Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(9)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(9)
Shannon Hale

“Your brother is the dimpled one there?” she asked, nodding toward where Mr. Grey was speaking with Miss Charming.

“Yes. Edmun—” It was such a trial for Charlotte’s tongue to perform both ds. “Edmund,” she said again, forcing the hard consonants. The name was too formal, too heavy. “Eddie,” she tried out.

His attention turned toward the lounge.

“We call him ‘Eddie’ at home. Don’t we, brother?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “Indeed we do, Charlotte. It is good to see you. I would ask you all the news of home had I not received one of mother’s tomes just yesterday. So I meet you well informed on the number of chickens in the henhouse, the dastardly conduct of elderly Mr. Bushwhack at the reins of his new phaeton, and the mud that just will not dry on the path to church. More news than that I cannot possibly imagine.”

“Join us, Eddie,” said Charlotte, indicating the edge of the lounge. “Miss Gardenside is under the weather and could use some company.”

“Consumption, isn’t it?” he asked, sitting. “The devil take it. But yours is seasonal, I shouldn’t warrant, and so will clear up soon.” He lifted his hand as if he would place it on her blanket-covered leg but then pulled back. His look was warm and sincere as he added, “I think you brave beyond words, Miss Gardenside. I had a bout of consumption myself years past and felt as if I had one leg in the grave and would not mind tossing in the other as well. I marvel at your strength to be here amongst us and put on a cheery demeanor.”

“I prefer it … takes my mind off—” She started to cough, and her face took on a yellowish-greenish sheen.

The blonde woman who had taken Miss Gardenside to her room earlier approached, still in her plain-cut navy dress. She was holding a glass of water for Miss Gardenside, so Charlotte got out of the way.

She joined Miss Charming, who sat alone at the piano, picking out single notes in no discernible tune.

“Who is that other lady?” Charlotte asked.

“Miss Gardenside’s nurse, Mrs. Hatchet,” said Miss Charming.

“What a name.”

“I know. It’s weird. What’s a ‘gardenside’ anyway?”

“I meant … um … So, how long have you been at Pembrook Park?”

“Oh, I don’t keep track anymore.”

“You must really like it here.”

Miss Charming sighed. “It’s home now. Though the food hasn’t grown on me much, and I think I was a little happier before Mrs. Wattlesbrook had a special corset made to fit me.” She heaved her chest, letting her bosom rise and fall.

Charlotte didn’t mean to stare, but now that she’d made eye contact, she couldn’t look away from the woman’s squeaky-tight cle**age and the awesome expanse of her chest propped up and popping out. It was unnatural, surely. No human could support such weight, no woman (let alone man) could manage so much breast.

“Sometimes …” Miss Charming’s voice dropped lower, and she looked Charlotte in the eye. “Sometimes my boobs kill.”

Charlotte’s eyes widened, her mouth agape. It wasn’t until Miss Charming followed her shocking statement by rubbing her chest in discomfort that Charlotte realized “my boobs kill” meant “my boobs ache” rather than “my boobs fatally maim people.” It was a natural mistake to make. After all, they really were large enough to suffocate a grown man.

“Here we are,” Mrs. Wattlesbrook said, saving Charlotte from her thoughts.

Mr. Mallery had just entered, his hair combed, but not very well. His dinner jacket and breeches were somewhat finer than his riding clothes, though he lacked silk and velvet and lace and still wore boots—unlike Colonel Andrews, in his man slippers with buckles. Apparently, there was nothing that could be done to dress up his expression. When Charlotte fell into his line of sight, she felt, frankly, alarmed. Mr. Mallery, in a word, was formidable.

“That is better, Thomas,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook. “I cannot think what our guests’ opinion must be of you, stomping in dirty and rough at dinnertime.”

“Madam, I dress only for you.”

His gaze returned to Charlotte, and he considered her unabashedly. She turned half away.

He’s an actor, she told herself. This is a character, a part he’s playing.

The knowledge didn’t settle her nerves. It was as disconcerting as if she were watching a play and an actor scowled at her from the stage, and not for forgetting to turn off her cell phone or for fiddling with cellophane-wrapped candies, but for no discernible reason except that she displeased him.

“Well then, ladies and gentlemen,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook, “let us dine.”

Eddie offered his arm to his sister and escorted her into the dining room, where Charlotte resolved to be witty and wonderful all dinner long.

She wasn’t.

Home, three years before

“Who were you talking to?” James asked as Charlotte hung up her phone.

“Jagadish, in India. He’s my new programmer.”

James nodded, but his expression was stern, as if he were working over a difficult problem in his mind.

“Why do you ask?”

“No reason.” He shrugged. “The way you were talking, your tone, it was different than I’m used to hearing from you.”

Oh no, she hoped she hadn’t sounded like an obnoxious American, speaking too loudly and overpronouncing everything. Jagadish was fully fluent in English. How embarrassing!

“How did I sound?” she asked fearfully.

James started fiddling with his phone. “Confident.”

Austenland, day 3

Charlotte couldn’t keep blaming her less-than-scintillating conversation on jet lag.

“Mrs. Cordial,” said Mr. Mallery, taking a seat opposite her at the breakfast table. He looked her over, unhurried, unself-conscious. “You look well rested.”

“I am, thanks,” she said.

Nicely played, Charlotte.

“Sister!” Eddie eyed her plate as he filled his from the sideboard with all things protein. “You cannot survive on fruit alone. I told the men in the smoking room last night that you were pleasantly chubby as a child and I swore to make you so again.”

Oh, oh, that’s a good lead-in, she thought. He’s setting me up, feeding me a great idea that I can play with, make a joke. I’ve got to say something funny …

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