A funny thing happened on the way to the winner's platform: while preparing today's post, I was surprised to find that this month's winning entry was submitted by a familiar name -- the writer of May's Contemporary Romance winner takes the prize again.
The fact that this came as a surprise demonstrates how truly impartial the judging is. And the fact that the same person won twice would seem to indicate that she knows her way around this genre.
Though the judges agreed that this story was the best of the bunch, they also felt it could use a little work before submitting it for publication. They stated that the opening paragraph draws the reader in, and the story jumps quickly into action and presents the characters' goals. However, it could use some tightening up, beginning with the excess of the characters' girlish behavior at the beginning. The premise is interesting, and with a little help from critiquers or a paid editor, it could be cleaned up nicely.
We are, therefore, happy to present to you Tea With Emma, by two-time winner Diane Moody of Kingston Springs, Tennessee:
Tea With Emma
by Diane Moody
—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
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.
“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?”
“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.
“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.