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Playing Around in Derbyshire - 7 & 8

August 23, 2018 05:36AM
Chapter 7


Their first three scenes in front of the public worked out better than Jess expected. The beautiful rooms of Exley Hall provided the perfect backdrop, giving their small, transitory audience the sense that they were seeing conversations from the past unfold before them.

While everything ran smoothly on stage, behind the doors, where the remaining cast waited in silence, the atmosphere was strung as taut as a violin string. In the short break between scenes, Sebastian's mood had changed. No longer was he the charming gentleman who entertained them with jokes during rehearsal. Now, he sat alone, quiet and brooding as he stared at the floor. Not knowing him well she couldn't tell if it was part of his process of becoming Darcy, or whether something else was bothering him.

Being most in demand, as Elizabeth, Jessica didn't get the opportunity to ask until later. The green room was half empty, as most of their group had already finished eating. Mr. Gardiner and Trevor sat in the chairs, viewing the lunchtime news. Mrs Gardiner's attention was fixed on her puzzle book by the window. Everyone else had disappeared, leaving Darcy and Jess alone at the table. After watching him push a lone pea around his plate for almost a minute, she said, "Is everything alright?"

He sat back in his chair, rubbing his face with his hand. "Sorry. I'm probably not the best company right now."

"If you need someone to cheer you up, I suspect Mrs Rivers-Smithe would be willing to help."

Silverware clattered as he pushed his plate away. "Why does everybody think—?" He bit off the rest of the sentence, his lips compressed in a hard line. After a moment, he sucked in a breath, releasing it slowly. "I'm sorry. Women like that...they believe they only have to snap their fingers, and we'll run to them like lemmings off a cliff. It's hardly a flattering assumption."

"Do older women make those sort of offers often?"

"It happens, and it's not always the cougars, either. People seem to have this idea that every man has only one thing on their mind. To them, I'm no better than a sex-starved gigolo, and they're desperate for anyone who will fill the gaping chasm in their lonely existence. What I want, or don't want, doesn't seem to matter."

"It must be awkward, particularly when you're working. I have a similar problem when I'm doing a few extra hours at the pub. The drunks are lining up to walk me home."

"And how do you say no without offending your regular customers?"

"I don't worry about that. I have to repeat myself five or six times, and talk really slow, but they usually get the message. They're harmless, really. But surely you don't have a problem making your feelings clear."

Sebastian raked his fingers through his hair, his voice pitched for her ears alone. "I realise I might give people the impression that I'm oh-so-confident, and I do try to be, but when something like that happens, I never know what to say, or how to say no without upsetting the woman, or causing a scene."

His revelation surprised her, but she tried not to show it. "I think it says a lot about you as a person that you worry about someone else's feelings, especially when they don't consider yours."

"Experience has taught me that the best reaction is to say nothing, as a refusal often offends, and I would hate to offend the sort of person who owns a house like this." His attention returned to his plate, lost in thought as he studied the remnants of pie crust. After a moment's reflection, he looked up, meeting her eyes. "It's frustrating that I couldn't just be honest, and say what I really thought. I also have to think about our little project. Mandy doesn't deserve the hassle, so I didn't dare annoy our hostess."

Jessica wondered if he was speaking from previous experience, but Caroline chose that moment to return from wherever she'd been hiding. As she took the chair next to Darcy the bubble surrounding them burst and there was no further opportunity for private conversation. At least Sebastian seemed to be almost back to his assured self, and Jess was the only one who noticed the quiet moments when his gaze would drop to the patterned hall runner. In front of the audience, he was as confident as ever. The afternoon flew by, and she didn't have another chance to talk to him alone until the last guest was ushered from the park and the gates finally closed.

As they were queueing to change out of their costumes, she suggested they should all go out for an evening's stroll following dinner. Darcy agreed straight away, and so did Georgiana, until Mr. Gardiner reminded the young woman that she'd already committed to another evening of whist. The game was growing serious, and they were now using buttons to raise the stakes, having borrowed a stash from Mrs Reynold's knitting bag.

