Posted on 2016-03-13
"If your sister had asked me, I would have told her a New Year's Eve party was a silly idea," groused Mr. Woodhouse to his second eldest as she helped him lever himself out of the low seat of the sensible hatchback onto the sidewalk outside the evening party's venue. "Encouraging people to come out in terrible winter weather is simply irresponsible."
Emma smiled gratefully at a bellhop who hurried forward with an umbrella. "I am sure Isabella and John are very grateful for the unseasonable warm front, then."
Mr. Woodhouse harrumphed. "This damp is worse than a snowstorm. Especially with you young people in outfits like that. You'll probably catch pneumonia."
As she leaned back into the car to retrieve her father's cane, Emma unconsciously tugged the hem of her silver dress down with her free hand. Her eye caught the amused grin on the face of the man in the driver's seat, though, and she narrowed her eyes and stuck out her tongue.
George Knightley refrained from responding in kind, but merely laughed and said he'd find a parking space and meet them inside. Emma closed the passenger side door with a little more force than necessary and helped her father into the hotel lobby.
"I've never thought a New Year's Eve party to be a necessary thing," Mr. Woodhouse was saying as Emma handed their coats to the young woman in the cloakroom and accepted her ticket in return. "Eating unhealthy cocktail food in large quantities for the sake of a manufactured holiday is simply a way to get sick. And I cannot imagine having food laying out on a buffet for so long wouldn't generate a lot of bacteria. Mark my words -- I'm sure there will be plenty of cases of food poisoning tomorrow. A great way to start the calendar year, I'm sure."
Emma sighed, knowing her father would go on like this for a while without much contribution from her, aside from an occasional mark of agreement. Though he would complain, he did enjoy coming out for his daughter's parties, if only to have an opportunity to have a larger audience for his observations. His at-home nurse had already laughed off any of Mr. Woodhouse's pronouncements of danger to his health from the outing, but by the end of the night there would undoubtedly be another set of potential symptoms for him to share with the rest of the hypochondriacs in his bridge club next week.
The nurse, the bridge club, her father's health -- just a few of the many things Emma had grown intimately acquainted with over the past year since she had moved back in to take care of him. She reflected on all of it as she and her father took the elevator to the ballroom on the top floor. It really had been an eventful year for her, and she was somewhat ambivalent about whether it had been a good one or bad. Of a surety, most of the changes had been in her relationships: her good friend Anne Taylor's (now Weston's) marriage and moving a good half hour away, becoming friends with her new coworker Harriet Smith, that utter disaster with Philip Elton, her rather confusing and brief relationship with Frank Churchill, and the subsequent break-up when she discovered he'd been dating Jane Fairfax the entire time, and now the different dynamic with her father. Overall, the past year had left her spirits somewhat subdued and with the feeling that there was something lacking in her life.
Ah, well, she thought as the elevator doors slid open. It was a new year and a fresh start.
The ballroom was already nearly filled with people as they arrived, and Emma looked around in admiration of her sister's decorations. A band played swing music and dancers spun around the floor as others milled about the room; waiters threaded through the crowd bearing glasses of wine and hors d'oeuvres, and a long table on one side of the room bore the weight of trays of sandwiches, delicacies and even a tall chocolate fountain. In the dim lighting, it was difficult to spot her sister to say hello, but after they finally located her and her husband, John Knightley, at one of the tables, Emma left her father in good hands and went to find a plate of food and drink for him.
On her way to the buffet table, she was sidetracked by person after person who hadn't seen her in forever and wanted to know how she was doing. She had finally gotten free again after admiring some iPhone photos of the new progenies of one of Isabelle's friends when Harriet came dashing up and quickly enveloped her in a hug. Resigned to never actually reaching her destination, Emma forced herself to smile widely at her friend and accepted a compliment on her dress, then listened with half an ear to some anecdote about one of the girls at work. It wasn't that she didn't like Harriet, or anything like that; really, she did very much. But for some reason this past week or two she'd been avoiding getting into conversation with her. Nothing was really different about Harriet, Emma was certain, so it must be something about herself, instead. Not a very satisfying conclusion, but fairly consistent with the way she'd been feeling lately.
"Oh, my gosh. He did come," Harriet was saying. "I thought he would, and wore this dress just in case. What do you think?"
Emma, confused about who they were talking about now, said she thought it looked just fine -- pretty hot -- and she was sure every guy would notice.
