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An Even Path: Post 5

June 11, 2017 07:18AM
Chapter 8

"But when you asked about his family, what did he say?"

Elizabeth questioned cut mid way through Anne's story. It was Friday evening and Anne was only now getting to the point where she felt ready to talk about her encounter with Frederick Wentworth at the hospital.

Elizabeth Bennet sat on the floor, enjoying a rare break in her day's activities. Her final practice for La Valse had ended at 4:00. She didn't have to be back at the opera house until 6:00 to begin a run-through for tonight's program, Tales from Belle Potter, but her costume was going to be heavy and her muscles needed to stay warm.

So here she stretched, legs extending into a split, back arching forward until her stomach touched the floor. As a professional ballerina, flexibility was a job requirement. Sixty percent of it was natural ability. Forty percent of it was maintenance, however, and that meant it was her own personal homework. She was always continually stretching muscles when doing random activities: watching television, listening to music, or simply having a chat with her flatmates. Above her, Anne was deep in her own homework: grading papers. Anne sat on the bed with a stack of tests around her and a royal purple pen. The only hint of Emma's presence was the occasional frock flying out of her closet. A dress had just landed somewhere south of Elizabeth's elbow.

"He said they were proud of him. But it wasn't just what he said, it was how he said it." Anne sighed, rubbing her temple and inadvertently leaving an ink mark. "He's still angry with me and with my family. He has every right to be."

Elizabeth pushed herself up with her palms, shifting her legs out of the split and into an arch until she could touch her toes to her ponytail. "With your family? How do you reckon?"

"My family never approved of him. Father thought that because he was a council house boy, he was part of a gang, or something. Elisabetta, Maria and I all went to Queens College, but we were required to attend a candle-light dinner every Friday night. I brought Frederick with me once. I wanted to show them who he was, and what he was really like. I wanted them to like him."

"And how did that go?" Emma said, barely visible as she emerged behind an armload of clothing. She dumped these contents on the floor and settled next to Anne, sorting through them.

"Badly." Anne couldn't help her grim wince. Frederick had been the perfect gentleman, polite, well-spoken and, despite his nerves, showing proud posture while seated at her father's table. Even as a teen, he had already looked like an aspiring Navy man. He'd worn his best suit jacket. She remembered looking at him over the light of the gold candelabras and thinking he was the most beautiful boy she'd ever seen in her life.

They'd hated him.

"Mother pulled me aside at the end of the night and demanded to know if we were sleeping together."

Elizabeth moved out of her stretch, rolling over to lie on her back. She reached her knee to her stomach, pulling her leg up until it touched her face. "How old were you?"

"Fifteen. I think they were just waiting for us to break up. But a year went by, and then another. I thought they'd come to accept him. Frederick probably thought so, too, because he asked me to marry him.” Or maybe he thought I loved him enough to do what I wanted, regardless of whatever they said. Because that thought was enough to break her, she didn't indulge it further. Instead, she simply continued the tale. "Their disapproval up to that point was nothing compared to the proposal. Father said I would shame the family. Mother said I'd be throwing my life away."

Done with her stretching and hearing a good deal more self-blame than she thought was due, Elizabeth pushed off the ground and settled next to Anne on the bed.

"Anne, you hadn't even gone to university and your family was against the match. No one can blame you for saying no to him." Elizabeth said gently, resting a hand on Anne's shoulder. "You were eighteen. No one knows what they want at eighteen."

"Some of us don't know what we want at twenty, either," Emma chimed in with a smile. Anne smiled weakly back.

"But Emma, even if your father disapproved of your actions, you would be with George regardless. Wouldn't you?"

"There wasn't much chance of that. Daddy's known Knightley since he and I were kids. My half-sister Sandra is married to Knightley's uncle."

"Married to his uncle?" Elizabeth repeated incredulously. "Isn't he loads older than her?"

"Not really. I'm the product of Daddy's second marriage, remember? My half-sister and I are almost twenty years apart. Sandra married Georg'es uncle Jack when I was four and he was ten. And the next year, when his parents died, Sandra and Jack took him in. He was their ward until he turned eighteen, and so we celebrated nearly all our holidays together. So my father knows him almost as well as he knows Sandra and me. George is probably the only man in the world he's willing to think is good enough for me. It would break my heart if he didn't approve of him, though."

What she didn't add was the fact that yes, she would still be with George Knightley even if her father hadn't approved of the match. But she would also have moved to Hartfield with Knightley himself if she'd had to, working on her father daily until he'd caved. That was the sort of relationship they had.

Beyond that, the situations weren't entirely comparable. She was twenty now, and would be twenty-one her upcoming birthday. She could approach the situation differently than if she'd had it arise at seventeen or eighteen.

"The worst of it is how we've grown so far apart." Anne continued with her paperwork. "He's a captain in the Royal Navy. How could I not know that?"

"I'm sure there's plenty he doesn't know about you, too. You've had lots of accomplishments to be proud about all on your own," Elizabeth reminded her.

"And think of it this way: this is a perfect opportunity to take some time to get to know each other again," Emma added. "By the way, will you let me do your makeup next time we go out somewhere?"

"Makeup?" Anne repeated, calculating the grade for Molly Elias and writing it at the top of the paper.

"Yeah, that stuff people put on their faces from time to time," Elizabeth spoke up with a teasing note in her voice. " Just why would you be wishing to try a bit of makeup on our Anne, Emma?"

