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Gwyn Cready (cready.com)

Excerpt from Seducing Mr. Darcy (Pocket Books, $6.99, in bookstores July 29)

[As the scene opens, Flip Allison, a field ornithologist at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, is in a panic. The "imagining yourself in your favorite book" service she enjoyed an hour earlier at the local massage studio she went to launched her into a fantastic and sexy dream with Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy. But after awakening, Flip passes a rare first edition of Pride and Prejudice in a display case on her way into the University of Pittsburgh library that her dream appears to have changed the most important scene in the book. She tries bumping the case with her hip to get the page to turn, but is caught in the act by Magnus Knightley, an imperious visiting Austen scholar, who says if she's looking for the Pride and Prejudice pinball game, she best try the student lounge downstairs. After Knightley exits and Flip confirms that, indeed, the whole book-every copy of it-appears to have been affected by her dream, she knows there's only one place she can turn to set things to right.]



Flip looked at the number the library attendant had written on the piece of paper for her and bravely dialed.

"Professor Knightley's office," a forbidding female voice answered. "Hold, please."

What was this, Pizza Hut? She probably had a good game of Minesweeper going.

After a protracted length of testing non-mine squares, the woman clicked back on the line. "Professor Knightley's office."

"Yes, I know," Flip said. "Can I speak to him? My name is Flip Allison."

"May I ask the reason?"

"Tell him it's about pinball."

No reaction. "Professor Knightley is out of town."

"No, he's not," Flip said. "I just saw him at the library."

"I see. Hold please."

A split second later, the woman clicked back. "Professor Knightley is not in the office today. If you'd like to make an appointment for next week...?"

"Is he in the office, just not taking calls? I mean, this time you didn't have time to ask."

"Ma'am, if you'd like to make an appointment, you can. Otherwise, I can't help you."

Flip rolled her eyes. "Sure. Does Monday work?"

"The professor is out Monday."

"I'll tell you what. Why don't you let me know when he'd be available? I'll re-arrange my calendar."

"All right. Let's see. Would Thursday at 2:10 work for you?"

"Yes. My mother can find another ride to dialysis. Where are you located?"

"Are you familiar with the Cathedral of Learning?"

Flip chuckled. "Intimately."

"The professor is on the thirty-second floor. Room 3217."

Bingo.

Flip looked at her phone. It was four fifty. If Knightley was there, he's probably only be there till five. She hurried to the exit and came to an abrupt stop. It was pouring.

Perfect.

Well, nothing to be done about it. She grabbed a copy of the university newspaper, put it over her head and began to run.

When she got to the crosswalk, she poked the cross button, and hugged the paper a little closer to her head, waiting in the monsoon for traffic to slow.

A single massage, and not only had she destroyed a classic, but every intimate detail of what should have been a private encounter was going to be laid out, well, like an open book. The masseuse had said the book would change, and, worse, that it would eventually change to include Flip's own name. The pornographic bits were bad enough, but she'd die, she'd absolutely die, if her ex-husband saw her in Darcy's arms, crying about a baby.

The cross-light turned to WALK. She took one step and yelled "Nooooo!"

A Mercedes plowed through the puddle, against the light, drenching Flip with a bathtub's worth of water.

Muttering an oath, Flip raced across the street, up the stairs and, with water squishing noisily in her Nikes, shot into the base of the Cathedral. She wrung out her hair as best she could. The air under the soaring stone arches of the Commons Room lobby was freezing, and she ran to keep from breaking into a shiver. She prayed Knightley would be in his office and be willing to help her get inside the case.

Not exactly the way I thought I'd be scaling this, she thought ruefully as the elevator whisked her to the thirty-second floor. When the door opened, a sixty-something woman with a sour expression and a key in her hand stood. She gave Flip a deeply suspicious look as the elevator arrow clicked to "Down."

"Can I help you?"

Definitely the three-headed, Minesweeper-playing Cerberus. Flip recognized the voice. "I'm, ah, looking for the restroom." She lowered her voice to Kathleen Turner levels and tried to sound vaguely French.

"That's on twenty-nine," the woman replied with all the warmth of a nun correcting an incompetent fourth-grader. "I'm going there now. I'll show you."

Damn.

The woman stepped into the elevator and put her hand on the door to keep it from closing. She waited for Flip to join her.

Flip glanced to the left. There, beyond an unoccupied outer room, was a doorway to thickly-carpeted office in which the edge of a massive wooden desk was visible.

