Austenland Page 21

As in answer to her thought, the man himself loomed in the doorway. She startled and dropped the decanter cap on the carpet.

“Well, good evening, Miss Ersssstwhile,” Sir Templeton said, dragging out the snake sound of her name. ‘Are you still a Miss or were you a Miss erstwhile, hm?”

“Yes, that’s clever. Urn, you startled me, Sir Templeton.”

“Up late, are you? Where did you go tonight? Up to some mischief, I hope.”

“I just needed some air. Now if you’ll excuse me...

“Hmm.” He leaned against the doorjamb and seemed to doze for a moment. Jane replaced the cap, clicked off the fake kerosene lamps, and tried to slip past Sir Templeton without rousing him. But just a few steps down the dark hallway, she felt a hot breath against her neck.

“Stay a moment.”

Jane turned around with some apprehension, but she did stay. She had decided to play this game out, and with her personal story at Pembrook Park waning, she didn’t want to pass up any plot twist he might be offering.

“What is it, Sir Templeton?”

“I just thought we might spend a moment alone together, perhaps engage in our own private game of,” he leaned closer to her face, “whissst.”

She coughed once. “That’s a four-person game.

“If you like. But I thought we could be partners. A little wink-wink, a little nudgenudge under the table, you understand me?”

She sorted through the Austen plots searching for a scenario when a married man solicits a young lady. There was the doomed tryst in Mansfield Park with married lady and bachelor, but Sir Templeton was no—what was his name?—no suave young Henry Crawford

“I think I should go to bed,” she said, unsure of how he was expecting her to proceed but not enjoying the game.

“Precisely my point,” he said.

He began to advance again. She stepped back until she hit the wall.

“Hold on, now,” she said, stopping him with a hand on chest.

Sir Templeton took her hand and held it in both of his His skin was hot and scratchy.

“You are so, so lovely.” His breath hit her again, and - gagged at the stench of food and fermentation. He was clearly much drunker than she’d suspected.

“Sir Templeton, you’re married.”

“Not really,” he said, winking. Or perhaps, blinking poorly. “Me and the missus sleep in separate beds, don’t tell her I told you, and have been so lonely, lonely and cold, cold like your sweet hands. We never had a specimen so young and pretty and taut as yourself.”

She tried to push him away, but he pushed her back, pinning her against the wall. A lamp fixture above her rattled at the pact. His hands held both of hers, his round belly pressed against her, his mouth leered near her own.

“Surely a young beauty like yourself is lonely, too. It can be part of the game, if you like.”

“Get off,” she said, thoroughly done with this.

His answer was to lean in closer. So she kneed him in groin. As hard as she could.

“Aw, ow, dammit!” He doubled over and thudded onto knees.

Jane brushed off her knee, feeling like it had touched son thing dirty. “Aw, ow, dammit indeed! What’re you thinking?”

Jane heard hurried footsteps coming down the stairs. It Mr. Nobley.

“Miss Erstwhile!” He was barefoot in his breeches, his shirt untucked. He glanced down at the groaning man. “Sir Templeton!”

“Ow, she kicked me,” said Sir Templeton.

“Kneed him, I kneed him,” Jane said. “I don’t kick. Not even when 1m a ninja.”

Mr. Nobley stood a moment in silence, looking over the scene. “I hope you remembered to shout ‘Ya’ when taking him down. I hear that is very effective.”

“I’m afraid I neglected that bit, but I’ll certainly ‘ya’ from here to London if he ever touches me again.”

“Miss Erstwhile, were you perhaps employed by your president’s armed forces in America?”

“What? Don’t British women know how to use their knees?”

“Happily, I have never put myself in a position to find out.” He stared at the prostrate Sir Templeton. “Did he hurt you?”

“Frankly, your arm-yanking earlier was worse.

“I see. Perhaps you should retire to your chambers, Miss Erstwhile. Would you like me to escort you?”

“I’m fine,” she said, “as long as there aren’t any other Sir Templetons lurking upstairs.”

“Well, I cannot give Colonel Andrews a glowing reference, but I believe the way is safe.”

She stepped closer to Mr. Nobley and whispered, “Are you going to out me to Mrs. Wattlesbrook for the servants’ quarters lurking?”

“I think,” he said, nudging the prostrate Sir Templeton with his foot, “that you have suffered enough tonight.”

Mr. Nobley smiled at her, the first time she had seen his real smile. She wouldn’t go so far as to call it a grin. His lips were closed, but his eyes brightened and the corners of his mouth definitely turned up, creating pleasing little cheek wrinkles on either side as though the smile were in parentheses. It bothered her in a way she couldn’t explain, like feeling itchy but not knowing exactly where to scratch. He was not particularly amused, she saw, but smiled to reassure her. Wait, who wanted to reassure her? Mr. Nobley or the actual man, Actor X?

“Thanks. Good night, Mr. Nobley.”

“Good night, Miss Erstwhile.”

She hesitated, then left, Sir Templeton’s groans following her up the stairs. On the second floor, Aunt Saffronia was emerging from her room, clutching a white shawl over her nightgown.

“What was that noise? Is everything all right?”

“Yes. It was. . . your husband. He was being inappropriate.”

Aunt Saffronia blinked. “Inebriated?”

“Yes.”

She nodded slowly. “I’m sorry, Jane.”

Jane wasn’t sure if Aunt Saffronia was speaking to Jane the niece or Jane the client. For the first time it didn’t matter; both Janes felt exactly the same. She acknowledged the apology with a nod, went to her room, and locked the door behind her. She thought was angry but instead she plopped herself down on her bed, put face in her pillow, and laughed.

“What a joke,” she said, sounding to herself like the movie incarnation of Lydia Bennet. “I come for Mr. Darcy, fall for gardener, and get propositioned by the drunk husband.”

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