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     "Hey," Daniel said, taking the last two stairs at once and coming fully into the living room. His legs wobbled underneath him - a result of the two hours he'd just spent at the gym with his fellow teammates.
     "Hey. How was your workout?" she asked, drawing the last syllable out while she scanned the page.




     "Great. I did a couple miles on the treadmill and a strength circuit with George. How's your work coming along?" he asked, noting the papers that had spilled out over the coffee table and onto the floor. This was how he found her most afternoons: armed with a red pen and a bottle of white-out and attacking the draft of her dissertation without mercy. "Making any progress?"
     She nodded and looked up. "Yeah, I think I'm going to make it to page 200 today."
     "Sounds good. Hey, I'm going to pop out for a bit. Get some Christmas shopping done."
     "When will you be back?" asked, an edge of worry in her voice. "We're supposed to get our tree tonight."
     "I didn't forget," he reassured her, pulling his keys from his jacket pocket. "I'll be back by dinner, for sure."
     "Well, have fun then!"
     "I will!"




     The mall was hot and loud that afternoon. Shoppers walked at a brisk pace, making their annual holiday rounds, while Christmas carols played over the speakers loud enough to drown out most conversation. Daniel cut his way through the center court, zeroed in on a particular store tucked away in the back corner.




     He ducked inside, closing the door behind him and shutting off the racket of the general public. Soft, instrumental carols played in the background and only a few customers browsed the display cases.
     A salesman appeared from behind a column, smiling at Daniel. "Welcome to Wright's Diamonds, sir. Is there something I can help you with today?"
     Daniel jammed his hands in his pockets, wiping them off on the lining. They'd become rather sweaty all of the sudden. "I'm looking for a," he coughed, taking a second compose himself, "an engagement ring. For my girlfriend."
     "Of course." The motioned to the display case a few feet from them. Daniel stepped closer and peered inside. "Wright's Diamonds offers a wide array of styles to choose from. Do you have a particular cut in mind?"




     He peered inside the case. Dozens of diamond rings of just about every cut imaginable dazzled under the light. One particular row drew his attention. "Mary-Sue is particularly fond of the round cut."
     Taking a key from his pocket, the salesman unlocked the display case and withdrew a row of rings, all sitting in miniature boxes."Here are six of some of our finest designs. Of course we also have available some engagement rings in an oval or cushion cut if you'd like to take a look at some of those."
     "No, I think I'll just start with these, thank you."
     "Well, then I'll just leave you with these for a while."




     The salesman wandered away, retreating back into his corner to keep an eye on the merchandise.
     Six rings sat on the counter, varying in design but each one featuring a round diamond in the center. Selecting one with rows of smaller diamonds radiating out from the center, he flipped over the box and cringed at the price tag. Quickly, he peeked at the rest of the prices but even the plainest one was only marginally less expensive. Well, there went his entire signing bonus.




     Since there really was no difference in prices, he set about making his decision unconstrained by financial limitations. The first rings out of the run were the two most gaudy and then the plainest one. He couldn't imagine any one of them adorning Mary-Sue's finger for the rest of their lives.
     There was one gold one among the bunch. He pulled it out of the box and pushed it onto his finger as far as it would go. He held it, shifting it back and forth so it caught the light. He tried to picture it on Mary-Sue's hand and, to his surprise, it was easy. He saw her wearing it; the gold band complemented her soft skin and the single diamond glinted whenever she got so excited that she talked with her hands.




     Blood rushed to his head and he hand to stick the ring back into its box. Listen to me! he thought with a wry laugh. Here I am in the middle of a jewelry store picking out an engagement ring.
     Sweat beaded at his hairline and he drew his hands in, scratching at his mustache. He wanted to prove to Mary-Sue that he was committed to their relationship, but all of the sudden marriage seemed too much. He'd grown up with his own parents' marriage as his only example. He watched his domineering mother slowly wear his father down year after year until there wasn't much of a spark left between them. It wasn't what he wanted for him and Mary-Sue.
     But, on the other hand, they were over a decade into their relationship. He'd always scoffed at the poets and musicians that said love could last, but here they was: ten years later and she still gave him butterflies. He really couldn't picture that changing any time soon.




     "Daniel?"
     Pulled from his thoughts, Daniel looked over his shoulder to find who'd called his name. "Goopy!"




     "How's it goin', man?" Goopy asked, drawing his buddy into a hug. "It's been a long time!"
     "Good, good," Daniel answered, patting his back. "It's been, what, three years?"
     "At least! You still working as a mascot?"
     "No, actually I've been signed by the Llamas. Mary-Sue was pretty happy that it finally happened."
     "Well congrats, man! You two are still together?"
     "Yeah, can't seem to get rid of her." Goopy laughed loudly, attracting the attention of the salesman.




     "Do you have any questions, sir?"
     "Er, no. I'm still deciding."
     Goopy looked at the array of rings spread on the counter. "Things are getting pretty serious between you two, eh?" Daniel nodded. The salesman glanced between his two customers, an annoyed expression on his face. "You're lucky you've been able to hold on to her this long, buddy. I know a couple guys that had had quite a thing for her back in High School. Myself included, if I'm completely honest." He laughed, his attention wandering to the next display case. "But I'm with Ivy now..."




     A sick feeling settled in Daniel's gut. His father's words came rushing back to him. A girl like that won't wait around forever.
     "You know what," he said to the salesman. "I have decided. I'll take the gold one. Size five, please."


***




     "You're back late," Mary-Sue said, having heard the front door open and then close. "I didn't want to wait any longer to start dinner, so I was just going to go ahead and start without you." A pot of spaghetti boiled on the stove and Daniel could smell garlic bread warming in the oven.




     "Sorry, traffic was horrible."




     Still looking up some quotes from the same book she had been this morning, Mary-Sue hummed in understanding. "What did you get? I had an idea for Jennifer's gift while you were out. I think she might like a curling iron of her own. She liked borrowing mine when we were at your parents'."




     "Can't say," Daniel said, taking her by the hips and turning her around. "It's a surprise."
     "You were shopping for me?"
     "Mm-hm. And it's good," he teased. "But you have to wait." Even now he could feel the ring box in his pocket. He was hyper-aware of its presence, so much so that he angled his right hip away from her just in case she might be able to feel it too. "So, when are we eating?"
     "Grab some plates and I'll dish it up right now. After we eat we'll change and head out to the tree farm."
     "Sounds good." He gave her a little peck on the lips, a jolt of excitement passing through him. He felt giddy and oddly at ease. Everything just felt right.


***




















































"Merry Christmas, Mary-Sue."
"Merry Christmas, Daniel."

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