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you and yours two (and you and yours three)

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On the familiar approach to Hartfield, across the rolling green of the hills, George Knightley considers that his arrival this evening is likely to be divisive. By one occupant he believes he will be most eagerly anticipated. By the other, however, his presence will likely be quite dreaded.

For his dearest Emma, he hopes his visit will also be timely. Tonight, she had planned to break the news to her father of their intention to marry. It was a topic that had been long conversed upon: whispered discussions during her father’s naps or throughout their leisurely afternoon walks, although sometimes practical conversation gave way to other more exciting activities behind the hedgerows. In time, she and George had reviewed every aspect, considered every objection that Mr Woodhouse would be likely to conjure up, and had located robust responses to them all.

However, despite this joint preparation, his brave, bold Emma had insisted that the initial disclosure to her father must come from her alone. And although he did not like to place this burden solely on Emma’s shoulders, in this case George had felt it best to graciously concede. Mr Woodhouse, he knows, will take this news better from his youngest daughter - she who knows how to placate and reassure him best of all. But even so, George does not foresee cheerful or easy acceptance ahead. Even with his own determination to remove to Hartfield in a plan which, he believes, can only but suit all, Mr Woodhouse will still feel the variation of circumstances most acutely indeed.

George enters the house via the usual door, passing his hat and gloves to the nearest servant. His greatcoat has been forgone this evening - it is unseasonably warm, and a flush has already settled upon his cheeks from his brisk and eager stroll. As his boots cross the threshold, George can sense the subtle shift that has taken place within the household. His neck prickles with the knowledge of inquisitive eyes upon him. He is now the man enamoured with their mistress and soon to be embedded in their daily lives even more so than he currently is. It was one thing for the servants to suspect his favour, but quite another for this information to be widely exposed to all.

It is a relief when Emma appears from behind the drawing room door, her dainty shoes tapping lightly against the floor. It is clear from her swift appearance that she had been listening for his arrival. As she approaches, Emma smiles softly at him, and George’s heart throbs in his chest at the sight of her. This woman: she is to be his wife, God and Mr Woodhouse willing, and even though George has had some time to become accustomed to the notion, the fresh reminder of it can still overwhelm him. He quite wonders if he will ever get used to it.

He hears the hasty scattering of the servant's feet as she sweeps over to him, all other bodies in the room making themselves suddenly scarce - either by intuition or by previously subtle instruction. Emma is dressed for the evening, her long gloves skirting her elbows, pink ribbons encircling the cuffs. Her golden hair is pinned in the most precise of curls. She is a vision, as always.

“Mr Knightley,” Emma sighs heartily, her hands reaching out for his own without hesitation. She has grown bolder with him over these few past weeks, and George finds he cannot bring himself to mind in the slightest. He enfolds her fingers with ease; these little novelties, indulgences, becoming almost second nature to him. He is now no longer terrified of how his affection will be met and the rewards, he has found, are quite extraordinary. “I am so very glad you are here.”

George does not need a mirror to know his face has fallen into a frown. “It is done then?”

Emma bobs her head, the curve of her neck forming a graceful arc. Her teeth worry at her full bottom lip for a moment, which he finds intensely distracting. “It is.”

“And how does your father bear the news?” George squeezes her fingers within his own, perceives her delicate reciprocation. He wishes she was not wearing her gloves.

“Rather ill, I am afraid.” Her wide eyes cast downwards, eyelashes fanning out against her cheeks. An irrational fear strikes at the core of him that Emma will change her mind about marrying him in order to not further injure her father. If so, George knows he would not even blame her, for he knows Emma’s kind heart cannot bear to cause pain. But, he tells himself with stoic resolve, Emma is also stubborn by nature, and not one to easily give in when her mind has been set towards something. He has received enough evidence recently to justify the thought that Emma has clearly and completely set herself and her heart towards him. The knowledge grants him a cheering reassurance.

“My dear Emma,” he murmurs kindly, trying to find suitable words to comfort her. But for once, George struggles with quite what to say.

