Her fingers skimmed through the books in her bedroom shelf, light but lingering, as one might skim hot bathwater on a cold evening. She was already looking forward to diving deep. So what shall it be tonight? Her head—still wrapped snugly in its burgundy wool cap, for she had walked straight to the shelf upon entering her still dark apartment—tilted to the left as she attempted to make out the faded letters on the cracked spines of her dog-eared, much abused books. No matter that she couldn't read the titles anymore, for she knew these volumes by heart. Knew them since she was 12 years old. The merit and meaning of the words changed as she read each one at least a dozen times over the years, but never had Jane's words hold so much promised solace as they did tonight. Tonight, 17 years later at the age of 29.
Her index finger paused at the top of the book, lightly pinched when it caught itself between the tightly packed pages. Her eyes shut of their own accord, as an image of a man with his own brand and mix of Darcy-like arrogance, conceit, pride—but also of wit, integrity, and honesty—entered unbidden in her mind. (This man was blonde, though, not dark haired.) His smile was the same as she remembered it seven years before. The infectious kind, the one that tugged at the corner of her own lips; the infuriariting kind, the one that made her neck and face flushed and warm. (He smiled at everyone else it seemed, but not at her, or so she imagined. And Darcy, well, he hardly smiled at all. That should put this foolish comparison to a close.)
This place is amazing, her boyfriend David had exclaimed, staring up at the ceiling bedecked with its painted host of cherubim and seraphim. And is that…is that a Velasquez? Well, yes, yes it is, imagine that, she had murmured back.
Who wouldn't want to be mistress of Pemberley?
Well Lizzy didn't, she snapped at herself, finally shaking her chin-length hair loose from her cap. She stared at the brown leather book spine in defiance. Dropping her chin a little, she amended, well not at first…
You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it. I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed upon to marry.
No. It wasn't like that at all. He would be—was—the first man, in fact. It was the enterprise of marriage itself that was furthest from her mind, her life, at 22. She cleared her throat in an attempt to break the web of memory threading its way around her heart, around that finger still touching the spine of the book in question.
She pushed the volume further into the recesses of her shelf, until it was deeply secluded in the shadows of its fellow Austens. She will not read about a rejected marriage proposal. Not tonight. Even though Lizzy and Darcy do end up happy…well, not tonight. It was, in turns, too close and too far from the mark.
Oh, just pick something, for heaven's sake! She admonished herself, unwinding her scarf and flinging it on her bed. She was tired but too wound up from the evening's events to sleep on her own. Let the lovely Miss Jane read her to sleep, distract her with the sounds of dancing and mothers and horse-drawn carriages. Distract me, lull me to dreamless sleep, she very nearly begged, as she looked wonderingly at the hand he had grasped so firmly that evening, shaking it just as he did David's, a stranger to him.
The hand reached out blindly on the shelf, picking a volume at random. A slim one, easily gripped and thrown on the bedspread. It wasn't until she had showered and changed to pajamas, not until she was burrowed under her covers with only her bedside lamp casting an orange glow about her room, did she realize what book she had picked. Or rather, what chance had picked for her.
Her hand shook slightly as she proceeded, as if without care, to turn back the cover and read the description of the plot written on the flap at the back. (She had memorized it by now, of course, but habits die hard.) Satisfied that the small introductory ritual was done, she began to read, and gratefully fell asleep with the hand he had touched tucked under her cheek. Anne Elliot was in her dreams. Anne Elliot who had been persuaded to spurn her true love, only to be granted a second chance, seven years later.
A story of second chances, the most somber—but romantic—of Jane Austen's novels. (So the description written on the flap at the back read.)
It had been too late to return the book to the shelf, she convinced herself, too late to have replaced it with the Gothic silliness of Northanger Abbey.
Second chances? No. Too late for that, too. It was an engagement party she and David had attended, after all, in that Pemberley in Hartford.