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Christmas with Miss Austen
By Laura Briggs
Pelican Ventures, LLCCopyright © 2011 Laura Briggs
All rights reserved.
The real Jane Austen never would have made this mistake.
This was Julia Allen's first thought as she opened her eyes to darkness, the only light the faint embers dying in the hearth. Sitting up, her book tumbled from her lap, landing on the threadbare antique carpet beneath her feet. A first edition of Northanger Abbey.
It was not 1818, however, but the twenty-first century. And Julia Allen was not a Regency women's author, but a volunteer at the historic Steventon House, property of the city of Delaford, Massachusetts.
She must have fallen asleep waiting for the last few Sunday evening visitors to straggle out. The fellow volunteer who walked this floor before they turned out the lights missed her somehow. Which meant the building was now a series of dark, cold hallways ending with a locked door.
A wave of panic rose in her throat. Calm down, Julia. She glanced at the faint streetlight pouring through an opening in the heavy window drapes. Only a few hours before, she had been strolling about the room, reading aloud to entertain the ever-changing parade of tourists pressed against the velvet ropes.
Obviously, it took more than matching initials and a Regency costume to grant a twenty-something-year-old artist the common sense of one of history's wittiest women. A thought which gave Julia little comfort as she gathered her skirts, shivering against the cool atmosphere. That slight sense of panic returned as she felt her way through the darkness, hastily turning the knob that led from the Steventon House drawing room to the main hallway.
Locked inside a dark and creaky nineteenth-century home. Now, that was an adventure to inspire a future painting series, perhaps. Or inspire a prayer breathed under her breath for heavenly protection.
Her costume for the community re-enactment thankfully included a velvet bonnet and a heavy winter cloak for covering her empire-waist gown. She pulled the cloak more closely around herself in the gloomy hall. A faint chiming sounded as the old grandfather clock in the main corridor marked one a.m., way past Delaford's business hours and Julia's own self-imposed bedtime for rising at seven-thirty in order to be her at "real" job at the Starry Night Bistro.
She drew back the bolt on the main door and turned the lock on the knob below, shoving the door open to let in the cold night outside. She tucked the copy of Northanger Abbey beneath the cloak to protect it from the damp atmosphere.
On loan from one of her local artist friends, the rare first edition lent an authentic touch to her literary persona. Even though this particular novel was published at least a year after the real Austen's death, making it unlikely she ever perused a copy in her own sitting room.
The cool wind ruffled Julia's curled hair beneath her bonnet, as she pulled the door shut firmly, listening to make sure the newly-turned lock caught. She crossed her fingers that it would be safe enough until tomorrow's volunteers arrived. She gathered her skirts, hurried down the steps, and towards home.
The other downtown buildings and shops were illuminated by old-fashioned street lamps, the posts already festooned in holly boughs and red ribbons for the Christmas season. Paper snowflakes and stars dangled from business awnings, while an impressive, hand-carved wooden nativity served as the town square's centerpiece.
Her rented house was only five minutes away, but she would reach it faster if she cut across Delaford Park. Wrapping her costume closely around her, she stepped over the low fence line and waded through the thin layer of snow towards the main path. The city park seemed a little less welcoming in the after-dark hours. Dear Lord, please don't let any muggers be lying in wait, she prayed, her pulse quickening with the pace of the winter breeze.
Slipping beneath the sprawling branches of an old sycamore, Julia hopped over the snowdrift onto the main path. She gasped as a tall, masculine figure appeared head-on in the gloom, his features obscured by the shadows as his body collided with hers.
"Excuse me." An apologetic male voice said as a hand reached out to steady her. But she was already past him, casting a fleeting glance over her shoulder as she hurried along.
Her heart slammed against her chest as she breathed. Just keep walking. Her ears caught the sound of his voice again, but the words were lost on the wind. Should she have stopped? Going on was rude, perhaps, but her nerves shrank from facing a stranger in such a lonely spot. Not to mention explaining why she was roaming the streets of twenty-first century Delaford dressed like a character from Pride and Prejudice.
She crossed the avenue to the residential section. No footsteps echoed behind her, just the crunch of frost beneath her shoes. She slowed her brisk pace only when she turned in the gate for the sage green house with bay windows and peeling paint.
Shoving the key into the lock, Julia glanced at the street behind. No figure loomed in the shadows. Silly — letting your imagination run away with you. Almost as bad as Austen's naïve little Catherine Morland. Catherine was the impressionable young heroine in the book Julia had been reading all afternoon, and no doubt the cause of her overreaction to the night's adventure.
