The only time he’d failed was the day his father had told him his dog had been sent away to the country. Jake had only been about ten and the little fox-terrier cross had been a stray he’d brought home. Her excited yaps when he’d come home from school each day had been the highlight of his young life.
The only highlight.
No one else had ever looked that happy to see him since… well…maybe Ashleigh had in their early days together, her eyes brightening like stars as he’d walked in the door.
Ashleigh eased herself out from his hold and brushed at her eyes with the back of her hand, her other hand hunting for a much-needed tissue without success.
Jake reached past her and opened the top drawer of the chest of drawers and handed her one of the crumpled handkerchiefs. ‘Here,’ he said, his tone a little gruff, ‘it’s more or less clean but I’m afraid it’s not ironed.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said, turning away to blow her nose rather noisily.
Jake watched her in silence, wishing he could think of something to say to take away the gaping wound of their past so they could start again. He knew he didn’t really deserve the chance, but if he could just explain…
He wanted to change. He wanted to be the sort of man she needed, the solid dependable type, the sort of man who would be a brilliant father to the children he knew she wanted to have. But what guarantee could he give her that he wouldn’t turn out just like his father? Things might be fine for a year or two, maybe even a little longer, but he knew the patterning of his childhood and the imprint of his genes would win in the end.
He’d read the statistics.
Like father like son.
There was no getting away from it.
He just couldn’t risk it.
Ashleigh scrunched the used handkerchief into a ball in her hand and turned back to meet his gaze. ‘I’m sorry about that…’ She bit her lip ruefully. ‘Not my usual style at all.’
He smiled. Not cynically. Not sneeringly, but sadly, his coal-black eyes gentle, the normally harsh lines of his mouth soft. ‘No,’ he agreed, ‘but everyone has their limits, I guess.’
She lowered her gaze, concentrating on the round neckline of his close-fitting T-shirt. ‘I think it’s this house…’ She rubbed at her upper arms as if she was suddenly cold. ‘It seems sort of…sort of miserable…and…well…sad.’
Jake privately marvelled at the depth of her insight, but if only she knew even half of it! The walls could tell her a tale or two, even the mirror behind her bore the scar of his final fight with his father. He’d been fully expecting to see his blood still splattered like ink drops all over it and the wall but apparently his father had decided to clean up his handiwork, although it looked as if he’d missed a bit in one corner.
He forced his thoughts away from the past and, reaching for the envelope he’d put aside earlier, sat on the bed and patted the space beside him, indicating for her to sit alongside. ‘Hey, come here for a minute.’
He saw the suspicion in her blue eyes and held up his hands. ‘No touching, OK?’
She came and sat on the bed beside him, her hands in her lap and her legs pressed together tightly.
He opened the envelope with careful, almost reverent fingers and Ashleigh found herself holding her breath as he took out the first photograph.
It was the photo she’d seen earlier. It was the spitting image of Lachlan at the age of eighteen months or so—the engaging smile, the too long limbs and the olive skin the sun had kissed where summer clothes hadn’t covered.
She didn’t know what to say, so said nothing.
‘I was about a year and a half old, I think,’ Jake said, turning over the photo to read something scrawled in pencil on the back. ‘Yeah…’
‘What does it say?’ she asked.
He tucked the photo to the back of the pile, his expression giving little away. ‘Not much. Stuff about what I was doing, words I was saying, that sort of thing. My mother must have written it.’
Ashleigh felt the stabbing pain of her guilt as she thought about the many photographs she had with Lachlan’s early life documented similarly.
Jake took out the next photograph and handed it to her. She felt the warm brush of his fingers against hers but didn’t pull away. She held the photograph with him, as if the weight of the memories it contained was too heavy for one hand.
It was a photograph of a small dog.
Ashleigh wished she had her sister Ellie’s knowledge of canine breeds but, taking a wild guess, she thought it looked like a fox-terrier with a little bit of something else thrown in. It had a patch of black and tan over one cheeky bright intelligent eye and another two or three on its body, its long narrow snout looking as if it was perpetually smiling.