery glare.
"I've learnt my lesson since then," Ashleigh bit out. "Darling, I'm not lecturing you on what's right and wrong." She gave a deep and expressive sigh. "I just think you might be better able to handle seeing Jake again if things were a little more permanent in your relationship with Howard. I don't want to see you hurt all over again."
"I won't allow Jake to hurt me again," Ashleigh said with much more confidence than she had any hope of feeling. "I will see him but that's all. I can't possibly tell him about Lachlan."
"But surely Lachlan has the right to meet his father at some point? If Jake stays in Sydney for any length of time you will have no choice but to tell him of his son's existence. Imagine what he would think if he were to find out some other way."
"I hate to disillusion you, Mum, but this is one thing Jake will never budge on. He would be absolutely furious to find out he had a son. I just know it. It was one of the things we argued about the most." She bit her lip as the memory of their bitter parting scored her brutally, before she continued. "He would be so angryso terribly angry"
Gwen reached into her pocket and handed Ashleigh a card. "He left this card so you can contact him. He's staying at a hotel in the city. He apparently wants some work done on his father's house before he moves in. I think it would be wise to see him on neutral territory."
Ashleigh looked down at the card in her hand, her stomach clenching painfully as she saw his name printed there in silver writing.
Jake Marriott CEO Marriott Architecture.
She lifted her gaze back to her mother, resignation heavy in her tone. "Will you and Dad be all right with minding Lachlan if I go now?"