Emma’s eyes cast upwards again, clearly intrigued at his lack of further utterance. “As expected,” she says, something in her countenance turning rather droll, “I have joined the cast of poor Isabella’s and poor Miss Taylor’s. From now on, I am afraid you must forgo any of your charming dear Emma’s, and address me only as poor Emma instead!”

George smothers a smile at that, glad to see that her humour has not been totally cast away by the difficult circumstances. It had been too much to hope that the news of their intentions would be met with immediate joy by poor afflicted Mr Woodhouse. But even so, George cannot help but have wished for it nevertheless. “If poor Emma you must be,” he replies with modest gravity, “we will have to bear it until your father adjusts to the idea.”

Emma gazes up at him, her intelligent eyes round and earnest. “And what if he never does?” Her question is delicately asked, but George senses the element of true worry behind it. “Even as my father acknowledges his love and admiration for you, and can find no true objection in the design of your constant presence at Hartfield, he believes that our current arrangement offers identical benefits-” Emma raises a wry eyebrow at that “-and so feels there is no need for marriage to intervene.”

George cannot help but huff in mild displeasure. He knows from the older gentleman’s own declarations that even Mr Woodhouse was in love once! He therefore can not be so obtuse as to not see why George and Emma will not be satisfied with such stagnation. “Well, as you know, Emma, I must strenuously disagree on that point.”

The pads of her thumbs shift to massage into his rough palms. Emma’s hands are so much smaller than his, and George finds it most beguiling. “I expected as much,” she answers with a satisfied smirk, fully understanding his meaning in a way that only Emma Woodhouse can. “But perhaps you must come to terms with the idea, Mr Knightley, that you may only be able to marry me in twenty years hence!”

She teases him of course, but even the exaggerated suggestion of a lengthy engagement does nothing for the edges of his mood. George, now that his heart has unveiled itself, has no appetite to picture a future of such restraint and patience. His recent visits to Hartfield have put him in such a fever that he fears his tether has grown rather short.

“I shall consent to no such thing,” he replies rather gruffly, casting looks askance - first left, then right and then, once establishing they are quite alone by some miracle or another, steps a fraction closer to her. He does not quite trust himself to do more, a notion which is immediately challenged when Emma’s breath hitches most becomingly in her throat. “I could not bear it,” he adds before giving in and leaning even closer still, “I can scarcely bear it now.” George knows he sounds desperate, perhaps even like a man possessed. But there is only so much torment a man even as sensible as himself can tolerate before he reaches the precipice.

Emma’s lips form into a rather pleased pout and he knows she is immensely satisfied with her newfound ability to undo him. George supposes it also does not hurt that this has coincided with his newly discovered ability to flatter her. Regardless, he rather enjoys the effect his lovingly candid words have on the apples of her cheeks.

“Sir,” she murmurs, voice low, even though her eyes never leave his for a second, “you are altogether too bold.”

He tilts his head at her with interest, not believing her innocent ruse for even half a second. “Is that so?”

George is rewarded once more with the curve of her smile. “But I should wish that you are always so frank with me,” Emma finishes, pressing up on her toes to kiss him most sweetly. For someone who had never been kissed until quite recently, Emma has shown herself to be a quick and avid learner of her new skill.

It is entirely improper for them to do this here of all places - in full view of any servant that should choose to come this way or so close to the disapproving Mr Woodhouse just beyond the heavy oak door. But George finds he cannot overly care. For now that their news is sure to spread, they will probably be chaperoned from dawn until dusk and all the hours hereafter until they finally meet at the church altar - whenever that might be. Their previously assumed-innocent garden walks will now fool precisely no one at all, and will be very frowned upon indeed.

And so he blissfully returns her attentions, for she is his Emma, and he loves her most dearly, most fiercely. He adores the little sighs that emit from her, the way her gloved hand comes to caress his cheek. Oh, to think that this is what his future promises him - if only Mr Woodhouse would see reason!

George draws back reluctantly, enjoying the glazed look in Emma’s eyes, the way she must blink herself back into her usual state of calm. It is still unfathomable to George that her feelings should equal his own - sometimes he feels he must be inside a carefully constructed dream of his own making.

“This will not do, Emma,” he manages to confess rather hoarsely. “You have quite distracted me. For you know very well I have come here with a singular purpose of speaking to your father - to add whatever weight I can to your excellent attempts at persuasion.”

