Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(8)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(8)
Shannon Hale

I don’t trust old houses, she told herself, as if acknowledging the fact would make her more brave.

She was intimidated by the creaky, sleepy lurkiness, the nooks and crannies and doorways and passages, the unexpected noises, the many places a stranger could skulk. Who could rest easy in a house with wings and battlements—and, no doubt, dungeons?

A glimmer beckoned from downstairs, and she followed it into the drawing room.

At last, plenty of light—kerosene lamps (both real and electric, it seemed), candles, a fire, furniture upholstered in gaudy fabrics, and an enormous mirror with an ornate gilded frame holding court on the wall. The brightness and colors were briefly overwhelming.

“Mrs. Cordial!” Miss Charming bounced up from her sofa and took Charlotte’s arm. She leaned in close and whispered in her ear, “Now you get to meet the men! It’s the best part.”

“Good evening, Mrs. Cordial,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook. “You look lovely this evening. I see I did well assigning Mary to you. She has a way with shorter hair. I am sorry she is such a skittish thing, but I hope you find her abilities outweigh the vexation of her personality. Yes, very good with short hair …”

Mrs. Wattlesbrook looked her over as if she were a cow going to market. Not that Charlotte had any personal experience with selling cows, or with market per se, but there just wasn’t a good metaphor in her realm of experience.

“Well,” the hostess said approvingly.

Charlotte’s smile was genuine. Perhaps Mrs. Wattlesbrook had forgiven her the transgression of wanting to be a missus.

“Mrs. Charlotte Cordial, may I present our gentlemen guests.”

At her words, two gentlemen, who had been sitting on sofas just out of sight, arose and came forward. Charlotte gasped.

In movies, we are accustomed to seeing handsome actors. It’s so commonplace on the screen, large or small, that we barely note it as extraordinary. But in life, rarely do we encounter an onslaught of beauty, enter a hive of handsomeness, find ourselves awash in an ocean of attractiveness, drowning in a miasma of hotness. Charlotte was unprepared. She momentarily forgot her animosity toward dark old houses.

“This is Colonel Andrews,” said the hostess. “The second son of the earl of Denton and a dear family friend.”

Colonel Andrews bowed in a very pleasing way. He was darling—fair hair, a naughty smile. He must have been at least ten years her junior.

Oh, Charlotte, what are you getting yourself into?

“And of course you know your brother, Mr. Edmund Grey.”

Apparently Mrs. Wattlesbrook only hired eye candy. While the colonel had a roguish appeal, Edmund was handsome in a cheery way. His slightest smile produced Death Star–size dimples in both cheeks, and his blue eyes sparkled in the candlelight. Not just metaphorically. Truly sparkled.

“Sister dear! How delightful that you should come. I was telling Andrews that you are jolly good company and game for anything, is that not so?”

To be honest, Charlotte didn’t feel game for much. She felt as poorly disguised as Alisha, though instead of being a famous and talented starlet, she was a frazzled mommy playing dress-up. But Edmund Grey’s blue eyes kept on shining, and she trusted their hopeful promise that he would get her through this somehow.

“That’s right. The Greys ever were game.” She thought she should say something more, something charming, tell a witty story about Edmund when he was younger and repay him for his dazzling blues, but she felt shy in a push-up corset and low-cut dress. Should she slouch to keep her bust from sticking out so much? Would her proper posture make them think she was trying to flaunt her cle**age? At least no one was obviously looking her over. Except for Miss Charming. Charlotte caught her eye, and Miss Charming nodded in an approving way.

“And where is Mallery?” Colonel Andrews asked.

Just then the front door banged open and they could hear loud footsteps coming down the hall. A figure passed the drawing room and headed toward the stairs.

“Mr. Mallery!” Mrs. Wattlesbrook called.

He paused, then came back, his stance impatient. He was the tallest of the three gentlemen, striking in a black cloak and riding boots, his long hair held in a masculine ponytail. Charlotte added the word “masculine” to her internal description, because normally she considered long hair on men weird and maybe a little bit sweet. But everything about this man pronounced Masculinity in no-nonsense terms. While the other two gentlemen would look comfortable on a GQ cover, Mr. Mallery didn’t seem likely to feel comfortable anywhere—except maybe a castle on a moor. He had dark hair and dark eyes, and standing on the threshold as he was, he seemed too untamed and, well, dangerous to enter the prim world of the drawing room.

His look was restless, but he bowed to Mrs. Wattlesbrook.

“My apologies, madam. My horse stumbled in the field.”

“That is a shame. Is she all right?”

“Of course she is, or I would not have returned from the stables.”

Mr. Mallery’s glance took in Charlotte, then his eyes returned to Mrs. Wattlesbrook. He left without another word.

Colonel Andrews laughed. “There goes the wealthiest man in the county, but twenty-five thousand a year cannot manners buy.”

“Indeed.” Mrs. Wattlesbrook sniffed, but Charlotte observed that her sternness seemed more affected than usual. In fact, the woman was downright pleased.

The butler entered, but Mrs. Wattlesbrook waved him off.

“We shall wait for Mr. Mallery, Neville.”

“He shan’t be long, I daresay,” Colonel Andrews said. “The old boy dresses like he rides—fast and careless.”

“Not careless,” Mrs. Wattlesbrook corrected. “Mr. Mallery is never careless.”

Colonel Andrews nodded assent.

Charlotte noticed Miss Gardenside, sitting on a lounge, her feet up, a blanket over her legs. Her face was shiny, her eyes wet, and she dabbed at them with a handkerchief.

Feeling a little unready for the gentlemen, Charlotte wandered over to the lounge and took a chair beside her.

“Can I get you anything?” Charlotte asked.

Miss Gardenside smiled. “Oh no, my dear Charlotte. I have never felt so well in all my life. I swear I could dance till dawn, were we haunting dear old Bath again. Stay and talk. I do not mean to be alone.”

She shivered, closed her eyes briefly, then smiled again as if nothing were wrong in all the world.

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