Phryne sat at the kitchen table. This case was complicated. Almost all of City South’s other work had been delegated to other stations. Phryne, Jack, Hugh, Dot and Jane sat at the table. Mr Butler was making more hot chocolate for everyone, and Mac was leaning against a wall. “It’s risky,” argued Mac, who never shied away from being honest. “And stupid,” she added.
“It’s the only way we can solve this,” argued Jack. Hugh and Dot exchanged a glance between them. Mac met Phryne’s eyes, raising an eyebrow.
Phryne was determined that there would be another solution. “I can go undercover by myself,” she suggested, already knowing the answer.
“No,” said Jack immediately, with finality. He didn’t even bother offering further explanation. This Cade family was bad news, and Phryne’s reckless investigation habits would be dangerous. Jack had already warned everyone that the Cades weren’t above murder, even of innocent bystanders.
With the Cades’ money, they’d be able to afford good legal representation, and they’d surely plead innocent in court. Jack needed legal, by-the-book evidence that could be used to get a conviction. Phryne knew that. If anyone was going undercover, it would be him.
“Surely I can go undercover on my own,” suggested the Inspector.
Everyone was quick to argue. “A lone man staying at the Windsor? No one would believe it, sir,” pointed out Hugh.
The table sat in silence for a moment, pretending to study the evidence. Everyone knew the solution, and after Jack and Hugh left for the night, Dot, Jane and Mac accosted Phryne.
“The two of you are too stubborn to pretend to be married?” Mac was harsher than the others. The four women sat in the parlour, discussing the case. “No one’s going to believe Jack’s holidaying in Melbourne on his own, not without a wife.”
“You could pretend to be his mistress,” suggested Jane with a cheeky smile.
“Jane!” exclaimed Dot, scandalised. “You’re too young to know about things like that!”
The fifteen-year-old just grinned. Phryne was considering her idea when Mac interrupted, once again choosing brutal honesty. “You could never pretend to be his mistress, Phryne,” she commented. “Mistresses are for sex. Sorry, Dot, but it’s true. The way you and Jack interact, no one would ever believe you have a purely physical relationship. You communicate with your eyes too much, and you look at each other like you... care about one another. No one would believe it. They might believe you’re his wife.”
Phryne could see the sense behind Mac’s idea. She knew Jack had thought of it, too, and she sighed. Their close friendship could easily pass for the closeness that years of marriage would bring, and she suspected that Jack would be more comfortable playing the role of a husband than of a man with a mistress.
She grudgingly accepted a fake marriage as the best plan, then shooed Jane and Dot out of the parlour and Mac out of her house.
The next morning, she was planning to call Jack and raise the idea of a married couple charade, but as she was walking to her telephone, there was a knock on the door. She was closer to it than Mr Butler, so she moved to open it. Jack stood there, hat in hand, smiling slightly awkwardly.
“Jack! Come in.”
He did, hanging his hat and overcoat on his hooks. He smiled at Phryne. “It has been drawn to my attention by Constable Collins and a very angry telephone call from Doctor Macmillan that the best plan is to pretend to be married,” he said, his eyes sparkling with hidden amusement. He must know Mac would have already grilled Phryne.
“Yes,” agreed Miss Fisher. “Yes, Mac was kind enough to bring that to my attention, too.”
They smiled at each other, most of the awkwardness gone. There was no more agreement to reach. They would pretend to be wed. “The return of Archie Jones,” joked Jack as they strolled into the parlour together. “And his wife... What’s a suitably boring name? If it’s anything unique, they could look it up in Records and find it doesn’t exist.”
“Mary,” responded Phryne. “Lots of people are called Mary. I’m sure there’re hundreds of Mary Joneses in Melbourne.”
“All right,” Jack agreed. “Archie and Mary Jones. And don’t be angry, I’m going to introduce you as Mrs Archie Jones.”
“Why?” demanded Phryne.
“So if I have to tell you to be quiet, it fits my slightly sexist personality.”
Phryne grinned at him, unable to stop her smile. It was just like Jack to assume he’d have to silence her during their undercover stint. “I can live with that.”
“Do you have a ring?” asked Jack, and something in his voice made Phryne realise his question was strangely important.
“A ring? Why?”
“It seems a little silly to have a married woman without a ring.”
“I have a gold band I can use as a wedding ring, but no engagement ring,” Phryne explained. “I usually wear the gold one on my right hand, but it’ll fit my left.”
“You could use this as an engagement ring,” said Jack, too casually, pulling a ring out of his pocket. It was silver, with a small sapphire studded with even smaller diamonds. The gems were small, but they were real. At Phryne’s confused expression, Jack quickly explained. “It was my mother’s,” he said. “She gave it to me last year.”
“To give to...?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t want to take it, and I haven’t had a chance to give it back yet.”
“It’s very beautiful,” Phryne said truthfully. It was true. The ring didn’t have the large, sparkly jewels that usually caught her attention, but it radiated love.
As if reading her thoughts, Jack handed it to her so she could examine it. “My father met my mother when they were twenty. He met her in a library. Dad didn’t read much, he was just there on an errand, but Mum was there every day. He came back to the library most days after he met her. He read all the books she loved just so he had something to talk to her about. He saved up for six months so he could buy her that ring. She wore it for more than forty years.”
Phryne smiled. She loved it when Jack spoke about his family. “That’s a lovely story,” she said, holding the glittering ring up to the light. It sparkled. She wondered what Jack’s parents would think about a symbol of their love being used to investigate a series of murders. She figured that Jack’s mother might be very disappointed that, instead of giving the ring to a woman he loved and wanted to marry, he gave it to his partner as part of an undercover mission.
“Well, Jack,” said Phryne jokingly. “If you’re going to ask me to marry you, you ought to do it properly, don’t you think? Come on, get down on one knee. This is probably the only time I’ll ever say yes to an offer of marriage, so let’s make it count.”
Jack laughed, sinking down onto one knee with an overexaggerated flourish. When he looked up at her, though, his smile was slightly strained. “Phryne Fisher, will you do me the honour of being my wife?” Even though he smiled, there was a deeper emotion in his eyes, and his words didn’t sound as joking as either of them would have liked. “For a week,” added Jack with a chuckle.
“Nothing would make me happier, Jack Robinson,” said Phryne, trying to force her own tone to stay light. It was a struggle. Seeing him kneeling in front of her, offering her his mother’s precious ring, hurt her heart. Why? She didn’t know. She was struck by the inexplicable feeling that she wished she had the view in different circumstances, more genuine circumstances.
Jack rose, swallowed, then slid the ring onto her wedding finger. Phryne smiled up at him. He was looking at her with a strange expression. He coughed, blushed, and quickly drew away. “I suppose I ought to have proposed to Mary,” he muttered, with a wry chuckle.
“Yes,” agreed Phryne. “It doesn’t matter. I accepted Jack Robinson’s proposal, not Archie Jones, after all.”
Jack’s grin was surprising. Standing in her parlour, in a pretty day dress, being proposed to by Jack Robinson, and yet it was fake. She shrugged mentally, and she and Jack went into the kitchen to discuss plans with everyone else.