Austenland Page 29

“Ah,” Jane said, now fitting their story into the correct Austen novel context— Persuasion, more or less. And that was a real bummer. Captain East had offered Jane the best shot at curative love. Oh well. Two down . . . one to go? She studied Mr. Nobley and wondered why she had the impression that he was dangerous—or would be if he didn’t so often look tired or bored. Was he a sleeping tiger? Or a sack of potatoes?

“And how do you feel about this, Mr. Nobley?” she asked.

“It does not matter how I feel about Miss Heartwright.” He nudged his horse forward, and hers followed.

She hadn’t been talking about Miss Heartwright, but, okay. “Wait, are you heartbroken?” She knew Miss Erstwhile shouldn’t ask the question, but Jane couldn’t help it.

“No, of course not.”

“Not about Miss Heartwright, anyway.” Jane watched Mr. Nobley’s face closely for signs of Henry Jenkins. His mouth was still, unrevealing, but his eyes were sad. She’d never noticed before. “Maybe you’re not heartbroken anymore, maybe you’ve passed that part, and now you’re just lonely.”

Mr. Nobley smiled, but with just half of his mouth. “You are very good at nettling me, Miss Erstwhile. As I said, it does not matter how I feel. We are speaking of Miss Heartwright and Captain East. I think it nonsense how they have kept silent about it these past days. They should speak their minds.”

“You approve of speaking one’s mind? So, do you approve of me?”

As it appeared Mr. Nobley had no intention of answering the question, and Jane was stumped at how to restart the conversation, they rode on in silence.

Of course just at that moment, she would see Martin by a line of trees, looking her way. Why couldn’t she be chatting and laughing and having a wonderful time? She smiled generously at the world around her and hoped that Martin would think she was enthralled with Mr. Nobley’s company and perfectly happy.

Mr. Nobley turned to ask her a question, but when he saw her grinning without apparent cause, the words hung in his mouth. His eyes widened. “What? You are laughing at me again. What have I done now?”

Jane did laugh. “I’m sorry, but I can’t seem to help myself around you. You are so tease-able.” Which was precisely not true, and yet saying it somehow made it so.

Mr. Nobley looked over his shoulder just as the line of trees hid Martin from view. Jane wasn’t sure if he saw him.

“I’m sorry I annoy you so much,” said Jane. “I’ll stop. I really will.”

“Hm,” said Mr. Nobley as if he doubted it. He looked at his hands thoughtfully, not speaking again for several moments. In the silence, Jane became aware of her heart beating. Why was that? When he spoke again, his tone had changed, innocuous, chitchatty.

“How do you find Pembrook Park, Miss Erstwhile?”

“Do you mean the house itself? Well, it’s beautiful, no question, friendly and yet too grand to be really comfortable. Like wearing a corset, I like how it looks and feels, but I can’t relax in it.” She shook her head. How did she keep slipping up? Saying things to this man that the Rules said she shouldn’t. She tried to think of something more innocent to say. “I love the paintings. The ones hanging in the gallery, they’re all in the grand style of portrait art, luminous with natural light. The artist isn’t just concerned with outer beauty but takes pains to express the virtue of soul in the subjects and catch that gleam of importance in their eyes. I don’t care how portly or drastically thin, how sickly or sad, all the people in those paintings know that they’re significant. You have to envy that kind of self-assurance.”

Jane stopped herself, realizing that she’d gotten carried away in the subject and her audience probably wasn’t the least bit interested. A glance sideways at Mr. Nobley— he was watching her, intently.

“You’re a painter.”

Jane blinked. “I used to paint, but it’s been years. Now I . .she paused, not knowing how to translate “graphic design” into Austen lingo. “It’s been a while since I’ve used that medium.”

“Do you miss it?”

“You know, I do, just lately. Maybe it’s because my head’s all mixed up,” she nodded, acknowledging her awkward breakdown days ago, “but all the new things I’m seeing are bugging me, becoming images, and my hands twitch, wanting to work out those images on paper. I think drawing and painting used to be a way of thinking for me. Until I came here, I’d almost forgotten about it.”

“Here I am!” Captain East was cantering his mount toward them. He rode beautifully, confidently. Molly’s family spent their summers in the country, and she used to say that the way a man rides a horse could give you a pretty good idea how he would do something else. Jane eyed Mr. Nobley on his mount, noted that he was a smooth, gentle rider. The surprise of thinking this while wearing a bonnet made Jane choke. Her breath snarled in her throat, and she laughed.

Mr. Nobley’s eyes widened. “What’s funny? You often have some secret laugh, Miss Erstwhile.”

“The way you have some secret displeasure?”

“No, not displeasure,” he said, and she realized he was right. Sadness, or heartbreak, or grief that there was nothing to give him hope, perhaps. She was pretty sure now that he was Henry Jenkins, poor sop.

Captain East reined in beside Jane. “Miss Heartwright had a headache and went inside. So sorry to neglect you, Miss Erstwhile. You must tell me what I missed.”

“I’ve discovered that Miss Erstwhile is an artist,” Mr. Nobley said.

“Is that so?”

“It’s been years since I picked up a paintbrush.” She glared at Mr. Nobley, and zing, there was his smile again, brief, urgent. When his lips relaxed she wanted it to come back.

“That is a shame,” said Captain East.

That evening when Jane retired from the drawing room, she found a large package on her side table wrapped in brown paper. She ripped open the paper and out tumbled neat little tubes of oil paints and three paintbrushes. She saw now that an easel waited by the window with two small canvases. She felt very Jane Eyre as she smelled the paints and ticked her palm with the largest brush.

Who was her benefactor? It could be Captain East. Maybe he still liked her best, even after his tête-a-tête with Miss Heartwright. It could happen. Even so, she found herself hoping it was Mr. Nobley. Instinct urged her to stomp on the hope. She ignored it. She was firmly in Austenland now, she reminded herself, where hoping was allowed.

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