I hope everyone had a happy New Year! Sorry this chapter took so long. It's the direct cause of laziness and holidays, I'm afraid. Anyway, I hope you enjoy, and thank you very much for the reviews last chapter. They definitely raised my spirits.



- - -

Emma was so excited for the next morning that she could hardly sleep a wink, a very peculiar change, for she usually slept extremely well. It seemed as if all signs were pointing, gesturing, towards the possibility of Mr. Knightley's being in love with Miss Taylor. It could be no other way. Even the finest friend could not; nay, would not dislike the attentions of a fellow man upon his own. Emma's heart beat inside her chest happily as she recalled the incident – oh, what a good and positive match! And it made perfect sense, after Mr. Knightley's being free of Miss Purkey's clutches like a bird released from its cage. And to think that his feelings were shown simply because William Purkey had decided to pay Miss Taylor attention. Ah!

When Mr. Knightley called the next morning (as she knew he would), Emma did not come downstairs, even when Miss Taylor called her. She was determined to have them sit and talk. Emma fussed with her buttons slowly, looking around the room to pass the time. How delightful it would be! She would come downstairs, they would be talking, sitting close to each other, smiling, and then – and then –

Good God! What would happen then? Emma gripped the railing of the staircase more tightly than usual as she descended the stairs as shakily as if she might be sick. Good God! Her head forced her to continue, her heart wailing to turn back. She could not force herself into matters that were of no consequence to her; she should go away, leave, simply vanish from all possible contact and then – then, she could breathe. Emma was about to run back up to her bedroom when she heard someone hailing her.

'Oh, there you are, Emma,' Miss Taylor said, walking by the stairs with a tray laden with tea. 'Did you not hear me call? Mr. Knightley came by for a visit.'

Emma nearly suffocated at her words. 'Are you well, Emma?' Miss Taylor asked concernedly. As she surveyed her face, she seemed to be searching for the right words. 'You look ... odd.'

'I am quite well, really,' Emma replied quickly. She opened her mouth to develop this further but hurriedly decided against it. Miss Taylor's shrewd eye was taking in her every movement. Saying nothing else, she rushed past her into the sitting-room, pinching her cheeks as if afraid the color might not return quickly enough. What had plagued her so? Emma could not think for blushing. Oh, but she had the will of a simpleton! How stupid of her to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable aiding friends! For shame, she scolded herself irritably. I must compose myself if I am to be any use.

Mr. Knightley himself was sitting on a chair next to the fireplace, but when Emma entered, he stood up and smiled at her.

'Emma.' He inclined his head slightly. Emma smiled.

'Good morning, Mr. Knightley,' said she. She gestured for him to sit down and wished that she had eyes at the back of her head to draw Miss Taylor with. 'What brings you by? Any important or interesting news you would like to distribute among us simple folk?'

He laughed. 'I am afraid not, Emma. It seems that our Highbury is very slow for gossip this time of year. I have called to check up on your father's health. He had a rather throaty cough last evening and it demanded attention. Nothing too serious, of course, but as a friend I could not pass by without seeing him.'

Emma, had she felt any more daring, would have contradicted him. She knew he was here to see Miss Taylor, as surely asshe knew he would come last night when she laid in bed thinking about it. Rather than noting this, however, she merely nodded her head and smiled demurely – as, for his benefit, it would not do for him to know that his feelings had been discovered so early on.

By a stroke of good fortune Miss Taylor had just entered the room carrying the tea tray, and Emma seized this moment vivaciously by exclaiming, 'Oh, do excuse me, Mr. Knightley, but I must prepare for my walk to the Bates's. I will be back in a moment.'

Mr. Knightley looked as relieved as Emma felt in leaving the room, and to her surprise (and slight bewilderment at its taking so short a time), Mr. Knightley immediately engaged Miss Taylor in a conversation that was impossible to hear from across the room. She stationed herself outside the doorway and strained her ears for the slightest information, but it was fruitless. Oh, what bad, manipulative luck! She did not want to go in, for fear of disturbing this delicate situation, and yet she was simply dying to know what they were saying.

Frustrated and outwitted by bad luck, Emma left the doorway and wandered aimlessly for a couple of minutes before returning to the room. The element of surprise was her ally, and so powerful an ally that Emma heard distinctly the words "Emma" and "Purkey" before calling Mr. Knightley and Miss Taylor to attention. They both looked at her warily as she entered the room (guiltily, Emma thought triumphantly), Miss Taylor nodded her head for Mr. Knightley, and left their midst. Emma, in her own way, was not unhappy at this. Seeing them together for too long was more than her little heart could bear.

'Ah. Emma,' said Mr. Knightley as soon as Miss Taylor had left the room. 'When are you going over to the Bates's?'

'Soon,' said Emma evasively. Then, nonchalantly: 'How did you like the ball, Mr. Knightley?'

Emma thought she saw a flash of unbridled emotion sweep across his face, but she was not quite sure. 'It was elegant and enjoyable, as you know. I was happy to see that most of Highbury had been obliged to come; you must be happy to have so many caring friends. After all, fifteen –' and here Mr. Knightley paused, looking strangely at her.

'Are you going to say that fifteen is a very large number for such a naïve child?' teased Emma in full spirits. 'I quite understand. I often think it myself and wonder where all the time has gone. Being a child has its advantages that adulthood lacks, I am afraid.'

'You are not quite an adult, Emma –' protested Mr. Knightley in a way that reminded Emma so much of her father that she commented on it, laughing. Mr. Knightley did not say anything but sat completely still. Misinterpreting his silence, she raised her eyebrows delicately.

'Well, if I am not a child and I am not an adult, then what am I?' asked Emma playfully. However, she sensed his moodiness and immediately cast down her eyes, fidgeting absently with the hem of her dress.

