“There’s something I’d like to speak to you about.”
Nora Paget glanced over at her brother, who was sitting opposite her in the wooden chair he’d carved himself, the flames of the small fire reflecting in his brown eyes that were so like hers. “If it’s about the kittens in the barn again…”
Julian chuckled and shook his head. “If you want to add raising abandoned kittens to the long list of things you already do, I won’t trouble you about it again.”
Not after she’d caught him sneaking out there with a blanket and making the kittens a warm little nest, he wouldn’t. Nora smothered a grin. “What then?”
That piqued Nora’s curiosity. Miss Stokes was better known as Gwen, the woman Julian was courting. But he hadn’t addressed her in such a formal manner for months. “What about her?”
“I want to ask her to marry me.” He shifted his eyes from the fire to Nora, his eyebrows raised. “What do you think of that?”
“How marvelous!” Nora clapped her hands together, fighting the urge to jump up from her seat and throw her arms around her brother—pink was already creeping into his cheeks, and an impromptu embrace would only embarrass him further. “I think the two of you will be very happy together.”
He relaxed against the high back of his chair. “I have your blessing, then?”
“You don’t need my blessing,” she said with a small smile, letting her hands drop into her lap, “but if you want it, you have it. You know how fond I am of her.”
“Good.” He drew in a breath and blew it out as a log popped in the fire. “I was afraid…” He stopped, met her gaze, and pressed his lips together. “I don’t want you to feel like you aren’t welcome here…”
“I would nev—” Then she realized what her brother was trying to say. This was his house, his farm, and his wife would expect to be mistress of both, though Nora herself had occupied that role for a decade now. “Oh.”
Julian leaned forward, his chair creaking slightly with the shifting of his weight. “You will have a home here as long as you want it. Gwen and I have already discussed it, and we are of a like mind on this.”
Nora opted not to tease her brother about the sudden change in the name he used for his beloved, but she did smile. Of course Julian sought Gwen’s opinion on what their future would look like. He’d been doing the same with Nora since they were children.
“That’s very generous of you both,” Nora told him, her mind searching for other possibilities. Perhaps her brother wasn’t going to toss her out on her ear, but that didn’t mean she wanted to encroach on the beginning of his new life with Gwen. “I could go back to Aunt Imogen, though.”
Their mother’s sister had raised them in the country, away from the prying eyes and judging minds they’d have encountered in London with their parents. No doubt she’d be delighted to have Nora back, installed in her old bedchamber again, right next to her cousin’s.
“You could,” Julian replied with a slow nod. “Or take your dowry and set up your own household.”
Nora had been pondering that idea herself for some time, and had even gone so far as to mention it to her parents in her last letter to them. Her dowry wasn’t large—her father was a sixth son, after all, and had worked hard to make a comfortable, though not affluent, life for his family—but it would be enough to rent a small cottage nearby and keep her sufficiently clothed and fed.
“You think Mama and Papa would agree to that?” Their reply hadn’t yet arrived, but at thirty years of age, Nora supposed she was entitled to her own independence if she wanted it.
“Their living arrangements aren’t exactly traditional,” Julian said, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly. “I doubt they’d give you any grief over wanting something other than a husband and children. And if you do want a husband and children, you would still have that option, of course.”
Nora propped her elbow up on the wooden arm of her chair and leaned her cheek against her hand, a rogue lock of her nearly black hair tickling the back of her hand. “I’m perfectly content without children. As for a husband… Well, I’m not going to go out and marry the next man who asks to escort me along the New Walk, but I wouldn’t turn down the right person.”
“Have you anyone in mind?”
She shook her head, rubbing her chin against the rough skin of her her palm as she did so. “No.” She’d had a proposal only last month, but it had been from a neighbor who’d only wanted a wife who would keep his house and warm his bed. She had no problem doing either with an amenable partner, but she wanted more than just that. “Perhaps I’ll ask Jonas for his opinion when I see him next. There may be some legalities to consider that I haven’t thought of yet.”
“You’ll see him at the tea shop this week?”
She nodded. She’d met Jonas Blackburn during a jaunt into York shortly after coming to live with her brother about ten years ago. Nora had been discussing the possibility of selling some baked goods with the shop’s owner when Jonas had come in for his midday meal, overheard the words “apple pie with cheese,” and decided to investigate. They’d become fast friends and began meeting at that little tea shop nearly every week. “Mmhmm. Even if he doesn’t have a legal opinion to contribute, just talking the situation over with him might help me decide what I’d like to do.”
The thought of Jonas in proximity to thoughts of marriage reminded her of a promise they’d once made to each other. It had been so long ago, though, and they hadn’t spoken of it in years. Would he even remember?
Did she want him to?
“There’s no hurry. It will be perhaps a fortnight before I ask Gwen for her hand, and then there will be the planning and having the banns called if she says yes. And, as I said, we’ll not chase you away—this will always be your home if you wish it to be so.”
“Whatever I do, it will most certainly involve making myself scarce for a month or so after the wedding.”
Pink crept further up Julian’s cheeks, but he was smiling when he met her gaze. “I appreciate that.”
Nora shot her brother a grin and pushed herself to her feet. “It’s hard enough navigating a relationship when it’s just you and one other person. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to have to redefine that relationship, even if the change is only a small one, while dealing with another person.”
She gave his shoulder a squeeze before heading up to her bedchamber for some serious thinking about her future. What exactly did she want to do with the rest of her life? The last time she’d had a decision of this magnitude to make, she’d ended up here with her brother because he’d needed her help, but also because she’d wanted to see a bit more of the world than her aunt’s little home in the country. Was that still the case? Or did she want to settle down into a home of her own?
