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Playing Around in Derbyshire - 9 & 10

August 31, 2018 04:39AM
Chapter 9



Her first sight of the serious Austen fans came when they took their places on stage for the opening scene. She spotted a handful of bobbing bonnets, and a few of the ladies wore their hair up, with prominent ringlets and braids. However, most of the attendees looked quite ordinary, like anyone you might meet at the shops. Every chair was taken, and a few officials stood at the back, but the audience watched their first performance in respectful silence and rewarded them with generous applause at the end.

Although she assumed things wouldn't be as bad as Darcy predicted, she soon realised her mistake. The house and grounds fell silent while the various talks and lectures were in progress, but during the brief morning break and at lunchtime the garden filled with visitors wandering around in the sunshine and, like homing pigeons returning to their loft, it didn't take them long to find Mr. Darcy.

At first, the women, sometimes accompanied by a lone male, were polite, with just one or two asking for photographs with their favourite Austen hero. Sebastian would smile as they clung on his arm, and answered their questions with a Darcy-like patience. It was amazing, really, how the presence of a character from a book could cause so many sensible looking women to melt into a puddle on the lawn.

In a way, Jess felt a little relieved that her curious fascination with Mr. Darcy was not some strange manifestation of a previously unknown personality disorder. Or if it was, at least she wasn't the only woman suffering from it.

It wasn't long before a larger group descended on them; twenty females of various ages, many dressed in Regency finery, and all jostling to get within touching distance of a real-life Mr. Darcy. Within a minute Jess found herself on the periphery of the group, while a circle of women, two or three deep in places, surrounded Sebastian as he was fawned over and giggled at.

During his ordeal, Darcy strove to remain the perfect gentleman, even when Jessica could see it was costing him some effort to keep the scowl from his face, or impatience from his voice. After suffering alone for a couple of minutes, he looked directly towards her and raised his eyebrows. His message was clear: when would she provide the promised rescue?

Taking a deep breath, Jess projected her voice into the crowd. "Excuse me please, Ladies." With judicious use of elbow and hip, she pushed through the small gap that opened in front of her. As soon as she reached Darcy's side, he grabbed her hand, locking her arm within his as though he was in mortal danger, and Jess his only chance for survival. She tried to ignore the warm glow of satisfaction at being chosen to be his life-preserver in front of all those other women.

He then offered her up like a sacrifice to appease the angry gods. "May I have the honour of presenting Miss Elizabeth Bennet?"

A mumbled chorus of greetings followed his introduction, but not even the most optimistic person would describe them as welcoming. It was clear that Elizabeth's presence seriously impinged on some of their deepest fantasies, but Jessica refused to be daunted. She would stay by his side and be his shield for as long as he needed her.

"Mr. Darcy, may I take a photograph please?" one woman said with a French lilt as she wormed her way to the front. "My friends at 'ome, they will never believe I 'ave met you."

Her question prompted other requests, and the photographs continued for a good five minutes. Cameras and phones were passed around—and even over—Jessica's head as everyone offered to take pictures of everyone else standing next to Mr. Darcy. A brassy blonde with an hour-glass figure and a broad New York drawl tried to wriggle between Darcy and Elizabeth so she could capture her 'best side'. By this time Darcy decided he'd had enough, his store of patience exhausted as he made his apologies and escorted Miss Bennet back to the house.

Avoiding the busy main entrance, they returned to the basement via the garden stairs. Leaning his head back on the outer door, she heard him sigh. "Well, we survived that scrum pretty well, I thought. Thanks for saving me."

"You're welcome." He looked so appealing at that moment, his clothes slightly dishevelled from the feminine fingers that had plucked at his coat. Jessica wasn't sure whether he was aware that two of his waistcoat buttons were now undone, while his neck cloth was definitely skewed, allowing her a tantalising glimpse of his chest through the gap in his shirt. She felt herself colour, and turned away, her gaze drifting down the corridor.

Once she calmed down, she turned back to face Darcy and found him standing much closer. "What did I tell you?" He held out his hand. Four scraps of paper lay in the palm of his glove.

"What are they?"

