Boyfriend #11Clark Barnyard, Age Twenty-ThreeStill 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 made 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 or 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 breasts 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.”
The boar, the stag, and the eagle met on the last craggy peak of the world, look down, and sighed at what they saw. The boar was a king, and he said, "There is not enough people." The stag was a poet, and he said, "There is not enough beauty." The eagle was a cleric, and her said, "There is not enough mystery." Then the wolf, arriving late, looked up instead of down and said, "There is not enough hunger," and promptly ate them all. If the boar was king, the stag was poet, and the eagle was cleric, then what was the wolf?
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.
I would beg a second dance with you, Miss Charming,” said the colonel. “You do live up to your name!”“Oh, go on,” said Miss Charming.The way Miss Charming was blushing now--real, honest blushing, not faking--it seemed she’d made her choice, and her choice wasn’t Mr. Nobley. And so Jane was left neatly on the sidelines again. She didn’t mind. Seriously she didn’t. Okay, maybe just a little. After all, tonight was the most fun she’d had since she’d come.“Miss Erstwhile?” Mr. Nobley was beside her suddenly. “It would seem my gentlemanly duty to ask you to dance.”She glanced at his hand. “You’re still holding your book, Mr. Nobley.”Het set it on a table, put one arm behind his back, and held the other out to her.She sighed. “I’m sorry I pestered you back there, but I’d rather not dance for duty.”His hand extended toward her. “But it would be my honor.”She rolled her eyes but took his hand. The first time he touched her waist, she started. There was nothing passive in his touch, nothing wasted. She was aware of his hands the way she was often conscious of his gaze seeking her out. It was, to say the least, surprising.With only three couples, they kept in fairly constant motion. As a general rule, conversation is more intimate in a crowd, but among only six people, every word, and silence, became public.Colonel Andrews: “What a lovely gown, Miss Charming! You wear it well, or should I say, it wears you?”Miss Charming: “Oh, you rascal!”Miss Erstwhile: “Do you know the name of this tune, Mr. Nobley?”Mr. Nobley: “I do not. It is a country tune.”Captain East: …Miss Heartwright: …Colonel Andrews: “I beg your pardon, Miss Charming. I seem to have stuck my foot under yours yet again.”Miss Charming: “Spit spot!”Miss Erstwhile: “It is such a relief, Mr. Nobley, to already know that you find this exercise vulgar and your partner unworthy. It saves us the idle chitchat.”Mr. Nobley: “And yet you chat away.”Aunt Saffronia: “Lovely dance! Shall I play another?”Miss Erstwhile: “What say you, Mr. Nobley? Ready to be done with me?”“I think…” He bowed. “I think I will retire early. I bid you a good evening.”“And so ends the fun,” Colonel Andrews said.“Wait, I don’t feel right…all that dancing…” Miss Charming put a hand to her forehead and fainted dead into his arms. He was forced to carry her to her chamber.Clever girl, thought Jane, saluting her with two fingers. Touché, Miss Charming.
There was Customer Service, a chirpy brunette with a permanent smile behind the desk. And there was someone waiting there, someone dressed in jeans and a sweater, devilishly normal in the twenty-first-century crowd. He saw her, and he straightened, his eyes hopeful. Apparently, Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s barrister hadn’t been in his office to assure her that being a magazine writer doesn’t nullify a confidentially agreement.“Jane.” “Martin. You whistled?” She laid the rancor on thick. No need to tap dance around.“Jane, I’m sorry. I was going to tell you today. Or tonight. The point is, I was going to tell you, and then we could still see if you and I--”“You’re an actor,” Jane said as though “actor” and “bastard” were synonymous.“Yes, but, but…” He looked around as though for cue cards. “But you’re desperately in love with me,” she prompted him. “I’m unbelievably beautiful, and I make you feel like yourself. Oh, and I remind you of your sister.”The chirpy brunette behind the counter furiously refused to look up from her monitor.“Jane, please.”“And the suddenly passionate feelings that sent you running after me at the airport have nothing to do with Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s fear that I’ll write a negative review of Pembrook Park.”“No! Listen, I know I was a cad, and I lied and was misleading, and I’ve never actually been an NBA fan--go United--but romances have bloomed on stonier ground.”“Romances…stonier ground…Did Mrs. Wattlesbrook write that line?”Martin exhaled in exasperation.Thinking of Molly’s dead end on the background check, she asked, “Your name’s not really Martin Jasper, is it?”“Well,” he looked at the brunette as though for help. “Well, it is Martin.”The brunette smiled encouragement.Then, impossibly, another figure ran toward her. The sideburns and stiff-collared jacket looked ridiculous out of the context of Pembrook Park, though he’d stuck on a baseball cap and trench coat, trying to blend. His face was flushed from running, and when he saw Jane, he sighed with relief.Jane dropped her jaw. Literally. She had never, even in her most ridiculous daydreaming, imagined that Mr. Nobley would come after her.