She gave Emma a pointed look. Is now really the time for this? Elizabeth's look implied.

"I've got so much of the stuff that I never wear. I'd love to give some of it to Anne so she can make use of it," Emma insisted from the other side of Anne, sticking a playful tongue out at Elizabeth who responded in kind by giggling, picking up a pillow and threatening to toss it. In return, Emma grabbed a nearby sock, rolled it up, and threatened it like a curve ball. When Anne looked up, Emma dropped the sock, and Elizabeth dropped the pillow, choking back a laugh.

"That's sweet of you, Emma, but I don't wear much makeup anymore," Anne deferred politely.

"Please?" Emma pressed with a slight pout. "I have too much of it as it is. You'd be doing me a favor by taking some of it from me. And I would love to practice a few techniques on you."

"If you really think it would help," Anne said doubtfully.

"It will! Which reminds me," she reached into the pile of clothes she'd unceremoniously dumped on the floor. "I'm getting rid of a lot of my extra clothes. I want you two to have some of them. This dress, for instance. Lizzie, you would look dynamite in this. I want you to take it. Oh, and this one too!"

At the sight of both dresses, amusement on Elizabeth's part shifted to dumbfounded shock.

"Emma," said Elizabeth, "Are you mad? This frock must be worth a king's ransom. I can't be taking it from you like it's something you'd hand to a charity shop."

"Please, Lizzie? A designer gave me these when I was a teenager. I haven't been able to fit into them for years. You've got that dancer's frame. You'll look beautiful in them, and you'd be doing me a favor." They were roughly the same height, she and Lizzie, but while puberty had gifted Emma with a generous hourglass figure, it had also reduced her wardrobe choices. She could never wear this dress again, and she knew it. "Wear one of these to one of those fancy ballet galas you'll have to go to in the spring."

Or the first night that Will Darcy takes you out somewhere really expensive, Emma thought.

She knew Elizabeth had come back to the flat the other night making an off-handed comment about her and Will, and a tentative agreement to get along. We'll be friendly with each other, she had repeated firmly to Emma, but only that. Right. That seemed just as unlikely as Frederick Wentworth hating Anne forever. Now it's just a matter of seeing who caves first, Emma thought, Will or Frederick.

Emma handed the dresses over to Elizabeth, watching her handle both garments with care. "You have a performance tonight?"

"Aye. Family Night on the Lindon stage. Tales of Belle Potter. The opera singers have the main stage this evening for Carmen. Full orchestra, beautiful costumes, music up to the rafters. It's supposed to be a beauty. The ballet show is for children. It's bunny ears for me." She leaped up as if she'd spent the better part of the last hour lounging around instead of stretching. "I'd best be off. Have fun tonight, the pair of you. And Emme, thank you for the dresses. It's too generous by half, I swear it. Let George know I was asking after him, will you?"

Emma smiled. "I will."

Elizabeth gave the pair a cheerful wave, grabbed her workout bag, and was out the door. Little did she know that by the end of the night she would end up with a whole lot more than bunny ears.

**

“Are you done?”

"Almost," George looked up with a reassuring smile. His patient, Marianne Dashwood, had been a last-minute assignment in the always frantic ER. She was a dark-haired beauty with amber skin and golden eyes. The warmth of the smile he got in return vaguely reminded him of Emma. He was due to change out of his scrubs and pick her up for their date soon. He'd been counting down the minutes all day.

"Will it scar? " Marianne questioned. This was the second time she'd injured herself on a nature walk. She'd been too busy admiring the sky to notice the rock that she'd tripped on. "I wouldn't care so much, but the agency I'm booked with will be furious if it did. They'll be mad enough that this takes me out of rotation for the next few weeks."

"Agency?"

"Elect. I'm a runway model," she said this with very little import, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "I like it well enough, but what I really want to do is sing. I write poetry, too."

He wasn't as impressed by the title of 'model' as most men tended to be. Instead he just nodded and responded conversationally, "My girlfriend's a former model.”

“What's her name?”

“Emma Woodhouse. Once my shift's done here, I'm meeting up with her."

"Emma? Emma is your girlfriend? Of course I know her! Tell her to give me a call, will you?" She dug into her pocket for a piece of paper and a pen, scribbled her number on it, then handed it to him with a friendly smile. She could see what Emma saw in him. Tall, handsome, dark hair, great face. She might have fancied him herself if not for Willoughby. “What a pair you and Emma must make. She's got that gorgeous smile, and I would commit highway robbery for that figure of hers. I always hoped she'd end up with a nice man. There must be something in the water around here that breeds handsome doctors. Every time I come in here, I meet another one that's positively gorgeous.”

The comment made him blush. Emma could steer a conversation in the direction that suited her, but she could also make casual social chatter into her own charming art form. Marianne spoke whatever romantic thought came into her head, without a filter.

"I'm dating a staff member too. Dr. Willoughby," she continued blithely, "it's how I met him. I twisted my ankle on a walk a year ago."

"And he was the attending physician?"

"Uh-huh. I was sort of hoping he would be available to see me when I came in this time around, but Jamie never tells me his work schedule. I think he's worried I'll pop up here unannounced with flowers or a balloon bouquet and embarrass him, or something."

The comment made him bite back a grin. Knightley finished the last stitch and cocked a brow at her.

"Would you?"

"Of course. I love a grand gesture." Marianne smiled brightly. She looked curiously at the work he'd done. "Do you know Jamie? Jamie Willoughby?"

