Howard was so different from Jake, and not just physically, although those differences were as marked as could ever be. Howard had the typically pale freckled skin that was common to most redheads, his height average and his figure tending towards stocky.
Jake’s darkly handsome features combined with his imposing height and naturally athletic build were made all the more commanding by his somewhat aloof and brooding personality.
Howard, on the other hand, was uncomplicated. Mia and Ellie described him as boring but Ashleigh preferred to think of him as predictable.
She liked predictable.
She could handle predictable.
She liked knowing what to expect each day when she turned up to work. Howard was always cheerful and positive, nothing was too much trouble and even if it was he didn’t let on but simply got on with the task without complaining.
She wished she was in love with him.
Truly in love.
He was worthy of so much more than she could give him but her experience with Jake had taught her the danger of loving too much and too deeply.
‘You’re very quiet.’ Howard glanced her way as he pulled up at a set of traffic lights.
‘Sorry…’ She shifted her mouth into a semblance of a smile. ‘I’ve got a lot on my mind.’
He reached over and patted her hand, his freckled fingers cool, nothing like the scorching heat of Jake’s when he’d touched her earlier.
Her wrist still felt as if it had been burnt. She looked down at it to see if there were any marks but her creamy skin was surprisingly unblemished.
What a pity her heart hadn’t been as lucky.
The restaurant he’d chosen was heavily booked and even though Howard had made a reservation they still had to wait for over half an hour for their table.
As Ashleigh sat with him at the bar she couldn’t help thinking how different it would have been if it had been Jake with her. There was no way he would have sat patiently waiting for a table he’d pre-booked. He would have demanded the service he was paying for and, what was more, he would have got it.
‘What did you want to talk to me about?’ Howard asked as he reached for his mineral water.
Ashleigh took a steadying breath and met his light blue eyes. ‘I met with Lachlan’s father today.’
He gave her a worried look. ‘Does he want to see him?’
‘I didn’t get around to telling him about Lachlan,’ she answered. ‘We talked about…other things.’
Howard put his glass down. ‘You mean he still doesn’t know anything about him? Nothing at all?’
‘I know it seems wrong not to tell him, but at the time it was the right decision…and now…well…’
‘What about now?’ Howard asked. ‘Shouldn’t he be told at some point?’
Ashleigh had thought of nothing else, especially after what Mia had told her about Lachlan. It seemed wrong that her tiny son could never openly acknowledge his father. And yet after seeing Jake again it brought it home to her just what he had missed in knowing nothing of his son’s existence. He had not been there for any of the milestones of Lachlan’s life. His first smile, his first words and his very first ‘I love you’. Jake had missed out on so much and those years could never be returned to him. But she had done what she had thought was right…She still thought it was right. But somehow…
‘Lachlan’s father hasn’t changed a bit.’ She gave a deep regretful sigh. ‘I was young, far too young to even be in a relationship let alone with someone as intense as him. I lost myself when I was with him. I forgot how to stand up for myself, for what I believed in. I let him take control…It was a mistake…Our relationship was a mistake.’
‘Did you tell him about us?’ he asked. ‘That we’re engaged to be married?’
He frowned as he looked at her bare hands. ‘I wish you’d wear my mother’s ring. I know you don’t like the design but we could get it altered.’
Ashleigh wished she liked it, too. She wished she liked his mother as well, but nothing in life was perfect and she had learned the hard way to make the most of what was on offer and get on with it.
‘I’ll think about it,’ she said. ‘Anyway, it’s only a symbol. It means nothing.’ The words were not her own but some that Jake had used in the past but she didn’t think Howard would appreciate that little detail.
‘Come on, let’s have dinner and forget all about Lachlan’s father for the rest of tonight,’ Howard said as the waiter indicated for them to follow him to their table.
Ashleigh gave him a wan smile as she made her way with him to their seats, but even hours later when she was lying in her bed, willing herself to sleep, she still had not been able to drive all thought of Jake from her mind.