Austenland Page 43

Jane found herself blinking a lot and opening and closing her mouth. She felt as though she’d had the wind knocked out of her.

“Are you serious?”

“Oh, yes, he reported to me regularly. We knew of your fascination with basketball and the New York Knickerbockers, and the rest was easy.

“You are serious.

“You are not the first to fall for Martin,” Mrs. Wattlesbrook said. “He is very good.”

“Yes. Yes he is.

“We do not run a brothel here, miss, and I will have you know we would never let it go that far. I had to pull the plug on you two when Martin said things were spicing up, hm?” Mrs. Wattlesbrook smiled, and her eyes twinkled as if she enjoyed this part very much. “I wanted to make sure you knew that even though you are not our Ideal Client, we still made every arrangement possible for your comfort and entertainment, Miss Erstwhile.”

“My name is Jane Hayes.”

“There is a car waiting to take you to the airport, Jane Hayes. I trust you are ready to get on your way.

“I certainly am.

“I hope I have not upset you,” Mrs. Wattlesbrook said with an innocent smile. “I pride myself on matching each client with her perfect gentleman. But one cannot anticipate a woman’s every fancy, and so our talent pool runs deep. You understand?”

“Very deep indeed.” Jane felt like a woman drowning, and she grasped for anything. And as it turned out, bald-faced lies are, temporarily anyway, impressively buoyant, so she said, “It will make the ending to my article all the more interesting.”

“Your…your article?” Mrs. Wattlesbrook peered over her spectacles as if at a bug she would like to squash.

“Mm—hm,” said Jane, lying extravagantly, outrageously, but also, she hoped, gracefully. “Surely you know I work for a magazine? The editor thought the story of my experience at Pembrook Park would be the perfect way to launch my move from graphic design to staff writer.”

She had no intention of becoming a staff writer, and in fact the artist bug was raging through her blood now more than ever, but she just had to give Mrs. Wattlesbrook a good jab before departure. She was smarting enough to crave the reprieve that comes from fighting back.

Mrs. Wattlesbrook twitched. That was satisfying.

“And I’m sure you realize that since I’m a member of the press,” Jane said, “the confidentiality agreement you made me sign doesn’t apply.”

Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s right eyebrow spasmed. Jane guessed that behind it ran her barrister’s phone number, which she would dial ASAP. Jane, of course, had been lying again. And wasn’t it fun!

Mrs. Wattlesbrook appeared to be trying to moisten her mouth and failing. “I did not know... I would have. .

“But you didn’t. The cell phone scandal, the dirty trick with Martin... You assumed that I was no one of influence. I guess I’m not. But my magazine has a circulation of over six hundred thousand. I wonder how many of those readers are in your preferred tax bracket? And I’m afraid my article won’t be glowing.”

Jane curtsied in her jeans and turned to leave.

“Oh, and, Mrs. Wattlesbrook?”

“Yes, Jane, my dear?” the proprietress responded with a shaky fawning voice.

“What is Mr. Nobley’s first name?”

Mrs. Wattlesbrook stared at her, blinkless. “It’s J…Jonathan.”

Jane wagged her finger. “Nice try.”

Martin of Sheffield

AGE TWENTY-NINE He kissed her like she knew she was meant to be kissed He smelled of gardens, tricked her brain into believing she was irresistible, and made the idea of falling in love seem possible again.

But really he was an actor posing as a gardener, who posed as a gentleman during balls in an Austenland estate where she’d gone to find out if she could let her fantasy of Mr. Darcy die at last. Seriously.

Also, he turned out to be a jackass.

the end of day 21

THE DRIVE TO THE AIRPORT felt eternal. Jane turned the backseat radio to a rock station and worked hard at being more angry than sad. Angry was proactive. “Schmuck,” she kept muttering. It was at herself. Yes, Martin was a schmuck, too. The sheer certainty of that felt invigorating. But really, after all those boyfriends, you’d think she’d have learned that all men are schmucks.

It didn’t help her humiliation much that she’d had no illusions about Martin. She knew that he’d just been a fling, motivated by her desperation to feel like a genuine woman amid the pageantry. But then she went and let herself get played. Stupid girl. She’d even convinced herself that Mr. Nobley might have been actually fond of her.

“Dream on,” the radio crooned.

“It doesn’t matter how it ended,” she muttered to herself, and realized that it was true. Real or not, Martin had showed her that contented spinsterhood was not an option. And real or not, Mr. Nobley had helped her say no to Mr. Darcy. She leaned her head against the window, watched the countryside go whirling by, and forced herself to smile. Pembrook Park had done its job—it allowed her to live through her romantic purgatory. She believed now in earnest that fantasy is not practice for what is real—fantasy is the opiate of women. And she’d buried her fantasy behind her in the English countryside. Her life now would be open to real possibilities. There was no Mr. Darcy, there was no perfect man. But there might be someone. And she’d be ready.

The flight didn’t leave for another two hours, so she wandered the airport, browsing bookshops and soap boutiques. She bought a best-selling paperback about a giant robot suit, found her gate, and was huddled in a vinyl chair trying to get past the first page when the congested voice of the loudspeaker called, “Miss, uh, Erstwhile, please report to the Terminal ~ Customer Service desk. Miss Jane Erstwhile to Customer Service.”

The shock of that name zapped her, static electricity grazing her skin. She closed her book and stood up slowly, fearing to find a camera crew crouched behind her, that she was the victim of reality TV and had been duped not privately but in front of millions of viewers. She swung around, and the airport was full of disinterested bustle. In her present mood (chagrined and zippy mad), it was hard to properly enjoy the relief that came with thinking, “At least I’m not on TV.”

The walk back past security felt impossibly long, the click of her heels much too loud, as though she were all alone and no bodies were present to muffle the sounds of her solitude.

Prev Next