Ashleigh felt the strings on her heart tighten; her son’s little speech impediment always returned in moments of stress. She put the backpack to one side and squatted down in front of him, holding his thin shoulders so that he had to look at her.
‘What’s wrong, darling? Is someone making you unhappy at crèche?’
He shook his head, his bottom lip extended in a pout.
She gently pushed on his lip with the tip of her finger. ‘You’ll trip over that if you poke it out any further.’ She gave him a smile as his lip returned to base. ‘Now, what’s all this about?’
He shuffled from one foot to the other. ‘I just want to be wif you.’
Ashleigh sighed. ‘Darling, you know I have to work. We can’t live with Granny and Grandad for ever. They need time alone and we need to have our own place too. As soon as Howard and I get married…’ She found it strange saying the words and secretly wished she could take them back.
‘Can I have a dog when we move to Uncle Howard’s?’ Lachlan asked hopefully.
She forced her attention back to her son. His desire for a dog had been so strong but her mother’s allergy to cat and dog hair had prevented it happening. However, Howard’s home with its pristine family heirloom décor was hardly the family home a playful puppy would be welcomed into. She could almost see Marguerite Caule’s look of horrified distaste at the first set of muddy pawprints on the pristine white carpet or one of the linen-covered sofas.
‘We’ll see,’ she said and straightened.
‘We’ll see means no,’ Lachlan said with the sort of acuity that marked him as Jake’s son if nothing else. ‘You always say that, but it doesn’t mean yes.’
She sighed and, zipping up his backpack, reached for his hand. ‘Come on, I’m late as it is.’
‘I’m not going to crèche.’ He snatched his hand away.
‘Lachlan, I will not tolerate this from you,’ she said through tight lips. ‘I have to go to…to that house I’m working at and I have to leave now.’
‘Take me to the house!’ he begged. ‘I’ll be good. I won’t touch anyfing.’
Ashleigh closed her eyes as she pinched the bridge of her nose.
Today of all days, she winced in frustration. Her mother was out at a fundraising breakfast and wouldn’t be back for hours. It was her father’s annual heart check-up appointment in town and he’d left early to avoid the traffic and Mia had gone to an audition straight from the gym. Ellie, her last hope, hadn’t come home yet from an all night sleep-in-the-park-for-homeless-dogs public awareness stunt that would probably see her on the front page of the morning’s paper. It had happened before.
She let out her breath in a whoosh of tired resignation. ‘All right, just this once. But if you so much as touch anything or break anything I won’t let you watch The Wiggles or Playschool for a week.’
‘Thank you, Mummy!’ Lachlan rushed at her and buried himself against her, his arms around her waist, his cheek pressed to her stomach.
She eased him away to quickly scrawl a note for her mother who usually picked Lachlan up from the crèche on Friday afternoons to tell her about the change of plan.
‘I love you, Mummy,’ Lachlan said as she stuck the note on the fridge with a magnet.
‘I love you, too, baby, but you’re getting too big for pulling this sort of stunt.’
‘What’s a stunt?’
She tucked his hand in hers and shouldered open the door. ‘Come on, I’ll tell you in the car.’
Ashleigh was surprised and more than a little proud of the way Lachlan behaved at Jake’s house. He had played quietly by her side as she worked in the library, never once complaining about being bored. He wheeled his little collection of toy cars across the floor, parking them in neat little rows on the squares on the Bakhtiari carpet with meticulous precision.
She knew she was taking a risk having him with her but couldn’t help feeling it had been worth it to see the simple joy on his little face every time she looked down at him.
She knew she was no different from every other working single mother, so often torn between the necessities to provide a reasonable living whilst allowing adequate time to nurture the child she’d brought into the world, but it still pained her to think how short-changed Lachlan was. Of late he’d been increasingly unsettled and clingy and she felt it was her fault. She’d thought her engagement to Howard would have offered him a bit more security but, while he liked Howard, she knew Marguerite intimidated him, although he did his very best not to show it.