'I believe I will cope.' Luca curved a confident hand over her tense spine. Her flesh tingled below the thin fabric of her dress and she shivered. He bent his glossy dark head down almost to her level, quite a feat with the difference in their heights. The faint scent of some citrus-based lotion flared Darcy's sensitive nostrils. Her breath tripping in her throat, she collided with deep, dark flashing eyes and her stomach turned a shaken somersault in reaction.
'Per meraviglia...' Luca breathed with deflating cool and impatience. 'Will you at least smile as if you're happy? And stop hunching your shoulders like that. Walk tall!'
Plunged back to harsh reality with a jolt, her colour considerably heightened, Darcy might have made a pithy retort had not Margo's housekeeper swept open the door for their entrance.
And entrance it certainly was. Margo and Nina were in the hall, chatting in a group. Their eyes flew to Darcy, and then straight past her to the tall, spectacularly noticeable male by her side. Her stepmother and her stepsister stilled in astonishment and simply stared. Suddenly Darcy was wickedly amused. Luca was undeniably presentable. How unexpectedly sweet it was to surprise the two women whose constant criticisms and cutting comments had made her teenage years such a misery.
Retaining that light hold on her, Luca carried her forward.
'Darcy...Luca,' Margo said rather stiltedly.
After waiting in vain for Darcy to make an introduction, Luca advanced a hand and murmured calmly, 'Luca Raffacani, Mrs Fielding...I'm delighted to meet you at last.'
'Margo, please,' her stepmother gushed.
Nina hovered in a revealing little slip dress, her beautiful face etched with a rigid smile while her pale blue eyes ran over Luca as if he was a large piece of her own lost property. 'I'm surprised...you don't look remotely like Richard,' she remarked. 'I was so sure you'd be horsy and hearty. Darcy always did go for the outdoor type.'
'Richard?' Luca queried.
'Oh, dear, I do hope I haven't been indiscreet,' Nina murmured with a little moue of fake dismay. 'Sorry, but I naturally assumed you would know that Darcy was engaged once before—'
'Left at the altar too. A ghastly business altogether. That's why it's so wonderful to see you happy now, Darcy!' Margo continued.
Darcy cringed as if her dress had fallen off in public, unable to look anywhere near Luca to see how he was reacting to this humiliating information. Her stepmother took advantage of her disconcertion to rest a welcoming hand on Luca's sleeve and neatly impose herself between them.
'Oh, do let us see the ring,' Nina trilled.
Darcy extended her hand. An insincere chorus of compliments followed.
They moved into a large reception room which was filled to the gills with chattering, elegantly dressed people. Margo turned to address Luca in a confidential aside. 'I'm really hoping that marriage will give Darcy something more to think about than that pile of bricks and mortar she's so obsessively attached to. What do you think of Fielding's Folly, Luca?'
'It's Darcy's home and of obvious historic interest—'
'But such a dreadful ceaseless drain on one's financial resources, and a simply huge responsibility. You'll soon find that out,' Margo warned him feelingly. 'Worry drove my poor husband to an early death. It's always the same with these old families. Land-rich, cash-poor. Morton was almost as stubborn as Darcy, but I don't think he ever dreamt that she would go to such nonsensical lengths to try and hang on to the estate—'
'I don't think we need to discuss this right now,' Darcy broke in tautly.
'It has to be said, darling, and your fiance is part of the family now,' her stepmother pointed out loftily. 'After all, I'm only thinking of your future, and Luca does have a right to know what he's getting into. No doubt you've given him a very rosy picture, and really that's not very fair—'
'Not at all. I have an excellent understanding of how matters stand on the estate,' Luca inserted with smiling calm as he eased away from the older woman and extended a hand to Darcy, closing long fingers over hers to tug her close again, as if he couldn't quite bear to be physically separated from her.
'That's right. You work in the financial field,' Nina commented with a look of amusement. 'I can hardly believe you're only a bank clerk...'
'Neither can I. Darcy...what have you been telling this family of yours?' Luca scolded with a husky laugh of amusement. 'Pressure of work persuaded me to take what you might call a sabbatical here in the UK. Meeting Darcy, a woman so very much after my own heart, was a quite unexpected bonus.'
'How on earth did you meet?'
'I'm not sure I should tell you...' Luca responded in a teasing undertone.
'Feel free,' Darcy encouraged, already staggered by the ease with which he was entertaining and dealing with Margo and Nina. Yet he had been so very, very quiet with her. But then why was she surprised at that? Her soft mouth tightened. Here he was with two lovely, admiring women hanging on his very word; quite naturally he was opening up and no longer either bored and impatient.
'OK. It happened in London. She reversed into my car and then got out and shouted at me. I really appreciate a woman with that much nerve!' Luca divulged playfully, and Darcy's bright head flew up in shock. 'You do every thing behind the wheel at such frantic speed, don't you, cara mia? I wanted to strangle her, and then I wanted to kiss her...'
'Which did you do?' Darcy heard herself prompt, unnerved by his sheer inventiveness.
'I believe some things should remain private...' To accompany that low-pitched and sensually suggestive murmur, Luca ran a long brown forefinger along her delicate jawbone in a glancing caress.
Darcy gazed up at him, all hot pink and overpowered, every muscle in her slender length tensing. Her tender flesh stung in the wake of that easy touch, leaving her maddeningly, insanely aware of his powerful masculinity.
'To think I used to believe my little stepsister was painfully shy,'
Nina breathed, fascinated against her will by this show of intimacy.
'Hardly, when she's already the mother of a noisy toddler,' Margo put in cuttingly. 'Do you like children, Luca?'
'I adore them,' he drawled, with positive fervour.
'How wonderful,' Margo said rather weakly, having shot her last bitchy bolt and found him impregnable. 'Let me introduce you to our guests, Luca. Don't be so possessive, Darcy. Do let go of the poor man for a second.'
Darcy yanked her hand from Luca's sleeve. She hadn't even realised she had been hanging onto him. Feeling slightly disorientated, she watched as he deftly reached for the glasses of champagne offered by one of the catering staff.
She studied those lean brown hands, the beautifully shaped long fingers and polished nails. She recalled the smoothness of that fingertip dancing along her oversensitive jawbone, sending tiny little tremors down her rigid spine with an innate sensuality that mesmerised. And for the shocking space of one crashing heartbeat, as she met those astonishing dark golden eyes in concert, there had been nobody and nothing else in the room for her.
'You're not making much effort, are you?' Luca gritted in her ear.
'I never challenge Margo if I can help it,' she whispered back. 'She fights back with my most embarrassing moments. I learnt that lesson years ago.'
'Strange...you didn't strike me as a woman who lies down to get kicked.'
Darcy flinched at that damning retaliation. 'Excuse me,' she muttered, and hurried off into the cool of the less crowded hall.
'You won't hold onto that guy for ten seconds,' a sharp voice forecast nastily from the rear. 'I can't think what he imagines he sees in you, but he'll soon find out he's made a big mistake.'
Darcy swung round to face her stepsister. 'Time will no doubt tell.'
'Luca's not even your type,' Nina snapped resentfully. 'How long do you think you're likely to hold off the opposition? He doesn't look dirt-poor to me either. I know clothes, and what he's wearing did not come out of any charity shop.'
'Luca likes to dress well.' Darcy shrugged.
'A peacock with a dull little peahen fluttering in his wake?' Nina sneered. 'He'll soon be out looking for more excitement. No, if there's one thing I'm convinced of now that I've seen him, it's that he's playing a double game. It has to be the British passport he's after...why else would he be marrying you?'