The Engagement Ring

Allison Hay © Illustration of woman leaning against balcony looking out at sea.


Emma’s discovery certainly precipitated a change in their relationship… but life soon took another twist in Rhodes.

Emma looked across the blue sea as the boat gently pulled out of Rhodes harbour on its sunset cruise. There was not a cloud in the sky and the warm sun cast the last of its rays across the tops of small waves, causing them to sparkle like diamonds.

She looked happily at her own sparkling diamond. The engagement ring sat snugly next to its new partner, her wedding ring. She glanced at her husband, who was snoozing beside her on the deck. Emma thought how different things had been two years ago, how impossible this happy ending seemed then.

It was a cold April morning and as usual, Mark had left his clothes and shoes everywhere in his dash to get to work. Emma had the day off from her librarian duties at Birmingham’s city library and decided it was time to sort out their bedroom.

When Mark had moved in with Emma, it was meant to be a temporary arrangement before they bought a house together. Three years later they were still living in her small, one bedroom flat.

Mark worked for an events company and there always seemed to be a big product launch or a celebrity show that got in the way of searching for a new home. He led such an exciting life, meeting famous people and organising champagne receptions. It was very far removed from Emma’s routine of cataloguing new acquisitions at the library, helping people with the computers and chasing down unpaid fines for non-returned books.

Unlike the heroines in the novels she read, she had never been swept off her feet – until she met Mark at one of his events. It was a book launch for a local author and Emma had helped with the arrangements at the library. As a thank you, Mark asked her to come to dinner with the team – but when she arrived at the restaurant, she found he’d booked a romantic dinner for two.

After that, he whisked her into a whirlwind of glittering events and before she knew it, he was moving into her flat, along with all of his possessions, many of which now littered the floor along with
his discarded clothes.

She tugged at the straps on the ottoman bed they shared. She had bought the bed in a desperate hope it would solve their storage problems, but things never got put away. She pushed the bed up and open; it was remarkably easy despite the weight of the mattress and bedding.

Inside the storage area were shoe boxes, folded sheets and a few odd dirty socks. With a bit of reorganisation, Emma reckoned she could stuff more of Mark’s clutter in there. It would just take a bit of time and patience.

Best to start afresh, she thought to herself and then to the contents of the ottoman she said aloud, as if they were school pupils lingering at closing time, “Everyone out – chop, chop.”

She got down on her knees to have a closer look at what was stored under the mattress. When she took out the shoe boxes, several felt empty and she thought she could repurpose them.

In the first box, she put a pair of Mark’s shoes he hardly ever wore. The second box rattled and when she looked inside, there was a small ring box.

Immediately, she felt conflicted. Should she look or should put it back unopened? She sat and stared at the ring box for a while. She had to have a quick peek, then she could return it to the shoe box. That would be OK, wouldn’t it?

Inside, she saw the most exquisite solitaire diamond ring. How wonderful! Emma hadn’t pushed Mark to think about marriage, but surely this meant he was going to propose. Her heart beat faster.

All thoughts of tidying the bedroom left Emma’s mind. She flung the things back into the ottoman bed, closed it and grabbed her mobile. She had to share this discovery with her best friend.

Hello,” said Hannah, sleepily. “What do you want this early in the morning? Is the library on fire?”

It was typical of Hannah to be snoozing. Emma sighed.

Firstly, it is not early. It’s eleven am. Secondly, the library is not on fire and that’s a terrible thing to say. Thirdly, I think Mark is going to propose.

There was a short silence before Hannah sniffed and said, “Well – about time too, if you ask me. He’s been keeping you dangling for long enough.”

Hannah had never been impressed by Mark. She felt he’d dazzled the normally cautious Emma into flat sharing. And this from the woman who had married her own partner, Chris, just six months after they had met.

Now though, Emma felt she and Mark had built the foundations for a long future together. After all, that was what she wanted, wasn’t it?

The next day was Emma’s birthday, and now she knew what her present from Mark would be.

He was always so busy organising functions at work that he rarely did anything for their special occasions. So Emma had organised her own birthday trip to a local beauty spot followed by afternoon tea in a gastro-pub. On the day, the weather was gorgeous, and the countryside beautiful, but despite the handsome backdrop, no proposal came.

