This wasn’t some off-the-shelf-at-a-dollar-store crown. It was the real, glistening deal. The crown was more of a circlet with a thick band of gold holding the glittering jewels in their place at the front. The half dozen gemstones, some white in color like diamonds and others of a deep green emerald, were arranged in an ovular shape that crested above the band. The jewels sparkled in the dim light and the rich, pure gold flashed like a lighthouse beacon over the gawking faces of everyone present.
Shouts rang up and everyone crowded around him.
“Oh my god, I want that!”
A question inevitably arose. “Is it real?”
The stranger smiled and inclined his head. “It is.”
The second-favorite question arose. “How much is it worth?”
“Priceless,”Luca revealed as he held it out to Victoria who had pushed her way to the head of the crowd. “But don’t take my word for it. Look for yourself.”
Victoria took the crown in both hands and everyone gathered eagerly around her. Most gawked. Some eyes shone with a green glint. People pawed at the jewels, but they were all firmly wedged into their little cubby holes.
Victoria turned the crown over in her hands and a mischievous light appeared in her eyes. “If I didn’t know any better I’d say this looks like a woman’s crown.”
Luca nodded. “That’s because it is.”
One of the men wrinkled his nose. “So what are we supposed to do with it?”
His girlfriend jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. “You could give it to me!” Laughter erupted from the crowd.
Luca opened his palm and the crown was reluctantly returned to his hand. He tucked the tiara back into his coat. “What do you say to the event now?”
One of the men leapt to his feet and raised his mug to Luca. “I say happy trails!”
A great roar of approval arose from all present and many mugs were lifted, and many mugs were spilled. “Be careful with that stuff!” Bill shouted at his patrons. “It ain’t easy to clean off these old wood floors!”
Scarcely anyone paid attention to him as they all jabbered away, each boasting or bemoaning their chances at the priceless gift.
Luca stood and raised his hands above his head. The room quieted so he could speak. “I’m glad to hear so many wish to participate. I know this is a local tradition, but others may join if they wish. We will meet at the base of the hill by eleven-thirty, and set off at that time.”
Victoria wrinkled her nose. “Why that time? It takes half that time to get up the hill.”
A strange smile slipped onto Luca’s lips. “You may find the going more difficult than you imagined.”
Her boyfriend scoffed. “Because of the dark?”
Luca shrugged. “Among other things, but I’ll leave everyone to decide if they want an adventure.” He inclined his head in a most gallant way and strode from the room.
He was gone but not forgotten as the pub lit up with conversation. The majority of the people discussed the best speed to walk up the easy hill. Others bragged about running the whole way to the Dragon’s Prize, the statue located on a flat plane at the top of the small hill. I’d seen pictures of the spot. It was beautiful, with a gorgeous view of the whole valley.
“Diana!” It was Bill calling to me.
I shook myself out of my reverie and turned to him. “Yeah?”
He jerked his head over his shoulder in the direction of the large clock that hung on the wall. The time read half-past ten. “We’ll be closing early tonight.”
I couldn’t help but smile as I looked over his chubby form. “Are you going to try at the crown?”
He snorted. “Hell no. I’m going to stand at the bottom and laugh my ass off at all the idiots who try to run up the thing.” He looked out on all the customers and raised his voice to a bellow. “We close at eleven, so get your drinks drunk and your asses out!”
The crowd dutifully obeyed and in fifteen minutes there was only a few patrons remaining to finish their large mugs. I was pleased to see the two visitors still seated at their table with a map open before them.
I sauntered over to them and picked up their empty glasses. “Will you be trying the Dragon Run tonight?”
The wife nodded. “We’ll give it our best shot. What about you?”
I smiled and shook my head. “I’m out, but I’ll be there to root you on.”
The man draped his arm over his wife’s shoulders and grinned at me. “You should join us. If Sarah here drops you can help me heft her up the rest of the way.”
Sarah poked his stomach with her finger. “And the same goes for you, Tom!”
