The Vengeful Husband(3)

By: Lynne Graham

'Advertising?' Luca echoed in raw disbelief.

Country woman seeks quiet, well-behaved and domes¬ticated single male without close ties, 25-50, for short-term live-in employment. Absolute confidentiality guar¬anteed. No time-wasters, please.

"That's not an advertisement for a's an ad for an emasculated household pet!' Luca launched with in¬credulous bite.

'I'm going to have to advertise again,' Darcy divulged grimly to Karen as she mucked out the stall of the single elderly occupant in the vast and otherwise horse-free stable yard. She wielded the shovel like an aggressive weapon. Back to square one. She could hardly believe it—and that wretched advertisement had cost an arm and a leg!

Standing by and willing to help, but knowing better than to offer, Karen looked in surprise at her friend. 'But what happened to your shortlist of two possibilities? The gar¬dener and the home handyman?'

Darcy slung the attractive thirty-year-old brunette a weary grimace. 'Yesterday I phoned one and then the other in an attempt to set up an interview—'

'In which you planned to finally spill the confidential beans that matrimony was the real employment on offer.' Karen sighed. 'Boy, would I like to have been a fly on the wall when you broke that news!'

'Yes, it turns out, I shan't need to embarrass myself just yet. One had already found a job elsewhere and the other has moved on without leaving a forwarding ad¬dress. I shouldn't have wasted so much time agonising over my choice.'

"What choice? You only got five replies. Two were ob¬scene and one was weird! The ad was too vague in one way and far too specific in the other. What on earth pos¬sessed you to put in "well-behaved and domesticated"? I mean, talk about picky, why don't you? Still, I can't really say I'm sorry that you've drawn a blank,' Karen admitted, with the bluntness that made the two women such firm friends.

'Karen...' Darcy groaned.

'Look, the thought of you being alone in this house with some stranger gives me the shivers!' the brunette confided anxiously. 'In any case, since you didn't want to risk ad¬mitting in the ad that you were actually looking for a tem¬porary husband, what are the chances that either of those men would have been agreeable to the arrangement you were about to offer?'

Darcy straightened in frustration. 'If I'd offered enough money, I bet one of them would have agreed. I need my inheritance, Karen. I don't care what I have to do to get it. I don't care if I have to marry the Hunchback of Notre Dame to meet the conditions of Nancy's will!' Darcy ad¬mitted with driven honesty. 'This house has been in my family for four hundred years—'

'But it's crumbling round your ears and eating you up alive, Darcy. Your father had no right to lay such a burden on you. If he hadn't let Fielding's Folly get in such a state while he was responsible for it, you wouldn't be facing the half of what you're facing right now!'
Darcy tilted her chin, green eyes alight with stubborn determination. ' long as I have breath in my body and two hands to work with, the Folly will survive so that I can pass it on to Zia.'

Pausing to catch her breath from her arduous labour, Darcy glanced at her two-year-old daughter. Seated in a grassy sunlit corner, Zia was grooming one of her dolls with immense care. Her watching mother's gaze was awash with wondering pride and pleasure.

Zia had been blessed at birth, Darcy conceded gratefully. Mercifully, she hadn't inherited her mother's carroty hair, myopic eyesight or her nose. Zia had lustrous black curls and dainty, even features. There was nothing undersized or over-thin about her either. She was a strikingly pretty and feminine little girl. In short, she was already showing all the promise of becoming everything her mother had once so painfully and pointlessly longed to be...

Zia wouldn't be a wallflower at parties, too blunt-spoken to be flirtatious or appealing, too physically plain to attract attention any other way. Nor would Zia ever be so full of self-pity that she threw herself into the bed of a complete stranger just to prove that she could attract a man. Pierced to the heart by that painful memory, Darcy paled and guilt¬ily looked away from her child, wondering how the heck she would eventually explain that shameful reality in terms that wouldn't hurt and alienate her daughter.

Some day Zia would ask her father's name, quite rea¬sonably, perfectly understandably. And what did Darcy have to tell her? Oh, I never got his name because I told him I didn't want it. Even worse, I could well walk past him on the street without recognising him, because I wasn't wearing my contacts and I'm a little vague as to his actual features. But he had dark eyes, even darker hair, and a wonderful, wonderful voice...

Beneath Karen's frowning gaze, Darcy had turned a beet¬root colour and had begun studiously studying her booted feet. 'What's up?'

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