The woman's gaze hardened. In another moment she'd step out and there'd be race to Knightley's door. Not that Flip had any doubt about taking her--a well-placed foot could probably snap that hip like a matchstick--but it was unlikely that would help her case with the woman's boss.

The elevator began to ding in complaint. Flip shuffled into the car.

The door started to close.

In a single movement, Flip rolled her arm over a half dozen buttons under twenty-nine and slipped out just as the doors edged shut.

She shot toward Knightley's office, pausing only when she reached his door. The office was clubby and large, filled with overstuffed bookcases, expensive-looking oriental rugs and ceramic-potted ferns. The rain sheeted beyond the gorgeous floor-to-ceiling trefoil-shaped window. A well-worn leather couch hugged the far wall. Hmmm, Flip thought. I wonder how many rare books get reviewed there.

Magnus was gazing intently at something on his credenza, his back to her.

She scuffled a foot.

His eyes flickered for a split-second in her general direction, but the focus on his work never wavered. "Go ahead," he said absently. "Don't mind me."

"Go ahead and what?"

"The plants. You can water them."

Flip colored. He'd taken her for someone from the University plant service. "I'm not here for you plants."

"Oh." He turned to take her in. The moment he recognized her he tilted his chair back, hands behind his head, and placed a foot against his desk. The bemused look turned to something more complex, and Flip realized the detailed libidinous nuances of her sheer-paneled demi-bra as well as the cold-tempered flesh straining against it were visible through her Aviary polo shirt. She also realized every inch of real estate from her shoes to her hips was splattered with mud. At least the bird shit was gone. But how was it that she looked like dew-kissed rose when she got rained on in Pride and Prejudice but a wanton sewer rat here?

"Sorry." He gestured vaguely at her clothes. "The uniform."

"It's not a uniform," she said testily, crossing her arms. "I work with birds."

"Children's birthday parties, that sort of thing?"

"I'm a bird researcher." Damn these cargoes. What she needed was him to get an eyeful of the caramel lollipops in back. That never failed to settle any man's hash.

"Oh. I do apologize. What can I do for you?" he asked. "Pinball machine broken?"

He stretched his legs, and Flip started. Despite black oxfords and conservative dark trousers, his socks were an outrageous shade of lime. For some reason this threw what little she knew about him into complete disarray, and her train of thought did a total Casey Jones.

"What? Oh, I was wondering--hoping actually--you could help me." She found herself trying to guess what he had on underneath the trousers. After all, a man who wore lime socks might wear Pucci boxers or chocolate bikinis. She loved chocolate.

"Help you?" he said. "Again?"

"Yes."

"How?"

There was something about the man that suggested her regular brand of blather wasn't going to fly. She turned slightly, to give some good ass profile. "I, um, want to see the book in the case."

"Ahhhhhh. That explains the Waring blender dance at the library." He smiled. "And why might a bird researcher need to examine a first edition Pride and Prejudice?"

Was that a note of condescension? The hair on her neck prickled.

"There's a reference to a bird in it I would like to review," she said.

"The word 'bird' occurs twice in Pride and Prejudice. Once in chapter fifty-one when Lydia is certain Wickham will shoot more birds than anyone else, and once in chapter fifty-three when Mrs. Bennet encourages Bingley to shoot birds in Longbourn Park after he's shot all the birds on his own estate, which I think you may recall is named Netherfield." He gave her a long look. "And that you could have ascertained from any edition of Pride and Prejudice."

"Please. I just want to look for a few minutes." She took a few steps forward. "The attendant at the library said you might be able to help."

He brought his feet back to the ground. "The truth is I couldn't help you even I wanted. I have looked at the volume, yes. But I don't have a key to the case. It's not like a key to the Playboy Club. One doesn't get it permanently."

"But you could call Betty Scott. She's the curator there."

"Why don't you tell me why you're really here."

The elevator dinged, and Flip winced. She ducked out of sight into the corner of the office just as the three-headed dog emerged.

"In here, officer," the woman said.

Officer?! Holy crap!

The woman stopped at the doorway. "Professor Knightley, are you all right?"

Knightley leaned back in his chair. "Yes, Miss Clarkson. Why?"

"A woman shoved me out of the way as the elevator doors were closing and ran toward you."

Shoved? Flip mouthed and crossed one hand over the over in a "no touchdown" signal. No way.

"You must have seen her," the woman went on. "Disheveled hair, filthy clothes. Probably one of those crack addicts. And," she added in a disgusted whisper," you could see through her bra."

"Oh, her. Yes, I do recall something like that. Ran by babbling about trousers and breath mints. I assumed she was a university plant person. A menace, is she?"

