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Peter Gray

The Jane Austen Experience

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

The first line of a most beloved book, a novel I treasured deeply for as long as I could remember. Pride and Prejudice, a well-esteemed novel by none other than Jane Austen. How many years have I laboured over it? Flipped its pages until the very last. Some may call it an obsession, and perhaps it was that, but for me it was a world that I could only dream of.

On that fateful day when I was scrolling through Instagram feed and an advertisement popped up, it was no wonder that I stopped and stared in awe at this particular image. Who could have imagined that everything in my entire life would lead up to this exact moment?

***

“I can’t believe it!” Autumn lowered her ice coffee, placing it down on the polished black table. “You are doing what?”

I watched her hold onto my phone for a bit longer, mouth gapping wide in horror. She handed my cell-phone back to me after a moment, and then closed her eyes to vainly hide her true feelings.

“You know me!” I exclaimed. “Why are you so surprised about this?”

“You are blowing me off,” she countered. Her drink and pastry were suddenly abandoned once she had learned the news. “Blowing me off to go to some stupid ball!”

“It’s not stupid.”

“Layla,” Autumn warned. “You saw how much it costs?”

“I can afford it,” I lied. “I work.”

“One hundred dollars for a ticket.”

“Yeah.”

“And that is not including the train ride to get to that part of the city. Then you need a hotel.”

“And a dress.”

“A dress,” she laughed with utter mockery. “How can I forget?”

“I will need a regency one.” I took up my iced tea lemonade, hearing the ice cubes rock around the plastic container that I had purchased for traveling purposes. “How will I ever do my hair?”

“Layla.” Her look was unmistakable, it was filled with worry. “I think your obsession has gone too far.” She leaned forward in her seat, bringing her elbows onto the table. “I am sorry to say this, but there is no such thing as Mr. Darcy.”

I cringed at her words, refusing it to be true. We stared at each other from across the table, ignorant of the sounds of the little café down the street from her apartment.

“Is it so wrong,” I began. “To want romance?”

“This isn’t romance,” she argued back. “It is about you believing in fairy tales. God, you are such a beautiful woman and you throw it all away-”

“-for what?”

“This imagined dream!” Autumn exclaimed. “A dream that cannot be real.”

“I want it to be real.”

“You probably sit all day looking at pictures of men in breeches and side-burns.”

“No!”

“With those Abraham Lincoln hats.”

I turned my head away from my friend, watching a female employee working the bar so she could steam the milk to the appropriate temperature. Autumn and I had known each other for years. She was a close friend, one who knew that my fantasy could go a little bit too far. Still, was it wrong for me to want something so badly? Even if it wasn’t real?

Autumn poked the front of my arm and motioned her head to a table not far from us. “Look!” she piped up. “Two guys over there looking at us. You won’t even give them a chance.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do!”

“Autumn,” I groaned. “I’m not like that.”

“We live in the twenty-first century. Men don’t dress like that now. They don’t act that way. You want someone that comes straight out of a Charles Dickson novel, but that just ain’t real.”

“I don’t want someone from there.”

“Sorry, I am not an English major.”

“Clearly.” She took up her drink and sucked on the straw harshly, hardly believing our turn of conversation. “I’m going. You can’t change my mind about it.”

“Alone?”

I nodded my head stiffly. “Yeah, alone.”

“To a regency ball.”

“The Jane Austen Experience,” I informed her with my hands forming air quotes in front of her.

“Are you giving me air quotes?”

“I am.” She watched me drop my hands back on the table, and then wrapped my hands around my cold cup comfortingly.

“You know what? I want you to go,” Autumn said with sudden determination as she pinned back her dark curly hair.

“Really?”

“Yeah. You’ve been having your head stuck in novels about fairy tales and songs for far too long.” Autumn squinted her light almond brown eyes at me as she stated: “It’s about time you see the world as it truly is.”

“And that is?”

“Figments of your imagination,” she gibed with a pointed finger in my direction.

“You’re wrong,” I told her stiffly. “There is a chance for romance. Times of grace and simplicity.”

“It wasn’t like that then, Layla. It was a world created by Austen.”

“A world of Hardy and Elliot.” I sighed out deeply with a feeling of remorse. “The Brontë Sisters! Keats and Shelly. The romantics and the greatest minds that have ever flowed their pen at that age. Charles Dickens, yes. Oscar Wilde, Dante Gabriel Rossesti.”

“You were born in the wrong time period.”

“I know I am,” I mumbled. “I can’t help it if I wish to live in a time period like that. Worlds of wonder and adventure. Imagine slipping into the seedy streets of London that Sherlock Holmes ventured in? The wild adventures that Robert Louis Stevenson had created? Even to imagine life of far more simplicity than we know now, things like the pastural poems by Coleridge and the rest of the Lake Poets.”

“Layla.”

“Yes?”

“You really need to meet a guy that has an interest in that.”

“Literature?”

“What ever you are rambling about? I don’t get it.”

“No, and how could you?” I surmised in a dreary voice, knowing Autumn was not the type of person to pick up a book unless she was forced too. “This means a lot to me, that event. I have enough savings to go and I will spend it all if I need too. I want to experience that world. I want to know what it is really like to step into the regency era.”

“You came here for my advice and I gave it to you.” Autumn leaned against the back of her chair, looking like she had given up trying to tell me what to do. “If you want to go, then go.”

“I will.”

“I just hope you don’t get your heart broken out there.”

I took up my straw and stared at the ice bobbing at the top of my drink reflectively. “So do I.”