He shrugged. "Telephone numbers, e-mail addresses. Do you think they come prepared with a stock, or write them on the spur of the moment?"

"They want to spend a little personal time with their literary hero." Jess couldn't blame them. She'd come to Exley Hall with very similar thoughts.

"I have a horrible feeling that's not all they wanted." Darcy moved towards a long, thin mirror on a nearby wall. He held the tails of his coat to one side, uncovering one buckskin covered cheek. The reflection revealed the damning imprint of a perfect pink pout. "Those nice ladies in wardrobe will have my head for this."

Jessica giggled. She couldn't help herself. Putting her hands up to her face, the giggle turned into a laugh that she struggled to rein in.

Darcy twisted his lips, trying his best to maintain a straight face. "Well, I'm pleased I was able to offer you some entertainment."

"I'm sorry, I don't know why I'm laughing. The sight of the lipstick, just there. Did you feel it?"

"Of course I felt something, but they were all standing so close, and I hoped it was wandering fingers. I had no idea anyone would go that far. It could have been worse, I suppose. At least the mess is covered by the coat." He peeled off his gloves and dropped them into his upturned hat. "Not that I have anything against those sort of kisses, per se, but there's a time and a place, and I prefer to be introduced first."

They moved into the green room, to take advantage of a quick lunch. Shortly after Darcy pushed his empty plate away, he slipped out of the room, unnoticed by most of their colleagues. When he returned sometime later, he was wearing his second outfit.

"Costume change, Darcy?" Mr. Flint called out with a knowing grin.

"Wardrobe malfunction."

Mr. Gardiner shook his head. "Those fans, eh?"

Darcy nodded. "Indeed. Delightful people."

"And I'd put a fiver on that not being the only costume change you have to make this week."

At the end of the day, the time came for Darcy and Elizabeth to act out their final confrontation. Jessica knew what was coming, and she tried to prepare herself for it, but even before Darcy had begged her not to trifle with him she could feel something different between them...an energy that hadn't been there before.

As he whispered "Elizabeth", and bent his head towards her she heard gasps from the crowd, and then everything disappeared except for the soft caress of his lips against hers, and his strong arms wrapped about her shoulders and waist. Melting against him, time slowed to a crawl as she relished the feeling of being held in his gentle embrace. He released her mouth, accompanied by applause and whistles echoing around the tent. To Jessica, floundering in the depths of Sebastian's gaze, they might have been five miles away.

It took a cough from the MC to bring them back to their senses. A first aider was forced to revive one of the older members of the audience who had swooned. The elevated hum of excited conversation followed them from the tent. Their interpretation of a most beloved scene was the only topic under discussion.

Jessica was grateful when the day was over so she could change back into her jeans and t-shirt, and gain a modicum of control over herself. Darcy had already made it clear he appreciated her as a friend. It would be very wrong for her to want more. That kiss had grown to be something that tantalised her senses. It felt less like a stage kiss, and more personal somehow. Surely he wasn't that good an actor, was he?

Dinner that night was a noisy affair, as everyone around the table had horror stories to tell about their encounters with the conference visitors. Trevor complained that if anyone else told him that Mr. Flint was not a character from Pride and Prejudice, he wouldn't be responsible for his actions. "I can't help it, can I? The job was there and I took it. I don't need telling that Jane Austen didn't know Mr. Flint from Adam!"

"And I'll bet you a tenner that you hear exactly the same tomorrow," Mr Gardiner said.

"Nah. I don't bet on certainties."

Everyone turned curious eyes down the table when Jane started laughing. Succumbing to their enquiries Bingley, eyes downcast and face crimson with embarrassment, held up a neatly folded paper that had been pressed into his hand by a fan. He was encouraged to open it, and when he did he found a telephone number and details of a room at a local hotel in a small, neat hand. Mrs Gardiner asked Darcy how many he had received.

"I think the final tally was seven."

Jessica gasped. "You were given another three this afternoon? How did you manage that? I've been with you all the time and I didn't see a thing."

"Ah, the power of Darcy." Mr. Gardiner intoned in a deep voice. "There are only a handful of roles that can command such fan devotion, isn't that right, Sebastian?"