“A singular purpose!” she exclaims mockingly, trying to look offended but not really managing it, for her eyes are too merry, her countenance too bright. “And here I thought that I should be temptation enough for you, Mr Knightley.” Emma has long since mastered the ability of looking coy, and so her lashes flutter at him in a way that George knows is artifice and yet captivates him anyway.

“You know perfectly well what I mean,” he manages to reply, before bowing his head to kiss her once more with such thoroughness that will render even Emma Woodhouse speechless for a time. Indeed, when he draws back, he is satisfied with his having been most successful, judging by the appreciative look that she graces him with. “Although, dear Emma - it might be best that I speak with him alone for now?”

George wonders whether Emma might think there is some noble reasoning for this; that this solemn conversation requires privacy between the two gentlemen in order to render it more effective. But the truth is that George cannot entertain the idea of Emma sitting demurely in the same room as he sings her praises to her father, extols her many virtues, and numbers all the very many ways in which he loves her.

It is not that she does not already know these things, of course. These precious weeks have already had him unleash his heart to her in a fashion that George is still not quite accustomed to, having been so used to keeping such feelings completely hidden until now. But it is one thing to divulge these things directly to Emma in private, and quite another to lay them at her father’s feet while she watches on.

To his relief, Emma does not disagree for once. “I think that is wise,” she nods, her striking features searching his own with a sense of renewed hope. “For perhaps he needs to hear from your own lips that removing from Donwell will not be such a great hardship for you.”

“To be sure, it is not,” he soothes, which is the utter truth. Yes, perhaps George had once dreamed of bringing a mistress to Donwell, of raising a family there. But when his years of bachelorhood ever increased in number, the hope of it happening had eventually waned away to nothing. In the end, it had been an altogether easy notion to set aside Donwell when a solution for Mr Woodhouse’s contentment was required. The prize George acquires by simply adding himself to Hartield instead is far greater.

“I must speak to Serle about dinner tomorrow anyway,” Emma says, with a quaint little frown. “I shall join you in the drawing room when I am done?”

“Very well,” George agrees with a short nod, thinking that this should give him sufficient time. It feels like he is heading towards the executioner’s axe, rather than to speak with what he hopes one day will be his future father-in-law. Oh, how he wished John’s letter had contained more practical advice for this event! He recalls that his brother had had the most difficult time of it when announcing his intention to marry Isabella. If only George had paid more heed of it, for he is sure Mr Woodhouse has not become more pliable on the subject of matrimony in the intervening years.

Emma presses a tender kiss to the corner of his mouth before departing the hall, her upright figure so very assured of being admired that George realises she must have known he would watch her go.

He takes a deep breath before entering the balmy atmosphere of the drawing room; the fire is already lit, the heat bordering on suffocating. Mr Woodhouse is ensconced in his usual armchair, staring rather distantly at the opposite wall.

“Sir?” George begins, trying not to startle, but finding no simple way around breaking the older man out of his reverie. George takes it as a bad sign indeed when Mr Woodhouse does not even rise from his seat in his usual friendly greeting.

George approaches the fireplace with caution. The silence seems to choke out endlessly before Mr Woodhouse even registers his presence.

“Mr Knightley,” he says, rather more formally than customary. He gestures to the armchair opposite, the wave of his hand demonstrating a rather pronounced tremor. George’s heart cries out in sympathy towards his old friend. Up until now, he had merely a theoretical understanding of how this news may affect Mr Woodhouse, but the reality is quite different up close. For while Mr Woodhouse’s fears may seem unfounded to many - indeed, to most - they were real enough to him, and George accepts that he is the main cause of the present ones. It is now his job to ease them as best as he is able.

“Good evening,” he extends, remaining on his feet for a moment before the idea of standing becomes all too awkward. He finally sits in the offered armchair, perching on its edge. He finds he does not quite know where to start.

“You have come in Emma’s stead, I see,” Mr Woodhouse declares eventually, smoothing the blanket draped across his knees in an unsettled motion. He sounds dejected, quite hopeless. “I fear I have disappointed her.”