***

An entire estate was rented for tonight, it was an old building owned by a wealthy family over a hundred years ago. It had been refurbished and was now used as a renting space for large parties or weddings. From the outside you could see the flashing lights of the city, that peculiar scent of piss and smoke from car exhaust pipes. I stood at the opening of a staircase, just climbing out of a subway that I had sat upon for the last twenty minutes. People stopped and stared, curiously looking over their shoulder whenever they climbed over the top of the staircase and passed me by. I stood out long a sore thumb, even though my long black cloak with a hood disguised most of my regency inspired outfit.

I stood there in the cold, looking at the long black gate that was half open before me. Flickering lamps decorated the lawn, glowing with a cool white colour over the cobbled path that led to the front doors of the large estate. A long white banner posted over the front lawn took me away from the moment, reminding me that none of this was real, only a stage- a vision of a world that fascinated me for as long as I can remember.

Steadily I walked through the crowd of people going each way, bringing myself closer to the gates where a man was standing before it dressed in a military uniform. His look was unmistakable: a long cardinal red coat with golden pads over his shoulders, a white waistcoat with a tight cravat tightly wound over the front of his throat. He turned his gaze to me when I approached, bringing down his large black hat in silent greeting. “Welcome,” he proclaimed, sending me out of my reverie. “You have come for the ball?” I nodded my head stiffly and then reached into my purse to hand him the ticket. “No need! Once you get up the first set of stairs you can give it to them. Enjoy.”

“Thank you,” I meekly replied, and then slinked my small purse closer to my frame. It was the only modern-day apparel I had with me, well that and the heels, but my dress was long enough to disguise it. Seeing this man made me feel better, I was getting tired of the curious stares as I sat on the subway. It was foolish for me to come here alone, and a part of me regretted not listening to my friend’s advice. Nevertheless, I walked down the empty pathway, feeling the night air brush past me to send the ends of my long dress floating into the air. The white building was illuminated by soft lamps, windows drawn open for me to see people moving about the rooms. I could tell the place was teeming with people, letting me know I wasn’t the only one that believed in this nonsensical dream.

I walked up the steps slowly, feeling a gaze before I could locate it, brought on by another guard at the very top. He bowed low to me in recognition, offering his hand as I took the final few steps. “Good evening.”

“Hello,” I said with utter nervousness, completely forgetting I had to put on a performance now.

“You are here for-”

“-the Jane Austen experience,” I cut in. “Yes.”

“You are alone, madam?”

“Ummmmm.” I looked down shyly at the dark floor in between our two figures. “Yes, I am actually.”

“You must let someone know once you are inside. They might be able to assign you a dance partner.”

“Why thank you.”

“You have your ticket?”

It took me a few moments to locate, and then I handed it to him.

“I suggest you put your purse in a locker,” he reasoned, as he examined the ticket. “We want you to look the part to the fullest.”

“Oh, okay.”

“And be sure to look over your name once you get to the front desk. We made sure there are no allergies for your dinner, but still.”

“Oh, there is dinner,” I said with nerves. “I had forgotten.”

The man looked up at me, furrowing his dark eyebrows with worry.

“I was too excited for the ball.”

“I see,” he dryly replied. The ticket was handed back to me, and then he encouraged me to go inside. I entered the room with a deep breath, seeing the painted ceiling with depictions of men from glorious days. There were silver chandeliers, hanging like dazzling droplets from one end to the other. The ceiling corners were gilded with gold. The walls a pure ivory white. Windows open to let in the fresh air, but more importantly for me to see the glowing city lights. I held my breath at this spectacle of people moving about in regency ballgowns and men in tight suit jackets and waist coats. Breeches, I giddily thought, as I watched a few men pass me by. A smug smile came over me, feeling like I had dropped straight into a Jane Austen novel. A dream world that I had no desire to ever wake up from.  

“And good evening to you,” a man stated, before he bowed himself to me in utter respect. His attire was simple, making me think he was another worker. “May I lead you to our guest services before we begin.” He waved his hand for me to follow, taking his time to show me the way. “We have in total four rooms,” he began. “The main room you will be wanting to go into is the ballroom, but we are still setting up our live orchestra at the moment. It is closed for now, but an announcement will be made once it is time. There is our dining room! If you continue on this hallway you will go straight into it. On your right is the waiting room, where everyone is situated for now. Here there is appetizers and drinks. Feel free to mingle and talk. The fourth room is our photobooth area. Ideal for couples to capture this special moment. If you are in need of fresh air, we have our open balcony and our gardens. We will have fireworks just after midnight, so be sure to find a good spot.”

“You have fireworks?”

“Only the best for our special guests.”

He stopped in front of a table with three female workers situated behind it. “It sounds romantic,” I sighed out sadly, before I offered him a false smile.

“Yes, it does,” he agreed with me, before he made his small goodbyes and wandered away.

I gave my name and the required information to a lady behind the long pine coloured table. She kindly went over the dinner menu with me, allowing me to confirm my food choices before I would be allowed into the dining room. My purse was taken up by the lady, but not before I stuffed my phone and my identification cards down the front of my dress with a sneaky grin. My long black coat was handed over to her, revealing the silk emerald green dress that I had purchased. The lady then directed me towards a mirror at the side of the wall to examine myself. I took in my appearance joyfully, fingering the thin golden necklace that matched my dangling earrings. My dark golden curls were braided up with a printed pink scarf of a soft rosy colour. I sighed deeply at my appearance, only moving when I felt brave enough to face the rest of the world. I strode down the long hallway, hearing the merry laughter of the people that were stationed in the main waiting room. I could hear a piano being played down the hall, the calming notes of a violin that added a touch of romance. I closed my eyes just to listen to the music, deeply breathing it in to seize the moment. All my life I imagined this, and now I was here, standing in a hallway that would lead to a room full of people like me- people that loved Jane Austen’s world. Confident, I strode forward and entered the room to find it crowded with people. I positioned myself closer to the walls, passing the couples or groups of women clustered together. I found my feet gravitating towards the musicians as I took in the elegant scenery, though I felt a tinge of loneliness the more I stepped inside of the room. The accents around me were clearly American, but I would like to think they were a posh British accent inside of my head.

