‘What’s happened to you, Sylvie?’ he asked her quietly. ‘Why should it be so difficult for you to admit to being vulnerable...human...? What is it that pushes you, drives you, forces you to make such almost superhuman demands on yourself? Anyone else, having flown across the Atlantic and driven close on fifty miles without a break, would have chosen to rest and relax a little bit before starting to work, but not you...’
‘That may be the British way, but it’s different in America,’ Sylvie told him sharply. ‘There, people are rewarded, praised, for fulfilling their potential and for—’
‘Driving themselves into such a state of exhaustion that they make themselves ill?’ Ran challenged her. ‘I thought that Lloyd was supposed to...’ He stopped, not wanting to put into words, to make a reality, the true relationship he knew existed between Sylvie and her boss. ‘I thought he cared about you...valued you...’ he finished carefully instead.
Sylvie was sitting upright now, ignoring the pounding pain in her head as she glared belligerently at Ran.
‘Lloyd doesn’t...he isn’t...’
She stopped, shaking her head. How could she explain to Ran of all people about the thing that drove her, the memories and the fears? As a teenager she had done so many foolish things, and even let down the people who had loved and supported her; her involvement with Wayne was something she knew she would always regret.
She hadn’t known at the time, of course, just what he was. In her innocent naiveté she had never guessed that he was anything other than someone who had bought a handful of recreational drugs to pass on to people at rave parties.
When she had run away from university, though, to join Wayne and the band of New Age travellers who had invaded her stepbrother’s lands, she had quickly learned just what a mistake she had made, and she knew that she would always be grateful to Alex and his wife Mollie, not just for the fact that they had helped her to extricate herself from a situation she had very quickly grown to fear, but also for the fact that they had supported her, believed in her, accepted her acknowledgement that she had made a mistake and given her the opportunity to get her life back on track.
She and Wayne had never actually been lovers, although she knew that very few people would believe that, nor had she ever used drugs; but she had been tainted by his lifestyle, had had her eyes opened painfully to certain harsh realities of life, and after Alex had interceded for her with her mother and with the university authorities, getting her a place at Vassar where she had been able to complete her education, she had promised herself that she would pay him and Mollie back for their kindness and their love and support by showing the world and her detractors just how worthy of that support she was.
At Vassar she had gained a reputation as something of a recluse and a swot; dates and parties had been strictly out of bounds so far as she was concerned and her dedication had paid off with excellent exam results.
And now, just as she had once felt the need to prove herself to Alex and Mollie, she felt a corresponding need to prove herself worthy of Lloyd’s trust in her professional abilities. It was true that sometimes she did drive herself too hard...but the scornful verbal sketch of herself that Ran had just drawn for her quite illogically hurt.
Given that she had striven so hard to be considered wholly professional, to be capable and strong, it was quite definitely illogical, she knew, to wish forlornly that Ran might have adopted a more protective and less critical attitude towards her, that he might have shown more concern, some tenderness, some...
‘Why the hell didn’t you say you weren’t feeling well?’
Ran’s curt demand broke into her thoughts, underlining their implausibility, their stupidity, their dangerous vulnerability.
‘Why should I have done?’ Sylvie countered defensively, adding tersely, ‘I hardly think that either the Trust or the owners of the properties it acquires would thank me for wasting both time and consequently money by bringing up the subject of my own health during business discussions. You and I may know one another from the past, Ran, but so far as I am concerned the fact that we have dealings with one another in the present is entirely down to the business and professional relationship between us.’
It was several seconds before Ran bothered to respond to her unrehearsed but determinedly distancing little speech, and for a moment Sylvie thought that he was actually going to ignore what she had said, but then he turned towards her and said, ‘So what you’re saying is that it’s to be purely business between us, is that it?’
It took every ounce of courage that Sylvie possessed, and then some, for her to be able to meet the look he was giving her full-on, but somehow or other she managed to do so, even if the effort left her perilously short of breath and with her heart pounding almost as painfully as her head, She agreed coolly, ‘Yes.’