George delicately attempts to negotiate a balanced answer. “Never, sir. You know Emma is a most diligent and affectionate daughter.”

The older man seems somewhat appeased by this praise. “This is true, Mr Knightley.” His pensive look remains however, continuing to haunt his brow. “But I am so very troublesome to her, I know.”

A protest falls easily from George’s tongue. “Indeed I must correct you. She only wishes for you to be comfortable and happy. Her heart, as you know, has a great capacity for kindness.”

“She is so very kind, just like her mother.” The mood between them remains sombre. It is rather unclear whether Mr Woodhouse thinks George possesses such a quality right now.

“I concur. But sir, I will not deny I have come to see how you do. I am only sorry that our news has caught you by surprise. It was not our intention.” George bows his head over his clasped hands, even as his heart enjoys the sound of the collective verbal grouping of himself and Emma as one entity. “I would never wish to be remiss in what is due to you. Your great generosity to me has always been appreciated.”

Mr Woodhouse shuffles in his chair, fists the blanket in his lap. His feet peek out from under the blanket. He is wearing his favourite slippers. “I know you to be a good and honest man, Mr Knightley.”

It is a promising start. “Thank you, sir.”

But clearly this good fortune was never going to last. “However, it is quite another thing - to… to hear that you both now wish that you should marry!” Mr Woodhouse’s disbelief is evident in his tone, a deep look of perturbation settling into the lines of his face. “I should… I should not have believed it had it not come from my daughter’s own lips.”

George’s hand, quite without his having any control over it, flits to his own chest, pressing at the weight that seems to have settled there. He allows himself a moment to take a deep steadying breath before letting it fall away. “I… I do understand the shock the information would have caused. But it is true that we intend to marry - with your blessing and consent, of course.”

Mr Woodhouse appears distracted, and George is not quite sure whether to repeat his request. Finally the old man speaks. “A father only wants what is best for his daughters, you see.”

“Naturally, sir.” George would revel in the opportunity to experience so for himself. It is a daydream that has occupied much of his time of late: a daughter with Emma’s mouth and his eyes, perhaps.

Looking lost, Mr Woodhouse shakes his head. “Although Emma has always professed that she would never marry! You have heard her proclaim so on many occasions, I believe.”

“That is correct,” George admits, doing his best to dampen a wince. He had never truly believed in Emma’s declarations, as stubbornly and ardently expressed as they always were. But he rather curses these public assertions of hers now. “But she has changed and grown much in this past year, I believe.”

Mr Woodhouse does not seem to hear him, or perhaps opts not to. “I could never deny Emma what she desires, of course. And... she does appear to be excessively fond of you.” It is obvious that Mr Woodhouse means his words kindly, but George rather hopes that ‘excessively fond’ is a gross understatement. “Far more than I ever realised her to be.”

“It has taken us both some time to realise it ourselves, sir.”

A thoughtful look passes over Mr Woodhouse’s craggy face. “It is a wonder indeed that you should choose to marry now, Mr Knightley. I always believed you to be a most contented bachelor.”

George manages to suppress a slightly frustrated exhale. He has long been tired of others telling him that he must be seasoned to his solitude and independence, and want for nothing more. For the longest time he had not analysed why such presumptions bothered him, until the answer had arrived in the shape of Frank Churchill, and a blinding jealousy had bubbled inside of him the likes of which he had never known in all his life.

But it is unreasonable to place this old grievance on Mr Woodhouse. George accepts he did very little to protest the impression that he wished for anything other than growing eccentrically old on his estate before handing it off to his nephew. But for right now, it is just easier to stretch the truth a little. “I have not previously been unhappy with my lot in life, it is true. But it is only now, in finding the right inducement to part from it, that I see a much more fortunate path ahead of me.”

A sigh rattles from the old man. “I know Emma to be most worthy. And she would not bestow her affections on any man who did not deserve them,” Mr Woodhouse allows. “But think, Mr Knightley, that you are so very frequently by Hartfield. I do believe there is scarcely an evening when you do not grace our drawing or dining room, indeed! - And you are always most welcome here, as you know. However... I do not see that a marriage should be required in order to solidify these arrangements. It will not accomplish what has already been achieved between our two houses.”