Just ahead, the path was drenched in a puddle that could not be bypassed. The men walked through fearlessly. Colonel Andrews took Miss Charming’s hand and helped her step across. Mr. Nobley placed his hands around Jane’s waist and lifted her over. As he set her down, their bodies were much nearer than was seemly in the early nineteenth century. They held still for a breath, their faces close together. He smelled good enough to kiss. Her thoughts raged--I hate him and he hates me. It’s perfect! Isn’t it? Of course, he isn’t real. Wait, am I supposed to be falling for someone or avoiding it? What was it again, Aunt Caroline?He was the first to step back. She turned away, and there was Martin. She’d forgotten Martin. Off and on, she realized now, she’d been forgetting the entire real world in order to let herself sink into the fantasy.He was on his knees among some rosebushes. His face was shaded by his cap, but she could feel his eyes on her. As the party started to walk again, Martin rose and removed his cap as though the walkers were a funeral barge. None of the others seemed to notice his presence, and they disappeared into the full trees that leaned over the path. Martin took a step forward. “Jane, can we talk?”She realized that she was still standing there, staring at him, as though begging to be rejected again. She started to walk away. “Martin, no, I can’t. They’re waiting for me, they’ll see.”“Then meet me later.”“No, I’m done playing around.” She left him, that awkward line buzzing around her head like a pesky insect. And Jane though, Done playing around, she says, as though she’s not wearing a bonnet and bloomers.Then she saw that Mr. Nobley had stopped to wait for her. His eyes were angry, but they weren’t on her. She looked back. Martin had lowered his hat and thrust his hands back into the upturned earth.Her heart was teeter-tottering precariously, and she almost put out her arms to balance herself. She didn’t like to see them together, Martin, the luscious man who’d made her laugh and kept her standing on real earth, and Mr. Nobley, who had begun to make the fake world feel as comfortable as her own bed. She stood on the curve of the path, her feet hesitating where to go.
What a pleasure, a very pleasant pleasure, indeed.” The way his tone slid over his words gave him a delightful, roguish appeal that made Jane want to kiss him on the spot. Or the lips, whichever was closer.Hm, maybe she really could see this through.“And this is his good friend Mr. Nobley,” Aunt Saffronia said, “who has agreed to honor us with his presence for some of the hunting season while his estate is under renovation.”Mr. Nobley was taller than Colonel Andrews, and his jaw was in no need of the long sideburns to give it definition. The line of his shoulders identified him as the most likely of the bunch to have been the shadowy lurker from the great hall. In the light, she found him handsome, in a brooding sort of way. Of course, Jane thought, one man of each type for the buffet. Don’t mind if I do.Mr. Nobley bowed stiffly, then walked away to look out the window.“How do you do?” said Jane to his back.Aunt Saffronia laughed. “Do not mind Mr. Nobley. He is annoyed to be trapped here with such minor country gentry, are you not, sir?”Mr. Nobley looked back at Aunt Saffronia. “I do not know what you mean, madam.” His eyes flicked to Jane.She found herself thinking, I wonder if he thinks I’m pretty? Then thought, don’t be silly, it’s all an act. Then thought, What fun!
