The Secrets of Donwell Abbey

I have always wanted to write Jane Austen Fan Fiction on books other than Pride and Prejudice. I never really had a lot of story ideas for them but one has taken hold for Knightley and Emma and will not let go. This will be very much like The Secrets of Pemberley in which it is told only from the hero point of view and there are secrets in his past. In fact, it’s so much like it that I decided they should be in a series together. Say hello to The Men of Austen! I plan to write a book like this for each Jane Austen hero although I have no particular idea which one will come next. 🙂

Chapter One

George Knightley watched as Emma busied herself around the drawing room. She had a natural grace about her as she did little household tasks. How many times had he been privy to such a scene over the years? Year after year, he had glimpses into the domestic scene until Hartfield became almost as much his home as Donwell Abbey.

Perhaps that was what made her presence so soothing. Emma could irritate the thunder out of him. No other lady could and very few gentlemen ever had. However, there was not a mean bone in her body. There was no shortage of kind people in the Highbury area, though, yet Emma was who he always sought out when tired or weary. There was very little accounting for it, and at the moment it was useless to attempt.

Their last argument was about her new friend, Harriet Smith. She could not know, of course, the direction of his true feelings about the girl. When he inherited Donwell a few years ago, he did not delve into all the financial particulars too much. He trusted his solicitor and his steward was invaluable to him. He balanced the tenant books. It was imperative their money was always accounted for and their every need met. He was no spendthrift, and so he never worried about the London accounts. Until a few months ago when he learned of monthly payments going to Mrs. Goddard’s School set up during his father’s purview.

How Knightley wished he could have assumed his father donated the money out of the goodness of his heart. He alone could guess the truth. The elder Mr. Knightley had been an upstanding gentleman in most ways. No one in the area would say a thing against Alfred Knightley. If not for an unfortunate encounter when Knightley was twenty and in London, he never would have known there was anything to mar his predecessor’s legacy. Instead, he understood why there were payments to Mrs. Goddard’s.

Without asking for her name or any particulars—it could hardly be supposed that suddenly being brought into a family circle where she must always be reminded of her low birth would be enjoyable to the girl—he ordered the solicitor to increase her standard of living. She was now seventeen and could be a parlour border for another year or two before needing to leave the school. Her education must be complete and soon would need new accommodations. The time was coming when Knightley ought to make himself known to her, but he hesitated on how to do so.

Knightley had no serious suspicions that Emma’s new friend might be his half-sister until Harriet received a proposal from one of Knightley’s tenants. Emma insisted Harriet must be a gentleman’s daughter, even if a natural one, and therefore above her suitor. In the heat of the argument, Knightley had managed to conceal his conflicting emotions. Did she have the Knightley chin? His father’s eyes? If she were his sister, then his feelings intensified to see her well-settled with a man as gentlemanly as he knew Robert Martin to be. It sometimes amazed Knightley that Emma could not guess the direction of his thoughts. She had not deduced the reason for his heightened interest and implacable resistance to her idea of matching Harriet with Mr. Elton.

The very thought of their disagreement and the complications of Harriet being his relation made his head pound. Mr. Woodhouse had chatted away about various things which required few replies and now was napping in a chair.

“Will you stay for supper?” Emma asked Knightley, drawing him from his musings.

“I think not,” he said and began to shake his head, until touching it with a groan.

“You are unwell!”

“No. I am not ill,” Knightley responded firmly. He never took to the sickbed. He glanced at Mr. Woodhouse, if he had heard her words, Knightley already would be drowning in nurses and tonics amidst words about Dr. Perry’s solutions.

“You look it,” Emma said and sat beside him. She peered into his eyes. “I see it, there,” she said, and her thumbs grazed the side of his eyes. “And here,” she added, smoothing the lines of his brow.

They were often furrowed, how she could tell it was now out of pain and not his usual expression, he was not sure. She placed the back of her palm against his forehead.

“No fever,” she muttered.

“I told you. I am the picture of health.” While she could feel no fever, her nearness, the contact she offered without a second thought, fired his blood.