She assured herself that the afternoon tea would be his chosen setting.

After they’d eaten the delicate sandwiches and moved on to the cakes, Mark reached into his rucksack and said, “I suppose you’ll be wanting your present, then?”

“Oh, yes, please,” Emma responded, hoping that the shocked expressions she had practised the previous day would be enough to fool him.

However, when Mark presented her with his gift, she realised she needn’t have bothered.

“It’s your favourite bath stuff, from that expensive place. It was pre-wrapped, too!”

Mark could see by the look on Emma’s face that she was upset.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

Before she could stop herself, Emma blurted out she had found the ring. Mark slumped back in his chair.

Honestly, Em, I couldn’t do it. I bought the ring a year ago but as time’s gone on, it just felt less and less right.

In that moment, her dreams were shattered. It was mortifying, but she was not one to make a scene. Mark didn’t want her, and that was the end of it.

Over the next few days she threw herself into work and tried to ignore what was going on at home. Mark was moving his stuff out. He was going to stay with a friend. They agreed it was for the best, and there was nothing else to say.

Hannah, on the other hand, wouldn’t stop talking about him.

“Well, I never thought he was right for you. He’s totally self-centred. I’m amazed you couldn’t see it for yourself. He walked all over you.”

Emma sighed. “Thank you for letting me know at last. You could have said something before. I’d already booked a holiday for us in Rhodes. What do I do with that, now?”

“Easy!” Hannah said. “Go on your own and enjoy yourself. You need the break.”

“You could come with me.”

“Sorry,” Hannah said. “Chris and I are going to a festival in Belgium.”

So, two months later, Emma found herself on a plane with an empty seat next to her. At least there was somewhere to put her book.

She stared out of the window at the wing. She wasn’t even going to get a view as they soared over the Greek islands. She was beginning to regret taking a long flight with no one to talk to.

After the plane took off, the man in the aisle seat looked at the spare space between them. With a smile he said to her, “I don’t think whoever should be sitting here is coming. Do you mind if I put my jacket on top of your book?”

Inwardly, Emma winced at the mention of the vacant seat but she managed to reply, “No – it’s fine.”

The man carefully arranged his jacket before he spoke again.

“Thanks! I’m Tom, by the way. I do find this flight a long stretch.”

Emma felt relief that he wanted to talk. He was about her age, not handsome in the traditional sense, but he had a kind face. She learned that Tom was a freelance accountant. He was going to use his skills to help out a Greek friend from his university days, who ran a restaurant in Old Rhodes Town.

By the end of the flight they were chatting as if they’d known each other for ages and Emma was sad they had to say goodbye. She didn’t want to be left on her own.  Tom’s friend, Nick, was waiting for him in the arrivals hall and Emma had to find her coach to the hotel.

Here’s a card for Nick’s restaurant. If you’re free one evening, you could pop in. It would be great to see you again.

Tom smiled, as they parted.

“Thank you,” she said. “I might just do that.” She was genuinely delighted at the thought of meeting him later.

Emma had done her research on Rhodes and made a spreadsheet of places to visit. Mark never appreciated her holiday spreadsheets. He said he had enough of them at work and holidays should be spontaneous, but Emma felt reassured by her planning, especially now she was on her own.

For the first few days she explored Rhodes town. The walls that surrounded the ancient buildings and castle reminded her of York. However, even in June, the warmth of the sun was hotly Mediterranean and she had to rub on much more suntan lotion than York usually required. One morning she walked to the ancient Stadium of Rhodes where competitors had run naked along the track so many years ago.

You could still sit in the carved seats where spectators had watched the games thousands of years ago. Now only tired tourists rested on the stone plinths.

Sitting in the vast stadium, with so few fellow travellers around, something struck her. She was alone. She hadn’t felt really lonely until this moment, watching the lizards darting in and out of the cracks in the seats. She decided she couldn’t face another night eating by herself in the hotel.

She dug into her handbag and found the card Tom had given her at the airport. She would go and find the restaurant in Rhodes Town which he’d recommended.