They played croquet the next morning.“Won’t you show me how to use your mallet against the balls, Colonel Andrews?” asked Miss Charming, her eyebrows raised so high they twitched.Colonel Andrews had trouble unplasticizing his smile.Captain East chatted away the discomfort, his working-boy build meets gentleman grace working for him every inch. Not that Jane was looking at every inch, except when his back was turned. He kept the conversation on the weather, but did it in a very beguiling manner. To Jane’s mind, clouds had never seemed so sexy.As the game progressed, Andrews and Charming took the lead with professional zeal, followed by Heartwright and Nobley, an impressive pairing. Lingering in the rear, Erstwhile and East talked the talk but couldn’t walk the walk. The worse they played, the more Jane felt inebriated on bad sports and her partner’s undulating laugh. Captain East looked like he could play pro football, but he held the mallet in his hand as though being asked to eat steak with chopsticks, which Jane somehow found hilarious. He hammed it up for her benefit and made it very easy to laugh.He straddled the ball and pulled the mallet back.“Careful, careful,” Jane said.He swung--a hollow thock, and the ball smashed into a tree.“I swear I’m trying my best.” The captain’s laugh made his voice go dry and deep, and Jane thought if he really let himself go, he might actually bray. “I’ve never played this game before.”“Captain East, do you see how Mr. Nobley keeps giving me that look?” Jane said, watching the couple ahead. “Do you suppose he’s ashamed to know us?”“No one could be ashamed to know you, Miss Erstwhile,” said Captain East.It was precisely the right thing to say, and somehow that made it wrong. Jane wondered if Mr. Nobley had heard it, wondered what he thought. Then asked herself why she cared. The only discovery she could make was a hard bite of truth, like a bite of apple stuck in her throat--she did care what Mr. Nobley thought of her. The thought rankled. Why was the judgment of the disapproving so valuable? Who said that their good opinions tended to be any more rational than those of generally pleasant people?Jane’s turn to swing. Her grip on the mallet slipped, the ball lurched forward a dramatic two inches, and they laughed again. Mr. Nobley was still staring their way. Was it possible that he wished he were laughing, too?
Jane, may I introduce our house guest Miss Elizabeth Charming of Hertfordshire?”“How do you do, Miss Erstwhile, what-what?” said Miss Charming, her tightened lips trembling with the effort of approximating a British accent. “Spit spot I hope, rather.”“How do you do?”They both curtsied and Miss Charming made a silent “shh” with her lips, as though Jane would out her for the stairway meeting. Jane had a burst of maternal instinct that made her want to cuddle Miss Charming and help her through this crazy Austenland maze. If she only knew the way herself.“Miss Charming is about your age, I believe,” Aunt Saffronia said.“Oh no, Aunt, I’m quite certain that Miss Charming, still in the bloom of her youth, is several years my junior.”Miss Charming giggled. Aunt Saffronia smiled graciously as she took Jane’s arm, and the three walked into the drawing room. At their entrance, two gentlemen stood.Ah, the gentlemen.They wore the high-collared vests, cravats, buttoned coats with long tails, and tight little breeches that had driven Jane’s imagination mad on many an uneventful Tuesday night. Her heart bumped around in her chest like a bee at a window, and everything seemed to move in closer, the world pressing against her, insisting that all was real and there for the touching. She was really here. Jane held her hands behind her back in case they trembled with eagerness.
Todd the manager was at her cubicle the moment her chair squeaked.“How you doin’, Jane?” he asked in his oft-affected pseudo-Sopranos accent.“Fine.”She stared. He had a new haircut. His white blond hair was now spiked with an incredible amount of pomade that smelled of raspberries, a do that could only be carried off with true success by a fifteen-year-old boy wielding an impressive and permanent glare. Todd was grinning. And forty-three. Jane wondered if politeness required her to offer a compliment on something glaringly obvious.“Uh…you, your hair is different.”“Hey, girls always notice the hair. Right? Isn’t that basically right?”“I guess I just proved it,” she said sadly.“Super. Hey, listen,” he sat on the edge of her desk, “we’ve got a last-minute addition that needs special attention. It may seem like your basic stock photo array, but don’t be fooled! This is for the all-important page sixteen layout. I’d give this one to your basic interns, but I’m choosing you because I think you’d do a super job. What d’you say?”“Sure thing, Todd.”“Su-per.” He gave her two thumbs-up and held them there, smiling, his eyes unblinking. After a few moments, Jane cringed. What did he want her to do? Was she supposed to high-five his thumbs? Touch thumb-pad to thumb-pad? Or did he just leave them there so long for emphasis?The silence quivered. At last Jane opted for raising her own thumbs in a mirror of the Todd salute.“All right, my lady Jane.” He nodded, still with the thumbs up, and kept them up as he walked away. At least he hadn’t asked her out again. Why was it that when she was aching for a man, everyone was married, but when she was giving them up, so many men were so awkwardly single?
