Excerpt: Rings on her Fingers

Chapter One

Diamonds.

Eight, perfectly cut, dazzling beauties. And for a few stolen moments they were all hers. With a smile tugging at her lips, Gwen Mansfield adjusted the two-carat, pear-shaped stone on her second finger and sighed. If there was one thing she knew, it was quality jewelry. Wriggling her ring-laden fingers, she held them close to the colored lights and hummed along with the mall’s Christmas music. Even the embarrassment of her four broken engagements couldn’t dim her appreciation of the magical mix of fire and ice.

As her gaze drifted toward her white fur cuffs and her red velvet sleeves, she winced then rolled her eyes. Dressing in an elf costume for the entire holiday season was not the best way to rebuild her reputation. But she wasn’t about to argue with Bixby and Mellon Jewelers. Spending several nights a week surrounded by their fine jewelry certainly beat flipping burgers to help pay for the upkeep of Scarborough Hall. She frowned, thinking about the bills from the carpenter, the electrician, and from that darned plumber. Picturing the growing list of creditors, she stiffened her fingers in protest.

She had managed to lose four fiancés, but she wasn’t going to lose Scarborough Hall. Keeping the apartment house was her best chance to prove to herself and everyone else in King’s Crossing that she could manage at least one part of her life without disaster. Furthermore, her tenants’ faith in her was doing wonders for her self-esteem.

She pictured the once elegant mansion, its mullioned windows warmed with candlelight, its scars softened by the evening snow, and its eight tenants happily counting on her for a roof over their heads. Lord knew that, like her, the tenants would never be able to count on Brian Flanagan. The sooner she could buy his half of Scarborough Hall and obtain a renovation loan, the more secure all their lives would be. Until then she’d take a third job besides her freelance graphic-design work to pay the expenses, because nobody was taking Scarborough Hall from her. Absolutely nobody.

In a rush of renewed determination Gwen smacked both hands on the display case. Realizing her mistake too late, she felt the bottom drop out of her stomach as a one-carat, emerald-cut diamond flew off her finger. A sibilant curse escaped her lips as she watched the ring arc across the room then disappear into the jewelry store’s Christmas tree.

Flipping the latch on the half door, she shoved it open and hurried onto the floor. “Let it be under the tree,” she prayed, holding her fists to her chin. “Please, please, let it be under the tree, and I’ll never, ever do another self-indulgent thing in my life.”

Ting, ting, ting!

The bells on her elf slippers seemed to mock her plea. She didn’t care, she told herself as she searched the upper branches. Nothing could be more embarrassing than calling Mrs. Bixby out of the back room to tell the old witch she’d just thrown away a three-thousand-dollar diamond.

Ting, ting, ting!

Dropping to her knees, she reached over the circling toy train and began searching through the miniature village laid out in front of the tree. No ring. Panic spiraled through her. She couldn’t afford a new hot-water heater, so how in hell was she going to pay for a three-thousand-dollar diamond?

“When you’re done there, would you come play under my Christmas tree?”

The voice, rich and baritone, came to her through the Christmas music, the ting, ting, ting! of her elf shoes, and her pounding heartbeat. Just what she needed, another man to humiliate her, and this one didn’t have the grace to leave town first. Without turning, she said with admirable control, “Sir, this elf doesn’t make personal visits.”

“Even if I’m very, very good?”

The voice was closer now, good-natured but insistent. While continuing her search, she answered impatiently. “Bad or good, it doesn’t matter. This elf is getting a headache. Please, go away.”

“And miss this? I don’t think so.”

The genuine amusement in his voice caused her to hesitate in her search and soften her tone. “Look, I’m kind of busy. Why don’t you get in line over there?” Not bothering to raise her head, she pointed to a spot several yards out in the mall. “Tell Santa what you want. He sounds as if he’s in better spirits than I am.”

As if on cue, Santa let out another string of ho-ho-hos, then punctuated the presentation with a loud hiccup.

“Well, he does sound jolly.”

Gwen twisted around for a cursory glance at the man whose attention was on center court. Snow-flakes were melting in his dark, wavy hair and on the shoulders of his topcoat. The burgundy scarf tucked inside his flipped-up collar accentuated the healthy color in his cheeks and contrasted perfectly with his eyes—big blue ones, with tiny crinkles at their corners that deepened when he began laughing. The sound made her insides flutter, her spirits lift, and her vow against self-indulgence a cruel joke. She wanted to laugh, too, but she held her breath instead.

