Killian ran his palms over the several day’s growth covering his jawline. Even if he had the necessities needed to tame the unseemly facial hair, he dared not attempt to do so with the unsteady movements of the train. He only hoped Emma’s parents would excuse his appearance. Though, now he knew they were Nolans, he doubted such a transgression would go unnoticed.
He’d recognized the name at once. One could hardly peruse the front page of any paper within the United Kingdom and not see the name Nolan featured in at least one article. Whether it be on the subject of industry, politics, society, or the war, George Nolan was a pillar of influence, and the fact he was American made him all the more infamous. It was no wonder Emma had opted to take on an assumed name during her service, and if he had not understood her dread at having to tell her family about the baby without a fiance or husband by her side, he certainly did now.
He was currently experiencing his own deep sense of dread at the prospect of having to announce their engagement without them having any sort of inkling of his arrival.
When the announcement came that they were about to pull into the station, Killian made his way back to the sleep car he’d shared with Emma the night before. Just as she’d been when they’d departed, Emma was staring out the window, watching the platform grow closer, tension rolling off her in waves. She jolted when the door to their compartment snapped shut. When he apologized for startling her, she offered him a smile that was slightly tight in its corners.
“Last chance to change your mind,” she said in what she’d probably intended to be a light-hearted quip, yet Killian could hear the nerves vibrating beneath her words. Nerves that attested to the fear he might do exactly that.
Killian sank down onto the bed and took her hand. “I’m in this for the long haul, Swan.” Raising her hand, he brushed a quick kiss over the back of her knuckles. The tension in her smile released, allowing it to grow wider and more assured, and he mirrored it back to her with his own.
Disembarking from the train, Kilian hitched his duffle further up his shoulder and adjusted the grip he had on her suitcase, insisting on carrying it for her despite the trek she warned they’d have to make. It seemed that not only was the arrival of a fiance to be a surprise, but her own was as well. Fortunately, providence took pity on them and provided a transport that would save them the miles long journey.
“Miss Nolan!” an older gentleman exclaimed, closing the tailgate of his truck before removing his cap and making his way towards them.
“Marco, it’s so good to see you,” Emma greeted, kissing each of the man’s weathered cheeks which pinked in response. “How are you? How’s your family?”
“Good, good. Everyone is well. And you? Returning home from service, I assume?” His eyes flicked to where Killian was hovering just behind Emma’s shoulder, and a brow rose with knowing interest. “And not alone, I see.”
“I am, and you are correct,” she replied before urging Killian forward and threading her arm with his. “Marco, I’d like you to meet Killian Jones,” she paused briefly and Killian could feel her nerves trembling through her arm, “my fiance.”
Killian set her suitcase down so he could take the enthusiastic hand Marco offered him, the unexpected strength from his seemingly frail frame jarring him as they shook hands.
“Such wonderful news!” Marco exclaimed. “I am sure your parents are thrilled.”
“Actually,” Emma hedged. “They don’t know yet. We wanted it to be a surprise. Right, darling?”
Her necked craned up to catch his eye, a faint look of desperation swimming in her viridian gaze.
“Aye,” Killian confirmed, placing his hand over the one she had resting on his forearm, his fingers brushing over the ring he’d slipped onto it the night before. “With the frenzy of the war ending, we didn’t want to waste time with formalities. I only hope Emma’s father will forgive the infraction of my not asking for his blessing before popping the question,” he said with a light chuckle, hoping it would help sell the story they had concocted together.
“I’m sure he will,” Marco said, though his expression suggested otherwise. “My August, however, will be devastated to hear the news of his life long love finding happiness with another.” His wink pulled an amused huff from Emma’s lips, then he gestured to his truck as he continued, “Please. Let me offer you a ride to the estate. You’ve already had quite a journey.”
Emma thanked him and removed her arm from Killian’s so he could deposit their bags in the bed of the truck. Opening the passenger side door, he whispered into Emma’s ear.
“Should I be worried about this August fellow?”
“Why?” Emma replied coyly, flicking her eyes at him from beneath her lashes. “Are you jealous?”
Though he’d asked the question from a standpoint of how August might interfere with their plan, the realization that there was truth behind Emma’s teasing question floored Killian momentarily, leaving him at a loss for words.
