Hearing the roar of a motorbike out on the road, Darcy suppressed her impatience. Lucas was late. Maybe he wasn't going to show. But a minute later the door burst open. Karen poked her head in, her face filled with excitement. 'A monster motorbike just drew up...and this absolutely edible hunk of male perfection took off his helmet! It has to be Lucas...and Darcy, he is gorgeous—'
'He's come on a motorbike?' Darcy interrupted with a look of astonishment.
'You are so stuffy sometimes,' Karen censured. 'And I bet you a fiver you can't work up the nerve to ask this particular bloke if he'd be prepared to marry you for a fee!'
Darcy was already painfully aware that she had no choice whatsoever on that count. She had to ask. She was praying that Lucas, whoever he was and whatever he was like, would agree. She didn't have the time to readvertise. Her back was up against the wall. Yesterday she had received a letter from the company that held the mortgage on Fielding's Folly. They were threatening to repossess the house and, since she already had a big overdraft, the bank would not help without a guarantee that she would in the near future have the funds to settle her obligations.
Darcy winced as the doorbell shrilled. Karen bolted to answer it. Bolted—-yes, that was the only possible word for her friend's indecent eagerness to reach the front door. Face wooden and set, Darcy positioned herself by the fireplace. So he was attractive. Attractive men had huge egos. She grimaced. All she wanted was someone ordinary and unobtrusive, but what she wanted she wouldn't necessarily get.
'Signorina Darcy?' she heard an accented drawl question in a tone of what sounded like polite surprise.
'No...she's, er, through here, waiting for you,' Karen stammered with a dismayingly girlish giggle, and the lounge door was thrust wide.
Blinking rapidly, Darcy was already glued to the spot, a deep frown-line bisecting her brow. That beautiful voice had struck such an eerie chord of familiarity she was transfixed, heart beating so fast she was convinced it might burst. And then mercifully she understood the source of that strange familiarity and shivered, thoroughly spooked. Dear heaven, he was Italian! It was that lyrical accent she had recognised, not the voice.
A very tall, dark male, sporting sunglasses and sheathed in motorbike leathers, strode into the small room. Involuntarily Darcy simply gaped at him, her every expectation shattered. Black leather accentuated impossibly wide shoulders, narrow hips and long, lean powerful thighs. Indeed the fidelity of fit left little of that overpoweringly masculine physique to the imagination. And the sunglasses lent his dark features an intimidating lack of expression. And yet.. .and yet as Darcy surveyed him with startled eyes she realised that he shared more than an accent with Zia's father. He had also been very tall and well-built.
So what? an irritated voice screeched through her blitzed brain. So you're meeting another tall, dark Italian...big deal! The silver-tongued sophisticate who had got her pregnant wouldn't have been caught dead in such clothing. And if she hadn't had such a guilt complex about her wanton behaviour in Venice, she wouldn't be feeling this incredibly foolish sense of threatening familiarity, she told herself in complete exasperation.
'Please excuse me for continuing to wear my sunglasses. I have been suffering from eye strain...the light, it hurts my eyes,' he informed her in a deep, dark drawl that was both well-modulated and unexpectedly quiet.
'Won't you sit down?' Darcy invited, with an uncharacteristically weak motion of one hand as she forced herself almost clumsily down into a seat.
But then Darcy was in shock. She had hoped he would be either sensible and serious or weak and biddable. Instead she had been presented with a rampantly macho male who roared up on a motorbike and wore trousers so tight she marvelled that he could stand in them, never mind sit down. With what she believed was termed designer stubble on his aggressive jawline, he looked about as domesticated and well-behaved as a sabre-toothed tiger.
'If you will forgive me for saying so...you look at me rather strangely,' he remarked, further disconcerting her as he lowered himself down with indolent grace onto the small sofa opposite her.
