Book Two in the Hands of Fate Series
Melaina Hartley was happy. As the daughter of a wealthy explorer and spice merchant, she lived a perfect life in the small town of Carth, a town in Pennsylvania owned almost exclusively by Mr. Ashwood of Carth industries.
When Melaina’s father falls on hard times, his partner in business, Mr. Ashwood, offers Melaina a unique proposition— accompany his wayward daughter to London and see her safely married to the Duke of Westmire. Only then will he forgive her father’s debts.
But Blanche Ashwood is more than a handful for poor Melaina. On the eve of her introduction as the Duke of Westmire’s fiance, the spice heiress commits a horribly dishonorable act that could bring scandal down on the Duke’s entire household AND land Melaina’s father in debtor’s prison… unless Melaina takes her place.
With her life spinning out of control, Melaina steps into Blanche’s shoes and is introduced to the London society as the Duke of Westmire’s bride-to-be.
Luca Deval is content with his life in the shadows. He has finally found a place in the Cirque De Straniu, a traveling show made up of a band of miscreants and thieves. He is not about to let some far-fetched scheme drive the Cirque into the ground, or end them all up in prison (again.) The Cirque is his family. He has to keep them safe.
So when the leader of the Cirque announces his plans to kidnap the Heiress of Carth and hold her for ransom, Luca plays his part well. It is only his cool head that keeps the people of the Cirque from landing themselves in a whole lot of trouble…
But the so-called Heiress is nothing like he expected her to be, and before Luca realizes what has happened, the woman has enthralled him. Will he be able to let her go when the time comes? Or will the woman that Luca has kidnapped capture his heart instead?
A Breath of Scandal
Melaina clutched at the pain lacing up her side as she stared wide-eyed through the milling crowd standing in the Duke of Westmire’s foyer. She had to be here somewhere. The air seemed to have grown thin as panic grew to a crescendo inside her chest.
Carefully concealed by a frilly potted plant at the top of the stairs, she gazed down into the thronging mass of gentry below. Her heart was pounding as fast as the hooves of the horse that had carried her here, but Miss Blanche Ashwood was nowhere to be seen.
Melaina dabbed a bead of sweat from her damp forehead. Why, oh, why did Blanche have to choose tonight of all nights?
“Any sign of her?” the voice of her new friend and confidant, Lady Agatha Edgewater, echoed down the hall.
Melaina jumped and held a finger to her lips as Agatha approached. Lady Edgewater was dressed in a lavender gown that swished as she walked, making her blue eyes shine in the dim light. Her friend placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. “Blanche will turn up,” she whispered. As she drew nearer, her sparkling eyes scanned the thronging floor below. A widowed woman in her mid-thirties, Agatha was well respected amongst London society. She was a pretty woman, with dark hair and pointed cheekbones. At the moment, her thin lips were pursed.
It seemed all of London had turned up to bear witness to the engagement of the beloved Duke of Westmire to the infamous Miss Ashwood, a spice heiress of extreme wealth and prominence in America. Miss Ashwood had traveled to London at her father’s bidding, set to marry Lord Westmire on the twenty-second of November… and Melaina had been dragged along with her. They were staying at Lady Edgewater’s house in town.
Melaina growled low in her throat. “Miss Ashwood is well-aware of what this night could cost me,” she hissed to Agatha. “She knows what it will cost us both if she doesn’t show. How can she—?” she broke off at the creak of a door behind them, and both women turned to look at the footman that was waving frantically to them from the servants’ stair. “Miss Melaina, come quick. We’ve found her.”
Melaina let out a sigh of relief that did little to calm her stuttering pulse. “Where is she?” she breathed, stalking down the hall and following the footman’s head as it bobbed off down the narrow staircase on her left.
“Down here, Miss. She’s… ah— perhaps it will be best if you see for yourself.”
Melaina’s little finger gave an uncomfortable twitch.
“What has she done this time?” whispered Agatha, tailing along in their wake.
Melaina turned back, already half-way down the first flight of steps. “You don’t have to come down, Miss,” she whispered. “It’s not proper.”
The Lady Edgewater let out a tinkling laugh. “Not proper, my foot!” she exclaimed. “I haven’t had this much fun in years.”
Fun. Melaina shook her head. Fun wasn’t precisely what she would call Miss Blanche Ashwood. No, impulsive, inconsiderate, arrogant perhaps. But fun? Not at all.