Georgiana's shoulders fell, and Jess patted her hand. "You can walk with us tomorrow, if you like. I'm sure we won't manage to cover the whole garden in one evening. The park is really big."

Darcy seemed back to normal during dinner, and she was pleased that their conversation after lunch might have played a part. After helping to clear the table, Jess headed for the garden stairs; amazed anew at the beauty waiting for them outside their stuffy basement lair.

The summer evening was warm and pleasant as they wandered between the chestnut trees and across the rising expanse of grass, heading towards a copse that rose up behind the hall. Their walk was, for the most part, silent. She sensed he was struggling with something, and hoped that he would open up to her again.

As they reached the tree line, Darcy sat in the rough grass, stretching his long, denim-clad legs out in front of him. Jessica dropped down by his side and they gazed across the valley and the leaded roof of Exley Hall below. Just at the point when Jess felt that a little conversation was required, Darcy cleared his throat. "I haven't been entirely honest with you."

"What do you mean?" A breeze ruffled the long grasses, there and gone in a moment. In the branches above their heads, a bird began to sing. It distracted Sebastian from his confession, as he looked up to discover the source of the noise.

He turned back to Jess, giving her his full attention. "The truth is, ever since I arrived at Exley Hall I've been playing a part. My part. I've been playing myself."

"I get that. Don't we all give a performance of ourselves when we meet new people for the first time?"

"I'm not sure if anyone else does, but I have to. It's the only way I can be comfortable. Normally, I don't think twice about it, but since meeting you it felt...deceitful. You're one of the few people I've met where I've really wanted to be me."

Jess smiled as she leaned on one arm, her body angled towards him. "Now you are making me curious. What's the real you like?"

He looked out into the distance. "Well, to start with, he's not as confident as that other me. The real me would never have dared to suggest that kiss at the end of the proposal scene. The other me is a bit of a show-off. He likes to be in control. Life is so much easier if I pretend to be him, instead of being myself. He's the good looking one; the man everyone likes."

"You can't act yourself handsome, you know. You really have to be born with it." And he had been. The strong jaw, high cheekbones, and sultry brown eyes were a genetic gift he could not deny.

"I disagree. There's definitely an element of acting needed for me to pretend I believe in myself. In my head I'm still the gangly, spotty youth, with legs like pipe cleaners; the one who hit puberty before everyone else, and towered over my classmates in photos. You can't begin to imagine how embarrassing it is to answer the school register with a voice like a twenty-five year old."

"And is that why you're so uncomfortable telling Mrs Rivers-Smithe where to stick her very intimate dinner for two? Do you still feel more like that boy than the man you've become?"

"Probably...yes."

How could he not know how great he looked? Even in stonewashed jeans and a vintage Queen t-shirt, with the breeze ruffling those dark chocolate curls of his, he might have been participating in an arty shoot for the front cover of Empire, or a spread in the Times Sunday supplement. "You shouldn't do yourself down, you know. I think—" Before she could tell him exactly what she thought, her phone rang. It was Bea. "Do you mind? It's my housemate. I hope she's not ringing to say she set the place on fire."

He laughed. "Go on. I don't mind."

Jess scrambled to her feet, putting a little distance between herself and Sebastian. "What's up?"

Beatrice's voice took on a defensive tone. "Does anything have to be wrong? Can't I just ring to say hello?"

"You can, but you don't usually ring me while I'm working away. The house is okay, right?"

"Of course! Everything's fine. I was just curious to find out what happened with your Mr. Darcy? I mean, did he make the scale?"

Jess shuffled around so she was facing away from Sebastian. She didn't want him to see her blushing, as she knew she must be. "Yes, the job is great. The house is amazing and we're all having a lot of fun."

"He's there with you. He can hear your conversation, can't he?"

"Yes, that's true," Jess said, trying to make her answers sound as innocent as possible for anyone who might be lying back in the grass behind her, listening.

"So, tell me, is he hot? I'm sure he is."

"I agree. This time of year is far too warm to put the heating on."

Bea squealed down the phone. "That's a yes then. And single?"