From the thick dark lashes that rimmed his eyes down to the high-gloss shine on his shoes, everything about him chorused for her continuing attention. She gave it until all she had left to give was an inevitable sigh of wariness. Good-looking, obviously successful, and by the sound of his laughter, most likely a well-balanced, happy man. Mentally tagging him, Do Not Open Until Your Next Life, she then willed him to step into the crowd and disappear.

Leaning toward her, he rested his gloved hands on his knees and whispered, “I think Santa’s been dipping into the eggnog.”

Pressing her lips together to suppress a giggle, Gwen hunched her shoulders and nodded in mute agreement. Whoever he was, his deadpan humor tickled her. Catching sight of her reflection in a tree ornament, she coughed sharply. Not that enjoying an errant moment with a handsome stranger should hold any significance for her. How could it, when he was dressed for a night at the opera, and she resembled a game-show hostess involved in a tacky skit?

“Haven’t found that ring yet?” he asked, removing his gloves and shoving them in his pockets.

Pressing her fingers against her thighs, she stared at the other rings she was wearing and shook her head. Please don’t be nice and offer to help. Just go away before anything humiliating can happen.

“I think I saw it land under the branches. Here, let me help you.”

As he lowered himself onto one knee his coat caught between her leg and his. Her sheer red panty hose did nothing to defuse the sensual shiver zipping up her thigh. Lord, if she kept on holding her breath this way, she was going to keel over on him.

“Sorry,” she murmured as their hands tangled in a clumsy attempt to push back his coat.

“My fault,” he said.

But it wasn’t his fault or hers when their fingers curled together, locking tight like two pieces of a puzzle. A cleverly simple puzzle. When they tried pulling away, neither seemed willing to let go. During the struggle she took in an extra breath and with it his scent—a mix of musk and citrus and cool, clean male skin. At such close range she had no choice but to look at him again. The snowflakes had melted into a mantle of beads on his hair and shoulders, making him glisten under the tree lights. In the hazy distance the children were laughing again. The fairy-tale quality of the moment turned to pure, pulsing reality when their wandering gazes met and held.

When a different kind of awareness began, she let go of him, pulled off her elf cap, and shoved back her hair. She had to clear her head of those unexpected and therefore peculiar notions. “I must find that ring,” she announced loudly.

“Okay, let’s do it.” He reached toward the toy train, but before he could touch anything she spoke again.

“That’s okay. I’ll find it.” She gestured impatiently with both hands. If he would simply go away…

“But—”

“You don’t have to help. I’ll find it.” Trying with all her might to ignore the tickling sensations of his trousers against her thigh, and the corresponding sensations in a more central part of her body, she reached past his hand and over the train set. “I have to find it.”

Steve Stratton knew what he wanted for Christmas. A long-legged elf with an attitude.

The last time he felt so certain about a gift was three decades ago, and that was a ten-speed bicycle. Since then he had to be forced to the wall and made to mumble “anything but clothes” and, later, the name of the latest aftershave. But this year he knew, and it was only the day after Thanksgiving.

Smiling, he watched the elf with the upturned nose and big hazel eyes frantically sifting mounds of artificial snow through her fingers. With a frustrated growl, she sat back on her heels, pursed her full lips, and attempted to blow the snow from her other rings with quick puffs of air. After several enthusiastic tries, she flipped her hair away from her face and stuck out her hands.

“Would you look at this stuff? I’ll be searching through it until closing time.”

He was looking, all right, but not at her hands. A cloud of hair the color of shiny chestnuts and warm brandy wreathed her animated expression.

From her guileless eyes to her squinched-up mouth, she pulled at something inside him until he wanted to laugh with joy. Crazy, unadulterated joy. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone made him feel so damned good.

Glancing at the toy train, he kept a serious expression on his face. “If you won’t let me under the tree with you, would you allow me to give you a clue?”

“Please. If you see the ring, just tell me. I have enough mysteries in my life.”

Now that she was looking at him, he couldn’t tell whether it was the light reflecting off the glass display cases or tears of frustration gathering in her eyes. Considering the tenseness in her voice, he decided it was a combination of the two. Reaching into the coal car, he picked out the diamond ring. “One less mystery,” he said softly as he held it up between them.

