'Security is usually very tight at the Palazzo d'Oro.'
'Not if you enter just in front of a party who require a great deal of attentive bowing and scraping.'
'You must've had an invitation?'
'It landed at my feet in the Piazza San Marco. A beautiful brunette flung it at her boyfriend. I thought you asked me to dance,' she complained, since they had yet to move. 'Are you now planning to have me thrown out?'
'Not just at present,' he confided, folding her closer and staring down at her with narrowed eyes. 'You are a very unusual woman.'
'Very,' Darcy agreed, liking that tag, which hinted at a certain distinction.
'And your name?'
'No names, no pack drill,' she sighed. 'Ships that pass and all that—'
'I want to board...'
'No can do. I am not my name...my name wasn't even chosen with me in mind,' she admitted with repressed bitterness, for Darcy had always been a male name in her family. 'And I want to be someone else tonight.'
'Very unusual and very infuriating,' he breathed.
'I am a woman who is very, very sure of herself, and a woman of that stature is certain to infuriate,' she returned playfully, leaning in to his big powerful body and smiling up at him, set free by anonymity to be whatever she wanted to be.
And so they danced, high above the Grand Canal, all the lights glittering magically in her eyes until she closed them and just drifted in a wonderful dreamy haze...
A burst of forceful Italian dredged Darcy out of that sleepy, seductive flow of memory. Eyelids fluttering, she returned to the present and frowned to find the Land Rover at a standstill, headlights glaring on the high banks of a narrow lane.
'What...where—?' she began in complete confusion.
'We have a flat tyre,' Luca delivered in a murderous aside as he wrenched open the rattling driver's door.
Darcy scrambled out into the drizzling rain. 'But the spare's in for repair!' she exclaimed.
Across the bonnet, Luca surveyed her with what struck her as an overplay of all-male incredulity. 'You have no spare tyre?'
'No.' Darcy busied herself giving the offending flat tyre a kick. 'Pretty far gone, isn't it? That won't get us home.' She looked around herself. 'Where on earth are we?'
'It is possible that in the darkness I may have taken a wrong turn.'
Considering that they were in a lane that came to a dead end at a field twenty feet ahead, Darcy judged that a miracle of understatement. 'You got lost, didn't you?'
Luca dealt her a slaughtering, silencing glance.
Darcy sighed. 'We'd better start walking—'
'Walking?' He was aghast at the concept.
'What else? How long is it since you saw a main road?'
'Some time,' Luca gritted. 'But fortunately there is a farmhouse quite close.'
'Fat lot of use that's going to be,' Darcy muttered. 'At two in the morning, only an emergency would give us the excuse to knock people up out of their beds.'
"This is an emergency!'
Darcy drew herself up to her full five feet two inches. 'I am not rousing an entire family just so that we can ask to use their phone. In any case, who would you suggest I contact?'
'A motoring organisation,' Luca informed her with exaggerated patience.
'I don't belong to one.'
'A car breakdown recovery business?'
'Have you any idea what that would cost?' Darcy groaned in horror. 'It's not worth it for a flat tyre! The local garage can run out the spare in the morning. They'll only charge me for their time and petrol—'
'I am not spending the night in that filthy vehicle,' Luca asserted levelly.
'You figure cosying up to those cows would be more fun?' Darcy could not resist saying, surveying the curious beasts who, attracted by the light and the sound of their voices, had ambled up to gawk over the gate at them.
'I passed through a crossroads about a kilometre back. I saw an inn there.' With the decisive air of one taking command, Luca leant into the car. 'I presume you have a torch?'
"Fraid not,' Darcy admitted gruffly.
Not a male who took life's little slings and arrows with a stiff upper lip, Darcy registered by the stark exhalation of breath. Not remotely like the charming, tolerant male she had encountered in Venice three years ago. And how the heck she had contrived to imagine the faintest resemblance now quite escaped her. This was a male impatient of any mishap which injured his comfort—indeed, almost outraged by any set of circumstances which could strand him ignominiously on a horribly wet night in a muddy country lane.
So they walked.
'I should have paid some heed to where we were going,' Darcy remarked, proffering a generous olive branch.
'"If onlys" exasperate me,' Luca divulged.
Rain trickling down her bare arms, Darcy buttoned her lips. With a stifled imprecation, Luca removed his dinner jacket and held it out to her.
'Oh, don't be daft,' Darcy muttered in astonished embarrassment at such a gesture. 'I'm as tough as old boots.'
'No...no, honestly.' Darcy started walking again in haste. 'You've just come from a hot climate... you're more at risk of a chill than I am.'
'Per amor di Dio...' Luca draped the jacket round her narrow shoulders, enfolding her in the smooth silk lining which still carried the pervasive heat and scent of his body. 'Just keep quiet and wear it!'
In the darkness, a spontaneous grin of appreciation lit Darcy's face. As she stumbled on the rough road surface Luca curved a steadying arm round her, and instead of withdrawing that support, kept it there. It was amazing how good that made her feel. He had tremendously good manners, she conceded. Not unnaturally, he was infuriated by the inefficiency that had led to the absence of a spare tyre, but at least he wasn't doggedly set on continually reminding her of her oversight.
The inn perched at the juncture of lanes was shrouded in darkness. Darcy hung back in the porch. 'Do we have to do this?'
Without a shade of hesitation, Luca strode forward to make use of the ornate door-knocker. 'I would knock up the dead for a brandy and a hot bath.'
An outside light went on. A bleary-eyed middle-aged man in a dressing gown eventually appeared. Darcy heard the rustle of money. The security chain was undone at speed. And suddenly mine host became positively convivial. Getting dragged out of his bed in the middle of the night might almost have been a pleasure to him. He showed them up a creaking, twisting staircase into a pleasant room and retreated to fetch the brandy.
'How much money did you give him, for heaven's sake?' Darcy demanded in fascination.
'Sufficient to cover the inconvenience.' Luca surveyed the room and the connecting bathroom with a frowning lack of appreciation.
'It's really quite cosy,' Darcy remarked, and it was when compared with her own rather barn-like and bare bedroom at the Folly. The floor had a carpet and the bed had a fat satin quilt.
The proprietor reappeared with an entire bottle of brandy and two glasses.
Darcy discarded the jacket, studying Luca, whose white shirt was plastered to an impressive torso which gleamed brown through the saturated fabric. Her attention fairly caught as she stood there, tousled hair dripping down her rainwashed face, she glimpsed the black whorls of hair hazing his muscular chest in a distinctive male triangle as he turned back to her. Her face burned.
'Give me a coin,' Darcy told him abruptly.
A curious brow quirking, Luca withdrew a coin from his pocket. 'What—?'
Darcy flipped it from his fingers. 'We'll toss for the bed.'
'I beg your pardon?'
But Darcy had already tossed. 'Heads or tails?' she proffered cheerfully.
'Heads!' Darcy chose impatiently. She uncovered the coin and then sighed. 'You get the bed; I get the quilt. Do you mind if I have first shower? I'll be quick.'