‘For a man who what, Ashleigh?’ he asked, picking up a strand of her shoulder-length hair and coiling it gently around his finger.
She swallowed as her scalp tingled at the gentle intimate tether of his finger in her hair, her heart missing a beat as his darker-than-night eyes secured hers.
‘You’re…you’re a c-confirmed bachelor,’ she reminded him, her tone far more breathy than she’d intended. ‘No wife, no kids, no encumbrances, remember?’
His mouth lifted at one corner. ‘You don’t think it’s possible for people to change a little over time?’
Her heart gave another hard thump as she considered the most likely possibilities for his change of heart.
Perhaps he’d met someone…someone who was so perfect for him he couldn’t bear to live without her and was prepared to have her on any terms, even marriage—the formal state he had avoided so determinedly in the past.
She couldn’t get the question past the blockage in her throat, but her mind tortured her by conjuring up an image of him standing at an altar with a beautiful bride stepping slowly towards him, his eyes alight with desire as the faceless woman drifted closer and closer to finally take his outstretched hand…
Jake uncoiled her hair but didn’t move away.
Ashleigh tried to step backwards but her back and shoulders came up against the solid frame of the bookshelves. The old books shuffled on their shelves behind her and, imagining them about to tumble down all over her, she carefully edged away a fraction, but it brought her too close to Jake.
Way too close.
‘W-what’s…what’s changed your mind?’ she asked, surprised her voice came out sounding almost normal considering she couldn’t inflate her lungs properly.
He stepped away from her and, picking up an old gold pen off the desk, began to twirl it in his fingers, his face averted from hers. It seemed to Ashleigh a very long time before he spoke.
‘I have spent some time since my father’s death thinking about my life. I want to make some changes now, changes I just wasn’t ready to face before.’ He put the pen down and faced her, his mouth twisted in a little rueful smile. ‘It might sound strange to you, but you’re the first person I’ve trusted enough to tell this to.’
Ashleigh felt her guilt claw at her insides with accusing fingers, sure if he looked too closely he would see the evidence of her betrayal splashed over her features.
She had kept from him the birth of his son.
What sort of trustworthiness had that demonstrated?
Jake turned away again as he continued heavily, ‘But four and a half years ago I just wasn’t ready.’ He raked a hand through his hair. ‘I guess I’m only doing it now because my father is dead and buried.’ He gave a humourless grunt of laughter and looked back at her. ‘It’s that closure I spoke of earlier.’
‘So…’ she ran her tongue over her desert-dry mouth ‘…have you changed your mind about…marriage?’
‘I have given it some considerable thought,’ he admitted, his eyes giving nothing away.
‘What about the…the other things you were always so adamant about?’At his enquiring look she added, ‘Kids, pets, that sort of thing.’
She picked up the faint sound of his breath being released as he turned to look out of the window over the huge back garden, the solid wall of his tall muscled frame instantly reminding her of an impenetrable fortress.
‘No,’ he said, reverting to the same flat emotionless tone he’d used earlier. ‘I haven’t changed my mind about that. I don’t want children. Ever.’
Ashleigh felt the full force of his words as if he had punched them right through the tender flesh of her belly where his child had been curled for nine months. She hadn’t realised how much she had hoped for a different answer until he’d given the one she’d most dreaded.
He didn’t want children.
He never wanted children.
How could she tell him about his little son now?
Jake turned round to look at her. ‘Have you decided to take me up on my offer, Ashleigh?’ he asked.
‘I—I need more time…’
‘Sorry.’ The hard glance he sent her held no trace of apology. ‘Take it or leave it. If you want to have this stuff then you’ll have to fulfil my terms. A month working nine to five in this house—alongside me.’
Panic set up an entire percussion section in Ashleigh’s chest, the sickening thuds making her feel faint and the palms of her hands sticky with sweat.
‘I—I don’t usually work nine to five,’ she said, avoiding his eyes.