Her cherry-red lips rounded in surprise as she reached for the ring. If he leaned forward he could turn that inviting circle into the tastier half of a kiss. Before he could act, her expression changed into a radiant smile that hit him in the solar plexus.

“You saved my life,” she said as she slipped the ring back on her finger.

“Really?”

After staring at it for a few seconds, she lifted her head. “I know it sounds melodramatic, but… really. I mean, I could have lost my job.”

That she cared so much about her work moved him. But her lack of superficiality moved him more. Who was this enchanting creature? He dipped his chin in mock seriousness as he read her name tag. “Is Gwen your elf name?”

Looking at him with renewed caution, she answered slowly. “Y-e-s-s-s.”

“Well, Gwen, elfing sounds a lot more dangerous than it used to be. Rings flying through the air, the hazards of artificial snow…” Swiping a hand over his wet hair, he mumbled, “Thank heavens you know how to fill those Christmas stockings,” he said, eyeing two of the most beautiful legs he’d ever seen.

“Pardon me. Did you say something about Christmas stockings?”

“Hmmm?”

“Never mind, Mister…”

“Stratton. Steve Stratton,” he said, standing and reaching into his coat pocket. “I’m here to pick up—” His words were interrupted by shrieks of laughter from the mall’s center court.

“Sounds like you were right about the eggnog,” she said, straining for a look around him, then shaking her head. “Santa’s just spilled his sack of candy canes all over the steps.”

As Gwen returned to straightening the village under the tree, a little girl broke through the crowd outside the jewelry store and rushed up to them. She pushed her glasses back up her nose then pointed at Gwen. “You’re an elf, right?”

“Part-time elf. Wednesday nights and alternate Saturdays I’m, uh, someone else,” Gwen said, backing away from the tree on her knees.

“Well, what’s wrong with Santa?” the little girl asked, her voice demanding immediate satisfaction.

“Santa’s not feeling well,” she said, looking up at Steve. He urged her on with a you-can-do-it nod. “He, uh…”—she stopped and shrugged, before continuing—”has an allergy.”

Steve watched the child’s expression turn from concern to healthy skepticism, her large brown eyes shifting toward Santa then back to Gwen. “Really?”

“Shall we tell her the truth about Santa, Elf Gwen?” Steve asked.

Her hazel eyes blinked furiously at him. “Mr. Stratton, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”

“Why not?” he asked, pretending to ignore Gwen’s yanking on the leg of his trousers. Looking down at the little girl, he slipped his hands in his pockets and cocked his head. “Do you think you’re big enough to handle the truth?”

The little girl stepped forward. “Sure. I’m six and a half years old.”

“Mr. Stratton!”

Gwen was whacking his knee with both hands. The act was one of familiarity that bordered on intimacy, but he doubted she realized that fact. The truth was, he liked that she was unaware of it. And he liked knowing that her fury was based on protecting a child and not on a well-rehearsed tantrum just to get her way. He’d witnessed enough of that over the past two years to last his whole life.

Covering Gwen’s hands with his, he held them against his leg as he smiled at the little girl. Lord, this elf was a walking advertisement for Bixby and Mellon’s, he thought as he felt her rings pressing against his palm.

“Mister, are you gonna tell me what’s wrong with Santa?”

“No, he’s not.”

“Yes, I am. Unfortunately, Santa has an allergy to eggnog.”

Steve heard Gwen’s quick intake of air, and then a strangled laugh as she withdrew her hands.

“Well, is he gonna be better by Christmas?”

“If he stays away from eggnog, there shouldn’t be a problem. Don’t worry. I’ll speak to Elf Gwen about this,” he said, tilting his chin in her direction.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said to the child.

“Thanks, Elf Gwen.” After flashing them both a smile with several teeth missing, she waved and started out of the store. “I have to go tell my brother. Bye.”

As the little girl rushed back into the line of children, Steve pulled a receipt from his pocket. Pretending the embarrassing, last several minutes never happened, he waved the pink slip in front of her. “I’ve been told you gift-wrap.”

Gwen studied his deadpan expression until something wonderful danced out of her heart and around and around her rib cage. The bursts of energy warmed her in a way that made her wish she’d been born yesterday when it came to dealing with the opposite sex, and this man in particular. She blinked; was she crazy? This entire situation was getting out of control. Scrambling to her feet, she hurried behind the counter as if it were a stone fortress.

“Look, I can push down on the ribbon when you tie the bow, but that’s about it,” he said earnestly.