"Well, not standing here next to you, of course," Harriet said with a giggle. "But he has been paying more attention to me lately, and I think I might have a chance with him."
"Good for you," Emma murmured with a nod and looked around the room. Harriet had been going on about some mysterious guy she had a crush on, and Emma had been vaguely encouraging, but she wasn't in the mood for her usual matchmaking now. Perhaps that was some of the issue between them.
She saw George had arrived at some point and had gotten her father a glass of lemonade and a plate of food and was now standing next to the table, talking to his brother. He looked up and noticed her gaze and waved, and she smiled in return, grateful that her father was taken care of. She could always depend on George in that respect.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Harriet wave back, and she turned back to her friend with a somewhat surprised expression.
"I just can't believe how nice he is," Harriet said with her eyes still on George. "I think I liked him the first time I met him at your house that one time, but I didn't really appreciate him until lately, after all that stuff with Philip. He's so easy to talk to, and it's obvious that he really knows how to treat a girl right. What do you think?"
"What, about George?"
"Yeah," Harriet said. "I mean, you've known him forever, and he is your brother-in-law. Or something like that. Do you think I should ask him out?"
Emma sputtered a bit, knocked sideways by the sudden suggestion of her friend with George Knightley. It was discomforting and, strangely, a bit appalling to think of them together, and Emma had no idea what she was supposed to say. She didn't even understand her reaction, if she were honest.
Harriet, luckily, didn't need any encouragement. "Well, maybe I'll just ask him to dance and see how that goes," she said, and then with a quick grin at Emma made her way over to the table. Emma watched with mixed feelings as George greeted her friend with a quick embrace, listened to her for a bit and then, with a smile and nod, led her friend over to the dance floor. Emma turned away and went to the buffet.
Throughout the rest of the night, Emma mingled among friends and relatives and people whose names she couldn't quite remember but knew she probably should, but still felt vaguely antisocial and very unlike herself. In general, she was more than eager to engage at parties and enjoyed the social aspect of these mixers, but tonight was a bit sour and she couldn't -- or didn't want to -- put her finger on the cause. Instead, she fought the feeling and smiled, laughed and danced with whoever asked. She was going to enjoy tonight; it was New Year's, after all, and it was essential to start the year off right.
Soon enough it was nearly midnight, and as the clock ticked off the last minute, everyone donned their hats, grabbed their glasses of champagne, noisemakers and partners, and turned to call out the countdown as one: 10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ... 6 ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1!
Chaos erupted as horns blew and streamers were thrown and couples enthusiastically embraced as the band played "Auld Lang Syne." But Emma hardly acknowledged all these details: her eyes were drawn upwards as her greatest nightmare descended.
Translucent globes of all colors drifted down from the ceiling, where they had heretofore gone unnoticed. Some, as they drew within striking distance, were popped by enthusiastic revelers and scattered the enclosed confetti, and others bounced or were blown upwards again. Emma's heart felt as though it was lodged in her throat, her breath trapped in her lungs, her muscles tense and paralyzed until, seeing one of the terrifying objects come near, she darted sideways, a squeak of fear escaping her, and then had to dodge another. Horrified, she spun around, with some idea of reaching whatever exit she could, when she was wrapped in a pair of strong arms. She buried her face in the comfort provided, closing her eyes and clutching at the protective body. A calming scent enveloped her senses, and she took a deep breath.
Emma couldn't say how it happened, but when she opened her eyes and turned her head, she found herself in the hallway outside the ballroom. Her father, she saw, was sitting in one of the plush chairs, slumbering with his cane across his lap. The doors to the ballroom opened briefly, letting out a couple that ran laughing toward the staircase, and then closed, muffling again the sounds of the partiers. In confusion, she looked up into the face of her friend George Knightley.
"Happy New Year, Emma," he said softly before leaning down and kissing her on the lips.
It was the most marvelous thing that had happened that night, but far too brief. Emma's fingers touched her lips where his had been only moments ago and she backed up a step, removing herself from his arms.
With a conscious look, he ran a hand through his hair. "I'm glad I remembered you were still afraid of balloons," he said with a half-hearted chuckle.
