She gave him what she hoped looked like a blissful smile although her jaw ached with the effort.

‘How did Howard take the news?’ Ellie asked, twirling her champagne glass in one hand.

Jake didn’t give Ashleigh the chance to respond. His smile encompassed everyone as he said, ‘He was a true gentleman. He wanted what was best for Ashleigh and wished us both joy.’

Ashleigh was sure her dentist was going to retire on the work she’d need done after this. She ground her teeth behind her smile and downed the contents of her glass, her head spinning slightly as she set it back down on the nearest surface.

‘How soon will you be able to move into the house at Lindfield?’ Heath asked.

‘It will take most of the month, I’m afraid. I’m starting work on it this weekend,’ Jake answered. ‘In fact, I was hoping Ashleigh and Lachlan would come with me. It will be our first weekend as a family.’

Ashleigh knew she would look a fool if she said she had other plans so stayed silent.

‘Are you sure Lachlan won’t be in the way?’ Mia gave her sister a mischievous wink.

‘I’d like to spend some time with him,’ Jake said. ‘I won’t let him come to any harm. The workmen won’t arrive till Monday to do the major renovations, so it will be quite safe.’ He turned to Ellie. ‘I was hoping to take Ashleigh out tonight to celebrate on our own. Is your offer to babysit still on?’

‘Sure!’ Ellie beamed. ‘Go out and have a good time. In fact, why don’t you take her to stay out all night at your hotel? Lachlan won’t wake up till morning and it’s Saturday tomorrow so there’s no rush to get him to crèche or anything.’

‘But I—’

‘I wouldn’t want to impose…’ Jake said before Ashleigh could get her protest out.

‘Rubbish!’ Gwen joined in heartily. ‘Go on, the two of you, have some time to yourselves. After all, four and a half years is a lot of time to catch up on.’

‘Thank you,’ he said and turned to face Ashleigh. ‘How long will it take you to get ready, darling?’

How about another four and a half years? she felt like retorting.

‘Five minutes,’ she said and left the room.

‘You’re very quiet,’ Jake commented once they were on their way to the city a short time later.

She swivelled in her seat to glare at him. ‘How could you do that to me?’

‘Do what?’ He flashed a look of pure innocence her way.

‘Act as if you’re the devoted fiancé who can’t wait to get me all alone.’

‘But I can’t wait to get you all alone.’

She sucked in a shaky breath as his words hit home, her stomach doing a crazy little somersault.

‘That’s beside the point…’ She floundered for a moment. ‘You had no right to pretend everything is perfectly normal, that we’ve patched things up as if the past didn’t happen. Quite frankly I’m surprised my family couldn’t see through it.’

‘I had a long talk with your father before you came home,’ he said. ‘I told him I’d changed my mind about marriage and that I wanted to be a real and involved father to Lachlan. I also told him that I would look after you, provide for you and protect you.’

She folded her arms crossly and tossed her head to stare out of the passenger window. ‘No doubt you threw in a whole bunch of lies about loving me, too, just for good measure.’

The swish of the tyres on the bitumen was the only sound in the long stretching silence.

Ashleigh silently cursed herself for revealing her vulnerability in such a way. What was she thinking? He hadn’t even been able to utter the words to his three-year-old son. What hope did she have of ever hearing them directed at her?

‘I saw no reason to lie to your father,’ Jake said evenly.

She frowned, trying to decipher his statement, but before she had any success he spoke again.

‘Your family want what is best for you, Ashleigh. They know that you haven’t been happy for a long time, and to their credit they are prepared to put any past prejudices they may have held against me to one side in order to welcome me into the family.’ He sent her a teasing little glance. ‘Besides, both your sisters think I’m a much better deal than dear old Howard.’

‘I wish you wouldn’t speak of him in that way.’

‘I still can’t believe you were considering marrying him.’

‘Yeah? Well, at least he had the decency to ask me,’ she threw at him resentfully.

Jake’s hands tightened on the wheel as her hard-bitten words hit their mark. He gritted his teeth against the surge of anger he felt. What did she expect? Some promise of blissful happy ever after, when all he could promise was to…was to what?