‘I’ll put your stuff in the washer—Alex’s housekeeper will kill me if she sees it—and then you can have a quick shower upstairs. You’ll have to go home in my stuff but at least it will be clean.’
‘These towels are awfully thin,’ she had remarked critically once she was standing wrapped in the protection of the largest of them, and Ran had returned to scoop up her filthy clothes.
‘Mmm... I use them to dry the dogs,’ Ran had told her unromantically, grinning at her when he saw her expression. ‘They’re the ones who should be pulling a face,’ he said. ‘When they come back covered in mud they get hosed down outside before they’re even allowed in.’
‘I’m not a dog, I’m a...’ A woman, she had been about to say, but then she had stopped as Ran had stooped to pick up her white briefs from the stone floor, her face turning an unsophisticated shade of pink when she saw how small they looked held in his strongly masculine hand.
The wet had seeped right through her jeans to her briefs, but Ran’s eyebrows had risen as he’d studied them and then her.
‘It’s all right... I can go home without them; it won’t matter under...my...your jeans,’ Sylvie had told him helpfully, far too innocent and young then to understand just how sensuously provocative it could be for a woman to go naked beneath her clothes—and even more so when the clothes, the jeans she was wearing, were his and not her own.
‘It’s okay; I think I’ve got something you can wear,’ Ran had told her laconically.
She had been young and naive but not so young nor so naive as not to be able to guess where the tiny pretty lacy briefs Ran had given her might have come from, and the knowledge that they must have belonged to another woman had cast a shadow not just over the whole day, but over everything.
She had once heard Alex joking with Ran about his taste for older women.
‘I’m not in the market for commitment or marriage,’ Ran had returned. ‘But I’m not about to turn myself into a monk either,’ he had admitted frankly. Neither of them had known that she was listening as she hesitated outside Alex’s library door on her way past.
‘So a woman who knows what life’s all about, who’s been married and decided that it isn’t for her, suits me fine.’
She hadn’t been able to hide her massive crush on Ran before she’d left for university, in fact had openly offered her love to him, but he had determinedly pushed it away—just as he had also determinedly pushed her away.
She had noticed it again at Alex’s annual Christmas party. Her mother had been there, turning her nose up at such little country pursuits, but Sylvie hadn’t cared. She’d been determined that Ran was going to dance with her and that she was going to claim a Christmas kiss from him.
She had been wearing a new dress and high heels. She had put her hair up and worn make-up. Alex had looked at her with tender amusement when she had come downstairs, but there had been no tenderness in Ran’s eyes later that evening when he had removed her arms from around his neck, refusing to give her the kiss she had begged him for. It had taken three glasses of wine before she had had the courage to approach him and, horrendously, she could feel her eyes starting to fill with tears as he’d unlocked her arms from around his neck and started to turn away from her.
‘Ran, please...’ she had pleaded, but he had ignored her, stony-faced and blank-eyed, as he’d walked away from her.
And, as though that hadn’t been bad enough, to compound the evening’s heartache and humiliation, she had seen him less than an hour later dancing with the newly divorced wife of one of Alex’s tenants, holding her tightly against his body as he caressed her under the dim lights, bending his head to kiss her with heart-shaking passion before leading her outside.
She had been so jealous, so burned up with pain that even her skin had felt raw and tender.
Later, naively, she’d told herself that Ran hadn’t meant to hurt her, that he probably still thought of her as a child and not a woman, and so she had gone on clinging to her self-created delusions.
All through her first year at university, as much as she had wanted to hate Ran, she had also yearned for him, dreaming of him, longing for him, promising herself that one day it would be different, one day he would look at her and love her.
She had refused dates from the boys she met on her courses and only attended the regulation student parties because the other girls had teased her into it. Naturally gregarious, although no one could ever come to mean to her what Ran meant, she had nevertheless made several platonic friendships with various boys she had met at university. One of them she had particularly taken to; shy and self-effacing, David had only come to university because of family pressure. As the youngest of his family he’d been expected to follow in the footsteps of his elder sisters and brothers, all of whom had graduated with honours.