by Jayne Fresina
Finally, I settled on an excerpt in which my hero and heroine, having recently met up again after a period of more than three years apart— and with the painful memory of a failed, maladroit marriage proposal still hovering in both their minds— find themselves seated awkwardly together on a picnic blanket with mutual friends.
Since the Spring weather is fine, the "Book Club Belles" have decided to hold their meeting outside today and it's Diana's turn to read. Suffering a head cold, and unsettled by Captain Nathaniel Sherringham's unexpected return to the village, as well as the rumor that he's looking for a bride, she struggles to read a passage of Miss Jane Austen's "Persuasion" aloud for her friends. Making her task doubly difficult is the fact that she's just been poked in one eye by a parasol, wielded clumsily by one of the other ladies. Nevertheless she is determined to keep her composure and read on to the end of the chapter.
While Diana is very much enjoying the story, her friends are easily distracted away from it. They all have busy lives and children to manage— some of whom are present today and bent on creating further havoc at what was supposed to be a pleasant and peaceful morning out. Now the arrival of Nathaniel destroys whatever attention might have been spared for "Persuasion".
Men are not allowed into the book society meetings usually, but Nathaniel has never been the sort to abide by a rule. He gets as much of a thrill out of disturbing their meeting, as the ladies do out of having the rakish Captain there among them.
Diana has begun to think that she is the only book society member paying attention to the story, and the only one who appreciates the struggles of Anne Elliot's character.
When Nate decides to give his opinion on the story, it is, for Diana, the last straw.
As the two of them engage in a terse debate about the characters, their quarrel reaches deeper than the other ladies know, for Diana and Nate's own history is very similar to that of Anne and her Captain Wentworth.
I chose this scene because it shows that both Nate and Diana are not over their past. At this point in the story, while they are still trying to deny their feelings on the surface, they both begin to realize that there is too much underlying tension. And even Diana, who is usually so calm and unemotional, cannot hold back. As she defends Anne Elliot she is defending herself.
It is, for me, the point where Diana finds her voice, after being taught to keep her thoughts, feelings and desires under wraps for so many years. This scene marks the launch of the rebellion that follows. And I like to think that Miss Austen's Anne Elliot imbued her with the strength, not only to stand up for herself, but eventually to admit that she may have been wrong once before.
Perhaps the poke in the eye from that parasol is what finally pushes her to raise her voice?
I've cheated here a little, as I am giving you an excerpt from the beginning of the scene and then another piece toward the end of it.
* * * *
Under the swaying shadow of Sarah’s parasol, Diana felt her pulse grow uneven and too fast, making her feel as if she might jump out of her own skin. Her injured eye kept tearing up, so she covered it with one hand and read on with only half sight and a mounting headache.
"Anne did not wish for more of such looks and speeches. His cold politeness, his ceremonious grace, were worse than anything."
Success! She had read to the end of the chapter without rousing anyone’s suspicion of her scattered nerves. If only she might find some way to soothe her head.
“So this is the story that holds the Book Club Belles enthralled now,” Nathaniel exclaimed, setting his hat on the blanket and sweeping quick fingers through his gilded hair. “Another foolish heroine. And who is the love of her life?”
“There is none,” chirped Lucy. “She was once engaged to Captain Wentworth, but called it off when she heartlessly changed her mind. Now she’s just an old maid and he has come back handsome and rich. I really do not like Anne for she is very immature and always feeling hard done by.”
This was a hilarious comment considering the nature of the person who made it, but while the others fell about laughing, Diana and Nathaniel remained solemn.
“She sounds like a cowardly young woman who has no one to blame for her trials but herself,” he said. “There is nothing worse than a woman who wavers easily when she faces a little obstacle, who cannot stand up for her own passions and would rather pretend she has none.”
Diana felt such a hard pinch in her heart that it took her breath away. She moved Sarah’s swaying parasol aside to get a better look at his face, but immediately regretted it as they all exclaimed over her sore, squinting eye. She covered it again with one hand.