“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope…I have loved none but you.”

I looked around at these faces, wondering if the world of literature had haunted them as much as it did for me.

“Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.”

I gravitated towards the center of the room, slowly spinning around to take the scenery. High walls on the right side were covered in mirrors, reflecting the grandeur setting that felt like a dream. The words of my favourite writer were alive in my head, coming out in full strength to the burgeoning sound of the live orchestra.

“The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!”

I stopped my slow spinning once I felt someone was watching me, and then slowly turned around until I could find the infiltrator. The man smirked at me at once, nodding his head in recognition while he had his hands behind his back. I froze at the sight of him, feeling like the man had just stepped out one of my fantasies. He was by no means Mr. Darcy, but he was something. He strode forward at an easy pace, maintaining eye contact as he eased himself closer. His rich dark blue blazer glowed under the candlelight, especially the felt collar that draped itself elegantly over the front of his chest. He wore a simple white cravat, tied beautifully over his neck. This man screamed elegance and refinement, and as he approached me, I could feel my heart beating at a tremendous pace. He stopped suddenly, leaving an appropriate distance that was necessary for that time period. His light hazel eyes sparkled before me, but the mysterious man wavered to address me first. A bow soon succeed, low and swift, and then he stood up tall until his back was perfectly straight. It was then that I came to the realization that I was only slightly taller than this stranger before me.

“I do not believe we have been acquainted,” he said with certain ease. His brogue was unmistakable, purely Irish. I was thwarted with that knowledge, for the distinct accent had broken that Jane Austen spell. “I am Lord Salisbury.”

He’s a Lord. I could feel my eyes widen at his exclamation, knowing this wouldn’t end well.

“May you do me the greatest pleasure of providing your name as well?”

I stood dumbly before him, feeling that his words were too scripted for his own good. I knew no one talked like that now adays, and to see this stranger dressed in the finest regency clothing I had ever seen and speaking to me with words straight out of a novel, well, to be perfectly honest it was breaking the spell.

“Or should you leave it as a mystery to me?” the man suddenly teased, after a long awkward pause succeeded.

“Miss. Young.”

“Miss?” he drawled out slowly with an arched eyebrow.

“You are correct.”

He nodded his head with understanding as he drew his hands from behind his back to settle it in front of him. The man took the liberty of closing off the large space and then offered me a charming smile. “A pleasure.”

“You were watching me looking around?”

“I feared you would get too dizzy and fall,” he smoothly replied. “I was hoping to be near enough to catch you.”

“How kind,” I said with full pleasantries. I felt that statement to be too forced, but when I looked down at my dress, I knew it was only meant to be in character. “How did you hear about this event?”

He drew his fingers upwards to stroke his goatee, making me take in the sharp precision of it. “I have been invited by my manager,” he told me in truth. “I was hardly one to refuse him.” He brought himself closer to my side, standing in a way so he could take in most of the room. “Especially when he is one of the head organizers.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. I suppose you know that a third of the fee is given to charity.”

“Yes, I saw that on the website.”

“The rest of the fees pays for this event.” He looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening before he added: “Kerry Wilson owns this whole building. He uses it to rent it out for special occasions, such as this one. As a matter of fact, he owns quite a lot of buildings in this city.”

“And what do you do for him?”

“I take care of his money,” he gibed. “Financial bit.” He looked around, almost fearful that someone was overhearing. “So, what brought you to this place?”

I lifted the end of my dress in an excited manner, letting it billow off the ground to show him the truth. “I always dreamed of going to an event like this!”

The man in front of me rubbed his hand at the back of his neck in disbelief. “No kidding.”

I went straight to the point and asked Lord Salisbury if he read any Jane Austen novels, and to my disappointment he simply shook his head. “What about any other famous literature books of that time?”

“I don’t believe so.”

“War and Peace?” I suggested. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?”

“No.”

I was becoming desperate now, leaning in closer as I uttered: “Dracula? Vanity Fair? The Picture of Dorian Gray?”

“No, I am afraid not,” he chuckled, since he could detect my distress.

“Well, have you heard of them at least?”

“I have heard of them all,” he assured me, after he stepped in closer. “Though I do not treasure it as fervently as you it seems.”

“I always wanted a library all to myself. One day, when I am rich enough, I will buy a house somewhere quiet and have a small library. Maybe even a desk where I could read and write.” I paused, sensing my emotions were getting the better of me. “I almost wished I could have a pen pal. They don’t do that anymore. Send letters across the ocean and have that anxious time of waiting until their letter finally arrives.”

“No, they don’t,” he replied gravely.

“There are times I feel like I don’t belong in this world. My friend says I am too fond of fairy tales, but I feel it is so much more than that.” I stopped myself short, realizing I was revealing too much in front of a perfect stranger. “Now, I am just embarrassing myself.”

