Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(11)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(11)
Shannon Hale

Really? Wow, that made her stomach drop a tad. “But Eddie, is he … safe?”

“Docile as a kitten.” Eddie smiled and gave her a good-natured nudge. “Come now, you are not actually afraid of the old boy.”

“Yeah, kind of. I don’t know. Is that silly?”

“Yes. Completely. But so are you.”

“Eddie, you say these things, and I know I’m supposed to come up with some witty retort, but I panic and my mind goes blank, and I think I’m embarrassing you.”

He tilted his head. “How so?”

“Because I’m your sister. And you deserve a wittier sister.”

“That is wonderful.” He leaned his head back to look at the sky. “Allow me to absorb the wonderfulness of that for a moment. Yes, that will do. Now, you stop worrying about me or anyone. We are on holiday with not a care in the world.”

She glanced over at her waiting escort’s back. “I don’t know what to say to him,” she whispered.

“You do not have to entertain him,” he whispered back. “It is his job to entertain you. Go on, Charlotte. You might enjoy yourself. I have the sense that you are long overdue some enjoyment.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Charlotte approached the phaeton and stood beside it, taking in Mr. Mallery’s profile, his eyes shaded beneath his tall hat.

“Are you joining me, Mrs. Cordial?” he asked, still staring straight ahead.

“I … I don’t have to.” She looked back at Eddie, who was watching her from beside the carriage. He nodded encouragingly. “But yes, I believe I will.”

“And what is preventing you?”

She laughed a little because she knew she was hesitating idiotically, but she honestly didn’t know how to get into that chariot-thingy with such a long skirt. Would it be inappropriate to hoist up her hem? Was Mrs. Wattlesbrook watching from a window somewhere, grading her on phaeton-side etiquette?

“My dress, I guess. It’s so …”

Mr. Mallery put a hand on the edge of the phaeton and swung out onto the ground. He put his arms under her back and legs, picked her up, placed her on the bench, and then leapt in beside her. Charlotte tingled with an adrenaline rush, as if she’d just been pushed unwillingly off a high diving board.

“Well, that was … efficient,” she said, placing a hand to her chest, trying to quiet down her heart.

Mr. Mallery gave the horse a tap. The phaeton took off so quickly that Charlotte held her bonnet against the rush of motion.

Her escort was quiet at first, and she found the silence comforting. He was not the sort to make idle chitchat, and she wasn’t in the mood for it anyway. She was wearing a bonnet and riding in a phaeton. She needed a moment to absorb it all.

They rattled down the drive, past the inn, then took a country lane. Off to her left was the motorway, the occasional car zooming by, the sound as annoying as the pestering of a fly.

“You do not strike me as a flighty woman, Mrs. Cordial,” Mr. Mallery said.

If you can’t say something witty, she told herself, don’t say anything at all.

“And yet your hands flutter about,” he added.

“You make me nervous,” she said, forcing her hands still in her lap.

“I am driving too fast?”

“No, not the driving. You.”

He pressed his lips together.

“Does that offend you?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Of course not. It is curious, however, because I was just thinking the same of you.”

“I make you nervous?”

That didn’t seem likely. And yet, she couldn’t be sure. Was he different when she wasn’t around? She would try to be observant of Mr. Mallery. That would give her something to do for the rest of her stay. And there was the question of the estate-that-was Windy Nook and Miss Gardenside’s consumption. She felt calmer already, thinking of these problems to answer, riddles to unravel.

Soon the trees parted and Charlotte spied the ruins. She wondered at them as Mr. Mallery helped her down from the phaeton (by holding her hand this time) and the carriage pulled up beside them.

The structure (what was left of it) was beautiful, and yet creepy too, as if the peaked shape of a Gothic window alone was enough to give one chills. She wouldn’t have tiptoed through those ruins after dark for a month’s income or an unlimited pass to a chocolate fondue bar. But by the hazy light of an overcast afternoon, the chills induced were pleasant. Charlotte was tempted by the feeling, so she indulged, outpacing the others to begin the exploration on her own. She felt daring, and found the novel sensation nicer than numbness.

Hard dirt paths wove between fallen walls and scattered rocks, the hivelike remains of the nuns’ cells still lingering in the shadow of one massive wall. Looking straight up, Charlotte got the dizzy feeling it would tumble down. She passed beneath a doorway and faced a countryside unblighted by human habitation. The air felt chilled there, as if she were a ghost or something, a being caught in a liminal space. She was neither here nor there. Between. She sat on a low stone wall and breathed in the summer sun. She was real—but not too real. Nothing felt thorny in her chest; no anxious errands prodded at her brain. For the moment, she didn’t belong anywhere.

“Ooh, look at the old-fashioned woman!”

Charlotte started at the voice. Two college-age backpackers were coming straight for her, camera at the ready.

“Are you part of a pageant or something?” the woman asked in an American accent.

“Um …” Charlotte’s hands fluttered to her bonnet strings then back to her lap.

Wearing the costume in front of civilians made her feel removed from reality, like standing at the top of a skyscraper and watching the cars move way down below. Her mind reeled with time-period vertigo.

Mr. Mallery appeared, climbing atop one of the fallen stones. He took in Charlotte’s expression then glared at the intruders.

“You are upsetting the lady,” he said. “This is a private engagement. You should leave.”

The woman’s eyes widened. “Oh man, you look amazing.” She shoved her camera in her companion’s hands and jumped up beside Mr. Mallery, posing with jazz hands spread out razzle-dazzle. The man hadn’t yet gotten the camera to his eye when Mr. Mallery hopped off the stone and took it from his hands. He held it awkwardly, as if he hated the feel of the modern thing, but found the power switch and turned it off.

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