Melaina hadn’t understood why Mr. Ashwood had been so determined that Melaina should accompany his daughter on her voyage to London. Nor why he had resulted to threats to ensure that the marriage between Blanche and the Duke of Westmire would indeed be a success.
“Blanche is… headstrong,” he had said.
Melaina recalled the smell of cigar smoke and warm leather wafting towards her as Mr. Ashwood rose and circled around behind her chair. She was perched on the edge of her seat in front of his vast mahogany desk. They were home, in Carth Pennsylvania. The thriving town situated on the edge of Lake Erie from which Mr. Ashwood ran his thriving spice empire. Her father was sitting in the chair beside her, tugging at his collar.
“She needs a firm hand. Someone to keep her on the path that I have marked for her.”
Melaina frowned. Miss Ashwood was at least nineteen years old. Surely, she was more than capable of traveling with a single chaperone to England in the early fall.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she said, looking to her father for clarification.
“Your father is indebted to me,” answered Mr. Ashwood curtly. Melaina glanced over her shoulder to see him fingering the spine of a thick ledger on the side table behind them. “A considerable sum, I’m afraid.”
“What?” gasped Melaina, her eyes widening as she took in her father’s ashen complexion. “Is this true?”
Her father cleared his throat, tugged at his collar once more, and nodded.
“If Blanche marries the Duke of Westmire, I have agreed to forgive his debts,” continued Mr. Ashwood, as though Melaina had not made a sound.
“I’m afraid I still don’t understand.”
Mr. Ashwood circled around his desk to face them once more. “My daughter does not wish to marry the Duke,” he stated plainly, folding his hands behind his back. “But this marriage will open up trade routes along the Eastern coast of England. Trade routes currently in the possession of the Duke of Westmire. If I can gain access to those routes…” Mr. Ashwood smiled for the first time, and then his dark eyes focused on hers. “Ensure that my daughter marries the Duke, Miss Hartley, and I will forgive your father’s debts. Fail to do so, and I will have him imprisoned.”
Melaina turned away from Lady Edgewater, trying to ignore the sick feeling enveloping her gut as they made their way through the dark scullery and stepped into the kitchen, which was ablaze with light. The scene that met them halted Melaina mid-step.
There were four people in the room. One of them, Melaina recognized as the Duke’s butler. He was an imposing figure, tall and broad shouldered, with a cap of thinning black hair on his head. The plump, nervous woman wringing her wrinkled hands beside him was the cook. Melaina had been to speak to the woman personally two days before, regarding Blanche’s ‘special’ diet, the one that meant that she was not permitted to consume any alcoholic beverages during tonight’s gala.
The second woman was, thank the Lord above, Blanche Ashwood, who was sitting at the scrub table, her heart-shaped face glowing like the setting sun.
“Melaina!” she exclaimed, springing to her feet the moment she saw her. “Melaina, my dear! Have you heard the happy, happy news?” Blanche ran forward and wrapped her arms around her, squeezing Melaina so tightly that she nearly forgot what it felt like to breathe.
“What—what do you mean? What is this?”
But Melaina had just caught sight of the fourth figure in the room, who had risen from his seat at the table slowly, his face abashed and the back of his neck red. The butler was glaring at him with his arms crossed.
“I refuse to employ a scoundrel such as yourself, Geoffrey. You’ll turn in your livery and be on your way tomorrow before dawn,” he spat. “You’ve brought an unclarified amount of shame on this household with your actions tonight.”
Melaina looked from the young footman to Blanche’s beaming face and back again, fear burrowing deep into her belly. “Blanche,” she whispered, “What have you done?”
The heiress’s face fell slightly as she took in the terror in Melaina’s expression. “I—I fell in love,” she said. “We’re married now.”
Melaina stared at Blanche’s silvery dress and at her wide blue eyes, uncomprehending. “In love,” she repeated. She took a step back, her gaze blurring slightly, so that all she could see was the firelight dancing off Blanche’s blonde hair.
“Yes,” smiled Blanche, taking hold of her hands, “With Geoffrey.”
Melaina’s fingers were so numb that she couldn’t truly feel Blanche’s hands in her own. “With Geoffrey,” she repeated again. “Geoffrey. This man?” she pointed a trembling finger at the red-faced footman standing a few feet away from them. “The Duke’s footman?”
“He’s also his valet,” said Blanche, still smiling. “Come, come. You must meet him.”