He sat back in his chair. "Yes, Darcy is a dream role for any actor, as long as he's willing to accept the minor inconveniences that go with it."

"Is that why you took this part?" When everyone's attention turned towards Georgiana, she blushed. "Well, this is a step down from what you have been doing, isn't it?"

"You could say the same about any one of us. I can't answer for anyone else, but I took this job because it's been a dream of mine to play the part of Darcy for years, and you never know when another chance might be presented to you. It's all about making the most of the opportunities you are given."

Jess was glad that she'd taken the chance to play Elizabeth Bennet. How, otherwise, would she have ever met Sebastian, her very own Mr. Darcy?


~~~~~




Later that evening they strolled across the lawn, allowing their feet to take them where they would. Darcy headed for the path that wound alongside the stream. Jessica was content to follow, breathing in the musty smell of rotting leaves along the damp water's edge when she stopped to inspect the wildflowers.

Once they were well within the protection of the green canopy, he stopped and looked up. "Isn't this a magical place? So serene and placid. I can't believe we've been so fortunate, landing in such a paradise. We could have spent a week in a grotty theatre, where everything is held together with string and a prayer."

Laughing, Jessica said, "You've obviously not seen the chest of drawers in my room."

"No, you're right. I've not."

Yet. The implication hung between them, like a spiders web, drawing them together. Jessica sucked in another deep breath, and briefly closed her eyes. When she opened them, that thread had pulled him closer.

"Elizabeth ..." That single word was filled with longing as he caressed the soft skin of her cheek. Tracing a line under her chin with his finger, he tipped her face to meet his, brushing his lips slowly across hers. As he pulled away he searched her eyes. "I'd say I'm sorry, but as you know, disguise of every sort is my abhorrence."

Despite being surprised by the kiss, she grinned when she heard the familiar words from the book. She could feel the blush heating her face, but this time she wouldn't hide it. "Your apologies aren't necessary."

"Good to know, because I won't apologise for this either." His hands rose to cradle her face, as though he wanted to be certain she couldn't escape from him; cold fingers melted against the heat of her skin. She closed her eyes, breathing in the summer scents of the garden, now mixed with the aroma of after dinner coffee. His mouth, familiar and yet different, sought hers, the softness moulding itself against her lips. When he broke away, he rested his cheek against her hair. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I wouldn't normally behave this way. I..."

Whatever mania he was suffering from, Jessica knew she'd caught it too. She lifted her head, searching for him as her hand wrapped around the nape of his neck. As she pulled his face closer, his lips slid over hers, the merest glance of skin against skin, but it sent her senses soaring. She leaned into him, her other hand seeking support from his shoulder as his hands slid down to rest on her hips, drawing her closer until his strength was the only thing keeping her upright. The idea that he found her attractive—that his feelings for her were no mere performance, to be replicated on demand—spun her completely off-balance.

Eventually, he tore himself away from her, his breathing ragged. Released from his enthralment, Jessica laid her head against his chest and sighed as he combed gentle fingers through her hair. As they stood together under the dappled shade, neither spoke nor made any move to part; the rustle of the wind in the trees a whispering accompaniment to the rhythm of their beating hearts.



~<>~@~<>~




Chapter 10


Twilight bathed the gardens as they walked in silence along the path that lead back to the house. Few words were exchanged. Both were comfortable with the silence. It was enough to be in each other's company, revelling in the touch of a hand, or the brush of a fingertip.

As they reached the outer door Jessica paused and turned to Sebastian, looking up into his eyes. "Thank you."

"What for?"

"For the walk, and the company. For being you."

"There's really no need to thank me. You're the one who makes it so easy for me to be myself. I feel like I can deal with anything when you're with me."

"Even the crazy fans?"

"Especially them. They aren't half as scary when you're by my side." As Jess reached for the door handle, Sebastian covered her hand with his. "I was thinking. Would you have dinner with me tomorrow night?"

She laughed. "Don't we eat together every evening?"

He shook his head. "No, no...I meant just the two of us, on our own. There's a pub called the Green Man about ten minutes away, down the Lambley road. There are some good reviews on the Internet, and it's meant to have a pretty decent menu. I would be honoured if you would be my guest. Please?"

"Yes, I would love to. Thank you."

As they entered the basement and walked into the green room, Mr. Gardiner, Mr. Flint, Mrs Reynolds and Georgiana were clustered around the small square table, intent on the cards splayed in their hands. At the other end of the room, Mrs Gardiner, Bingley and Jane sat enthralled by a wildlife documentary. Of Caroline, there was no sign.

"My dear Lizzy, where can you have been walking to?" Mrs Gardiner quoted, her tongue planted firmly in her cheek.

Jessica looked around and found seven pairs of curious eyes waiting for an answer. "We walked down by the stream, and went a little further than we realised."

Trevor choked on a rich tea biscuit and needed a thump between his shoulder blades from Mrs Reynolds before he could breathe properly again.

Darcy laughed. "Now, now, Lizzy! You're giving everyone the wrong idea."

Only when she replayed her reply in her head did Jessica realise the possibilities of what she'd said. Blushing, she laughed. "I didn't mean it like that. We were just walking."

Mrs Reynolds fanned herself with her hand of cards. "That's not what they called it when I was younger."

"Me neither," Mrs Gardiner agreed, as Jess and Sebastian settled in front of the television.