He let a tiny smile form over his face and then leaned over so I could hear his voice clearly. “No, you aren’t,” he hushed into my ear, before he took a step away. I took in that moment to notice his short dark hair that curled over the top of his head; tight black ringlets that shimmered under the warm candle light. He was older than me by several years, but even with that stern brooding look I could tell Lord Salisbury was not old enough to cause me any alarm. I thought he was an agreeable companion and hoped with all my heart that he came to this party alone as well.

Lord Salisbury looked down at his left hand, spinning around a peculiar signet ring that had a sharp black stone that glittered in the lighting. “Were you forced here then?” I asked of him. “Or?”

“I don’t think they can force me to do anything,” he softly replied. “Let’s say, strongly advised.”

“I can only hope it is an evening well spent.”

“With your presence, then surely.” He saw the smile come over me from such simple flatteries and followed it with: “And I can only hope you feel the same way about me.”

“I do, thank you.”

“I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful companion.”

He is really buttering me up, I thought, and then arched an eyebrow at him in pure challenge. Lord Salisbury reacted by dragging his bottom lip over his top set of teeth, nearly sucking it in as he stared at me. It was clear I could see behind his mask, but he wasn’t willing to show the true side of him yet.

“Are you a student?” he questioned me, wanting to continue our conversation.

“I graduated about three years ago. I studied English literature. I am sure that isn’t a surprise to you.”

“No.”

“I might go back for my master’s.” I looked to the right to see a clear reflection of ourselves, hardly believing the sight of me standing in the center of a ballroom with a man that handsome. I lost my train of thought, lost in the image, only for it to be broken when I caught his eyes staring back at me through the mirror.

“Feeling a little lost, Miss. Young?”

“What?”

“Distracted?” he added with a shadow of a smile.

“Sorry!” I stupidly shot out. “I mean… I beg your apologies, my Lord.” The man smirked at me, while those darks eyes glinted in a troublesome way. “I was taken in by the beauty of this place.”

“It felt more like you were watching yourself.”

“Yes, well that too.”

“Anything interesting?”

I puckered my lips in front of him, ashamed by own train of thoughts. “Have you ever dreamed of something? Something that people continually tell you isn’t real?”

“I am not sure.”

“A dream,” I pursued. “Have you ever had a dream?”

“I was under the impression that every one of us had one.”

“Now, imagine you see that dream? See it in this very mirror.” He turned his head with some wavering, and then took in our appearance through the mirror’s reflection.

“And how do you feel about it?” he questioned me, after he took a good look at himself.

“I don’t know.” I dropped my gaze, not wanting to look at our reflections any further. “It almost feels unreal.”

“And what will happen when you wake up?”

“I will find myself in bed again, all curled up with my dog. Getting a text message from my friend that says something along the lines of ‘I told you so’ to burst this bubble completely.”

“Bubble?”

I sighed heavily in front of Lord Salisbury. “That a world like that could ever exist.”

He smiled at me kindly. “I think you need to be a writer, Miss. Young.” I blushed in front of him, but he payed me no mind. “That is the only true realm of escape, or so I’ve been told.”

“I have written some things.”

“I should like to read them.”

“Oh, I could never… I don’t show them to anyone.”

“Why not?” I shrugged my shoulders at Lord Salisbury, and then allowed my gaze to fall to his chin instead. “I should like to know.” My hesitation was most apparent. “If you would give me the honours.”

“They are love stories,” I breathed out, and then let my gaze fall to the front of his chest.

“And you are ashamed of it?”

“Ashamed,” I echoed. “It is more of a feeling of dread. The idea of me spending my whole life chasing after something that doesn’t exist.”

“So certain of it.”

A bell toiled, bringing our attention to the stage where a man was patiently waiting for the audience’s attention. Our host greeted the crowd amiably, and then made the happy announcement that we could now enter the dining hall. I felt an immediate sense of relief after this announcement, for I was experiencing some uneasiness knowing that Lord Salisbury knew so much about me, while I knew so very little about him. My newly acquainted friend offered me his arm to lead me down the long hallway, something I gratefully accepted. “I look forward to continuing our conversation,” Lord Salisbury said with all agreeableness.

There were six chairs at each table of the dining room, so Lord Salisbury found two chairs close to the glass windows and offered the best seating arrangement for me. “So, you can watch the world go by,” he hushed behind my ear, after he pushed in my chair. He took a seat on the left of me, and then glanced over at the empty chairs that would inevitably be filled by strangers.

“Did you come here alone?”

“I have some work friends here,” he confessed. “But they are too busy organizing things to have a seat with me.”

“Then you are alone?”

“I suppose you can say that. Then again, I do have you as company.” He wore a look that was hard to read. “Agreeable company, if I may be so bold to say so.”

“Are you sure you haven’t read Jane Austen?”

“Quite certain.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Why not?” he entreated, while leaning into my space.

“You sound like Wickham?”

“That officer,” he berated me, clearly offended. “You would liken me to that scoundrel.”

“I thought- I thought…”

“You had asked me if I had read the novel, yes? I may have watched a film on it.”

My voice shot up to a higher note as I exclaimed: “You have!”

“I needed to prepare myself for this event,” Lord Salisbury calmed explained to me. “There is nothing I hate more than idle ignorance.”

I smiled at him so widely I knew he could see the happiness betrayed on my face. It was just then that a couple took a seat on the other side of the table, offering a small greeting to ease away the tension. They blocked some of my view of the open window, forcing me to turn my head to the partner beside me instead. Lord Salisbury gave me a warm smile, letting his bright hazel eyes lower down to my lips and then my exposed neck.