Dr. James Willoughby. Forty years old, a tenured physician. The man had a boisterous laugh and a dashing smile, a keen intellect and a more than healthy ego. Knightley couldn't claim they were friends, but he had a working knowledge of the man.

"Only a little," Knightley hedged.

"Hey, George. You paged me?"

Brandon Cornwall stood in the doorway, holding a handful of papers. If he was talking about friends in the medical field, Brandon here was first on George's list. Introspective and quiet, Brandon had a musician's voice and an even temperament. His dark hair was closely cropped, the remnant of a brief stint as a military doctor. He looked more like a priest than a soldier, though, with sharp, ascetic features and soulful eyes.

"That's for coming, Bran. My shift's at an end,” said George, “but there's still a bit of paperwork to be filled out for this patient. Marianne Dashwood is her name. I was hoping you could schedule her for a follow-up appointment?"

"Absolutely." Brandon nodded efficiently. "I'm scheduled to work till midnight and my schedule's cleared out while I wait for some lab---"

Brandon's voice tampered off completely once his eyes drifted to the patient on the table. It was like watching a man wander into a dream, Knightley thought more than a little sympathetically.

As for Marianne, for a girl who had hitherto been lounging unaware, she suddenly seemed more than aware of this stranger's gaze. Rather than revel in it like a true exhibitionist, she sat up, rolled her trouser leg down over the stitches and looked away. Perhaps she had a touch of discretion after all.

"Bran?"

"Huh?"

"The patient's chart," Knightley picked up the object and handed it to Brandon with a pat on the arm. Brandon settled in the vacated chair beside the exam table, eyes fixed squarely to the chart as if he were afraid to look at her again.

"Is that a flannel bow tie?" she questioned the young doctor.

"Hmm? It was a gift from an old friend."

"Nice taste, your friend," was all she said before the conversation turned to silence once more.

"George?" Henrietta questioned, poking her head into the room. "There's birthday cake for Lou Miller in the break room. If you're interested, I'd go get some soon. Or I could fetch some for you and leave it at the nurse's station, if you want?"

"That's nice of you, Henny, but I'll pass," Knightley replied. "The trauma surgeons are changing shift soon and I'd like to leave some food for them."

"Thoughtful, as always," Henrietta gushed. "Are you shadowing Dr. Foster again tonight?"

"No. Dr Knightley has plans." Marianne interjected herself into the conversation. As Emma wasn't here, Marianne was more than willing to defend what was rightfully hers in her absence. "He'll be with his girlfriend tonight. A date."

"Which I'm already ten minutes late for." Knightley agreed.

"A date?" Henrietta bit her lower lip, frowning.

"You know dating, right Henny?" Dr. Willoughby spoke up from behind the assembling group. “It's that thing two people do when they like each other. They go out. They have dinner, maybe see a show? Maybe you could try it once in a while. And speaking of people I like, how's my Mari doing? I heard you were hurt."

"Willoughby! You got my text?" Marianne's eyes widened and she leaped off the table as if nothing at all were the matter with her leg. "I hoped you were working today."

It was a hard thing, watching a man go from mesmerized to shattered in a second. But that was precisely what happened as Brandon watched Marianne leap into Willoughby's arms, planting a sound kiss on his lips.

Fixing a body was easy compared to fixing a heart, George Knightley thought as he said his goodbyes and scrawled his name at the bottom of his final medical chart. He was officially off the clock.

**

They cut through the theater district, with its bustling crowds, sparkling lights and colored billboards, then down a dimly lit alleyway. The row had a series of boutique shops, late night cafes and brightly lit bookstores. At the street corner, Emma saw a small restaurant with a sign, "Moroccan Flower," painted artfully over a scarlet red lintel. George held the door, guiding her in with a smile.

Inside, golden lamps cast shadowy light on red walls. Votive candles flickered at each small, intimate table. Couples sat on embroidered cushions, talking or laughing quietly as they enjoyed their meals. The smell of fresh mint and spices lingered in the air.

"Welcome to Moroccan Flower," a lovely, dark haired hostess greeted the pair with a smile. "Table for two?"

Knightley glanced at her.

"Is this okay with you? I thought about the Savoy, but this seemed more relaxed."

Emma squeezed his hand. "It's perfect."

She'd been in a plethora of expensive, fashionable restaurants during her modeling days, yet somehow stepping into this intimate little restaurant with the man she knew best in the world made her feel more alive than ten Michelin meals combined. The calm atmosphere was perhaps why she jumped when her mobile phone buzzed. Of all the people to get interrupted by work on their date night, Emma hadn't anticipated that it would be her.

With a furrowed brow, she dug the object out of her coat pocket.

"A text from my agent." She tilted the phone to try and glimpse it better in the shadowy light. "She says it's an emergency. That I need to call her."

Norris had been overseeing her professional contracts since the age of thirteen. Sixty-five years old, she was a chain-smoking, hard drinking, hard talking barterer.

A cool remark about the modeling world wanting what they couldn't have was right on the tip of George's tongue. Still, Norris and the world she represented would be Emma's decision. "If you think you need to take the call, go ahead."

"Are you sure?" Emma bit her lip. "I wouldn't, but she said it was an emergency."

George nodded. "I'll wait."

Emma ducked into the coat room, dialing her agent's number quickly.

"Norris? It's 8:00 pm on a Friday. What's the emergency, are you okay?"

