A/N: This is a very AU story which takes place shortly after the Westons' wedding. It's AU mainly because Frank Churchill is quite different to how he is in the book, and this causes a lot of other changes in the plot and timeline of the story. The Frank in this story is inspired by the lovely smiley guy in the 1971 BBC mini-series of Emma who was IMO the best part of that production even though he wasn't really supposed to be.
Hope you enjoy this take on the story – please review and let me know what you think!
A Proper Object
"It would not be a bad thing for her to be very much in love with a proper object. I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good."
- Mr. Knightley, 'Emma', pg. 39
Chapter One – A Proper Object
When young Mr. Frank Churchill arrived in Highbury for his father's wedding, he exceeded even the expectations of the people who had been hearing for the past twenty-one years since he had left how amiable, charming, handsome and well-bred he was. He was all of that and more: he always had a smile and a ready word for everybody, and he had the unique talent of making all he spoke to feel that he thought them the most interesting person in the room while they were with him; he could give compliments that were sincere and stopped well short of meaningless flattery; he could adapt his conversation to suit his listener – in short, he was perfect, and nobody who met him could dislike him.
Except for Mr. Knightley. He could not put his finger on it, but there was something which he did not like about the young man – to be sure, he had done his duty to his father by coming to his wedding, and his manners could not be faulted for they were friendly while still being perfectly proper, and his dress showed him to be neat and presentable while yet not giving any impression of vanity or foppery, but... but... there was something wrong with him. There had to be.
'What,' Miss Emma Woodhouse demanded of him one morning at Hartfield, 'do you have against Mr. Churchill? I confess, I myself can see no fault in him.' Well, nothing which could provoke such an unwarranted and unfair dislike in Mr. Knightley, who usually judged so well.
If you liked him less, I might like him the more, he thought, and then he was surprised at himself. What did Emma's opinion of the young man matter in the formation of his own judgment? 'He smiles too much,' he muttered finally, well aware of how weak his reply sounded.
Emma raised her eyebrows incredulously, but to his relief let it pass, saying no more about it. He did not think the matter could have borne closer scrutiny – in point of fact, he would rather not think about it himself. Churchill was occupying everyone's thoughts far too much as it was.
Emma had been out walking with Mrs. Weston and Mr. Churchill three out of the past six mornings he had called at Hartfield, and Mr. Knightley's dislike of the young man was stronger than ever. Certainly he and Emma had a chaperone in Mrs. Weston and three mornings out of six was not so often as to be untoward, but... but... it was still improper of Churchill to be paying such attentions to Emma!
Such attentions? His rational mind was too fair to admit the point. The young man adhered disgustingly faithfully to all notions of propriety, and he had never been able to fault his behaviour with Emma when he had observed it. Was it then improper for a man to so much as look at Emma or speak a friendly word to her?
Of course it was – nobody else should look at or speak to Emma like that. Suddenly he did a double take. Nobody "else"?
He dropped his face in his hands and groaned.
Churchill stayed for a month after his father's wedding, which was surprising to everyone who had heard about his aunt's illness and how capricious it could make her, and how unwilling she usually was to part with her nephew – it appeared that he must have insisted to his aunt that he must do his duty in paying a suitably long visit to his father and stepmother on their marriage, and everyone admired him the more for it.
Except for Mr. Knightley. Perhaps he was being unfair, and perhaps he would have held the young man in contempt for not doing his duty if he had made a shorter visit, and yet one whole month was a month too long for him. Much could happen in one month – much had already happened in the three weeks he had been here. Mr. Knightley had never seen Emma so taken with any man before: she always had a genuinely happy smile for that man whenever she saw him; she made it a point to spend some time sitting and talking with him at whichever gathering they were both at; she laughingly accepted his compliments when he offered them and responded in kind.
It was dreadful, and the more so for it was not concrete enough for him to speak with her and warn her about regulating her behaviour or remaining on guard against Churchill's intentions.
How he disliked Churchill for being so... perfect. He could now fully understand why Emma had never warmed to Jane Fairfax before – imagine trying to be friends with the one person who could do everything better than oneself, including gaining the affection of the person one was in love with.
For he admitted it fully to himself now, that he was in love with Emma, had been in love with her probably for some time without being aware of it himself. And yet what was the use of realising it only now, when it was too late? Had he known his own heart before Churchill had arrived, he could have been trying to woo her and gradually make her love him – perhaps they might even have been happily married by now if not for his own obtuseness. He knew that for all their bickering and differences of opinion she was fond of him, and deeply valued his friendship – in time, had he tried, might he not have nurtured something more in her?
Too late now – all too late. He could not enter the field now when she was enamoured of another. It would not be fair to ruin her happiness like that. Perhaps she would be better off with Churchill. Reluctant as he was to acknowledge it, the man seemed to bring out her good qualities. By being friendly to Miss Bates he had Emma following his example; by being friendly to Jane Fairfax, he had Emma being so too.
No matter how much he didn't want to, he had to face it: the promise of Frank Churchill's smile was a better motivator to Emma than the threat of Mr. Knightley's lectures. His own approach had been all wrong from the beginning; he ought to have known that one day it would make things incredibly difficult with Emma, for how was one to go about winning the heart of the woman whom one had lectured and scolded and treated like a child for so many years?
But no – that was not fair. For so many years she had been a child, and a child in need of occasional correction. He could not have known then that one day he would fall in love with her. And now, he was seeing that that man was the one who was influencing her for the better; the one who was slowly but surely filling the place he had once held in her life, and – worst of all – that new place he now wished he could fill.
Exemplary young man as he was, amiable, charming, handsome and apparently good-hearted – in point of fact, the very embodiment of the 'proper object' he had once wished to see Emma in love with – Mr. Knightley hated Frank Churchill.