The prospect of fathering a child had always terrified him. He had become almost paranoid about it. The thought of spreading his father’s genes to the next generation had been too much for him to bear. How could he ever forgive himself if he turned on his own child the way his father had done to him? Parenting wasn’t an easy task. How soon would it have been before a light tap of reproof became a closed-fist punch? How quickly would his gentle chastising tone have turned into full-blown self-esteem eroding castigation? How many unspeakable hurts would he have inflicted before the child was damaged beyond repair?

Nothing had ever been able to convince him it would be desirable to father a child, and yet one look at Ashleigh’s little son had rocked his conviction as only flesh and blood reality could do. She’d had another man’s child because he had been too much of a coward to confront his past and deal with it appropriately.

A burning pain knifed through him as a sudden flood of self-doubt assailed him. But what if he hadn’t turned out like his father? What if, in spite of all that had been done to him, he could have rewritten the past and become a wonderful father, the sort of father he had longed for all his life? One who would listen to the childish insecurities that had plagued him, especially after his mother had died. Who would have listened and comforted him instead of berating him and punishing for simply being a lost, lonely little boy.

Other people had difficult backgrounds; there was hardly a person alive who didn’t have some axe to grind about their past. Why had he let his take over his life and destroy his one chance at happiness? His father had been violent and cruel and totally unworthy of the role of parent, but in the end the person who had hurt Jake the most had been himself. When Ashleigh had walked out of his life four and a half years ago he had done absolutely nothing to stop her. Instead he had stood before her, stiff and uncommunicative, as she accused him of being unfaithful after she’d mistakenly read one of his e-mails about his recent trip to Paris. He could have told her then and there the real reason for his weekend away but he hadn’t, for it would have meant revealing the filthy shame of his past to her. In the end his pride had not been able to stretch quite that far.

‘I was going to tell you…’Ashleigh said, taking Lachlan’s hand in hers and drawing him close to her.

Jake saw the way the child’s eyes were watching him, the sombre depths quietly assessing him. It unnerved him a bit to have a kid so young look at him so intently, as if he were searching for something he’d been looking for a long time.

‘It’s none of my business,’ he said, wishing his tone had sounded a little more detached.

Ashleigh had been waiting for the bomb to drop and found it hard to grasp the context of his words for a moment. She studied his expression and nervously disguised a swallow as his eyes went to Lachlan before returning to hers.

‘I know it’s probably very sexist of me, but it sure didn’t take you long to replace me, did it?’ he said.

It took her a nanosecond to get his meaning but she didn’t know whether to be relieved or infuriated. Couldn’t he see his own likeness standing before him in miniature form?

‘I don’t think this is a conversation we should be having at this time,’ she said, indicating her son by her side with a pointed look.

‘You’re right,’ Jake agreed.

There was a tense little silence. Ashleigh hunted her brain for something to fill it but nothing she wanted to say was suitable with her young son standing pressed to her side, facing his father for the very first time.

She wanted to blame someone.

She wanted to pin the responsibility for this situation on her mother for having a prior commitment, on her father for having a heart condition that needed regular monitoring, on her sister Mia for having an audition and Ellie for having a social conscience that was too big for her. If any of them had been free she wouldn’t be standing in front of Jake now with his son, with a chasm of misunderstanding and bitterness separating them.

But in the end she knew there was no one to blame but herself. She should have told Jake four and a half years ago, given him the choice whether to be involved in his child’s life or not.

Her mother was right. Even if he had pressed her to have a termination, the final decision would surely have been hers. She had thought she was being strong by walking away but, looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, she had to concede that she’d taken the weakling’s way out. She had run for cover instead of facing life head on.

She turned to Lachlan, schooling her features into a serenity she was far from feeling. ‘Poppet, why don’t you go back out to the garden and we’ll join you in a few minutes?’