Authors: Victoria Connelly
Copyright Â© 2011 by Victoria Connelly
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A weekend with Mr. Darcy / by Victoria Connelly.
1. Women college teachersâEnglandâOxfordâFiction. 2. Literature teachersâEnglandâOxfordâFiction. 3. NovelistsâFiction. 4. Austen, Jane, 1775-1817âCongressesâFiction. I. Title.
âCassandra Austen of her sister, Jane
Dr Katherine Roberts couldn't help thinking that a university lecturer in possession of a pile of paperwork must be in want of a holiday.
She leant back in her chair and surveyed her desk. It wasn't a pretty sight. Outside, the October sunshine was golden and glorious and she was shut up in her book-lined tomb of an office.
Removing her glasses and pinching the bridge of her nose, she looked at the leaflet that was lying beside a half-eaten salad sandwich, which had wilted hours before. The heading was in a beautiful bold script that looked like old-fashioned handwriting.
Purley Hall, Church Stinton, Hampshire
, it read.
Set in thirty-five acres of glorious parkland, this early eighteenth-century house is the perfect place in which to enjoy your Jane Austen weekend. Join a host of special guest speakers and find out more about England's favourite novelist.
Katherine looked at the photograph of the handsome red-bricked Georgian mansion taken from the famous herbaceous borders. With its long sweep of lawn and large sash windows, it was the quintessential English country house, and it was very easy to imagine a whole host of Jane Austen characters walking through its rooms and gardens.
âAnd I will be too,' Katherine said to herself. It was the third year she'd been invited to speak at the Jane Austen weekend, and rumour had it that novelist Lorna Warwick was going to make an appearance too. Katherine bit her lip. Lorna Warwick was her favourite authorâafter Jane Austen, of course. Miss Warwick was a huge bestseller, famous for her risquÃ© Regency romances of which she published one perfect book a year. Katherine had read them all from the very firstâ
Marriage and Magic
A Bride for Lord Burford
, published just a month earlier, and which Katherine had devoured in one evening at the expense of a pile of essays she should have been grading.
She thought of the secret bookshelves in her study at home and how they groaned deliciously under the weight of Miss Warwick's work. How her colleagues would frown and fret at such horrors as popular fiction! How quickly would she be marched from her Oxford office and escorted from St Bridget's College if they knew of her wicked passion?
âDr Roberts,' Professor Compton would say, his hairy eyebrows lowered over his beady eyes, âyou really do surprise me.'
âWhy because I choose to read some novels purely for entertainment?' Katherine would say to him, remembering Jane Austen's own defence of the pleasures of novels in
. âProfessor Compton, you really are a dreadful snob!'
But it couldn't be helped. Lorna Warwick's fiction was Katherine's secret vice, and if her stuffy colleagues ever found out, she would be banished from Oxford before you could say
Sense and Sensibility
To Katherine's mind, it wasn't right that something that could give as much pleasure as a novel could be so reviled. Lorna Warwick had confessed to being on the receiving end of such condescension too and had been sent some very snobby letters in her time. Perhaps that was why Katherine's own letter had caught the eye of the author.
It had been about a year earlier when Katherine had done something she'd never ever done beforeâshe'd written a fan letter and posted it in care of Miss Warwick's publisher. It was a silly letter really, full of gushing and admiration and Katherine had never expected a reply. Nevertheless, within a fortnight, a beautiful cream envelope had dropped onto her doormat containing a letter from the famous writer.
How lovely to receive your letter. You have no idea what it means to me to be told how much you enjoy my novels. I often get some very strange letters from readers telling me that they always read my novels but that they are complete trash!
Katherine had laughed and their bond had been sealed. After that, she couldn't stop. Every moment that wasn't spent reading a Lorna Warwick novel was spent writing to the woman herself and each letter was answered. They talked about all sorts of thingsânot just books. They talked about films, past relationships, their work, fashion, Jane Austen, and if men had changed since Austen's times and if one could really expect to find a Mr Darcy outside the pages of a novel.