He patted his stomach and laughed. “I do need to lose a few pounds. Maybe this will help. There’s certainly enough incentive.”
Sarah returned her attention to me. “But you will come with us, won’t you?”
I winced. “I’d really like to, but I-well, I really should get home.”
Tom stood and clapped a hand on my shoulder. “If you change your mind, you know where to find us.”
Sarah reluctantly rose to her feet and gave me a hearty hug with a squeeze. She drew us apart to arm’s length and smiled at me. “It was nice meeting you, Diana, and thank you for being so kind to us.”
I grinned and shrugged. “No problem, and good luck on the climb.”
They waved goodbye to me and left. The clock ticked closer to the appointed hour and the rest of the crowd soon followed them out the door. Eleven o’clock came, and Bill went, leaving me with a few unwashed dishes which were quickly finished. I stepped out of the rear door that led into an alley and had the shadows to my back as I locked the door.
“Care to walk with me?”
I screamed and spun around to face the darkness on the opposite side of the alley. Luca stepped out of them with a mischievous smile on his lips, but a hint of regret in his eyes.
I clutched my chest and felt my heart pounding hard beneath my fingers. A slight touch of pain shot through me, but I was too angry to show it on my face. “Don’t do that!”
He studied me with a look of curiosity. It was adorable. “You don’t appear to be in any hurry to go to the hill.”
I shrugged. “Hill-climbing isn’t really my kind of spectator sport.”
There was a touch of disappointment at the corners of his lips. “Then you didn’t intend to join the climbers?”
I shook my head. “No. To be honest, I haven’t actually been up there, or up many of the hills around here.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Why not? Do you not care of the scenery?”
I smiled. “It’s not that. I love the sexy man-I mean, scenery.” I inwardly cursed my unconscious blurting.
A slight chuckle escaped his lips as he set one hand against the wall by my head. “It sounds like you have some interesting scenery around here.”
I pressed my back hard against the wall and sheepishly grinned at him. “Y-yeah, I guess we do. I-I hate to ask that, but shouldn’t you get prepping for the hike? I mean, it’s not that tough a one, but it’s almost time and-”
Luca leaned close to me and his lips brushed against my cheek. His hot breath sent thrilling shivers down my spine. “I’m comfortable where I’m at.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I-I think you have the wrong girl.”
His sultry voice tingled my neck as he moved up to my face. His seductive eyes captured mine in their heated gaze. “I don’t think so.”
His lips brushed against mine. My heart skipped a beat, and when it ticked again a stab of pain shot through my chest. I clutched my chest over my heart and gritted my teeth against the touch of agony. Luca was kind enough to back up as I focused on each breath, willing my heart to slow to a normal pace.
Luca’s distraught voice hung over me. “What’s wrong?”
I managed to look up at him and smile. “It’s nothing. Just a little trouble with the old ticker.”
His eyebrows crashed down. “You have a bad heart.”
There it was. The question people always got around to asking. I couldn’t blame them. My stupid heart problem always flared up when I got nervous around inquisitive people.
“Yeah,” I told him as I took a few deep breaths and dropped my hand to my side. “It’s something I was born with. That means I won’t be joining you guys for your race.”
I blinked at his reply. It was almost a command. “Why?”
He reached up and brushed a finger against my cheek as his eyes searched my face. “Because I want you to win.”
I couldn’t stop the blush, but I did try to hide it behind a snort. “I think you’ve got the wrong girl if you expect that. Victoria has a better chance of being crowned.”
There was a strangely illuminating twinkle in his eyes. “Would you do it as a favor to me? There’s always the option of stopping if this-” He set his palm against my chest over my heart, “-complains, but I don’t think it will.”
I lifted my eyes to him and frowned. “What makes you so sure?”
He grinned and drew back. “Let’s just call it intuition. If you will excuse me-” He bowed at the waist to me, “-I must go officiate the race.”
Luca turned and strode down the alley, and in a few moments he was gone. Gone, but not forgotten. I looked down at my shaking hand before I dropped it to my side and sighed.
“Well, here goes nothing.”