The music had started, the couples had begun a promenade, but Mr. Nobley paused to hold Jane’s arm and whisper, “Jane Erstwhile, if I never had to speak with another human being but you, I would die a happy man. I would that these people, the music, the food and foolishness all disappeared and left us alone. I would never tire of looking at you or listening to you.” He took a breath. “There. That compliment was on purpose. I swear I will never idly compliment you again.”
Jane’s mouth was dry. All she could think to say was, “But…but surely you wouldn’t banish all the food.”
He considered, then nodded once. “Right. We will keep the food. We will have a picnic.”
And he spun her into the middle of the dance. While the music played, they didn’t speak again. All his attention was on her, leading her through the motions, watching her with admiration. He danced with her as though they were evenly matched, no indication that she was the lone rider of the Precedence Caboose. She had never before felt so keenly that Mr. Nobley and Miss Erstwhile were a couple.
But I’m not really Miss Erstwhile, thought Jane.
Her heart was pinching her. She needed to get away, she was dizzy, she was hot, his eyes were arresting, he was too much to take in.
What am I supposed to do, Aunt Caroline? she asked the ceiling. Everything’s headed for Worse Than Before. How do I get out of this alive?
She spun and saw Martin, and kept her eyes on him as though he were the lone landmark in a complicated maze. Mr. Nobley noticed her attention skidding. His eyes were dark when he saw Martin. His recent smile turned down, his look became more intense.
As soon as the second number ended, Jane curtsied, thanked her partner, and began to depart, anxious for a breath of cold November air.
“A moment, Miss Erstwhile,” Mr. Nobley said. “I have already taken your hand for the last half hour, but now I would beg your ear. Might we…”
“Mr. Nobley!” A woman with curls shaking around her face flurried his way. Had Mr. Nobley been making visits to other estates while he was supposed to be hunting? Or was this a repeat client who might’ve known the man from a past cast? “I’m so happy to find you! I insist on dancing every dance.”
“Just now is not…”
Jane took advantage of the interruption to slip away, searching above the tops of heads for Martin. He’d been just over there…a hand grabbed her arm.
She turned right into Mr. Nobley, their faces close, and she was startled by the wildness in him now, a touch of Heathcliff in his eyes. “Miss Erstwhile, I beg you.”
“Oh, Mr. Nobley!” said another lady behind him.
He glanced back with a harried look and gripped Jane’s arm tighter. He walked her out of the ballroom and into the darkened library, only then releasing her arm, though he had the good grace to look embarrassed.
“I apologize,” he said.
“I guess you would.”
He was blocking the escape, so she gave in and took a chair. He began to pace, rubbing his chin and occasionally daring to look at her. The candlelight form the hallway made of him a silhouette, the starlight from the window just touching his eyes, his mouth. It was as dark as a bedroom.
“You see how agitated I am,” he said.
She waited, and her heart set to thumping without her permission.
He wildly combed his hair with his fingers. “I can’t bear to be out there with you right now, all those indifferent people watching you, admiring you, but not really caring. Not as I do.”
Jane: (hopeful) Really?
Jane: (practical) Oh, stop that.
Mr. Nobley sat in the chair beside her and gripped its arm.
Jane: (observant) This man is all about arm gripping.