She knew she was staring at him as if he had two heads, but it wasn’t fazing him. Planting his elbows on the counter, he raised his eyebrows. “I saved your life; you have to wrap it now.”

The way his gaze wandered slowly over her face told her that he wasn’t in a hurry to zip through the transaction. Neither was she. He made her want to do all kinds of soft, feminine things with her voice. And with him. Leaning over the counter, she rested her elbows close to his.

“We do gift-wrap,” she said, taking the pink slip from him. “Christmas paper?”

He shook his head.

“Birthday? Some other special occasion?” she asked, shocking herself with her whispery voice. Lord, he was handsome. Funny. Kind to small children. Exhibited no signs of bizarre behavior, just a generous dose of effective flirting. And she would be the first to admit she was encouraging him. Lowering her lashes, she studied his hands. Long, strong fingers, a recent tan, and the capacity to make her very, very happy. Maybe it wasn’t out of the question for her to think about having a relationship. Glancing down at the pink paper, she read his name once again. “Mr. Stratton.”

“Yes. I’m picking up—”

“An engagement ring,” she whispered to herself as she straightened up from the counter. Looking at him, she asked, “You’re picking up an engagement ring?”

“I am. The big announcement’s tonight,” he said, pushing back his sleeve and checking his watch. “We’re having a party over at the Betancourt Hotel. Everyone there thinks we’re celebrating my brother’s new law partnership, but that’s just the beginning.”

Funny, she thought as her heart plummeted through her stomach for the second time that evening. He looked so normal. She closed her eyes. As if she could recognize normal!

Once she put her mind to it, forcing a smile onto her face wasn’t difficult. Over the years she’d had plenty of practice in these kinds of brain-numbing situations. Besides, Steve Stratton would never have to know the silly thoughts that had run through her mind, or what those sexy, tickly thrills tripping through her body and warming her heart had cost her. All he was going to remember was a few amusing moments with a professional sales-clerk. And all she was going to remember was the back of his head. Well, she would try.

“Sounds lovely,” she said, unlocking a drawer behind her with a pair of shaking hands. “I had… I mean, I was at an engagement party there once.” When he began to respond, she cut him off. The less she had to hear about his party, the saner she would stay. “I’ll have the ring in just a second.”

Reading down the list of names in the logbook, she paused to look at her left palm. Even with her hand still shaking, she could read the lettering on the tiny white tags stuck to each of the rings she was wearing. Checking the ring tag on her second finger for the second time, she slowly closed her hand. The two-carat, pear-shaped ring belonged to Mr. Stratton. If she was extremely careful, she might be able to slip the ring off, drop it in the little envelope, and pretend it had been there all the time.

“What’s the bride-to-be’s favorite color, Mr. Stratton? Perhaps we have a silk ribbon to match,” she said, twisting the ring and giving it a slight tug. Her heart squeezed painfully when the circle of gold didn’t budge.

“Lisa’s favorite color? I’ve no idea.”

Gwen tugged again as her concern turned to alarm. She wanted to ask what kind of a groom-to-be wouldn’t know his beloved’s favorite color, but she had another, more pressing problem. The ring hadn’t moved one millimeter. Dropping her chin to her chest, she wondered how bad it was going to be flipping hamburgers.

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

Staring at her fingers, she recognized the problem and that it wasn’t going to go away in the next few minutes. Since the outside temperature began dropping, the mall’s temperature had been rising, causing her fingers to swell. There was nothing to do but confess that she’d been wearing the ring he’d come for. Gathering her courage, she turned to face him again.

With her attention focused on removing the ring, she’d forgotten what one look at him did to her. Once again she was staring at him, her heart racing inside her rib cage like a runaway sleigh, her lips curving into an unrestrained smile, her mind conjuring holiday joy for both of them. Why did he have to be so darn appealing in every way it was possible for a man to be? Rubbing her forehead, she attempted to dismiss the bogus sense of wellbeing and, God forbid, the renewed hope in mankind that he caused in her.

She wasn’t well yet; she was still suffering from the sort of insanity caused by being left by her fourth fiancé. Until she had Scarborough Hall on a firmer financial footing, she had to insulate herself from certain distractions… of the male persuasion.

“Mr. Stratton—”

“Steve,” he said, hunching over the glass counter with an inviting smile.

