Her mother laughed, incredulous. “Well, whyever would you do that?”
Diana smacked a palm to her forehead. Did she have to draw every conclusion with pen and ink? “We were making love!”
Now the tavern went stone silent.
Mama snorted. “I’m sure I don’t believe that. I’d sooner believe you were a thief.”
“It’s the truth, Mrs. Highwood,” Aaron said. “Whether you believe it or not. And I’m here to ask Miss Highwood to marry me.”
From his breast pocket he removed a ring and laid it on the table. A gold band shaped like two entwined vines, with golden leaves bracketing a ruby-and-diamond bloom.
She pressed a hand to her heart. Oh, it was lovely. His best work yet. How he must have slaved over the design.
“Miss Highwood.” Aaron cleared his throat and moved as though he would kneel. “Diana, I—”
“Stop!” Mama cried.
Aaron froze in an awkward half crouch.
“How can you expect me to allow this?” Mama glared at him. “How dare you impugn my Diana’s honor in this fashion! Grasping, awful man. Of course you’d leap at the opportunity to rescue her from these silly thieving suspicions, hoping she’ll marry you in gratitude. It’s not as though a man like you would have a chance at her otherwise. But I tell you, your scheme won’t work.”
“It’s not a scheme,” Diana said. “And he has more than ‘a chance’ with me, Mama. I love Aaron. And I am going to marry him.”
Diana reached for the ring he’d laid on the table.
Her mother smacked her hand away. Smacked it, as though Diana were a three-year-old child.
Diana simmered with anger. She was not a child. She was all grown up, and her mother was about to learn the truth of it.
“Mama,” she said coolly, “listen to me closely. I am in love with Mr. Dawes. I have been for some time. I collected his pieces from the All Things shop because I admired him. We shared our first kiss in the vicar’s curricle. He introduced me to his sister on our excursion to Hastings. I tried to kill an eel for him. I shot at a robber who threatened him. And last night . . . ?” She lifted her voice. “We. Were. Making. Love. In a bed. All night long. It was hot and sweaty and glorious. I left scratches on his back. He has a freckle just to the right of his navel. And if you don’t believe all that . . .”
She ripped her cloak open and threw it aside, exposing Aaron’s black, sooty handprint on her breast. “Here. See for yourself.”
Several moments passed, during which the only sound was the mad thump of her heartbeat in her ears.
Then someone shrieked.
Strange. Diana had expected a measure of shock at her revelations, but that seemed a bit extreme, shrieking.
Now another girl screamed.
And another. “It’s a rat!”
Oh, God. It was a rat. A long-tailed, bewhiskered rat, big as a bread loaf, with a pink, twitching nose. The creature scampered onto the table—and absconded with the ring.
Aaron cursed and lunged to get it back.
“Mr. Evermoore!” Miss Bertram leaped to her feet. “Mr. Evermoore, no! You come back here right now.”
In an instant, the tavern was in upheaval. Some of the ladies jumped on chairs and tables. Others reached for any makeshift truncheon close at hand. Pots, pans, stray copies of Mrs. Worthington’s Wisdom.
“I knew it!” Charlotte cried in vindication. “I knew all along the thief had to be Miss Bertram.”
“I don’t think it was her,” Diana said. “I mean, obviously it was her . . . her pet. She must have left the rat behind last night while everyone went to Ambervale.”
“The little bastard’s over here,” Mr. Fosbury shouted. “In the kitchen.”
There was a crash of glass. Followed by an explosion of flour.
Mama crumpled into the nearest chair, her eyes rolling back in a dead faint. Just as well.
“Oh, please don’t kill him!” Miss Bertram sobbed. “He can’t help taking things. But he’s so intelligent. You don’t understand. Oh, Mr. Evermoore.”
Diana cringed at her sister. “ ‘No one understands our attachment.’ Isn’t that what she always said?”
Charlotte shuddered. “I don’t understand it, either. I don’t want to.”
The two of them laughed uneasily.
Of all the potential scandals that could have lessened Diana’s sordid revelation . . . this one would serve. Yes, she’d given her heart and her virtue to the local blacksmith. At least she wasn’t in love with a rat.
“Found it.” Aaron’s dark head popped up from the other side of the bar. He called to her. “I found the ring.”
Diana pushed through the crowd to meet him at the bar. But she couldn’t bear to remain separated from him, so she scrambled atop the counter on hands and knees.
