‘How are your sisters?’ he asked after another little pause.
A small smile of pride flickered on her mouth. ‘Mia is trying her best to get into acting, with some limited success. She was a pot plant in a musical a month ago; we were all incredibly proud of her. And Ellie…Well, you know Ellie.’ Her expression softened at the thought of her adopted youngest sister. ‘She is still the world’s biggest champion for the underdog. She works part-time in a café and spends every other available minute at a dogs’ home as a volunteer.’
‘And what about you?’ Jake asked, looking at her intently.
‘Me?’ She gave him a startled look, her pulses racing at the intensity of his dark eyes as they rested on her face. His smile had softened his normally harsh features, the simple upward movement of his lips unleashing a flood of memories about how that mouth had felt on hers…
‘Yes, you,’ he said. ‘What are you doing with yourself these days?’
‘I…’ She swallowed and tried to appear unfazed by his question. ‘Not much.’ She twirled her straw a couple of times and continued. ‘I work as a buyer for an antique dealer.’ She pushed her glass away and met his eyes again. ‘Howard Caule Antiques.’
He gestured to the barman to refresh their drinks, taking his time to turn back to her to respond. ‘I’ve heard of him.’ He picked up his glass as soon as it was placed in front of him. ‘What’s he like to work for?’
For some reason Ashleigh found it difficult to meet his eyes with any equanimity. She moistened her lips, her stomach doing a funny little somersault when she saw the way his eyes followed the nervous movement of her tongue.
Damn it! She chided herself as she saw the way Jake’s lip instantly curled. Why couldn’t she have thought of a better adjective than that?
‘A nice guy, huh?’
She had to look away. ‘Yes. He’s also one of my closest friends.’
‘Are you sleeping with him?’
Her eyes flew back to his, her cheeks flaming for the second time that day. ‘That’s absolutely no business of yours.’
He didn’t respond immediately, which made her tension go up another excruciating notch. She watched him as he surveyed her with those dark unreadable eyes, every nerve in her body jumping in sharp awareness at his proximity.
She could even smell him.
Her nostrils flared to take in more of that evocative scent, the combination of full-blooded-late-in-the-day active male and his particular choice of aftershave that had always reminded her of sun-warmed lemons and exotic spices.
‘My my my, you are touchy, aren’t you?’ he asked, the mocking smile still in place.
She set her mouth and turned to stare at the full glass in front of her, wishing herself a million miles away.
She couldn’t do this.
She couldn’t be calm and cool in Jake Marriott’s presence. He unsettled her in every way possible.
‘I’m not being touchy.’ Her tone was brittle and on edge. ‘I just don’t see what my private life has to do with you…now.’
His continued silence drew her gaze back as if he’d pulled it towards him with invisible strings.
‘Ashleigh…’ He reached out to graze her cheek with the back of his knuckles in a touch so gentle she felt a great wave of emotion swamp her for what they’d had and subsequently lost.
She fought her feelings down with an effort, her teeth tearing at the inside of her mouth as she held his unwavering gaze.
‘I’d like to see you again while I’m here in Sydney,’ he said, his deep voice sounding ragged and uneven. ‘I’m here for a few weeks and I thought we could—’ he deliberately paused over the words ‘—catch up.’
Ashleigh inwardly seethed. She could just imagine what he meant by catching up; a bit of casual sex to fill in the time before he left the country to go back to whoever was waiting for him back in London.
‘I can’t see you.’
His eyes hardened momentarily and his hand fell away. ‘Why not?’
She bit her lip, hunting her brain for the right words to describe her relationship with Howard.
‘Is there someone else?’ he asked before she could respond, his eyes dipping to her bare fingers once more.
She drew in a tight breath. ‘Yes…yes there is.’
‘You’re not wearing a ring.’
She gave him an ironic look and clipped back, ‘I lived and slept with you for two whole years without needing one.’
Jake shifted slightly as he considered her pert response. Her cheeks were bright with colour, her eyes flashing him a warning he had no intention of heeding.