There was tension in the air for the rest of the week after Dante kicked his parents out. Savannah went crazy with decorating for her party. Everywhere a person turned they were met by swags of evergreen and holly. Mistletoe hung in almost every doorway on the main floor. So far I had managed not to get trapped under a bundle with Dante. Savannah and Dominique on the other hand seemed to enter the same doorway at the same time all the time. Not that it surprised me. Those two used every opportunity to kiss or brush up against each other.
“When are those two going to get married?” I asked Dante the day before the ball.
I was cracking walnuts in his office while he worked on something.
“Next spring,” Dante replied. “Crystal, why are you doing that? That’s the servants’ job.”
I rolled my eyes. “Because it was either this or following Savannah around. And she keeps getting ‘trapped’ under the mistletoe with Dominique. ‘Sides, I like cracking walnuts.”
I tossed a piece of walnut meat at him and he caught it. Tossing it into his mouth he stood up and came around the desk.
He knelt beside me and brushed my hair away from my face. “You are the strangest girl I have ever met. You’d rather run around shooting things or crack walnuts then shop and try on dresses.”
I laughed and pushed up the sleeve of the day dress I was wearing. “Dante, the only reason I wear this contraption is to please you. If I had my way, I’d be in jeans and a sweater. And I would not be cracking walnuts. I’d be out in the woods hunting for supper.”
Dante reached for a walnut and the extra nutcracker I had brought with me. “I used to love cracking nuts. Then I grew up and Father decided I should pursue a career. Suddenly I didn’t have time for the pleasures of this life. Crystal, since you have come into this house, I find myself searching for minutes to something that doesn’t involve work.”
“I’m glad,” I said simply. “What were you working on?”
Dante sighed and cracked another nut. “I was writing letters to the government trying to reverse their decision.” He popped the meat into my mouth and I bit down on it.
“Do you think they will?” I shifted so I could see Dante’s face.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. President Lucas Tyson likes me and Dominique. He always said he likes people with new ideas. But he doesn’t hold complete power. The Lords of the Government can make decisions without him. He can reverse them but that might make him look bad.”
I stroked his face, trying to wipe away the anguish I saw there. I hoped this President Tyson had a heart and let Dante back into the government. I may not have understood politics but I understood that to Dante politics where his life.
“I’m sure he will help you,” I said. “I could always put a bug in his ear.”
“A bug?” Dante laughed. “No, you’d hold him at knife point and demand he bring us back in and to a higher place.”
“Do have so little faith in me? I can be a lady.” I laughed with him. He was right and it felt good to laugh. Maybe this whole relationship was a good thing. Actually, now that things had settled down I was beginning to look forward to get to know him better.
“Dante, I don’t know if I can do this whole hostess thing with Savannah.”
“Crystal, you can do anything you put your mind to. Just talk to them. They aren’t going to bite.”
“They might,” I said in dead earnest. “These are your friends, the great people of this world. I’m a nobody.”
Dante shook his head. “Don’t say that. You are a somebody. You’re my somebody. And it would give me great pleasure to introduce you as my fiancé tomorrow.”
I choked on walnut I had just popped in my mouth. “What?”
“Marry me,” he said softly, capturing my hands in his. “There is no use hiding the fact anymore. I love you. Do you love me?”
That was a good question. What was love? I knew I liked him a great deal. I could imagine spending the rest of my life with him. But was that love?
Then the laughter of Robyn and Macy floated into the room. Even if I didn’t love him, those two girls deserved a place where they could be safe. And if I was Dante’s wife no one could touch them.
Love might be a while in coming, but I would become his. One day I would love him, but for now I just needed someone to keep my girls safe.
I took a deep breath and looked into Dante’s eyes. “My answer is yes.”
“To both questions?” Dante asked, his breath hitching as he waited for me to answer.
I bit my life. Would one little white lie hurt? “Yes.”
The smile that spread across his face was enough to erase any guilt I felt. He pulled me to his chest and plastered my face with kisses before softly touching my lips. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled myself closer to him. If this was what love felt like, bring it on. I had never felt safer in my life.
Later that afternoon we walked in the garden with the girls. Macy clung to my hand while Robyn bounded ahead with the dogs.
“Do you have any preference to the stone in your ring?” Dante asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I like diamonds and sapphires. But aren’t you supposed to pick it out for me?”
I watched as Macy toddled to a snow drift and fell backwards into it. She struggled to get up and did it again. Dante laughed and I joined in. My Dante was learning to find joy in the simple things.
“Usually the man does pick out the ring but since this is so different I figured why not go all the way.”
“Different? How?” I looked into his face.
“We are different than most of the people our age. We are marrying for love not money or higher powers. We want each other for each other.”
I nodded. That twinge of guilt was back. I wasn’t exactly marrying for love, more like for convention. Well, that wasn’t exactly true either. Whenever I thought of another girl on Dante’s arm I got this jealous feeling inside of me. So maybe I was in love with him. I just wasn’t ready to admit it.
“So, diamonds and sapphires. Can I ask why a girl like you knows that much about gems?”
“You could. But I don’t know if you would like the answer,” I said, grinning. “You know, you’re going to get a lot of shocks when you marry me. There are a lot of things that you would never guess people did.”
“Oh, like finding things that have gone missing and then holding on to them until the reward went up pretty high.” I shrugged like it was nothing.
“You did that? What kind of things?’ Dante had stopped walked and was staring at me now.
“Jewelry mostly. Some of that stuff had rewards for thousands of dollars. It was the best way to make money.”
“You did this by yourself?” Dante took my hand and led me to a bench.
“No. I did it with three other men in the slums. One was a patrol. He was the one that called the detectives. That was the only way we got all the money. It kept us alive some winters so I won’t apologize for it.”
“I’m not asking you too,” Dante said.
He kissed my hand. I knew he wanted to say more but Robyn launched a snowball at us and a snowball fight began. Dante proved to have quite the arm.
Our shrieks and laughter attracted Dominique and Savannah and they joined in with us. It was a free for all and snowballs flew. The dogs joined in, jumping and snapping at the flying spheres. People tripped over them and were pummelled with snow.
It was almost dark when we called a truce and went into the house. As we stripped off our outerwear I looked around at the people who were now my family. Dominique lifted the snow covered cape from Savannah and she brushed snow from his hair. Dante tugged Macy’s boots off and helped her into her inside shoes. Robyn tossed melting snow around the back entrance and was scooped up by Dominique who threatened to toss her back outside.
I smiled at the scene. This was family. The laughter, the fun and later the tears. I could do this. I could become one of them without losing myself. And with God’s help I would love them all and never let go.