'So what's the catch?' Luca prompted very softly. 'In return you ask me to do something illegal?'
A mortified flush stained Darcy's perfect skin. 'Of course not,' she rebutted tautly. 'The "catch", if you choose to call it that, is that you would have to agree to marry me for six months!'
'To...marry you?' Luca stressed the word with a frown of wondering incredulity as he sat forward on the sofa. "The employment you offer is...marriage?'
'Yes. It's really quite simple. I need a man to go through a wedding ceremony with me and behave like a husband for a minimum of six months,' Darcy extended, with the frozen aspect of a woman forcing herself to refer to an indecent act. 'Why?'
'Why? That's my business. I don't think you require that information to make a decision,' Darcy responded uncomfortably.
Lush black lashes semi-screened his dark eyes. 'I don't understand... Could you explain it again, signorina,' he urged, in a rather dazed undertone.
You certainly couldn't call him mentally agile, Darcy thought ruefully. Having got over the worst, however, she felt stronger, and all embarrassment had left her. He was still sitting there, and why shouldn't he be? If he was as single as he had said he was, he stood to earn a great deal for doing nothing. She repeated what she had already said and, convinced that the financial aspect would be the greatest persuader of all, she mentioned the monthly salary she was prepared to offer and then the sizeable bonus she would advance in return for his continuing discretion about their arrangement after they had parted.
He nodded, and then nodded again more slowly, still focusing with a slight frown on the worn carpet at his feet. Maybe the light was annoying his eyes, Darcy decided, struggling to hold onto her irritation at his torpid reactions. Maybe he was just gobsmacked by the concept of being paid to be bone idle. Or maybe he was so shattered by what she had suggested that he hadn't yet worked out how to respond.
'I would, of course, require references,' Darcy continued.
'I could not supply references as a husband...'
Darcy drew in a deep breath of restraint. 'I'm referring to character references,' she said drily.
'If you wanted a husband, why didn't you place an ad in the personal column?'
'I would have received replies from men interested in a genuine and lasting marriage.' Darcy sighed. 'It was wiser just to advertise my requirements as a form of employment—'
'Quiet... domesticated... well-behaved.' 'I don't want someone who's going to get under my feet or expect me to wait on him hand and foot. Would you say you were self-sufficient?' 'Si...'
'Well, then, what do you think?' Darcy demanded impulsively.
'I don't yet know what I think. I wasn't expecting this kind of proposal,' he returned gently. 'No woman has ever asked me to marry her before.'
'I'm not talking about a proper marriage. Obviously we'd separate after the six months was up and get a divorce. By the way, you would also have to sign a pre-nuptial contract,' Darcy added, because she needed to safeguard the estate from any claim an estranged husband might legitimately attempt to make. 'That isn't negotiable.'
Luca rose gracefully upright. 'I believe I would need a greater cash inducement to give up my freedom—'
'That's not a problem,' Darcy broke in, her tone one of eager reassurance on that point. If he was prepared to consider her proposition, she was keen to accommodate him. 'I'm prepared to negotiate. If you agree, I'll double the original bonus I offered.'
Disconcertingly, he didn't react to that impulsive offer. Darcy flushed then, feeling more than a little foolish.
Veiled dark eyes surveyed her. 'I'll think it over. I'll be in touch.'
'I will present them if I decide to accept the...the position.' As Luca framed the last two words a flash of shimmering gold illuminated his dark eyes. Amusement at the sheer desperation she had revealed in her desire to reach agreement with him? Darcy squirmed at the suspicion.
'I need an answer very soon. I have no time to waste.'
'I'll give you an answer tomorrow...' He strode to the door and then he hesitated, throwing her a questioning look over one broad masculine shoulder. 'It surprises me that you could not persuade a friend to agree to so temporary an arrangement.'
Darcy stiffened and coloured. 'In these particular circumstances, I prefer a stranger.'
'A stranger...I can understand that,' Luca completed in a honey-soft and smooth drawl.
'So what sort of impression did Lucas make on you?' Karen demanded, minutes later. _
'It's not Lucas, it's Luca... My impression?' Darcy studied her friend with a frowning air of abstraction. "That's the odd thing. I didn't really get a proper impression—at least not one I could hang onto for longer than five seconds,' she found herself admitting in belated recognition of the fact. 'One minute I thought he was all brawn and no brain, and then the next he would come out with something razor-sharp. And towards the end he was as informative as a brick wall.'
'He didn't accuse you of dragging him down here on false pretences? He didn't laugh like a drain? Or even ask if you were pulling his leg?' It was Karen's turn to look confused.
Darcy shook her head reflectively. 'He was very low-key in his reactions, businesslike in spite of the way he was dressed. That made it easier for me. I didn't get half as embarrassed as I thought I would.'
'Only you could conduct such a weird and loaded interview with a male that gorgeous and not respond on any more personal a level.'
'That kind of man leaves me cold.' But Darcy's cheeks warmed as she recalled that humiliating moment when she had reacted all too personally to the sheer male magnetism of those dark good looks.
Karen's keen gaze gleamed. 'He didn't leave you stone-cold... did he?'
Cursing her betrayingly fair skin, Darcy strove to continue meeting her friend's eyes levelly. 'Karen—'
'Forget it... I can tell a mile off when you're about to lie through your teeth!'
Darcy winced. 'OK...I noticed that Luca was reasonably fanciable—'
'Reasonably fanciable ?' her friend carolled with extravagant incredulity.
'All right.' Darcy sighed in rueful surrender. 'He was spectacular ...are you satisfied now?'
'Yes. Your indifference to men seriously worries me. Now at least I know that you're still in the land of the living.'
Darcy pulled a wry face. 'With my level of looks and appeal, indifference is by far the safest bet, believe me.'
Karen compressed her lips and thought with real loathing of all the people responsible for ensuring Darcy had such a low opinion of her own attractions. Her cold and critical father, her vain and sarcastic stepmother, not to mention the rejections her unlucky friend had suffered from the opposite sex during her awkward and vulnerable teen years. Being jilted at the altar and left to raise her child alone had completed the damage.
And these days Darcy dressed like a scarecrow and made little effort to socialise. Slowly and surely she was turning into a recluse, although the hours she slaved over that wretched house meant that she didn't know what free time was, Karen conceded grimly. Anyone else confronted with such an immense and thankless challenge would've given up and at least sold the furniture by now, but not Darcy. Darcy would starve sooner than see any more of the Folly's treasures go to auction.
'I get really annoyed with you when you talk like that,' Karen said truthfully. 'If you would only buy some decent clothes and take a little more interest in—'
'Why bother when I'm quite happy as I am?' Visibly agitated by the turn the conversation had taken, Darcy glanced hurriedly at her watch and added with a relief couldn't hide, 'It's time I picked up Zia from the playgroup.'
As Darcy left the gate lodge, however, that final dialogue travelled with her. Demeaning memories had been roused to fill her thoughts and unsettle her stomach. All over again she saw her one-time fiance, Richard, gawping at her chief bridesmaid like a moonsick calf and finally admitting at the eleventh hour that he couldn't go through with the wedding because he had fallen in love with Maxie. And the ultimate insult had to be that her former friend, Maxie, who was so beautiful she could stop traffic, hadn't even wanted Richard!