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Emma, Again

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“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her…”

The Woodhouses were something of an institution in Highbury. The family had been fixtures in the village for generations, and their sprawling estate, Hartfield, was one of the most popular historic houses in the country. Hartfield was immensely important to the economy of Highbury, as it employed nearly one hundred locals and brought in a steady stream of tourists from London. Anyone who needed a break from their busy modern lives could travel just sixteen short miles and visit Hartfield. Stepping foot onto those grounds was like crossing the threshold into a distant, dreamlike world. The house and gardens were frozen perfectly in time, elegantly outfitted with all of its original regency era furnishings (access to high-speed internet was available on request: password, Emma). Tours of the main parts of the house operated Tuesday through Saturday, and Hartfield boasted its own catering and event planning services, used primarily for hosting very expensive weddings and the occasional celebrity birthday party.

In fact, a wedding had taken place at Hartfield that very morning. The bride and groom, now Mr. and Mrs. Weston, said their vows in the little church that adjoined the property (built in the year 1775 and not much remodeled since) and were now setting up for their first dance as husband and wife.

Emma Woodhouse, heiress of Hartfield and absolute control freak, bustled over to the gathering crew of photographers to make sure they were taking the proper shots. She did not trust that they knew exactly the most flattering angles to shoot from as she had not set the dance floor up in their usual way. That was because this was not a usual wedding. This was Anne Taylor’s wedding, the woman she had known and loved since she was a little girl.

After her mother died, Anne had come to live at Hartfield as Emma and her big sister Isabella’s nanny. Once the girls were grown Mr. Woodhouse had given her steady administrative work managing Hartfield; a convenient excuse to keep her living in the private family quarters with them. The truth was that neither Emma nor her father could bear to think of Anne ever leaving. It was still a very sore subject with Henry Woodhouse, even though Emma, now twenty years old, seemed to have accepted the inevitability of Anne needing to start a life of her own.

“Poor Anne,” said Mr. Woodhouse now. He had spent most of the wedding reception trailing around behind his daughter and muttering gloomily. “Just look at her.”

Emma did, with both the eye of a friend and the eye of a designer. She had decided to forego the usual white tents on the front lawn--guests typically liked to have the house in the background of their wedding photos (and who was she to argue with free advertising?)--and set up an open-air dance floor on the easternmost corner of the property instead, beneath a grove of blooming wisteria.

“I am looking at her,” said Emma cheerfully to her father.

She reached a hand out to one of the photographers and he placed his camera into it obediently. It had been a risk to gamble with the unpredictability of English summer weather but, as Emma adjusted the lens and peered through the camera at the couple, she knew that her gamble had paid off in spades. It was a gorgeous day and the purple flowers set off the rich auburn color in Anne’s hair.

“She looks beautiful,” said Emma. She handed the camera back and turned to her father with a meaningful look. “And she looks happy, papa, which is all that matters.”

“This is your fault,” he grumbled. He blinked misty eyes as the string quartet began to play a waltz, clutching onto his cane. Anne and her new husband began to sway to the music. “You know none of us can resist you and yet you still put the idea into her head. She never would have fallen in love with him if you hadn’t told her too.”

“Nonsense,” said Emma. She turned abruptly to the photographer. “Not here--the light is better over there.”

“Right!” He said. He looked around at the other photographers and they all began to move immediately, rather proving Mr. Woodhouse’s point.

“I didn’t tell her to fall in love with him. I could sense that they had a connection, that’s all. That they might like each other. So I happened to invite him over for dinner one or... five times a week. Sure enough, here we are!” She paused to smile self indulgently. “I think I might have a bit of a gift for picking up on these things.”

“A gift! My darling, you are gifted enough in everything else you do. There’s no need to add fortune-telling to the mix.”

“I don’t know,” drawled an amused voice from behind them. “You’ve been looking for something to increase revenue in the slow season, Henry. We could get her a little booth on the south lawn. Say... five pounds a prediction; very good margins. We could have her wear a turban.”

Mr. George Knightley had joined them. He was an even older friend to the Woodhouses than Anne, as his family had lived in the neighboring estate, Donwell Abbey, for generations. Mr. Woodhouse’s friendship with him was both professional and personal, as they owned several small businesses together and his brother John happened to be married to Isabella, the oldest Woodhouse daughter. Emma had known him her entire life. That was probably why they felt comfortable spending so much time slagging each other off.

“I would look amazing in a turban,” said Emma, unbothered. She would, too. She was the sort of beautiful that could pull off anything, from a turban to a potato sack. She was so accustomed to being lovely that it wasn’t something she spent a great deal of time thinking about. Mr. Knightley was probably a good part of the reason behind this; he was always careful to let her know when she was acting like a spoiled little princess.

