For a split second, all Adrianna felt was fear. If Alberto were to propose to her then she had no idea what her answer would be. Her father would expect her to say yes but her heart would say know because it already belonged to another; Matteo.
But a few moments later Adrianna realised that her worry was unfounded. It wasn’t a box for a ring, unless it was big enough to use as a ball.
“I saw this and thought of you,” the Count said, opening the box and holding it out for Adrianna to inspect. Inside the box nestled a choker necklace with three large gems in the centre surrounded by small, sparkling diamonds. In the candlelight it was hard for Adrianna to tell what the stones were, but she guessed at obsidian.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, clutching at her throat in a shocked manner. “I really don’t know what to say.”
“Then let me put it on you,” he said, taking the necklace out of the box and holding it out for Adrianna to put on. She took the piece of jewellery gently from his hands, placing it around her neck and passing the clasp to the Count to fasten. The metal cut into her neck as the necklace tightened around her neck but she didn’t complain. “Let me see,” the Count said, putting his hands on her shoulders and turning her to face him. “It’s perfect for you.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Adrianna said, her hand tracing the stones around her neck. “This is such a generous gift.”
“Then don’t thank me. The sight of you looking beautiful with that necklace around your neck is enough for me.” Alberto took a step closer to Adrianna, his eyes fixed on her face. Adrianna didn’t know what to do as he came closer until he was only inches away from her. His hand came up to touch her face, tilting it towards his.
“I think we should go,” she breathed as his lips grew closer to hers, waiting to kiss her. “My father will be wondering where I am.”
“Of course,” he said, a hint of disappointment in his tone. “I wouldn’t want you to get into any trouble on my account.” He backed away slowly, allowing Adrianna to relax and breathe normally again. The Count picked up the candlestick from the table by the door and moved to leave, turning back to make sure Adrianna was following him.
When they reappeared in the ballroom, Adrianna suddenly felt extremely conspicuous with the Count’s necklace hanging around her neck. It screamed out ‘look at me’; drawing the attention of everyone she passed.
“I must go,” the Count said, taking Adrianna’s hand once more and kissing it. “I hope to have another dance with you before the evening is over,” he said.
“I would like that very much, your Highness,” Adrianna replied, curtsying deeply to him. “And thank you again for your most generous gift.” Count Alberto inclined his head towards her, acknowledging her thanks before walking away. She watched him go, feeling some of the pressure lifting from her shoulders as he went.
And yet he had still left his mark on her. The necklace he had given her told every other man in the room that she was his, just like the mask Adrianna wore told the world that she had a ‘master’.
She caught a glimpse of herself in one of the large mirrors that covered the walls of the ballroom and was surprised by what she saw. The necklace was too garish for her normal tastes, the precious stones shining too brightly, the metal looking like it was slowly strangling her. She desperately wanted to take it off but she knew that the moment she did Alberto would reappear and take offence. One small consolation was that the stones matched her dress, even if it gave her a slightly funereal appearance.
“I hope you meant everything you said to my son,” a slippery voice said from behind Adrianna, making her skin crawl.
“Your Highness,” Adrianna said, dropping quickly to the floor as she recognised Prince Niccolo’s charming and unnerving face. His eyes were watching her closely, examining every inch of her in a way that made her feel very uncomfortable, like a slab of meat being eyed by a butcher.
“No need for that,” the Prince said eventually, indicating that Adrianna should rise, “we’re all friends here.”
“That is very kind of you,” Adrianna replied.
“But as I said; I hope you mean all the things you are saying to my son. He has spoken a lot about you since the night he met you and I don’t want you messing him around.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, your Highness.”
“Good,” Niccolo replied. “Because otherwise I would have to have serious words with your father because you won’t find as good a man as Alberto again.”
“I am sure he is one of a kind,” Adrianna said, trying to keep her tone sincere.
“May I dance with you?” Niccolo asked, surprising Adrianna. “I would like to talk to you, get to know you better. Alberto has told me about you but I’d much rather find out what you’re like for myself. I only seem to trust my own judgment these days.”
“It would be an honour to dance with you, your Highness,” Adrianna replied, curtsying again but this time not as deeply.
“Excellent,” he replied cheerfully. “Alberto tells me you are a very fine dancer and that I am sure is true.”