Nina's scornful blue eyes raked over the younger woman. 'But of course, when it's safely over. You're terrified that your bridegroom will bolt last minute, like Richard did!'
At that unpleasant and needless reminder, which was painfully apt, the embarrassed colour drained from Darcy's taut cheekbones. 'I—'
'Just when I thought you must finally be coming to your senses and accepting the need to sell this white elephant of a house, you suddenly decide to get married,' Margo condemned with stark resentment. 'Is he even presentable?'
'With all this heavy secrecy, it's my bet that the groom is totally unpresentable...one of the estate workers?' Nina suggested, with a disdainful little shudder of snobbish distaste.
'You're not pregnant again, are you?' Margo treated Darcy to a withering and accusing appraisal. 'That's what people are going to think. And I refuse to have my acquaintances view me as some sort of wicked stepmother! So you'll have to pay for a proper wedding reception and I'll act as your hostess.'
'I'm afraid I haven't got the money for that,' Darcy admitted tightly.
'What about him?' Nina pressed instantaneously.
Darcy flushed and looked away.
'Penniless, I suppose.' Reaching that conclusion, Margo exchanged a covert look of relief and satisfaction with her daughter. 'I do hope he's aware that when you go bust here, we're entitled to a slice of whatever is left.'
'I'm not planning to go bust,' Darcy breathed, her taut fingers clenching in on themselves.
'I'm just dying to meet this character.' Nina giggled. "Who is he?'
'His name's Luca—'
'What kind of a name is that?' her stepmother demanded.
'He's Italian,' Darcy confided grudgingly,
'An immigrant?’ Nina squealed, as if that was the funniest thing she had ever heard. 'I do hope he's not marrying you just to get a British passport!'
'I'll throw a small engagement party for you this weekend in Truro,' Margo announced grandly with a glacial smiie. 'I will not have people say that I didn't at least try to do my duty by my late husband's child.'
'That's very kind of you,' Darcy mumbled, after a staggered pause at the fact that Margo was prepared to make so much effort on her behalf. 'But—'
'No buts, Darcy. Everyone knows how eccentric you are, but I will not allow you to embarrass me in front of my friends. I will expect you and your fiance at eight on Friday, both of you suitably dressed. And if he's as hopeless as you are in polite company, tell him to keep his mouth shut and just smile.'
Her expectations voiced, Margo was already sweeping out to the hall. Darcy unfroze and sped after her. 'But Luca...Luca's got other arrangements for that night!' she lied in a frantic rush.
'Saturday, then,' Margo decreed instead.
Darcy's tremulous lips sealed again. How could she refuse to produce her supposed fiance without giving the impression that there was something most peculiar about their relationship? She should never have practised such secrecy, never have surrendered to her own shrinking reluctance to make any form of public appearance with a man in tow. In her position, she couldn't afford to arouse suspicion that there was anything strange about her forthcoming marriage.
'I'm so glad you've finally found yourself a man.' Nina dealt her a pitying look of superiority. 'What does he do for a living?'
Darcy hesitated. She just couldn't bring herself to admit that Luca was unemployed. 'He...he works in a bank.'
'A clerk...how sweet. Love blossomed over the counter, did it?'
Utterly drained, and annoyed that she had allowed her stepmother to reduce her yet again to a state of dumbstruck inadequacy, Darcy stood as the two women climbed into their sleek, expensive BMW and drove off without further ado.
'Luca, haven't you got any of my other messages? I realise that this is terribly short notice, but I do really need you to show up with me at this party in Truro...er...our engagement party,' Darcy stated apologetically to the answering machine which greeted her for the frustrating fourth time at the London number he had left with her.
'This is an emergency. Saturday night at eight. Could you get in touch, please?'
'The toad's done a bunk on you with that cheque!' Karen groaned in despair. 'I don't know why you agreed to this party anyway. Margo and Nina have to be up to something. They've never done you a favour in their lives. And if Luca fails to show up, those two witches will have a terrific laugh at your expense!'
'There's still twenty-four hours to go. I'm sure I'll hear from him soon,' Darcy muttered fiercely, refusing to give up hope as she hugged Zia, grateful for the comforting warmth of her sturdy little body next to her own.
'Darcy...you have written to him as well. He is obviously not at home and if he is home, he's ignoring you—'
'I don't think he's like that, Karen,' Darcy objected, suddenly feeling more than a little irritated with her friend for running Luca down and forecasting the worst. From what she had contrived to roughly translate of her future husband's references, one of which was persuasively written by a high court judge, she was dealing with a male of considerable integrity and sterling character.
Late that night the frustratingly silent phone finally rang and Darcy raced like a maniac to answer it. 'Yes?' she gasped with breathless hope into the receiver.
'Luca... I got your messages this evening—all of them.'
'Oh, thank heaven...thank heaven!' Just hearing the intensely welcome sound of that deep, dark accented drawl, Darcy went weak at the knees. 'I was starting to think I was going to have to ring my stepmother and say you'd come down with some sudden illness! She would've been absolutely furious. We've never been close, and I certainly didn't want this wretched party, but it is pretty decent of her to offer, isn't it?'
'I'm afraid we have one slight problem to overcome,' Luca slotted softly into that flood of relieved explanation. 'I'm calling from Italy.'
'Italy...?' Darcy blinked rapidly, thoroughly thrown by the announcement. 'It-Italy?' she stammered in horror.
'But naturally I will do my utmost to get back in time for the party,' Luca assured her in a tone of cool assurance.
Darcy sighed heavily then, unsurprised by his coolness. What right did she have to muck up his arrangements? This whole mess wasn't his fault, it was hers. After all, she had told him she wouldn't need to see him again before the wedding. Obviously he had used the money she had given him to travel home and see his family.
'I'm really sorry about this,' she said tiredly, the stress of several sleepless nights edging her voice. 'Look, can you make it?'
'With the best will in the world, not to the party before nine in the evening...unless you want to meet me there?' he suggested.
Aghast at the idea of arriving alone, Darcy uttered an instant negative.
'Then offer my apologies to your stepmother. I'll come and pick you up.'
Darcy told herself that she was incredibly lucky that Luca was willing to come back from Italy to attend the party at such short notice. 'I really appreciate this...look, you can stay here on Saturday night,' she offered gratefully. 'I'll make up the bed for you.'
"That's extraordinarily kind of you, Darcy,' Luca drawled smoothly.
Zia was spending the night with Karen in the gatehouse. Returning to the Folly to nervously await Luca's arrival, Darcy caught an unsought glimpse of her reflection in the giant mirror in the echoing hall...
And suddenly she was wishing she had spent money she could ill afford on a new outfit. The brown dress hung loose round her hips and flapped to an indeterminate length below her knees. The ruffled neckline, once chosen to conceal the embarrassing smallness of her breasts, looked fussy and old-fashioned. She was much more comfortable in trousers—never had had much luck in choosing clothes that flattered her slight and diminutive frame...
And in the back of her wardrobe the green designer evening dress which had been Maxie's wedding present three years earlier still hung, complete with shoes and delicate little beaded bag. Maxie, no longer a friend and always rather too reserved and too confident of her feminine attraction for Darcy to feel quite comfortable in her radius.