“Well, Blackburn, you’ve done a fine job,” Mr. Everett said, beaming at Jonas across the big oak desk in the solicitor’s private office. “I didn’t think there was a way to free that property, but you’ve found one. His lordship will be pleased.”
Jonas held back a sigh of relief as he returned his employer’s smile. He’d been poring over books and documents for the better part of three weeks trying to figure out how to extricate a piece of property for the Earl of Fortingall from the generations of marriage settlements that kept him from selling it to anyone else, which his lordship was keen to do.
Mr. Everett had also hinted that a good outcome for the earl would lead to a good outcome for Jonas.
“I enjoyed the challenge,” Jonas told his employer truthfully. He’d been motivated in part by the intimation of a reward for giving the earl what he wanted, of course, but he also derived a fair amount of pleasure from finding a solution to what seemed like an impossible problem.
“Perhaps you are ready for another challenge?”
Mr. Everett’s smile changed in a way that Jonas couldn’t quite define, but it made him wary. “What did you have in mind, sir?”
“Domestic bliss.” Jonas must have given him a strange look, because Mr. Everett continued, “A wife, Blackburn. It’s high time you were married.”
Jonas fought the urge to roll his eyes. This again? Why was it anyone else’s business when he married? Or if he married? “Yes sir, I suppose it is.”
“Mr. Puri and I were just talking about how we’d like to give you more of these challenging tasks,” Mr. Everett said, his eyes drifting toward the office door of his business partner. “More difficult work would necessitate an increase in your wages, too, of course.”
Jonas leaned forward slightly in his seat, unsure how the conversation had turned from his marriage to a possible raise in pay, but interested nonetheless. “I assure you, sir, that I will do my best with whatever work you see fit to give me.”
“I know you will, Blackburn, and Mr. Puri knows it, too. But we’re reluctant to give you more responsibility than you can handle.”
Jonas felt a bit of the starch go out of him. “Haven’t I already proven to you what I can handle?” This wasn’t the first, nor even the fifth, demanding assignment he’d been given and he’d managed to find answers for each and every client. What more did he need to do?
“Perhaps if you showed a bit more initiative in your home life…”
Jonas wanted to slump in his chair like a petulant school boy, but resisted the temptation. He wasn’t against marriage by any means. He’d even given some thought over the last year or so to finding himself a bride—a partner who could take care of the domestic side of life while he took care of the financial side, whose companionship he could enjoy and reciprocate. But he didn’t particularly like the idea of the man who controlled his livelihood trying to also dictate the direction of his personal life.
Instead Jonas forced himself to nod gravely, ignoring the slightly sweaty odor his employer seemed to be emanating. “Of course. Marriage is what all people should aspire to, isn’t it?”
It was rather a stretching of the truth as far as Jonas was concerned, but Mr. Everett’s smile grew and he flattened both his hands on the desk. “You’ve got the right of it.”
Jonas managed a few more minutes of conversation with his employer before excusing himself back to the small office he shared with the other junior solicitor, Archibald Turner, and dropping into the chair at his own desk.
“That bad?” Archie asked.
“Yes and no,” Jonas replied with the sigh he’d been holding back. “He praised my work, then told me I won’t advance any further until I find a wife.”
“And how close are you to becoming the happiest of men?”
Jonas shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve even met the lucky lady yet.”
Archie whistled. “Looks like you’re going to be stuck here with me for a while, then. Unless, maybe…an advertisement in the newspaper?”
That was an idea. Plenty of people did just that, though he didn’t know how many of them ended up content together. “How long do you think it would take to find a woman amenable to a marriage of convenience?”
“In York?” Archie grinned. “Well, we don’t exactly have crowds of people flocking here.”
Jonas’s father like to tell stories about York’s heyday when the Prince Regent would come up from London for the Races, and most of the upper echelons of Society would follow. But His Royal Highness had lost interest years ago and so had the people who flocked here to be near him. “So my options are limited to the women who already live in or near the city.”
“Things would progress even faster if you started with someone you already know. Any ladies in your life that might not mind being wed to a solicitor?”
Jonas shook his head and ran a hand through his hair, noting absently that it was getting a little long. “I’m here with you most of the time.”
“Except when you’re at that tea shop with the amazing deserts,” Archie reminded him.
Jonas smiled, remembering the cherry tart he’d had there last week when he’d met Nora for luncheon. Apple was his favorite, but she’d had some dried cherries left over from the previous harvest…
“Archie, you’re a genius,” Jonas cried, bolting upright in his chair.
Archie’s brow furrowed and he tilted his head. “How?”
“The woman who makes some of the deserts at the tea shop.” Jonas stood, passing a hand over his face.
Archie smiled, no doubt recalling the last time Nora had come by the office bearing a basket of scones for the pair of them. “That Nora. What about her?”
“We made a pact when we were younger, that if we were both unwed when we turned thirty we would marry each other.” Jonas allowed himself to smile faintly. They’d only been twenty years old at the time, and Nora had been grumpy because she’d had a letter from her aunt nagging her about finding a husband. He hadn’t thought about it in years, and he was quite sure she hadn’t either.
But it was an option.
“Is she available, then?”
“She is.” Whether or not she’d agree to be his wife after all this time remained to be seen. And did Jonas actually want to marry her? Or was she just a convenient way to solve his problem?
“Then what are you waiting for?”
Jonas shook his head and drooped against the back of his chair with a soft thud. “Just because I finished Lord Fortingall’s business doesn’t mean I don’t have other things to do.”
Archie turned back to his own work with a smile on his face. “And walking out in the middle of the day would make finding a wife the least of your problems.”
“Mmhmm.” Jonas bent over the old parchment document he’d spread out, but his eyes couldn’t seem to focus on it. Could he really ask Nora to marry him? How on earth did he even start that conversation?
What would he do if she said yes?
Copyright © 2020 by Cora Lee
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