Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(10)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(10)
Shannon Hale

“Um, okay,” she said. “I like meat too.”

Yow, what a zinger!

She should be coming up with witty things. That’s what made Austen women intriguing, wasn’t it? Well, some weren’t exactly the life of the party, but they were sweet, and their men loved them anyway. As nice as nice was, Charlotte wanted to be Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, she who didn’t like to speak unless she could say something to amaze the whole room, she who could make a man like Mr. Darcy fall crazy-mad in love. If Charlotte couldn’t become an Austen heroine, how could she ever immerse herself inside the story? How could she reclaim those sensations?

Colonel Andrews said, “Mrs. Cordial, do have some cherry preserves on your bread. We all enjoy the sweetness of a cherry cordial.” He winked.

And Charlotte said, “Okay.”

Score for the witty woman! And the crowd goes wild!

She wasn’t always this numb-brained, was she? She had smart friends who didn’t seem bored by her. But these men, these obscenely gorgeous men, how they muddled one. Charlotte’s thoughts cast to the first time she’d visited an art museum. She’d seen prints of Van Gogh before and thought his Starry Night was lovely. But to view it in person—the texture, the brushstrokes, the rich gobs of paint swirled together—it took her breath away.

These real men took her breath away.

But how real are they? Charlotte wondered.

She glanced at Mr. Mallery. He was still observing her. Did she have jam smeared on her face or something? She wiped her mouth, smiled halfheartedly, and quickly looked away. He didn’t.

After breakfast, the ladies adjourned to the morning room, where, in the absence of gentlemen and the proprietress, Miss Charming kindly instructed them on the finer points of needlework.

“It’s called ‘needlework,’ you see, because you do work with a needle,” said Miss Charming.

Miss Gardenside stared at Miss Charming a moment, and then laughed. “You are so funny! I love you. I love both of you hugely. Now you must call me ‘Lydia.’ ”

Miss Charming, startled at first by Miss Gardenside’s laugh, recovered and raised her fists in the air. “Yay, friends! We’re going to have so much fun,” she sang.

“So much fun,” said Miss Gardenside.

“So, so much fun,” said Miss Charming.

They sewed some more. Miss Charming sniffed. Charlotte looked out the window. She vaguely wondered when the fun would start.

“You know, you look kind of familiar,” Miss Charming said.

Miss Gardenside blinked and just stopped herself from frowning.

“Lydia and I met at a ball in Bath last year,” Charlotte offered. “Perhaps you saw her there as well?”

“Ooh, backstory!” Miss Charming repositioned her br**sts as if preparing for a physical feat. “I’m descended from royalty and the Swiss, and my daddy is a peer. Or something.”

“Why not?” Miss Gardenside smiled.

“Exactly,” said Miss Charming.

They sewed some more. Now it was Miss Gardenside’s turn to look out the window and sigh.

Colonel Andrews popped his head through the doorway. “Did I hear a sigh?”

Miss Charming screamed and dropped her needlework, and Charlotte jumped in her chair, knocking her knee against a marble coffee table.

“Ha-ha! Just the entrance I desired. For today, I am your guide in all things startling.” He entered the room, rubbing his hands. “Such a treat have I for you. Nearby lies the ruins of an abbey, its Gothic arches withstanding the onslaught of rain and time. A most fearsome place.”

Miss Charming squealed and clapped her hands. “I love excursions! It’s like we’re on a cruise ship. I mean …” She blushed. “I mean, an old-timey steam-powered cruise ship that’s totally appropriate for … whatever year it is.”

“Can you make it?” Charlotte asked Miss Gardenside quietly.

“Oh yes. I am simply expiring to explore a crumbling old abbey and can only hope, with a most fervent, wild hope, that some horrid murder took place amongst its ancient stones, and just by entering the sacrileged grounds we take upon us a mortal curse and are haunted nigh until death!”

Silence followed Miss Gardenside’s monologue. Then Miss Charming clapped her hands again and said, “Yay!”

“Miss Gardenside,” Colonel Andrews said, bowing, “I believe you shall be most happily satisfied. And Miss Charming, I am pleased to offer you a diversion you have not yet experienced at Pembrook Park.”

The ladies applied their bonnets. The other two gentlemen awaited them out front, Eddie holding the door of the closed carriage, and Mr. Mallery at the reins of a light, two-wheeled open contraption that Ms. Austen might have called a “phaeton,” but which Charlotte was tempted to call a “chariot,” because it reminded her of the chariot races in the movie Ben-Hur. Except there was a seat. And no lethal blades swirling in the wheel hubs. At least, not noticeably.

Colonel Andrews and Mr. Grey helped Miss Gardenside into the carriage, followed by Miss Charming. Charlotte approached to step up.

“Now be kind, Mrs. Cordial,” said Colonel Andrews. “You would not want to deprive us gentlemen the company of these fine ladies.”

Mr. Grey nodded his head toward the phaeton. “Someone needs to go with Mallery. Be a sport, Charlotte?”

The set of Mr. Mallery’s shoulders spoke of impatience. Charlotte became aware of the wrinkle between her brows. Surely this didn’t mean that Mr. Mallery was her Romantic Interest? Eddie was her brother, so that was out, and Colonel Andrews did seem to pay more attention to Miss Charming than anyone else. But … Mr. Mallery? What in her personal profile urged Mrs. Wattlesbrook to pair her with this man? It was surprising, but flattering in a way.

“Eddie.” Charlotte took his elbow and pulled him aside. “Does this mean I’m supposed to go with him? I just assumed … he’s always looking at me in a disapproving way.”

“Disapproving? Of my sister? Impossible. If that were true, I should give him a most stern and scolding sort of look that would cause quakings and shakings of fear.”

Eddie previewed his stern and scolding look, and she nodded emphatically to show she was impressed.

“Now here is the truth of Mallery: if he disapproved of you, he would ignore you altogether. He does not bother with anyone beneath his notice. No, I should say his attentions prove quite the opposite.”

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