As she slumped against the door, she almost giggled at the nature of her predicament. A woman traipsing through a park in a floor-length frock at one in the morning. Probably the stranger she encountered was far more startled by the experience than she had been. With an amused smile tugging her lips, Julia unfastened the ribbons below her chin and tossed the bonnet onto her sofa.
* * *
Did he imagine it?
Eliot Weston peered into the sea of blackness, where the strange young woman vanished moments before. Pale white light from the nearest street light had allowed a glimpse of dark curls, full lashes, and rich hazel eyes. And something else rather unexpected — a long, sweeping Regency style gown and cloak straight from the pages of classic English literature.
"You need to get some sleep," he murmured, as he searched the darkened landscape for signs of the mystery girl, who seemed to have vanished in the gloom. Not even a flutter of yellow skirts or bonnet ribbons in the fog.
Maybe putting in late nights as the book historian at Delaford University was taking its toll at last. His 'little sis' Isabella liked to tease he would end up becoming as musty and forgotten as the books he kept piled inside his office. But he couldn't help that inspiration struck at odd hours, keeping him at work long past the other faculty members, his fingers flying across the computer keyboard, formulating notes for his upcoming lecture on feminine roles in Gothic literature.
He claimed it was only by God's protection that he hadn't wandered into an accident on one of his late-night walks. But until now, God had never let him encounter anything so interesting as the striking vision of the lady on this path.
Maybe tonight's experience proved a point about his poor sleep habits. Because there was no way he really saw a woman dressed like Jane Austen strolling through the grounds of Delaford Park. Right?
With one final glance, he turned back in the direction of his original destination: the parking lot near the Starry Night Bistro, where his car still sat parked from dinnertime. Eliot preferred walking to driving, since the exercise helped trigger the creative processes. The downside being he often forgot just where he left his car, resulting in more than his fair share of towing fees.
Smack! His foot kicked something hard and flat as he passed beneath the old sycamore tree whose shadow had obscured the woman's shape in the dark. Reaching down, he grasped a small, leather object. Definitely a book, from the shape and feel of it.
Carrying it to the nearest lamp post, he turned it over to examine an elaborate binding in the faint glow. Crushed morocco, gilt edging, and a floral centerpiece combined to create a stunning effect. Without looking at the publication date, he guessed it to be antiquated, possibly from the 1800's. But he didn't expect the information he found on the title page.
Northanger Abbey. Jane Austen's first full-length novel, published posthumously.
"This is crazy." Eliot stared at the Austen title, dazed by the coincidence. Barring time travel — or a runaway imagination — no other explanations leaped readily to his sleepy brain for the presence of the antique volume in the snowy park.
Tucking the book beneath his arm, he glanced around the empty town square, wishing in vain that the beautiful heroine would return and claim her property.
* * *
"Oh, no." Usually, Julia's first words in the morning were mumbled to herself as she searched for a cereal box in the cabinets, but not this morning. Her current search was for something far more important than cornflakes for breakfast.
She groaned as she shook out the dark blue Regency cloak for the tenth time. A tissue and lip gloss bounced from hidden pockets onto her bare foot, partly concealed by baggy pajama pants.
But no hidden book tumbled from its folds to relieve her anxiety attack. Meaning she'd lost a rare and probably very expensive first edition volume. And after promising she would all but guard it with her life, too.
What'll I do, Lord? I have to find it. Help me remember, show me where to look.
She raked fingers through her now strawberry tinted hair — the color she preferred it to be whenever she wasn't moonlighting as famous nineteenth century figures. Tattered jeans and sneakers, graphic t-shirts, and neon skirts also helped complete the transformation from 1800's author to modern artist.
It was a strange alteration, punk suburbia vanishing in a swath of delicate muslin and scoop bonnets on the weekends, a contrast her family and friends found irreconcilable despite all her defensive explanations.
"How can you dress up like that Pride and Prejudice girl and then paint some freaky, avant-garde thing? Doesn't that feel weird — I mean, pretending to be stuffy when everyone knows you really love spray-painted sneakers?" her brother Steve would ask.
"Being Jane is just different," she answered. "It's not stuffy, it's ..." she trailed off, frustrated that she couldn't find the words to describe it.
"But isn't it a little too different for you?" asked Steve. "I just don't think people would find you convincing if they knew the truth. I mean, the spiky-haired Barbies covered in marker colors, the dress made out of flattened aluminum cans you wore to the prom ..."
"I get it," she snapped. "Old romance literature and graffiti don't mix. But I'm not making fun of Jane Austen, whatever you say."
"Right." He laughed. "Like you actually believe in that kind of stuff." He ignored her protests as he tapped her Andy Warhol notebook, as if it were proof he was right.
