There's a certain set of inconsequential facts he must ignore: the smell of her shampoo, the biting sarcasm that most of the time sits so near the surface, the youthful prints that dominate her wardrobe, the incessantly straight appearance of her hair. And the less minute: the dip of her hips where they should curve, the puckered scar on her shoulder, the way her fingers tremble almost undetectably, constantly as if yearning for the guns for which she has such fondness.
She is hard in all the ways that Helen is, was, soft. Helen had been strong and willful, but there's a determination in Ashley that James hadn't seen in Helen since Oxford. Ashley is direct, unrepentant. She plows through her life, her grief unshaken and unscathed, stubborn. And yet, somehow when she sighs, when she sleeps in the armchair before the fire in his study, when she watches the way the rain runs torrents down the windowpanes, for a moment he's lost in time, confusing past with present, and reality with memories, with fantasies.
She realizes this eventually. She's always been quick, astute, so it's not as if he's surprised, although he is worried that they're both experiencing something that Will would have a word for if he were here, if he were still alive to be here. It's not transference because while he did love Helen, always would love Helen, this felt different from that. There was curiosity where there should have been longing had that been the case, and yet at times he still wonders if he hasn't gotten it all wrong.
The first night she crawls into his bed there are no excuses. She doesn't need one and he doesn't ask. This isn't 1911, she's not heartbroken even if he is still wondering if he shouldn't put a stop to the entire thing. He had always loved her though, not like this of course, but he had always cared for her. He had seen her hurt, seen her battered and bruised, but he had never seen her ache, yearn for something like she had that night.
She was grown, capable of consenting, and he wasn’t about to deny her what comfort he could give her. If he buried his face in her hair afterward as she slept and wished fleetingly for what he could not have what harm could that do? It was a small comfort, inconsequential in the scheme of things, but a small comfort nonetheless.