"Am I okay? Emma, I'll be okay when you to start answering your emails in a timely manner! Have you gotten any of the contract details I've sent you in the past few days? The lawyers from De Bourgh are already on my back about this, and we can't keep them waiting around forever. It's been five business days and I'm still waiting to hear from you!"

"I--" Emma momentarily closed her eyes, frustration mounting. "De Bourgh. Henry Crawford approached me about that, too. Why do they even want me, I'm not booking jobs through Elect anymore."

"Who cares about Elect? The De Bourgh contract is the biggest payoff I've seen on my desk in months. Months. They don't care about your bookings through Elect. Think about this rationally, child, with Elect out of the equation it's one less cut from your salary. You need to come back to America, sign on the dotted line, and get a dose of some Texas common sense! Your contract with Elect Modeling might be terminated, but you're still in my client book, honey. I can negotiate on your behalf and I will, Emma, if you'll just let me do it! I've known you since you were a kid, haven't I? I thought we were like family, Emma. I thought I was like a second mother to you!" At the word mother, Emma's spine stiffened and her grip on her phone tightened. "I could have your usual requirements, percentages and residuals faxed over to De Bourgh's legal team tonight. Just give me the okay. We could have this whole thing ironed out within days. You never want to book another gig? Fine. But this could be one worthwhile final job."

"Norris, I can't talk about this right now. I'm on a date. I--" she let out a frustrated breath, "we'll talk Monday, okay?"

"Date? Never let the press hear you have a boyfriend, sweetie. How many times have I told you that? Any man who sees a photo of you needs to think he can have you--"

"Goodbye, Norris."

Emma let out a frustrated huff and did what she should have done the moment she saw Norris's name flash across her phone screen: she turned off her phone completely. She didn't need Norris calling her back. Or her father checking in on her from a business conference in Rio, or her half-sister ringing to see how her date was going, or anyone else in the world trying to talk her ear off.

What she needed more than anything else was the very man who was currently patiently waiting for her. Determined not to let anything get in the way of her evening, she unbuttoned her coat and slipped it off, turning in search of a hook to hang it on.

"I know, Louisa, I can't believe he said he was working on a Friday night either."

Emma allowed herself a casual glance at the woman who'd just entered the coat check room, talking animatedly on her mobile. Tall, well tanned, with white blond hair and features as sharp as her voice, the woman was familiar, just like the outfit. Emma knew two things when she spotted them: a designer-cut chiffon mini-dress, and an acquaintance of George Knightley's. The dress was a Roberto Caralli. The woman was Caroline Bingley.

"Don't worry, Louisa, I've come up with a master plan," Caroline continued. "I'll be in his arms by Valentine's Day. Just wait and see."

Once she'd concluded her call, Emma couldn't help herself. She was naturally gregarious by nature, and to leave without acknowledging the woman would be rude. No matter how uncharitable Caroline had seemed the last time they'd run into one another, her father's emphasis on good manners was paramount.

"Caroline, right? I'm Emma. George Knightley's girlfriend? I was just noticing your outfit. No one does a tiered ruffle quite like Caralli. I remember that dress from his spring collection last year. It's a lovely piece."

Emma would know that collection in detail, considering she had been dressed by him for a photo shoot in Paris. Twice. This was a filmy, red and white number, more appropriate for a San Tropez summer than a London snow storm. Emma could out-last cold weather like the best of her old profession, but even she drew the line at snow storms.

"The New Year's Eve party. Yes, I remember you. The model, right?" Caroline's smile turned icy. "Here's a piece of advice, little model: I find a year old Caralli effectively holds men like George Knightley or whomever it is that you're currently taking your clothes off for, much more effectively than a knit shirt from whatever bargain bin you pulled that from. One would think a model could do better. If you'll excuse me."

Stunned to silence, Emma watched her walk off.

Well, she thought dryly, this was the first time in her entire life that anyone had accused the daughter of oilman Royce Woodhouse of shopping in a bargain bin. Emma looked down at her own outfit with a shrug. A modest budget was something she'd have to get used to if she continued to resist using her father's funds, and she liked what she'd chosen. Instead of short, daring and sexy like Caroline, she'd opted for a blue shirt-dress clung to her curves, leggings and a pair of ankle boots.

She emerged from the coat room to see George Knightley leaning against wall, patiently waiting for her.

In her absence, George had quietly charmed a rather awkward looking busboy into conversation. The busboy was talking, laughing, gesturing animatedly. Knightley chuckled quietly in return.

Surely, she thought as she watched him, even Caroline would approve of George's outfit. The crisp shirt along with the trousers, an Italian cut, Emma's keen eye recognized, were a perfect fit. Understated, handsome, vital, that was her George.

He's always had a soft spot for outcasts, Emma thought with a wistful smile. Including me, she thought with a flash of introspection. A genetic freak, alone at Hartfield when she wasn't in front of a camera. For so long, she'd felt like a perpetual teenager with a crush around him, always fretting over her appearance before Hartfield's annual holiday dinners, giddy as a puppy whenever he'd strolled into her father's living room. She was crazy about him. The fact that he'd loved her out of every woman he could possibly have chosen was equal part blessing and mystery to Emma.

At the sight of her, his brows lifted. He pushed off the wall with that handsome, subtle smile.