Jess looked over her shoulder towards Darcy. She gave him a wave, acknowledging that she hadn't forgotten him. "I don't know."

"What does he look like? Can't you take a picture when he's not looking? You wouldn't make me wait all week, would you?"

Feeling ridiculously proud of her improvisation skills, Jess said, "Oh yes, I remember. I have a copy of that on my phone. Let me send it over. Hang on." She scrolled through the menu until she found the picture of the two of them. After attaching it to a message she pressed send. "There you go. That should be enough proof we paid the bill."

There was a brief silence on the other end, followed by a low whistle. "Oh boy. You fell on your feet, didn't you? Now that's what I call a Darcy!"

"Is that everything you need?"

"Hmm, he looks quite tall. How tall is he?"

Jess closed her eyes, wishing that she'd ended the call sooner. "I'm not sure how big it is. Maybe a hundred and eighty centimetres? You'll have to measure it."

"Ask him!" Bea begged.

She covered the front of the phone with her hand, as she walked back to where Sebastian was still propped on his elbows in the grass, enjoying the evening sun. "How tall are you?"

He smiled. "Who wants to know?"

The cogs in her brain worked overtime as she came up with another excuse. "We need a new cloth for the table, but I can't remember how long it is. If you can just lie down flat for a second, I'll be able to visualise whether it's longer or shorter than you."

"Fair enough." He lay back in the grass, straightening his legs, his hands clasped behind his head. "Does that help?"

"Yeah, that's about the same size as the table. So how tall are you?"

He smiled, probably feeling a little ridiculous at being compared to a table. "I'm six foot three. That's about one metre ninety."

She uncovered the phone. "Did you hear that? My friend here is one metre ninety, and he's about the same length as the table."

"Yes, I heard," Bea said, chuckling. "He sounds as good as he looks. You will keep me updated, won't you?"

"Yes, that's no problem. I'll speak to you soon, okay? Bye!" Jess disconnected the call before Bea could ask her anything else. She dropped onto the grass, disturbing a butterfly that had been resting on a leaf. "Sorry. She's a lovely girl, but not entirely practical about household things. Where were we?"

"I don't know, but it couldn't have been too important." He looked out over the valley. "It's nice to be able to just sit here, and not feel compelled to talk. It's very relaxing." Lying back again, he stared at the white clouds scudding overhead. "Being here with you is comfortable, especially now I can be myself." He glanced towards Jessica. "I hope I haven't made things awkward by telling you the truth and revealing my secret."

"No, no. Not at all." She smiled as she settled herself more comfortably beside him. How like him to be concerned about her feelings.

"It's a long while since I haven't had to worry about playing up to people's perceptions of me. Do you know what I mean?"

Jessica wasn't entirely sure she did know, but she was willing to sit and listen.

He waved a hand depreciatingly in front of his own face. "This 'handsome countenance' is more of a curse than a blessing." His wearied sigh seemed to mirror his mood. "I'd probably be taken more seriously as an actor if I looked less like a brainless male model. People—women in particular—imagine me to be a sex-starved pretty boy, which is hardly conducive to earning the serious roles I'd really like to play. It's all about first impressions, isn't it?"

"I think, if you took a risk and showed them the Sebastian you've shown me, rather than the one you pretend to be, then they'll realise there's more to you than your stunning good looks, and striking similarity to Mr. Darcy."

He lifted himself onto his elbow, his eyes innocently wide. "You think I'm good looking?"

Jess raised her brows. "You're not really that dim, are you?"

"Nah, I'm just messing with you, but it's nice to be able to do that. I don't think I would be able to sit with anyone else like this and feel so easy. Another woman, sitting in your place, would usually expect certain behaviour from me. They might assume that I wanted to kiss them, or go further than that. Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to give them what they want, rather than say no and risk making things...difficult." Lying back in the soft grass again he closed his eyes. "You don't know how good it feels to be able to relax and be myself for once."

Recalling her first thoughts when Darcy entered the green room on Thursday evening caused Jessica a moment's guilt. She'd mentally labelled him drop dead gorgeous, and he still was, but she knew him better now. Under that pretty wrapping paper was a thoughtful brain and now, it seemed, a sensitive side too.

