He gave her a cynical little smile that darkened his eyes even further. ‘I don’t think Howard Caule will protest at you spending time with me sorting this house out. In fact, I think he will send you off each day with his blessing.’
Cold fear leaked into her bloodstream and it took several precious seconds to locate her voice. ‘W-what are you talking about?’
‘I want you to spend the next month with me, sorting out my father’s possessions.’
‘I can’t do that!’ she squeaked in protest.
‘Fine, then.’ He reached for his mobile phone and began punching in some numbers. ‘I’ll call up another antiques dealer I know who will be more than happy to take this lot off me.’ His finger was poised over the last digit as he added, ‘For free.’
Ashleigh swallowed as he raised the phone to his ear.
He was giving the lot away? For nothing?
She couldn’t allow him to do that. It wouldn’t be right. The place was stacked to the rafters with priceless heirlooms. She owed Howard this deal for all he had done for her and Lachlan. She couldn’t back out of it, no matter what it cost her personally.
‘No!’ She pulled his arm down so he couldn’t continue the call. ‘Wait…Let me think about this…’
He pocketed the phone. ‘I’ll give you thirty minutes to think it over. I should at this point make it quite clear that I’m not expecting you to sleep with me.’
She blinked at him, her tingling fingers falling away from his arm as his words sank in.
He didn’t want her.
She knew she should be feeling relief but instead she felt regret. An aching, burning regret that what they’d had before was now gone…
He continued in an even tone. ‘We parted on such bitter terms four and a half years ago. This is a way for both of us to get some much needed closure.’
‘But…but I don’t need closure,’ she insisted. ‘I’m well and truly over you.’
He held her defiant look with enviable ease while her pulse leapt beneath her skin as she stood uncertainly before him.
‘But I do,’ he said.
Her mouth opened and closed but no sound came out.
Jake stepped back towards the door, holding it open as he addressed her in a coolly detached tone. ‘I will leave you to make your initial assessment in private. When the thirty minutes are up I’ll be back for your decision.’
Ashleigh stared at the back of the door once he’d closed it behind him, the echo of its lock clicking into place ringing in her ears for endless minutes.
A month in Jake’s presence, sorting through the house he’d spent his childhood in.
She turned back around and stared at the fortune of goods in front of her, each and every one of them seeming to conceal a tale about Jake’s past, their secrets locked within the walls of this old neglected house.
Why was he as good as throwing it all away? What possible reason could he have for doing so? Surely he would want to keep something back for himself? She knew he was a rich man now, but surely even very wealthy people didn’t walk away from a veritable fortune?
Ashleigh sighed and turned, her eyes meeting those of the subject in the portrait on the wall. She felt a little feather of unease brush over her skin, for it seemed that every time she tried to move out of range of the oil-painted sad eyes they continued to follow her.
She gave herself a mental shake and rummaged in her bag for her digital camera. The sooner she got started the sooner she would be finished.
Her stomach gave a little flutter of nerves. There was something about this house that unsettled her and the less time she spent in it the better.
Especially with Jake here with her…
ONCE she’d taken some preliminary photos Ashleigh left the overcrowded room for some much needed air and found herself wandering down the long passage, her thoughts flying off in all directions.
This was Jake’s childhood home, the place where he had been raised, but for some reason it didn’t seem to her to be the sort of house where a child would be particularly welcome.
This house seemed to be almost seeping with the wounds of neglect; the walls spoke of it with their faded peeling paint, the floorboards with their protesting creaks, as if her very tread had caused them discomfort as she moved across their tired surface. She could sense it in the woodwork of the furniture, the heavy layer of dust lying over every surface speaking of long-term disregard. And she could feel it in the reflection of the dust-speckled glass at the windows, the crumpled drape of the worn curtains looking as if they were doing their best to shield the house’s secrets from the rest of the quiet conservative street.