‘Jake, please believe me,’ she appealed to him, her voice cracking under the pressure. ‘I wanted to tell you so many times but you seemed so out of reach. And when you finally told me about your father I knew that if I told you it would only cause more hurt.’
‘Hurt?’ He swung back to glare at her. ‘Do you have any idea of what you’ve done? How much you have hurt me by this?’
She tried her best to hold his fiery look but inside she felt herself falling apart, piece by piece.
‘I know it seems wrong now but I thought I was doing the right thing at the time,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want an innocent child to suffer just because his father didn’t want to be a father. I thought I’d do my best…bring him up to be a good man and one day…’
Jake slammed his hand down on the nearest surface, the crash of flesh on old wood jarring her already overstretched nerves.
‘Don’t you see, Ashleigh? If things were different I would have gladly embraced fatherhood.’ One of his hands moved over his face in a rubbing motion before he continued, his eyes dark with immeasurable pain. ‘If I didn’t have the sort of gene pool I have, do you not think I wouldn’t have wanted a son, a daughter, maybe even several?’
She choked back a sob without answering.
He gave a serrated sigh and continued. ‘I have spent my life avoiding exactly this sort of situation. I even went as far as insisting on a vasectomy but I couldn’t find a surgeon who would willingly perform it on a man in his early thirties, let alone when I was in my twenties, especially a man who supposedly hadn’t yet fathered a child.’
‘I’m so sorry…’
He turned to look at her. ‘Does your fiancé know I’m the boy’s father?’
Ashleigh raised her eyes to his, her head set at a proud angle. ‘His name is Lachlan. I would prefer it if you would refer to him as such instead of as “the boy”.’
‘Pardon me for being a bit out of touch with his name,’ he shot back bitterly. ‘I have only just been informed of his existence. I don’t even know his birth date.’
‘Christmas Eve,’ she answered without hesitation.
Ashleigh could see him do the mental arithmetic and silently prepared herself for the fallout.
‘You were almost four months pregnant when you left me?’ he gasped incredulously.
She hitched up her chin even more defiantly. ‘It wasn’t as if you would have noticed.You were no doubt too busy with one of your other international fill-ins. Who was it now…Sigrid?’
He lowered his gaze a fraction. ‘I wasn’t unfaithful to you that weekend.’
‘Why should I believe you?’ she asked. ‘I read her e-mails, don’t forget. She said how much she was looking forward to seeing you, how much she had enjoyed meeting you that first time and how she hoped your “association” with her would continue for a long time.’
Jake closed his eyes in frustration and turned away, his hands clenched by his sides as he bit out, ‘She means nothing to me. Absolutely nothing.’
‘That’s the whole point, isn’t it, Jake?’ she said. ‘No one ever means anything to you. You won’t allow them to. You keep everybody at arm’s length; every relationship is on your terms and your terms only. You don’t give, you just take. I was a fool to get involved with you in the first place.’
‘Then why did you get involved with me?’ he asked, turning around once more.
She let out a tiny, almost inaudible, sigh. ‘I…I just couldn’t help myself…’
Jake straightened to his full height, his eyes clear and focused as they held hers. ‘I mean it, Ashleigh, when I say I wasn’t involved in any way with Sigrid Flannigan.’
‘Why should I believe you?’
‘You don’t have to believe me, but I would like you to hear my side of it before you jump to any more conclusions.’
‘I asked you four and a half years ago and you refused to tell me a thing,’ she pointed out stringently.
‘I know.’ He examined his hands for a moment before reconnecting with her gaze, a small sigh escaping the tight line of his lips. ‘Sigrid is a distant cousin of mine. She was conducting some sort of family tree research. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t interested. However, she was concerned about some health issues within the family line and I finally agreed to meet her. We met in Paris. She was there on some sort of work-related assignment and, as I was close by, I decided to get the meeting over and done with.’
‘And I hated every single minute of it.’ He dragged his hand through his hair once more. ‘She kept going on about how important family ties were and even though we were distantly related we should keep in touch. Apparently I have the questionable honour of being the one and only offspring of Harold Percival Chase Marriott, the last of the male line on that side of the family.’ He sent her an accusing look and added, ‘Or so I thought.’