Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(5)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(5)
Shannon Hale

“I don’t think so. Generally I’m not … troublesome.”

“Good.”

“Can I ask you a quick question? What does ‘Regency’ mean?”

Mrs. Wattlesbrook pressed her lips then inhaled deeply through her nostrils. “In 1811, King George III was declared unfit, and his son ruled by proxy for nine years. He was the Prince Regent, and thus this era is known as ‘the Regency.’ ”

“Aha! I am so clueless. Why was King George unfit?”

“Because he succumbed to madness.”

“Oh,” said Charlotte, feeling as shocked as a nineteenth-century woman who’d just heard the news. There was nothing like madness to make her feel unsettled. Madness and plane crashes. And ghost sightings. Also toxic mold and flu epidemics. And carbon monoxide leaks.

“If that is all, allow me to acquaint you with some of the characters in your session.” Mrs. Wattlesbrook scanned some papers, speaking as she flipped through. “Mr. Thomas Mallery dotes on his dear aunt”—she indicated herself—“and has come to visit me at Pembrook Park. Mr. Mallery has invited his old schoolmate Edmund Grey along, as well as Mr. Grey’s sister, the young widow Charlotte Cordial.”

“I have a brother?” Charlotte asked. Clearly this Mr. Grey would not be her Romantic Interest. She was relieved there would be at least one safe gentleman in the house. She supposed romance was an integral part of the Austen Experience, but she was pretty well done with setups.

“You have a brother,” Mrs. Wattlesbrook confirmed. “And note that while Etiquette demands a woman address a man properly, by his surname and with the designation of mister, Edmund, as your brother, may be addressed in the more familial sense.”

Charlotte blinked. “What?”

“Mr. Grey’s sister would naturally call him ‘Edmund.’ ”

“Oh.”

She doubted that would be natural, even if she were his sister. She had a prejudice against formal-sounding names, especially ones with an abundance of hard consonants. “Edmund” did not roll off her tongue. Neither did “Slobodan.” Or “Abednego.”

“There will be two other guests at Pembrook Park during your stay. Miss Elizabeth Charming has been with us for … some time. Miss Lydia Gardenside is new to Pembrook Park, like yourself. She is suffering from consumption and is here to convalesce in our peaceful country estate.” Mrs. Wattlesbrook made herself busy, rearranging papers, looking down while she spoke. “I believe Miss Gardenside is a girl of some renown in the cities and in the papers, but at the Park she needs relaxation and anonymity. No hustle and fuss to disturb her recovery. We understand each other?”

Mrs. Wattlesbrook peered at Charlotte over her reading glasses.

Charlotte blinked. Was Miss Gardenside a famous convict recently released from an English jail? Or perhaps royalty?

“Of course,” said Charlotte. She just hoped that this duchess or countess or whatever wouldn’t feel slighted when Charlotte had no idea who she was.

Charlotte didn’t have long to wonder. A manservant entered, dressed in a tailed jacket and white wig, and informed Mrs. Wattlesbrook that the carriage was ready.

“Very good, Bernard. Fetch Miss Gardenside from her room.”

The servant bowed and went into a back room.

Charlotte finished her tea, brushed the crumpet crumbs from her chest, and looked up to see on Bernard’s arm the very person whose poster hung on her daughter’s bedroom wall, whose face graced Lu’s school notebook, whose rainbow-colored name was imprinted on Lu’s sheets. It was her, the twenty-year-old actress from the celebrity magazines, the Grammy winner, the television star. The British girl who’d gotten millions of American teens to use “fancy” as a verb and “brilliant” instead of “cool.” So famous she only had one name: Alisha.

“Oh, it’s you!” said Charlotte’s mouth, completely without her permission. Because, of course, if Charlotte had been in control of her mouth, she would have smiled nonchalantly and said, “How do you do?” or something politely formal and indifferent. Oh, traitorous mouth! Now it was too late to appear unaffected by this incognito celebrity.

“It is I?” Miss Gardenside asked innocently. Her accent was more formal, like the queen’s, than the rougher tone Charlotte had heard her use in interviews. Nevertheless, there was no mistaking a face that famous, though her long black hair was twisted up and set with silver pins. Her dark skin glowed against the yellow of her gown, and her black eyes looked simpler without her trademark long fake lashes. The girl was extremely thin but still very pretty. Charlotte considered putting an Alisha poster on her own wall.

“I am sorry, have we met?” asked Alisha—or rather, Miss Gardenside.

Had they met? No … but then again, she wasn’t really Mrs. Cordial, and Mondays didn’t usually find her in a corset and bloomers. Those fake-lashes-less eyes seemed to plead, I’m not Alisha, please pretend I’m not Alisha …

“I think so,” said Charlotte, trying to play along. “In Bath last year? We were introduced at the assembly by … by Miss Jones?”

Miss Gardenside only blinked before saying, “Yes, I remember now. Of course. That was a lovely evening. If I am not mistaken, you were wearing a fetching little cap fit with cherries and a tiny cupid.”

“Exactly,” Charlotte said sportingly.

“I recall you danced three dances with that tall mustachioed officer, you scandalous thing!”

“Just so,” Charlotte said, not without reservations.

“And you were so bold at the dance, humming out a tune for the quadrangle until the musicians finally arrived.”

“Uh-huh,” Charlotte said, losing heart.

Miss Gardenside clapped her hands. “I was simply enchanted with you at the time, and swore in my heart that if we met again, I would keep you forever at my bosom. So now it is official. You will always be Charlotte to me, and I Lydia to you, and I claim you most fiercely as my dearest friend and confidant.”

There was barely a trace of the hair-swinging, shimmying superstar. It would break the game to compliment her outright, but Charlotte wanted her to know that she was doing a good job, so she gave her a sincere smile.

Miss Gardenside took her arm. “Bosom friends,” she said resolutely.

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