Steve wasn't alone in his opinion about modern art and classic literature mixing. She saw the way her mother wrinkled her nose as she studied her latest Regency-inspired surreal canvas. Picasso's style mixed with Sense and Sensibility received a lot of raised eyebrows.
"I think Jane Austen's books are silly, but do you have to mock them like this?" her mother asked.
A bitter accusation, considering her work was currently worth less on the market than a new hardcover copy of Pride and Prejudice.
Groaning, Julia lifted the cloak and draped it over a nearby chair, careful to avoid contact with the miscellaneous paint pots and water colors. Shrugging on a sweater and paint-splattered leggings, she grabbed her purse and set off for the cafe.
She had fifteen minutes before her eight hour shift at the Starry Night Bistro began — maybe she could retrace her steps and find that book. Although it could have fallen anywhere between the Steventon House and her front door, a random route that would probably be impossible to trace after five hours of sleep.
Cutting through the park, she found piles of slush and bare ground visible in places with damp leaves and muddy footprints. But not even the usual odd scrap of litter dotted the pathways, much less an antique book. Heart sinking, she pushed through the bistro's back entrance and punched her timecard.
"Good weekend?" Her freckle-faced co-worker, Harriet, joined her at the counter with a chipper smile and a tray of pastries for the display counter, doughnuts garnished with festive red and green sprinkles for the holiday season. "You had a reenactment thing, right?" This was said with a knowing look, like the wink of a fellow conspirator. Harriet had once told her that she fell asleep on the second page of Emma.
"It could've been better," Julia answered, pulling an apron with a moon and star motif over her head. How much better she didn't say, as she slid open the glass doors to the display counter.
"What happened? Couldn't think of a way to get Lizzie and Mr. Darcy together?" Harriet joked, giving her elbow a playful shove.
Julia resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Not exactly a character-based problem. It was just a little mishap with a book I borrowed."
The first round of customers trickled inside for doughnuts and mocha lattes, preventing a more detailed explanation. She didn't mind, since most of her co-workers were mystified as to why an avant-garde artist would volunteer at a creepy old house with a crew of elderly docents and soccer moms. Her peers at the coffee shop spent their weekends trolling the mall, or taking in movies at the local theater.
When her lunch break came, Julia raced across the town square to the Steventon House, her backpack flapping against her side in a frenzied manner.
"Hey, Julia, aren't you early?" Mrs. Stanley, a volunteer desk clerk, gave her a puzzled smile as she glanced up from the ticket reel.
Julia didn't pause, hurrying towards the stairs to the upper floors.
She scoured the foyer, staircase, and the drawing room for any sign of the lost book. She checked the coat closet where volunteers stowed their private possessions, even the restroom. But the only books she found were the rows of dusty leather-bound volumes that lined the Steventon's parlor shelves.
I'll have to replace it. For no small fee, she knew. The friend she borrowed it from had stressed its pristine condition as part of an original four volume set that also included Austen's final novel, Persuasion. Anne Norris was one of the few people who understood how an urban artist could be inspired by Austen's literature.
"It took me years to find them all," said Anne, placing the copy carefully in Julia's hand. "I found the first one at a junk shop in England. A virtual steal of a bargain, it was. No doubt buried in a pile of books from an old library someone donated to a rummage sale."
"I'll be careful with it, I promise," said Julia, pressing the volume against her. "I just want Jane to be real to them, you know? Like they've stepped back in time to meet her or something."
Anne laughed. "I understand. When I think of all the people in the past worth meeting, Jane would be near the top of my list, for her sense of humor, if nothing else." Her fingers lovingly traced the row of semi-shabby antique volumes, the rare editions of Austen's works.
Like Julia, Anne was an artist, although more heavily inspired by the Impressionists than the post-modern period. Sometimes Julia detected a trace of Jane in the colorful oil canvases inspired by Monet and Van Gogh. But maybe that was just because of the session in which she sat for Anne, a solemn figure in a Regency gown and bonnet, only a hint of a smile on her face as it appeared on the more experienced artist's canvas. Just as Anne had wanted it.
Maybe she could get a replacement copy of this one particular volume from an online dealer. It would certainly be easier than scouring used book shops all over Delaford and its surrounding communities.
Or telling Anne that she lost one of her most precious possessions in all the world.
Help me solve this problem, Lord. It's my fault, my stupid fault that I didn't keep my promise to her, Julia prayed as she paused in the doorway to the break room. Inside, Harriet was sipping a cappuccino and checking her emails on the computer.
Excerpted from Christmas with Miss Austen by Laura Briggs. Copyright © 2011 Laura Briggs. Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
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