* * *
Ten minutes later she was driving through the open gates to Haverton Hall. The twin lodges at either side of the gate, joined by a pretty spanning ‘archway’, had both looked run-down and in need of repair.
Sylvie knew from her homework that they had been constructed at the same time as the main house—and the house, like them, had been designed by one of the country’s foremost architects in the Palladian manner favoured by the likes of Inigo Jones.
Theatrically, the drive to the house curved through flanking trees, several of which were missing, spoiling its original symmetry, although those which remained were so heavily in leaf that they still obscured all her attempts to glimpse the house until she had driven past the final curve in the drive.
Sylvie caught her breath. Used as she was to beautiful properties—after all, Alex’s ancestral home was renowned for its elegant grace—this one, despite the shabbiness of its fading elegance, was something very special and she could see instantly why Lloyd had fallen so immediately and completely in love with it.
Set on a small incline, so that it could overlook its surrounding gardens and parklands, it was everything that the neoclassicist architects had decreed their houses should be and then some more, Sylvie acknowledged as she drove slowly towards the gravelled parking area in front of the massive columned portico to the house. Stopping the Discovery, she opened the door and started to get out.
* * *
Ran had seen her drive up from an upstairs window. She was just a few seconds short of five minutes early. Remembering a younger Sylvie, and her apparent total inability to arrive anywhere on time, he grimaced ruefully to himself before making his way downstairs.
They met on the paved portico. Ran opened the massive front door just as Sylvie mounted the last step. She stopped the minute she saw him, freezing instinctively like a gazelle scenting the presence of a leopard.
He hadn’t changed, but then why should he have? He still looked exactly the same. Tall, broad-shouldered, with the smooth warm skin of a countryman, his jeans clinging softly to the taut muscles of his long legs, his forearms bare and bronzed, the soft checked shirt he was wearing exactly the same kind of shirt she could remember seeing him wearing all the years she had been growing up. His hair was still as thick and darkly rich as ever, his jaw just as chiselled—no signs of soft, rich living there, despite the odd snippets of gossip she had picked up from her mother and from Mollie about the discreet parade of elegant, wealthy women who had passed through his life—Ran had always had a penchant for that type, women in the main who were slightly older than himself, soignée, knowing...all the things that an adoring, unknowing seventeen-year-old was not.
Only his eyes had changed, Sylvie noticed, with a sudden sharp flicker of sensation which she immediately suppressed. Oh, they were still the same incredible colour, somewhere between onyx and gold, still flecked with those heart-dizzying little specks of lighter colour and still surrounded by those unfairly long, thick dark lashes.
Yes, all that was still familiar to her, but the lazily sensual way they were studying her, the subtle but very male message she could read in them as Ran’s gaze flicked over her T-shirt-covered breasts and her slim waist in the plain blue jeans...that was most certainly not familiar to her, at least not from Ran.
And it was only then, when she countered that look with an instinctive and automatically female one of cool reproval, that Sylvie realised that one of them had closed the distance between them from its original safe several metres to a much, much less secure three or four feet.
One of them... To her chagrin Sylvie recognised that it was not only Ran who had moved so much closer and that she herself was halfway towards the front door now instead of on the perimeter of the portico... When had she moved...and how, without knowing what she was doing...? Ran had always had that kind of effect on her... Had had... All that was in the past now, she reminded herself fiercely. And just to ensure that Ran knew it too she held out her hand to him and, raising her voice slightly, smiled with cool authority as she greeted him.
‘Ran, good, I’m glad you’re here. We can get straight down to work. I’ve studied the plans of the house, but I always find that it makes an enormous difference to actually walk over a property, so...’
God, but she was so incredibly sexy, Ran acknowledged. He could feel the heat, the reaction, the response surging through his veins. He had been prepared to find her beautiful. She had always been that. But in the past it had been almost a sexless, childish kind of beauty... Now her sensuality, and his own reaction to it, hit him in the solar plexus like a blow.