“Don’t worry,” Emma whispered while climbing into the cab. “We’ve only ever been just good friends, ever since we were children. Besides,” she murmured even lower, casting him a significant look with a hint of a smirk, ”you’re actually more August’s type than I am.”
That confession had Killian’s brows shooting up his forehead. He’d met men of that sort before, had even served alongside a few of them, and despite society’s and the law’s judgments, he’d never taken issue with any of them. How, and with whom, they chose to spend their private time behind closed doors was none of Killian’s affair. His shock at Emma’s words was more to do with the fact Emma knew such preferences within certain men even existed.
Sliding onto the bench seat beside her, Killian leaned down to purr tauntingly into her ear. “Perhaps you’re the one who should be worried about August once he’s exposed to my charms, then.”
Her wide eyes rounded on him, and he hitched his brows at her with his tongue pressed cheekily at the back of his teeth. Laughter erupted from her as soon as she realised he was teasing, making Killian’s heart flutter at the sound. She coughed back her remaining chortles when Marco opened the driver side door and swung himself up behind the steering wheel, then took Killian’s hand, lacing their fingers together before they set off.
Emma had insisted Marco drop them on the East side of the property, knowing the actual drive leading up the house was out of the man’s way. Plus, she hoped the pleasant walk through the pasture and orchards might help calm her nerves, as well as give Killian more time to come to grips with who she was. It hadn’t escaped her notice how pale and overcome Killian had begun to look when the sweeping lands of Misthaven Estate and the manor, imposing even at this distance, had come into view.
“Tell me more about your family,” Killian requested. “I’d like to be as prepared as I can be.”
It was something she’d already come to learn about him, the more informed he was the more in control he felt. He’d quizzed her on countless details while they’d hatched their plan, not wanting to leave anything to chance, not wanting to be caught off guard by a question they had not considered in advance. Given the sacrifice he was making on her behalf, she wouldn’t begrudge him whatever he needed in order to walk into the lion’s den as equipped as possible.
“My parents and I came to the UK in 1931,” she told him. “I was ten, and my mother was expecting my brother, Leo.”
“They came here at your grandfather’s behest, correct? Because your uncle had passed?”
“That’s right,” she affirmed. “Father and George were estranged, because my father went against his wishes and married my mother when they were both only eighteen. Grandma Ruth was ill, and they wanted to be married before she died, so she could witness the ceremony. After she died, Grandpa George and Uncle James moved here and began buying up estates war ravaged families could no longer afford to keep running. As you know, he’s made quite a name for himself.”
“Aye,” Killian remarked on a sigh, and Emma’s stomach churned with guilt.
“I’m sorry,” she said, halting their steps beneath the sprawling branches of one of the orchard trees. “I should have told you who I was sooner. I just…” she worried her lip before peering up at him, her breath hitching at the soft look of understanding in his forget-me-not eyes. “I was afraid. I never even told Neal who I really was, because I thought my family name would scare him off.” She dipped her head and angrily muttered, “Which probably would have, now I know what a coward he is.”
Killian’s calloused fingers slipped beneath her chin, sending a ripple of something she knew she shouldn’t be feeling down her spine. With gentle pressure, he urged her to look up at him once more.
“I won’t pretend I wasn’t already nervous at the prospect of pulling one over on your family. Or that knowing you're a Nolan, and your family has the means to track me down and have me killed without anyone being the wiser doesn’t raise my anxieties to that of harrowing levels, but,” he dropped her suitcase and took her hands in his when he spied the glimmer of tears pooling in her guilt-stricken eyes. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be, and nothing more pressing than making sure you’re cared for. I told you, love. I’m in this for the long haul, and I meant it.”
Emma’s gaze flickered between his earnest eyes, the tender caress of his fingertips over her knuckles and his brother’s ring sending a current up her arms that had the fine hairs standing on end. “Why are you doing this, Killian?” she exhaled. “Why are you helping me?”
The distinct sound of a cocking shotgun snapped them to attention, and the warning shot that followed had Killian forcing Emma to the ground, his body halfway sprawled across hers in an effort to protect her.
“Don't shoot!” Killian called out. “We’re unarmed!”
“But you are trespassing,” a voice accused, cocking the shotgun a second time.