"Well, I'm fairly certain she was the woman who called a little bit ago."

"Concerning?"

"She said pinball. I didn't believe her."

"Very intuitive."

"And she shoved me."

Flip turned her palms skyward and mouthed no even more emphatically.

Knightley tapped his fingers on the desk. "Well..."

"Mind if I take a look?" said the security guard.

Knightley looked at Flip then let his eyes trail pointedly to the tall window directly behind her. She saw it was actually a door to a tiny balcony. He stood and made his way to the door to the outer office, throwing her a beautiful pick that covered her exit onto the balcony and to a spot out of sight of anyone who might be in the office.

The balcony was three hundred feet up and about eighteen inches deep. Flip hugged the building, buffeted by the wind, and wondered how much worse her life could get today. The rain ran poured in bucketfuls down her back.

Note to self, she thought. Never turn down an umbrella.

At last the door opened. Flip prepared to be thrown into the waiting arms of the local gendarmes or at least the hosts of "What Not to Wear."

But it was only Knightley, smiling. "I think the peregrine falcon nest is on the other side." He handed her a blanket.

"Funny."

"Try not to get it too wet. It's cashmere."

The door to the outer office was closed. Knightley directed her to the couch, and she saw the work he'd been laboring over when she arrived was a Scrabble board. Nice. I can see why he was too busy to take my call. The words on the board were things like "exegesis" and "leitmotif." She rolled her eyes. On his credenza sat a picture of three young girls in elementary school uniforms. The girls had the same dark chestnut hair and feline eyes as Knightley. Father of three and the reputed Lothario of the Rare Book Room? Totally uncool.

"Listen," Flip said, "How about this? How about if I show you something you'll find very interesting in the case at the library."

He cocked his head as if he were observing his first great auk. "I don't think so."

"But why--"

His cell phone rang and he held up a finger. With a quick glance at the display, his body language changed from smug superiority to smooth operator. "Hello, Kendall," he said in a low, pleased voice.

Kendall? Flip rolled her eyes. Sounded like a grad student with a trust fund and big tits.

He turned a quarter turn, trying to shield the conversation. "What?... Oh, I like that... Where?" He nodded once. "Uh huh...You got it." He seemed to remember Flip was there. "Look," he said into the phone, "I'm going to have to call you back... Okay, bye." He flipped the phone closed and the romp through dirty phone sex was over. Back to cold, hard facts.

"Right. Where were we? Oh, yes, visiting the case. No. I'm busy, and you haven't given me a reason yet." The clock on his desk struck five. He rested on the edge of the desk and crossed his arms. "I expect you'll want to get to that about now."

She bit her lip. Who was going to believe this? "Well... I know this is going to sound weird--"

"Weird? I'm hiding a secretary-shoving, case-banging crack addict on my balcony. How much weirder could it get?"

"Oh, you'd be surprised. Here's the thing. I think something in Pride and Prejudice has changed, but only in that first edition, and I want to look at it." She held her breath.

"Changed? You think someone has changed the book?"

"Someone. Yes."

"How did this feeling come to you?"

"In a dream actually. Okay, I know this is bizarre but I had this dream about something in the book--well, not really in the book, but in the book now."

"And it involved Pride and Prejudice, that edition specifically?"

"Yes."

"Where did I read about this?" he said with growing engagement. "I was reading something just like this recently, where there was a dream and something in a first edition changed."

"Really?" My God, maybe there was hope. Maybe this had happened before and there really was hope.

"Oh, yes. Now what did they do?" He tapped his lip. "That's right. I need to ask you a question. Just one. But it's very important, and it just might help us figure this out."

"Okay, shoot."

"Did this dream, in any way, involve Darcy's nether regions?"

Silence.

"You know what?" Flip said. "Go to hell." She threw down the blanket and stood. "There are amazing things that happen in the world every day. A boy lifts a car off the ground to save his brother. A woman with stage four cancer survives. The ivory-billed woodpecker has been extinct for seventy years. It's been seventy years since the last humans laid eyes on it. Then, boom, out of nowhere, it's back. Half a dozen confirmed sightings."

Knightley made a small grunt of skepticism. "From the bits I've read in the newspaper, the confirmation you're talking about is a picture so blurry it could have been Sasquatch on spring break or possibly even Lindsay Lohan. It's not that easy telling them apart sometimes, especially if they're getting out of a car."

