The Vengeful Husband(4)

By: Lynne Graham

'Indigestion,' Darcy muttered flatly, and it wasn't a lie. Memories of that nature made her feel queasy and crushed her self-respect flat. She had been a push-over for the first sweet-talking playboy she had ever met.
'So it's back to the drawing board as far as the search for a temporary hubby goes, I gather...' Releasing her breath in a rueful hiss, Karen studied the younger woman and reluctantly dug an envelope from the pocket of her jeans and extended it. 'Here, take it. A late applicant, I assume. It came this morning. The postmark's a London one.'

To protect Darcy's anonymity, Karen had agreed to put her own name behind the advertisement's box number. All the replies had been sent to the gate lodge which Karen had recently bought from the estate. Darcy was well aware that she was running a risk in advertising to find a husband, but no other prospect had offered. If she was found out, she could be accused of trying to circumvent the conditions of her godmother's will and excluded from inheriting. But what else was she supposed to do? Darcy asked herself in guilty desperation.

It was her duty and her responsibility alone to secure Fielding's Folly for future generations. She could not fail the trust her father had imposed on her at the last. She had faithfully promised that no matter what the cost she would hold on to the Folly. How could she allow four hundred years of family history to slip through her careless fingers?

And, even more importantly, only when she contrived to marry would she be in a position to re-employ the estate staff forced to seek work elsewhere after her father's death. In the months since, few had found new jobs. The knowl¬edge that such loyal and committed people were still suf¬fering from her father's financial incompetence weighed even more heavily on her conscience.

Tearing the envelope open, Darcy eagerly scanned the brief letter and her bowed shoulders lifted even as she read. 'He's not of British birth...and he has experience as a fi¬nancial advisor—'

'Probably once worked as a bank clerk,' Karen slotted in, cynically unimpressed by the claim. A childless divor¬cee, Karen was comfortably off but had little faith in the reliability of the male sex.

'He's offering references upfront, which is more than anyone else did.' Darcy's state of desperation was betrayed by the optimistic look already blossoming in her expressive eyes. 'And he's only thirty-one.'

'What nationality?'

In the act of frowning down at the totally illegible sig¬nature, Darcy raised her head again. 'He doesn't say. He just states that he is healthy and single and that a temporary position with accommodation included would suit him right now—'

'So he's unemployed and broke.'

'If he wasn't unemployed and willing to move in, he wouldn't be applying, Karen,' Darcy pointed out gently. 'It's a reasonable letter. Since he didn't know what the job was, he's sensibly confined himself to giving basic infor¬mation only.'

As she paced the confines of Karen's tiny front room in the gate lodge five days later, Darcy pushed her thick-lensed spectacles up the bridge of her nose, smoothed her hands down over her pleated skirt and twitched at the roll collar of her cotton sweater as if it was choking her.

He would be here in five minutes. And she hadn't even managed to speak to the guy yet! Since he hadn't given her a phone number to contact him, she had had to write back to his London address and, nervous of giving out her own phone number at this stage, she had simply set up an in¬terview and asked him to let her know if the date didn't suit. He had sent a brief note of confirmation, from which she had finally divined that his Christian name appeared to be a surprisingly English-sounding Lucas, but as for his surname, she would defy a handwriting expert to read that swirling scrawl!

Hearing the roar of a motorbike out on the road, Darcy suppressed her impatience. Lucas was late. Maybe he wasn't going to show. But a minute later the door burst open. Karen poked her head in, her face filled with excite¬ment. 'A monster motorbike just drew up...and this abso¬lutely edible hunk of male perfection took off his helmet! It has to be Lucas...and Darcy, he is gorgeous—'

'He's come on a motorbike?' Darcy interrupted with a look of astonishment.

'You are so stuffy sometimes,' Karen censured. 'And I bet you a fiver you can't work up the nerve to ask this particular bloke if he'd be prepared to marry you for a fee!'

Darcy was already painfully aware that she had no choice whatsoever on that count. She had to ask. She was praying that Lucas, whoever he was and whatever he was like, would agree. She didn't have the time to readvertise. Her back was up against the wall. Yesterday she had received a letter from the company that held the mortgage on Fielding's Folly. They were threatening to repossess the house and, since she already had a big overdraft, the bank would not help without a guarantee that she would in the near future have the funds to settle her obligations.

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