She wasn’t twenty any longer; it was impossible for her to run away now, to take refuge in disappearing, as she’d tried to escape herself and her love. She had a job to do, responsibilities, and besides, what had running away the first time actually achieved? It hadn’t stopped her loving him, had it?
* * *
In the protective darkness of the moonlit garden Ran leaned back against the trunk of a concealing tree and closed his eyes. The discovery that Sylvie was going to be representing the Trust had reinforced all the irony he had felt when he had first learnt of his unexpected inheritance. He might not be a millionaire, but his lifestyle now and his prospects were certainly a far cry from what they had been when Sylvie’s mother had insisted on Alex speaking to him about Sylvie’s youthful crush on him.
He had been aware, of course, of her feelings, aware of them and aware too that at seventeen she was far too young, far too emotionally immature for the sort of relationship that he, as a man in his twenties, might have wanted.
‘What the hell does Sylvie’s mother think I’m going to do?’ he had demanded angrily as he’d paced the floor of Alex’s library.
Sympathetically Alex had shaken his head as he’d told him quietly, ‘This isn’t exactly easy for me, Ran. You’re my friend as well as—’
‘Your employee...’ Angrily Ran had grimaced. ‘No doubt as far as Sylvie’s mother is concerned I’m only one step removed from being a servant,’ he had expostulated scornfully.
Wisely, Alex had said nothing, allowing him to express his ire and distaste instead.
‘You must share her concern,’ he had concluded, ‘otherwise you wouldn’t have raised the subject.’
‘Yes, in some ways I do,’ Alex had agreed steadily. ‘Not, I hardly need say, because I think you are in any way socially inferior to Sylvie. I know your family background, Ran, and your lineage, and if there’s any shortfall of social acceptability here it’s far more on Sylvie’s side than yours. But I hope you know me well enough to know that that kind of attitude is totally abhorrent to me. No, my concern lies in a rather different direction and, in all honesty, it’s Sylvie I should more properly be speaking to and not you, but...well, she isn’t my sister, there’s no blood tie between us, and teenage girls and their emotions are, I’m afraid, somewhat outside my own limited experience. So...the truth is that Sylvie believes herself in love with you with all the ferocity that teenagers do believe in such things. For your sake as much as for hers I feel that such feelings are best not...encouraged. She’s young and very vulnerable and I should hate to see her hurt...to see either of you hurt,’ he had amended gently when he had seen Ran’s expression.
‘What the hell do you think I’m going to do to her?’ Ran had exploded. ‘Take her to bed and...?’
‘Is it really so impossible that you might be tempted to?’ Alex had asked him quietly. ‘I’m not criticising or condemning, Ran; physically she’s mature and she loves you—or believes she does—’
‘She’s got a crush on me that she’ll soon grow out of,’ Ran had interrupted him grimly. ‘That’s what you want me to say, isn’t it? And I should keep my hands off her until she does grow out of it...out of me... But what if I feel differently, Alex? What if I want...?’ He had shaken his head, angry with himself as well as with Alex. More angry with himself than he was with Alex who he knew was only doing what he saw as his duty by his stepsister.
‘You’re right, she’s a child still, and the sooner she grows up and forgets all about me the better,’ Ran had told him hardily. ‘And as for taking her to bed,’ he had thrown at Alex as he turned to leave, ‘well, there’s always a cure for that.’
And so there had been, for a while at least, until he had grown sickened and shamed by the emptiness of the sexual encounters he was sharing with women who meant as little to him emotionally as he did to them. And, even with that form of release, keeping the promise he had made to Alex and himself hadn’t been easy. There had been times, far too many of them, when he had nearly weakened, like when he had fished her out of the muddy lake and taken her back to his cottage. Oh, God, the temptation then to take what she was so innocently offering him, to take on the role not so much of seducer as sorcerer, transmuting the frail strength of her youthful crush on him into the enduring bond of real adult love.
But, despite the temptation which kissing her had presented, somehow he had always managed to tell himself of the differences that lay between them in age, experience and in prospects. He loved his job and wouldn’t have wanted to change it for anything or anyone, but there was no denying that to expect a girl, brought up as Sylvie had been with every conceivable luxury, to move into the kind of accommodation estate managers normally occupied, to live the often lonely lifestyle that would be hers when he was working... He just couldn’t do it. Had she been older, wiser...poorer...it might have been different. And so he had resisted the temptation to give in to her desire and his own love, and he had praised himself for his selflessness, until the fateful day he had taken her Alex’s cheque.