Katherine then had dared to ask Lorna if she was attending the conference at Purley Hall and it had gone quiet, for more than two weeks. Had Katherine overstepped the boundaries? Had she pushed things too far? Maybe it was one thing exchanging letters with a fan but quite another to meet a fan in the flesh.
Just as Katherine had given up all hope, though, a letter had arrived.
I'm so sorry not to have replied sooner but I've been away and I still can't answer your question as to whether or not I'll be at Purley. We'll just have to wait and see.
Yours truly, Lorna
It seemed a very odd sort of reply, Katherine thought. If Lorna Warwick was going to be at Purley, surely the organisers would want to know as she'd be the biggest name and the main pull because she was famously reclusive. In comparison to the bestselling novelist, Katherine was just a dusty fusty old lecturer. Well,
lecturer, actually; she was in her early thirties, but she knew that people would come and listen to her talks only because they were true Janeites. At these conferences, anyone speaking about Jane Austen was instantly adored and held in great esteem. In fact, any sort of activity with even the lamest connection to Austen was pursued and enjoyed, from Jane Austen Scrabble to Murder in the Dark which, one year, ended in uproar when it was discovered that Anne Elliot had somehow managed to murder Captain Wentworth.
Katherine smiled as she remembered, and then, trying to put thoughts of Purley out of her mind, she made a start on the pile of papers to her left that was threatening to spill onto the floor. It was mostly rubbish that had accumulated as the term had progressed. It was what she called her âtomorrow pile,' except she'd run out of tomorrows.
With fingers as dextrous as a concert pianist's, she filed, threw away and recycled until she could see the glorious wood of her desk again.
She was just about to pick up her handbag and briefcase when there was a knock on the door.
âCome in,' she said, wondering who was calling so late in the day without an appointment.
The door opened and a tousled head popped round.
âStewie,' she said, sighing inwardly as one of her students stumbled into the room. Stewie Harper was in his first term studying English literature and he'd spent most of that time banging on her office door.
âDr Roberts,' he said. âI hope I'm not disturbing you.'
âNo,' she said, resigning herself to helping him out of whatever literary conundrum he now found himself in. âCome in.'
Stewie looked at the chair opposite Katherine's and she motioned for him to sit down.
âIt's the reading list,' he said, producing it from his pocket. âIt says we're to read as many of these titles as possible during the term.'
âWell, as many as you have time for,' Katherine said. âWe don't expect you to spend all your time with your head in a book.'
âYes but I couldn't help noticing that your book isn't on here.'
Katherine's eyes widened. â
The Art of Jane Austen
Katherine smiled. âI'm afraid we can't fit all the books on the list.'
book, Dr Roberts. It should've been on the top of the list.'
Katherine couldn't help being flattered. âWell, that's very sweet of you, Stewie.'
âAre you writing any more books, Dr Roberts?'
âNot at the moment,' she said.
âBut you'll sign my copy, won't you?'
âOf your book,' he said, scraping around in an old carrier bag. âI bought it in town. I had to order a copy.'
âYou shouldn't have gone to all that trouble,' Katherine said, knowing that the hardback was expensive, especially on a student's budget.
âIt wasn't any trouble,' Stewie said, handing it across the desk to her.
Katherine opened it to the title page and picked up her favourite pen, aware that Stewie's eyes were upon her as she signed.
âThere you are,' she said, smiling at him as she handed the book back.
He turned eagerly to the page, his eyes bright. âOh,' he said, his smile slipping from his face. âBest wishes,' he read.
Katherine nodded. âMy very best wishes,' she said.
âYou don't want to add a kiss?'
âNo, Stewie,' she said, âbecause we both know that wouldn't be appropriate, don't we?' Katherine stood up and Stewie took the hint and stood up too.
âDr Roberts,' he said as they left her office together, âI was thinking that I might need some extra tutoring. You knowâover the weekendsâwith you.'
