That devastatingly public rejection had been followed by the Venetian episode, Darcy recalled wretchedly. That, too, had ended in severe humiliation. She had got to play Cinderella for a night.
And then she had got to stand on the Ponte della Guerra and be stood up like a dumb teenager the following day. She had waited for ages too, and had hit complete rock-bottom when she finally appreciated that Prince Charming was not going to turn up.
Of course another woman, a more experienced and less credulous woman, would have known that that so casually voiced yet so romantic suggestion had been the equivalent of a guy saying he would phone you when he hadn't the slightest intention of doing so, only she hadn't recognised the reality. No, Darcy reflected with a stark shudder of remembrance, she had been much happier since she had given up on all that ghastly embarrassing and confusing man-woman stuff.
And if Luca, whoever he was, decided to go ahead and accept her proposition, she would soon be able to tune him and his macho motorbike leathers out entirely...
Perspiration beading her brow, Darcy wielded the heavy power-saw with the driven energy of necessity. The ancient kitchen range had an insatiable appetite for wood. Breathing heavily, she stopped to take a break. Even after
switching off the saw, her ears still rang with the shattering roar of the petrol-driven motor. With a weary sigh, she bent and began laboriously stacking the logs into the waiting wheelbarrow.
At the sound of that purring, accented drawl, Darcy almost leapt out of her skin, and she jerked round with a muttered exclamation.
Luca stood several feet away. Her startled green eyes clung to his tall, outrageously masculine physique. Wide shoulders, sleek hips, long, long legs. And he had shaved.
One look at the to-die-for features now revealed in all their glory struck Darcy dumb. She wasn't even capable of controlling that reaction. In full daylight, he was so staggeringly handsome. High, chiselled cheekbones, sharp as blades, were dissected by an arrogant but classic nose and embellished by a wide, perfect mouth. Even his skin had that wonderful golden glowing vibrancy of warmer climes...
'Is there something wrong?' An equally shapely ebony brow had now quirked enquiringly.
'You startled me..." Heated colour drenching her skin as she realised that she had been staring, Darcy dragged her attention from him with considerable difficulty. As her dazed eyes dropped down, she blinked in disbelief at the sight of her cocker spaniels seated silently at his feet like the well trained dogs they unfortunately weren't. Strangers usually provoked Humpf and Bert into a positive frenzy of uncontrolled barking. Instead, her lovable but noisy animals were welded to the spot and throwing Luca upward pleading doggy glances as if he had cast some weird sort of hypnotic spell over them.
'I wasn't expecting you,' Darcy said abruptly.
'I did try the front entrance first...' His deep-pitched sexy drawl petered out as he studied the sizeable stack of wood. 'Surely you haven't cut all that on your own?'
Threading an even more self-conscious hand through the damp and wildly curling tendrils of hair clinging to her forehead, she nodded, aware of the incredulity in those piercing dark eyes.
'Are there no men around here?'
'No, I'm the next best thing...but then that's nothing new,' Darcy muttered half under her breath, writhing at her own undeniable awkwardness around men and hating him for surprising her when she wasn't psyched up to deal with him.
Forgivably thrown by that odd response, Luca frowned.
Darcy leapt straight back into speech. 'I assumed you would phone—'
'Nobody ever answers your phone.'
'I'm outdoors a lot of the time.' Stripping off her heavy gloves, Darcy flexed small and painfully stiff fingers and averted her scrutiny from him, her unease in his presence pronounced. What on earth was the matter with her? She was behaving like a silly teenager with a crush. 'You'd better come inside.'
Hurriedly grabbing up an armful of logs, Darcy led the way. The long, cobbled passageway that provided a far from convenient rear entrance to her home was dark and gloomy and flanked by a multitude of closed doors. Innumerable rooms which had once enjoyed specific functions as part of the kitchen quarters now lay unused.
But not for much longer, she reminded herself. When she achieved her dream of opening up the house to the public all those rooms full of their ancient labour intensive equipment would fascinate children.
And she was going to achieve her dream, she told herself feverishly. Surely Luca wouldn't take the trouble to make a second personal appearance if he intended to say no?
She trod into the vast echoing kitchen and knelt down by the big range at the far end. Opening the door, she thrust a sizeable log into the fuel bed. 'Did you come all the way from London again?'
'No, I stayed in Penzance last night.'
Darcy was so rigid with nervous tension, she couldn't bring herself to look at him as she breathed tautly,'
‘So what's your answer?'
'Yes. My answer is yes,' he murmured with quiet emphasis.
Her strained eyes prickled with sudden tears and she blinked rapidly before slamming shut the door on the range. The relief was so immense she felt quite dizzy for a few seconds. Feeling as if a huge weight had dropped from her shoulders, Darcy scrambled upright and turned, a grateful smile on her now softened face.
"That's great...that's really great. Would you like some coffee?'
Lounging back against the edge of the giant scrubbed pine table, Luca stared back at her, not a muscle moving in his strong dark face. It was a rather daunting reaction and she swallowed hard, unaware that that shy and spontaneous air of sudden friendliness had disconcerted him.
'OK...why not?' he agreed, without any expression at all.
Darcy put on the kettle and stole an uneasy glance at him in the taut silence. She didn't know where the tension was coming from, and then she wondered if his brooding silence was a kind of male ego thing. 'I suppose this isn't quite the sort of work you were hoping to get,' she conceded awkwardly. 'But I promise you that you won't regret it. How long have you been unemployed?'
'Unemployed?' he echoed, strong features stiffening.
'Sorry, I just assumed—'
'I have never been employed in the UK.'
'Oh...' Darcy nodded slowly. 'So how long have you been over here?'
Darcy scrutinised that slightly downbent dark glossy head, taking in the faint darkening of colour over his sculpted cheekbones. He was embarrassed at his lack of success in the job market, she gathered, and she wished she had been a little less blunt in her questioning.
But then tact had never been her strong point. And when she had interviewed him she had been so wrapped up in her own problems that it hadn't occurred to her that Luca must have been desperate to find a job to come so far out of London in answer to one small ad. Furthermore, now that she took a closer look at those leathers of his, she couldn't help but notice that they were pretty worn.
Sudden sympathy swept Darcy. She knew all about being broke and trying to keep up appearances. She had looked down on him for wearing motorbike gear to an interview, but maybe the poor guy didn't have much else to wear. If he hadn't worked since he had arrived in the UK, he certainly couldn't have financed much of a wardrobe. Smart suits cost money.
'I'll give you half your first month's salary in advance,' Darcy heard herself say. 'As a sort of retainer...'
This time he looked frankly startled.
'You probably think that's very trusting of me, but I tend to take people as I find them. In any case, I don't have a lot of choice but to trust you. If you were to get the chance of another job and decide to back out on me, I'd be in trouble,' she said honestly. 'How do you like your coffee?'
Darcy put a pile of biscuits on a rather chipped plate. Setting the two beakers of coffee down on the table, she sat down and reached for the jotter and pencil lying there. 'I'd better get some details from you, hadn't I? What is your surname?'
There was a pause, a distinct pause as he sank lithely down opposite her.