He would go to her. Just as soon as he could manage it. First he needed to bathe, change, shave. He’d put on his best coat, gather up a spring flower or two. He supposed he hadn’t the time to learn any poetry—but he would bring the ring.
This was their first proper argument, and Aaron didn’t dare skimp on the reconciliation. When he did chase after her to fall at her feet and make promises . . . there could be no half measures.
He had to do this with his whole heart—even if it meant risking all.
By the time Diana arrived back in the village center, her hem and slippers were dredged in mud, and the rain had made a proper mop of her hair. With her cloak wrapped tight about her torso, no one could have guessed at the smudges on her frock beneath.
Her swollen eyes and red, sniffling nose could easily be explained away—just products of the damp weather.
She sighed. As always, her delicate health made such a convenient excuse. No one ever had to know if she didn’t wish them to.
As it turned out, she didn’t need excuses just yet. Other concerns had occupied the Queen’s Ruby residents. As the rooming house came into view, Diana saw all the young ladies milling about the front stoop, huddled under the overhang like a clutch of monks in hooded cloaks.
“Oh, there she is.” Charlotte ran to Diana’s side. “Where have you been?”
“In this?” Her sister tilted her face to the rain, then slid Diana a suspicious look.
“Never mind me. What’s going on here?”
“We’re just about to go over to the Bull and Blossom, all of us.” Charlotte threaded her arm through Diana’s. “Miss Price has insisted they clear the place out and search the rooms. She’s in a tizzy about that brooch. Says it was an heirloom.”
Mama joined them. Billowing along in her massive black cloak, she looked like a vengeful raven.
“This is an outrage,” she said bitterly. “After two years of living in this rooming house, we are made to endure such suspicion? I gave them leave to search your chamber, Diana.”
“There didn’t seem any reason not to. You have nothing to hide. Once that horrid Miss Price is satisfied of the fact, we can put all this absurdity behind us.” She made a noise of disgust. “And all this for that ugly, outmoded brooch. She ought to thank the soul who relieved her of it.”
While Mrs. Nichols and Matilda made a search of the rooming house, all the ladies made the trudge across the village green to the Bull and Blossom, where they settled at every available table. Mama ordered hot tea. Diana wished she dared ask Mr. Fosbury to doctor hers with whiskey. She despised the way all the ladies were staring at her.
She made herself small in her chair and wrapped her cloak tight about her body, praying this would all be over soon.
“Perhaps it’s time we left Spindle Cove,” she said quietly.
Her mother seized her arm with excitement. “Oh, Diana. If that is the happy result of this debacle, then I wish you’d been accused of thievery a year ago. We can go to Town at once. Minerva and Lord Payne will welcome us with open arms.”
Diana doubted that “open arms” bit, but she didn’t suppose they would be turned away.
“At last you can start moving in the best circles. Where you belong. We will make the acquaintance of so many fine gentlemen. Men of wealth and culture and excellent manners.”
Diana wanted to weep. She didn’t want men of wealth and culture. She wanted Aaron, with his small, homely cottage and his dedication to his craft. Ironically, after all Diana’s fears about her mother and society’s disapproval, he wasn’t willing to brave a little gossip for her.
“This is ridiculous,” Charlotte declared, standing and addressing the unspoken accusation in the room. “The thief wasn’t Diana. I know it wasn’t.” She turned a keen gaze on Miss Bertram, who sat huddled in her cloak in the corner of the room. “You’re very quiet.”
“What do you mean?” Miss Bertram said, shifting evasively. “I was at Ambervale last night, with everyone else. Everyone except Miss Highwood.”
The silence fractured into a flurry of whispered suppositions.
Mr. Fosbury, bless him, played peacemaker. He emerged from the kitchen, bearing a tray of teacakes to pass around. “Now, now. I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding. No one who knows Miss Highwood could believe this of her.”
Miss Price clucked her tongue. “No one who’s lived with her for the past week could deny she’s been acting strangely. Disappearing at mealtime, keeping to herself.” She confronted Diana directly. “You told everyone you were ill last night. But then you seemed right as roses this morning.”
“Yes,” Diana said. “Yes, I lied about being ill last night.”
This was it. She was going to tell the truth. Even if she had to give up her dreams of being a blacksmith’s wife, she refused to surrender her hard-won sense of freedom.
Another of the girls looked perplexed. “Why would you do that, Miss Highwood? Weren’t you looking forward to visiting Ambervale?”
“I should think the reason is obvious,” Miss Price declared. “She stayed behind so she could make free with our possessions.”
“No.” Diana pulled her spine straight. “I feigned illness for the same reason I’ve been feigning ill health for years now. Habit. And fear.” She turned to her mother, steeling her resolve. “My asthma hasn’t bothered me in years, Mama. I’ve been told I’m cured. But I’ve clung to the appearance of delicate health because . . . because it’s easier to claim a false malady than endure the real headache of arguing with you.”