"Is the outfit okay?" she questioned, keenly aware of his gaze. "I know it's not a Ghesquière or a Galliano or anything, but it's comfortable and warm and--"

"You look beautiful. I don't even know how to say those names properly."

"You can say ten books of medical nonsense," she countered, the edges of her mouth turning upwards. She could feel her worries fade away as his hand slid down her arm, fingering the fabric at her wrist appreciatively.

"Tricks of the trade, Emme," he answered with a grin. She'd felt certain he would kiss her, but instead of taking her lips, he lowered his mouth to her exposed neck, letting it linger there until he heard her sharp inhale of desire.

"George--"

Satisfied that he'd proved his point, he lifted his head and tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear, meeting her gaze with an easy smile. "I like the outfit."

As the hostess led them towards their table, Emma began to observe the restaurant layout in greater detail. The florid, modern artwork adorned more than just the outside. The small sign near one corner of the entryway piqued her interest.

"Does that sign say gallery?"

"Yes." The hostess smiled. "My husband's art work. It hangs throughout the restaurant, as well. Talented, isn't he?"

Life long experience concerning Emma's interests had George whispering, “Art first, then food?"

"Oh, yes, please. Art first.”

The impromptu gallery was small, with red wallpaper and modestly framed pieces. The restaurant seemed fittingly named, given most of the paintings were flowers. Some were painted in delicate colors, others were flashy oils.

They walked the small space independently, each admiring, assessing and enjoying the art in silence. Emma lingered on the soft, petal-like watercolors. Knightley seemed drawn to the bolder oils.

It was only when she passed the last painting that Knightley slid a companionable arm around her shoulder. It was an old gesture from a lifetime ago, when they'd simply been best friends. Perhaps, she realized as she relaxed against him, it had always held the undercurrent of something more. A place where trust and love met.

"Hungry?” he asked.

A slow, easy smile spread across her face. "Starving."

When they settled at their table, Emma decided she was happy she'd chosen a practical outfit for once. The table was cozy and intimate, but low on the ground. The chairs consisted of pillows. It would make managing a short dress like Caroline's more than a little difficult. A band had set up. Syncopated rhythm danced in her ears. Candle light flickered between them.

Both placed their orders. After the food was set out to artful display in bowls and dishes, they eased into conversation. George seemed to know she didn't want to discuss the phone call to Norris, the modeling agency, or the De Bourgh contract, and so the topic was sidestepped deftly. The discussion turned to his work at the hospital, and to his last patient of the day.

"I met a friend of yours." Knightley paused, hesitating at the term. "Acquaintance. She said she knew you. Marianne Dashwood?"

"Marianne? I know she lives in London, but I haven't heard from her in ages." She took a bite of her meal.

They'd fallen out of contact, but she would still consider Marianne a friend. Marianne was romantic, dramatic, audacious, reckless and she had a weakness for the most incredibly beautiful men. For periods, she'd want to chat with Emma every other day. Then her interest would fade, or some man would enter her life, and Emma wouldn't hear from her for months. For all Marianne's charm, she was a difficult girl to get close to.

"She wanted me to give you her mobile number," Knightley reached into his pocket to slip it to her. "Said you two should catch up for coffee."

Emma picked up the slip of paper, seeing the 0 in the number had been shaped like a heart. Typical Marianne. Unlike Emma, who'd tried to sidestepped relationships completely until George, Marianne was always flinging herself directly into the path of love.

"Marianne's quite the charmer when she feels like it. Did she try to chat you up? You're just her type. You have a serious streak, and she's never liked serious, but--" Emma glanced at him mischievously, twisting the paper between her fingers before pocketing it, "I think she could ignore that once she saw those smoldering eyes of yours."

George cringed, raking his hand through his hair. Nothing made him squirm quite like a comment on his appearance, which he was largely unaware of, and preferred to ignore.

"My eyes don't smolder."

"Sure they do." Her own blue eyes brightened with obvious humor. Oh, this was a fun game. "And when you're trying to argue something, you tug at your collar and you furrow your brows; it's all very sexy. Any girl would think so." She paused, looking around the room. "Caroline Bingley's certainly been staring at you half the night. I saw her earlier in the coat check room. And for the record, she did not approve of my outfit."

His dark gaze strayed from her for the first time all evening. Caroline Bingley. He hadn't noticed the icy blonde in the room or that she was, in fact, staring at him. If Caroline had been watching them half the night, it was probably to ascertain that Emma was truly on a date with George. In Caroline's eyes, Will Darcy's single status would then be secure.

"Whatever you see in my eyes, Emma, it's for you. No one else."

Behind that serious mouth and those dark eyes there was a great deal of heat, especially sitting this close. Smoldering, Emma decided breathlessly. His eyes were definitely smoldering.

The waitress's discreet throat-clearing alerting the pair to her presence. "Do you want dessert for the evening?"

"No, thank you," Emma politely demurred, "I think we're fine with coffee."

"The food was wonderful," George added with a warm smile as the waitress gathered their dishes. "The best I've had since Marrakesh."

The waitress's surprise was obvious. "You both have been to Morocco?"

"Yes," Knightley said, just as Emma answered, "No."

After the waitress departed, Knightley looked at her, both curious and amused. "You've been to Morocco."

"It doesn't count."

He chuckled. "Is it the photo shoot that doesn't count, or is it the sunburn you complained about when you came back that doesn't count?"