“You look very beautiful,” he told me with confidence. “Have I neglected to tell you that? I do apologize, most sincerely.”

“Straight out of a novel,” I gibed.

“Flattering me?” he quipped with a teasing look about him.

“Are you an actor, Lord Salisbury?”

“I would do terribly, Miss. Young.” I knew his formalities was a gibe towards me, making me giggle relentlessly in front of him. This man had a certain way of teasing me, making me realize it was a way to disguise his flirtatious behaviour. “What about you?”

“I don’t like performing in front of people,” I shyly confessed.

“I don’t mind speaking in public. It is acting that bothers me.”

“Why?”

“I don’t have the knack for it.” The modern-day slang made me smile at him, for I was thankful it had broken the spell once again. “What is it?”

“I was trying to picture you in a t-shirt and jeans.”

“Why?” he dared. “Whatever for?”

“You fit into this world so well,” I sighed out. “Why, you are every girl’s dream.”

“Am I your dream?” he asked in a low tone of voice. He watched me bite down on my lip, unable to answer.

“It is hard to tell.”

“Why is that?”

I watched him cross his arms in front of me, slanting his body to the right to face me more. The couple on the other side of the table were completely ignored by him, all of Lord Salisbury’s attention was directed towards me. “It is hard to separate you from this world,” I quietly explained.

“Then maybe you need to step into mine,” he stated without hesitation. “I have a condo about twenty-minute drive from here. Right on the outskirts of the city.” The dream had been shattered by that blunt statement, once I realized what this this man was subtly implying. “You could come over afterwards, if you’d like.”

“See, he would never say that?”

“Who?”

“Mr. Darcy.”

“Christ,” he cursed. “Of course, he wouldn’t.”

“And that’s the problem,” I mused aloud. “Right there!”

“What is?” he asked in a suspicious tone of voice.

“Things move too fast now a days.” I looked down at the empty plate, silently reflecting on my own words. “It hardly gives time for anything to grow.”

“Like love?” he sneered. “Is that what you mean?”

“Yes, like love,” I assented. “And it’s a pity, really.” I stood out of my seat. “You almost made me believe that it was real.” I stepped away from him, heading towards the bathroom to clear my head. I needed some space to think, and I knew I had to be away from Lord Salisbury’s presence for a bit.

You never learn, I told myself, it will all catch up to you in the end.

***

Who knew how impossible it is to use a modern day stall when wearing such a dress. Once I was standing in front of the sink to wash my hands, I allowed myself to take a good look in the mirror. I was stunning, no one could refused me that. Flustered, I removed my phone from its secret hiding spot and drew it upwards to see one message. Autumn was practically begging to hear how my night was going, so with a quick look over my shoulder to find the place empty I dialed her number.

“Hey.”

“Layla? What’s wrong? I can hear it in your voice.”

“Gosh,” I sighed out. “Am I that obvious?”

“I can read you like an open book.”

The two of us shared a short laugh, making me let out the stress of the evening. “Its just… I finally sit down with a guy and it takes him less than twenty minutes to invite me up to his place once this party is done. I can’t… I feel…”

“You were hoping to escape the misery of the male sex,” my friend taunted. “Men will be men, Layla.”

“He looks like a Mr. Darcy, and then lets this nonsense come out of his mouth.”

“Is he cute?”

“He is devilishly handsome.”

“No one says that!” my friend yelled out. “The fact that he is sitting with you-”

“-hey!”

“You are… different,” Autumn tried to explain. “I think you need someone to accept that side of you.”

“There is nothing wrong with me.” A woman stepped into the bathroom, forcing me to lower my voice. “I will just look around for someone else then.”

“Are you using this event to find a boyfriend, Layla?”

“Husband, more like. Where is Emma when you need her?”

“Who?”

“A matchmaker.” A group of four women entered the stall, so I took that opportunity to slip through the open doorway and make my way outside. “Look, I will call you when I get on the subway.”

“I only hope you get there safely.”

“The platform is right outside the building. I will be fine.”

“Dressed like that you won’t. I say you take up that man’s offer-”

“-no!” I quickly interjected, only to feel annoyed at myself for being so loud on the phone in public. “I am not going home with a complete stranger, even if he is wearing… breeches.”

“Send me a pic,” she taunted me, and then said a quick goodbye before she hung up the phone.

A pic of what, I wondered, before I turned towards a fake flower pressed against a wall and forced that insufferable phone down my dress. Still rattled, I decided it was best to get on with it. “Right!” I breathed out sharply. “I can do this.”

Steadily I walked back into the dining room, seeing the table was full once I was a few feet away. Lord Salisbury was sipping on his wine lightly, looking at the couples around him that were engaged with themselves. I pushed back my chair and he suddenly sprang to his feet in utter respect. “Miss. Young.”

My voice was cold when I replied: “Lord Salisbury.”

“May I speak to you for a moment in private?”

He offered an arm for me to take and led me throughout the crowded room to pass the archway that separated this room from the darkly lit hall. He prompted me to release his arm, and then looked down at his hands with the many rings on them. Lord Salisbury’s attention was focused on the dark obsidian gem on his ring finger when he quietly uttered: “I have behaved abominably.”

“You have.”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” he quickly apologized. “It was incredibly rude, and I do apologize for my behaviour.”

I stared into his eyes, trying to read the truth in them. It was like he was wearing a mask in front of me, though I sensed that most of his words were true.

