Austenland Page 38

“I’m fine,” she whispered.

He took her arm anyway. “That’s a crackin’ dress, Jane. I mean . . . Miss Erstwhile. Might I have the pleasure of obtaining your hand for the next two dances?”

Ah, his smell! She was in his room again, static on the TV, a can of root beer so cold it was sweating, his hands touching her face. She wanted him close. She wanted to feel as real as she had those nights. Her sleeves pinched her shoulders, her dress felt heavy in the skirts.

“I can’t, Martin,” she said. “I already promised—”

“Miss Erstwhile.” Mr. Nobley was standing at her elbow. He bowed civilly. “The first dance is beginning, if you care to accompany me.”

Was there a look that passed between the two men? Some heated past? Or would they (wahoo!) have a jealous tussle over Jane’s attentions?

Nope. Mr. Nobley led her away. Martin stayed put, watching her go, something of a puppy dog in his eyes. She tried to say with her own, “I’m sorry I ignored you the night of the theatrical and I understand why you judged me for being the kind of woman to fall in love with this fantasy and I’ll be back and maybe we can talk then or just make out,” though she didn’t know how much of that she actually communicated. Maybe just a part, like “I’m sorry or “you judged me” or “make out.”

Jane and Mr. Nobley entered the great hall, the ceiling dazzling with thousands of real candles that put fire into the white dresses and cravats. Five musicians were seated on a dais—a cello and two violins (or maybe a viola?), a harpsichord, and some kind of wind instrument. From keys and strings, they coaxed a grand prelude to the minuet. Jane looked at everything, smiling at the amusement park novelty of it all. She looked at Mr. Nobley. He was beaming at her. At last.

“You are stunning,” he said, and every inch of him seemed to swear that it was true.

“Oh,” she said.

He kissed her gloved fingers. He was still smiling. There was something different about him tonight, and she couldn’t place what it was. Some new plot twist, she presumed. She was eager to roll around in all the plot she could on her last night, though once or twice her eyes strayed to spot Martin.

Mr. Nobley stood opposite her in a line of ten men. She watched Amelia and Captain East perform the figures. They held each other’s gazes, they smiled with the elation of new love. All very convincing.

Poor Amelia, thought Jane.

It was a bit cruel, now that she thought about it, all these actors who made women fall in love with them. Amelia seemed so tenderhearted, and Miss Charming and her heaving br**sts so delighted with this world. Jane caught sight of a very striking Colonel Andrews who, now that she watched him dance, might just be g*y.

Jane felt a thrumming of foreboding. All the ladies were so happy and openhearted and eager to love. What would happen to them in the dregs of tomorrow?

Two pairs of strangers performed. Jane watched them. Mr. Nobley watched her. Then it was her turn.

She curtsied to the audience, to Mr. Nobley, and faced him in the center of the floor. All eyes watched them. Jane looked for Martin in the crowd.

Maybe I really don’t want this, she thought. This is summer camp. This is a novel. This isn’t home. I need something real. Root beer and disposable umbrellas and bare feet real.

“I believe we must say something.” It was Mr. Nobley who spoke.

“Sorry,” she said.

“Are you unwell tonight?”

“Do I look unwell?”

He smiled. “You are baiting me. It will not work tonight, Miss Erstwhile. I am completely at ease. I might even say, I am quite content.

Jane pushed the air out of her lungs. Part of her very much wanted to banter and play, to twirl and laugh, to be Miss Erstwhile and fall in love with Mr. Nobley (fall back in love?), but she felt herself on that razor’s edge, walking toe to heel like a gymnast, and when she fell this time, she wanted to be on the real world side, away from heartless fantasy, into the tangible.

Then, with his hand on her waist to lead her through another figure, Mr. Nobley smiled at her again, and she clean forgot what she wanted.

Him, him, him! she thought. I want him and this and everything, every flower, every strain of music. And I don’t want it wrapped up in a box—I want it living, around me, real. Why can’t I have that? I’m not ready to give it up.

The first number ended, the group applauded the musicians. Mr. Nobley seemed to applaud Jane.

“You look flushed,” he said. “I will get you a drink.”

And he was gone.

Jane smiled at his back. She liked a man in tails. Something bumped her elbow.

“Excuse me . . . oh, it is you, Jane, dear,” said Aunt Saffronia. She’d been watching Mr. Nobley as well, and her expression was still misty with contemplation. “Where is your partner off to?”

“He is fetching me a drink,” said Jane. “I’ve never seen him so attentive. Or so at ease.”

“Nor I, not in the four years I have known him. He is acting like a proper gentleman in love, is he not? I might almost say that he looks happy.” Aunt Saffronia was thoughtful, and while she stared, she idly bit her fingernail right through her glove.

“Is he in love?” asked Jane. She was feeling bold in her bridal gown.

“Hm, a question only hearts can answer.” She looked fully at Jane now and smiled approvingly. “Well, you are a confection tonight! And no wonder.”

Aunt Saffronia leaned in to touch cheeks and kiss, and Jane caught a trace of cigarette smoke. Could the dear lady be the unseen smoker? What a lot of secrets in this place, thought Jane. She’d never before considered that Austen didn’t just write romances and comedies, but mysteries as well.

Mr. Nobley walked briskly to her side, offering a cup from the punch bowl, asking her if she required anything else while she drank.

“Is it too hot in here for you? I will have them open the windows. Or I could fetch you a fan.”

“No, I’m fine, sir.”

He was impatient for a servant to come take her empty cup and glared at anyone who interrupted their path back to the dance floor.

“You’re not enjoying the ball?” she asked.

“I assure you, I am taking an inordinate amount of pleasure from this ball, but none of it has to do with any of these bumblers.”

“I think you just complimented me,” said Jane. “You should take better care next time.”

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