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 Alyssa Goodnight

Austentatious

For Zach and Alex, who totally get that a good writing day

means more video game time and, quite possibly,

fish sticks and Tater Tots for dinner. Win-win!

And for Jason, who never fails to impress me. 

Acknowledgments

I would like to extend my effusive thanks and giddy appreciation to the following people who were instrumental in turning my story into a full-fledged book:

My exceptionally sweet and savvy agent, Rebecca Strauss, who loved this book from the very beginning and then charmingly helped me make it even better.

My excellent editor, Megan Records, who is cool just by virtue of owning a Jane Austen action figure, but in lots of other ways too.

My conscientious copy editor, Stacia Seaman, who caught all my Austin-related errors and inspired future research trips to the original weird city.

All the fabulous authors whose books inspire me to write mine even better, most especially the incomparable Jane Austen.

My awesome, ninja-cool blog regulars ... you know who you are! Your smart, funny, encouraging comments put the sparkle in my day.

My mom, who introduced me to Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels and also set a stellar example of recreational reading, and my dad, who always squeezed in a trip to the bookstore (not to mention a Tex-Mex lunch) amid all our weekend errands.

My mother-in-law, who probably hyped my first book more than I hyped it myself, and my father-in-law, who didn’t say a word when his wife insisted on buying copies for every one of their friends.

And for my family ... my boys. You get me, and that makes all the difference.

1

Miss Nicola James will be sensible and indulge in a little romance.

As the song goes, there are “miles and miles of Texas.” Miles of desert to the west, miles of piney woods to the east, miles of highway and byway streaking every which way in between, and Austin, the sparkling jewel nestled at the center, a kaleidoscope of color and movement ... and weird. Those of us lucky enough to move here from Houston, Dallas, and beyond hung on like runner weeds, determined to stay whether we really belonged or not.

But who could say, really, who belonged and who didn’t—conformance was a dirty word here in the capital city, where the unofficial slogan, emblazoned across T-shirts in all-capped, bold white font, was “Keep Austin Weird.” I didn’t own one of these shirts. Not yet. I’d held off, waiting for the moment when my own personal weirdness factor justified the purchase. Otherwise, I’d just be a poseur, part of the problem. Geeky not being synonymous with weird, I’d been under the impression I still had a long way to go. But as of approximately ten seconds ago, I think, just maybe, I might have crossed over into the realm of “weird.”

Having lived in this city for eight serious-minded years as somewhat of an outsider, skulking on the fringe in T-shirts from Old Navy, you’d think I’d be excited, giddy even. But honestly, I was getting more and more panicky by the minute. All because of a journal.

The journal had been intended as the perfect Austenesque birthday gift for my vintage-obsessed younger cousin. I’d found it lying alongside a worn copy of Pride and Prejudice in a quirky antiques shop down on South Congress and simply couldn’t pass it up, hobnobbing, as it was, with greatness. I had a bit of a soft spot for Ms. Austen and all she touched. The book was even inscribed with a quirky and rather perplexing dedication in an old-fashioned script:

“... I dedicate to You the following Miscellanious Morsels, convinced that if you seriously attend to them, You will derive from them very important Instructions, with regard to your Conduct in Life.”

Charmingly vintage, with its elaborately detailed antiqued brass key plate and burnished doorknob affixed to the front, not to mention its slightly batty hint of shrewdly dispensed life advice, it seemed a perfect choice for a secret diary. I figured the absence of clasp and key could be remedied with a good hiding place. Evidently mine hadn’t been nearly good enough. But then, I’d never planned on needing one.

My delight in finding the perfect gift had lasted all of five minutes—long enough to treat myself to a chai tea latte and settle into a cafe chair to admire my purchase. Slightly envious, I’d splayed my fingers over the bumpy black leather cover and even gone so far as to dip my unpolished, trimmed-short fingernail into the tiny keyhole. I’d instantly felt an unexpected little zing that had sent goose bumps chasing each other up my arms and nerves spiraling down like a roller coaster into the pit of my stomach. Startled, I’d jerked back, jostling my full-to-the-brim cup and sending a cascade of warm, spiced tea down onto the little book, staining the pages, buckling the edges, and rendering it ungiftable all in one fell swoop.

I’d chalked the whole situation up to general journal incompatibility and carted my newly ruined journal home with me, not having any clue what I’d do with it. I’d always been more of a clipboard kind of girl, and not much had changed recently. After four years of engineering at UT–Austin, and another few getting my MBA, I was anxious to keep the momentum going. Having just purchased my first house, a little fixer-up bungalow in the city’s uber-hip West Sixth Street neighborhood, I was now gunning for a management position with its boost in salary and prestige, and I was spending my weekends on carefully planned and executed DIY projects. Men were a distraction. They were also the meat and potatoes of journaling, and for the time being, I was dieting. Looking back on it now, and ever so modestly casting myself as Elizabeth Bennet, I could see that discovering this journal had been like the arrival of the Bingleys: a call to adventure. And, in my own clumsy manner, I’d answered. Eventually.

The charming little book had sat, waiting patiently on the shelf with my own, marginally less dusty, treasure trove of Austen novels until I could no longer resist the allure of that miniature door and those tea-stained, cinnamon-scented pages. Clearly I’d jinxed myself.

Glancing somewhat nervously toward the kitchen timer digitally counting down the seconds ... 9:56 ... 55 ... 54 ... 53 ... I shifted my gaze back to the seemingly innocuous book that was quickly becoming quite the little nemesis. With cupcakes in the oven (my signature contribution to next door’s weekly karaoke shindig), I had time to kill ... and no legitimate excuse not to take another look.

One wide-eyed glance was all it took—now I was officially freaked. The page looked exactly the same as it had fifteen seconds ago but distinctly, disturbingly different from the way it had the day I wrote it. And therein lay the rub—not to mention the weirdness. Because how could it be different?

Goose bumps cropped up on my arms as I tried to focus on the scattering of words remaining. As I read them in order, left to right and down the page, my heartbeat kicked up in my chest, deep, ominous thuds. There were twelve words left.

Miss Nicola James will

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