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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Tea With Emma


Tea With Emma

by
Diane Moody

“It’s such happiness when good people get together—and they always do.”

—from Jane Austen’s Emma

“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”

Proverbs 19: 21


Chapter One

British Airways flight 6732 from London Heathrow banked effortlessly toward the south, beginning its initial descent to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Maddie Cooper awoke, aware of the slight change in altitude. She raised the window shade to peek at the horizon, now tilted at a perfect forty-five degree angle.

“Elaine, wake up. We’re almost home.” Maddie gently touched her friend seated next to her. “We’re about to—” A vigorous yawn eclipsed her statement.

“Right, Maddie, like I was supposed to understand that?” Elaine Morgan clasped her fingers behind her neck, twisting her head back and forth. “Massive crick here. What time is it?”

“About 6:00 p.m. Eastern. We’re right on time.”

“Would the British have it any other way?” Elaine’s attempt at a stodgy English accent triggered the usual laughter.

Maddie arched a brow, her response in that unspoken language between close friends, chiding the pitiful mimic.

“I say, old girl, are you mocking me?” Elaine continued, still stretching her neck.

“Indeed, Elaine. I am indeed mocking you. I shan’t deny it a moment longer,” Maddie affected each syllable in her best Princess Diana imitation. “A fortnight in Jane Austen’s very world begs me do justice to her Majesty the Queen’s native tongue. T’was not my intent to offend you. T’was only my desire to cause you mirth.”

“I mirth! I mirth! Enough already!” Elaine begged in a thick Southern drawl. Their joined laughter rang louder than intended.

The seat in front of Maddie snapped into its upright position. She and Elaine tried to squelch any further outbursts, but the resulting efforts exploded even louder. The seat’s occupant jerked his head toward them, assaulting them with a harsh glare.

“Sorry,” Maddie mouthed silently at him.

“Sheesh, I feel like a child reprimanded by a crotchety school teacher,” she whispered into Elaine’s ear, “only he’s not that old. He can’t be more than a few years older than us, can he? What a Scrooge.”

Elaine smirked, dismissing the man’s rude behavior with a flip of the wrist. She continued kneading the pain in her neck. “Oh, Maddie, didn’t we have the most wonderful time? I feel like we’ve been time traveling in another era. I just wish we could’ve stayed forever, don’t you?”

Maddie closed her eyes, reliving the sights and feelings of the past fourteen days on an official Jane Austen tour. “I do, but I’m determined to bring that whole mystique to Austin.” She opened her eyes, turning toward Elaine. “Am I crazy to try this? Do you think I can actually pull off an authentic English tea room? I’m so excited, it’s all I can think about! I know Nana will be excited too, once I share my ideas with her. I’ll do my research, I’ll study all about the different teas and pastries, and we’ll design everything down to the last detail. I can see it all in my head already. Patrons will think they’ve literally stepped into Chawton Cottage!

“Tell me I’m not dreaming, Elaine. Can I do it? Will you help me?”

“Of course you can and of course I will, silly. It’s just what Austin needs. And no one could do it better than you. Just don’t forget your promise to let me work there, m’dear.” The horrible accent was back. “I’ll be a real asset to you, I will,” begged Eliza Doolittle.

“The job is yours but lose the accent, will you?”

“Deal.”

“I still can’t believe Nana surprised us with this dream trip, can you?”

Elaine yawned, stretching her arms above her. “She’s amazing. And I think it’s so funny how she conspired with Jonathan to make all the tour arrangements for us. Who knew he could pull all that together?”

“That part doesn’t surprise me at all. He may be her attorney, but I’ve watched their friendship grow the last few years. He treats her—special. Don’t you think?” Maddie smiled, thinking about Jonathan, his rim of white hair and the half-glasses always riding low on his nose.

She ventured down a whimsical path she’d been traveling for some time now. Her divine call as a matchmaker was becoming clearer with each passing day. I’m not sure how to do it, but somehow I’m going to get those two together. I’m quite certain this is what God wants me to do. Why didn’t I think of it years ago?

“Hello? Anyone in there?”

Maddie blinked out of her musings and picked up here she left off. “Jonathan positively adores her. All she has to do is reach for the phone and he comes running. But still, I’m blown away that she wanted to do this for me. It’s just too much.”

“Look, you’ve taken care of her for almost eight years now. You’ve had more career offers than most people have in a lifetime, yet you shelved all that to look after Nana after her stroke. You’re a saint and an angel, and she knows it. She was thrilled to do this for you. I’m just glad I got to tag along.”

“You make me sound like Mother Teresa. Easy on the accolades or that regency bonnet I bought in Southampton will never fit.”

“I’m serious! You’re an inspiration to everyone who knows you.” Elaine looped her arm through Maddie’s on the armrest. “Me included. Not a bad birthday present either, that’s for sure. But then, a girl doesn’t turn thirty every day.”

“Shhh!” Maddie ducked her head. “You don’t have to broadcast the number to the entire plane!”

