As for the dress, Darcy hadn't looked near it once since her return from Venice. She needed no reminder of that night of explosive passion in a stranger's arms. Yet somehow she still hadn't been able to bring herself to dispose of that exquisite gown which had lent her the miraculous illusion of beauty for a few brief hours.
The Victorian bell-pull shrieked complaint in the piercing silence, springing Darcy out of a past that still felt all too recent and all too wounding. In haste, she yanked open the heavy door. There she stopped dead at the sight of Luca, her witch-green eyes widening to their fullest extent in unconcealed surprise.
He was wearing a supremely elegant black dinner jacket when she hadn't dared even to ask if he possessed such an article. And there he stood, proud black head high, strong dark face assured, one lean brown hand negligently thrust into the pocket of narrow black trousers to tighten them over his lean hips and long powerful thighs, his beautifully tailored jacket parted to reveal a pristine white pleated dress shirt. He looked so incredibly sophisticated and gorgeous he stole the breath from Darcy's convulsing throat.
'Gosh, you hired evening dress,' she mumbled, relocating her vocal cords with difficulty.
Luca ran brilliant dark eyes over her, a distinct frownline drawing together his ebony brows. 'Possibly I'm slightly over-dressed for the occasion?'
'No...no...not at all.' Never more self-conscious than when her personal appearance was under scrutiny, Darcy flushed to the roots of her hair. Her attention abruptly fell on the glossy scarlet Porsche sitting parked beside the ancient Land Rover which was her only means of transport. 'Where on earth did you get that car?' she gasped helplessly.
'It's on loan.'
Slowly, Darcy shook her curly auburn head. It would be madness to turn up in an expensive car and give a false impression of Luca's standing in the world. Margo would ask five hundred questions and soon penetrate the truth. Then Luca, who could only have borrowed the car for her benefit—and she couldn't help but be touched by that realisation—would end up feeling cut off. 'I would really love to roar up in the Porsche, but it would be wiser to use the Land Rover,' she told him in some disappointment.
'Dio mio... you are joking, of course.' Luca surveyed the rusting and battered four-wheel drive with outright incredulity. 'It's a wreck.'
Darcy opened the door of the Land Rover. 'I do know what I'm talking about, Luca,' she warned. 'If we show up in the Porsche, my stepmother will get entirely the wrong idea and decide that you're loaded. If we're anything less than honest, we'll both be left sitting with egg on our faces. We want to blend in, not create comment, and that car must be worth about thirty thousand—'
'Seventy thousand pounds?' Darcy broke in, her disbelief writ large in her shaken face.
'And some change,' Luca completed drily.
'Wish I had a friend willing to trust me with a car like that! We'll park the Land Rover out on the road and run away from it fast,'
Darcy promised, worriedly examining her watch and then climbing into the driver's seat to forestall further argument. 'I'd let you drive, but this old girl has a number of idiocyncrasies which might irritate you.'
'This is ridiculous,' Luca swung into the tatty passenger seat with pronounced reluctance, his classic profile hard as a granite cliff in winter.
As she stole a second glance at that hawkish masculine profile, Darcy found herself thinking that he had a kind of Heathcliffish rough edge when he was angry.
And he was definitely angry, and she didn't mind in the slightest. It made him seem far more human. Posh cars and men and their egos, she reflected with sudden good cheer. Even she understood that basic connection. 'Believe me, you're about to cause enough of a stir tonight. You're very good-looking...'
'Am I really?' Luca prompted rather flatly.
'Oh, come on, no false modesty. I bet you've been breaking hearts from the edge of the cradle!' Darcy riposted with a rueful sound of amusement.
'You're very frank.'
'In that garb you look like you just strolled in off a movie set,' Darcy reeled off, trying to work herself up to giving the little speech she had planned. 'Do you think you could contrive to act like you're keen on me tonight? No...no, don't say anything,' she urged with a distinctly embarrassed laugh. 'It's just that nobody can smell a rat faster than Margo or Nina, and you are not at all what they are primed to expect.'
'What are they expecting?'
'Some ordinary boring guy who works in a bank.'
'Where do you get the idea that bankers are boring?'
'My bank manager could bore for Britain. Every time I walk into his office, he acts like I'm there to steal from him. That man is just such a pessimist,' Darcy rattled on, grateful to have got over the hint about him acting keen without further discussion. It was so unbelievably embarrassing to have to ask a man to put on such a pretence.
'When he tells me the size of my overdraft, he even reads out the pence owing to make me squirm—'
'You have an overdraft?'
'It's not as bad as it sounds. The day we get married, I will have some really good news for my bank manager...at least I hope he thinks it's good news, and loosens the purse-strings a little.' She shot him an apprehensive glance, wishing she hadn't allowed nervous tension to tempt her into such dangerous candour.
'Don't worry, if the worst comes to the worst, I could always sell something to keep the bank quiet. I made a commitment to you and I won't let you down.'
'I'm impressed. Tell me, have you thought of a cover story for this evening?' Luca enquired with some satire.
'Where and how we met, et cetera, et cetera.'
'Of course,' she said in some surprise. 'We'll say we met in London. I haven't been there in over a year, but they're not likely to know that. I want to give the impression that we've plunged into one of those sudden whirlwind romances and then, when we split up, nobody will be the slightest bit surprised.'
'I see you're wearing a ring.'
'It's on loan, like your Porsche. We can't act engaged without a ring.' Darcy had borrowed the diamond dress ring from Karen for the evening, and her finger had been crooked ever since it went on because it was a size too big and she was totally terrified of losing it.
'Don't you think you ought to fill me in on a few background details on your family? My younger sister is the only close relative I have,' he revealed. 'She's a student.'
'Oh...right. My stepmother, Margo, was first married to a wealthy businessman with one foot in the grave. They had a daughter, Nina, who's a model,' she shared. 'Margo married my father for social position; he married her in the hope of having a son. Dad was always very tight with money, but Margo and Nina could squeeze juice out of a dehydrated lemon. He was extremely generous to them. That's one of the reasons the estate is in such a mess...I inherited the mess and a load of death duties.'
'Very succinct,' Luca responded with a slight catch in his voice.
'Margo and Nina are frantic snobs. They spend the summer in Truro and the rest of the year in their London apartment. Margo doesn't like me but she loves throwing parties, and she is very, very conscious of what other people think.’
'Good heavens, no, as an unmarried mother, I can hardly afford to be!'
'I think I should at least know the name of the father of your child,' Luca remarked.
The silence in the car became electric. Darcy accelerated down the road, small hands clenching the steering wheel tightly. 'On that point, I'm afraid I've never gratified anyone's curiosity,' she said stiffly, and after that uncompromising snub the silence lasted all the way to Truro.
Some distance from her stepmother's large detached home, which was set within its own landscaped grounds on the outskirts of town, Darcy nudged her vehicle into a space. And only with difficulty They walked up the sweeping drive and Darcy's heart sank as she took in the number of cars already parked. 'I think there's going to be a lot more people here than I was led to expect. If anyone asks too many probing questions, pretend your English is lousy,' she advised nervously.