~~~~~




"It is a long time since I have had the pleasure of seeing you," Mr. Bingley said, addressing Elizabeth. "It must be above eight months at least. Indeed, I believe we have not met since the twenty-sixth of November, when we were all dancing together at Netherfield."

Jess shivered on the marquee stage as a draught of cool air swirled around her ankles. She tried to ignore the goosebumps, and instead fixed a smile on her face. "I think you must be right."

"I don't think I can remember a happier time than those short months I spent in Hertfordshire, is that not so, Darcy?"

Mr. Darcy stepped forward, speaking to Mrs Gardiner. "Miss Darcy and I would be greatly honoured if you would join us for dinner before you leave the country."

Georgiana, projecting an air of shy embarrassment, concurred. "Yes, if you please. We would be very happy if you could call upon us at Pemberley. Would tomorrow evening be convenient?"

Mr. Gardiner seemed perfectly willing for his wife to accept the invitation. Jess said nothing, instead turning her head and attempting to appear suitably embarrassed. Conjuring the memory of Sebastian's kiss in the garden the previous night was all it took to bring the heat back to her cheeks.

"Thank you," Mrs Gardiner said. "We shall be delighted."

"An excellent notion!" Bingley agreed, "That will allow us an opportunity to talk about your family."

"And shall we hear you play?" Georgiana asked of Elizabeth.

"If you insist upon it then yes, you shall."

The audience clapped and cheered as they concluded the last scene of the morning. Jess smiled as she stood on the stage, looking out at the sea of faces. Many more seemed to be wearing costumes for the second day of the conference, and various feathered bonnets and turbans nodded like feeding birds as they too showed their appreciation.

Even before the previous scene had begun, Darcy had revealed three telephone numbers and one email address scrawled on the now familiar scraps of paper. One loud Scottish woman had even threatened to throw a bottle of water over him just so she could have a photograph standing next to Darcy in a clinging wet shirt. As much as Jessica might have liked to see that herself, she wasn't surprised when Sebastian had refused to humour her request.

As the applause died down, they left the stage, with Darcy leading the way. He managed to make it out of the marquee, along with Georgiana, before the rest of them were ambushed by a large group of fans, eager to question the actors who were portraying their favourite characters. While Jess was quite happy to remain in character, she struggled to provide them with the answers they desired.

A portly lady with greying hair, wearing a fanciful bonnet of feathers and bows, seemed less than impressed by Jessica's costume. "Miss Bennet. Why do you not carry a reticule?"

"My reticule? I left it with my other belongings at the Inn at Lambton." Whatever a reticule might be. It sounded like a Georgian instrument of torture, but Jessica assumed that as she was supposed to carry it, it was either an item of clothing or some kind of accessory. Perhaps an early form of pepper spray, to dissuade those dashing Regency bucks from making free with a young maid's virtue.