“Dad! It’s me!” Emma shouted, exasperatedly. All of her frustrations at her father’s zealousness evaporated when she caught sight of Killian’s face. His eyes were clamped shut and his entire body was rigid. Lifting her hand to graze against his cheek, her heart broke at the terror she saw when his eyes flew open. She’d seen that faraway look in other men’s eyes during her service; the look of one who had witnessed too much horror, too many atrocities, and had experienced too much loss.
The shuffling sounds of approaching boots helped clear his vision. A brief expression of embarrassment flittered over his features before they both turned their attention to the worn Wellingtons that had stopped right in front of them. In tandem, their gazes lifted upwards, taking in the sight of her father, a shotgun cradled in his arms with a hard look of inquiry staring down at them.
“Hello, Daddy,” Emma greeted with a slightly forced smile and equally forced tone of cheer.
Her father’s brow quirked and his gaze shifted to Killian, who offered up his own greeting with a respectful sounding, “Mr. Nolan, sir.”
A moment’s silence passed over the three of them until her father uttered, with a hint of menace, “Would you mind removing yourself from my daughter, and telling me who the hell you are?”
Emma knew her and Killian’s arrival, as well as the announcement of their engagement would come as shock, especially to her father, but she never expected a reaction like this.
“Mary Margaret!” he bellowed as soon as he hit the threshold of the manor house, marching his way into the drawing room and straight to the decanters on the beverage cart.
“Dad, please,” Emma sighed. “We can talk about this calmly.”
“Calmly?” her father chided. “You show up without warning, without so much as the courtesy of letting your mother and I know you are well and headed home from the war front, denying us the opportunity to collect you from the train station ourselves, only so I can find you cavorting with some man in the middle of our orchards, and you expect me to be calm?!”
“Cavorting in the orchards?” her mother’s voice rang out from the doorway, sounding scandalized.
“We were not cavorting,” Emma argued. “You shot at us. Killian was only trying to protect me. And he isn’t some man, he’s my fiance, as I’ve already explained.”
“Fiance!” her mother exclaimed again.
“Killian Jones,” she heard Killian introduce. “A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Nolan.”
“Likewise,” her mother responded, in polite instinctual fashion.
“No,” her father protested, slamming down the decanter. “Not likewise. There is no likewise.”
“David,” Emma’s mother admonished. “I understand you’ve suffered something of a shock, I dare say we all have, but now really is not the time for such displays.” Her mother crossed the room and gathered Emma into her arms. “Our daughter is home at last,” she sniffled, and Emma could feel the burn of her own tears welling in her eyes. “Can we not have a moment’s celebration over the fact the war is over and our family is together again?”
“But Maggie.” His objection was cut off by a withering look from his wife who had begun to lead both Emma and Killian to the seating area in front of the fireplace. Throwing back the contents of the glass he’d poured himself, David made his way over but refused to sit, choosing instead to stand over his wife’s shoulder where he could scowl down at the man sat beside his only daughter.
“You’ll have to forgive my husband,” Emma’s mother beseeched Killian. “He doesn’t do well with surprises and well…”
“We apologize for the shock,” Killian replied, his eyes darting up to her father’s every few seconds. “Emma was so excited to get home to you, and we’ve been so eager to share the news, that I don’t think either of us realized how much of a surprise it would be.”
“It’s just,” her mother began again with all her focus set upon Emma, “you never even mentioned having met someone in your letters.”
Emma wet her lips and swallowed past the nervous lump taking residence in her throat. The moment of truth had come. Perhaps sensing her nerves, Killian reached over and covered her hand with his own. An action that had her father’s scowl deepening.
“It’s all happened rather fast,” Emma began. “We met a few months ago at a canteen dance while Killian was on leave. He’s, uh… a captain in the navy.”
Emma felt Killian tense as he rushed to clarify, “Though, I was only a lieutenant at the time we met.”
“Right.” Her eyes sought his, and her pulse quickened at the encouragement and solidarity she saw within them. “We spent some time together while he was ashore, and neither of us wanted to part ways when his leave was up, so we began exchanging letters.”
“Naturally, communication wasn’t always reliable,” Killian jumped in again. “There were times when weeks would go by without word, even though I knew we were both writing a letter a day to one another. Just as the war ended, I received a parcel of several days’ worth of letters. I confess to have been rather… put out by the situation and distance between us. I know it wasn’t exactly proper, but the war has taught me that life’s too short to waste on propriety, so I wrote her back with a simple request.” Killian’s eyes met hers once more and a flurry erupted in Emma’s belly. “I asked, if she felt for me what I felt for her, would she meet me on a certain train platform, at a certain time when I knew we would both be making our way back to our respective homes. When she did, I got down on one knee and proposed.”