A hush fell over the room. She could feel everyone staring at her.
“I’m sorry, Mama. I should have been honest and told you I didn’t wish to go.”
“Why would you not wish to go?” her mother cried. “You had the lead in the theatrical. And I know we agreed on Lord Drewe’s unsuitability, but Lord Payne was attending as well. One of them might have invited a highly placed friend.”
“I don’t care about Lord Drewe,” she exclaimed. “Nor his friends. I don’t want the same things you want, Mama. Marrying me off to a duke is your dream, not mine.”
Pursing her mouth in displeasure, Mama flicked open her fan. “I think you are ill. I’m sure I’ve never heard you speak in such a fashion.”
“Well, I suggest you get used to it.” Diana rose and confronted the room of shocked faces. “I am guilty of falsehood. It was wrong of me to lie. Not only wrong but cowardly as well. I am sorry for it. But I swear to you, I did not steal. They won’t find anything in my room.”
Matilda came bursting through the door, closely followed by Mrs. Nichols. “We found something in Miss Highwood’s room.”
“Not the brooch,” Mrs. Nichols said, giving Diana an apologetic look. “But we did find these.”
The old woman unrolled a linen handkerchief to reveal a collection of shiny metallic objects.
Oh, no. They were Aaron’s pieces. The ones she’d kept hidden at the bottom of her trousseau.
Diana went dizzy. She sat down again. “I didn’t steal those. You can ask Sally Bright.”
“Ask me what?” Sally asked, having just popped through the door. She flashed a cheeky smile. “You don’t really think I’d miss a scene like this, do you?”
Wonderful. Now the whole village was assembled to witness Diana’s humiliation. All the ladies of the Queen’s Ruby, Mr. Fosbury and his serving girl, assorted tavern patrons, and now Sally Bright—who would share the tale with the few remaining people in the parish who’d missed it.
“Those pieces Mrs. Nichols is holding. I purchased them from the All Things shop, didn’t I?”
“Oh, yes,” Sally said, peering at the handful of silver. “Last year, I think. You told me they were going to be Christmas gifts.”
“Then why were they buried at the bottom of her trunk?” Matilda asked. “All secret-like.”
“It’s plain to see what’s been going on,” Miss Price said. “The pressure of being the perfect daughter has worn on Miss Highwood, and she’s developed this compulsion to collect shiny things. At first she bought them, but now she’s resorted to stealing. I want to call for a magistrate.”
“But she doesn’t have your brooch,” Charlotte argued.
“Doesn’t she? She probably hid it elsewhere.” Miss Price ticked off the “evidence” on her fingers. “She lied about being ill. She was the only one with a chance to steal it. She disappeared again this morning, and now we find this cache of trinkets.”
“Precious?” Miss Price turned to Mrs. Nichols and raised her eyebrows in a way that said, See what I mean?
“I’m sure there’s another explanation,” Mrs. Nichols said. “Miss Highwood, if you were at the rooming house last night, did you hear anyone come in or go out?”
A ripple of murmurs passed through the tavern.
Mama snorted. “Of course you were there. Charlotte looked in on you when we returned.”
“Yes, I know. I was awake. I’d just come back in.”
Diana buried her face in her hands and rubbed her temples. This was madness. Even if she told the truth, she wasn’t sure anyone would believe her. She was about to publicly ruin herself and lose Aaron forever.
Her head and heart lifted at the sound of that familiar baritone.
He stood silhouetted in the door. His hair was damp, plastered to his brow. His boots were caked with mud. He wore the same chocolate-brown coat she’d stitched together minutes after stitching his arm.
And no man had ever looked so handsome.
“She was with me,” he repeated, walking into the tavern. “All night long.”
Diana wanted to cheer. Charlotte actually did cheer, albeit quietly.
What? Diana hadn’t been expecting her mother to take this so well.
She looked around the tavern. Everyone seemed to be taking this well.
“Oh, yes,” said Mrs. Nichols, catching on to the conclusion that was seemingly obvious to all but Diana. “We all know about Mr. Maidstone’s accident yesterday.”
Everyone in the tavern nodded and murmured in agreement.
“Mr. Dawes was called away to set a bone. Miss Diana must have heard the news. She was helping nurse an injured man, just like she helped with Finn’s surgery.”
“That is so like my daughter,” Mama crowed. “Always kind to the less fortunate.”
This was ridiculous. Diana couldn’t ruin herself when she tried.
She caught Aaron’s gaze. She knew they were sharing the same thought. They could let the mistaken assumption stand. Everything could be settled without any scandal at all.
But I don’t want to hide it, she told him with her eyes.
He nodded in agreement. “It’s all right. Tell the truth.”
Her heart beat faster. “You’re wrong, Mother. I went to Mr. Dawes’s cottage after he was finished tending to Mr. Maidstone. I . . . I spent the night there.”