‘Don’t hurry home.’ Ellie filled the small silence. ‘You two must have lots to catch up on. I can mind Lachlan tonight. I’m not going out.’
‘That won’t be necess—’
‘That’s very kind of you, Ellie.’ Jake cut across Ashleigh’s rebuttal. ‘Your sister and I do indeed have a lot of catching up to do.’
Ellie sent Ashleigh an overly bright smile. ‘Well, then… Come on, Lachlan, let’s go and get that bus. We’ll leave Mummy and Daddy to have a chat all by themselves.’
‘Daddy?’ Lachlan stopped in his tracks, his expression confused as he looked between his mother and aunt and back again.
Ashleigh sent her sister a now-see-what-you’ve-done look before bending down to her son.
‘Is he my daddy?’ Lachlan asked in a whisper, his glance going briefly to the tall silent figure standing beside his mother.
Ashleigh swallowed the lump of anguish in her throat. ‘Yes…Jake is your daddy.’
Lachlan’s smooth little brow furrowed in confusion. ‘But you told me he didn’t want to ever know about me.’
‘I know…but that was before and now…’ She couldn’t finish the sentence as her emotions took over. She bit her lip and straightened, turning away to try to pull herself together.
‘Lachlan…’ Jake stepped into the breach with an outstretched hand. ‘I am very pleased to meet you.’
Lachlan slipped his hand out and touched Jake’s briefly, his eyes wide with wonder. ‘Are you going to live with Mummy and me now?’ he asked.
Jake wasn’t sure how to answer. He had never really spoken to a child this young before. How did one go about explaining such complicated relationship dynamics to one so young?
‘No,’ Ashleigh put in before he could speak. ‘Remember I told you? As soon as you go to big school we are going to live with Howard and Mrs Caule.’
Lachlan’s shoulders visibly slumped and his bottom lip began to protrude in a pout. ‘But I don’t like Mrs Caule. She scares me.’
‘Lachlan!’ she reprimanded him sternly. ‘She will be like a pretend granny for you, so don’t let me ever hear you speak like that again.’
Ellie tactfully tugged Lachlan towards the door, ‘Time to leave, mate.’
Ashleigh opened her mouth to call them both back but caught Jake’s warning glance. She let out her breath in a whoosh of frustration and flopped into the nearest seat, dropping her head into her hands.
Jake waited until he heard the front door close on Ellie and Lachlan’s exit before he spoke.
‘You cannot possibly marry Howard Caule.’
She lifted her head from her hands to stare up at him. ‘Excuse me?’
He met her diamond-sharp gaze with steely determination.
‘I won’t allow it.’
She sprang to her feet, her hands in fists by her sides.
‘What do you mean, you won’t allow it?’ She threw him a blistering look. ‘How the hell are you going to stop me?’
The line of his mouth was intractable as his eyes held hers.
‘You cannot possibly marry Howard Caule because you are going to marry me instead,’ he said. ‘And I will not take no for an answer.’
ASHLEIGH stared at him for several chugging heartbeats.
‘I’m asking you to marry me, Ashleigh,’ Jake said into the tight silence.
‘Asking me?’ she shot back once she found her voice. ‘No, you’re not. You’re demanding something you have no right to demand!’
‘Don’t speak to me of rights,’ he bit out. ‘I had a right to know I’d fathered a child and you kept that information from me. This is payback time, Ashleigh. You either marry me or face the consequences.’
What consequences? she thought with a sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach. Exactly what sort of consequences was he thinking of?
Jake was a rich man.
A very rich man.
How could she even begin to fight someone with his sort of financial influence? The best lawyers would be engaged and before she knew it she would be facing custodial arrangements that would jeopardise her peace of mind for the rest of her life. How would she cope with seeing Jake every second weekend when he came to collect his son on visitation access? How indeed would she cope if he were to gain full custody of Lachlan?
‘How long do you think such a marriage would last?’ she asked, hoping her panic wasn’t too visible, even though her insides were turning to liquid.
‘It will last for as long as it needs to last,’ he said. ‘Every child needs security and, from what little I’ve seen so far, that little kid is insecure and in need of a strong father figure.’