I agree with Miss Erstwhile, you are acting like a scarecrow. I do not know why you put on this act, Nobley, when around the port table or out in the field you’re rather a pleasant fellow.”“Really? That is curious,” Jane said. “Why, Mr. Nobley, are you generous in your attentions with gentlemen and yet taciturn and withdrawn around the fairer sex?”Mr. Nobley’s eyes were back on the printed page, though they didn’t scan the lines. “Perhaps I do not possess the type of conversation that would interest a lady.”“You say ‘perhaps’ as though you do not believe it yourself. What else might be the reason, sir?” Jane smiled. Needling Mr. Nobley was feeling like a very productive use of the evening.“Perhaps another reason might be that I myself do not find the conversation of ladies to be very stimulating.” His eyes were dark.“Hm, I just can’t imagine why you’re still unmarried.”“I might say the same for you.”“Mr. Nobley!” cried Aunt Saffronia.“No, it’s all right, Aunt,” Jane said. “I asked for it. And I don’t even mind answering.” She put a hand on her hip and faced him. “One reason why I am unmarried is because there aren’t enough men with guts to put away their little boy fears and commit their love and stick it out.”“And perhaps the men do not stick it out for a reason.”“And what reason might that be?”“The reason is women.” He slammed his book shut. “Women make life impossible until the man has to be the one to end it. There is no working it out past a certain point. How can anyone work out the lunacy?”Mr. Nobley took a ragged breath, then his face went red as he seemed to realize what he’d said, where he was. He put the book down gently, pursed his lips, cleared his throat.No one in the room made eye contact.“Someone has issues,” said Miss Charming in a quiet, singsongy voice.“I beg you, Lady Templeton,” Colonel Andrews said, standing, his smile almost convincingly nonchalant, “play something rousing on the pianoforte. I promised to engage Miss Erstwhile in a dance. I cannot break a promise to such a lovely young thing, not and break her heart and further blacken her view of the world, so you see my urgency.”“An excellent suggestion, Colonel Andrews,” Aunt Saffronia said. “It seems all our spirits could use a lift. I think we feel the lack of Sir Templeton’s presence, indeed I do.”Mr. Nobley, of course, declined to dance, so Jane and the colonel stood up with Captain East and Miss Charming, whose spirits were speedily improving. Twice she turned the wrong way, ramming herself into the captain’s shoulder, saying “pip, pip” and “jolly good.” Jane spied Mr. Nobley on the sofa, staring at the window and a reflection of the dancers.
Mr. Nobley had entered the room before he noticed her. He groaned.“And here you are. Miss Erstwhile. You are infuriating and irritating, and yet I find myself looking for you. I would be grateful if you would send me away and make me swear to never return.”“You shouldn’t have told me that’s what you want, Mr. Nobley, because now you’re not going to get it.”“Then I must stay?”“Unless you want to risk me accusing you of ungentleman-like behavior at dinner, yes, I think you should stay. If I spend too much time alone today, I’m in real danger of doing a convincing impersonation of the madwoman in the attic.”He raised an eyebrow. “And how would that be different from--”“Sit down, Mr. Nobley,” she said.He sat in a chair on the opposite side of a small table. The chair creaked as he settled himself. She didn’t look at him, watching instead the rain on the window and the silvery shadows the wet light made of the room. She spent several moments in silence before she realized that it might be awkward, that conversation at such a time was obligatory. Now she could feel his gaze on her face and longed to crack the silence like the spine of a book, but she had nothing to say anymore. She’d lost all her thoughts in paint and rain.“You are reading Sterne,” he said at last. “May I?”He gestured to the book, and she handed it to him. Jane was remembering a scene from the film of Mansfield Park when suitor Henry Crawford read to Frances O-Connor’s character so sweetly, the sound created a passionate tension, the words themselves becoming his courtship. Jane glanced at Mr. Nobley’s somber face, and away again as his eyes flicked from the page to her.He began to read from the top. His voice was soft, melodious, strong, a man who could speak in a crowd and have people listen, but also a man who could persuade a child to sleep with a bedtime story.“The man who first transplanted the grape of Burgundy to the Cape of Good Hope (observe he was a Dutchman) never dreamt of drinking the same wine at the Cape, the same grape produced upon the French mountains--he was too phlegmatic for that--but undoubtedly he expected to drink some sort of vinous liquor; but whether good, bad, or indifferent--he knew enough of this world to know, that it did not depend upon his choice…”Mr. Nobley was trying very hard not to smile. His lips were tight; his voice scraped a couple of times. Jane laughed at him, and then he did smile. It gave her a little thwack of pleasure as though someone had flicked a finger against her heart.“Not very, er…” he said.“Interesting?”“I imagine not.”“But you read it well,” she said.He raised his brows. “Did I? Well, that is something.”They sat in silence a few moments, chuckling intermittently.Mr. Nobley began to read again suddenly, “Mynheer might possibly overset both in his new vineyard,” having to stop to laugh again. Aunt Saffronia walked by and peered into the dim room as she passed, her presence reminding Jane that this tryst might be forbidden by the Rules. Mr. Nobley returned to himself.“Excuse me,” he said, rising. “I have trespassed on you long enough.