Still slightly dazed, Emma nodded, looking at him with new eyes. George. It was George -- the man who had been her rock, her comfort, her protector. Always. The emotions of the previous year rushed through her as everything seemed to click into place and she realized suddenly that, with all of the upheaval in her relationships, there was one relationship that hadn't changed. And it was the one that she now knew she wanted -- needed to change.
But how? How could she do that to him? He was her brother, her friend. And Harriet -- oh, what of him and Harriet? She had seen them together, dancing, laughing, talking with friends. And she knew Harriet was interested in him, and to eclipse her, to pursue ... no, she couldn't do that. Not to George.
All this while, Emma still said nothing as she stared at him, her thoughts whirling, her world tumbling. George bit his lip, looked away for a moment, and then looked back, his gaze trapping hers. "I'm sure, only a few weeks ago, you expected Frank to be here. I'm sorry."
Frank? Who was Frank? Bringing herself out of her stupor, Emma shook her head. "I'm not. He's perfectly fine where he is. Wherever that is. I'm sure he and Jane are out at some New Year's party together, and I'm happy for them."
George's eyes scrutinized her expression. "You're more forgiving than I would be, in your place."
Emma shrugged. "It was never very serious. Frank was a great companion, a perfect escort to parties and things. But I never loved him. And it's clear Jane does."
"Well, then I'm glad," he said, and when she looked at him in confusion, he stuttered, "that you never loved him. And he didn't love you, either, since that was the case. It's not right for a relationship to be such a lopsided thing, with one person doing only the liking and the other all the loving." George shook his head. "My God, he's a lucky man! The chances that Frank could find someone who loves him like Jane does, treat her -- and you -- the way he did and land on the other side with one who still loves him and the other who doesn't hate him."
She smiled. "You sound like you envy him."
He looked at her keenly. "I do. In one way in particular, I do. You must know what that is."
There was a pause, pregnant with something Emma couldn't define. She looked away, then back as George took a step closer to her. "Emma, I have to tell you something," he said, his voice intense. "I don't know how you'll take it, but I need to tell you. I may wish, in a minute, that I never said it, but I have to take that chance. I've gone too far now to stop."
Oh, no. Friendship. Love. He and Harriet. No, no. "No," Emma said, backing up again. "I'm sure you haven't. If it shouldn't be said, let's just keep on not saying it, OK?"
The expression on George's face was horrible, as if she had just run a sword through him. He paled, his jaw hanging loose, and Emma felt suddenly remorseful. He was her friend. It was her job to listen to him, as he had always done for her. No matter how much it hurt. "I'm sorry, George," she said. "I shouldn't have said that. I'll always be your friend, and I'll always want to hear what you have to say."
If anything, her words only served to make the situation worse. His expression hardened, strangely resigned and regretful, and he backed up a step. "No, you're probably right. I shouldn't say anything."
He began to turn away, but Emma put a hand on his arm and stopped him. Tears sprung to her eyes. "I'm so sorry. I really shouldn't have said that," she said desperately. "As my friend--"
"A friend?" he echoed. "Emma, I don't want you as a friend. I -- oh, I'm going about this the wrong way. But, then, if I felt less about it I might be able to make more sense. Listen," he said, passing a hand over his face and then taking both of her hands in his, "you always bore with me no matter how often I've nagged at you and lectured you and corrected you, and you're probably the only woman who would. You know what I'm like, and you know I've always told you the truth. Know that I'm speaking the truth now: I love you. God knows I've gone about loving you in a way that means I don't know if you feel the same about me, but I cannot stand by yet another year without telling you how I feel. I want to be more than your friend: I want to love you, to stand by you, to marry you, if you'll let me. You don't have to tell me yes, or, God help me, even maybe--"
But Emma couldn't contain herself any longer. The joy at his words, the happiness that radiated from her heart at the knowledge that her conclusions had been all wrong, that he loved her -- loved her! -- was ready to burst from her. She wanted to laugh, but instead a species of sob came from her mouth, and she put a hand to her lips. When she saw the confusion on his dear face as he paused, she seized the moment. She put her hands on each side of his face, leaned up to him and kissed him with every ounce of her newly determined feelings for him.
When at last she leaned back in his arms and he let her, she saw he was looking at her in unrestrained wonder. She laughed now, placed one more kiss upon his lips, and said, "I love you, too. Happy New Year, George."
He wrapped his arms tightly around her again, pulling her head to his shoulder, and whispered in her ear, "Happy New Year, Emma."
And it was.The End