THEY had covered the ground floor of the house, walked the length of the elegant gallery, with its windows overlooking the parkland and the distant vista of the Derbyshire hills, and were just inspecting the enormous ballroom which opened off it when Sylvie acknowledged inwardly that Ran might have been right to advise her to wait until after she had rested to inspect the house.
Haverton Hall’s rooms might not possess quite the vastness of the palazzo’s marble-floored rooms, nor the fading grandeur of the Prague palace, but Sylvie had already lost count of the number of salons and ante-chambers they had walked through on the lower floor. The gallery felt as though it stretched for miles, and as she studied the dusty wooden floor of the ballroom her heart sank at the thought of inspecting its lofty plasterwork ceiling and its elegantly inlaid panelling. And they still had the upper floors to go over! But she couldn’t afford to show any weakness in front of Ran and have him crowing over her. No way. And so, ignoring the warning beginnings of a throbbing headache, she took a deep breath and began to inspect the panelling.
‘The first thing we’re going to need to do is to get a report on the extent of the dry rot,’ she told Ran in a firmly businesslike voice.
He stopped her. ‘That won’t be necessary.’
Sylvie paused and turned to look angrily at him.
‘Ran, there’s something you have to understand,’ she told him pointedly. ‘I am in charge here now. I wasn’t asking for your approval,’ she told him gently. ‘The house has dry rot. We need a specialist’s report on the extent of the damage.’
‘I already have one.’
Sylvie started to frown.
‘When...?’ she began.
But before she could continue Ran told her coolly, ‘It was obvious that the Trust would need to commission a full structural survey of the place to assess it, so in order to save time I commissioned one. You should have had a copy. I had one faxed to the Trust’s New York office last week when I received it.’
Sylvie could feel her heart starting to beat just a little bit too fast as the angry colour burned her face.
‘You commissioned a survey?’ she questioned with dangerous calmness. ‘May I ask who gave you that authority?’
‘Lloyd,’ came back the prompt and stingingly dismissive reply.
Sylvie opened her mouth and then closed it again. It was quite typical of Lloyd that he should have done such a thing and she knew it. He would only have been thinking of saving time in getting his latest pet project under way; he would not have seen, as she so clearly did, that what Ran was actually doing was not trying to be helpful but deliberately trying to upstage her and challenge her authority.
‘I take it you haven’t read the report,’ Ran was continuing, talking to her as though she were some kind of errant pupil who had failed to turn in a piece of homework, Sylvie decided as she silently ground her firm white teeth.
‘I haven’t received any report to read,’ she corrected him acidly.
‘Well, I’ve got a copy here. Do you want to continue with your inspection or would you prefer to wait until you’ve had a chance to read through it?’
Had the question been put by anyone else, Sylvie knew that she would have gratefully seized on the excuse to defer her self-imposed task until after she had had a rest and the opportunity to do something about the increasingly painful pressure of her headache, but because it was Ran who asked her, Ran whom she was fiercely determined not to allow to have any advantage over her, she shook her head and told him aggressively, ‘When I want to change any of my plans, Ran, I’ll let you know. But until I do I think you can safely take it that I don’t...’
She saw his eyebrows lift a little but he made no comment.
It had been a hot week and the air in the ballroom was stifling, the dust thick and choking as it lay heavily all around them.
Sylvie sneezed and winced as the pounding in her head increased. The bright early evening sunlight streaming in through the windows was making her feel oddly dizzy and faintly nauseous... She tried to look away from it and gave a small gasp of pain as the act of moving her head made the blood pound agonisingly against her temples.
Only rarely did she suffer these enervating headaches. They were brought on by stress and tension. Turning away so that Ran wouldn’t see her, she tried to massage the pain away discreetly.
‘Careful...’ Ran warned her tersely.
‘What?’ Sylvie spun round, colour flaring up under her skin as Ran motioned towards a piece of fallen plasterwork she had almost walked over.
She was feeling increasingly sick and dizzy in the sharp bright light. Despairingly she closed her eyes and then wished she hadn’t as the room started to spin dangerously around her.