Elaine yawned again, rolling her eyes. “What’s to hide? You’re smart, you’re beautiful, you’ve got great hair, you’re the most thoughtful and compassionate person I know. So what if you’re still single and seriously geriatric?”

“Stop!” Maddie shouted, smacking Elaine’s elbow and bringing on a fresh wave of giggles.

“DO. YOU. MIND?”

The Pierce Brosnan accent emerged from the contorted, angry face of Mr. Scrooge peering over his seat at them.

In an instant, Maddie’s imagination took flight onto the big screen. She, playing the part of Jane Austen’s Emma, being reprimanded by the handsome Mr. Knightley as they practiced archery, dressed in regal finery. Only this Mr. Knightley had thick, sandy brown hair—a bit unruly perhaps—framing a frighteningly serious face. Only the slightest hint of laugh lines fanned his startling blue eyes. As if he once knew laughter—but not in a long, long while. . .

“In case you haven’t noticed, no one else on this aircraft is remotely interested in your incessant chatter and ridiculous cackling.” The angry Brit spoke in urgent tones barely above a whisper. His biting words snapped Maddie back to reality.

“I suggest you attempt to contain yourselves for the remaining moments of this flight or I shall ask the flight attendant to sequester both of you to the loo. Am I making myself quite clear?” His eyes blazed first at Elaine then at Maddie.

Neither moved or made a sound.

“Well? Am I?” he demanded.

“Quite. Yes. Quite.” Maddie’s words sounded stilted even to her own ears. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “We’ll try. We really shall try. Absolutely. Our deepest apologies. Deepest. Truly. Indeed.” Oh no. Please tell me I didn’t say that with an English accent! He’ll think I’m mimicking him! She clamped her mouth shut and tried to force a smile.

Elaine elbowed her, casting an agitated glance before turning to face the intruder. “Listen, mister, I don’t know who you think you are, but unless you own this big bird, what gives you the right to—”

Maddie returned the jab.

“OW!”

“Please accept our apologies,” Maddie interrupted with no trace of an accent. “We won’t disturb you again.”

Elaine glared at her with steely eyes. Maddie returned a plastered smile, raising her eyebrows to communicate in their silent language again: Don’t. Say. Another. Word.

The man disappeared behind the seatback, his exasperated sigh ending the encounter.

Elaine rolled her eyes again, slouching down in her seat. “Well, that was fun,” she whispered.

Half an hour later, the weary travelers gathered their belongings from the overhead compartments and exited the plane. Maddie and Elaine carefully avoided eye contact, or any other kind of contact, with Mr. Scrooge. Through the terminal they kept a safe distance as they made their way to the baggage area.

“Maddie, look—it’s him,” Elaine grunted as they reached their carousel. “Get a load of all those bags. He must have paid a fortune in extra baggage fees. He’s got more luggage than we do combined.” She snorted. “The man travels like a girl.”

At that, Maddie and Elaine ripped into uncontrolled laughter again, watching his every move. Scrooge followed the sound until he spotted them again, his lips immediately pursed again in agitation. He looked quickly away, as if another second gazing at them would offend him for the rest of his life. He busied himself as he counted all his bags until a uniformed skycap approached him and began loading the bags onto a cart.

“What’s his problem anyway?” Maddie shook off the distraction.

“Look, Maddie. Here comes your last suitcase. C’mon, let’s go. I’m beat.”

Maddie stepped through the crowd and reached for her bag, then stacked it atop her bigger one. Popping the handle up, she tilted the bags, rolling them behind her as she followed Elaine toward the doors. Elaine stopped short as her unsecured bags toppled over, spilling into everyone’s path. Maddie quickly helped her gather the scattered bags, moving them out of the way. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt to use the straps to—”

“Stupid bags. I knew better than to borrow these from Alice.”

“I’ll get this one, let’s just go.” Maddie grabbed a smaller bag. Just as the automated doors slid open, she glanced up to see a man in an expensive dark suit holding a printed sign bearing the burnt orange University of Texas logo:

Dr. IAN Grant

“Over here—I’m Dr. Grant.”

At the sound of the familiar English accent, Maddie turned around just as Scrooge led the skycap and his cart toward the doors.

“Welcome, Dr. Grant! I’m Howard Martin, head of the English Lit department at the University of Texas. We’ve chatted on the phone.”

Scrooge extended his hand toward Martin who grasped it heartily. “Splendid. Nice to meet you in person, Dr. Martin.”

“On behalf of the University, I welcome you to the United States and to our great state of Texas. We are most excited about your upcoming year with us. I trust you had a good flight?”

“Oh great,” Maddie groaned under her breath. “We’ve ruffled the feathers of a visiting professor.”

“There goes my raise,” Elaine squawked, knowing their paths would surely cross since she was an assistant librarian at the campus library. Even as the words left her mouth, Elaine’s bags fell over again, this time sending a broken wheel skittering across the tiled floor. Maddie and Elaine watched in horror as the renegade wheel headed right for Mr. Scrooge as if on missile-lock.

“No! No! No!” Maddie cried in a hoarse whisper.

