The 24 Karat Man
By Amy Murrell-Haunold

"It's gone!" I sobbed into Mark's chest, " I can't find it anywhere!"

"Hold on! Take a deep breath. Now, what's wrong."
He was using that no-nonsense tone he'd take when directing his mechanics. "One of my diamond earrings is missing. It must have gotten lost in the move."

"Did you look everywhere?"

He held me close, his chest solid and reassuring. I nodded, not trusting my voice again.

Mark was my best friend. I'd known him since 6th grade, even dating him in high school. But his love of cars and anything that had an engine convinced me he'd never be anything other than a gas jockey and I had my sights set higher. So he'd remained just a good friend and additionally, became my trusted mechanic with my first car.

"Where did you see them last?"he asked gently, drying my tears with the ever-present shop rag from his back pocket. It, and he, smelled of grease and exhaust.

"They were in the bottom drawer of my jewelry chest when I packed it. One is still there. I pulled out all the drawers and looked through every one in case it slipped out. But it isn't there!"

My voice was cracking, tears threatening to spill over again. "Show me,"he directed and we went to look, forgetting our dinner date.

I spilled out the glittering contents of the box and we sorted through it together. Earring still missing, he patiently began to search the packing boxes. I went back to running my fingers through the carpet.

The thick, pale blue carpet was new, unlike the carpets in my first apartment which had been a dingy beige, worn in large patches. I'd been able to move into this place partly by luck, partly by a lot of hard work.

When I'd left my cheating husband, Joe, my parents had refused to take me in, hoping to drive me back where they thought I belonged. "Every man man makes a mistake now and then, dear," my mother had told me, "You just have to forgive and forget. Go home. Everything will be fine."

But Joe had made the same mistake over and over and I was through with forgiving and forgetting. I'd moved out taking little and I'd been granted little in the divorce. My biggest asset was the Mercedes Benz Joe had given me for Christmas, saying an executive's wife needed dependability and style. Luckily, it was in my name. By this time, Mark had bought his own repair shop, racing cars on the weekends for fun. He kindly helped me find a buyer and got me an equally dependable but much less stylish used VW. Extra money from the sale helped me finish my secretarial schooling.

I was lucky to find the dilapidated flat owned by an older couple who were willing to give me a chance. I had no credit rating as I'd married Joe right out of high school and never held down an outside job. Even most of the housekeeping had been done by the maid service Joe insisted upon. On Mark's advice, I'd started working on a credit history by taking advantage of the easy credit offered at a small jewelry store. My first purchase when I'd gotten my present job was a pair of diamond solitaire earrings.

They were small, just a half carat each but they were blue-white, and flawless. Simple enough to wear to the office, they were also nice enough for dress up. To me, the earrings represented all I'd worked so hard for.

My diligent work and a fair-minded boss rewarded me, so a raise and my good credit finally put me in a position find better accommodations. When I told Mark, he called a realtor client who found me a terrific deal on a small condo. Unannounced, Mark showed up this morning at the flat in his beat-up old pickup, ready to help me move. Finally finished, we planned to go out to a celebration dinner.

Mark sighed putting down the last box. "It isn't here either. I'm sorry, Annie. Why don't we go back to the flat and check there."

Dinner was a burger on the run as we searched the flat and both vehicles. No use. Late in the evening, I had one last good cry in front of the fireplace on the floor of my new living room.

After I had cried myself out, Mark asked if I couldn't buy a single earring to replace the lost lamb.

"Yes, probably. Someday. But for now, this home is going to take most of my income. Even when the day comes that I can, I'm not sure I want to. Mark, those earrings represented something special to me. I don't think I could ever feel the same way knowing one was a replacement. Like your first great love. I'll just keep the one and treasure it."

He nodded his understanding silently. Firelight flickers reflected on the bottle as he poured me another glass of sparkling white wine. "I've got a race tomorrow afternoon, but if you'd like I can come back to help you unpack."

"Thanks, but you've done so much already. Just go and enjoy your race."

I didn't really want the company. I was grateful for all he'd done for me, but I needed time to be here on my own, to settle in and get the feel of the place.

The rest of the summer was hot and I didn't use the fireplace again for months. Mark was a frequent visitor but didn't come often enough. His business was just taking off and, like me, he worked long, hard hours. His passion, the race cars, occupied his weekends and he taken on a special job, rebuilding someone's dune buggy in what little time he had left. I'd see him race on Sundays and we'd have dinner. He was patient with my sometimes unsuccessful cooking attempts and I came to realize he was becoming more than a friend. I began to get a little jealous of the dune buggy and the hours he put into it.

Mark had given me my first 'real' kiss back in high school. Less than spectacular, it was memorable because it was the first. Since then, we'd kissed each other on the cheek, as friends, many times. One cool, rainy night in late August, he kissed me good night and it wasn't like high school anymore. We'd both grown and I found the long friendship had finally caught fire.

By early fall the dune buggy was finished and we had time to visit the cider mill or take long walks in the autumn colored woods between races. Today, he was cooking dinner for us. I shouldn't have to cook on my birthday he said, but secretly, I believed it was because my cooking skills hadn't improved much.

"Why don't you open this while we're waiting for the pasta?"he invited, handing me a small box tied with a pink ribbon.

"Aren't we supposed to wait until after we eat for presents?" I teased to hide my disappointment. It was small, but not a ring box as I'd hoped.

"No. I can't wait. Please, open it now."he coaxed.

I pulled the ribbon off. Inside were a pair of tiny diamond stud earrings.

"Half carat, right?"

I could see he was trying to gauge my reaction. I nodded, smiling. They were a half carat total, not a half carat each as mine had been.

"They're beautiful. You really shouldn't have."

I tried to be gracious. I thought he had understood how I felt about my special earrings but apparently he hadn't. I removed the earrings I was wearing to try them on.

"I'll let you in on a little secret. The dune buggy I was working on all summer belonged to a jeweler and in exchange, he let me buy these at cost. Oh, and this, too."

He pulled another box from his pocket. A ring box. "It isn't exactly a gift. More like a contract because my heart comes along with it."

I could hardly breath as my shaking hands opened the box. Not the gaudy rock I'd thrown back at Joe, this diamond perfectly matched the earrings. Before I could answer, the pasta boiled over with a noisy hiss.

"Hold that thought!"Mark shouted, racing for the kitchen.

I realized this man had worked long hours to spend all his hard earned money on me. Just an ordinary hard-working man, he couldn't buy me everything but he didn't have to because I'd already proven to myself that I could buy whatever I needed myself. Together, we could have a life that wasn't stylish but one that would be dependable. I hadn't realized it but with that first kiss in high school, Mark had become my first love and Joe had been nothing but a replacement.

"Sorry, it's overdone. If you don't want to wait, we could eat out. I have enough for a birthday pizza."

"Yes,"I shouted enthusiastically, throwing my arms around him.

"Yes, you'll wait or yes, you want to eat out?"he teased.

"Yes, I'll marry you. Kiss me. Then put on more pasta."

After the honeymoon, we packed up the contents of the condo to move me into his home and when we unpacked the jewelry box, the bottom drawer wouldn't slide properly. Taking it apart, Mark found the diamond earring I'd lost. Wedged in a crack, the move had shifted it out again.

I still have the large diamond studs and sometimes I wear them. But I have a second hole pierced in my ears further back so I can wear the little diamonds all the time. To me, they represent the unconditional love of a man who'd spend his last dime on me. A 24 karat man.

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