George very much wishes that he could express - in the very frankest of terms - just how much such a marriage is required. For while it is true that George spends a great many of his evening hours by the Hartfield hearth, he has no desire to spend the rest of his life having to part from Emma each and every night. Not when the alternative would be so much more fulfilling.

His reply finds a more sedate path than his fevered thoughts. “You are right sir, in that I am often here, for Hartfield is a place of much comfort to me. And I like to be of use to you, sir - it gives me great pleasure.”

This reminder leaves Mr Woodhouse thoughtful. “It is true, Mr Knightley, that your assistance is so very much appreciated here. I know I could not get through quite so many of my letters without your help and sound advice. I have not a head for business nowadays, as you know.”

George inclines his head graciously at the compliment. He does not mind performing these tasks, and if he is honest with himself, feels a little disgraceful for having to lean on them now as if some sort of bartering chip. But in desperate situations, a man may have to compromise himself slightly. “It is no problem, sir. I am always happy to oblige.” George decides now is as good a time as any to be bold. “Therefore…” he leans forward in his seat even more, “does it not seem it would be only more beneficial for me to be here even more constantly with you - and Emma?”

Mr Woodhouse looks immediately unnerved by the question. George senses he has miscalculated. “But Donwell, sir! It will suffer so!” The fire crackles particularly loudly, as if in emphasis. The embers glow a crisp and zealous shade of orange.

George tempers a sliver of a smile, for he gets a keen sense that Mr Woodhouse’s concern for the running of the Donwell estate is not, and never really has been, the true issue at hand. “I must heartily disagree,” he argues calmly, certainly more calmly than he feels on the inside. “I may need to walk back and forth each day, to oversee matters, but that is no more walking than I do now.”

A shaky sigh echoes out of Mr Woodhouse. He has taken to wringing his hands together now, his anxiety all too clear. George heartily dislikes that such a thing of joy for himself and Emma should cause such worry in another so beloved to them both. “But… in time, Emma… s-she will wish… to remove there with you,” the older man frets, eyes now glassy and pale. “I… I know it. Most sincerely.”

Ah, finally - there is the crux of the matter. Mr Woodhouse fears his daughter will leave him despite, no doubt, Emma’s assurances to the contrary. Those he loves leaving him has long been his greatest fear, and one that George and Emma had anticipated. Because of that, George is thankfully able to remedy the concerns with kind and patient ease. “I assure you, sir - Emma wishes for no such thing. I am almost sure she will have said so herself to you already?”

“Indeed, she has,” her father is able to admit begrudgingly. “But if you are to be her husband, Mr Knightley, she will feel bound to-”

George cannot help his interjection, as blunt as it may come across. But he simply cannot let Mr Woodhouse grieve and fuss over something that will never happen. It gives George too much pain to let it go unchecked for a second longer. He hopes the man will forgive the slight. “No, no, please - I beg you not to worry on this front, sir. I should not wish to remove Emma from Hartfield, any more than you should not wish to have her removed. I daresay, she would not go even if I willed it, which I certainly do not and will not. I… I give you my solemn word on this matter.”

For the first time all evening, Mr Woodhouse seems hopeful even though there is a lingering suspicion in his eyes. “Your word?”

George nods, quite intently. “As you said sir, you know me to be an honest man?”

“Indeed.” There is a slight lifting of the heaviness that had previously weighed on Mr Woodhouse’s shoulders.

“Then, I promise,” George says, as emphatically as he is able, “that Emma shall not be removed from Hartfield. I am well aware that her happiness requires her to be near you, and my happiness… well, it is derived from her happiness, you see - along with not being miles distant from her.”

This declaration seems to silence Mr Woodhouse for some time. George even begins to allow himself to hope that all has been addressed, all has been put in place for a favourable outcome.

Until: “But Mr Knightley,” Mr Woodhouse asserts suddenly, as if the thought has just struck him, “marriage is such an unsettling business, do you not see? It took Isabella from me, and poor Miss Taylor too.” A forlorn gaze into the fire follows. “They think of their misfortunes at leaving Hartfield most often, I am sure.”

