Besides, she’d seen this played out before in her adopted sister Ellie’s life. Ellie pretended to be unconcerned about who her biological parents were but Ashleigh knew how she secretly longed to find out why she had been relinquished when only a few days old. It didn’t matter how loving her adoptive parents and she and Mia as her sisters were, Ellie was like a lost soul looking for a connection she both dreaded and desired.

She took the paper out of Howard’s hand with dogged resignation. ‘All right, I’ll do it. I’ll buy the goods from him and keep quiet, but I can’t help feeling this could backfire on me.’

‘Think about the money,’ he said. ‘This will take me to the top of the antiques market in Sydney.’ He reached for the telephone. ‘I have to ring my mother. This has been her dream ever since my father died.’

Ashleigh gave an inward sigh and picked up her bag and sunglasses from the desk. Jake had her in the palm of his hand and she could already feel the press of his fingers as they began to close in on her…

The drive to the address in the leafy northern suburb of Lindfield seemed all too short to Ashleigh in spite of the slow crawl of traffic on the Pacific Highway.

She kept glancing at the clock on the dashboard, the minutes ticking by, increasing her panic second by painful second.

The street she turned into as indicated on the paper Howard had given her was typical of the upper north shore, leafy private gardens shielding imposing homes, speaking quietly but unmistakably of very comfortable wealth.

She pulled up in front of the number of the house she’d been given but there was no sign of Jake. The driveway was empty, the scallop-edged blinds at the windows of the house pulled down low just like lashes over closed eyes.

The front garden was huge and looked a bit neglected, as if no one had bothered to tend it recently, the lawn still green but interspersed with dandelion heads, the soft little clouds of seeds looking as if the slightest breath of wind would disturb their spherical perfection for ever.

She walked up the pathway towards the front door, breathing in the scent of sun-warmed roses as she reached to press the tarnished brass bell.

There was no answer.

She didn’t know whether to be relieved or annoyed. According to the information Howard had given her, she was to meet Jake here at eleven a.m. and here it was twelve minutes past and no sign of him.

Typical, she thought as she stepped away from the door. When had Jake ever been the punctual type?

She made her way around to the back of the house, curiosity finally getting the better of her. She wondered if this was the house where he had grown up. He had always been so vague about his childhood but she seemed to remember him mentioning a big garden with an elm tree in the backyard that he used to sometimes climb.

She found it along the tall back fence, its craggy limbs spreading long fingers of shade all over the rear corner of the massive garden. She stepped beneath its dappled shade and looked upwards, trying to picture Jake as a young child scrambling up those ancient limbs to get to the top. He wasn’t the bottom branches type, a quality she could already see developing in her little son.

‘I used to have a tree-house way up there,’ Jake’s deep voice said from just behind her.

Ashleigh spun around so quickly she felt light-headed, one of her hands going over her heart where she could feel it leaping towards her throat in shock. ‘Y-you scared me!’

He gave her one of his lazy half smiles. ‘Did I?’

He didn’t seem too bothered about it, she noted with considerable resentment. His expression held a faint trace of amusement as his eyes took in her flustered form.

‘You’re late,’ she said and stepped out of the intimacy of the overhanging branches to the brighter sunlight near a bed of blood-red roses.

‘I know,’ he answered without apology. ‘I had a few things to see to first.’

She tightened her lips and folded her arms across her chest crossly. ‘I suppose you think I’ve got nothing better to do all day than hang around waiting for you to show up. Why didn’t you tell me yesterday about this arrangement?’

He joined her next to the roses, stopping for a moment to pick one perfect bloom and, holding it up to his nose, slowly drew in the fragrance.

Ashleigh found it impossible to look away.

The softness of the rose in his large, very male, hand had her instantly recalling his touch on her skin in the past, the velvet-covered steel of his fingers which could stroke like a feather in foreplay, or grasp like a vice in the throes of out of control passion.

She gave an inward shiver as his eyes moved back to meet hers.

He silently handed her the rose and, for some reason she couldn’t entirely fathom at the time, she took it from him. She lowered her gaze from his and breathed in the heady scent, feeling the brush of the soft petals against her nose where his had so recently been.