A fresh-faced young female with a high ponytail and round glasses held up her hand. "Mr. Bingley, would you marry me?"

Gareth's cheeks turned a delightful shade of pink. "I am afraid you have the advantage of me, Miss...?"

"Taylor," she whispered, as though she hadn't expected him to say anything more than no.

"Well, Miss Taylor, I feel it is incumbent on me to reveal that my heart is quite devoted to another. It would, therefore, be impossible for me to accept your very generous offer." Gareth's gentle tone and heartfelt speech made the ladies in the group sigh audibly. Miss Taylor, in particular, seemed grateful for his thoughtful response as they all agreed Jane Bennet was very fortunate in her admirer.

After that, Mr. Gardiner answered a question about his carriage, before the group put Mrs Reynolds under interrogation. She did best of all, responding with a calm assurance and enough detail to prove herself informed about Regency housekeeping procedures. Scenting the presence of genuine knowledge, two or three of the fans shot their hands into the air, keen to learn more about the secrets of the still-room.

Looking for signs of Darcy, Jessica caught sight of what appeared to be the shoulder and sleeve of his blue coat outside the marquee. He was standing on the lawn, answering questions of his own. The breeze caught the flapping canvas door, which moved enough to reveal his inquisitor as a tall, blonde female she recognised.

Jessica couldn't help but wonder exactly what Mrs Rivers-Smithe was offering Mr. Darcy this time. Would that woman never leave him alone?

Once they'd escaped the unplanned question and answer session, she joined Mr. and Mrs Gardiner and Georgiana in the green room for lunch. Jessica propped her chin on her palm as she toyed with her salad, while the chair next to hers remained empty. Darcy's break should have matched hers. The last time she'd seen him was outside the marquee with Mrs Rivers-Smithe. Was the owner of Exley Hall still questioning him?

She washed down the last of her chicken with some apple juice and took the stairs to the main floor of the house. Although Jess passed one or two groups of visitors, no one bothered her as she headed towards the ballroom, which, in about an hour's time, would be the location of their first scene after lunch.

Just outside the ballroom was a sign, standing on a tripod, listing the talks that would be held there that afternoon. 'Economics in Regency England' sounded a bit dull to Jess, although the final lecture promised to be more lively. She had no doubt that 'Sexual symbolism in Jane Austen's works' would be a fascinating and popular topic.

She was almost tempted to sneak in the back and listen herself.

At the end of the corridor, a partially glazed door lead out to the garden. It was also the best place to view the lawn in front of the marquee, where she had last seen Darcy. Although many of the conference attendees were milling around there was no sign of Sebastian.

Returning to the basement, she checked the green room again, finding it empty. Jess was now so used to spending her lunchtimes chatting with Darcy, it seemed odd for him not to be around. Then she remembered that during their long walk the previous evening they'd found a small gazebo, hidden away behind an overgrown rhododendron. At the time Sebastian suggested it as a great place they could hide from the visitors. Could he have escaped there, hoping she would remember?

Jess left the house, her eyes scanning the milling visitors for a sight of Darcy. She was halfway down a lonely stretch of path that headed into the garden when a sharp, reedy voice called out to her.

"Miss Bennet? I wonder if I might be allowed to share a few words with you." The man who had appeared on the path behind her was tall and thin, with a pointed jaw and long, rat-like nose. His tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows gave the impression of a nerdy college lecturer, while his square, thick-rimmed spectacles suggested librarian.

Unfortunately his eyes, she had come to recognise, were pure rabid fan.

Jessica looked around, hoping to see someone else—a group of women, or one of her cast mates—nearby, but at that moment there was not a soul in sight. Not wishing to offend the man, she accepted his company while resolutely turning back towards the house. Although he hadn't yet said or done anything to concern her, she had seen enough over the last two days to feel wary about being alone with any of the Austen fans, whether male or female. As long as she kept him moving towards the Hall there was always the chance that she would meet someone else, and there was safety in company.

"I have been walking here for some time in the hope of meeting you, Miss Bennet." He grinned, pleased that he'd been able to use the line he must have been practising for hours. "My friend and I were having a discussion this morning, and I think you could shed some light on the correct answer to the conundrum we face."