No more whist, I beg you,” Aunt Saffronia said after dinner. “Let us have some music.”“Indeed,” said Captain East. “I believe, Miss Erstwhile, that you promised me a song.”Jane was quite certain that she had never promised any such thing, but it seemed a fitting remark to make, and so Jane rose and made her graceful way to the piano.“If you insist, Colonel Andrews, but I must beg you forgive me at the same time. And you too, Mr. Nobley, as I know you are particular to music played well and no doubt a harsh critic when a piece is ill executed.”“I believe,” said Mr. Nobley, “that I have never been witness to a young lady about to play without her excusing her skill beforehand, only to perform perfectly thereafter. The excuse is no doubt intended as a prelude that sets up the song for deeper enjoyment.”“Then I pray I do not disappoint.”She smiled expressly at Captain East, who sat forward, forearms resting on knees, eager. With professional suavity, Jane arranged her skirt, spread out the music, poised her fingers, and then with one hand played the black keys, singing along with the notes, “Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her, put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.”She rose and curtsied to the room.Captain East smiled broadly. Mr. Nobley coughed. (Laughed?) Jane sat back on the lounge and picked up her discarded volume of sixteenth-century poetry.“That was…” said Aunt Saffronia to the silence.“Well, I hope the weather’s clear tomorrow,” Miss Charming said in her brassiest accent. “How I’ve longed for a game of croquet, what-what.
Jane, the captain, and the colonel begged out of cards, sat by the window, and made fun of Mr. Nobley. She glanced once at the garden, imagined Martin seeing her now, and felt popular and pretty--Emma Woodhouse from curls to slippers. It certainly helped that all the men were so magnificent. Unreal, actually. Austenland was feeling cozier.“Do you think he hears us?” Jane asked. “See how he doesn’t lift his eyes from that book? In all, his manners and expression are a bit too determined, don’t you think?”“Right you are, Miss Erstwhile,” Colonel Andrews said.“His eyebrow is twitching,” Captain East said gravely.“Why, so it is, Captain!” the colonel said. “Well observed.”“Then again, the eyebrow twitch could be caused by some buried guilt,” Jane said.“I believe you’re right again, Miss Erstwhile. Perhaps he does not hear us at all.”“Of course I hear you, Colonel Andrews,” said Mr. Nobley, his eyes still on the page. “I would have to be deaf not to, the way you carry on.”“I say, do not be gruff with us, Nobley, we are only having a bit of fun, and you are being rather tedious. I cannot abide it when my friends insist on being scholarly. The only member of our company who can coax you away from those books is our Miss Heartwright, but she seems altogether too pensive tonight as well, and so our cause is lost.”Mr. Nobley did look up now, just in time to catch Miss Heartwright’s face turn away shyly.“You might show a little more delicacy around the ladies, Colonel Andrews,” he said.“Stuff and nonsense. I agree with Miss Erstwhile, you are acting like a scarecrow. I do not know why you put on this act, Nobley, when around the port table or out in the field you’re rather a pleasant fellow.”“Really? That is curious,” Jane said. “Why, Mr. Nobley, are you generous in your attentions with gentlemen and yet taciturn and withdrawn around the fairer sex?”Mr. Nobley’s eyes were back on the printed page, though they didn’t scan the lines. “Perhaps I do not possess the type of conversation that would interest a lady.”“You say ‘perhaps’ as though you do not believe it yourself. What else might be the reason, sir?” Jane smiled. Needling Mr. Nobley was feeling like a very productive use of the evening.“Perhaps another reason might be that I myself do not find the conversation of ladies to be very stimulating.” His eyes were dark.“Hm, I just can’t imagine why you’re still unmarried.”“I might say the same for you.”“Mr. Nobley!” cried Aunt Saffronia.“No, it’s all right, Aunt,” Jane said. “I asked for it. And I don’t even mind answering.” She put a hand on her hip and faced him. “One reason why I am unmarried is because there aren’t enough men with guts to put away their little boy fears and commit their love and stick it out.”“And perhaps the men do not stick it out for a reason.”“And what reason might that be?”“The reason is women.” He slammed his book shut. “Women make life impossible until the man has to be the one to end it. There is no working it out past a certain point. How can anyone work out the lunacy?”Mr. Nobley took a ragged breath, then his face went red as he seemed to realize what he’d said, where he was. He put the book down gently, pursed his lips, cleared his throat.No one in the room made eye contact.“Someone has issues,” said Miss Charming in a quiet, singsongy voice.“I beg you, Lady Templeton,” Colonel Andrews said, standing, his smile almost convincingly nonchalant, “play something rousing on the pianoforte. I promised to engage Miss Erstwhile in a dance. I cannot break a promise to such a lovely young thing, not and break her heart and further blacken her view of the world, so you see my urgency.”“An excellent suggestion, Colonel Andrews,” Aunt Saffronia said. “It seems all our spirits could use a lift.