He had never been with a woman. In his first trip to an establishment in London, he witnessed his father having a row with a courtesan and the proprietor. They argued about his responsibilities for the child she now carried. Somehow, there had been no doubt that he was the father. Since then, Knightley had thought too seriously about how such deeds could affect so many others. He considered it ungentlemanly to use a woman for his own pleasure.

At first, it was a difficult choice and caused no small amount of teasing from his friends—even from his brother. Now, it had been years since he had felt more than the slightest twinge of desire at the sight of a specific woman. Perhaps if he left Highbury more, it would be more difficult. As it was, he knew all the faces and figures. There was nothing to surprise or tantalize—except for his growing fascination with Emma and now her siren touch.

“I will leave you,” he said, surprised at the feelings his words evoked. His body tensed, telling him it would prefer to stay rooted next to Emma.

“Nonsense. I think your head must be ailing you. Shall I ring for tea or something stronger? Papa would offer you his finest port.”

“I need nothing.” Nothing besides more of her affectionate gazes and the feel of her skin on his. Had anyone in his life ever considered his needs or looked at him with such concern? He did not know how much he desired that until this moment.

“There is something I do when Papa has a headache. I think it will help. May I?”

“What — what is it?” He could barely think coherently. The original source of his headache had disappeared, but his head continued to ache at the confusion growing in him. This was Emma!

“Only this.”

She placed her hands on his temples and rubbed soft, small circles with the pads of her thumb. Tingles of exquisite torture spread over him as his eyes closed. Emma’s nearness made him dizzy. He wanted to drown in a lake of her perfume.

“This is inappropriate,” he muttered as he weakly attempted to move his head.

“I do it for John,” she answered, gripping his head slightly tighter, applying pressure to the back.

“Yes, and I suppose Isabella is right beside you.”

“If you are worried about a chaperone, my father is in the room. Besides, I know my honour is safe with you, and no one would dream of laying anything ungentlemanly at your door.”

She was very much not safe with him. Not now. Maybe not ever again. His defenses were slipping. His usual focus on honour and gentlemanly behaviour began to crumble at the overwhelming pleasure her expert hands provided.

“He is asleep,” Knightley mumbled.

“Hush. Relax,” Emma whispered near his ear as her nails gently roamed across his scalp.

It was futile. He could not resist what she so generously offered. For blissful moments, he allowed her to take his cares away. Something about being alone in the world, just him and Emma, of drawing pleasure at her touch, and her satisfying a need he never knew he had, seemed perfectly right. This moment was not dishonourable. It was heady and seductive but also beautiful and pure. Did Emma feel it too?

Knightley opened his eyes to see Emma’s brilliant blue orbs staring back at him. “Emma,” he blew out on a breath that contained a shred of his longing.

“George,” she whispered in return.

His head erased the distance between them without conscious thought. She had never called him George — even as their family relation and intimacy over the years would have justified it. This moment meant something to her as well. One touch of her lips. That was all he desired. Nay, he needed it more than he needed his next breath. He could not survive without it. He cupped her cheek with his hand, and she did not flinch. When he ran the pad of his thumb over her plump lower lip, her lashes fluttered. There was time to stop — to pull back — to not do what must forever alter them but he could not.

Moving a fraction of an inch, their lips met in the briefest touch. Bolts of lightning shot through his body and although he had meant to pull back, his arm wrapped around Emma’s back, drawing her closer and pressing her firmly to his mouth. She happily sighed against him.

He craved more and was an instant addict to her kiss. There was more, so much more, they could experience. The kiss was still entirely chaste, but he could feel her bubbling passion beneath the surface. His Emma had never lived by halves. His Emma? Indeed, after this, she would be. His honour had not disintegrated, after all.

A snore erupted from Mr. Woodhouse, and Knightley’s eyes flew open. Consciousness returned to him. He was kissing Emma in full view of her father and anyone who might walk in the drawing room! He was kissing, nay taking advantage, of Emma! His friend’s daughter. His brother’s sister-in-law. One of his dearest friends!

He sprang into action. He pulled back so fast and jumped from the seat, Emma nearly fell over on the couch. His body felt aflame with shame and unfulfilled desire. He could still feel the petal-soft touch of her lips, her fingers had carved a path in his soul, and his body physically ached to pull her into his arms.