"Your friend?" As far as she could see they were still alone. Perhaps his friend was of the invisible variety.

He waved a limp, dismissive hand in the general direction of the Hall. "Yes, Nigel. He's in the refreshment tent at the moment. He prefers to be called Edward, after Edward Ferrars you know, but that persona really does not suit him very well."

"And you are?"

He stopped on the path, a delicate, slightly effeminate hand raised to his chest. "Oh! I am so sorry. Of course, we have not been properly introduced. I...am...Fitzwilliam Darcy." He bowed with all the grace and elegance a skinny, lecturer-type could hope to aspire to.

Although she tried valiantly to hide the scepticism in her voice, Jessica's eyebrows rose of their own accord, like puppets on a string. "Really?"

His returning smile was slightly condescending. "I appreciate you have no reason to believe me, but it's true. I changed my name by deed poll." He reached into his inside pocket and drew out a folded document. "Look, I can prove it."

"It is not necessary. Your word as a gentleman is more than sufficient." Did he honestly believe that changing his name would turn him some sort of romantic hero? Hoping to divert his attention, she resumed her stroll along the path. "And what is this conundrum you speak of? How may I assist you?"

He stuffed the paper haphazardly back into his pocket, jogging to keep up with her. "Our disagreement revolves around your feelings for Mr. Darcy—the one in the book that is. What exactly made you fall in love with him?"

Jessica smiled, grateful that she knew the source material so well. "Why, it has been coming on so gradually that I hardly know when it began."

"Yes...yes." He waved an impatient hand, brushing away her empty platitudes. "But which of Mr. Darcy's attributes first attracted you? Was it his tall, noble mien and impressive intelligence? Or perhaps his masculine physique?"

It seemed to Jessica that he was more than a little interested in her reply. He had drawn himself up to his full height, his chest puffed out, and she realised that no matter what answer she gave him he would assume it referred to him. She was looking down, pondering how best to respond without giving him any encouragement, when he grabbed her upper arms; the delicate fingers applying more pressure than she thought possible. "Dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! You are the most beautiful creature I have ever beheld!"

She tried to pull away, but his hold was surprisingly firm. "This is not the sort of behaviour I would expect from a gentleman. Please, let me go."

"No...no. Not until you swear you will be mine."

The wild look in his eyes sparked a stab of panic in the pit of Jessica's stomach. If she'd been wearing her jeans and t-shirt she wouldn't have thought twice about dealing with such a shockingly poor imitation of Darcy. Dressed as Elizabeth Bennet, and determined not to drop character unless absolutely necessary, Jess resorted to fighting him with Austen's own words. "Sir, I am sensible of the honour of your proposal, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline."

Behind the thick-rimmed glasses, she saw a glint of appreciation for her riposte. "Oh, my dear. I am quite aware that it is acceptable practice for young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept."

What self-respecting Darcy would use Mr. Collins' words as justification? "I am not one of those young ladies, and I am perfectly serious in my refusal."

His grip tightened as he pulled her closer, a grotesque sneer twisting his face. "You are the most terrible tease, Miss Bennet, but once you get to know me you will see how well matched we truly are."

Only then did Jess realise how appallingly she had misjudged the situation. Words alone would not satisfy such a crazed lunatic as this. Before she had time to react, or even turn her face away, his damp, mobile lips made contact with the corner of her mouth.



~<>~@~<>~
SubjectAuthorPosted

Playing Around in Derbyshire - 9 & 10

Heather FAugust 31, 2018 04:39AM

Ch 9

lise !October 28, 2018 11:17AM

Re: Playing Around in Derbyshire - 9 & 10

NickiAugust 31, 2018 10:19PM

Re: Playing Around in Derbyshire - 9 & 10

Heather FSeptember 02, 2018 06:58AM

Re: Playing Around in Derbyshire - 9 & 10

AlidaAugust 31, 2018 05:28AM

Re: Playing Around in Derbyshire - 9 & 10

Heather FSeptember 02, 2018 06:55AM



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