George bites back a smile just in time. He is too much of a gentleman to contradict such a proclamation - for he has not seen two women more content with their matrimonial state in all his life than Isabella Knightley and Mrs Weston. But George has long accepted this as a particular argument he cannot hope to win against Mr Woodhouse, and so therefore remains determined to focus only on the situation at hand. “Then it is most fortunate,” he answers kindly, “that Emma will not ever be taken from her home.”

A thoughtful pause overtakes the room. George can scarcely breathe while he waits it out.

“Well, it seems I am overruled,” Mr Woodhouse remarks finally, an unmistakable sadness barely veiled in his tone.

The low lying guilt that has been festering in George’s stomach becomes fully fledged. “Emma and I have no wish to cause you unhappiness, sir. You must know this,” George urges, a little despairingly. He is somewhat pacified with the small nod of agreement he receives and on that note, continues in earnest: “And Emma is most eager for you to join us in celebrating the happy news. She will not be content if you are not.” George is perfectly aware that Mr Woodhouse considers these events anything but happy, but finds himself unable to select another word, even for his old friend.

“Oh, but she has always been so content with the current state of things,” Mr Woodhouse laments, seemingly circling back to his old argument once more. “I do not know what has so very much changed of late. It all started when Miss Taylor left, I believe.”

Perhaps there is an element of truth in the timing, George privately admits, although he will not give voice to it. Instead he merely clears his throat and summons the courage to say what really needs to be said at this point of the proceedings. “It is not that Emma is, or was, discontent, sir. Anything but. She has been raised with such care and love, and we both know that she has always been of a happy disposition.” Mr Woodhouse looks satisfied with the praise and sentiments, and that is a good start. George presses on. “But our - that is Emma and my own - our... attachment to each other, it is… that is to say,” he finds himself fumbling most bashfully, “if I may be bold enough to say, sir, that it has added greatly to her happiness. To my own happiness.”

The old man remains quiet, but George can see the stressed lines around his eyes visibly soften. This small change compels him to continue. “For some time now, I have found my… affection for Emma, to be…to be…” The words to explain the scope of his feelings quite escape him - they all feel so hopelessly inadequate. Oh, he does not know why this is so difficult!

“You love her?” The words emit from Mr Woodhouse in a hush, a depth of understanding finally seeming to dawn on him.

George finds it within himself to nod, his heart now rattling a rapid staccato through his chest. “Most desperately, sir. If I… if I may be so forward,” he manages rather breathlessly. It is a relief to have the truth out in the open, even if the frankness of the admission mortifies him somewhat. George is not used to such vulnerabilities, and certainly not in front of Mr Woodhouse.

A soft sigh follows from the opposite armchair and Mr Woodhouse finally bestows him with a kind and indulgent look. “And so this… development has prompted a matching desire for change in yourself, Mr Knightley?”

George cracks a smile at that. “Quite so. I will admit, of late, the notion of being without Emma - for there was a time I thought I might be - has become quite unbearable.” The sentences are slowly taking shape, tugging outwards from his heart. “Sir, I am not prone to such sentiment. You know this about me.”

Mr Woodhouse does not say anything, merely nods passively.

“And so you know when I say that… that I love your daughter, and cannot desire a life without her, you will accept I speak the most ardent of truths. Emma is quite surely... the only woman I have ever loved, and will ever love,” George hears his voice crack just a little, and swallows harshly to remedy it. “And I will do everything in my power to prove that to both yourself, and her, until I breathe my absolute last.”

His hands are shaking a little, and so George twists them firmly together in order to quell the motions. He is sure his face is a most unnatural shade of red.

Mr Woodhouse shifts in his chair, before he offers a gentle smile, forming quietly at each corner of his mouth. “I see you are quite in earnest, Mr Knightley. And I must admit, it does give me great pleasure to know that my daughter will be so cared for.”

A surge of hope rises within him, even though George has no ability left to speak. He hopes his rather inadequate bob of his head is sufficient to convey his thanks. He is rather glad that Emma seems to have been waylaid in the kitchens, for he is sure he could not meet her impish eyes after such fervent professions on his part.

“I daresay,” Mr Woodhouse continues with a tone of paternal concession, “the addition of you at Hartfield will ultimately be conducive to all.”

