Emma Woodhouse was six years old when she received her first proposal. From a man that was twelve years her senior, no less.
Jake Knightley was her close friend and next-door-neighbour. Eighteen years old, legally able to drink, vote and go clubbing, and entering his first year of a law degree at Sydney University, he made an unlikely companion for young Emma.
But from the day she was born and had first grasped Jake's index finger in her chubby hand, they had surprisingly become inseparable. Jake liked to joke that Emma had always had him wrapped around her little finger, right from the start.
This particular afternoon, he'd driven home for the weekend. After saying a quick hello to his parents and his younger brother John, he'd hastily made his excuses and headed next door. He had bought some special gifts for his little companion and was eager to see what she would think of them.
Her older sister Isabella answered the door and her eyes lit up momentarily when she saw that it was he; and faded just as quickly as she realised he hadn't brought John with him.
At the age of twelve, Isabella had recently become very interested in boys and had developed a not-so-secret crush on his fourteen-year-old brother. Jake found it highly amusing and teased his brother about it mercilessly.
John (or Johnny as he was known at the time) seldom deigned to dignify his older brother's teasing with replies, but every now and again, Jake caught him sneaking glances at the older Woodhouse girl.
"Oh, Jake, it's you," she said quietly, trying to hide her disappointment. "Are you here to see Emma?"
"Yes, please," Jake said gravely, as he solemnly stepped inside. "I have a present for her... and for you too."
Isabella's eyes shone with unexpected delight and Jake realised with a sudden pang of guilt that she had not been expecting a present from him. Was his affection for Emma so great, that her older sister felt slighted by him?
He berated himself for his insensitivity and silently vowed to pay more attention to Isabella from that moment on.
Not waiting for her younger sister, Isabella carefully began to peel away the sticky tape that bound her package, unwrapping it slowly and methodically.
She finally pulled away the last fold of paper to reveal a lovely baby doll and she smiled happily.
"Oh, she's beautiful! Thank you."
Most twelve-year-old girls would've felt like they were too old for dolls, but Isabella was definitely the exception. She immediately cradled the doll in her arms and began singing a soft lullaby to it. From the dreamy state in her eyes, Jake could tell that she had already fallen in love with her doll.
Jake smiled as Isabella left the room, still gently rocking her doll to sleep. He had a feeling she'd make a great mother someday.
At that point, Emma came running into the room and Jake admired the pretty picture that she made. Hazel eyes, long blonde curls tied back with a blue ribbon, dimples that creased her rosy cheeks...
All she needed to complete the perfect look was a checked dress and pinafore, but there was no way his little Emma would ever agree to wear an outfit like that. Instead, she was clad in a blue T-shirt smattered with dirt and a muddy pair of jeans with a hole ripped in the knee.
"What on earth have you been doing?" he asked, amused by her messy state.
"Climbing trees," she replied breathlessly. "Daddy is asleep and it's the only time I get to climb trees. When he's awake, he always tells me to stay away from them. He's worried I'll fall down."
Jake laughed. Mr Woodhouse was certainly on the overprotective side, there was no doubt about that. But he couldn't blame the man. Having lost his wife when Emma was just a toddler, he'd suddenly found himself alone and responsible for two young girls whom he didn't have the slightest idea how to take care of.
On the recommendations of his good friend Dr Perry, Mr Woodhouse had earnestly purchased several published works about the art of child-rearing and had devoted himself to carrying out each and every method to the letter, no matter how absurd or old-fashioned the methods might be.
Emma's eyes focused greedily on the second parcel tucked under his arm.
"That's for me, isn't it?" she said with confidence, as she expectantly held out her hand.
Jake smothered a grin at the arrogance of his impertinent little friend. Unlike Isabella, who had reservations about whether Jake had even brought her a present, Emma had no such doubts. She knew that Jake doted on her and would never forget to bring her a gift when he came home from university.
I'm spoiling her, he thought in alarm. I really have to stop it, or she'll grow up to be an insufferable adult.
But he forgot his self-reproof and his heart softened at the sight of little Emma eagerly tearing into her package.
"Books! You brought me books! Oh, thank you, Jake!" she exclaimed as she scanned the covers of each excitedly. An avid reader from the young age of four, she devoured books more greedily than any adult he knew, and he took great pleasure in adding to her rapidly-increasing collection.
She then put her books down and surprised Jake by wrapping her arms around his legs and giving him an affectionate hug. He hugged her back warmly, happy that his gift had been so well-received. Although, knowing Emma's varied hobbies and interests, it would be hard to find a gift that she did not like.
Mr Woodhouse had retired to bed early that afternoon, claiming indigestion after a particularly rich lunch at a neighbour's home. Isabella had been delighted to have the opportunity of playing nurse as she enjoyed fussing over and looking after their father. This left Jake to look after Emma. Mr Woodhouse had offered to pay Jake for his time and troubles, but Jake had staunchly refused. He was pleased to have an excuse to spend extra time with his favourite companion.
"So, what are we going to do today, Em?" he asked, bracing himself for any range of answers. Emma had a very creative imagination and enjoyed all kinds of things, so it wouldn't be out of character for her to suggest making pirate costumes from scratch or whipping up a fancy dish a la Junior Masterchef.
To his surprise, Emma shyly asked if they could watch a DVD and even produced what she wanted to watch.
Jake smiled at her request. It was a recording of the wedding of a distant relative of the Woodhouse's. Although the family had been invited to the wedding, Mr Woodhouse had refused to go, because it was on board a ship. He was sure that he and the girls would get terribly seasick if they had to spend the entire day on a rocking boat.