"I was there three days." She toyed with her coffee spoon. "I saw a hotel, an airport and Taylor, who was assigned to both tutor and babysit me." The glamorous life of a teenage model on a campaign shoot, she thought with more than a little irony: no autonomy for sightseeing, bad airplane food, rock hard hotel beds, and homework. "You traveled there with Will. Having adventures. Backpacking from Tangier to Marrakesh, you told me once. That counts as going to Morocco. I know I'm not a camping sort of girl, but I used to be so jealous of you. You were off having all these adventures, meeting all sorts of people, and seeing so many things..."

Knightley set his coffee cup down.

"You could too, Emme. You could go tomorrow if you wanted, leave for Paris, or Russia, or wherever you want. See the world on your terms, with no one to answer to, not even me. I wouldn't blame you. I'd understand."

He squeezed her hand. He would miss her. Heaven help him, he would miss her more now than ever. But he would understand. He'd known her all her life, her protective father, her tutor Taylor, her schedule dictated by Norris or Elect or whatever designer needed her, wherever they needed her. He understood all of that, and what it was to be twenty and craving independence and control. "I'd wait for you."

"I don't want to spend my father's money to go anywhere. If I went, it would be with my savings. Something I'd earned. Besides, you weren't alone. A lot of your travels were with Will. I don't think I'd want to be completely alone, either."

She squeezed his hand back and gave him a grateful smile. He would never believe that he was the first person in her life who'd offered her this kind of liberty. Or maybe he would. Maybe that was why he'd said it. "For now, it's enough for me to hear about your adventures. Tell me more about Morocco. I want to hear more about it than just the airport and the hotel I was able to see..."

"Will and I took a ferry from Spain and stayed a week. It's beautiful. Dangerous, in parts. We saw Roman ruins and desert valleys, a dozen little ports with hidden beaches. Sea grass and palm trees. The water in summer is as warm as a bath."

He lifted her hand and kissed it gently. He would float the idea of taking her there someday, he decided suddenly. Or maybe Greece or Spain would suit her more. Somewhere hidden away, just the two of them.

"Are the flowers there like the paintings in that gallery?"

"Some of them." He turned her hand over, examining it, then lowered his mouth to her wrist. It was a small gesture, gentlemanly even, but still so intimate that her heart skipped. When his mouth drew away, his thumb began a sensuous pattern on the soft skin. "Why don't you paint anymore?"

Distracted by his touch, the question took her completely off guard. At that moment, he could have asked her her own name and she felt like she wouldn't have managed the answer. "Hmm?"

"You used to paint, draw, sketch. All the time. You're an incredible artist, Emma. I have a stack of letters you've written me from around the world and all of them include sketches or paintings, even little pencil drawings in the margins. And I know for a fact that you couldn't get through a math lesson without drawing the pattern of a bird or an ivy branch or a cloud on your geometry notebook. I tried to tutor you once over Christmas holiday, remember?"

The slight tease in his tone cleared her head a bit, but the question remained. He was right. At one point in her life, she'd always been drawing or painting or sketching. Why had she given it up? She loved painting. She was better at it than any other task in her life.

"No one seemed to approve of it as anything more than a hobby. Sandra said it wasn't sensible. Taylor thought I should be spending my free time reading."

"What did you think?"

"I thought that painting could be lonely or difficult. Or exhilarating and wonderful." She shrugged. "Mostly, I think it made me happy."

"If it makes you happy, you should paint."

If she liked it, she should do it. He was planting the idea rather than suggesting a decision, but he made it sound incredibly easy. It wasn't. Painting, drawing, art in general, was often a solitary activity, full of self-doubt and perfectionist tenancies. Besides, the phrase starving artist was all too true. The thought of continuing modeling, be it for De Bourgh or freelance, made her miserable but the money was good. Art did not pay well.

Not that she'd ever tried selling any of her art. The thought of painting again, of trying to earn an honest wage from it, both terrified and thrilled her.

"Daddy would say I should set my mind to more constructive tasks, like understanding the complexity of the corporate tax return."

"It's your life, Emma, isn't it?"

Her life. Hers. He'd said it gently enough, without accusation, but he'd been touching on something crucial for much of the night. So much of her life was controlled by other people. Her mother had pushed her into modeling when she'd been too young to realize she was being used, sold, and exploited. Photographers decided how she posed in photographs, designers chose what she wore, and stylists dictated her makeup and hair. Her father loved her, but even from afar that love was tempered by what she should and shouldn't do, where she should and shouldn't go--what was safe or unsafe. He did it because he loved her, worried about her, wanted to protect her. But there were days when that sort of behavior made it hard to live. She'd never leaped from a plane like Knightley, or worked in a clinic in Africa, or backpacked from Marrakesh to Tangier. George was right. She could if she really wanted to. It was her life. Hers.

Her head was filled with such serious thoughts, it somehow compelled her to strike on the lighter vein in that remark. "You still remember that tutoring session, all those years ago?"

"Hard to forget it." His eyes gleamed in the candle-light, and he gave her a crooked grin. She'd been sixteen, trudging through geometry homework over the Christmas holiday weekend. He'd been twenty-one and assigned to help her before dinner. Two hours into their labor, she'd stood from her father's polished chair in Hartfield's library, pushed the window sash wide open and flung the book from her sight.

"Please never consider a career in mathematics."

"It wasn't so bad, really," she laughed, "It was probably my best geometry lesson ever."

"Until we saw the dent it put in your father's Lamborghini."

