As Miss Bertram stormed from the room, Charlotte grumbled, “At least someone is convinced.”

“Yes, indeed!” Mama said. “Diana must learn her lines by heart. You can be assured that Lord Drewe will know his. How many scenes do you have with him, Diana? Is there a kiss?”

Diana threw down the booklet in exasperation. “Ursula dies a virgin, Mother. It’s the whole point of the play. There is no marriage. No kiss.”

What would Mama say if she knew Diana had kissed Aaron three times now?

Charlotte was right. Diana wanted to respect Aaron’s wishes about speaking with her brother-in-law first, but that didn’t mean she had to keep up this farce regarding Lord Drewe.

“Mama, I am not going to marry Lord Drewe. He hasn’t asked. He isn’t likely to ask. And even if he did ask, I would refuse him.”

Her mother pressed a hand to her heart. She blinked rapidly. Diana began to wonder if she should have saved this speech until after they’d located the missing vinaigrette.

When at last Mama spoke, it was quietly. “I am so proud of you, Diana.”

“Yes. I am proud of you, my dear. And I have felt the same in my own heart, but been reluctant to say it. As long as you’ve waited to marry, there should be no compromise.”

Diana was stunned speechless. If she’d known it would be this easy, she would have initiated this discussion years ago.

“You are right,” Mama went on. “You cannot marry the Marquess of Drewe. We must hold out for a duke.”

Across from her, Charlotte made the throat-slicing slash and collapsed on the divan.

Since the sky’s war on Spindle Cove seemed to be in a temporary cease-fire, Aaron found himself inordinately busy at the forge. Farmers were making use of the break in the rain to shoe their horses and get their hoes, harrows, and plowshares in working order.

Of course, this flurry of business would happen on precisely the few days Aaron wished to have the smithy to himself. He was finding it difficult to steal daylight to work on Diana’s ring. Instead, he worked at the mold by night, lighting unprecedented numbers of candles at his kitchen table.

At last he was finished, and he managed to scrape up an hour to cast the thing. He heated the gold in a crucible and poured it into the mold. When it cooled, he held it up for inspection.

Not bad. But not good enough. He’d tweak the mold and melt it down again.

As he lowered the ring, he caught a flash of golden-blond hair headed straight up his lane. At any other time, he would have been thrilled to see her, but now?

Hastily, he shoved the unfinished ring and all accompanying evidence aside, tossing a rag over the lot of it just as she entered the forge.

And after all that effort—the golden-blond hair didn’t belong to Diana at all.

“Miss Charlotte,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “This is a surprise. What can I do for you?”

She made herself at home, settling on a stool. “We’ve had a mysterious rash of thefts at the Queen’s Ruby. Diana’s thimble. Mrs. Nichols’s ink bottle. Mama’s lorgnette, my vinaigrette, and sundry loose coins.”

“That wouldn’t seem to add up to much.”

“It adds up to a pattern,” she said. “A mystery. I’ve appointed myself investigator, and I’m making interviews. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

She took out a notebook and pencil. “Now, then. Mr. Dawes, do you have any idea who might have taken the missing objects?”

“I can’t say that I do, Miss Charlotte.”

“Has anyone brought any suspicious items to the forge?”

“Very good. Just one last question.” She lowered her notebook. “Do you mean to marry my sister?”

Aaron looked up at her, startled. “What does that have to do with missing trinkets?”

“Nothing.” Miss Charlotte shrugged. “I’m just proving my powers of deduction, that’s all. I may not know who’s been filching things around the rooming house—yet—but I know there’s something between you and Diana.”

“Then when . . . ?” God. He hoped she hadn’t witnessed them on the way home from Hastings.

“I’ve known for more than a year! After I missed the signs when Minerva eloped, I made a commitment to observation. I’ve long known she fancied you.” Her head tilted. “If you do mean to propose, you will have to confront my mother.”

“I . . .” Aaron didn’t know how to refute the idea. So he didn’t. “I know I will.”

“Do you have a plan of attack?”

Charlotte’s bow-shaped mouth quirked. “This is my mother you’re dealing with. She’s a dragon. Arm yourself. Gird your loins. Gather your courage and your best steel. And yes, formulate a plan of attack.”

Aaron just shook his head. He knew the matron would be surprised and displeased, to say the least, but he didn’t want to see Mrs. Highwood as an enemy. He was usually good with mothers and sisters.

Miss Charlotte brought out a fan from her reticule, snapped it open, and began to work it vigorously. “Here. Let’s play a scene.”

“I know you ladies enjoy your theatricals, but I don’t count acting among my talents.”

“But you don’t have to act. You’re you. And I’m my mother.” She adopted a high, screeching tone. “My Diana, marry a blacksmith? Of all the horrid, unthinkable notions. She will marry a lord. If not a duke! She is the beauty of the family, as everyone knows.”