“I — I — forgive me.” He bowed and fled from the room.

One kiss. One kiss would change his life forever. Whether for good or bad, he could not say but he knew there was no going back from this moment. As he reached Donwell Abbey out of breath and with a headache for entirely different reasons, Knightley knew only this: he would not rest until Emma bore his name.


The following day, Knightley walked to Hartfield as was his custom. However, his speed varied. At times the desire to see Emma, sweep her into his arms and whisper words of affection hastened his step. At other times, his steps slowed. Emma deserved a true proposal out of genuine love. That, he had. Although they argued, Knightley believed they were well-matched and would compliment one another in matrimony. There would be cross moments, but there would be far more happier moments. The more he thought of their future, the more it appeared natural to him. He was always coming to Hartfield — nearly every day. What would it be like to not see Emma for a few days at a time? He could hardly imagine it! Indeed, marrying Emma would be the best way to keep her always at hand. He surely did not visit her house so often for the company of her father.

No, what gave him pause was that he could not speak of his feelings. Even if he fully knew them — and after many a sleepless hour last night he did had been unsuccessful in identifying them — he could hardly explain them to her. Let him talk about farming with Robert Martin or his steward. Let him talk war efforts with Mr. Weston or music with his wife. Expressions of the heart made him uncomfortable — he had no practice at it. His father had never encouraged that sort of conversation. Perhaps because he had never known love for anyone but himself.

When he finally arrived at Hartfield, far later than a mere mile’s walk should take, the insufferable Mr. Elton was just leaving. As a frequent visitor, Knightley was allowed to make his way unannounced to the drawing room where he found Emma and Harriet whispering and blushing.

“What’s this?” he asked, startling the ladies and noting with pleasure as Emma’s blush deepened.

“Just another occupation that I fear you will not approve,” Emma replied saucily.

“Oh?” He asked with a raised brow.

“Miss Woodhouse has compiled a book of literature and riddles.”

“Literature?” Knightley sat in his usual chair near their settee. “Why should I disapprove of this?”

“Harriet is too generous. It is a book of riddles, enigmas, and conundrums.”

Knightley’s attention was divided between admiring Emma’s loveliness and deciphering anything like the Knightley looks in Harriet.

“Mr. Elton was kind enough to offer an entry,” Harriet blushed.

Knightley’s eyes narrowed. He and Emma had not fully resolved their argument about Harriet refusing Robert Martin’s proposal. More offensive to Knightley was Emma’s wanting to match Harriet with Elton. Knightley knew Elton had no interest in Harriet — his eyes followed Emma. The young vicar had also made comments about desiring a wealthy wife and Harriet would have hardly anything.

“Did he?”

“Indeed,” Emma answered with a grin. “We were just about to read it when you entered.”

“Do not let me stop you.”

Harriet and Emma giggled and put their heads together as Emma read aloud. What he heard troubled Knightley exceedingly. The despicable fortune-hunter was after his Emma.

“Courtship, my dear Harriet. Do you see?” Emma pointed to the lines for Harriet who had at first thought the charade was about mermaids or sharks.

“But — can it be?”

“I believe you will soon have the most extreme proof.”

“Oh! It is beyond anything I could have hoped for.”

“You know I have always found it most natural. Now, we must copy it in our book.”

“I could not—”

“Surely you can, and we must return it when he returns. His ‘friend’ only loaned it to him, after all.”

“Indeed. I shall try.”

“But do leave off the last two lines so it does not seem personal.”

Harriet nodded and went to the table to get about her work. Knightley took her position next to Emma.

“I do not think that poem was intended for Harriet,” Knightley said.

Emma’s grin vanished. “Not for Harriet! Who else could it be for? Do you accuse the man of writing about courtship for the mere amusement of the lady he has paid particular attention to for weeks?”

“You know I disagree that he has paid her any such attention.”

“Did you come just to argue with me?”

Knightley knew Emma’s pout very well — just as he knew everything at Hartfield and in Highbury entirely. She had been a spoilt child and often used it to manipulate others to get her way. As a young lady, she had mostly grown out of the effect but not entirely. This time, Knightley thought he saw true hurt in her eyes.