“No.” Melaina stood her ground as Blanche tried to tug her forward. “No, I mustn’t meet him.” Her vision cleared, her eyes narrowing to slits. She jerked her head. “You will get an annulment,” she murmured. “No one need ever know. Close the door,” she snapped at Lady Edgewater.
Agatha jumped at being addressed so sharply, but did as she was told, unable to disguise her excitement. What a scandal! The Duke’s bride to be has married his valet!
Every eye in the room was fixed on Melaina, but she only had eyes for her charge, whose joyful expression was sliding away as though she had been doused with icy water.
“We won’t get an annulment,” she stated. “We’re going to travel to India together.”
“India,” scoffed Melaina, her fury only just contained. “India! If you marry the Duke, he’ll take you to travel the world, you daft wagtail!”
Blanche set her stubborn jaw, just as Melaina had seen her do on countless occasions since she’d been tasked with the woman. “I will not be marrying the Duke,” she hissed. “I’m married to Geoffrey, and there is no undoing it, Melaina. No judge will grant us an annulment. Not now.”
Melaina stared at her. “You didn’t…” she whispered. “Blanche Melody Ashwood. Please tell me you didn’t.”
Blanche lifted her chin, a defiant gleam in her eye. “It’s consummated,” she stated boldly. “There is no undoing it, Melaina. It is done.”
A furious cry tore from Melaina’s chest, tearing at her throat. “Do you realize what you’ve done?!” The anguished sound of her voice made every soul in the room tremble.
“My father’s business will be just fine,” mumbled Blanche, lowering her eyes to her toes for the briefest of moments.
“And what of my father?!” Melaina cried. “I told you, Blanche! I trusted you with the truth! You’ve… you’ve betrayed me!” Her chest was tight, her ribs straining against her stays. “Blanche! How could you?”
All at once, the fight left her, and Melaina slumped forward to sink, shaking, into one of the sturdy kitchen chairs.
“I haven’t betrayed you,” whispered Blanche. “I haven’t.”
Melaina refused to meet the woman’s gaze as Blanche dropped to her knees in front of her, her hands coming down atop Melaina’s own.
She stared down at Blanche’s slender fingers. They were thin and tapered and soft. The woman had never worked for anything a day in her life.
“Listen, Laina, darling. Listen, I have a plan.”
Blanche reached up to brush a strand of reddish hair away from Melaina’s tear-filled eyes as Melaina shook her head.
“My father will go to debtor’s prison,” she whispered through quivering lips.
“No,” said Blanche. “No, he won’t. I won’t be marrying the Duke, but you can marry him in my stead.”
Five whole seconds ticked by on the pendulum clock in the corner of the kitchen. The butler was the first to break the silence. “It’s possible,” he said in his gruff voice. “Very possible.”
Melaina’s head snapped up. “What on Earth do you mean?” she growled. “Of course it isn’t possible. The Duke will never accept me as his bride! He’s counting on Miss Ashwood’s dowry! My penniless family has nothing to offer the Duke of Westmire!”
“But…” said Blanche, her jovial smile returning, “mine does.”
Melaina shook her head, trying to clear it.
Blanche continued. “Think about it! The Duke has never met me before. He has no concept of my appearance. None at all, save a small sketch that my father had commissioned for him last year when they began their negotiations.”
“We look nothing alike!” cried Melaina, eyeing the heiress’s blonde hair.
“We’ll just say that the artist was incapable of capturing your likeness,” said Lady Edgewater unexpectedly.
Melaina turned in her seat to glare at her.
“I haven’t even met with my father’s London solicitor yet,” said Blanche. “The only people that know what I look like are in this very room!”
“It’s true. My servants have been mixing the two of you around from the moment you arrived at my home two months ago,” added Lady Edgewater.
“We’ve been planning this night for nearly half a year,” said Blanche. “The Duke’s aunt wished to put off our official meeting until every arrangement was made.”
“Do you suppose he’s rather unfortunate looking?” giggled Melaina helplessly. “Oh, Blanche, I can’t marry the Duke.”
“You’d be a duchess,” murmured Blanche.
“A duchess under your name!” Melaina stressed. “I’m sorry, but this is completely preposterous.”
“Miss Hartley, if I may speak,” the butler stepped forward. “Geoffrey and Miss Ashwood’s behavior will result in the largest scandal English Society has seen since Prinny himself took up with Mrs. Robinson. If you were to marry the Duke under Miss Ashwood’s name, that could all be avoided.” He looked hopeful at the very thought, his eyes shining. It was clear that this man was very proud of the house he served. “The elopement of a potential Duchess would be a disaster,” he finished. “You could save the Westmire home from certain shame.”
