Austenland Page 25

“We’re so happy you’ve come to visit, Captain East,” said Jane.

“So am I. Indeed I am.”

Was he for her, then? Could Mrs. Wattlesbrook have a soft heart after all? He would be a very good sort of brick wall to beat her head against and knock the Mr. Darcy nonsense out. He would also be a fine sight on her arm on strolls through the garden, should Martin happen to glance her way.

At the end of that song, gentleman that he was, Captain East went to Miss Heartwright, alone and downcast on the sofa.

“Miss Heartwright, would it please you to dance?”

It seemed obvious to Jane that Miss Heartwright would not be pleased, but she stood up with the captain anyway. What was their story? Sometimes Miss Heartwright seemed like Fanny Price, sometimes like Jane Bennet or Jane Fairfax, sometimes like Anne Elliot.

“I would beg a second dance with you, Miss Charming,” said the colonel. “You do live up to your name!”

“Oh, go on,” said Miss Charming.

The way Miss Charming was blushing now—real, honest blushing, not faking—it seemed she’d made her choice, and her choice wasn’t Mr. Nobley. And so Jane was left neatly on the sidelines again. She didn’t mind. Seriously she didn’t. Okay, maybe just a little. After all, tonight was the most fun she’d had since she’d come.

“Miss Erstwhile?” Mr. Nobley was beside her suddenly. “It would seem my gentlemanly duty to ask you to dance.”

She glanced at his hand. “You’re still holding your book, Mr. Nobley.”

He set it on a table, put one arm behind his back, and held the other out to her.

She sighed. “I’m sorry I pestered you back there, but I’d rather not dance for duty.

His hand extended toward her. “But it would be my honor.”

She rolled her eyes but took his hand. The first time he touched her waist, she started. There was nothing passive in his touch, nothing wasted. She was aware of his hands the way she was often conscious of his gaze seeking her out. It was, to say the least, surprising.

With only three couples, they kept in fairly constant motion. As a general rule, conversation is more intimate in a crowd, but among only six people, every word, and silence, became public.

Colonel Andrews: “What a lovely gown, Miss Charming! You wear it well, or should I say, it wears you?”

Miss Charming: “Oh, you rascal!”

Miss Erstwhile: “Do you know the name of this tune, Mr. Nobley?”

Mr. Nobley: “I do not. It is a country tune.”

Captain East: .

Miss Heartwright: .

Colonel Andrews: “I beg your pardon, Miss Charming. I seem to have stuck my foot under yours yet again.”

Miss Charming: “Spit spot!”

Miss Erstwhile: “It is such a relief, Mr. Nobley, to already know that you find this exercise vulgar and your partner unworthy. It saves us the idle chitchat.”

Mr. Nobley: ‘And yet you chat away.

Aunt Saffronia: “Lovely dance! Shall I play another?”

Miss Erstwhile: “What say you, Mr. Nobley? Ready to be done with me?”

“I think.. .“ He bowed. “I think I will retire early. I bid you a good evening.”

‘And so ends the fun,” Colonel Andrews said.

“Wait, I don’t feel right . . . all that dancing . . .“ Miss Charming put a hand to her forehead and fainted dead into his arms. He was forced to carry her to her chamber.

Clever girl, thought Jane, saluting her with two fingers. Touché, Miss Charming.

Boyfriend #7

Juan Inskeep, AGE TWENTY-FIVE

Gay.

day 9

AFTER BREAKFAST, THE GENTLEMEN WENT shooting, Aunt Saffronia was busy with the mute servants, and Miss Heartwright was still at the cottage, leaving Jane and Miss Charming alone in the morning room. They stared at the brown- flecked wallpaper.

“I’m so bored. This isn’t what Mrs. Wattlesbrook promised me yesterday.” “We could play whist,” Jane said. “Whist in the morning, whist in the evening, ain’t we got fun?”

The wallpaper hadn’t changed. Jane kept an eye on it all the same.

“I mean, is this what you expected?” asked Miss Charming.

Jane glanced at the lamp, wondering if Mrs. Wattlesbrook had it bugged. “I am

Jane Erstwhile, niece of Lady Templeton, visiting from America,” she said

robotically.

“Well, I can’t take another minute. I’m going to go find that Miss Heartwreck and see what she thinks.”

Jane’s gaze jumped from wall to window, and she watched for hints of the men out in the fields, wondering if Captain East thought her pretty, if Colonel Andrews liked her better than Miss Charming.

Stop it, she told herself.

And then she thought about Mr. Nobley last night, his odd outburst, his insistence on dancing with her, and then his abrupt withdrawal after one dance. He truly was exasperating. But, she considered, he irritated in a very useful way. The dream of Mr. Darcy was tangling in the unpleasant reality of Mr. Nobley. As she gave herself pause to breathe in that idea, the truth felt as obliterating as her no Santa Claus discovery at age eight. There is no Mr. Darcy. Or more likely, Mr. Darcy would actually be a boring, pompous pinhead.

Wait a minute, why was she always so worried about the Austen gentlemen, anyway? What about the Austen heroine? Even poor Fanny Price leaned back, held her ground, and waited for her Edmond to come eventually to her. And Elizabeth Bennet— wonderful Elizabeth! Remember how quickly she learned her lesson after Wickham and laughed it off? Remember how easily she let the disappointment of Colonel Fitzwilliam slip off her shoulders? Jane was shocked to recognize in her old self more of the anxious, marriage-obsessed Mrs. Bennet than the lively Elizabeth. With her father’s estate entailed away, marriage was not a convenience for Elizabeth—it was life and death. And even so, she managed to laugh and spin and wait to fall really in love. So. Jane couldn’t give up men. Martin had proved that. But she could fling off her binding intensity, live out the dream now, and return to the world whole and Darcy-free.

She was ready to start right now. The morning room clock ticked. Nothing moved outside the window. She scratched her neck and sighed.

Chased by restlessness and anxious for action of any kind, Jane ran up to her bedroom to check her e-mail on her cell phone. Matilda barged in to clean, so Jane tucked her phone into her bodice and stole down to the library. From a seat near a window in the corner, she was hidden from the rest of the room and the sight line of the corridor. Stealth was her name, contraband electronic messages her game. It took her just a moment to scan her in-box for the one she wanted. Molly hadn’t let her down.

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