Ellie glanced up from her menu in surprise, startled by the pure sincerity in Neil’s eyes.
“Don’t say that, hun, we’ve both been through so much lately that there’s hardly been any time for any casual words.”
Her hand reached out for his, the anchor to his world.
“No,” he shook his head “It’s not enough.”
“What with me helping Sue through that awful spot with Dave stealing her life savings. And Bill’s Mum developing cancer in the wake of her book finally being published. That’s without mentioning the Arani twins discovering they had an estranged triplet in Saudi Arabia and trying to have a road trip to get to him.” She tittered quietly as she sipped her wine “Oh, those two are a laugh even if they are a bit mental.”
“Yeah, but that stuff with Billy’s Mum, and Carrie getting hit by a car. It just let’s you know that you can’t take anything for granted, you know?”
“Oh, I know you don’t take me for granted.” El responded with a wave of her hand and a bright smile, “What’s brought all this on? Granted it’s been a bit of a year but, hey, when you live in Stanton it seems like every year is a bit of a year. Just think of 2008 when Bill had that crazy idea about running his own business and nearly bankrupted the whole area. You mustn’t take it to heart, it’s how things are around here.”
“Well, we’ve both come from a lot as well.” Neil replied, twisting the napkin a little in his fist as El gently stroked his knuckles one by one.
“Oh yeah, who’d have thought we’d be here?” El giggled, “You with your crazy brother and me with my highflying Mum, always getting herself into trouble. Who’d have thought the two only level headed people in Stanton could have found each other through all the mentalists.” She looked at him with pure affection, “And I’m so happy we managed it.”
“I am too, El.” Neil said, his throat closing with emotion, “Which is why I want to ask you one, one very important question.”
El titled her head and gave him that glittering smile, he could barely even get the words out as he opened the ring box he’d been keeping in his pocket.
“Will you marry me?”
El’s face froze, eyes fixed on the ring. Slowly, she sat back in her chair to give them distance before finally looking up into Neil’s eyes with the purest horror.
“Oh Neil, why? Why would you do this?”
“Wh-what? Because I love you…” he said in a strangled voice.
“Why would you do this to me? To us?” El asked desperately, tears filling her eyes as she looked at the ring as though it was cursed.
“What are you talking about?” he cried, other people in the restaurant were beginning to look.
“Oh yeah? No idea at all why I wouldn’t be overjoyed? Well let me ask you this Neil, how many happy weddings have ever happened in Stanton? Ever?”
“What? How about Syd and Cherie?”
“Before or after it turned out she’d been having it away with their landlady?”
“Uh, Micha and Richie?”
“Neil! Richie was shot at his wedding by his estranged brother!”
“Wait, Miranda and Kelly.”
“Doesn’t count.” El said stroppily, sitting back in her chair, “They were immune, their wedding was enough of a head turner as it was.”
“For god’s sake El, you’re being ridiculous. Can’t you see that I love you?”
Unperturbed, she called over the waiter that had been hovering as he anticipated their order. He suddenly realised he was getting into more than he’d expected.
“Sorry sir, but perhaps you can help us? Can you ever recall a wedding taking place in Stanton that didn’t end in tragedy?”
He paused as though the idea had never occurred to him before.
“Well, my Mum and Dad were happily married.”
“There, you see?” Neil said defiantly.
“Right up until Dad realised he wanted to be a woman, Mum took it pretty well though and we’re all still living together. Gets the neighbours talking a bit though…”
Ellie said nothing, merely looked at Neil sideways whilst sticking her jaw out and steadily raising one eyebrow.
“And my friend Bill and his girl Kelly were a real joy together, never seen a happier couple. Right up until the terrible car accident that put them both in a coma.”
“Thanks mate, no more of that thanks.” Neil said suddenly.
“For God’s sake, I really thought I’d managed it with you,” El said sadly whilst throwing her arms in the air, “thought I’d managed to find the one guy in Stanton that wasn’t a closeted gay, bounty hunter, murderer, drug addicted maniac! The one who knew how to put money in a bank rather than hair-brained schemes and understood that finding any of my friends and family attractive is not an excuse to immediately put his tongue down their throat! Do you realise I’ve been waiting for it? Like when I thought you were having an affair but it turned out you were arranging a surprise birthday party and you’d actually bought the diamonds for me! I even wondered once if you were hiding some longstanding alcohol addiction, like Elkie, but it turned out you really were just helping out at those AA meetings. We’ve lasted so long together and, and that,” she pointed at the ring with derision, “is going to ruin it all. Draw attention to us and whatever it is that gets to everyone else we’ve ever met here.”
“You’re being ridiculous.” Neil said grumpily, trying to hide how painful this all was becoming. She softened a little as his face turned away.
“I have to say, it’s the strangest reason I’ve ever seen to turn down a proposal.” The waiter said uncertainly.
El stuck her tongue into her cheek and thoughtfully eyed up the ring again, glancing up at Neil occasionally. Eventually she sighed.
“Go on then, do it. Quick.” She said, holding out her hand and looking at him intensely.
Without a word, Neil nervously took the ring from the box and slid it onto her finger. The diamond glittered against her skin but El was too busy looking around and holding her breath. After a moment, she let the breath out and looked happily at her hand, smiling broadly at Neil.
“I’d like to toast the happy couple.” The waiter said with a glowing smile.
Neil and El exchanged shy glances as they both raised their glasses and with a “clink” a handcuff was latched around El’s wrist. The waiter certainly didn’t look friendly anymore.
“But instead I think I’d better nick you Jezebelle.” He growled.
“Whuh?” El asked desperately, looking at the metal that now encased her wrist.
“I’ve been looking for you for a long time Jezzie but you’re diamond stealing days are finally numbered.”
“Diamond thief? El?” Neil spluttered, “That’s ridiculous.”
“Tell that to your eyes.” The waiter spat as he slapped down a mug shot of a woman who looked completely identical to El. “No trouble now, let’s just go downtown.”
In a daze, El was hauled to her feet in front of the whole restaurant and shifted towards the door in silence. Dropping her wine, she finally turned back to Neil and hissed in desperate anger.
“I bleedin’ well told you! Bloody Stanton!”
Neil sat there watching her go, with his glass still held up as though he deserved an applause for something. His phone ringing loudly broke him out of his daze, all those eyes that had been watching his fiancee being dragged out now turned on him.
“H-hello?” he asked nervously.
“Hi Neil, it’s Dr Gringe here. I’m afraid we’ve just had your tests back and… well, I can’t explain it but it seems that you have foot and mouth.”
Neil hadn’t thought his jaw would be able to drop any further.
“Regardless, we’re sending a quarantine team to lock down your house and take you into the nearest safe location. If you’re not at home then we need to pick you up ASAP. Neil? Are you there?”
Something managed to make it’s way through Neil’s numb face. It might have been a laugh. It might have been a choked sob.
“Stanton,” he managed to gasp, “bloody Stanton.”