Katherine eyed him over her glasses, trying to make herself look as old and unattractive as possible. It wasn't an easy look to pull off because she was strikingly attractive with porcelain-pale skin and long dark hair that waved over her shoulders. Her mouth was a problem too. It was bee-stung beautiful and could be a terrible distraction in class when she was trying to engage her students in her poetry readings. âStewie,' she said, âyou don't really need my help.'
âNo, you don't. Your grades are consistently good and you've proven yourself to be an independent, free-thinking student.'
Stewie looked pleased, but then dismay filled his face. âBut surely a student can't do enough studying.'
âYou absolutely can,' Katherine assured him. âEverybody needs a breakâthat's what weekends are for. Go and have an adventure. Go bungee jumping or parachuting or something.'
âI'd rather be studying with you.'
âWell, I'm going away,' she told him.
âDoesn't sound very exotic,' he said.
âMaybe not but it's a little piece of perfect England. Good-bye, Stewie,' she said, picking up her pace and lengthening her stride.
âGood-bye, Dr Roberts,' Stewie called after her.
She didn't look around but she had the feeling that his eyes were watching the progress of her legs down the entire length of the corridor.
Allowing herself a sigh of relief as she reached the car park, she thought of her small but perfect garden at home where she could kick off her shoes and sink her bare feet into the silky green coolness of her lawn, a glass of white wine in her hand as she toasted the completion of another week of academia.
She'd almost made it to her car and to freedom when a voice cried out, âKatherine!'
She stopped. It was the last voiceâthe
last voiceâshe wanted to hear.
âWhat is it, David?' she asked a moment later as a fair-haired man with an anxious face joined her by her car.
âThat's not very friendly. You were the one smiling at me across the car park.'
âI wasn't smiling at you. I was squinting at the sun.'
âOh,' he said, looking crestfallen.
âI'm in a rush,' she said, opening her car door.
His hand instantly reached out and grabbed it, preventing her from closing it.
âTalk to me, Kitty.'
âDon't call me that. Nobody calls me that.'
âOh, come on, Catkin,' he said, his voice low. âWe haven't talked properly sinceâ¦ well, you know.'
âSince I left you because I found out you'd got married? You're the one who wasn't returning my calls, David. You're the one who disappeared off the face of the planet to marry some ex-student. Nobody knew where you were. I was worried sick.'
âI was going to tell you.'
âWhen? At the christening of your firstborn?'
âYou're not being fair.'
not being fair? I'm not the one who has a wife tucked away in the attic somewhere,' Katherine cried.
âOh, don't be so melodramatic. This isn't some nineteenth-century novel,' he said. âThat's the problem with you. You can't exist in the real world. You have your head constantly immersed in fiction, and you just can't handle reality anymore.'
Katherine's mouth dropped open. âThat is
âNo?' he said. âSo where are you heading now, eh? Purley bloody Hall, I bet.'
âThat's my work,' Katherine said in defence of herself.
âWork? It's your whole life. You don't do anything
work. Your entire existence revolves around a set of people who've been made up by other people who've been dead for at least a century. It's not healthy.'
Katherine was on the verge of defending herself again but had the good sense to bite her tongue. She didn't want David to launch into his old tirade about how their love affair was doomed long before the arrival of his wife. She knew he'd throw it all in her faceâhow many early nights had been rejected in favour of the latest Jane Austen adaptation on TV and how often she had burned a much-looked-forward-to candlelit dinner at home because she'd had her head buried in a book. It bothered her when she stopped to think about it long enough because she knew that she was in love with a fictional world. Mr Darcy, Captain Wentworth and Henry Tilney were all creations of a female mind. They didn't exist. Perhaps her obsession with such heroes was because there were so few real heroes, and she was standing looking at a real-life nonhero right then.
âGo home to your wife, David,' she said, getting into her car.
âYou know I'd rather go home with you.'
Katherine sighed. âYou should have thought about that before you lied to me,' she said, closing her door and driving off.