If anything, it only made him more appealing.



~<>~@~<>~




Chapter 8



The insistent buzz of her alarm clock startled Jess awake on Monday morning. Her eyelids felt leaden as she swung a clumsy arm out from under the duvet to fumble for the button. Why did she feel so tired? Perhaps the country air and unaccustomed exercise could knock a city girl like her for six.

But no, she remembered now. She'd spent hours, tossing and squirming, as she tried to fall asleep. Her brain felt as though she'd had a late night shot of caffeine. It wouldn't switch off. Images and snatches of conversation played in her head, over and over, as she'd sifted through each memory of her evening with Sebastian. How he spoke, how he laughed, and his admission about lacking confidence. The way he stared into her eyes as he spoke to her. His smile.

She couldn't describe their evening walk as romantic. Just two co-workers, surrounded by nature, chatting about nothing in particular, while looking out over some beautiful English countryside. He'd never hinted that he considered her more than a friend. Even so, she hadn't been able to stop thinking about Sebastian Fox.

Jess picked up her things and slouched into the corridor. She passed Jane's room, heading for the second bathroom; the one furthest away from the staircase that tended to be least used. Hopefully, she wouldn't have to wait too long. Turning the corner she spotted a lone figure waiting in the semi-darkness.

Bingley leaned against the wall, an eerie blue glow illuminating his face like Banquo's ghost. Hearing her footsteps on the wooden floorboards he looked up, smiling as he dropped the phone in his pocket. "Morning, Jess. How you doing?"

"I'm good. You?"

He nodded towards the bathroom door. "Just waiting for Laura. Did you enjoy your walk last night?"

Jess couldn't hold back a grin. Now her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, Bingley's hair stuck out at all angles, while the golden stubble on his chin made him look like a teddy bear. "Yeah, it was great. I haven't spent a lot of time in the countryside, so being able to look out across the valley was a real eye-opener for me. It's all so very beautiful."

His sigh sounded loud in the silent semi-darkness. "I know."

The bolt drew back with a loud thunk, making them both jump, and the bathroom door opened, flooding light into the corridor. Laura, wearing a floral t-shirt and shorts, was fresh-faced, wide awake and ready to face the day. "Hi, Jess. Sleep well?"

"Yeah, great thanks." She wasn't about to admit to her sleepless night. Particularly not when Sebastian was the cause.

Their ever-cheerful Jane Bennet smiled as she nodded to Bingley. "I'll see you both at breakfast then."

As Laura left, Jess settled her shoulders against the wall, hoping she wouldn't have to wait too long. But then Gareth held the door open, offering Jess a Bingley-like bow. "Ladies first."

"I couldn't. You were here before me. I don't mind waiting my turn."

"You're playing the main character, Jess, and you're in almost every scene, so you need to be ready on time. My first scene isn't until just before lunch, so it doesn't matter if I'm a few minutes late for breakfast."

Although his argument made sense, it didn't change the fact that she was grateful. "Thank you."

"You're very welcome."

Once in the bathroom, Jess stood in front of the basin as she studied her reflection in the mirror. She ran her fingers through her hair, flattening down the worst bits. Bingley's bed-head might have amused her, but hers was no better. She would have to tame the tangles before she showed herself in front of the others.