“You are acting like a spoiled little princess,” he said dutifully. She rolled her eyes as her father muttered his disagreement. “Anne and David didn’t fall in love because you made them do it, Emma. They have wishes and hopes and opinions outside of you; they aren’t your dolls to play with.”

“Come now, Knightley, Emma did not know what she was doing… she does not understand the power she has over others. She is very like her mother in that way.”

Knightley gazed down at Emma sardonically. She gazed happily back; he looked very handsome in his neatly tailored navy suit, eyes bluer than the sky. Emma recognized the tie he wore as one she had gifted him last Christmas. She reached out and straightened the knot that sat slightly crooked at his throat.

“Emma knows exactly the power she has over others,” he said. He frowned when she merely continued to smile up at him. “And she uses it happily.”

Mr. Woodhouse was starting to look very upset by his precious daughter being criticized in such a manner, even though he had just criticized her for exactly the same thing. Emma laughed and began to lead them all down the hill towards the dance floor. This was somewhat precarious as the path was made of gravel and she was wearing stilettos. The trick, she found, was to hold all her weight in her toes. She would spend an hour icing her feet that night but it was a small price to pay for the transformative power of a good pair of Louboutin’s.

Knightley seemed to be concerned for her feet as well. He took her arm as the path transitioned to a narrow set of stone steps and helped her down.

“Don’t mind Mr. Knightley, papa. He’s only joking. You know how we like to tease each other.”

“Tease each other? What, like the way you call me Mr. Knightley to make me feel old?”

Emma leaned into his side, her expression devious. She was perfectly aware that, newly thirty, his age was becoming an increasingly temperamental subject. That was why she had to tease him about it.

“Not at all! If I wanted to make you feel old I would call you George.”

Knightley hooked an arm around her neck and rubbed teasingly at the elaborate pile of blonde curls at the top of her head. “Careful, princess. You’re not too grown to be on the receiving end of a Mr. Knightley Noogie.”

Emma rolled her eyes and wriggled out of reach, smoothing her dress and checking to make sure he hadn’t knocked any hairs out of place. She might not be personally vain about her looks, but she was very conscious of her social position; although she was young, she was the director of Hartfield’s event services and the future CEO. A grown woman, not a silly child. She worried more than she cared to admit that George Knightley, who she respected more than any man she’d ever met, could not see that.

“Save it for John and Bella’s Christmas visit,” she huffed. “You’ll have five little terrors around to noogie to your heart's content.”

“What is noogie?” Henry Woodhouse asked fretfully. “I don’t like the sound of it.”

Emma and Knightley exchanged an amused glance.

They reached the edge of the dance floor and ushered Mr. Woodhouse over to a table. Here, Emma had decided to sway again from her usual design-- in weddings, she usually preferred to keep the sitting and dancing areas separate, as it made for better photos. Far more elegant. Knowing how many of Anne and David’s guests would prefer to sit and watch the revelry rather than join in, however, had persuaded her otherwise for this occasion. She was glad for the decision now, as she watched something like happiness cross her father's face as he settled down in the shade of the wisteria. Even when faced with the tragic loss of Anne Taylor (and the routine and familiarity she provided for both of them) it was hard to stay grumpy when you were surrounded by so much beauty.

Emma remained standing, taking a moment to observe the other wedding guests. Many had been waiting for the opportunity to catch her eye and waved excitedly in return. They were mainly Hartfield people; admins and curators, IT folk, sprinkled in with a liberal dash of Highbury’s more prominent locals. A little tug of disappointment pulled at her when she realized there was nary an unfamiliar face to be seen. Anne had no close family to invite, of course, but David…

“Let me guess,” said Mr. Knightley. “He did not come.”

Emma jerked her head around to find that he had been watching her. He ‘tsked’ under his breath and she lifted her chin stubbornly.

“It’s early; there’s still time.”

“It would be far ruder to show up just for cake, don’t you think?”

He was right, but Emma refused to acknowledge it. Everyone in Hartfield had been hoping for a glimpse of David Weston’s son from the time he’d first moved here. His name was Frank Churchill (he’d taken his mother's name, as his parents were never married) and in exchange for the full funding of his education at Oxford he lived with a very wealthy, very elderly aunt who did her best to control every facet of his life. He was also, according to his public Instagram profile, incredibly well-traveled and good looking.

Emma considered herself far too busy to consider dating at this point in her life but had to admit she felt some draw to this mysterious stranger; something about the fact that he lived with and cared for an elderly aunt touched her heart. She felt a kinship with Frank Churchill, and she didn’t want to consider that he’d wounded her beloved Anne by ditching out on the wedding. David Weston and Frank Churchill weren’t particularly close--he’d been in the military and shipped around for much of Frank’s childhood--but she knew that, now retired, he wanted more than anything to forge a stronger relationship with his son.