“But please, don’t let me spoil your enjoyment, ladies,” Nathaniel exclaimed as he saw her placing an embroidered marker in the page, ready to close the book.
“It is the end of the chapter,” she murmured, not wishing to share more of Anne Elliot’s sad story with him when he was so ready to dislike the character.
“But you must read on. I am anxious to know what happens next to this poor Anna girl and whether she will ever learn to speak up for herself.”
“Her name is Anne, and she can speak up for herself. She waits until she is certain of what she has to say. Unlike some people who speak the first thing that comes to mind and regret it later.”
Nathaniel shrugged, his eyes narrowed against the sun. “Some folk think too much. They become inert, unable to act out of fear. If we all worried about the dreadful things that might happen, nothing would ever be done, nothing good achieved, nothing new discovered.”
“But fewer mistakes made. Less pain caused.”
“I would rather risk some pain than close my heart away from contact and chance to keep it safe and therefore have no joy at all.”
“Anne Elliot has feelings. Many of them,” Diana exclaimed in defense of her favorite character. “She just does not care to expose them to the ridicule and derision of others. Especially when those feelings can do no good for anybody she cares about and it would be selfish of her to express them.”
“Then she is a fool, and as I suspected, her problems are her own fault,” he scoffed, chewing on a blade of grass. “I’m sure no one around her labors under such indecision and hesitation. There is selflessness and then there is martyrdom.”
With her unwounded eye, she looked up at his smug countenance and felt her temper rising. Carefully and with as much dignity as she could manage while somewhat resembling a pirate, she replied, “And to imagine, Captain, that I did not think you joined us to discuss books. I felt sure you were merely here to distract us and cause mischief.”
A gleam of surprise lit his gaze with an extra spark of clear, piercing blue. “No indeed, you mistake me. I am always reading!” He glanced at his sister. “Next to gardening it is one of my favorite pastimes. I absorbed every word. Please, do continue.”
Diana had no inkling what he meant by the remark about gardening, but clearly it was a joke between him and Rebecca. He sat casually on the blanket, one knee up, his arm resting across it, his fingers loosely linked. The scene might have been an oil painting, she thought. A moment captured for posterity of a privileged, golden young buck with no cares in the world.
With a taut sigh, Diana declared that she would concede defeat to the sunny day and the pleas of the children who wanted the picnic basket opened.
Since Nathaniel’s gleaming presence was a novelty that made Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s problems dull in comparison, no one else made a convincing protest against pausing the story for now.
* * * *
One of Justina’s daughters launched herself at Diana’s back, clung around her neck in a stranglehold, and refused to let go.
Diana cajoled the little girl to let her breathe again, but she was not heeded. Across the picnic blanket, Justina was preoccupied with arguing with her other daughter about whether or not the child could have more than one biscuit. The other ladies paid no attention to Diana’s struggle, too busy examining the contents of the picnic hamper. Packed by the Wainwrights’ excellent French chef, it was a veritable feast of delights.
Diana’s head throbbed and her desperation mounted. The child, assuming this was merely a game, was heavy on her back, her arms tight. To throw the giggling bundle off her could result in injury and to discipline a child who was not one’s own was always a difficult business.
Then suddenly she was rescued. The naughty girl was plucked from her back by strong hands and tossed playfully into the air. Squinting, Diana looked up and found Nathaniel behind her, his tall form outlined by the sun’s bright glare. She had not even known he was on his feet or standing nearby until that moment.
No word passed between them, but a glance of hesitant thanks and one of mildly surprised acceptance were exchanged following this simple act of kindness.
He had come to her rescue yet again, and from his expression, he didn’t know why he had done it. She could not imagine why he had either.
Jayne's Newest Release: How to Rescue a Rake
Diana, now 27 and still single, is acutely aware of Nate’s return. When her mother suggests a trip to visit a cousin in Bath, Diana leaps at the chance to escape the heartbreak and regret she can’t help but feel in Nate’s presence…and avoid his irritating charade to find a bride.
But for Nate, Diana has always been the one. He might just have to follow her to Bath and once again lay his heart on the line to win her attention—and her heart.
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