Particularly Darcy.


~~~~~



By the time Jessica arrived downstairs for breakfast, the room was already busy as the others fortified themselves for another day of performances.

Mrs Reynolds and Georgiana sat together in the corner, the two having formed an unlikely friendship when the young woman expressed an interest in learning to knit. Since her first hesitant enquiry, Mrs Reynolds had lent her a pair of needles and some pink fluffy wool, and now her meticulous stitches were earning her mentor's approbation, row by row.

While Trevor laughed at something on the television, Mr. Gardiner sat in moody silence, hunched over his eggs and bacon, and occasionally throwing dark looks towards Mrs Gardiner. Jess carried her cereal to the other end of the table and took her usual seat next to Jane. She leaned closer, lowering her voice. "What's up with those two?"

"Gerald wanted to play a few hands of whist with his breakfast, but Alison put her foot down. She says he's obsessed with the game and thinks gambling isn't an appropriate activity for the breakfast table. On top of that, she also threatened to complain to Mandy if he even took the cards out of his pocket. Where's Gareth?"

"I think he'll be down soon. He let me use the bathroom first, which was kind of him."

Jane smiled as she pushed her empty bowl away. "Gareth would. He's nice like that. Actually I—"

"Good morning, ladies." Darcy's voice, coming from behind her, made Jess jump.

She turned in her chair, glancing at the clock on the wall. "Aren't you a little late?"

He slid into the seat next to hers. "For your information, Miss Bennet, I had an early breakfast this morning. Then, when you weren't here to keep me company, I went for a quick nosey around on the main floor to see what preparations they were making for the convention."

They'd already seen the specialist company erecting two white marquee tents on the lawn on Saturday afternoon, while their group were running through the dress rehearsals. Inside the largest marquee, a raised stage stood at one end, faced by rows and rows of chairs, laid out with military precision. The smaller one would provide catering facilities for the visitors.

"As well as the big top, I found out they're also using the ballroom for talks, so the attendees can enjoy their fascinating lectures or presentations in two different places at the same time. I don't know when they'll have time to watch us." He turned towards the door, where Mandy was struggling with the stand for her flip-chart. "Looks like we're going to find out now."

Mr. Bingley, entering the room behind Mandy, swept the easel out of her arms, and unfolded it ready for her to hang the pages.

"Thank you, Gareth, and good morning, everyone. While you're all together I'd like to run through the events of today and tomorrow." The general buzz of conversation faded as the cast gave her at least some of their attention. "Schedule constraints mean we won't have time to do every scene today. We thought the organisers would know which scenes their guests would most wish to see, so here's the running order for today and tomorrow."

Jessica ran down the list, to see what had been cut. From the first half they'd cut the opening scene at the Lambton Inn, and Darcy's arrival at Pemberley, while in the afternoon Bingley's proposal was also missing. The last one made sense to Jess, as it wasn't shown in the book, and they were Jane Austen fans after all.

Mandy turned the page, revealing the timetable of the various presentations. She explained how they would show their scenes at the beginning and end of each talk, while the attendees were a captive audience. They'd staggered the timings, allowing their group to move from the marquee to the ballroom and back, so every conference guest should see at least half of the performances.

"Note the altered lunchtimes. That allows half of you to spend time mingling with the visitors, for photo opportunities. If you can stay in character, even better. They'll love that."

A grumbling noise from the other end of the table suggested that Mr. Gardiner wasn't overly enthused about the idea of being a prop in someone else's snap, but Mandy chose to ignore it. "That's great. If everyone can make their way to wardrobe, we'll start at 9.30, so let's meet in our usual spot at nine."

With hair and make-up done, Jess smoothed the front of her long-sleeved dress and hoped the weather would stay warm. Even a slight cooling breeze would run straight through the thin muslin, particularly out in the marquee. She walked through the corridor, heading for the stairs that led up to the main floor of the house. At the top, she found Darcy waiting for her.

"Have you seen what they've done to the ballroom?" He curled a beckoning finger. "Come and look."

"Shouldn't we be meeting Mandy?"

"We have fifteen minutes yet. Plenty of time for a quick peek."

Herringbone parquet ran the length of the long, narrow hallway, until they arrived at a carpeted section outside the open doors of the ballroom. Inside, more chairs faced a projector and screen. Ever curious, she poked her head in and looked around, but there was nothing much to see. Apart from the chairs, a shallow stage-like platform with a lectern, a screen and one table for the projector, the room was empty. "So all the visitors here today will be Jane Austen fans?"

