‘It’s probably long gone,’ she said. ‘I think I screamed it into the next century.’
He gave her one of his rare genuine smiles. ‘I thought you’d seen a ghost. I had no idea anyone so small could scream so loudly.’
Small? One gym workout and he already thought she was smaller? Thank you, Mia!
‘I’ve had a lot of practice over the years,’ she said. ‘Mia and Ellie and I used to have screaming competitions.’
‘Your poor parents,’ Jake commiserated wryly.
‘Yes…’ A small laugh bubbled from her lips before she could stop it. ‘The police were called once. Apparently one of the neighbours thought someone was being murdered or tortured at the very least. You should have heard the lecture we got for…’ Her words trailed away as she saw the expression on Jake’s face. It had gone from mildly amused to masklike, as if something she had said had upset him and he didn’t want to let her see how much.
‘Jake?’ She looked at him questioningly, her hand reaching out to touch him gently on the arm.
He moved out of her reach and turned to raise the blind.
The angry black clouds had by now crept right over the garden, their threatening presence casting the room in menacing, creeping shadows. The flickering light bulbs in the chandelier over the table made one last effort to keep the shadows at bay before finally giving up as a flash of sky-splitting lightning came through the window, momentarily illuminating the whole room in a ghostly lucency. The boom of thunder was close on its heels, the ominous sound filling Ashleigh’s ears.
‘Are you afraid of storms?’ Jake asked without turning to look at her.
‘No…not really,’ she said, waiting a few seconds before adding, ‘are you?’
She watched as he turned to look at her, the eerie light of the morning storm casting his face into silhouette.
‘I used to be,’ he answered, his voice sounding as if it had come from a distant place. ‘But I’m not anymore.’
She waited a heartbeat before asking, ‘How did you overcome your fear?’
It seemed an age before he responded. Ashleigh felt the silence stretching to breaking-point, her mind already rehearsing various phrases to relieve it, when he suddenly spoke, shocking her into vocal muteness.
‘My father always used nature to his advantage. If a storm was loud and ferocious enough it would screen his activities from the neighbours.’ He gave her a soulless look. ‘Of course none of the neighbours called the police. They thought the booms and crashes going on were simply the effects of the storm.’
Ashleigh felt a wave of nausea so strong she could barely stand up. How had Jake survived such a childhood? She almost felt ashamed of how normal and loving her background was. She had been nurtured, along with her sisters, like precious hothouse flowers, while Jake had been consistently, cruelly crushed underfoot like a noxious weed.
‘Oh, Jake…’ She breathed his name. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
He gave a rough sound that was somewhere between scorn and dismissal. ‘I’m over it, Ashleigh. My father’s dead and I have to move on. Storms are just storms to me now. They hold no other significance.’
For some reason which she couldn’t quite explain, her gaze went to the scar above his right eye. The white jagged line interrupted the aristocratic arc of his eyebrow like a bulldozed fire trail through a forest.
‘Your eye…’ she said. ‘You always said you got that scar in a fight.’ She took an unsteady breath and continued. ‘Your father did it, didn’t he?’
Jake lifted a hand and fingered the scar as if to make sure it was still there. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It was the last chance he got to carve his signature on me. I was two days off my sixteenth birthday. I left and swore I’d never see him again.’
‘You kept your promise…’ She said the words for him.
He gave her a proud defiant look. ‘Yes. I never saw him alive again.’
‘I wish you’d told me all of this when we…when we were together,’ she said. ‘It would have helped me to understand how you—’
His lip curled into one of his keep-away-from-me snarls. ‘What good would it have done? You with your perfect little family, everyone chanting how much they love each other every night as the night closed in like in all of those stupid TV shows. Do you know anything about what really goes on behind closed doors? Do you even know what it is like to go without a meal?’ he asked, his tone suddenly savage, like a cornered neglected dog which had known nothing but cruelty all its life. ‘Do you know what it is like to dread coming home at the end of the school day, wondering what punishment was in store if you so much as made a floorboard creak or a door swing shut too loudly?’