A shuddering breath manages to escape the tight knit of George’s throat. It is embarrassingly loud but he does not care. “I… I am most gratified to hear you say that, sir.” It is as close to consent as they are likely to get for the time being but it is exactly enough to send his heart soaring in relief.

“But Mr Knightley,” Mr Woodhouse adds, seemingly oblivious to the joy his few short words have provided George, “there is no rush for these things, I am sure.”

George’s flying heart sinks once more, for it seems this is a case of two steps forward and one step back. “Oh?” The tightness in his voice strangles the syllable.

“A long engagement is always wise, I think,” Mr Woodhouse pronounces, although with whose authority George cannot possibly say. It seems Emma was not completely in jest when she had suggested it may be a marriage many decades hence. But, for now, George keeps his protests to himself. It is progress enough that Mr Woodhouse acknowledges the existence of an engagement in the first place. George cannot expect all his wishes so instantly to come true. “The wedding date can be settled for when the weather is warmer, I think.”

George keeps his voice as neutral as he can. “Warmer, sir?” It is inching into autumn now, and the English weather will certainly not improve for another six months at least. Such a delay feels untenable.

“Oh yes! For the Highbury church can be very draughty in the winter. I have spoken to Mr Elton about it at length,” Mr Woodhouse tucks his blanket tighter around knees in seeming anticipation of the coming cold. “Perhaps by this coming summer, or the next, a wedding can be arranged.”

George wants to laugh, for naturally it will not do. He has always believed himself to be a patient man by nature, but a prolonged engagement would certainly test his sanity in ways he does not yet dare to imagine. But, he is no fool: enough of a victory has been won today, and he cannot do more for now.

He makes some noncommittal sounds, enough to placate Mr Woodhouse without explicitly agreeing to such arduous terms. George will apprise Emma of the progress made, even if it has left them with yet more to discuss.

But for now, Mr Woodhouse looks tired and drained. George senses it is best that he depart in order to let the older gentleman reflect on all that has passed. It has clearly been a most trying day for him, and he has already conceded much to the forces of love.

On that note, George takes his respectful leave of Mr Woodhouse with a short bow, feeling relieved to escape the sweltering room and the still slightly maudlin mood that hangs over it all. The worst is over, and he knows the rest can be worked on. Between himself and Emma, John and Isabella, and no doubt Mrs Weston too, Mr Woodhouse will slowly be most heartily convinced from all sides that a long engagement is unnecessary. A summer wedding will no doubt creep forward to the spring, to Christmas, perhaps even the end of this coming season.

As he slips noiselessly out of the drawing room, George finds himself startled by Emma, who is leaning against the wall in the hallway, right beside the door. She looks very smug indeed.

George immediately parses her knowing look. “How long have you been standing here?” he questions in a hushed tone, guiding her by her elbow away from the now closed drawing room door. He really need not ask, for he is sure he can guess her answer.

“Long enough,” she smiles prettily, tilting her chin up at him in defiance. Indeed, George is now quite certain that there was never anything she needed to speak to Serle about at all, and had perhaps been standing outside the door the entire time. He could chide her, but has not the energy or the desire for it. No, George is too relieved, too content to let her artful trickery bother him today.

Nevertheless, he presses his lips together firmly in a very minimum pursuit at censure anyway, so as to let her know that he has found her out and disapproves, even if he has chosen to not articulate it. “And what is your judgement of my efforts?” he asks instead, curious as always to her opinion.

Emma glances away for a moment, as if in most serious contemplation, before her sharp eyes snap back to his. “I’d say you are quite full of pretty speeches, Mr Knightley.” Oh, how he wishes she could learn to call him George, but that is a battle for another day too.

He merely bites his tongue, determined not to reward her teasing with endorsement, although this is becoming less and less easy as time goes on. “I do not know what you mean.”

There is no mistake in the way Emma presses against him, her elegant hands coming to rest upon the lapels of his coat, smoothing their way down to rest against the top buttons. George’s pulse suffers a most erratic change of rhythm at her touch.