That evening, the old town was buzzing with café-goers like her. An occasional firework whooshed upwards and lit up the sky. The restaurant looked out towards the three windmills that stood on the far side of Rhodes marina.

Tom was standing by the bar and noticed her immediately. In his rush to get to her, he almost knocked a waiter flying. Emma couldn’t help but smile.

“Emma! I’m so pleased to see you. How are you? Have you caught the sun?” Tom babbled.

“I’m fine, thanks. Is the waiter OK?”

“Oh, that’s Giorgios, he knows what I’m like. He never lets me help him carry plates. Nick says I’m only safe handling the money.” Tom beamed at her for a few seconds before adding, “Would you like a drink? Or a meal?”

“Both, please,” Emma said. “I’ve walked a long way today.”

“I could join you, if you like?”

“I would really like that.” She smiled.

Dinner was exceptional. Tom’s friend, Nick suggested dishes for Emma to try and each one was delicious. He brought out a Greek wine to accompany the meal. What a change in just one day! Emma realised she was truly relaxed for the first time in many months.

Nick asked what she had seen and Emma explained she’d only walked about the old town. Nick looked at Tom.

“You must take your friend to Lindos,” he said. “She will love the views from the Parthenon. You can borrow my car tomorrow.”

Tom looked hesitant and turned to Emma. “I don’t want to impose. I wouldn’t want you to think…”

Emma cut in.

I’d like to go. But I don’t want to be any trouble…

Nick looked at the couple, both too polite to say what they really wanted. He shook his head and muttered something about English reserve before saying, “That’s settled, then. Tom will pick you up from your hotel tomorrow morning. Say nine o’clock?”

The small road into modern-day Lindos dipped steeply into the village. A man was standing in the junction at the bottom, wildly gesturing at vehicles to alternately wait or proceed through the bottleneck.

Tom expertly manoeuvred the car around parked vehicles and made his way to a car park on the hillside. She could just make out the Parthenon on the clifftop, overlooking the village.

The only ways to the ruins were to climb a steep path or take a donkey ride. Although the donkeys looked well cared for, Emma could not bear the thought of a poor animal carrying her up such an incline, so she opted to walk. Along the path, Greek women were selling souvenirs. Emma stopped to look at some embroidered tablecloths spread out on the grey rocks.

“Beautiful tablecloths, all made locally.” A seller beamed at her.

They were lovely, but Emma was worried about finding the climb difficult and did not want to carry a large bag.

I can carry it, if you’d like one. It will make a lovely souvenir to take home.

Tom smiled, seeing her hesitation.

Emma was grateful, and the walk was not as long or exhausting as she’d feared. Tom didn’t dash up the hill and his gentle conversation made the climb easier.

At the summit they wandered round the ruins and looked out over the deep blue Mediterranean. On the other side they gazed at the white buildings below, before descending to eat at one of the rooftop restaurants.

For the rest of her holiday, Tom took her to places he had come to know over his years visiting Rhodes. By the end of Emma’s vacation they had shared all their hopes and dreams, including their crushed ones.

The pair had grown so close that Emma felt guilty when she thought of Mark. He had seemed so right at first. Could she be wrong again?

On the flight home, Emma wondered if this could ever be anything more than a holiday romance. By the time she was walking though the arrivals hall in Birmingham, she had convinced herself that she’d never hear from Tom again.

Passing customs, she saw a sign being waved in the air. Emma, please forgive me. Holding it up was a dishevelled Mark, clutching a huge bunch of flowers.

Penny for them?” said a low voice next to Emma, waking her from her daydream. “Your thoughts?”

She looked at her new husband who had just woken from his nap and was gazing at her quizzically.

“I was just thinking,” she said.

“What about?” he asked playfully. “Being married to me?”

“You should be so lucky,” she replied with mock haughtiness. “You don’t deserve me! Now I think about it, I should have run up to Mark and grabbed his flowers rather than walking on by.”

Tom sat up, took her hand and looked at the rings on her fingers.

“Ah, but then you would never have got this,” he said, as he kissed her

More romantic short stories:

Read Collisions and Love, A Welcome Distraction and The Midnight Bakery, plus many more in our archives.

Georgia Grieve