Austenland Page 33

“Perfect!” said Jane.

Mr. Nobley rested his head on his knee and laughed. “I cannot believe I let you railroad me into this. I have always avoided doing a theatrical.”

“Oh, you don’t seem that sorry. I mean, you certainly are sorry, just not regretful...”

“Just do your part, please, Miss Erstwhile.”

“Oh, yes, of course, forgive me. I can’t imagine why I’m taking so long, it’s just that there’s something so appealing about you there on the ground, at my feet—”

He tackled her. He actually leaped up, grabbed her around the waist, and pulled her to the ground. She screeched as she thudded down on top of him.

His hands stiffened. “Whoops,” he said.

“You did not just do that.”

He looked around for witnesses. “You are right, I did not just do that. But if I had, I was driven to it; no jury in the world would convict me. We had better keep rehearsing, someone might come by.”

“I would, but you’re still holding me.” His hands were on her waist. They were gorgeous, thick-fingered, large. She liked them there.

“So they are,” he said. Then he looked at her. He breathed in. His forehead tensed as if he were trying to think of words for his thoughts, as if he were engaged in some gorgeous inner battle that was provoked by how perfectly beautiful she was. (That last part was purely Jane’s romantic speculation and can’t be taken as literal.) Nevertheless, they were on the ground, touching, frozen, staring at each other, and even the trees were holding their breath.

“I—” Jane started to say, but Mr. Nobley shook his head.

He apologized and helped her to her feet, then plopped back onto the ground, as his character was still in the throes of death.

“Shall we resume?”

“Right, okay,” she said, shaking gravel from her skirt, “we were near the end . . . Oh, Antonio!” She knelt carefully beside him to keep her skirt from wrinkling and patted his chest. “You are gravely wounded. And groaning so impressively! Let me hold you and you can die in my arms, because traditionally, death and unrequited love are a romantic pairing.”

“Those aren’t the lines,” he said through his teeth, as though an actual audience might overhear their practice.

“They’re better than. It’s hardly Shakespeare.”

“Right. So, your love revives my soul, my wounds heal... etcetera, etcetera, and I stand up and we exclaim our love dramatically. I cherish you more than farms love rain, than night loves the moon, and so on . . .”

He pulled her upright and they stood facing each other, her hands in his. Again with the held breaths, the locked gazes. Twice in a row. It was almost too much! And Jane wanted to stay in that moment with him so much, her belly ached with the desire.

“Your hands are cold,” he said, looking at her fingers.

She waited. They had never practiced this part and the flimsy play gave no directions, such as, Kiss the girl, you fool. She leaned in a tiny bit. He warmed her hands.

“So . . .” she said.

“I suppose we know our scene, more or less,” he said.

Was he going to kiss her? No, it seemed nobody ever kissed in Regency England. So what was happening? And what did it mean to fall in love in Austenland anyway? Jane stepped back, the weird anxiety of his nearness suddenly making her heart beat so hard it hurt.

“We should probably return. Curtain, or bedsheet, I should say, is in two hours.”

“Right. Of course,” he said, though he seemed a little sorry.

The evening had pulled down over them, laying chill like morning dew on her arms, right through her clothes and into her bones. Though she was wearing her wool pelisse, she shivered as they walked back to the house. He gave her his jacket.

“This theatrical hasn’t been as bad as you expected,” Jane said.

“Not so bad. No worse than idle novel reading or croquet.

“You make any entertainment sound like taking cod liver oil.”

“Maybe I am growing weary of this place.” He hesitated, as though he’d said too much, which made Jane wonder if the real man had spoken. He cleared his throat. “Of the country I mean. I will return to London soon for the season, and the renovations on my estate will be completed by summer. It will be good to be home, to feel something permanent. I tire of the guests who come and go in the country, their only goal to find some kind of amusement, their sentiments shallow. It wears on a person.” He met her eyes. “I may not return to Pembrook Park. Will you?”

“No, I’m pretty sure I won ~

Another ending. Jane’s chest tightened, and she surprised herself to identify the feeling as panic. It was already the night of the play. The ball was two days away. Her departure came in three. Not so soon! Clearly she was swimming much deeper in Austenland waters than she’d anticipated. And loving it. She was growing used to slippers and empire waists, she felt naked outside without a bonnet, during drawing room evenings her mouth felt natural exploring the kinds of words that Austen might’ve written. And when this man entered the room, she had more fun than she had in four years of college combined. It was all feeling . . . perfect.

“This is ridiculous,” she said, then changed her mind. The last time she had confessed her real feelings to this man, it hadn’t gone well. “Our lines, I mean, in this play. But I hope you will choose to enjoy it a little.”

“Of course. It would be uncivil to say I will not enjoy making love to you tonight.”

Jane’s mouth was dry. “Wh-what?”

“Tonight as we perform the play,” he said, completely composed. “My character professes love to your character, and to say that such a task is odious would be an insult to you.

“Ah,” she said with a little laugh. “All right then.” She had forgotten for a moment that “making love” did not mean to Austen what it meant today. Of course, Mr. Nobley the twenty-first- century actor knew that, and she squinted at him to see if he had been playing with her. He stopped walking, seeing something in the distance. She followed his gaze.

Captain East and Amelia were silhouetted by starlight. They stood in front of a bench, and he was holding both her hands.

“Are they acting?” asked Jane. “I mean, rehearsing for the theatrical?”

“They do not appear to be speaking at the moment.”

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