Austenland Page 24

“My work is having this fancy dinner party next weekend, the food’s supposed to be great. Would you like to go with me?”

“Oh, uh, maybe, I’ll have to check,” he said. Then, “What was your name again?”

There’s always something to lose.

day 8, continued

THAT NIGHT, THE PRECEDENCE WALK from drawing room to dining was in upheaval. “Let me see,” Aunt Saffronia said, catching herself before she chewed on a fingernail. “Mr. Nobley, would you be so kind as to take my arm? Colonel Andrews, would you escort Miss Charming? And Captain East (so happy to hear of your promotion, my dear! And much deserved, I am certain), if you will accompany Miss Heartwright, I believe you two know each other. Jane dear, you are certain you do not mind coming along alone? I can dine in my boudoir, if you prefer? No? Sir Templeton extends his apologies for not returning to the Park, but he plans to stay in town to be near the apothecary until at least two weeks hence, poor man, so I am afraid you may not see him again before departing. Well, now that is settled, shall we dine?”

All through the soup, game bird, fish, fruit, and walnut courses, and later in the drawing room, Jane flirted madly (in a guarded, Regency sort of way) with Colonel Andrews, who was invigorated by the attention. It quickly became clear that Miss Heartwright was uninterested in her former acquaintance, so Jane added Captain East to her list of men-to-bat-eyelashes-at. Mr. Nobley was off-limits now, she supposed. He certainly seemed to be Miss Heartwright’s darling. But after Miss Charming’s visit to Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s customer-complaint desk, she was sure to get priority over the man of her choice. Perhaps the two ladies would fight over him. Pembrook Park was pining for a hearty ladies’ mud wrestle.

Jane, the captain, and the colonel begged out of cards, sat by the window, and made fun of Mr. Nobley. She glanced once at the garden, imagined Martin seeing her now, and felt popular and pretty—Emma Woodhouse from curls to slippers. It certainly helped that all the men were so magnificent. Unreal, actually. Austenland was feeling cozier.

“Do you think he hears us?” Jane asked. “See how he doesn’t lift his eyes from that book? In all, his manners and expression are a bit too determined, don’t you think?”

“Right you are, Miss Erstwhile,” Colonel Andrews said.

“His eyebrow is twitching,” Captain East said gravely.

“Why, so it is, Captain!” the colonel said. “Well observed.”

“Then again, the eyebrow twitch could be caused by some buried guilt,” Jane said.

“I believe you’re right again, Miss Erstwhile. Perhaps he does not hear us at all.”

“Of course I hear you, Colonel Andrews,” said Mr. Nobley, his eyes still on the page. “I would have to be deaf not to, the way you carry on.

“I say, do not be gruff with us, Nobley, we are only having a bit of fun, and you are being rather tedious. I cannot abide it when my friends insist on being scholarly. The only member of our company who can coax you away from those books is our Miss Heartwright, but she seems altogether too pensive tonight as well, and so our cause is lost.”

Mr. Nobley did look up now, just in time to catch Miss Heartwright’s face turn away shyly.

“You might show a little more delicacy around the ladies, Colonel Andrews,” he said.

“Stuff and nonsense. I agree with Miss Erstwhile, you are acting like a scarecrow. I do not know why you put on this act, Nobley, when around the port table or out in the field you’re rather a pleasant fellow.”

“Really? That is curious,” Jane said. “Why, Mr. Nobley, are you generous in your attentions with gentlemen and yet taciturn and withdrawn around the fairer sex?”

Mr. Nobley’s eyes were back on the printed page, though they didn’t scan the lines. “Perhaps I do not possess the type of conversation that would interest a lady.”

“You say ‘perhaps’ as though you do not believe it yourself. What else might be the reason, sir?” Jane smiled. Needling Mr. Nobley was feeling like a very productive use of the evening.

“Perhaps another reason might be that I myself do not find the conversation of ladies to be very stimulating.” His eyes were dark.

“Hm, I just can’t imagine why you’re still unmarried.”

“I might say the same for you.”

“Mr. Nobley!” cried Aunt Saffronia.

“No, it’s all right, Aunt,” Jane said. “I asked for it. And I don’t even mind answering.” She put a hand on her hip and faced him. “One reason why I am unmarried is because there aren’t enough men with guts to put away their little boy fears and commit their love and stick it out.”

“And perhaps the men do not stick it out for a reason.

‘And what reason might that be?”

“The reason is women.” He slammed his book shut. “Women make life impossible until the man has to be the one to end it. There is no working it out past a certain point. How can anyone work out the lunacy?”

Mr. Nobley took a ragged breath, then his face went red as he seemed to realize what he’d said, where he was. He put the book down gently, pursed his lips, cleared his throat.

No one in the room made eye contact.

“Someone has issues,” said Miss Charming in a quiet, singsongy voice.

“I beg you, Lady Templeton,” Colonel Andrews said, standing, his smile almost convincingly nonchalant, “play something rousing on the pianoforte. I promised to engage Miss Erstwhile in a dance. I cannot break a promise to such a lovely young thing, not and break her heart and further blacken her view of the world, so you see my urgency.

“An excellent suggestion, Colonel Andrews,” Aunt Saffronia said. “It seems all our spirits could use a lift. I think we feel the lack of Sir Templeton’s presence, indeed I do.”

Mr. Nobley, of course, declined to dance, so Jane and the colonel stood up with Captain East and Miss Charming, whose spirits were speedily improving. Twice she turned the wrong way, ramming herself into the captain’s shoulder, saying “pip, pip,” and “jolly good.” Jane spied Mr. Nobley on the sofa, staring at the window and a reflection of the dancers.

At the next song, the couples switched partners, and though Captain East was not so fun and witty as the colonel, lacking that wicked glint that Jane found appealing despite herself, he was, frankly, gorgeous in a Clark-Kent-sans-glasses way. And such a sure dancer. And made her feel petite and girlish when he put a hand on her waist to promenade between the other couple. It was a scrumptious experience just to be touched, her Regency skin starved for intimacy, her real skin still missing Martin’s fingers. The scurrilous beast.

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