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.
But wait, stop, it’s not supposed to end this way! You’re the fantasy, you’re what I’m leaving behind. I can’t pack you up and take you with me.”“That was the most self-centered thing I’ve ever heard you say.”Jane blinked. “It was?”“Miss Hayes, have you stopped to consider that you might have this all backward? That in fact you are my fantasy?”The jet engines began to whir, the pressure of the cabin stuck invisible fingers into her ears. Henry gripped his armrest and stared ahead as though trying to steady the machine by force of will. Jane laughed at him and settled into her seat. It was a long flight. There would be time to get more answers, and she thought she could wait. Then in that moment when the plane rushed forward as though for its life, and gravity pushed down, and the plane lifted up, and Jane was breathless inside those two forces, she needed to know now.“Henry, tell me which parts were true.”“All of it. Especially this part where I’m going to die…” His knuckles were literally turning white as he held tighter to the armrests, his eyes staring straight ahead.The light gushing through the window was just right, afternoon coming at them with the perfect slant, the sun grazing the horizon of her window, yellow light spilling in. She saw Henry clearly, noticed a chicken pox scar on his forehead, read in the turn down of his upper lip how he must have looked as a pouty little boy and in the faint lines tracing away from the corners of his eyes the old man he’d one day become. Her imagination expanded. She had seen her life like an intricate puzzle, all the boyfriends like dominoes, knocking the next one and the next, an endless succession of falling down. But maybe that wasn’t it at all. She’d been thinking so much about endings, she’d forgotten to allow for the possibility of a last one, one that might stay standing.Jane pried his right hand off the armrest, placed it on the back of her neck and held it there. She lifted the armrest so nothing was between them and held his face with her other hand. It was a fine face, a jaw that fit in her palm. She could feel the whiskers growing back that he’d shaved that morning. He was looking at her again, though his expression couldn’t shake off the terror, which made Jane laugh. “How can you be so cavalier?” he asked. “Tens of thousands of pounds expected to just float in the air?”She kissed him, and he tasted so yummy, not like food or mouthwash or chapstick, but like a man. He moaned once in surrender, his muscles relaxing.“I knew I really liked you,” he said against her lips.His fingers pulled her closer, his other hand reached for her waist. His kisses became hungry, and she guessed that he hadn’t been kissed, not for real, for a long time. Neither had she, as a matter of fact. Maybe this was the very first time. There was little similarity to the empty, lusty making out she’d played at with Martin. Kissing Henry was more than just plain fun. Later, when they would spend straight hours conversing in the dark, Jane would realize that Henry kissed the way he talked--his entire attention taut, focused, intensely hers. His touch was a conversation, telling her again and again that only she in the whole world really mattered. His lips only drifted from hers to touch her face, her hands, her neck. And when he spoke, he called her Jane.Her stomach dropped as they fled higher into the sky, and they kissed recklessly for hundreds of miles, until Henry was no longer afraid of flying.
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…Jonathon.”Jane wagged her finger. “Nice try.