Elaine grabbed her bags then pushed Maddie, rushing for the automated doors. “Move it, Maddie. We’ve gotta get out of here. Fast!” Just as the doors slid open again, they heard the distinctive yell of a man who’d lost his footing.

“Ahhhhhhh—” Thunk!

“Dr. Grant! Good heavens, are you all right?”

Maddie leaned back to look through the closing doors as the commotion erupted in their wake. “But shouldn’t we—”

Elaine propelled Maddie through the doors, then with thumb and forefinger bracing her lips, let loose an ear-piercing whistle.

“TAXI!”

* * * * *

“Ian, please let me know if you need anything else. I’m so sorry about all this,” Howard Martin apologized for the umpteenth time since the fiasco at the airport. “Are you sure I can’t arrange for a maid or nurse to assist you? It won’t be any bother at all, and the University would, of course—”

“Howard, I’ll be right as rain in no time. I’ve lived alone long enough to know how to take care of myself. But thank you.” Ian Grant limped to the door with the aid of his crutches, compliments of the hospital emergency room.

“Well, then, I’ll leave you be. You have my number if you need anything. Please don’t hesitate to call.”

“I will. Thank you, Howard.”

Martin backed out the front door, casting another mournful glance at Ian’s injured foot before heading down the bricked sidewalk to his car. Ian used one of his crutches to shove the heavy door closed then wrestled his way back to the living area just off the foyer. He dropped into the soft leather chair, tossing his crutches on the floor beside him, then propped his injured foot on the matching ottoman.

“It’s a bad sprain, Dr. Grant, but the x-rays show no broken bones. Just stay off your feet as much as possible and keep that foot elevated.” The ER physician had wrapped Ian’s right ankle and heel in a figure eight with miles of Ace Bandage.

Now, with his eyes resting on the oversized boot covering his bandaged foot, Ian blew out a frustrated sigh and dropped his head back against the chair. “Splendid. Just splendid.”

With only the ticking of the grandfather clock in the background, he closed his eyes and tried to figure out how he would prepare for his classes, navigate his way to and from the campus down the street, or manage the simple things like showering and dressing. It was kind of Howard to offer to send help, but the last thing he wanted was some overzealous nurse smothering him day and night.

It’s not rocket science. You’ll manage.

“Blast those stupid girls!” Ian punched the arm of the chair with his fist.

He’d seen them fussing with their bags as Martin arrived and made his introductions. It was bad enough to endure the flight from London with those two behind him. If he had heard one more word about Jane Austen, he would surely have lost his mind. A few days in England and they fancy themselves experts on the entire life and works of Miss Austen. Typical Yanks.

After arriving at the airport, everywhere he turned in the terminal, they seemed to appear. Hard to miss the two of them . . . that dark-haired hippy with her long flowing skirt and ridiculous floppy hat—the one who tried to tell me off on the plane.

And the tall one with her all those strawberry blond curls—or were they red? He remembered the wisps of those curls dancing as she walked, glistening in the bright sky-lit terminal. Even through his tirade on the plane, he’d noticed her fair skin with the faintest of freckles sprinkled across a perfect nose.

Ian shook the image from his head disturbed by the thoughts. Must be those confounded painkillers they gave me at the hospital. But the imprint of her face continued drifting through his mind . . . her peculiar attempt at a smile after he’d chastised her on the flight. Were those hazel eyes or were they green? Green. Definitely green. I’ve never seen eyes so vibrant and alive . . . so genuine?

He felt his facial muscles relax for the first time all day, giving in to the nagging smile tugging at his lips. With a grunt, he rubbed his face. Women are nothing but trouble, be it here or across the pond back home.

Ian grabbed his crutches again and clumsily lifted himself off the chair. He wanted to check out his lodgings. Howard had described the university’s residence for visiting professors, as “comfortable and nicely appointed.” Indeed. He was pleased with his surroundings—the hardwood floors, the expensive leather furniture and numerous works of art. It was obvious the university took pride in housing guests here. The house, located in prestigious Hyde Park, was built in the late 1800s, according to Howard, but its caregivers had certainly outdone themselves keeping it up to date.

He continued his slow awkward tour of the downstairs, relieved to find the master suite on the first floor. King-size bed. Whirlpool tub in the master bath. An oversized desk beneath a large window in the study. And at the back of the house, a modern kitchen fit for a king and well stocked at that. He grabbed a chilled bottle of water from the fridge, snatched a handful of red grapes, and ambled back to the bedroom.

An hour later, after a long, hot bath, Ian fell into bed. With the BBC on mute on the bedroom television, he sunk deeper into the embrace of the soft sheets, finally giving in to his fatigue. Falling into a deep sleep in mere moments, he was surprised when none other than Jane Austen herself showed up beside his bed. She turned out the light beside the bed and clicked off the remote. Wait—how did she know how to do that? She tucked him into bed, much as his mother had done when he was just a lad, and just like Mum, planted a gentle kiss on his brow. He looked full into her face—a face surrounded by wispy curls of strawberry blond, adorned with a sprinkling of freckles across a perfect nose, warm green eyes, and smiling lips. . .

Good night, Jane.

Good night, Ian.





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