He did the same.
They sat together, cross-legged atop the lacquered surface, while the wild rat hunt proceeded all around them.
Aaron huffed his breath, blowing a bit of flour off the jeweled setting. He shined the band with his sleeve. “I’d make a speech, but—”
She laughed and flicked a glance at the ongoing melee. “Just put it on, and quick.”
She offered her hand. He slid the ring on her finger.
“Oh, Aaron.” Emotion frayed her voice. “It’s beautiful.”
“Not as beautiful as you.”
He cupped her cheek in one of his strong workman’s hands and tilted her face to his.
And when he kissed her, the world went away.
“Wh- . . . Oh, where am I? Oh, my nerves.”
Diana winced, suddenly conscious of their surroundings. Her mother had revived just in time to see them embracing atop the bar counter, coated in flour and mud and soot, and locked in a deep, passionate kiss.
“Wonderful news, Mama.” Diana held up her left hand and waggled her ring finger. “I’m finally engaged.”
Her mother blinked at the ring. Blinked at Aaron.
And promptly fainted once again.
A few weeks later
“Are you very sure, my dear? It’s not too late to change your mind.”
Diana shook her head.
From the vestibule, she stood on tiptoe and peered down the long aisle of St. Ursula’s, festooned with bunting and posies of daffodils. All their family, friends, and neighbors sat crowding the pews in anticipation.
“Mama, the wedding will begin any moment. And it can’t start soon enough for me. I’m not going to change my mind.”
“I had to ask.” Her mother twisted a lace handkerchief in her hand. “I know you girls think me a silly, overwrought creature who thinks of nothing but marrying you to rich gentlemen. But it’s only because I love you so.”
Diana softened. “I know, Mama.”
“After we lost your father, I was anxious every moment. How would we live? Where would we go? How could I provide the best for you?” She dabbed at her eyes. “I only wanted to spare you girls the same nervousness.”
Diana’s heart twisted in her chest. “I understand. I do, and I love you for it. Please be happy for me today. I promise, you will never need to worry for me again. With Aaron, I will be loved and safe and protected. Always.”
“I suppose that is all I can ask.” Mama noisily blew her nose into the handkerchief. “Oh, but I had such dreams for you. My intuition insisted that one day a handsome duke would roll into this village in a splendid carriage, ready to choose his bride. But I suppose it’s not likely to happen.”
“I suppose not,” Diana said. “And even if it did, I would still marry Aaron.”
Mama grasped her hand and squeezed it fondly. “Mr. Dawes may not be a gentleman, but your ring is nicer than Minerva’s. There is that.”
Diana smiled. Some things never changed.
“Are we ready?” Colin Sandhurst, Lord Payne, appeared in the vestibule, looking as handsomely attired as always and quite ready to have this done.
He offered an arm to Mama and walked her down the aisle. Charlotte followed, fizzing with joy for her role as bridesmaid—or at least, for the new frock it occasioned.
Diana brought up the end of the procession.
As she walked down the grand, carpeted aisle, moving ever closer to the handsome, broad-shouldered figure at the front of the church, she saw their whole future painted for them in rich, stained-glass hues. They would marry here. They would make Christmas and Easter memories here. They would christen their children here.
If her arithmetic was correct, they could be doing that christening part in a little less than nine months. She hadn’t given Aaron any idea—it was too early yet to be sure. But she thought he might have formed his own suspicions.
As the organist played the last verse of the hymn, he drifted close. His strong arm brushed hers, and a shiver of delight passed through her. Strangely enough, she couldn’t gather the courage to look up at his face. Her whole heart would be in her eyes, she knew. And though her heart would be forever his by the end of this ceremony, she wanted to guard it just a few moments more.
“You are radiant,” he murmured. “And you look like a woman with a secret.”
“Just a little wedding present for you,” she whispered. “You’ll find out later.”
“Good. Because I have a present for us both.”
He leaned and spoke in her ear. “I hired a cook.”
She had to clap her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing aloud. Oh, she loved him so.
“Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” The vicar looked to Lord Payne, who was standing in the first row.
Luckily, her brother-in-law remained enough of a scoundrel to be easily corrupted. As she’d asked of him, he remained silent.
“I do.” Diana looked up at Aaron and smiled. “I give myself.”