‘I’m glad you came,’ he said after a little silence. ‘I’ve always wanted you to see where I grew up.’
Ashleigh looked up at him, the rose still in her hand. ‘Why?’
He shifted his gaze from hers and sent it to sweep across the garden before turning to look at the house. She watched the movement of his dark unfathomable eyes and couldn’t help feeling intrigued by his sudden need to show her the previously private details of his childhood.
It didn’t make any sense.
Why had it taken him so long to finally reveal things she’d longed to know way back? She had asked him so many times for anecdotes of his childhood but he had skirted around the subject, even shutting her out for days with one of his stony silences whenever she’d prodded him too much.
His eyes came back to hers. ‘I used to really hate this place.’
She felt a small frown tug at her forehead. ‘Why?’
He seemed to give himself a mental shake, for he suddenly removed his line of vision from hers and began to lead the way towards the house. Ashleigh followed silently, stepping over the cracks in the pathway, wondering what had led him home if it was so painful to revisit this place.
There was so much she didn’t know about Jake.
She knew how he took his tea and coffee, she knew he had a terrible sweet tooth attack at about four o’clock every afternoon, she knew he loved his back rubbed and that he had one very ticklish hip. But she didn’t know what made his eyes and face become almost mask-like whenever his childhood was mentioned.
Jake unlocked the back door and, leaving Ashleigh hovering in the background, immediately began rolling up blinds and opening windows to let the stale, musty air out.
Ashleigh wasn’t sure if she should offer to help or not. She was supposed to be here in a professional capacity but nothing so far in Jake’s manner or mood had indicated anything at all businesslike.
‘I’m sorry it’s so stuffy in here,’ he said, stepping past her to reach for the last blind. ‘I haven’t been here since…well…’ He gave her a wry look. ‘I haven’t been here since I was about sixteen.’
She knew her face was showing every sign of her intrigue but she just couldn’t help it. She looked around at the sun-room they were in, but apart from a few uncomfortable-looking chairs and a small table and a cheap self-assembly magazine rack there was nothing that she could see of any great value.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he said into the awkward silence.
She looked at him without responding but her eyes obviously communicated her scepticism.
‘You’re thinking I’ve led you here on a fool’s errand, aren’t you?’ he asked.
She drew in a small breath and scanned the room once more. ‘The contents of this room would barely pay for a cup of coffee and a sandwich at a decent café.’ She met his eyes challengingly. ‘What’s this about, Jake? Why am I here and why now?’
‘Come this way.’
He led her towards a door off the sun-room which, when he opened it, showed her a long dark, almost menacing, hallway, the lurking shadows seeming to leap out from the walls to brush at the bare skin of her arms as she followed him about halfway down to a door on the left.
The door opened with a creak of a hinge that protested at the sudden movement, the inner darkness of the room spilling out towards her. Jake flicked on a light switch as she stepped into the room with him, her eyes instantly widening as she saw what was contained within.
She sucked in a breath of wonder as her nostrils filled with the scent of old cedar. The room was stacked almost to the ceiling with priceless pieces of furniture. Tables, chairs, escritoires, chaise longues and bookcases and display cabinets, their dusty shelves filled with an array of porcelain figurines which she instinctively knew were beyond her level of expertise to value with any sort of accuracy. It would take days, if not weeks, to assess the value of each and every item.
She did her best to control her breathing as she stepped towards the first piece of polished cedar, her fingers running over the delicately carved edge as if in worship.
‘What do you think?’ Jake asked.
She turned to look at him, her hand falling away from the priceless heirloom. ‘I think you’ve picked the wrong person to assess the value of all of this.’ She chewed her lip for a moment before adding, ‘Howard would be much better able to give you the right—’
‘But I want you.’
There was something in his tone that suggested to Ashleigh he wasn’t just talking about the furniture.
‘I’m not able to help you…’ She made to brush past him, suddenly desperate to get out of this house and away from his disturbing presence.