"Yeah." Emma's laughter was spontaneous and youthful. "Not for an instant did he believe that Mittens the cat had accidentally pushed it out with her tail."

"Worst lie I've ever heard," Knightley laughed.

"Don't get me started on bad lies, George," She answered with pluck as the conversation relaxed into familiar ground. "You never lie, but when you do, you lie terribly."

His eyes narrowed. "Like when?"

"Like the time you came to Hartfield with three stitches on your leg. I asked what happened, and you said you'd gone sailing with Darcy and Fred. Two hours later, you told my father and Jack it was a football injury."

"Hey, cleats can be sharp."

"Sharp as a rudder when a boat capsizes?" she teased.

He grinned. "Amazing, isn't it?"

"Incredible. Or how about the time when Daddy and I went to visit your family at Donwell Abbey. I wanted to learn how to ice skate, and Daddy wouldn't let me because he thought it was too dangerous. I left the dinner table in tears..."

He remembered that as well. He'd been fourteen. She'd been nine.

"You'd been watching it on television and decided you wanted to be an Olympian..."

"The next morning you woke me up, told me to get my warmest clothes on, and we walked to Donwell Pond. I didn't have ice skates. You stuffed your hockey skates with old socks until they fit me. And then you taught me how to ice skate."

Her eyes softened at the memory. Fourteen year old Knightley, gangly and reed thin, stuffing his hockey skates until they could fit a nine year old girl. They had spent hours slipping and sliding and giggling breathlessly, but she'd learned to skate.

"When we got back to Donwell Abbey hours later,” she continued, “I was caked in snow and had blisters on my feet. You told Daddy we'd gone for a long walk and had fallen in a snow drift. You said the blisters were from tying my shoe laces too tight."

"That was a bad lie, wasn't it?" Knightley's chuckle turned to a full out laugh. "But at least you always got the truth out of me..."

"Except for once," she countered with a curious little smile. "I was seventeen, you were twenty-two. I came to stay with you at Oxford the weekend before you graduated."

That stilled his laughter. He recalled that night, probably with much more clarity than she did. The night she'd come to stay had also been the night half the colleges in Oxford had a roaring graduation party. The music had been blaring, the crowds were massive and somewhere in the mix, he'd lost track of her. George Wickham had coaxed her into countless cups of alcohol in his absence. It was the first time he'd ever seen her drunk. Will Darcy had been the one to find her, surrounded by the lush Oxford elite, up to her elbows in punch. Knightley had carried her back to his room, and then gone to find Wickham.

"How much do you remember about that night?"

"I remember the boy who served me drinks telling me that my drink was only fruit punch. And I remember waking up in your room to the sight of you with a bruise on your jaw. Someone socked you in the face. You never have told me who, or why."

"And you really want to know."

"Oh, only since I was seventeen," she teased.

"Okay." He leaned in close, his voice lowering. "You wandered off during the party. Darcy found you. He brought you to me. I took you to my room, made sure you were in bed, and then went back to find who'd served you. It was a man named Wickham. He made a remark about leaving the door unlocked so he could get you into bed by sunrise.” Her sharp inhale made him look up. “I think you can guess what happened next.”

“Fight?”

He nodded. “It was Will who dragged me off him." After this rather sparse rendering of events, his tone warmed noticeably, "After which, Darcy gave me an ice pack and a beer, sat me down and calmly asked when, exactly, had I realized I was in love with you?"

Even though it was a casual admission, her heart trilled. "What did you say?"

"I said all my life, and ten minutes ago. That's the truth, Emme." His voice was rich and calm, and his dark eyes were warm in the candle-light. "And here's another: I've wanted to dance with you since we got here. Will you dance with me?"

"You don't dance," she countered. The trill in her heart turning to doves which fluttered wildly.

"True. But I can't resist resist you in that blue outfit." He grinned, "Don't tell Caroline."



The floor of the small dance space was covered in lush rugs. The walls were red, with twinkling lights hung all around. They walked to the edge of the dance floor, then came together, arms encircling. The light was low and gold. The band played a soft, sensual, heated rhythm that reminded Emma of a desert summer.

Emotionally, she'd never been as close to anyone as she was to George; physically, she'd never felt what he could conjure. Even simply being held like this, his hand resting at the small of her back, made her feel dizzy and dreamy.

They lingered there, dancing hip to hip until the band packed up and the votive candles were blown out. Knightley escorted her back to her building, walking with her up to her flat. He waited as she rattled around in her purse to find her keys. She couldn't believe the night was already at its conclusion. The thought of parting from him made her heart ache.

"Thank you, George." It was an incredibly rare use of his first name, made more special because of its infrequency. She slipped her right hand into his, and then her left, drawing him close. "I had a great time."

"So did I," he said quietly, giving her a soft smile. Knightley looked down at their conjoined hands, pondering something, and then up at her again. "Emma...about the night you came to Oxford and stayed with me. You really don't remember anything else about it, do you?"

She tilted her head and gave him a look that Knightley found was unique to her alone, coy and curious. "No..."

"Then there's something I should tell you. This Christmas wasn't the first time I kissed you. Or, more accurately, you kissed me."

Her eyes widened, and then narrowed. "What?"

"You were seventeen and drunk. I had no idea you wanted to kiss me when you did it. For all I knew, you didn't even realize it was me that you were kissing. And then when you woke up and never mentioned it once, I was certain it meant nothing to you."