“Maybe it was too painful for him to come,” Emma pondered out loud, tracing a drop of condensation on the champagne glass in front of her. “His mother died only a few years ago, you know.”

“Frank’s mother and father were never together after he was born. Why would it pain him to see his father with another woman?” Knightley shook his head dismissively. “ I don’t see why you’re so eager to make excuses for this man, Emma. His flakiness has been very hurtful to Anne and David.”

“And I don’t see why you’re so eager to believe the worst of him.”

He leaned forward, undoubtedly ready to continue arguing, but sat back with a sigh after a pointed look from Emma. She nodded minutely in the direction of her father, who was beginning to look extremely anxious. Knightley took the hint and schooled his voice into one of quiet calm.

“All I’m saying is that he would have come if he really wanted too, Emma. When it comes down to it, he’s a grown man. He can do whatever he likes.”

“Easy for you to say, Mr. Knightley.” She reached out to where her father had begun nervously shredding his napkin and squeezed his hand. She kept her voice light and her eyes fixed on Mr. and Mrs. Weston, twirling slowly in each other's arms as the sky deepened to the burnt orange glow of sunset behind them. “You live alone, have no one to care for but yourself. Of course you can do whatever you like. There’s no one around to tell you what to do.”

The final notes of the waltz swelled into a crescendo. Anne and David leaned in for a kiss as the song ended and the wedding-goers broke out into applause. A couple of drunk Hartfield landscapers whistled bawdily. Emma frowned and turned the full force of her gaze upon them. The disapproval of Emma Woodhouse was a weighty thing; though they were a solid fifteen feet away, they caught her look and hunched down into their chairs, snickering and red-faced. Knightley let out a quiet chuckle and found himself on the receiving end of a disapproving look of his own. Unfortunately for her, it seemed he was the one person immune to her power. He drained his glass of champagne and stood.

“I’ll have to remember that the next time we argue, Emma.”

He clapped Mr. Woodhouse on the shoulder and moved off into the crowd. Emma watched him go, an odd sense of disappointment burning in the pit of her stomach. She supposed she was still feeling sad about the absence of the mysterious Frank Churchill.

“I imagine there will be cake now,” said Mr. Woodhouse with a look of dread. “I tried to tell Anne about the dangers in having cake… all of the sugar, all of the… gluten.”

“A little bit of cake never hurt anyone, papa.”

“Gluten and sugar, my dear, are well-documented carcinogens.”

“Oh look! It’s the Bates’s! Why don’t you go visit with them while I check with Charles to make sure we’re on schedule? I need to make sure the stage is set up for speeches and we get the lanterns lit.”

Mr. Woodhouse was only too happy to go and discuss the evils of cake with Hetty Bates and her very elderly mother, Susan, and Emma felt good about leaving him in their care. The women had been housekeepers at Hartfield for decades and were very well acquainted with his peculiar ways. They would keep him comfortable for her while she got back to work.

She spent the evening bossing caterers and coordinators about, watching with a satisfied eye as darkness fell and the lawns of Hartfield transformed into a fairyland of candlelight and tinkling champagne glasses. It was just like they wrote in the adverts; a distant dreamlike world.

At the very end of the night, Emma hugged Anne and David Weston goodbye. They left the property in a horse-drawn carriage (which they would exchange for an uber to Heathrow at the gatehouse) and Emma walked home alone, bare feet crunching on the gravel, fancy shoes dangling from her left hand. The private family quarters were located along the west side of the house and she realized fully, for perhaps the first time that day, that the family it housed was now just two people.

She blinked back the sudden rush of tears, feeling silly.

That was just life, wasn’t it? Everyone had to move on eventually. Well, she thought, everyone but George Knightley, who would live in that old Abbey by himself forever. He made the trek over the hill that separated their estates at least once a day for a meal and a chat (or, as was often the case between him and Emma, an argument). And the Weston’s would be just a few miles away. She would see them often--every day, probably, as Anne was still overseer of the bookkeepers at Hartfield. So why did she suddenly feel so dreadfully lonely?

Clearly she had too much time on her hands if she was able to conjure all of these miserable feelings. A project was what she needed. Something to keep her mind occupied, while she got used to the absence left behind by Anne. Perhaps it was time to find a new intern. Ellie Goddard had given her a few prospective candidates to sort through last week and one, in particular, had quite caught her eye; a beautiful girl, fresh out of university, named Harriet Smith...