Austenland Page 39

The music had started, the couples had begun a promenade, but Mr. Nobley paused to hold Jane’s arm and whisper, “Jane Erstwhile, if I never had to speak with another human being but you, I would die a happy man. I would that these people, the music, the food and foolishness all disappeared and left us alone. I would never tire of looking at you or listening to you.” He took a breath. “There. That compliment was on purpose. I swear I will never idly compliment you again.”

Jane’s mouth was dry. All she could think to say was, “But... but surely you wouldn’t banish all the food.”

He considered, then nodded once. “Right. We will keep the food. We will have a picnic.”

And he spun her into the middle of the dance. While the music played, they didn’t speak again. All his attention was on her, leading her through the motions, watching her with admiration. He danced with her as though they were evenly matched, no indication that she was the lone rider of the Precedence Caboose. She had never before felt so keenly that Mr. Nobley and Miss Erstwhile were a couple.

But I’m not really Miss Erstwhile, thought Jane.

Her heart was pinching her. She needed to get away, she was dizzy, she was hot, his eyes were arresting, he was too much to take in.

What am I supposed to do, Aunt Caroline? she asked the ceiling. Everything’s headed for Worse Than Before. How do I get out of this alive?

She spun and saw Martin, and kept her eyes on him as though he were the lone landmark in a complicated maze. Mr. Nobley noticed her attention skidding. His eyes were dark when he saw Martin. His recent smile turned down, his look became more intense.

As soon as the second number ended, Jane curtsied, thanked her partner, and began to depart, anxious for a breath of cold November air.

“A moment, Miss Erstwhile,” Mr. Nobley said. “I have already taken your hand for the last half hour, but now I would beg your ear. Might we…”

“Mr. Nobley!” A woman with curls shaking around her face flurried his way. Had Mr. Nobley been making visits to other estates while he was supposed to be hunting? Or was this a repeat client who might’ve known the man from a past cast? “I’m so happy to find you! I insist on dancing every dance.”

“Just now is not…”

Jane took advantage of the interruption to slip away, searching above the tops of heads for Martin. He’d been just over there . . . a hand grabbed her arm.

She turned right into Mr. Nobley, their faces close, and she was startled by the wildness in him now, a touch of Heathcliff in his eyes. “Miss Erstwhile, I beg you.”

“Oh, Mr. Nobley!” said another lady behind him.

He glanced back with a harried look and gripped Jane’s arm tighter. He walked her out of the ballroom and into the darkened library, only then releasing her arm, though he had the good grace to look embarrassed.

“I apologize,” he said.

“I guess you would.”

He was blocking the escape, so she gave in and took a chair. He began to pace, rubbing his chin and occasionally daring to look at her. The candlelight from the hallway made of him a silhouette, the starlight from the window just touching his eyes, his mouth. It was as dark as a bedroom.

“You see how agitated I am,” he said.

She waited, and her heart set to thumping without her permission.

He wildly combed his hair with his fingers. “I can’t bear to be out there with you right now, all those indifferent people watching you, admiring you, but not really caring. Not as I do.”

Jane: (hopeful) Really?

Jane: (practical) Oh, stop that.

Mr. Nobley sat in the chair beside her and gripped its arm.

Jane: (observant) This man is all about arm gripping.

“Well do I remember the first night we met, how you questioned my opinion that first impressions are perfect. You were right to do so, of course, but even then I suspected what I’ve come to believe most passionately these past weeks: from that first moment, I knew you were a dangerous woman, and I was in great peril of falling in love.”

She thought she should say something witty here.

She said, “Really?”

“I know it seems absurd. At first, you and I were the last match possible. I cannot name the moment when my feelings altered. I recall a stab of pain the afternoon we played croquet, seeing you with Captain East, wishing like a jealous fool that I could be the man you would laugh with. Seeing you tonight… how you look . . . your eyes . . . my wits are scattered by your beauty and I cannot hide my feelings any longer. I feel little hope that you have come to feel as I do now, but hope I must.”

He placed his gloved hand on top of hers, as he had in the park her second day. It seemed years ago.

“You alone have the power to save me this suffering. I desire nothing more than to call you Jane and be the man always by your side.” His voice was dry, cracking with earnestness. “Please tell me if I have any hope.”

After a few moments of silence, he popped back out of his chair again. His imitation of a lovesick man in agony was very well done and quite appealing. Jane was mesmerized. Mr. Nobley began to test the length of the room again. When his pacing reached a climax, he stopped to stare at her with clenched desperation. “Your reserve is a knife. Can you not tell me, Miss Erstwhile, if you love me in return?”

Oh, perfect, perfect moment.

But even as her heart pounded, she felt a sense of loss, sand so fine she couldn’t keep it from pouring through her fingers. Mr. Nobley was perfect, but he was just a game. It all was. Even Martin’s meaningless kisses were preferable to the phony perfection. She was craving anything real—bad smells and stupid men, missed trains and tedious jobs. But she remembered that mixed up in the ugly parts of reality were also those true moments of grace— peaches in September, honest laughter, perfect light. Real men. She was ready to embrace it now. She was in control. Things were going to be good.

She stared at the hallway and thought of Martin. He’d been the first real man in a long time who’d made her feel pretty again, whom she’d allowed herself to fall for. And not the Jane-patented-oft-failed-all-or-nothing-heartbreak-love, but just the sky-bluelean-back-happy-calm-giddy-infatuation. She looked at Mr. Nobley and back at the hallway, feeling like a pillow pulled in two, her stuffing coming out.

“I don’t know. I want to, I really do . . .“ She was replaying his proposal in her mind—the emotion behind it had felt skin- tingling real, but the words had sounded scripted, secondhand, previously worn. He was so delicious, the way he looked at her, the fun of their conversations, the simple rapture of the touch of his hand. But.., but he was an actor. She would have liked to play into this moment, to live it wholeheartedly in order to put it behind her. An unease stopped her.

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