“I understand how important this event is to you,” he openly confessed. “And my suggestion earlier was uncouth.” He lowered his gaze, taking in my golden necklace. “I hope you may find it in your heart to forgive me, for I believe you are a good woman. An excellent one, in fact.” He paused, allowing me to reflect over his words. There was utter refinement in it, smooth like honey, but I distrusted it all the same. “Will you not grant me permission to hear your thoughts allowed?”

“Have you had training lessons?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“To speak like that.”

“No,” he stammered out with nerves.

“Is this your first event?”

He rubbed the front of his pearl white cravat nervously, trying to pry it off his throat. “I have been to others,” he weakly replied. “My manager holds such events internationally. I believe it is the first year he was willing to hold a local one.”

“Yes, I have heard of similar events in London and other parts of southern England.”

The man nodded his head firmly. “Indeed.”

Music came from speakers inside of the dining room, another firm reminder that all of this was a lie. I turned my head to look down the hallway, knowing that a few more steps would lead me to the ballroom.

Lord Salisbury must have caught my train of thoughts for he stepped a little closer, encroaching upon my space. “Have you a dance partner?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Then would you grant me the first dance, Miss. Young?”

I could feel my cheeks blush, almost dazed by this man’s words. “Me?”

“I shall have no other,” he breathed out, making the surroundings suddenly feel so romantic.

“But this can’t be real.”

“What can’t?”

“All of this?”

“It is the Jane Austen Experience, my dear.”

“Experience?” I mouthed with a disturbed look about me. “Yes, of course.”

I turned away from him, heading back into the dining room with this man at my tail. The room was teeming with people, all gaiety and propriety, everything I ever wanted, and yet, for some reason it all felt terribly wrong.

“May I escort you the rest of the way,” Lord Salisbury inquired. He raised up an arm with meaning, encouraging me to slip my own inside of it.

“Yes, thank you.”

“It is my uttermost pleasure,” he simpered, after a charming smile was granted to me.

It wasn’t until we sat down, and I felt my chair being pushed in by this man that I found myself beginning to like him. If this man, Lord Salisbury, wanted to play a man of my dream then who I was to stop him. “I shall accept your offer,” I happily replied.

“The honour is mine,” he relished with a bow, though I detected something devious creeping in the depth of his eyes. “That you should allow me the first.”

His seat was taken promptly, and I noticed he angled his entire body towards me to provide me with his full attention. Lord Salisbury had a smooth face, though there were lines creasing around the corner of his eye to give him character. He had a nice nose, and soft pink lips that were almost tempting to kiss. I liked his hazel eyes, light and dazzling, with tints of gold circling around the darkness of his orbs. His lordship’s eyebrows were thick and full, as was his short jetty locks that naturally atop of his head. Lord Salisbury noticed I was staring at him, and eventually a smile gave way. “Do you find me handsome, Miss. Young?”

“You- you,” I stammered out. “You just quoted…”

“What did I quote?” he asked with an insurmountable amount of pleasure.

“Why? That’s just not fair!” The man chuckled darkly in front of me, eventually resting the front of his face in the palm of his hand. Lord Salisbury knew what he was doing, and he was doing it well.

“Have you read Jane Eyre?”

“Never.”

“You watched it.”

“I got through half of it.”

“Oh, but you missed the good part,” I complained. “I could lend you a book if you’d like.”

He was about to refuse it, but then changed his mind once a darkness eclipsed the clearness of his hazel eyes. “I would love too.”

“We could meet up then?”

“Dinner?”

“I…”

There I was, like a fly caught in a spider’s web. “Or would you rather somewhere nicer?” He leaned back in his seat with a certain pride. “I imagine you would like to meet up in a local park. To have me sitting by your side as you read it to me.”

“I wouldn’t object to that idea.”

“And after that,” Lord Salisbury continued, while he leaned his elbow upon the table. “We take a nice little stroll down the park. I bring you back to your carriage…” He saw me pout, realizing this was all a game. “Oh, but you would have to be chaperoned, so I must leave you there, of course.”

“Funny.”

“I shall reach for your hand.” He took up my left hand, gripping it tightly with a cunning look about him. “Press my lips upon it.” He performed the task, leaving his lips there long enough for me to feel shy around him. “And then wish you a good evening and a pleasant journey. That sort of thing.”

“And how will you get home?”

“I shall have a horse!” he blurted out. “Mount upon it, and ride after your carriage to catch one last glimpse of your beautiful face.”

“Or your heart will practically burst,” I meddled, which sent Lord Salisbury into a fit of giggles. I took that opportunity to reach for my wine and took a sip. “Do you know when we will have dinner?’

“They brought us rolls of bread with butter,” he pointed out. “Would you like some?”

“Yes, please.”

“All manners,” he jeered, and brought a basket forward for me to choose whichever one I preferred. A tiny bowl of whipped butter was handed to me next, and I took the liberty to spread it around as I took in the classical music seeping its way through the speakers. “What do you like to do on your time off?”

“I read.”

“And what else?”

“I enjoy writing,” I replied in a softer voice. “I like to go into the city and walk around.”

“Where abouts?”

“I enjoy the city parks.” A soft chuckle escaped from the man beside me. “And there are some cathedrals that I like to go too.”

“Where you picture yourself getting married?”

“No, but it is very old, and they will often have a historian there.”

“Would you live in England?”

“Would I?”

“To Bath, I presume.”

“I am not Lydia,” I said with scorn. “But I should like somewhere quiet.”

“You are something else,” he mistakenly said. “I believe there is a term for people like you, but the only thing I can come up with is…” He paused, realizing his error for he was falling out of character once again. “Charming,” he lied, and then gave me a wink to ease away the tension. “That is the term.”