“No, and I had hoped to find you alone. When does Miss Smith intend to leave?” Emma chewed her bottom lip, only reminding Knightley of the taste of that succulent flesh.

“I shall invent some reason to send her away as soon as she is finished.”

“Miss Woodhouse,” Harriet called from her seat. “Would you look over this?

Emma rose with alacrity and praised her friend’s penmanship before observing that her father had slept poorly and needed more rest than usual which would be difficult with Harriet’s natural effusions. The younger lady agreed and, scarcely able to contain her delight over her imagined admirer, happily bid Emma and Knightley adieu.

“Emma, be reasonable,” Knightley said when she sat next to him. “The world does not have your good heart. Harriet Smith is no alluring match, and Elton is a man of the world. He values more than a pretty face and an agreeable temperament. At the very least, he values money.”

“I thought you said you came for a reason other than to argue with me,” she stood and placed a hand on her hip as she shook a finger at him.

Had she any idea how utterly adorable she looked scolding him? Had she any idea how completely mad she drove him? First for her nonsensical thoughts and then for the fact that he loved every minute of it.

“I only wish to put you on your guard. You may one day be quite surprised at the true direction of Elton’s affections.”

“Do you consider yourself the romantic sort?”

Wary of the apparent sudden change in conversation, Knightley avoided answering at first, but Emma would not give up. “No, I do not.”

“Then you cannot understand the workings of the romantic mind. You do not see any merit in marrying Harriet because you are not in love with her and as you have never been in love, you cannot recognize its signs. You did not notice when your brother and my sister were in love or when Mr. Weston loved Miss Taylor. I am your superior in such matters.”

Suddenly, their argument about Elton and Harriet meant nothing. He had never been in love before. He knew that to be true. But what of his feelings now? Why did Emma seem so complacent when they had not discussed matrimony, and yet his honour demanded it. If she did not suspect he was in love with her, then what reason did she assign to their breach in propriety. Yes, focusing on Emma and any of her flawed logic was much better than examining his disordered feelings.

“As it happens, I do come on a matter of romance that I think even you might approve.”

“Oh, really?”

He pulled her hand until she sat beside him. Then, still holding her hand in his, he knelt on one knee. “Emma, you have long been my sister and friend. I do not know when it began, but you have turned into something more and I—”

“I thought I heard voices,” Mr. Woodhouse said from the doorway. “Is that Mr. Knightley?”

Knightley quickly glanced at Emma who appeared horrified and shook her head.

“Yes, Papa,” she answered. “You just missed Harriet.”

Realizing he had lost his moment, Knightley discreetly rose and turned to a window to gaze out it while Mr. Woodhouse hobbled to his preferred seat.

“Did you get anything new for your book, my dear?” Mr. Woodhouse asked his daughter.

“We did, and I will read it to you in just a moment.”

If Knightley were to sit and listen to more effusions over Mr. Elton’s poor poetry and desire to court Harriet, he would be sick. He wished the young man very far away, at least until he could secure Emma’s hand as his own. He did not want to doubt her honour, but she seemed so unattached to him and entirely unaffected by what transpired the evening before that Knightley began to wonder if it had all been a figment of his imagination.

“You must excuse me,” Knightley turned. “I have an appointment with my steward.”

With a bow to the father and daughter, Knightley left Hartfield feeling more out of sorts than he ever had before. It troubled him all the more as it often was his cure for loneliness or anything distraught.

11 thoughts on “The Secrets of Donwell Abbey

  1. Emma seems to have completely ignored what that kiss might mean. I never took her to be dense. And that is intriguing to imagine Harriet as Knightley’s half-sister. Thanks for sharing.


    1. I’m sorry that I’m just seeing this! I didn’t get a notice about the comment. I’m terribly behind on all projects (thanks, Covid). It’s been bumped back to 2022 for publication and I’m hoping to resume work on it shortly. Would you care to read it serially on the blog? I know it probably won’t sell well and then it’s a toss up if it helps to post on the blog or not. A lot of readers tell me that they find it hard to read serially and it seems like the ones that enjoy it are ardent Darcy & Lizzy supporters that don’t read works about other characters/books.


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