Melaina paused, martialing her thoughts, and somehow, the idea began to make sense. “But what about your father?” she hedged. “You can’t possibly think that he won’t visit. I thought he was planning on attending the wedding?”
Blanche shook her head, wiping at her nose, her expression suddenly wooden. “Father sent a missive last Tuesday. He will be traveling to Mexico City in November. He apologized and sent his regrets.” Her chin quivered.
Despite her fury at the situation into which she had been placed, Melaina couldn’t help the twinge of sympathy she felt for Blanche. What must it be like, to have a father whose main concern was never you?
In their months together, Blanche had told Melaina the stories. Stories of the birthdays he had always missed, the Christmas mornings spent with her governess and the household staff… because her mother was gone, you see, and her father couldn’t be bothered with her.
She reached out and took Blanche’s hand, then looked around at every hopeful, excited face in the kitchen. There would be seven people, including herself, in on the secret.
“If I agree to do this,” Melaina peered carefully into each face, making sure each of them met her gaze. “No one must ever know. You must all give me your word. From this moment on, Melaina Hartley does not exist.”
“Hurry! Hurry!” Melaina gave Blanche a shove on her pert backside as the two of them scampered back up the servants’ staircase, closely followed by Lady Edgewater.
At the top of the stairs, the three women separated. “I’ll go down to soothe feathers,” she said. “You’re nearly two hours late. I’ll tell them our carriage was caught up on the ride over.”
“You best tell them it was overturned,” chuckled Melaina. The thrill of what she was about to do was making her giddy. She took hold of Blanche’s arm and they sped off down the hall, looking for an open doorway.
“Thank heavens we’re nearly the same size,” Blanche whispered as they slid into a guest chamber and closed the door. “You couldn’t very well be introduced as the next Duchess of Westmire in that dowdy old rag, now could you?”
Melaina scowled, but otherwise ignored the slight on her dress. She was, indeed, a full-figured girl, as was Blanche. Her hips had often been referred to as “perfect birthing hips” by her auntie.
As she stripped off her pretty red and floral gown, she glanced down at those hips and thought that someday, she could potentially be giving birth to the Duke of Westmire’s children. Would they be considered illegitimate if the Duke ever discovered that he had been fooled? But why should he?
“Help me with the buttons, will you?” asked Blanche, drawing Melaina back down to Earth. She was hopping on the spot, struggling to undo the line of costly, pearl buttons that ran the length of her silver gown.
“You do realize, that you won’t be able to afford a handmaiden after this, don’t you?” chuckled Melaina, setting to work on the pearls at once.
“I won’t need one,” muttered Blanche, a smile in her voice. “I’ll have a husband for such things.”
Melaina sighed. “I’m so angry with you,” she said, finishing with the buttons and helping to tug the long silver sleeves from her friend’s arms. “But I can’t blame you for not wanting a husband foisted upon you against your will…” she sighed again. “You never even gave the Duke a chance. He could be quite nice, you know.”
Blanche snorted. “He rubs along quite well with my father, what do you think that says about his charming personality?”
Melaina giggled. “It must be non-existent.”
“Exactly. Now step into this at once and turn around, I’ll do you up.”
There was a soft knock on the door. “Who is it?!” they both cried in unison.
“It’s just me, you ninnies, settle down,” Lady Edgewater sidled into the room and closed the door behind her.
“Hurry up, they’re waiting for you, Miss Ashwood,” she beamed at Melaina, who gulped audibly.
Blanche was sliding her hips into Melaina’s red dress and fastening the last of the buttons. “Don’t wait for me,” she said. “Go!”
“Is this goodbye then?” Melaina looked up at Blanche, saddened at the thought that she might never see the rambunctious heiress again.
“Oh…” Blanche paused, glancing up and taking hold of Melaina’s arm. “Perhaps not just yet. Come, sit here.”
She pushed Melaina down onto the stool in front of the room’s vanity table and took up a comb. In a matter of seconds, she had Melaina’s reddish brown curls pooled on top of her head. They dangled there, just above her chocolate eyes, and Melaina exhaled them out of her face. She glanced at herself in the mirror, shocked that she couldn’t see the frantic thrum of her heartbeat as it attempted to pound its way out of her chest.
“I’d pinch your cheeks, but they’re red enough as it is. Do try to calm down, won’t you?”
