Stalking rigid-backed down the pavement, Darcy slung another not very convincing laugh over her shoulder. 'Well, you've got everything going for you in that line,' she told him with determined humour. "The look, the charm, the patter, the screen-kiss technique. If I was some fading lonely lady with nothing but my money to keep me warm, I would've been swept off my feet in there!'
Without warning, a shockingly powerful hand linked forcibly with hers and pulled her round to face him again. Startled, Darcy looked up and clashed with blazing golden eyes as enervating as a ten-ton truck bearing down on her shrinking length.
'Porca miseria!' Luca growled in outrage. 'You compare me to a gigolo?'
Genuinely taken aback by that reaction, Darcy gawped at him. And then the penny dropped. Considering the monetary aspect of their private arrangement, her lack of tact now left her stricken. 'Oh, no, I never thought... I mean, I really didn't mean—'
'That I am a man who would sell himself for money?' Luca incised in a raw tone that told her he took himself very seriously.
Darcy was so appalled by her own thoughtlessness that her hand fluttered up between them to pluck apologetically at his lapel and then smooth it down again. 'Luca... honestly, I was just trying to be funny—'
'Ha...ha,' Luca breathed crushingly. 'Give me the car keys.'
'You've had too much champagne.'
Darcy had had only a single glass. But out of guilt over her undiplomatic tongue, she handed over the keys. He swung into the driver's seat.
'You'll need directions.'
'I have total recall of our death-defying journey here.'
She let that comment on her driving ability go unchallenged. She did drive pretty fast. And in three days' time they needed to get married. There was now some source of relief in the awareness that the marriage would be a fake. He had no sense of humour and a filthy temper. Even worse, he brooded. She stole a covert glance at his hard, dark chiselled profile...but, gosh, he still looked spectacular!
In the moonlight, she averted her attention from him, torn with shame at that betraying response. Deep in the pit of her taut belly, she felt a surge of guilty heat, and was appalled by the immediacy of that reaction. He reminded her of Zia's father...was that the problem? She shook her head and studied her tightly linked hands, but although she tried to fight off those painful memories, they began flooding back...
When Richard had changed his mind about marrying her-three years earlier, Darcy had ended up taking their honeymoon trip solo. Of course it had been dismal. Blind to the glorious sights, she had wandered round Venice as if she was homeless, while she struggled to cope with the pain of Richard's rejection.
Then, one morning, she had witnessed a pair of youthful lovers having a stand-up row in the Piazza San Marco. The sultry brunette had flung something at her boyfriend. As the thick gilded card had fluttered to rest at Darcy's feet the fiery lovers had stalked off in opposite directions. And Darcy had found herself in unexpected possession of an invite to a masked ball at one of the wonderful palaces on the Grand Canal.
Two days later, she had finally rebelled against her boredom and her loneliness. She had purchased a mask and had donned that magical green evening dress. She had felt transformed, excitingly different and feminine. In those days she hadn't owned contact lenses, and since her spectacles combined with her long mane of hair had seemed to give her the dowdy look of an earnest swot she had taken them off, choosing to embrace myopia instead. She had had a cold too, so she had generously dosed herself up with a cold remedy. Unfortunately she hadn't read the warning on the packaging not to take any alcohol with the medication...
When she had seen the vast palazzo ablaze with golden light she had almost lost her nerve, but a crush of important guests had arrived at the same time, forcing her to move ahead of them and pass over her invitation. She had climbed the vast sweeping staircase of gilded brass and marble. By the time she'd entered the superb mirrored ballroom, filled with exquisitely dressed crowds of beautiful people awash with glittering jewels, her nerve had been failing fast. At any minute she had feared exposure as a gatecrasher, sneaking in where she had no right to be.
After hovering, trying desperately hard not to look conspicuous in her solitary state, she had slowly edged her path round to the fluttering curtains on the far side of the huge room and slid through them to find herself out on a big stone balcony. One secure step removed from the festivities, she had watched the glamorous guests mingle and dance—or at least she had watched them as closely as her shortsightedness allowed.
When an unmasked male figure in a white jacket had strolled out onto the balcony with a tray bearing a single glass, to address her in Italian, she'd quite naturally assumed he was a waiter.
'Grazie,' she said, striving to appear as if she was just taking the air after a dance or two, and draining the glass with appropriate thirsty fervour.
But he spoke again.
'I don't speak Italian—'
"That was Spanish,' he imparted gently in English. 'I thought you might be Spanish. That dress worn with such vibrant colouring as yours is dramatic'
In the lingering silence of her disinterested shrug, he remarked, 'You appear to be alone.' Not easily disconcerted, he lounged lazily back against the stone balustrade, the tray abandoned.
'I wa’/ she pointed out thinly. 'And I like being alone.'
He inclined his dark head back, his features a complete blur at that distance, only his pale jacket clearly visible to her in the darkness as he stared at her. In a bolshy mood, she stared back, nose in the air, head imperiously high. All of a sudden she was sick to death of being pushed around by people and forced to fulfil their expectations. Her solo trip to Venice had been her first true rebellion, and so far she could not comfort herself with the belief that she had done much with the opportunity.
'No, that was rude,' Darcy contradicted ruefully, 'Outright, bloody rudeness.'
'Is that an apology?' he enquired.
'No, I believe I was clarifying my point. And haven't you got any more drinks to ferry around?' she prompted hopefully.
He stilled, wide shoulders tautening, and then unexpectedly he laughed, a shiveringly sensual sound that sent a curious ripple down her taut spine. 'Not at present.'
His easy humour shamed her into a blush. ‘I’m not in a very good mood.'
'I will change that.'
'Not could, but will,' she noted out loud. 'You're very sure of yourself.'
In that instant, her own sheer lack of self-confidence flailed her with shamed bitterness, and she threw her head back with desperate pride and a tiny smile of wry amusement. 'Always,' she murmured steadily then. 'Always.'
He moved forward, and as an arrow of light from the great chandeliers in the ballroom fell on him she saw an indistinct image of the hard, bitingly attractive angles of his strong bone structure, the gleam of his thick black hair, the brilliance of his dark eyes. And her heart skipped a startled beat.
'Dance with me,' he urged softly.
And Darcy laughed with undeniable appreciation. Only she could gatecrash a high society ball and end up being chatted up by one of the waiters. 'Aren't you scared that someone will see you and you'll lose your job?'
'Not if we remain out here...'
'Just one dance and then I'll leave.'
"The entertainment doesn't meet with your approval?' he probed as he slid her into his arms, his entire approach so subtle, so smooth that she was surprised to find herself there, and then flattered by the sensation of being held as if she were fashioned of the most fragile and delicate spun glass.
'It's suffocatingly formal, and tonight I feel like something different,' she mused with perfect truth. 'Indeed, tonight I feel just a little wild...'
'Please don't let me inhibit you,' he murmured.
And Darcy burst out laughing again.
'Who did you come here with tonight?' he queried.
'Nobody...I'm a gatecrasher,' she confided daringly.