"No. These were experienced field researchers who knew their stuff, and it's just true. I just know it is." She felt the same emotion rise that always overtook her on this subject. "Oh, God, you sound just like my ex--ready to disbelieve--no, insistent on disbelieving. How does the objective change, I ask, if one approaches it with hope? Or even more than hope? A determination that it has to be. What did St. Augustine say? 'Faith is to believe what you do not see. The reward of this faith is to see what you believe.' And now my idiot ex husband is snatching that Cornell assignment right out of my hands--just when what they need is hope and determination, not pragmatism and...him. Aaarrrrghhhh." She caught a glimpse of Knightley watching her critically, eyebrow raised, and she threw up her hands. "Why am I wasting my breath? I need to get into that case. It's very, very important."

He shook his head. "You arrive in my office like a madwoman, after either shoving my secretary or not, reports conflict, and tell me this came to you in a dream. Frankly, I'm more inclined to call Western Psych than the library curator. Perhaps you'd like to try the truth?"

"This is the truth."

"A dream?" he said dismissively.

"Yes."

"You dreamed the book changed?"

Flip squirmed. "Well, no, that happened later. After the dream. Well, after the massage, which is where the dream happened. See, I was at this little place called Looking Glass Massage on Chesterfield Street, and the masseuse said I could imagine myself in a book--"

"No, it can't be." Knightley began to rub his temples.

"--and I didn't think anything of it, I mean, who would? So I thought about a book. And there was this man..."

"Here it comes."

"And I didn't even recognize him. Why would I, after all? But he was good enough to rescue me from my hostess and her sister, who were being so cruel. And it turns out it was Mr. Darcy."

"Oh, God, you're one of them!" he moaned. "One of those crazed women with the Pemberley stationery and all the DVDs, and it's 'Colin' this and 'Darcy' that, and, you come into my classroom with your mooning and starry-eyes and try to reduce the greatest socio-economic observational novel every written into romantic mush."

"I am not!" she replied fiercely. "I wasn't even a big fan of Darcy's until he, ah--" She felt her cheeks grow hot under Knightley's searing gaze. "--befriended me."

"Befriended you, did he? What a noble gallant."

Flip felt her anger rise. "Look, all I'm saying is I had a dream about Darcy, and he certainly behaved differently than you might expect. And now the volume at the library seems to be reflecting that and "

"Darcy will never behave against one's expectations," Knightley lectured. "That, my dear, is the sublime beauty of Austen's prose. Darcy is a man of his times, a perfect man of his times, which you might be able to appreciate if you were to upgrade your usual reading material."

"What, and read your books?"

"It couldn't hurt."

"You know. It is possible you don't know everything there is to know about Pride and Prejudice."

"You may want to advise the New York Review of Books, which has already described my latest work as 'the definite analysis of Austen and her times' as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award committee who have short-listed it for the criticism prize based the first six chapters, even though it won't be published until December."

"There's a difference between what you know about something here--" She pointed to her head. "--and here." She pointed to her heart. "Pride and Prejudice is a love story, not a dry 'socio-economic observational novel.' God, does anyone stay awake in your classes?"

"I don't teach classes anymore."

"I can understand why. Look, believe me or not, but your precious treatise is in trouble. There's more going on beneath the surface than you or I or anyone knew. Darcy is not a mannerly metaphor, he's impassioned and angry and capable of... " She paused.

"A swim in a pond?"

She wondered if a Nike to the balls would wipe that look off his face.

"A sexually-charged fencing lesson?" he offered.

"No!"

"What then?"

"Try a steamy tryst at the Temple of Apollo in full view of the Wiltshire countryside. Sans trousers," she added with a triumphant chin-raise.

He barked a laugh and relaxed, as if he realized she was beyond insane.

"The full extent of what Darcy is incapable of," he said, "I forbear to think. But I can assure that anything outside his meticulously-formed character, particularly involving his trousers, is at the top of the list."

"So you think I'm making this whole thing up?"

"No, I think it's real to you. I just don't know if it came to you through an antenna in your tin-foil hat or a crystal ball held at arm's length as you ran through a ring of standing stones naked--oh, pardon me, sans trousers."

"He did jump in the pond, you know."

"It wasn't in the book!" he shouted.

Flip's cheeks reddened. "You're a jerk."

"And you, madam, are the worst sort of reader. The one who will see only what she wishes. Pride and Prejudice is a love story only to the most unsophisticated. It is a story of manners and change."

"It is a story of desire--fulfilled and unfulfilled," she said, flinging the door open to a very surprised Miss Clarkson, "and anyone who doesn't get it in Pride and Prejudice probably doesn't get it much of anywhere."

Copyright@2007 Gwyn Cready (cready.com)