That very evening she managed it. Isabel had helped clear away the evening meal when John Braeburn appeared in the doorway of the kitchen.
“Miss Moore? If I may have a word?”
Isabel felt her heart lurch inside her chest. She had been assured that John Braeburn was a man of humour and kindness, but right now he sounded unaccountably grim.
“Of course.” She kept herself from adding that he had not had so much as a word with her through the meal they’d just shared, or the four days past.
They both repaired to the sitting-room, its wooden shutters closed against the muggy night. Burma was, if anything, more humid and stifling than Calcutta had been, but now Isabel felt perspiration prickle along her shoulder blades from nerves rather than heat.
She laced her hands across her middle and attempted a smile.
“You wished to speak to me, Mr Braeburn?”
“I did.” He gazed at her solemnly for a moment, and Isabel fought to keep herself looking composed.
He was a handsome man, with dark brown hair and eyes, his skin tanned from several years in the tropical sun, his shoulders broad underneath his plain frock coat.
“But I confess,” he continued, his mouth quirking into a surprising smile, “that I am hesitant to do so when you look like you would like to take me to task.”
Isabel glanced away, discomfited. Despite what she knew of this man, she had not expected levity.
“But perhaps,” he continued quietly, “I should be taken to task, for ignoring you these last days. In truth, it was because I did not know what to say to you. I have never found myself in such a situation before.”
“Nor have I,” Isabel answered. She felt her cheeks heat and she forced herself to meet his gaze. “I trust Mr Judson has told you of his proposal.”
John Braeburn arched an eyebrow.
“It should be my proposal, by rights,” he said, and although his tone was light and perhaps even teasing, Isabel felt her cheeks heat all the more so she knew her face must be positively crimson.
“If it so pleased you, Mr Braeburn,” she answered stiffly.
“I don’t know if it pleases me, or pleases you,” he answered. “But pray let us be seated and decide if that might be the case.”
Isabel glanced at him warily.
“There are things you wish to know?” she asked tentatively, taking a seat, with John Braeburn sitting opposite her.
“There are many things I wish to know. And I imagine there are many things you wish to know. I confess, I would like to be married again. It can be a lonely life here, and companionship of the gentler kind can be a great comfort.”
Isabel stared down at her lap.
“I’m sure,” she murmured.
“But if we wouldn’t suit each other, then there is no point to consider it. You surely have not travelled all the way to Burma to be so disappointed.”
Was he trying to let her down easily, Isabel wondered. She glanced up quickly.
“Mr Braeburn, I am thirty years old and as yet unwed. That is my disappointment.”
“And I confess it is quite a surprise to me,” he answered with a smile. “I cannot believe a woman such as yourself would prefer to be wed to a man who does not suit you than not at all.”
“A woman like me?”
“Handsome, intelligent, well-bred.” He spread his hands. “I would have thought you’d have had your pick of suitors.”
His words warmed her, even if his assumption was entirely wrong.
“You would be mistaken.”
John cleared his throat.
“There is only one suitor here,” he said quietly, and Isabel saw that now he was blushing as well. They were quite a pair.
“I know it well.”
“All I would ask, Miss Moore, is that we attempt to get to know one another, spend time in each other’s company, before we decide on a course of action.”
Isabel clenched her hands in her lap.
“That seems reasonable,” she said carefully. “But as I have said before, I am thirty years old, Mr Braeburn. My time is precious to me, if I wish to enjoy marriage in all of its benefits, such as motherhood.” Her face felt scorched at making such a bold admission, but John Braeburn took it in his stride.
“Fair enough,” he said, and settled more comfortably in his chair. “Then we will waste no time. You hail from Boston, I heard? Tell me about your life there. What did you do with your time?”
“I –” Isabel stopped, at a loss. How could she begin to describe herself?
“Mr Judson said you were well read,” he offered helpfully. “And that you started a school?”
“I didn’t start it,” she said quickly.
“Tell me of it,” he said, settling back to listen.
Isabel stared at him, finding it hard to believe he really wanted to know. But then she saw how his eyes crinkled up at the corners, and were bright with interest and kindness. A new hope kindling in her heart, she began to speak.