“You were thinking of something else.”

“No,” he lied straight to my face. “I think that is the perfect word to describe you.”

“You were going to say I am some Jane Austen addict. Well, I am! I already know what I am, so you don’t have to lie to me.”

“Miss. Young,” he quickly apologized. “Forgive me, I was…” He became flustered, unable to carry on his performance for much longer. “It was…”

“I have heard it all before,” I reassured him. “You don’t have to say anymore.”

“It appears that I have a tendency to step on your toes.”

“Figurative language,” I clarified.

“Oh, undoubtedly.”

I wanted to lay a hand on his shoulder then, but then I recalled there was never any physical contact allowed- ever. I made my hands busy by tearing into the circular bun and began to chew on it pensively. A silence came over us, an awkward one, which only compelled me to eat more of my food.

“In my spare time I like to visit my friends,” he told me. “We play cards. If it is fine weather, we go out hunting.” He heard my laughter and took it as a good sign to continue. “I have a house to myself. I should invite you when it is finer weather. You and your family are welcome to join us.” He paused, letting his eyes squint at me without realizing it. “You could stay a fortnight.”

“How kind of you, Lord Salisbury.”

“If you are not satisfied with my library,” he stated with a hand pressed hard upon his chest. “I should send for more books immediately.”

“You are too kind.”

“Honour me, Miss. Young,” he implored, and then shut his eyes profusely, for he couldn’t keep up with it anymore. He reached for his wine and took a heavy gulp. “What I wouldn’t do for a smoke,” he grumbled to himself. “You smoke, Miss. Young?” He was walking on a thin line between reality and this imagined dream.

“No, it is bad for the health.”

“Is it?” He took another sip, making sure to take his time to enjoy the flavour. “My doctor has not said so, and I trust his word on it. I dare say, who is your physician, Miss. Young?”

“I have forgotten.”

He smirked at me, enjoying this game we were currently engaged in. “Perhaps, you shall have mine.”

“Perhaps.”

“I do believe we are getting along quite well, you and I.” His eyes sparkled then, and he let his gaze fall down to my lips. “I look forward to getting to know you quite intimately.”

“Especially when you are engaged in such intercourse, my Lord.” He sucked in his cheeks then, failing to keep up with this façade much longer.

“I am enjoying every minute of it,” he slyly replied. His tongue creeped through, slicking over his bottom lip in a slow motion. “And look forward to more,” he replied in a lower tenor, raspy enough for me to feel a sudden heat down below. He took his time to look me up and down, letting me know his true feelings for me. “I hope we should meet again sometime, Miss. Young.”

“I am sure we will encounter each other.” He raised up his chin with agreeableness. “I might catch you along the village square or in the corner of my eye as I gaze upon the parson.” His eyebrows furrowed together, lost by my words. “A clergyman, Lord Salisbury. Have you forgotten it?”

“An unusual term,” he replied in a shaky voice. “But I thank you for this enlightenment.”

I was finding him irresistible now. Lord Salisbury was speaking like a man from a period film, and now that I had grown used to it, it was becoming harder to see anything else but the mask he was so brilliantly presenting before me. Fortunately for me, our dinner was brought forward, enough to occupy our time until the ball.

***

A range of butterflies came over me after the first string struck the air, the live orchestra banded together all at once, prompting the man in front of me to offer a low bow. I curtsy before him, smooth enough after year of practice, and then we engaged in the courtly dance of a quadrille.

Hours upon hours practicing in my kitchen had finally payed off, I was able to perform the task with certain ease, but to my surprise Lord Salisbury was as well. His touches were fleeting, grasping at my hand for a moment before it faded away. I could feel the burning look of desire in his eyes when he did touch, noticing how hard it was for him to focus on anything but myself.

The music was slow, bringing out a range of emotions that I couldn’t shut back from my mind. My mind drifted over to a scene of Colin Firth, picturing it was his version of Mr. Darcy holding my hand as I engaged in this romantic dance. Swirling around in this room, I was caught between fantasy and reality, and found they were seeminglessly blurring into one.

A raspy voice broke through my thoughts once Lord Salisbury was close. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“Infinitely!”

He was gone in a moment, swinging around another male partner before he was positioned in front of me again. He took my hand tenderly, applying pressure before he was forced to let it go. “You are…” He was gone again, performing the same task as he rounded around another partner. “…most quiet.”

I never answered him until we stood in front of the other, allowing a momentary pause while the other set of partners reeled themselves around us. “I was thinking.”

“About?”

“This dance.” It was our cue to move backwards. “How long I have dreamed of it.”

“Then…” He nearly rolled his eyes, when he had to move from his spot. “…it is quite impossible to…” He paused until we were close enough. “…engage in any sort of conversation when…” A hand reached out for mine, but to my surprise he tugged me closer to him to stop our dance entirely. “I am growing tired of this.”

I snatched my hand from him, absolutely enraged. “Of what?”

“Cut off sentences,” he plainly replied. “How many words must I use to articulate my thoughts. Miss. Young, I should like a break from this.”

“Already? We haven’t even finished the first dance.”

“Afterwards then.” He gave a bow of his head to the other set of partners, apologizing quickly before he finished off the dance. I hardly had a second of finishing my curtsy at the end of the dance when Lord Salisbury stepped forward and grabbed a hold of my hand. He tugged me away to take me out of the ballroom and down a stretch of hallway until we reached a darker area. His hands laid over the side of my arms, breaking the spell yet again as he leaned forward. “Do you want to go out of here?”