For a shipboard wedding, the set-up was surprisingly elegant. The rails of the ship were decked with lilies (the bride's favourite flower) and contrary to Mr Woodhouse's apprehensive fears, the boat did not appear to be rocking in the slightest.
Emma stared transfixed at the screen, watching intently as the bride walked towards her groom and clasped his hand.
"There's not many people at her wedding," she whispered, as though she was afraid to disrupt the groom's recitation of his vows.
"Well, I guess she wanted to keep it small. It looks like it's just really close friends and immediate family there," Jake replied.
"Oh," Emma said thoughtfully.
She returned to staring at the screen, but a few minutes later, she was tugging on Jake's sleeve again.
"It's not a very fancy wedding," she confided. "It doesn't look anything like the wedding Cousin Kathy had last year."
Jake unwittingly grimaced as he remembered the horrendously ostentatious wedding Kathy had put on. From live doves being released during the ceremony to an ice sculpture of a naked Cupid and Aphrodite greeting them at the reception, it had been overly done and flashy from start to finish. In comparison, the ceremony playing in front of them right then was simple and sweet.
"No, this isn't anything like that wedding," he agreed.
He returned his eyes to the television, where the scene had skipped ahead to the reception. Bride and groom were dancing slowly, cheek to cheek.
And of course, Emma interrupted by tugging on his arm yet again.
"Do you think I'll ever get married one day?" she asked thoughtfully.
Jake hid a smile. It seemed ridiculous that the muddy six-year-old in front of him was already wondering if she'd get married one day.
"I don't know, Emma," he replied, careful to keep his tone neutral. For a six-year-old, Emma was surprisingly intelligent and could always tell when he was patronising her.
Emma frowned, clearly not happy with his answer.
"But I want to get married one day!" she cried petulantly. "And I'm going to have a quiet wedding like that one there."
Jake thought about the idea of Emma getting married one day and felt very old. He had so much trouble picturing this dimpled little child as a bride.
But wishing to placate her, he replied honestly, "I'm sure you'll get married one day, Emma. Just find your husband first, OK?"
"OK," Emma replied obediently. Then she looked up at him curiously.
"Jake? Will you get married one day?"
Jake swallowed, feeling a bitter lump come into his throat.
For the past ten months, he'd been seriously dating a beautiful blonde named Caroline Bingley. She was classy, sophisticated and stylish and Jake had fallen for her easily. However they had been on the verge of celebrating their eleventh-month anniversary when she had unexpectedly and cruelly dumped him without so much as an explanation why.
Right then, he didn't feel as though he would ever be able to trust another woman with his heart again; let alone wonder if he'd ever get married. But of course, he couldn't explain this to Emma.
"I don't know, Em," he said with a sigh, reaching out and tousling her blonde curls.
"Why not?" Emma pressed. She had an exceedingly curious nature and Jake knew that she wouldn't be satisfied with a pat answer.
"I don't know whether I'll ever meet someone who loves me enough to marry me," he said truthfully, wondering why the hell he was spilling his guts to a six-year-old.
But the warmth and compassion in Emma's eyes was surprisingly empathetic.
"That's sad, Jake," she said earnestly as her face took on a contemplative expression.
A few seconds later, her eyes lit up. "Maybe you and I can get married when I grow up and we can spend all day reading books and climbing trees together!"
Jake found himself grinning at Emma's absurd idea of what married life entailed.
"Perhaps we might," he said quietly, but with a twinkle in his eye.
"But you have to plopose first," she instructed sternly. "Girls don't get married unless the boy ploposes first."
"I see," Jake said solemnly, wondering where his little friend had gleaned this important piece of knowledge. "And what must I do, in order to... plopose to you?"
Emma frowned thoughtfully, as though trying to remember all the movies she'd ever seen.
"Well, first you have to get down on one knee," she mused.
Grinning, Jake obediently went down on one knee, trying to not to crack up at the preposterous sight he was sure that they made.
"And then you have to tell me you want to marry me..."
"I want to marry you," Jake said dutifully.
"And then you need to give me a ring..."
Jake hesitated and turned his pockets inside-out. "Sorry, Emma, I don't think I have a ring in here."
She looked over the scanty contents of his pocket gravely and tapped her chin with her forefinger in a surprisingly adult manner.
"You can bend this piece of gum and make it into the shape of a ring," she suggested finally. Her imagination knew no bounds.
Jake carefully fashioned a piece of Wrigley's Spearmint into the shape of a ring and held it up. "Will this do?"
The ring must have passed inspection because Emma nodded.
"Then you put it on my finger and say you'll love me forever," she declared.
And Jake did as he bid, doing his best to keep a straight face.
"Now you've ploposed!" she cried gleefully,
"Does that you mean you'll marry me one day, Emma Woodhouse?"
Emma paused to think about it. "Only if you buy me chocolate chip ice-cream every day and let me climb all the trees I want."
Jake laughed. "It's a deal."
Fifteen years later, Jake Knightley watched Emma Woodhouse float down the aisle in a beautiful Vera Wang dress and felt a pang of pain stab his heart. For he wasn't the groom she was walking towards. And he couldn't help but wonder how it had all gone so terribly wrong.
Author's Note: So this is my first attempt at an Emma fanfic and my second attempt at an Austen fanfic (I also have a modern Pride and Prejudice in progress). As you can probably already tell, this isn't going to be a simple retelling of Emma in a modern context but you will certainly see the parallels.
Thank you for reading my first chapter! What do you think? Is it worth continuing or should I scrap it and go back to the drawing board? I would love to hear your thoughts. Constructive criticism is welcome and of course, any encouragement would be greatly appreciated too. ;)