Leaning toward him, she repeated, “Steve.” For a second the sights and sounds around them dissolved into a sensual buffer and only his handsome face and smile existed. Then he winked. Groaning inwardly, she pulled herself up from the counter. He had enough charm to make an angel tumble. Shutting her eyes, she scolded herself for not having the courage to stop his flirting and tell him exactly what she thought about his lighthearted behavior. With a fiancée waiting for him at the Betancourt, he wasn’t playing fair to anyone. “Mr. Stratton.”

“Gwen?”

His hands closed over hers, soothing the tension in them.

“Gwen, are you okay?”

“Not at the moment,” she said, opening her eyes. Pulling her hands from his, she sent him a flickering glance. “But I will be,” she said as she tried twisting the diamond from her finger. “I’ll be right up-front about this.”

“Yes, Elf Gwen?”

He was flirting again, and he was doing such a marvelous job of it. She was going to ignore it, even if it killed her. “Mr. Stratton, I was trying these on earlier,” she said, holding up both hands. “Since then the mall has turned up its thermostat and my fingers have swollen. Except for the ring that ended up under the tree, they’re all stuck. And this one, Mr. Stratton,” she said, wiggling her middle finger, then quickly clutching it to her chest when she recognized the obscene gesture, “this one is yours.”

His smile turned into roaring laughter.

She gave him what she hoped was a genuine scowl. “I’d stop laughing if I were you. It’s not funny.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Well, it would be funny, if you didn’t have plans for this—” she said, holding up her finger, then pulling it back again. Her face stinging with embarrassment, she continued. “Th-this evening.”

Bringing his laughter in check, he nodded then looked at his watch and gave a slight grimace. “I appreciate your honesty,” he said, taking her left hand in his. “Let’s see if I can… hmmm, this is on tight. What possessed you to try them all on?”

“It’s a habit, Mr. Stratton. A very bad habit I’ve been trying to break, and I swear, I’ve learned my lesson this time,” she said, pulling her hand from the warmth of his. “Don’t worry, I’ll get it off. I’ll get all of them off.” Rolling her eyes, she mumbled more to herself than to him, “Lord knows, I’ve had plenty of practice.”

Reaching in the drawer below the cash register, she pulled out a jar of petroleum jelly. “We keep this for emergencies. Sort of a last resort,” she said, opening the jar, scooping up a dollop, and smoothing it across her fingers. “It leaves such a mess,” she said, glancing up at him.

With his elbows back on the counter and his chin resting in the cup of one hand, she thought she saw a twitch of a smile behind his fingers. Was she totally mad to think he was imagining off-color images involving petroleum jelly? Whatever he was thinking, he had the grace to keep his mouth shut while she went through the contortions necessary to remove the rings.

Miraculously they began sliding off her fingers. “Thank you for being so patient,” she said, her tone of professionalism offset with a heaving sigh. Reaching for a tissue, she gave each ring a quick swipe. “Later, I’ll clean off the jelly, and then put them in their proper slots and holding envelopes,” she said. “If you’d like to inspect this before I wrap it—”

“That’s okay. It is getting late.”

“But wouldn’t you like to look at the ring up close?” she asked, surprisingly reluctant to see him go. “Customers usually want to see that sizing the ring hasn’t left any marks.”

“I trust you. Besides, the sooner I see it on Lisa’s finger, the better I’m going to feel.”

A loud thump! thump! sounded from center mall as Steve’s words sank in. He walked to the end of Bixby and Mellon’s carpeted space, leaving her to put the last few minutes into perspective.

For some desperate reason she’d misinterpreted his pleasant personality and natural charm for flirting. But he wasn’t flirting. Steve Stratton was in love and, like everyone in love, at his most charming. Why wouldn’t he be? In a matter of minutes he’d be at the Betancourt announcing his engagement. Picturing the romantic moment caused a series of strange sensations in her chest. Sensations she attempted to process through a sensible part of her brain until another picture came to mind. In her mind’s eye she saw him entertaining everyone at his engagement party with a story about a klutzy mall elf who almost lost the ring.

While she picked his ring from the pile in her hand, she glanced up at Steve Stratton. Eight months had gone by since Brian had left, eight months of avoiding every eligible man who’d shown an interest in her. Eight months of shutting off a once enjoyable part of her life. In a moment of crisis one charming, good-looking guy had paid a little friendly attention to her. Before she could stop herself, she’d spun a scenario of seduction from his teasing comments and pleasant smile. Shaking her head in disbelief, she pictured her self-esteem imploding to a pile of dust. The worst thing in the world wasn’t being pitied, it was being laughed at. Maybe it was time to consider professional counseling. Again.