“Great gingersnaps, Blanche Ashwood, how am I supposed to calm down?” Melaina’s voice was high and squeaky.
“Breathe,” suggested Lady Edgewater. “Now come, let’s be off.”
“One more thing,” sighed Blanche, frowning as she bent her head forward and unclasped her necklace. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “I took a few of the pieces from my collection, on the off chance we need to sell them. But the rest of them are yours now.”
“M-mine?” Melaina stuttered as Blanche slid a glorious necklace around her throat. “They’re opals,” she said indicating the gems surrounding a pearl cameo in the center, “and here,” she passed Melaina a set of pearl earbobs. “There, now you’re ready.”
She smiled and kissed Melaina on each cheek. “Best of luck to you.”
“And to you,” Melaina whispered. The women hugged. “Stay out of trouble.”
Blanche winked. “You know I cannot promise anything of the sort.”
Melaina left the room on Lady Edgewater’s arm. “We’ll go down together. There’s a footman waiting to announce you on the landing.”
Indeed, there was. Melaina swallowed. Her throat had gone dry. She tried to clear it, but only succeeded in making another soft squeaking noise, like a mouse being trodden on.
“Here we go!” laughed Lady Edgewater, sounding exhilarated, and she tugged Melaina off down the stairs.
The footman caught sight of them. The staff in his hand lifted and fell three times onto the top-most stair with a mundane finality that echoed throughout the entire room. Every eye in the entire place found Melaina and fixed her where she stood.
“Lady Edgewater of Green Haven, and Miss Ashwood, the Heiress of Carth.”
For a moment, Melaina stood there and trembled, staring around at every upturned face. She experienced a momentary, mad desire to flee back up the stairs, but Lady Edgewater took a firm grip on her arm and whispered: “Smile, my dear. You’re about to become the Duchess of Westmire.”
Melaina straightened her back and felt her face split into a brilliant smile. The moment that her feet touched the bottom step, the room erupted with brief, polite applause and then everyone started talking at once.
“Where is he?” Melaina whispered. “The Duke. Where is he?”
“Calm down,” whispered Agatha out of the corner of her mouth. “He’s here.”
“Looking for me?”
Melaina gave a start at the voice that spoke just over her shoulder and turned around so fast that she cricked her neck.
“May I introduce to you, the Duke of Westmire?” said a stoic, paunchy man to her left.
Melaina’s eyes found the Duke’s, and her face flushed a brilliant shade of scarlet.
He wasn’t a particularly tall man. Standing a few feet apart from one another, she could tell that he was only a few inches taller than she, and there was a certain sweetness to his face that she found comforting. He had an angular jawline that was ringed by short, bristling hairs, and his hazel eyes crinkled in the corners as he smiled at her. He was older than she had thought he would be. She would have guessed him at forty and six or seven, but with an unmistakable air of sureness about himself, as though he knew the world would shift beneath his feet to make way for him.
The Duke stepped nearer to her and bowed low over Melaina’s hand. She was abruptly aware of her dress, and how there was a wrinkle in the silken fabric near her left knee. She also noticed that the eyes of the crowd around her were following her every move.
Forgetting herself, she stared at the Duke as he rose, smiling expectantly. Lady Edgewater gave Melaina a discreet nudge with her elbow and she abruptly dropped into a low curtsy.
“My Lord Westmire,” she murmured to the tiled floor. “It is an honor.”
“The honor is mine, Miss Ashwood.”
Melaina thought that her heart might soon explode from the strain of the evening. She straightened. “I must apologize for my inexcusable lateness, my Lord. We were met with difficulties on our arrival.” It felt good to tell at least some portion of the truth to this man. At least her first words to him wouldn’t be an outright lie.
“You were missed,” he said. “I was… rather eager to meet you. I must say,” he was staring at her with heated intensity, and for a moment, Melaina faltered. He must realize… how could he not? “The image your father sent me does not do you justice.”
The breath that she had not realized she was holding escaped her lips in a sigh of relief. She smiled at him and bobbed another small curtsy. “Thank you, my Lord.”
He nodded his head, holding out his arm to her. “Perhaps, we could speak more privately for a moment?”
Melaina blinked, then cast a side-long look at Agatha, who nodded encouragingly. Melaina forced a smile and, feeling as though she were relinquishing a life-ring amidst a turbulent sea, she transferred herself onto the Duke’s arm.
He led her away from the entrance hall, down a narrow hallway, and drew her into a smaller, but still extravagant sitting room. Melaina felt a twinge of unease as he signaled a footman to close the doors behind them.