"I kissed you. As in, I honestly kissed you? Knightley--" it both surprised and amused him how pink her cheeks went.

“Yes.”

“It is the world's worst joke that I can't even remember it."

"You were seventeen and really, really drunk," he reminded her, brushing her hair back gently. "If you going to Morocco and only seeing the airport doesn't count, that kiss definitely doesn't count. I took you back to my room and put you into bed. You said your head hurt and asked me to lie down with you until you fell asleep. I stayed with you awhile, watching you breathe, waiting for you to sleep. I thought you had until you opened your eyes, rolled onto your side, touched my face with both hands--" Knightley mimicked the gesture, softly cupping her face with his hands, "and you did this."

As gentle as a whisper, he touched his mouth to hers. She'd been expecting fire in this kiss, but instead found a soft, slow burn that melted her heart. She leaned into him, completely enamored, and breathed deep.

The kiss ended as gently as it had begun: naturally. Emma met his gaze.

"It was a good first kiss," she whispered.

He smiled in agreement. "It was a good first kiss."

Once they'd said their goodbyes, she shut the door quietly behind him, already replaying the night in her mind. True and complete happiness didn't come often, but while it lasted she was determined to hold on to it.

Chapter 9

Some of the dancers were disdainful of performing lighter fair, like the children's ballet 'Belle Potter.' Elizabeth liked it. Sure, her intellect thrived on weightier pieces like Giselle or Romeo and Juliet or Swan Lake. But Belle Potter had its time and place, and with its early curtain time and its family filled audiences, it gave her the opportunity to leap onto stage and just play.

The only drawback, she mused once the dancers took their last curtain call, was the costuming. An ungainly hoop skirt and a furry rabbit head made her look like a living stuffed animal, which worked great on stage. What was not so great, decided Lizzie as she yanked the costume head off and took a breath of fresh air, was the fact that it became an oven by the end of the night.

Tilney was waiting for her as she stepped into the wings and he was holding, of all things, a black fan. Although the object was undeniably delicate, Igor Tilney's handling of it couldn't have been less so. He held out the object as if it were a sword to knight her with.

"Bring this to the rehearsal hall Monday morning." Igor Tilney his owlish eyes hinted at nothing more than a taskmaster's severity. Elizabeth felt her jaw drop as she took hold of the delicate little fan, black lace trimmed with rosebud red. Kitri red, for Don Quixote. It was Kitri's fan, used in what was probably the most iconic routine in the whole ballet. Tilney had already started stalking away before she could get her bearings, though not before barking one last order at her, "Don't be late!”

The following Monday, she arrived a whole hour early just to practice barre work and warm her muscles. Whatever he was expecting from their first rehearsal together, she was going to exceed that expectation. Elizabeth had always had a strong work ethic, but she also had her father's stubbornness and her mother's pride.

Come opening night, she would earn whatever spot she got on the playbill, and if Igor Tilney himself thought it should be the headliner, she would prove him right.

"You're the company's new Kitri for Don Quixote, are you?" The rattling locker beside her made her look up.

It was Lucy Steele. Unlike rehearsal from a week ago, Lucy looked the wounded bird no longer. Now that someone had officially been assigned what was hitherto her role, she looked sleek and cold and as mad as she could get.

"And you,” Lucy continued, “the one who never seemed to care much for the spotlight. Grabbed onto it pretty quickly when the chance came your way, didn't you? Don't think I didn't notice! That little pas de trois you danced last rehearsal? It was just too clever by half for a sweet little Irish corps girl to steal my role! You should know that one thinks you can handle this performance.”

"Lucy, I had no idea he was even considering me for the spot. I'm sorry the part was taken from you, truly I am. But if you have a problem with it, you can always speak with Igor yourself. Or better yet, with our director, the Earl of Mansfield."

Lucy waved her hand dismissively. "I'll bet you're sorry. Tilney's days here will be numbered, and once he heads back to Russia everything will go back to normal. Once that happens, you'll be back in the corps where you belong.”

One slamming door later, Elizabeth rested her head against the locker and remembered to breathe. She tried to be confident--she was confident--she told herself. Her appointment as Kitri in Don Quixote was sudden and unexpected and Lucy wouldn't be the only jealous dancer stalking the halls. If she was going to take this role, she would have to get used to having a target on her back.

Elizabeth stood, tugging on her leg warmers and twisting her hair into a high bun. She grabbed her shoe bag, her water bottle, and her notebook to take down noted on choreography. She couldn't control company gossip or jealousy, but she could control how she would handle it. In the meantime, she would simply show up every day on time and do what made her happiest: dance.

She'd gotten here earlier than her scheduled practice time, and still Igor Tilney was already in the rehearsal room, looking like a true General in somber black, a heavy stick in his hand. The Ballet Mistress, Hannah Aldin, was discussing some aspect of the score with her husband, the accompanist at the piano. Frank Churchill, Basilio to her Kitri, was already at the barre warming his feet with quick, efficient rond de jambes along the floor.

"Morning, Kitri." Frank winked at her. "Ready to fall in love?"

That smile was wide and pleasant. Elizabeth smiled back, feeling some of the tension lift from her shoulders. One friend at work is better than none, she told herself.

“Ready to get to work,” she told him.
SubjectAuthorPosted

An Even Path: Post 5

BernadetteEJune 11, 2017 07:18AM

Re: An Even Path: Post 5

KarenteaJune 12, 2017 06:44AM



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