After breakfast, the gentlemen went shooting, Aunt Saffronia was busy with the mute servants, and Miss Heartwright was still at the cottage, leaving Jane and Miss Charming alone in the morning room. They stared at the brown-flecked wallpaper.“I’m so bored. This isn’t what Mrs. Wattlesbrook promised me yesterday.”“We could play whist,” Jane said. “Whist in the morning, whist in the evening, ain’t we got fun?”The wallpaper hadn’t changed. Jane kept an eye on it all the same.“I mean, is this what you expected?” asked Miss Charming.Jane glanced at the lamp, wondering if Mrs. Wattlesbrook had it bugged. “I am Jane Erstwhile, niece of Lady Templeton, visiting from America,” she said robotically.“Well, I can’t take another minute. I’m going to go find that Miss Heartwreck and see what she thinks.”Jane’s gaze jumped from wall to window, and she watched for hints of the men out in the fields, wondering if Captain East thought her pretty, if Colonel Andrews liked her better than Miss Charming.Stop it, she told herself. And then she thought about Mr. Nobley last night, his odd outburst, his insistence on dancing with her, and then his abrupt withdrawal after one dance. He truly was exasperating. But, she considered, he irritated in a very useful way. The dream of Mr. Darcy was tangling in the unpleasant reality of Mr. Nobley. As she gave herself pause to breathe in that idea, the truth felt as obliterating as her no Santa Claus discovery at age eight. There is no Mr. Darcy. Or more likely, Mr. Darcy would actually be a boring, pompous pinhead.
I should let you retire.” He held the self-portrait a minute longer, gazing at it as she had sometimes felt him look at her--unblinking, curious, even urgent.She peeped through the keyhole to make sure no one was in the corridor before opening the door and letting him slip out. After a moment, she peered again and could see nothing, then Mr. Nobley’s face dropped into view. He was crouching outside her door, looking back.“Miss Erstwhile?” he whispered.“Yes, Mr. Nobley?”“Tomorrow evening, will you reserve for me the first two dances?”“Yes, Mr. Nobley.” She could hear how her voice was full of smile. “Miss Erstwhile, may I come back in a moment?”She yanked him back in and shut the door. Now he was going to grab her and kiss her and call her Jane, now she’d witness the pent-up passion that explodes behind Regency doors! But…he just stood with his back to the door and looked at her. And smiled in his way, the way that made her stare back and wish she could breathe.“I should not put you in danger of Mrs. Wattlesbrook by staying,” Mr. Nobley said, “but I suddenly had to see you again. I know that seems ridiculous, but I look at you, and I feel sure of something. Things are changing, aren’t they?”“Yes,” she said, and they were, right at that moment.He took her hand and looked at it a moment, then he turned it over. He lifted it to his mouth and kissed her palm.“Tomorrow, then.” And he left. If only he was real! She stood and pressed her palm to her chest and breathed her pulse back into submission and thought she’d rather fancy a swoon.To her self-portrait, Jane whispered, “This is the best therapy ever.
Guy between boyfriends #6 and #7 Paul Diaz, Twenty-SomethingHe was in her watercolor class, so cute and the sweet kind of shy. They obviously clicked, the attraction thrilling between them, inspiring her to relish the infatuation freshman-style and write his name in her notebook in curvy, flowery script. She gave him openings but guessed he was too timid to ask her out. The day after finals, she ran into him at the deli on campus and thought she had nothing to lose.“My work is having this fancy dinner party next weekend, the food’s supposed to be great. Would you like to go with me?”“Oh, uh, maybe, I’ll have to check,” he said. Then, “What was your name again?”There’s always something to lose.
Jane passed by the library. There in a corner sat Inflexibility. He raised his eyes when he heard her footfalls.“Oh,” said Jane, antsy with embarrassment. “Good morning, Mr. Nobley.”“You weren’t at breakfast,” he said.“I’m off.” She indicated her bonnet and spencer jacket. “Just saying good-bye to the house. It’s a lovely old house.”“New, actually. Built in 1809.”“Right.” His insistence on maintaining the charade chafed her. She had a surging and ridiculous desire to plop down beside him and shake him and make him talk to her like a real person.“Well, since I ran into you, I can thank you in person for a great vacation. I feel sort of sheepish that it didn’t turn out differently.”Mr. Nobley shrugged, and she was surprised to detect anger in his eyes. Still playing the jilted man? Or had she wounded his actor’s ego? Maybe he was denied a paycheck bonus for not getting engaged.“It has been a pleasure to have you here, Miss Erstwhile. I might miss you, actually.”“Really?”“It is possible.”“Hey, I’ve been wondering something…What is Mr. Nobley’s first name?”“William. You know, you are the first person to ask.”Any further awkwardness was cut off by the sound of an approaching carriage. Jane stepped out the front door for the last time, and she and Amelia, gratefully and mournfully, took their leave. Aunt Saffronia stood by the door, waving her handkerchief and shedding rather impressive tears. Colonel Andrews strolled out to wave good-bye with the stately line of house servants in their white caps and white wigs. Captain East smiled knowingly, his eyes earnest with whatever fake promises he and Amelia had made. Mr. Nobley didn’t bother to join the farewell.