“Oughtn’t we to have a chaperone, my Lord?”
“Grunnings will do,” said the Duke with a small smile, indicating the austere painting of an elderly gentleman that hung above the mantelpiece. “I must apologize, but I’ve been waiting months to have a look at my future bride and I’m not at all interested in being eavesdropped upon.”
Melaina chuckled, “I would think being eavesdropped upon would be an occupational hazard of being the Duke of Westmire.”
The Duke frowned, releasing her arm to stride over to the sideboard. “Unfortunately, yes,” he growled. “If every one of my peers doesn’t have his ear pressed against the door at this very moment, then I’m a horse’s prominent backside.”
“Would you like a whiskey?” asked the Duke, pouring himself a generous measure.
She coughed. “A whiskey? I think not.”
The Duke looked up at her in surprise. “I’m sorry, I had heard rumors that you liked to partake, however scandalous that may seem.”
He smiled, and his eyes crinkled pleasantly in the corners again.
At his words, Melaina recalled that she was supposed to be impersonating Blanche Ashwood, an heiress notorious for her scandalous behavior and lack of propriety.
“Oh, go on then,” said the Duke, holding out a glass to her.
She took it and, without giving herself a moment to consider, tipped the entire glass into her mouth. The liquid seared at her throat, making her eyes water. She gulped audibly and made a horrid face.
The Duke chuckled and refilled her glass for her. Melaina gazed doubtfully down into the amber liquid and raised it to her lips once more.
But the Duke placed a palm over the rim. “Perhaps, we should take things slowly,” he said, raising an eyebrow. Melaina nodded, thanking her lucky stars that she wasn’t expected to taste the foul liquid for a second time, and followed him to the settee. The Duke waited politely for her to take a seat and then folded himself into one of the cushioned chairs opposite her with all the dignity that befitted his station. He looked so comfortable in his surroundings, that for a moment, Melaina quite wanted to confess that she had absolutely no idea what she was doing.
She swallowed the urge, and looked expectantly at the Duke, waiting for him to speak.
His glass tapped twice against the arm of his chair.
“Your father has informed me of your… reluctance in this arrangement.”
Melaina opened her mouth, and then closed it again. She sat back against the cushions. “Yes,” she said finally, “I have… expressed that view.”
“Done quite a bit more than expressed it, I think,” he chuckled. “I want you to understand that I intend to make good on my word to your father, but I do not want you to feel as though you are being forced into a situation in which you have no say.” He paused as Melaina’s eyebrows flew up. “A shock?” he queried. “I’m sorry to be so straight-forward,” he shrugged, “I like to be clear in my intentions.” He took a tiny sip of the amber fire in his glass. I did it wrong, thought Melaina, watching him swallow with apparent enjoyment. “I just want to request that you give this arrangement a chance. I was quite looking forward to meeting you tonight. I hope that I am not a disappointment to you.”
“Not at all,” said Melaina hurriedly. “Your frankness is much appreciated.” But the Duke did not appear to be listening.
“You are very beautiful,” he said in a rush, as though he had been determined to get the words out before he lost his nerve.
Melaina blushed at his complement. “Thank you,” she whispered. Her hands were folded around the whiskey in her lap. She could think of nothing else to say.
The Duke shifted in his chair, tugging a small box from his pocket. “That reminds me,” he said. “I have something for you. I’ve had it brought from the vaults.”
Melaina raised her eyes to his as he clicked open the box to reveal a magnificent ring. It glistened with emeralds in the firelight. She caught her breath at the sight of it.
“I know you are accustomed to larger jewels,” he murmured, indicating the necklace of pearls and opals around her neck. “But this one has a certain sentimental value to me. You see, it was my grandmother’s.”
Melaina’s eyes filled suddenly with tears. The Duke either didn’t notice or was tactful enough to ignore them as he withdrew the ring and made to slide it onto Melaina’s finger. “As we’re engaged, it seemed only right that you should have it.”
The ring dropped onto her finger with ease and the Duke frowned. “Hmm, seems a bit loose. Strange. I asked your father for your sizing only last month before I took it to the goldsmith.” He patted her hand and Melaina experienced a strange swooping sensation in her stomach. “No matter, perhaps we’ll take a trip into town together tomorrow and have it re-sized. It shouldn’t take long. We could have a look in the shops if you like.”
Melaina’s smile trembled, but she nodded. “That sounds wonderful.”