Sliding his ring up to the first knuckle of her thumb for safekeeping, she locked the other seven inside the case. “What’s so funny out there?” she asked, pulling precut wrapping paper and ribbon from beneath the counter.

“Santa’s off his chair and down for the count this time,” he said, returning to her. “Can I help you with that?”

“No, thanks,” she said, managing a smile without meeting his eyes. “I’ll have this ready in record time, and then you can be off to your party.”

Pulling apart the identification tag, she peeled it from the ring and set the tiny paper aside. Settling the ring into the cleft of white satin, she snapped the box closed. The sooner she got him out of there, the faster her hands would stop shaking. Clearing her throat, she pointed to a place on the pink slip. “If you’ll sign here, I can release the ring to you,” she said, before dropping the velvet box inside a small white gift box. Quickly wrapping the box, she reached for the ribbon and began tying it. “I’ll give you some other literature and then go over our warranty when I’ve finished with—”

“That’s okay,” he said, slipping the forms and pamphlet in his coat pocket. Placing his index finger on the intersection of blue silk, he added, “I’ll have my brother look them over after the party.”

Try as she might, there was no way she could avoid touching him once she began tying the bow. “Your brother?” she asked, staring at his hand so close to hers. When he didn’t answer, she looked up.

“The lawyer in the family.”

“I see,” she said, but she didn’t. She wanted to ask him why he needed a lawyer to read over a diamond warranty, but that would mean staring into his eyes longer. Redirecting her attention to the package, she reminded herself that tying a simple bow shouldn’t cause temporary paralysis. Plunging in, she worked the ribbon as quickly as she could, telling herself that this wasn’t as complicated or as challenging as brain surgery and that it would be over in a matter of seconds. So what if their fingers kept brushing, their knuckles kept bumping, and her heart kept fluttering like a bird trapped in a net?

By the time she completed fashioning an easy-to-untie bow, she knew she would be able to identify Steve Stratton in the dark. The thought had her brimming with guilt; the man was on his way to his beloved. “There,” she said, clasping her hands behind her as she took a step backward.

“Finished?”.

Completely, she wanted to say. Totally drained. Emotionally exhausted. “Finished,” she replied, placing the pretty package into a miniature, shiny red shopping bag and handing it over to him.

For a moment he stood there staring at her as if he wanted to say something. Or maybe ask her something.

“It’s been a pleasure,” he finally said with a nod bordering on a gentlemanly bow.

She nodded back as she pictured him dashing across the snowy parking lot on his way to his engagement party. Soon enough he’d be whispering enchanting things in his fiancée’s ear. Her throat ached with unwelcome tears. What was wrong with her? “I wish you the best, Mr. Stratton.”

He leaned in close. “Do you want to know what I wish?”

“Sure,” she said, staring into those mischievous blue eyes of his.

“I still wish you’d come play under my Christmas tree,” he said, before giving her a kiss on her cheek close to her lips. Very close to her lips.

Then he was gone, leaving her in a state of shock. She held her breath until her head began aching. Would she ever regain full brain function after tonight? she wondered. Fumbling for the keys dangling from her wrist, she unlocked the diamond case and removed the ring tray.

“Forget this ever happened,” she whispered to herself as she turned her attention to sorting and cleaning. A kiss like that had no deep or hidden meaning. It was nothing more than a playful peck. At most, a friendly thank you mixed in with his teasing remark about playing under his Christmas tree.

Picking up another ring, she stared at Santa’s empty chair while she wiped the diamond with a tissue. Even if Steve Stratton weren’t becoming engaged, she wouldn’t have allowed herself to think about playing under his Christmas tree. She was too busy reinventing her life and restoring her reputation ever to give Steve Stratton another thought. Thank heavens there was no reason she would have to see him again.

Striving for a sense of completion to their encounter, she glanced at the clock then forced a smile onto her face. In another twenty minutes she’d be on her way home to Scarborough Hall. She looked down at the last ring she was cleaning. Her smile froze as she swallowed a scream. Bringing the ring closer to her eyes, she fought to steady her shaking hands. After checking the tag, she continued staring at the diamond until her eyes burned. This wasn’t the oval-cut ring. This was a two-carat, pear-shaped diamond ring. Steve Stratton’s diamond ring.





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