She didn’t worry that she was boring him, as Old Jane would’ve done. It didn’t matter, she reminded herself. He was paid to listen to her and make her feel like the most interesting person in the world, and so, by George, she would be.His lips pressed into a small smile that stayed. A very small smile. Sometimes almost imaginary. Jane wished that it might be bigger, that it might beam at her, but she supposed that wasn’t the Nobley way. Then when she’d decided that his smile was a figment, Mr. Nobley said--or whispered, rather--“Let’s go look at your paintings.”What a delight, this man. How he kept surprising her, tossing aside his uptight propriety for her sake, murmuring plans for meeting in secret, fibbing to the others that he would withdraw early, then waiting upstairs for her to do the same. With a thrill to look around for watchers and scramble into her chamber, shutting the door behind them.Jane stood with her back to the door, her hands still on the knob, breathing hard and trying to laugh quietly. He was leaning against the wall, smiling. The moment was giddily awkward as she waited to see what he had in mind, if he would suddenly shed Mr. Nobley and become some other man entirely. If he would break any other rules. The wait was agonizing. She realized she didn’t know what she wanted him to do.“I would love to see those paintings,” he said, his voice still proper.“Of course,” she said. Of course he was still Mr. Nobley, of course the man, the actor, was not falling in love with her. And a relief it was, too, as she realized she wasn’t ready to let go of Pembrook Park yet. Somehow she had to be by the day after tomorrow.She presented the first painting, and he held it at arm’s length for some time before saying, “This is you,” though the portrayal was not photo-realistic.“I couldn’t quite get the eyes,” she said.“You got them just right.” He didn’t look away from the painting when he said, “They are beautiful.”Jane didn’t know whether to thank him or clear her throat, so she did neither and instead handed him the second painting or her window and the tree.“Ah,” was all he said for some time. He glanced back and forth between both paintings. “I like this second one best. Beside it, the portrait looks stiff, as though you were too cautious, measuring everything, taking away the spontaneity. The fearlessness of this window scene is a better style for you. I think, Miss Erstwhile, that you do very well when you loosen up and let the color fly.”He was right, and it felt good to admit it. Her next painting would be better.“I should let you retire.” He held the self-portrait a minute longer, gazing at it as she had sometimes felt him look at her--unblinking, curious, even urgent.She peeped through the keyhole to make sure no one was in the corridor before opening the door and letting him slip out. After a moment, she peered again and could see nothing, then Mr. Nobley’s face dropped into view. He was crouching outside her door, looking back.“Miss Erstwhile?” he whispered.“Yes, Mr. Nobley?”“Tomorrow evening, will you reserve for me the first two dances?”“Yes, Mr. Nobley.” She could hear how her voice was full of smile.
I know why you are here.”She knew!“We receive extensive financial statements, and I know you did not pay your own way, so let us put that drama out of the way, shall we?”“Is it a drama?” Jane said with a laugh, relieved the woman was just referring to Carolyn’s bequest.“Hm?” Mrs. Wattlesbrook would not budge from her intended course of conversation. Jane sighed.“Yes, my great-aunt left me this vacation in her will, but I don’t know what you mean by drama. I never intended to hide--”“No need to make a fuss.” She waved her arms as if wafting Jane’s exclamations out the window like a foul odor. “You are here, you are paid in full. I would not have you worry that we will not take care of you just because you are not our usual type of guest and there is no chance, given your economic conditions, that you would ever be a repeat client or likely to associate with and recommend us to potential clients. Let me assure you that we will still do all in our power to make your visit, such as it is, enjoyable.”Mrs. Wattlesbrook smiled, showing both rows of yellowing teeth. Jane blinked. Economic conditions? Usual type of guest? She made herself take two deep-rooted yoga breaths, smiled back, and thought of men in breeches. “Okay then.”“Good, good.” Mrs. Wattlesbrook patted Jane’s arm, suddenly the picture of hospitality and maternal tenderness. “Now, do have some tea. You must be quite chilled from your journey.”In fact, the temperature of the limo, unlike this pseudo-inn, had been quite comfortable, and in the blazing heat the last thing Jane wanted was hot tea, but she reminded herself to play along, so she sweated and drank.