“What?”

“I am finding it hard to get to know you,” he heatedly professed. “How are we supposed to talk when you are with me one second and then gone again?”

“It is the art of making love,” I fought back heatedly. “There is no time to talk.”

“What?” he shrilled out with annoyance.

“It is one of the rare moments where a male is allowed to touch a female.” Lord Salisbury swiftly moved himself forward and encapsulated my lips, kissing me with heated desire that nearly took my breath away. I let him kiss me to my surprise, feeling his hand slither up my arm to cradle the side of my neck. My head was pressed against the wall as he applied more pressure upon my lips.

“Thank God for the twenty-first century!” he breathed out with a most wicked smirk by the end of it.

“You aren’t supposed to kiss me yet?” I foolishly complained.

“Then when? On our wedding night?”

“It is too soon,” I scolded him, which brought a dark laughter from him.

“It was,” he conceded. “But I couldn’t wait any longer.” He looked to his right and motioned me to follow him. I watched him walk away, hearing the noise of the ballroom, and to my horror I followed after this man. He was soon positioned in front of a balcony that overlooked the garden area. There were eighteen-century lamps illuminating the small hedges and black benches that were scattered around the lawn. The absence of the floral scent of flowers was felt, but I supposed that is what happens when it is so late into the fall season. Lord Salisbury was leaning his arms over the bannister, looking off into the horizon where the city lights set the world aglow. “I was dreading this night,” he revealed to me in an uncommonly low tenor. “I hate social occasions such as this.” He looked over his shoulder at me. “But you made it better.”

“You are speaking quite plainly, Lord Salisbury. Are you ending this façade?”

“I don’t understand,” he uttered in a thick Irish brogue that was richer than before. “And call me Johnathan.”

He drew out a packet of cigarettes from a small pocket, and then placed a thin wiry cigarette between his glossy pink lips. To my surprise he had a match on him and struck it against the side of the box with a wilful air about him. He deposited the match box into the concealed pocket and then drew his fingers through his hair tiredly to mess it up.

“I have a change of clothes in my locker in the back room,” he mused aloud. “You have anything?”

“No, I came in this.”

“I was going to ask if you wanted to go out to a fancy bar for a drink.”

“Why?” I asked in almost a shattering voice. “When everything I could have ever wanted is here.”

“Them prancing,” he sneered. “Prattling about like it is the eighteenth-century. I don’t think I can take much more of it.”

“It is what I love.”

“You love a world that doesn’t exist,” he grumbled, and then knocked the top of his cigarette upon the bannister to let the ashes toss in the wind. “And you will realize that about one in the morning when they send everyone home.”

“You don’t get it, do you? This is the only thing that brings me happiness! I don’t want a normal life- I never have.”

“A normal life,” he jeered. “Is something you are already living.” He drew a deep drag of his cigarette, letting his cheeks pucker inwards with severity. A long stream of smoke soon followed, bursting upwards like a dragon that had just let out fire. “Maybe in the morning when you wake up you will realize that I was right.” He looked me over his shoulder again. “If you look me up online you will find me. If you ever want to do this again.” He turned around completely and leaned his back against the bannister. “I don’t think Wilson will throw an event like this for another year, but at least you have a dancing partner now.”

“With someone who only danced with me once!” Johnathan’s eyebrows raised, once he realized how angry I was at him. “I would sooner come here alone!”

“Fine by me,” he lied with an arrogant air. “I wish you luck with it.”

“I hate you.”

“Oh, how lady-like of you.”

“You are nothing but an arrogant ass.”

“Sounds like someone I know.” He stepped forward with his cigarette placed firmly between his lips. Lord Salisbury, no, Johnathan turned his head to let out a long stream of smoke. “I believe his name is Fitzwilliam Darcy.”

“How dare you?” I yelled out.

“You know I am right.”

“You are just jealous,” I said with utter scorn, before I placed my hands on either sides of my hips.

“Am I?”

“That I can have affection for that man! Even more than I have for you.” He tossed his cigarette on the ground with warning. “And you know what? He is ten times the man that you ever were.” He stopped me by grabbing a hold of my arm and throttling me into his chest. Lips crashed over mine heavily, tasting of cigarette smoke and wine, and without me realizing it I had found myself kissing him back. His hands embraced my waist tightly, pulling me harder against his frame. He titled his head to the left to obtain a new angle, letting out his burning passion for me that he couldn’t submerge anymore. Our fight was forgotten, I weaved my arms around the back of his neck and tugged him harder against me.

“I say we get out of here,” Johnathan suggested in a husky voice. “Let you get out of that stiff dress and into something more comfortable.”

“Like what?”

“You can borrow my trackpants,” he teased. He tilted his head to the right, trying to catch a glimpse at me under the low lighting. “Wear my t-shirt.”

“And then what?”

“Have a few drinks,” Johnathan offered out. “Take it nice and slow.”

“Take what slow?”

“Whatever you want, love,” he charmingly replied. He cleared his throat with meaning. “May you give me the greatest honour, Miss. Young, on visiting my humble abode?” He brought my hand forward to kiss the back of my hand. “I swear on my life I will take the greatest care of you, and only if you wish it, I shall defile you.”

I laughed at him, shaking my head to hide my amusement.

“But I have every intention of making love to you,” he promised me, knowing I could detect its double meaning. “And win you once for all.”

“My name is Layla,” I told him.

“Johnathan Beckett,” he quipped in a thick Irish brogue, before he leaned forward for one last kiss upon the terrace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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