She glanced at him, their fingers still linked on the picture. ‘Was this your dog?’
He nodded and shifted his gaze back to the photograph. She sensed rather than heard his sigh.
‘What happened to him?’ she asked after what seemed an interminable silence.
‘Her,’ he corrected, without looking up from the image.
Ashleigh held her breath, instinctively knowing more was to come. Exactly what, she didn’t know, but for now it was comforting that he trusted her enough to show her some precious relics of his past. Somehow she knew he hadn’t done this before.
Jake tucked the photograph behind the others and closed the envelope. ‘I called her Patch. She followed me home from school one day when I was about eight or so.’
‘How long did you have her?’
‘A year or two.’
He met her gaze briefly before turning away. ‘My father sent her to live in the country.’
Ashleigh felt her stomach clench with sympathy for the child he had been and the loss he must have felt. ‘Why?’
He gave another small shrug. ‘I must have done something to annoy him.’ He pushed the envelope away and stood up. ‘As punishments went it was probably the best he’d ever come up with, not that I ever let on, of course.’
Ashleigh could just imagine how stoical he had been. His chin stiff, no hint of a wobble even though inside his heart would have been breaking. Hadn’t she seen it in Lachlan when Purdy, the family’s ancient but much loved budgerigar, had died not that long ago?
‘Did you ever get to visit her?’ she asked.
‘No.’ The single word was delivered like a punctuation mark on the subject, effectively closing it.
‘Can I see the rest of the photos?’ she asked after another stretching silence.
He pushed the envelope into the top drawer of the chest of drawers by way of answer. Ashleigh looked at the stiff line of his back as it was turned towards her, somehow sensing he’d let her past a previously well-guarded barrier and was now regretting his brief lapse into sentimentality. She could almost see the words Keep Out written across his face as he turned to look at her.
‘Maybe some other time.’ He moved past her to the door and held it open for her. ‘Don’t let me keep you from your work.’
Ashleigh brushed past him with her head down, not sure she wanted him to see the disappointment in her eyes at his curt dismissal. He’d allowed her into his inner sanctum for a moment, had made himself vulnerable to her in a way she’d never experienced with him before. It made it extremely difficult to use her bitterness as a barrier to what she really felt for him. The feelings she’d locked away for years were creeping out, finding gaps in the fences she’d constructed around herself. Her love for Jake was like a robust climbing vine that refused to die no matter how hard it was pruned or poisoned.
Ashleigh went into the first room she came to rather than have Jake’s gaze follow her down the length of the hall. It was a dining room, the long table set with an array of dusty crockery and china, instantly reminding her of Miss Havisham’s abandoned wedding breakfast in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.
She reached for the light switch and watched as the ornate crystal chandeliers overhead flickered once or twice as if deciding whether to make the effort to throw some light in the room or not. The delicate drape of spiders’ webs only added to the Dickensian atmosphere. She gave herself a mental shake and stepped further into the room to reach for the nearest blind, but just as she took hold of the tasselled cord a big furry black spider tiptoed over the back of her hand.
It was probably her best-ever scream.
Her mother had always said that Ashleigh held the record in the Forrester family for the scream that could not only wake the dead but everybody sleeping this side of the Blue Mountains as well.
The door behind her crashed open so roughly that the delicate glassware on the dining room table shivered in reaction as Jake came bursting in.
‘What happened?’ He rushed to her, his hands grasping her upper arms as he looked down at her pale face in concern.
‘Nothing…’ She gave a shaky little laugh of embarrassment and moved out of his hold. ‘It was a spider, that’s all.’
He frowned. ‘I didn’t know you were scared of spiders.’
‘I’m not.’ She rubbed the back of her hand on her skirt. ‘I just don’t like them using me as a pedestrian crossing.’
He glanced at what she was doing with her hand and grimaced. ‘Where is it now?’ He swept his gaze across the window-frame before looking back at her. ‘Do you want me to get rid of it for you?’