No touching, she reminded herself firmly.
Rule number one.
Her gaze dipped to the curve of his mouth and she mentally chanted rule number two, over and over again. No kissing, no kissing, no kissing, no—
‘I want to visit your family,’ Jake said, startling her out of her chant. ‘I was thinking about coming over this evening.’
‘What?’ She choked. ‘W-whatever for?’
He gave her a long studied look, taking in her flustered features and fluttering nervous hands.
Ashleigh fought her panic under some semblance of control as her mind whirled with a list of possible excuses for putting him off. She straightened her shoulders, controlled her hands by tying them together and forced herself to meet his eyes.
‘We’re all busy,’ she said. ‘No one’s going to be home.’
‘Tomorrow will do just as well.’
‘That’s no good either,’ she said quickly—far too quickly.
He gave her a sceptical look. ‘What happened to the happy-to-be-at-home-altogether-every-night Forrester family? I thought your family’s idea of a big night out was once a month to the cinema.’
She set her mouth, knowing he was mocking the stable security of her family. ‘My parents have regular evenings out and so do my sisters,’ she said, not bothering to hide the defensiveness in her tone. ‘Anyway, I will be out with Howard.’
‘I don’t need you to be there,’ he said.
No, but if he were to see even a single toy of Lachlan’s lying about the house he would begin to ask questions she wasn’t prepared to answer. Not to mention all the photographs arranged on just about every surface and wall by her overly sentimental mother. She’d been lucky the first time when he’d called in unexpectedly but she could hardly strip the house of everything with Lachlan’s name or face on it.
‘All the same, I don’t think it’s such a good idea.’ She bit her lip momentarily as she hunted her brain for a reasonable excuse. ‘My parents are…very loyal and since we…I mean… you and I parted on such bitter terms they might not be all that open to seeing you now.’
‘Your mother was fine with me the other day,’ he said. ‘Admittedly she didn’t ask me in for tea and scones, but she was openly friendly and interested in how I was doing.’
I will throttle you, Mum, for being so damned nice all the time, she silently vowed.
‘I don’t think Howard would like the thought of you fraternising with my family,’ she put in desperately.
The cynical smirk reappeared at the mention of her fiancé’s name.
‘We don’t have to tell Howard,’ he said, adding conspiratorially with the wink of one dark glittering eye, ‘it can be our little secret.’
Ashleigh was already sick to death of secrets, her one and only one had caused enough anguish to last a lifetime. She felt as if her heart hadn’t had a normal rhythm in days and even now her head was constantly pounding with the tension of trying to avoid a vocal slip in Jake’s presence.
‘I’d rather not do anything behind Howard’s back,’ she said.
‘Good little Ashleigh,’ he drawled with unmistakable mockery.
She ground her teeth and wished she could slap that insolent look off his face, but she knew if she did all three rules would end up being broken right there and then where they stood on the back door steps.
She straightened her spine, speaking through tight lips. ‘I’ll arrange a meeting for you with my family on neutral ground. A restaurant or something like that some time next week or the one after.’
He inclined his head at her in a gesture of old-world politeness. ‘If you insist.’
‘Why don’t you and Howard join the party?’ he suggested.
‘I don’t think so.’
He gave a soft chuckle of laughter. ‘Why? Would he be frightened he might have to foot the bill?’
She sent him an arctic glare. ‘Howard is a hard-working man. Sure, he doesn’t have the sort of money that you do to throw around, but at least he is honest and up-front.’
‘What are you implying? That I came by my fortune by less than honest means?’ His eyes were hard as they lasered hers.
‘How did you do it, Jake?’ she asked. ‘When we were living in London you hardly had a penny to your name.’
‘I worked hard and had some lucky breaks,’ he said. ‘No shady deals, so you can take that look of disapproval off your face right now.’
‘From living in squalor to billionaire in four and a half years?’ she gave him a disbelieving look. ‘You should write one of those how-to-be-successful books.’