‘Why didn’t you tell me the truth about her?’ she asked, choosing to ignore his jibe. ‘Why let me believe the worst?’
‘I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone about my background,’ he said. ‘I was tempted to tell you a couple of times but I couldn’t help thinking that if I told you the truth of my upbringing it would in some way make the differences between us even more marked. Sigrid was an annoying reminder of where I’d come from and I wanted to forget it as soon as I could.’
‘So you deliberately let me think she was your lover, even though in doing so it broke my heart?’
He gave an indolent shrug of one shoulder. ‘I didn’t tell you what to believe. You believed it without the slightest input from me.’
She let out a choked gasp of outrage. ‘How can you say that? You deliberately misled me! You were so cagey and obstructive. You wouldn’t even look me in the eye for days on end, much less speak to me!’
‘I was angry, for God’s sake!’ he threw back. ‘I was sick to my back teeth with all your tales of how wonderful your family was and how much you missed them. I was sick and tired of being the dysfunctional jerk whose only memories were of being bashed senseless until I could barely stand upright. Do you think I wanted to hear how your mother and father tucked you into your god-dammed bed every night to read you a happy-ever-after story and tell you how much they loved you?’
Ashleigh had no answer.
She felt the full force of his embittered words like barbs in her most tender unprotected flesh. She had no personal hook to hang his experience on. She had never been shouted out; no one had ever raised a hand to her. Her parents had expressed their love for her and her sisters each and every day of their lives without exception. She was totally secure in their devotion. She had absolutely no idea of how Jake would have coped without such consistent assurances of belonging, no idea how he would have coped with nothing but harsh cruelty and the sort of vindictiveness which she suspected had at times known no bounds.
‘Is this a good time to interrupt?’ Ellie spoke from the doorway, for once her usually confident tone a little dented.
Jake recovered himself first and turned to face her, his expression giving away nothing of his inner turmoil.
‘Sure, Ellie.’ He stretched his mouth into a small smile. ‘Do you need a lift back into town? I’m just about to leave.’
‘No,’ Ellie insisted. ‘I’ve already promised Lachlan a ride on the bus. He’s looking forward to it.’
‘So you haven’t got your licence yet?’ he asked.
Ellie gave him a sheepish grin. ‘I’ve failed the test ten times but I haven’t entirely given up hope.’
Jake couldn’t help an inward smile. Same old delightful Ellie.
‘Is there an instructor left in the whole of Sydney who’ll take you on?’
Ellie pretended to be offended. ‘I’ll have you know I’ve been with the very best of instructors but not one of them has been able to teach me to drive with any degree of safety.’
‘Tell me when you’re free and I’ll give you a lesson,’ he offered. ‘After driving in most parts of Europe I can assure you I can drive under any conditions.’
Ellie grinned enthusiastically. ‘It’s a date. But don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. Ashleigh will vouch for me. She gave up on lesson two when I ploughed into the back of a taxi.’
Jake swung his gaze to Ashleigh. ‘What did she do, rattle your nerves?’
No more than you do, Ashleigh felt like responding. No, she would much rather have Ellie trying to drive in the peak hour any day than face the sort of anger she could see reflected in his dark eyes.
‘I have learnt over time to recognise when I am well and truly beaten,’ she said instead. ‘Ellie needs a much more experienced hand than mine.’
‘I don’t know…’ He rubbed his jaw for a moment in a gesture of wry speculation. ‘Seems to me you’re pretty experienced at most things.’
Ellie interrupted with a subtle clearing of her throat, Lachlan standing silently by her side, his small hand in hers.
‘Excuse me, but we really need to get going if we’re going to make the next bus.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want a lift?’ Jake asked again, his glance flicking to the small quiet child at her side.
Before Ellie could answer, Lachlan piped up determinedly, ‘I want to go on the bus.’
Jake met the dark eyes of his son, the sombre depths staring back at him sending a wave of something indefinable right through him.
He knew a paternity test was going to be a complete waste of time. This was his flesh and blood and there was clearly no doubt about it. Even the way the boy’s hair grew upon his head mimicked his. It was a wonder he hadn’t recognised it from the first moment but his shock in discovering Ashleigh had a child had momentarily distracted him. He had still been getting used to the idea of her carrying someone else’s progeny when Ellie had dropped her bombshell.