“It is quite one thing for you to say these things to me when we are alone,” Emma reveals, a lovely flush on the tip of her rather perfect nose, “but it is another thing entirely to hear you say them to others. I admit, to hear you praise me, is still very novel indeed. I do not think I shall ever tire of it.”

“I do hope one day you will come to find it less novel,” George admits, even as he accepts why the depth of his regard should still seem unfamiliar to Emma yet. He has many years of criticisms to remedy. “I shall have to get better at praising you without making you into a very vain creature indeed.” He is tempted to throw in a jibe about Mrs Elton, but rather values his life, and so instead settles for a sly smirk.

Emma laughs heartily at that, and the sound emboldens George to place the span of his hand against the curve of her waist. It is the most indulgent feeling in all the world to touch her and have her lips part happily at his gesture. Oh, to be near her like this always - she makes him quite lose his head!

“You are ever the humourist, Mr Knightley,” Emma replies, once her giggling has subsided. “But to hear the manner in which you spoke to my father - perhaps you are not the indifferent lover you claimed yourself to be. Perhaps you have possessed the secret heart of the poet all this time?”

George cannot help but release an amused snort, as undignified as that may be. He has never been accused of such nonsense, and shall not indulge it now regardless of the source. “Now, Emma - we are not accustomed to these untruths with each other, and I should not like to start now.”

“I do not jest!” she cries gaily, rocking up on her toes before finding her heels again. Her dangling earrings sway with her movements. “For I very much like to hear that you love me,” she lowers her tone, as if imparting a secret, “most desperately.”

He cannot help but wince in embarrassment, even as he replies: “Did you doubt that I do?”

“Not at all,” Emma states firmly, with the steady resolution he knows her best for. “And it is most convenient, for I find my feelings are quite the match for your own.” Emma sparkles at him with mirth. “Although I hope you do not think I will be satisfied to wait for next summer to be married!”

George does not even try to mask his smile this time. “No, indeed. That will certainly not do, dear Emma.”

“I am pleased to hear we are once more in agreement.” Her fingers toy with one of the buttons on his jacket, idly twisting it this way and then that. George feels pinned under the directness of Emma’s gaze, and even more so as she leans even further into him, so that her lips are so very close to his own, even if they do not touch. “For I am most eager to experience the full extent of this love you so eloquently proclaim.”

Her statement is audacious indeed, and she knows it. The knowing look in Emma’s eyes tells George that it had been her very intention to render him mute, and that she is satisfied she has had the intended effect.

“As am I,” is all George manages to choke out, much to his own disgrace. He thinks back to earlier in the week when he had eased her spine against the trunk of the horse chestnut tree for some long private moments, hidden from view, and had been able to demonstrate the utter ardency of his devotion. Her hair had not well survived such attentions.

“Very good,” she replies, a sweet pink on her cheeks hinting that Emma is recalling the very same specific memory. Her hand boldly snakes up to George’s cravat, to the place under his chin that is still exposed to the air, and grazes a gloved finger there. He feels himself swallow thickly. “I do so long for the day when you do not have to leave each evening.” There is a quiet longing in her tone that says everything else she is unable to say, for Emma is still a lady, despite her newly discovered boldness.

George has not the words to concur, even though he very much does. He had never thought that he could be so happy, or that his heart could have yearned for her more than it already does. And yet everyday it finds a new way to grow and expand with love for her.

They linger there in the empty hall for a long moment, simply staring at each other. It is blissfully tender, but positioned as they are, their privacy will not last forever. George can already hear servants bustling in distant rooms, and senses them circling closer.

“Shall I walk you out?” Emma asks after a moment, when it is clear George has temporarily lost the ability to move or speak. She turns her head towards the window and scrutinises the horizon. “I see the sky is particularly beautiful this evening. The view from the horse chestnut tree would be most spectacular, I believe?”

Oh, he adores her wickedly sharp mind, her mischievous nature. George knows without a doubt that she will detour him beneath the canopy once more, and hide them from the waning golden light. Perhaps this time she will press him against the rough bark, and the idea makes him feel quite helpless.

“Yes, dear Emma,” he manages to reply, his voice still half ragged with desire. “I should be glad of your company. Shall we?”

“With pleasure, Mr Knightley,” she says.