'I suspect that Darcy Fielding is discreetly advertising for a husband to fulfil the terms of that will.'
'Advertising?' Luca echoed in raw disbelief.
Country woman seeks quiet, well-behaved and domesticated single male without close ties, 25-50, for short-term live-in employment. Absolute confidentiality guaranteed. No time-wasters, please.
"That's not an advertisement for a husband...it's an ad for an emasculated household pet!' Luca launched with incredulous bite.
'I'm going to have to advertise again,' Darcy divulged grimly to Karen as she mucked out the stall of the single elderly occupant in the vast and otherwise horse-free stable yard. She wielded the shovel like an aggressive weapon. Back to square one. She could hardly believe it—and that wretched advertisement had cost an arm and a leg!
Standing by and willing to help, but knowing better than to offer, Karen looked in surprise at her friend. 'But what happened to your shortlist of two possibilities? The gardener and the home handyman?'
Darcy slung the attractive thirty-year-old brunette a weary grimace. 'Yesterday I phoned one and then the other in an attempt to set up an interview—'
'In which you planned to finally spill the confidential beans that matrimony was the real employment on offer.' Karen sighed. 'Boy, would I like to have been a fly on the wall when you broke that news!'
'Yes, well...as it turns out, I shan't need to embarrass myself just yet. One had already found a job elsewhere and the other has moved on without leaving a forwarding address. I shouldn't have wasted so much time agonising over my choice.'
"What choice? You only got five replies. Two were obscene and one was weird! The ad was too vague in one way and far too specific in the other. What on earth possessed you to put in "well-behaved and domesticated"? I mean, talk about picky, why don't you? Still, I can't really say I'm sorry that you've drawn a blank,' Karen admitted, with the bluntness that made the two women such firm friends.
'Karen...' Darcy groaned.
'Look, the thought of you being alone in this house with some stranger gives me the shivers!' the brunette confided anxiously. 'In any case, since you didn't want to risk admitting in the ad that you were actually looking for a temporary husband, what are the chances that either of those men would have been agreeable to the arrangement you were about to offer?'
Darcy straightened in frustration. 'If I'd offered enough money, I bet one of them would have agreed. I need my inheritance, Karen. I don't care what I have to do to get it. I don't care if I have to marry the Hunchback of Notre Dame to meet the conditions of Nancy's will!' Darcy admitted with driven honesty. 'This house has been in my family for four hundred years—'
'But it's crumbling round your ears and eating you up alive, Darcy. Your father had no right to lay such a burden on you. If he hadn't let Fielding's Folly get in such a state while he was responsible for it, you wouldn't be facing the half of what you're facing right now!'
Darcy tilted her chin, green eyes alight with stubborn determination. 'Karen...as long as I have breath in my body and two hands to work with, the Folly will survive so that I can pass it on to Zia.'
Pausing to catch her breath from her arduous labour, Darcy glanced at her two-year-old daughter. Seated in a grassy sunlit corner, Zia was grooming one of her dolls with immense care. Her watching mother's gaze was awash with wondering pride and pleasure.
Zia had been blessed at birth, Darcy conceded gratefully. Mercifully, she hadn't inherited her mother's carroty hair, myopic eyesight or her nose. Zia had lustrous black curls and dainty, even features. There was nothing undersized or over-thin about her either. She was a strikingly pretty and feminine little girl. In short, she was already showing all the promise of becoming everything her mother had once so painfully and pointlessly longed to be...
Zia wouldn't be a wallflower at parties, too blunt-spoken to be flirtatious or appealing, too physically plain to attract attention any other way. Nor would Zia ever be so full of self-pity that she threw herself into the bed of a complete stranger just to prove that she could attract a man. Pierced to the heart by that painful memory, Darcy paled and guiltily looked away from her child, wondering how the heck she would eventually explain that shameful reality in terms that wouldn't hurt and alienate her daughter.
Some day Zia would ask her father's name, quite reasonably, perfectly understandably. And what did Darcy have to tell her? Oh, I never got his name because I told him I didn't want it. Even worse, I could well walk past him on the street without recognising him, because I wasn't wearing my contacts and I'm a little vague as to his actual features. But he had dark eyes, even darker hair, and a wonderful, wonderful voice...
Beneath Karen's frowning gaze, Darcy had turned a beetroot colour and had begun studiously studying her booted feet. 'What's up?'
'Indigestion,' Darcy muttered flatly, and it wasn't a lie. Memories of that nature made her feel queasy and crushed her self-respect flat. She had been a push-over for the first sweet-talking playboy she had ever met.
'So it's back to the drawing board as far as the search for a temporary hubby goes, I gather...' Releasing her breath in a rueful hiss, Karen studied the younger woman and reluctantly dug an envelope from the pocket of her jeans and extended it. 'Here, take it. A late applicant, I assume. It came this morning. The postmark's a London one.'
To protect Darcy's anonymity, Karen had agreed to put her own name behind the advertisement's box number. All the replies had been sent to the gate lodge which Karen had recently bought from the estate. Darcy was well aware that she was running a risk in advertising to find a husband, but no other prospect had offered. If she was found out, she could be accused of trying to circumvent the conditions of her godmother's will and excluded from inheriting. But what else was she supposed to do? Darcy asked herself in guilty desperation.
It was her duty and her responsibility alone to secure Fielding's Folly for future generations. She could not fail the trust her father had imposed on her at the last. She had faithfully promised that no matter what the cost she would hold on to the Folly. How could she allow four hundred years of family history to slip through her careless fingers?
And, even more importantly, only when she contrived to marry would she be in a position to re-employ the estate staff forced to seek work elsewhere after her father's death. In the months since, few had found new jobs. The knowledge that such loyal and committed people were still suffering from her father's financial incompetence weighed even more heavily on her conscience.
Tearing the envelope open, Darcy eagerly scanned the brief letter and her bowed shoulders lifted even as she read. 'He's not of British birth...and he has experience as a financial advisor—'
'Probably once worked as a bank clerk,' Karen slotted in, cynically unimpressed by the claim. A childless divorcee, Karen was comfortably off but had little faith in the reliability of the male sex.
'He's offering references upfront, which is more than anyone else did.' Darcy's state of desperation was betrayed by the optimistic look already blossoming in her expressive eyes. 'And he's only thirty-one.'
In the act of frowning down at the totally illegible signature, Darcy raised her head again. 'He doesn't say. He just states that he is healthy and single and that a temporary position with accommodation included would suit him right now—'
'So he's unemployed and broke.'
'If he wasn't unemployed and willing to move in, he wouldn't be applying, Karen,' Darcy pointed out gently. 'It's a reasonable letter. Since he didn't know what the job was, he's sensibly confined himself to giving basic information only.'
As she paced the confines of Karen's tiny front room in the gate lodge five days later, Darcy pushed her thick-lensed spectacles up the bridge of her nose, smoothed her hands down over her pleated skirt and twitched at the roll collar of her cotton sweater as if it was choking her.
He would be here in five minutes. And she hadn't even managed to speak to the guy yet! Since he hadn't given her a phone number to contact him, she had had to write back to his London address and, nervous of giving out her own phone number at this stage, she had simply set up an interview and asked him to let her know if the date didn't suit. He had sent a brief note of confirmation, from which she had finally divined that his Christian name appeared to be a surprisingly English-sounding Lucas, but as for his surname, she would defy a handwriting expert to read that swirling scrawl!