'If you are not comfortable discussing this with me –' began Emma.

Mr. Knightley suddenly grabbed her hands tightly so that Emma's eyes shot up and widened. 'No, no, it is quite all right,' said he. He released her hands as if they had burned him. 'Oh, my dearest Emma, do not misunderstand me! You turning fifteen, it is – it is like watching time slip through my fingers; I am most glad for you, but it is a shock for me; me, who you have considered as both a father and brother –'

'Father and brother indeed!' cried Emma scornfully. 'I have decided that you are much too fatherly to be a brother and I already have a father, so I will hear no more about it! I consider you a friend, Mr. Knightley, the finest of friends; I had hoped you would think of me in the same way.'

Gathering up all her brave spirits, Emma determinedly looked him in the eye. She was relieved to see his lips gradually form into a smile and his eyes alight again with good humour.

There was a quiet knock at the door and Miss Taylor came in. Mr. Knightley immediately stood up and moved slightly away from Emma; she had not realised their proximity.

'Emma, dear, you have a visitor,' said Miss Taylor delicately.

Emma felt Mr. Knightley tense beside her as she responded: 'Who is it, Miss Taylor?'

'Mr. James Purkey.' Emma thought she heard some anger in Miss Taylor's voice, but could not imagine the reason why and dismissed the thought.

'I will go to him,' said Emma quickly. 'I will see what he wants. Excuse me, Miss Taylor – Mr. Knightley –'

For some reason or another, she found that she did not want to look at Mr. Knightley. Exiting the room hastily, she kept her eyes forward and did not spare them a backward glance.

- - -

Emma soon found, upon reaching the front door where James stood, hat in hand, that he had meant to talk with her about something most important, and he desired her company for a walk. Obliging as ever, she agreed, and hurriedly fetched her shawl before they set off.

However, as they walked along the tree-lined pathway, Emma's thoughts were so fixated on Mr. Knightley's strange behaviour that she could hardly focus on her handsome companion. James was silent, but it was not a nervous silence and Emma was happy for the time being. She was slightly apprehensive about walking with him, when they had met only briefly; and she wished that Mr. Knightley would have come along. But, she thought with a sudden surge of unreasonable resentment, he was probably engaged with Miss Taylor and would not care where she had gone, or with whom.

'What are your thoughts, Emma?' asked James suddenly.

Emma jumped, startled. It had come as a shock to her when he had addressed her with her Christian name before, but now, in such private settings, it made her feel quite uneasy. She wished he would call her Miss Woodhouse instead of Emma. Emma was reserved only for her most intimate friends.

'Hardly anything of importance,' said she, with a dazzling smile to cover her thoughts. 'It was good of you to visit, Mr. P – James –' and, recovering quickly, 'I had thought you were returning to Bath quite soon.'

James merely grinned and shrugged. 'I could not go without saying good-by to you first, my dear. However, on a whim I have decided to stay, so that will hardly be necessary. William has already left, but that is fine news to me – he is such a bore.' Good, Emma thought, at least Mr. Knightley's hopes can rise now. James continued, looking behind him: 'I did not interrupt anything back at Hartfield, I hope?'

'No – no, of course not,' assured Emma. 'I was just talking to an old friend.'

James seemed interested. 'Oh?'

'Yes, he came by this morning –'

'He?' asked James in surprise. Then, coolly: 'Oh, you must mean George Knightley.'

'Of course,' said Emma. 'He has known me since I was born.'

There was something strange about the way James mentioned Mr. Knightley's name, something off. However, Emma did not comment on it. Instead, she kept walking, saying:

'So, James, how long are you planning –'

James interrupted as if he had not heard her. 'My dear sister, bless her little heart, loved George Knightley very much. She positively raved about him. No man was half the man as he was; no man was half as gentle or kind; no man compared to George Knightley! William and I heard most of the stories, her dreams of marrying him ...' James paused. 'It saddened us immensely when he stopped writing her. Five years, Emma! Five years he stopped writing her! And then, for some fancy or another, he visited her a few months ago as if they had never parted, brought her to Highbury, made her believe that he was planning matrimony. How he toyed with her heart! I find him despicable. I was glad when my dear sister finally came to her senses and married. To think he could have been the heir of my father's house – it chills my heart.'

Emma had never thought it possible that anyone could dislike Mr. Knightley, for he was to her the epitome of all that was good and right. How such a man could despise him, when his sister loved? – how was it possible? How was it possible that Mr. Knightley could toy with someone's emotions so hurtfully? It was simply impossible.

'I believe you are mistaken, sir,' said Emma coldly. 'Mr. Knightley is not capable of your accusations.'

James dismissed this with a wave of his hand. 'It is only natural for you to believe it, since he is your friend. But, if you trust me at all, listen: George Knightley is not what he appears. He brought great hurt upon my sister, and I am afraid that he will bring hurt upon you as well –'

'Do not presume to know who and who will not bring hurt upon me!' she cried passionately. 'I would trust Mr. Knightley with my life! You, however, are just an acquaintance! Your insolence shocks me, sir, and I will hear no more of it. I am leaving!'

Emma turned on her heel and began walking back towards Hartfield. She was afraid James would stop her but he did not. Stupid, fool of a man! she cried inwardly. What does he know? Emma felt like she would burst into tears if she did not make it back soon. The shock of such a scandalous, horrid accusation, of someone as kind as Mr. Knightley, was so revolting that Emma could not stand it. But – and it was the most ghastly thought of all – what reason but the truth did James have against Mr. Knightley? It was hardly a comforting idea, and Emma immediately regretted it crossing her mind.

I will not let it get to me, Emma resolved. There must have been a mistake.

Though somehow, Emma doubted so.