‘No, but I have decided that I want to marry you and marry you I will.’

She sent him a caustic glare. ‘Well, for one thing, your proposal certainly needs a little polish.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve never done it before so I’m sorry if it’s a bit rough around the edges,’ he said with an element of gruffness.

She turned away to step into her clothes, her fingers totally uncooperative under his silent watchful gaze. She bit back a curse as the zip on her skirt nicked the bare skin of her hip, the sudden smarting of tears in her eyes frustrating her. Why couldn’t she be more in control around him? Why did he always reduce her to such a quivering emotional wreck?

She turned around at last, determined to have the last word, but he’d already gone. She stared at the wood panel of the door for endless moments, the scent of their recent lovemaking lingering in the air until she felt as if she was breathing the essence of him into her very soul…

CHAPTER TEN


ASHLEIGH drove away from Jake’s house with a scowl of resentment distorting her features, her emotions in such disarray she could barely think.

She knew it was unreasonable of her, but a part of her felt intensely annoyed that Howard hadn’t fought for her. She knew it was because of the sort of person he was, principled and self-sacrificing, the very qualities she’d been drawn to in her desperate quest for security. But he had caved in to Jake’s demands without a single whimper of protest. And it totally infuriated her that Jake had borne witness to it; every time she recalled that self-satisfied smirk on his face her rage went up another notch.

She was far too angry to go home to face her family. She knew Ellie would hold on her promise to mind Lachlan for the evening, so instead of taking the turn to her parents’ house, she drove on until she came to Balmoral Beach, a sheltered bay where she’d spent most of her childhood playing in the rock pools and swimming in the jetty enclosure.

She kicked off her shoes and walked along the sand until she came to Wyargine Reserve at the end of the beach, standing at the edge and looking out to sea, the evening breeze ruffling her hair.

After a while the breeze kicked up a pace and her bare arms started to feel the slight nip in the evening air. She turned and went back the way she’d come, stepping over the rocky ground with care, her shoes still swinging from her hand.

Walking back along the Esplanade, she saw a slim figure jogging towards her and stopped as she recognised her sister Mia.

‘Hey there, Ashleigh,’ Mia chirped without a single puff. ‘I thought you’d be home preparing for the celebrations tonight.’

Ashleigh frowned. ‘Celebrations…celebrations for what?’

Mia gave her a rolling-eyed look. ‘Your marriage, of course! Jake is around there now. He’s brought French champagne. Loads of it. Mum and Dad are thrilled to bits.’ She jogged up and down on the spot and continued. ‘It was so romantic. Jake asked for a private meeting with Dad. How sweet is that? No one but no one asks a woman’s father for her hand in marriage any more. Dad was really impressed. Mum was howling like an idiot, of course, and Lachlan has his chest out a mile wide.’

Ashleigh just stared at her, unable to think of a single thing to say. Her family had fallen in with Jake’s plans without even consulting her to see if it was what she wanted.

‘Is something wrong, Ash?’ Mia stopped bouncing from foot to foot to peer at her. ‘You do want to marry him, don’t you? I mean Howard was all right, but he doesn’t exactly ooze with sensuality the way Jake does.’ She gave a chuckle of amusement, her grey-blue eyes sparkling cheekily. ‘I could never quite imagine Howard dropping his trousers and going for it up against the kitchen bench. In fact, I can’t imagine him doing it at all.’

‘You are so incredibly shallow sometimes,’ Ashleigh bit out and began to stalk back to her car.

‘Hey!’ Mia grabbed her arm and swung her around to face her. ‘What’s going on, Ash? Jake wants to marry you. Hello?’ She snapped her fingers in front of her older sister’s face. ‘Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted, to be married to Jake and have a family?’

‘He doesn’t love me, Mia,’ she said bitterly. ‘He’s only doing it because he found out about Lachlan.’

‘I heard about Ellie’s little clanger,’ Mia said with an expressive little grimace. ‘But, all things considered, he’s taken it extremely well, don’t you think? I mean, a lot of men would refuse to ever speak to you again and try and wriggle their way out of maintenance payments, not to mention insisting on a paternity test.’

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