The parlour was familiar, but Brice's position in it wasn't. He had seen it on a handful of occasions when he had assisted Madame Nesca while she negotiated business with particularly valued partners here. Finding himself in the overstuffed chair and offered excellent wine left him wondering what in the world was going on.
He kept both his nerves and his alcohol consumption in check, and was his polite self through the greetings, and Madame Nesca asking about his health and how he had meanwhile settled in.
"I am happy here. I like the people, I enjoy working for you, and I'm looking forward to business expanding further." For all that it was an honest answer — he was amazed how far he had come in the last three years, for someone new to the town, with no family name, no connections, no references — but thanks to his nerves, the tone fell flat.
She breathed out loudly, a wry twist to her smile making Brice wonder if the noise was a stifled chuckle or snort. "Do you have a life besides work? A family?"
"Well, I am keeping in touch with my parents and siblings and cousins. Most of them are not in this town, though. We write." His eyes unfocused briefly. His parents would answer one letter a year, his older brother refused to acknowledge his existence—
Madame Nesca asked, "That's all?"
Brice shrugged, taking care to end up in a less tense position afterwards than before. "Getting used to the new place and new position took most of my time. Adjusting to the new trade channels will—"
Madame Nesca waved that course of conversation down. "All right, then. In that case I have a business proposal for you. Namely, a position as junior partner, and my husband."
For several seconds Brice just kept breathing, staring at her. He automatically picked up his glass, but merely rotated it before putting it back on the side table. Adding alcohol would not make the situation clearer. He was a nobody, she was running a growing business. She could do so much better. "I'm honoured, but may I ask why?"
"You are trustworthy and competent. And since we are going to blaze some new trails, it seems unwise forging ties with another company."
The compliment tripped him up. Well, competent maybe... He pulled his mind back on track with an effort and realised, "You would prefer being the senior partner."
Madame Nesca’s smile widened. She watched Brice over her steepled fingers.
The chair creaked as he leaned forward, working through some implications and possibilities. "But staying unmarried is no option? Family politics?"
She raised her hands, hinting at a shrug. "My parents would disown me if I don’t produce a legitimate heir of their blood. They would be happy enough to see me married that they would swallow a groom even without a first name. "
"I... Well, it is a very tempting offer." A marriage of convenience would be beneficial for him, too, aside from the aspect of joining a respectable family. He was a little younger than his employer, but even so there had been hints from the rest of his family that he should settle down properly. And it wasn't like he was opposed to the idea in principle. "I hope I don't seem disrespectful, but I believe we should talk out some details before making a final decision."
"I didn't expect anything less of you."
After a deep breath, Brice haltingly offered, "One complication is that I am involved with someone, and well, I would like to talk about it, also, with him."
"Ahhh, yes." Satisfaction was not what Brice had expected. Madame Nesca went on, "Maybe some time soon we should all meet for dinner, the two of us, your Vitale, and my Maura, and see if we can come to an agreement that's satisfying to all of us."
Brice felt light-headed and short of breath. He rested his elbows on his knees, lowered his head and closed his eyes, swallowing repeatedly.
"Brice?" Hearing a note of worry in her voice helped a little.
"Just a moment, please." This business would need very careful consideration.
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