Bert held out the distinctive aqua-colored box and offered a wobbly smile.
“What’s this?” Veronika recognized Tiffany blue when she saw it and knew they couldn’t afford it, shouldn’t indulge themselves. For now, every penny should go toward their February 14 wedding or essentials for their new apartment. But curiosity about what was inside that box was building fast.
“It’s Hungarian Christmas!” Bert exclaimed.
He was right. It was December 5, St. Nicholas’s Eve, and St. Nicholas’s Feast Day, December 6, was well-celebrated in Veronika’s family. She’d told him about it in mouth-watering detail—the bright red fisherman’s soup, the fragrant stuffed cabbage, the luscious poppy seed and walnut rolls, the sweets. In the press of everything, she’d almost forgotten.
“And,” he continued, “you told me every Hungarian girl has to have a present on Hungarian Christmas.”
She’d said that? “Right.” She flushed.
Veronika untied the white satin ribbon, removed the box lid, and took out the small case within. Really, she couldn’t resist. In for a penny, she thought. Slowly she lifted the case’s hinged lid and gasped. “Oh! It’s beautiful! But, Bert, did you just win the New Jersey lottery? Or what? How can we afford this?”
The ring had a brilliant yellow stone in the center—a citrine she supposed, or a kind of topaz. It was huge. Huger than huge. And surrounded by diamonds, each the size of a large peppercorn, though realistically, she knew they were probably cubic zirconia or manmade.
“Forget the lottery. You robbed a bank.” She hadn’t taken her eyes off the ring and could barely catch her breath.
“Nothing’s too good for the future Mrs. Harkness. Not on Hungarian Christmas, when every Hungarian girl—” As he spoke, she rotated the box so he could admire the extravagant ring. He took a look. “Oh, my God!”
He collapsed into the chair opposite her in their tiny living room. “That’s not—I didn’t—I bought a pair of earrings.” Small ones, in fact. Which seemed even smaller compared to the size of the ring. Not even gold. Sterling silver. His face reddened. Now he was mesmerized by the mysterious ring. “Not that I wouldn’t buy you a ring like this if I—if we—but I didn’t.” He sounded miserable.
“No, we can’t.”
Veronika sat back, confused. “So, you’re saying you bought me a nice pair of earrings. Not this. So, how did you end up with it?”
“I don’t know. I can’t imagine.”
“What was the store like when you were there?”
“Not too busy. I took a late lunch and went then. A nice older woman—probably about 40—waited on me. She was very patient. Price-range challenge and all …” He screwed up his face, trying to remember. “Oh. There was a lively group of guys on the other side of the store, in the ring department, in fact. They were Asian—Korean or maybe Japanese, I think. They turned buying a ring into a group project. Lots of enthusiasm.”
“That’s it! The boxes got switched.”
Bert pondered the possibility. “That seems unlikely. I don’t see how it could have happened. I gave the woman my credit card and she came back with my receipt and the box in a little Tiffany’s bag—I saved the bag for you—and for some reason, maybe the size of the purchase, the men were escorted into an office to pay. They insisted on paying cash, and the sales person seemed a little hesitant. But they must have worked it out, because the men did come out with a bag. I think.”
“I’m calling Paul and Tommy. We need help here.”
“Why? Why do we need your brothers?”
“Because,” she said, picking up her phone, “something’s very wrong about this.”
“I can just take it back,” he said, talking over her greeting to Paul. She turned to Bert, and told her brother to hold on. “And leave Tiffany’s in handcuffs? A valuable ring like that doesn’t just get switched. Who knows what they’ll think really happened? Collusion between you and an employee? Whatever? But then you got cold feet and walked in with the evidence? No way. You need protection.” She returned to the phone. “Paul, we need you, ASAP. And bring Tommy.” She disconnected.
“It isn’t enough to be innocent, my darling. Others have to believe you’re innocent. That’s what saves you. And Paul, Tommy, and I do believe it.” She gave him a hug. “Thank you for remembering Hungarian Christmas.”