He’d seen all that in one meeting? His perspicuity amazed her but she didn’t let on.

‘He’s not yet four years old,’ she said. ‘I would have thought it was a little early to have him written off as an anxious neurotic.’

He gave her a hardened look. ‘What did you tell him about me?’

She faced him squarely. ‘I told him the truth. I told him his father had never wanted to be a father.’

Jake opened his mouth to berate her but snapped it shut when he saw the defiant glitter in her eyes. He turned away, his stomach clenching painfully as he mentally replayed every conversation he’d had with her in the past on the subject.

No wonder she hadn’t told him of the pregnancy.

She was right.

He would have very likely packed her off to the nearest abortion clinic, railroading her into a procedure he had never until this moment given the depth of thought it demanded. Seeing Lachlan this afternoon had made him realise that a foetus was not just a bunch of cells. It had the potential to become a real and living person.

Lachlan was a real and living person.

And he was his son.

‘I can’t change the past, Ashleigh,’ he said after another lengthy silence. ‘I never wanted this sort of situation to occur but it has occurred and I realise now you probably had little choice in the matter.’ He took a steadying breath and continued. ‘Given the sort of background you’ve had, I can see how you would be the very last person to rush off to have a pregnancy terminated. And, as you said earlier, given Ellie’s situation, I guess adoption wasn’t an option you would have embraced with any sense of enthusiasm.’

Ashleigh witnessed the play of tortured emotions on his face as he spoke and wished she could reach for him and somehow comfort him. They shared the bond of a living and breathing child and yet it seemed as if a chasm the width of the world divided them.

He was devastated by the knowledge of his son’s existence; it was his biggest nightmare come true in stark, inescapable reality. It didn’t matter how sweet Lachlan was or how endearing his personality, for in Jake’s mind there was no escaping the fact that, along with his genetic input, Harold Marriott’s blood also flowed through his son’s veins.

‘I’m sorry, Jake…’ she said. ‘I don’t know what else to say.’

‘You can say yes,’ he said. ‘You can agree to marry me and then this situation will be resolved.’

‘How can it be resolved?’ she asked. ‘How can we pretend things are any way near normal between us?’

‘I would hazard a guess that things between us will be very normal. Once we’re married we will resume our previous relationship.’

She gaped at him in shock. ‘You mean a physical relationship?’

‘But of course,’ he answered evenly.

‘Aren’t you forgetting the little but no less significant detail that I already have a fiancé?’

He gave her a cynical look. ‘I don’t consider Howard Caule your fiancé. He hasn’t even convinced you to wear his ring and I can tell by that hungry look in your eyes that he hasn’t yet convinced you to share his bed.’

‘There are still some men in the world who have some measure of self-control,’ she put in with a pointed glare his way. ‘Howard has faith. I respect that, even though I don’t necessarily share it.’

‘Faith?’ He let out a scathing snort. ‘He would need more than faith to live with you. You are the devil’s own temptation from the tip of your head to your toes. I’ve wanted to throw you onto the nearest flat surface from the first moment I walked into the bar and saw you sitting there twirling your straw in that glass with your fingers.’

His words shocked her into silence. She could feel her skin lifting in physical awareness, tiny goose-bumps breaking out all over her and the pulse of her blood stepping up a pace as her breathing rate accelerated.

‘I am engaged.’ She finally found her voice but she knew it sounded even less convincing than previously. She looked down at her ringless fingers and repeated, as if to remind herself, ‘I am engaged to be married to Howard.’

Jake plucked his mobile phone from his waistband and held it out to her. ‘Tell him it’s off. Tell him you’re marrying me instead.’

Ashleigh stared at the phone as if it were a deadly weapon set to go off at the merest touch.

‘I can’t do that!’

‘Do it, Ashleigh,’ he commanded. ‘Or I’ll do it for you.’

‘You can’t make me break off my engagement!’

‘You don’t think so?’ he asked, his lip curling sardonically. ‘How about if I call dear old Howard and tell him the deal is off?’

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