Aaron sighed under his breath. He tried to exercise patience with the matriarch of the Highwood family, knowing most of her excesses were born out of a desire for her daughters’ well-being. But he heartily disliked the way she compared the Highwood sisters against each other.

“Miss Charlotte, you are a very pretty girl. Well on the way to becoming a beauty in your own right.”

She made a face. “I wasn’t fishing for compliments. I’m pretty enough, but Diana is the beauty of the family. Just like Minerva’s the brains of the family.”

She smiled proudly. “The spirit, of course. Now come along.” She fluttered the fan. “Argue back.”

Aaron wiped his hands on a rag and sat down across from her. “Here’s the thing of it, Miss Charlotte. If your sister married me, it would affect your whole family.”

“Naturally. Diana will live here, and Min and I should always have a reason to visit Spindle Cove. That will make all three of us happy.”

“You know that’s not what I mean. Your own prospects. You’re going to have your season in London soon. And I suspect you want that excitement, even if it didn’t suit your sisters. If Miss Diana marries this far beneath her station”—he quelled Charlotte’s objection with a hand gesture—“there’s bound to be gossip. Fewer invitations, fewer suitors . . .”

He could tell his words were sinking in. She shifted uncomfortably on her stool.

“Listen, Mr. Dawes. I don’t think you’ve understood. I’m meant to be my mother in this scene we’re playing, and you’re stealing all her lines.”

He chuckled. “Let’s just say I’ve realized something. If there’s a member of the Highwood family I must approach for permission, it’s not your mother. It’s you.”

“You are important. I know Diana wouldn’t like to see you hurt.”

“I don’t like to see Diana hurt, either, Mr. Dawes. And yet I’ve watched her hurting ever since I could remember. I’ve held her hand through horrid, endless minutes when she struggled to simply breathe. While I would run and climb and play, she was always kept indoors. I was young then, but I’ve grown up now. I won’t have her penned up for another two years just so I can dance and make merry in Town.” Her gaze lifted to his. “I want, very much, to see my sister happy. If it’s my blessing you need, you have it.”

He nodded slowly. “Very well, then. But you may regret this when the London bucks come chasing after you and your brother-in-law threatens them with a red-hot poker.”

“I would. Ask my own sisters.” He rubbed his face. “But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t properly proposed.”

Charlotte hopped down from the stool and reached for her cloak. “That’s one answer you needn’t worry about.”

On Thursday, Aaron took his time getting ready.

After a thorough dousing at the pump, he shaved as close as he could manage. Tonight had to be perfect. He thought of the women making ready at the Queen’s Ruby. All the ladies flitting and hurrying about in their underthings, trading ribbons and hairpins.

That mental picture earned him a nick beneath his jaw. He examined the red line in the tiny looking glass and swore. So much for perfect.

He donned a new starched shirt, holding the collar as wide as possible so as not to spot the thing with blood. As he wrestled with his cuffs, he tried not to remind himself that a proper gentleman would have a valet to help him with these things. Last came his cleaned and mended brown coat—still the best he had, even after the roadside brawl.

Good thing he didn’t possess a full-length mirror, or it surely would have reflected a picture of discouragement.

What sort of miracle was he trying to work, anyhow? She knew him. It wasn’t as though he could fool her into thinking he was something loftier than a village blacksmith.

He started out the door and was halfway through saddling his horse when he stopped short.

In his agitation, he’d nearly forgotten the ring. Of all the things to forget. It was the one item he had to recommend him, after all.

He opened the small lockbox in his bedchamber and pulled it out, letting it glitter on the palm of his hand. He’d used gold—it suited her golden hair, and it was the finest. The band was adorned with leaves, with a small center ruby set amid diamond petals. Even if she wouldn’t marry him, he wanted her to have this. It was the best of him, and the best he knew how to offer.

His guts were in knots. This was absurd.

He was who he was. She would have him, or she wouldn’t. After tonight, he’d know.

“Mr. Dawes!” The voice came from the smithy. “Mr. Dawes!”

Aaron slipped the ring in his breast pocket before walking out and around to the front. He found Cora Maidstone, the daughter of one of the local farmers. From the state of her flushed cheeks and muddied hem, he surmised she’d run all the way here.

“It’s my father,” she said, breathless. “Our mare’s been tetchy lately, and she rolled him. Broke his leg. Bad.”

Aaron passed a hand over his face. The Maidstone family, like so many of the farming families, lived year to year. This was planting season, and his sons weren’t old enough yet to take on the plowing. If that leg didn’t heal properly—or didn’t heal at all—the whole family could starve.

“Please,” she said. “He’s hurting something fierce.”

He strode back into his cottage, shrugged out of his coat, and slung it on a hook. He gathered an apron and the kit of laudanum, bandages, and such that Lady Rycliff had given him to keep on hand for bonesettings.