Austenland Page 32

And she saw Mr. Nobley clearly. The thin wrinkles just beginning at the corners of his eyes, the whiskers on his chin darkening already after his morning shave, the hint of lines around his mouth that suggested he might smile more in real life. He had the kind of face you wanted to kiss—lips, forehead, cheeks, eyelids, everywhere except his chin. That you wanted to bite.

Jane thought: I wouldn’t kick him out of bed for eating crackers.

Miss Erstwhile thought: My, what a catch. How the society page would rant!

“I think you should stay away from him, Miss Erstwhile.” Mr. Nobley turned his back on Martin and took her arm, returning her to the path.

“I don’t know why you care, sir,” she said, doing her best to sound Austen-y, “but I certainly will, if you’ll do me a favor. Perform in the theatrical.”

“Miss Erstwhile . .

“Oh, come on! It will please me to no end to see you so uncomfortable. You’re not afraid, are you? You seem so stuck on being proper all the time, but there can’t be anything really wrong in doing a little theatrical. This is, after all, the nineteenth century. So perhaps your protests stem from your fear of appearing the fool?”

“You accuse me of vanity. It may be that the enterprise simply does not seem to me amusing. And yet in part you are right. I am not much of an actor.”

“Aren’t you?” She looked at him meaningfully.

He flinched and recovered. “My true concerns, however, are in regards to the delicate sentiments of our good hostess.”

“And if we propose the recreation to her and she approves, will you participate?”

“Yes, I suppose I must.” He tightened his lips, in annoyance or against a smile, she wasn’t sure. “You are infuriatingly persistent, Miss Erstwhile.”

“And you, Mr. Nobley, are annoyingly stubborn. Together we must be Impertinence and Inflexibility.”

“That was clever.

“Was it? Thanks, it just came to me.

“No forethought?”

“Not a lick.”

“Hm, impressive.”

Jane jabbed him with her elbow.

When they caught up to the rest of the party, Miss Charming was engaging Colonel Andrews in a discussion on the “relative ickiness of tea” and Captain East and Amelia were either walking in silence or whispering their hearts’ secrets.

“We’re going to do the theatrical,” Jane announced to the others. “Mr. Nobley is clay in my hands.”

Boyfriend #11

Clark Barnyard, AGE TWENTY-THREE

Still not over boyfriend #9 and humiliated by #10, Jane declared she would shed her victimhood and become the elusive predator—fierce, independent, solitary! . . . except there was this guy at work, Clark. He’d make her laugh during company meetings, he’d share his fries with her at lunch, declaring that she needed fattening up. He was in layout at the magazine, and she’d go to his cubicle and sit on the edge of his desk, chatting for longer than made her manager comfortable. He was a few years younger than her, so it seemed innocent somehow. When he asked her out at last, despite the dark stickiness of foreboding, she didn’t turn him down.

He cooked her dinner at his place and was goofy and tender, nuzzling her neck and making puppy noises. They started to kiss on the couch, and it was nice for approximately sixty seconds until his hand started hunting for her bra hooks. In the front. It was so not Mr. Darcy. “Whoa, there, cowboy, “she said, but he was “in the groove and had to be told to stop three or four times before he finally pried his fingers off her br**sts and stood up, rubbing his eyes.

“What’s the problem, honey?” he asked, his voice stumbling on that last word.

She said he was moving too fast, and he said, then what in the hell had they been building up to over the past six months?

Jane sized up the situation to her own satisfaction: “You are no gentleman.”

Then Clark summed up in his own special way: “Hasta la vista, baby.”

days 11114444----18

AUNT SAFFRONIA, OF COURSE, DID not mind, and rehearsals began. It was a sentimental romance that even Jane in her present state of extreme openmind/heartedness could not “ooh” at. But it made for several amusing days. She painted in the mornings and felt that artist instinct begin to yawn again inside her. In the afternoons she rehearsed with Mr. Nobley in the library, pacing outside under the apple trees (she didn’t see Martin), or in the north drawing room with the others, wrapping themselves in fabric that was meant to suggest Roman togas.

And Mr. Nobley watched her. He had always watched her, of course. That was part of his character. But did she fancy that he did so even more now? And that in his side glances and half-smiles gleamed a touch of slipped-character, a break, a sliver of the man himself?

Jane’s thoughts: Oh, stop it. Jane’s other thoughts: But then again, movie actors fall in love with each other on the set all the time. Is it so outlandish to suppose it might happen to me?

Jane answered Jane’s other thoughts: Yes, it is. Stay focused. Have fun.

And, miraculously, she did! She bantered and laughed and smiled coyly over one shoulder. Her mornings painting imbued her with a fresh energy that made her feel pretty, and in the afternoons and evenings with Mr. Nobley, she felt relaxed. In the past, Jane would be so beset by stumbling doubts she’d lose the capacity to enjoy his eyes on her. But now, she looked at him right back. Here there was no anxiety, no what-ifs. Just good clean flirting.

One night as she snuggled into her sheets, giggling at herself and remembering all the delicious moments from that day, she decided that she was able to go for broke because she wasn’t really Jane here—not obsessive, crazy Jane. Fairy-tale land was a safe place to roll around in, get into trouble, figure yourself out, and come out unscathed. The night of the theatrical, Jane and Mr. Nobley secreted themselves behind the house for the final brush-up. The mood of late had let a bit of Bohemia into Regency England, the usual strict social observances bending, the rehearsals allowing the couples to slip away alone and enjoy the exhilarating intimacy of the unobserved.

Mr. Nobley sat on the gravel path, leaning back on his elbow in a reluctant recline. “Oh, to die here, alone and unloved . . .”

“That was pretty good,” Jane said. “You genuinely sounded in pain as you said it, but I think you could add a groan or two.”

Mr. Nobley groaned, though perhaps not as part of the theatrical.

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