Darcy nodded. "And you know what that means, don't you?"

"Not a clue. Do they all wear dresses and bonnets?"

"No idea about the bonnets, but..." He put a brotherly arm around her shoulder and steered her back down the hallway as he lowered his voice to a stage whisper. "Sometime today, we will end up surrounded by a large gaggle of women of a certain age, who would like nothing better than to scratch your eyes out and dump me in the lake."

"Why the lake?"

"To see Darcy in a wet shirt, of course! Or maybe to see Darcy taking his wet shirt off. I wouldn't put anything past those fans." He spoke with such feeling that Jessica had to laugh.

"It's no laughing manner, Miss Bennet!" he said in his most serious, Darcy-like tone. "I'm beginning to suspect you do not care for my welfare at all. I thought we were friends. Do you not feel the smallest bit sorry for the pain I will have to endure over the next two days?"

Jessica turned to give him an answer, but the words died in her throat as she found him staring at her with such intensity that her heart fluttered against her ribs like a trapped bird. Knowing how easily she blushed, Jess turned away. The last thing she wanted was for him to think her no better than any other woman he met.

"Playing the role of Darcy for the general public is one thing, but I've heard the serious fans are a different breed altogether. I wasn't joking about the lake. I'll bet you ten pounds that, by the end of today, at least five of them will have asked me to get soaking wet for their edification. Then there'll be the innumerable photographs and the fondling―"

"The what?"

He stopped walking and shook his head, laughing. "I think that's one of the things I most like about you. You seem blissfully unaware of the more sordid side to our profession, which just proves you're not like the rest of them. You have to picture the scene." He held his large hands spread out in front of him, like a photographer framing a shot. "Imagine for a moment that you are me, and I am a rabid fan. Can you do that?"

"It's a stretch, but I think I can manage."

"Okay. Stand there and be me." As she stood on tip-toe, trying to make herself as tall as possible, he hunched his shoulders to appear smaller and plastered an adoring grin to his face. "Oh, Mr. Darcy," he cried in a rasping cackle, more suited to one of Shakespeare's witches. "Can we have a picture please?" He moved close to Jessica, moulding his body to her side, while one hand wrapped tightly around her waist. The other arm he held out straight, as though he was holding a phone. "Cheese!" he croaked, getting into the spirit of the character as his hand slipped down to stroke her bottom.

She jumped away from him, as though she had been burned. "You must be joking! They wouldn't do that to you."

He held out his hands, the picture of an innocent man. "Don't be so sure. I wish I was wrong, but I'm not. It must be those tight breeches that get them going." Then his smile faltered. "I doubt that's the worst thing I'll have to worry about either."

Jessica spluttered. "I can't imagine anything worse than that!"

Darcy's bleak expression put her in mind of a fox surrounded by baying dogs. "Remember those situations? The propositions?" She nodded. "Well, it wouldn't surprise me if it's ten times worse today and tomorrow. If I don't get to the end of the convention with a handful of telephone numbers pressed into my hand on bits of torn envelope or program, then you can call me a liar. "

Jessica hoped to see a teasing smile on his face, but he was deadly serious. "I'm sorry. That must be awful for you. Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Are you strong enough to stand against a combined mass of overenthusiastic superfans? Can you withstand the daggers that will surely be thrown every time someone looks at you? If you think you're tough enough then I could use your body." He grinned, before grabbing her hand and holding it to his chest. "Be my shield. Help me fight them off. With you by my side, some of them might think twice before trying anything."

There was the other Sebastian coming to the fore. The part he played to make himself appear confident and in control. She didn't have to consider her answer for very long. "Of course I will, but you might have to save me too. If they're as bad as you say they are, there's a strong chance I might be hit over the head with a parasol and dumped in the lake myself."

He squeezed the hand he still held in his own. "Don't worry. I'll keep you safe."

The promise, so earnestly given, was reassuring. Whatever happened, she knew he would look after her.



~<>~@~<>~
SubjectAuthorPosted

Playing Around in Derbyshire - 7 & 8

Heather FAugust 23, 2018 05:36AM

Re: Playing Around in Derbyshire - 7 & 8

AlidaAugust 23, 2018 10:19PM

Re: Playing Around in Derbyshire - 7 & 8

Heather FAugust 26, 2018 06:39AM



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