'Do I remind you of someone, signorina’
Darcy stiffened even more with nervous tension, and she was already sitting rigid-backed in the seat. 'Not at all,' she asserted with deflating conviction. 'Now, since I'm afraid I couldn't read your signature...what is your full name?'
'Let us leave it at Luca for now. The wording of your ad suggested that the employment on offer could be of a somewhat unusual nature,' he drawled softly. 'I would like some details before we go any further.'
Darcy bristled like a cat stroked the wrong way. She was supposed to be interviewing him, not the other way round!
'After all, you have not given me your real name either,' he pointed out in offensively smooth continuance.
Darcy's eyes opened to their fullest extent. 'I beg your pardon?'
'Before I came down here, I checked you out. Your surname is Fielding, not Darcy, and you do not live here in this cottage; you live in the huge mansion at the top of the driveway,' he enumerated with unabashed cool. 'You have gone to some trouble to conceal your own identity. Naturally that is a source of concern to me.'
Stunned by that little speech, Darcy sprang upright and stared down at him in shaken disbelief, her angry bewilderment unconcealed. 'You checked me out?'
He lifted a casual brown hand and slowly removed the sunglasses. 'The light is dim enough in here...'
He studied her with a curiously expectant quality of intensity.
And without warning Darcy found herself staring down into lustrous dark eyes fringed by glossy, spiky black lashes. He had the sort of eyes that packed a powerful punch. Gorgeous, she thought in helpless reaction, brilliant and dark as night, impenetrably deep and unreadable. With the sunglasses on he had looked as if he might be pretty good-looking, without them he zoomed up the scale to stunningly handsome, in spite of the fact that he badly needed a shave. And she now quite understood that hint of expectancy he betrayed. This was a guy accustomed to basking in female double takes, appreciative stares and inviting smiles.
But Darcy tensed and took an instantaneous step back, her retreat only halted by the armchair she had vacated. Yet the tiny twisting sensation of sudden excitement she had experienced still curled up deep in the pit of her taut stomach, and then pierced her like a knife with sudden shame. Her colour heightening, Darcy plotted her path out of the way of the armchair behind her, controlled solely by a need to put as much distance as possible between them.
Throughout that unchoreographed backing away process of hers, she was tracked by narrowed unflinchingly steady dark eyes.
'Look, you had no right to check me out...' Darcy folded her arms in a defensive movement. 'I guaranteed your privacy. Couldn't you have respected mine?'
'Not without some idea of what I might be getting into. It's standard business practice to make enquiries in advance of an interview.'
Darcy tore her frustrated gaze from his. Antipathy darted through her in a blinding wave. With difficulty, she held onto her ready temper. Possibly the reminder had been a timely one. It was, after all, a business proposition she intended to make. And this Luca might think he was clever, but she already knew he had to be as thick as two short planks, didn't she? Only a complete idiot would turn up for an interview with a woman unshaven and dressed like a Hell's Angel. A financial advisor? In his dreams! Conservative apparel went with such employment.
Bolstered by the belief that he could be no Einstein, and rebuking herself for having been intimidated by something as superficial and unimportant as his physical appearance, Darcy sat down again and linked her small hands tightly together on her lap. 'Right, let's get down to business, then...'
The waiting silence lay thick and heavy like a blanket. Settling back into the sofa in a relaxed sprawl of long, seemingly endless limbs, Luca surveyed her with unutterable tranquillity.
Her teeth gritted. Wondering just how long that laid-back attitude would last, Darcy lifted her chin to a challenging angle. "There was a good reason behind the offbeat ad I placed. But before I explain what that reason is, I should mention certain facts in advance. Should you agree to take the position on offer, you would be well paid even though there is no work involved—'
‘No work involved?'
Darcy was soothed at receiving the exact response she had anticipated in that interruption. 'No work whatsoever,' she confirmed. 'While you were living in my home, your time would be your own, and at the end of your employment—assuming that you fulfil the terms to my satisfaction—I would also give you a generous bonus.'