“And I said yes!” Emma finished for him, pulling her gaze away and holding out her hand to show off the ring.
Her mother took hold of her hand to see it for herself, and let go a reverent sigh. “It’s lovely.”
“I know it isn’t traditional,” Killian stated. “It was my brother’s, and all I had to offer her at the time.” Emma glanced over at him when she felt him squeeze her hand. “I’ll get you a proper one after we’re married. I promise.”
Emma had to remind herself it was all part of the act, but the solemness of his vow still took her breath away. “You’ll do no such thing,” she countered, earning her a brief flash of confusion from him, seeing as such a response had not been part of their discussions. Pulling her hand back from her mother, she peered down at the deep, red stone then back at Killian’s face and confessed, “I love this one. I don’t want another.”
Killian’s Adam’s apple bobbed and a shy, tentative smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.
“Well,” her mother said, causing them to tear their eyes away from each other. “I think it’s lovely, too. But if you change your mind, there will be plenty of time to find another before the wedding.”
“Now hold on,” her father challenged, “Who said anything about a wed--”
“Actually,” Emma interjected, “Killian and I don’t want a lengthy engagement. We’d like to get married as soon as possible.” She turned back to him so she wouldn’t have to watch her father’s face grow any more mottled. “This weekend would suit us just fine.”
“This weekend?” her father roared, stepping around her mother’s chair.
Emma stood and held her ground, going toe-to-toe with her father who she’d never seen so furious.
“I absolutely forbid it!”
“Fine,” Emma relented calmly, tugging at Killian’s hand, which she’d never let go of. “Then I guess we’ll be taking our leave and getting married as soon as we reach Killian’s home.”
She couldn’t blame Killian for his sputtering, she had thoroughly gone off book, but hadn’t anticipated this level of stubbornness from her father who usually doted on her every whim.
“Emma, love,” Killian muttered, pulling her to a halt. “I don’t have enough funds to see us both all the way to my home,” he admitted with a reddish tint heating the tips of his ears.
Her father all but crowed at that concession. “A-ha! So that’s your angle,” he accused. “Your only interest in my daughter is for her money, that’s why you’re eager for a quick wedding.”
Emma dropped Killian’s hand and spun around, furious. “I will have you know,” she shot back, “Killian didn’t even know my real name until after he placed this ring on my finger, and I am the one who is insisting we marry quickly.”
“But why, Emma?” her mother asked, joining them. “What’s the rush?”
Killian stepped up to Emma’s side and slipped an arm around her waist, silently conveying his reassurances he was still there and willing to see the plan through. Emma reciprocated, wrapping her arms around Killian and placing a hand on his chest, right over his heart, allowing its gentle rhythm to strengthen her.
“We love each other,” she breathed out. “We don’t want to wait. Like Killian said, the war taught us that life is too short, and we don’t want to waste a second. We want to start our future now.”
“Mr. Nolan,” Killian said, extricating himself from Emma’s embrace and making his way to stand before the man. “It would mean the world to me - to us - if you would give us your blessing.”
Extending his hand, Emma knew Killian was holding his breath every bit as much as she was hers. The vein at her father’s temple continued to pulse, but he remained silent as he stared at the proffered hand. With a final clench of his jaw, he brushed past them without a word, slamming the drawing room door behind him as he left.
“I am so sorry about my dad,” Emma lamented as she led them through the winding halls of the manor. “I have never known him to be so… abrasive.
“It’s alright, Swan,” Killian assured her. “I imagine, if it were me, I’d be the same way if a strange man I knew nothing about showed up one day declaring himself my only daughter’s fiance, insisting they marry at once.”
“I doubt that,” she muttered, swinging open the door to her room and gesturing him inside.
Though she appeared at the moment to be an ally, Emma’s mother had suggested it would be best they not share a room until after the wedding, citing the fact her husband would not approve. While his accommodations were being prepared, Mrs. Nolan had offered Killian the use of Emma’s brother’s room, so he had a place in which to rest then ready himself for dinner. After depositing Emma’s suitcase on her bed, he dutifully followed her down the hall and stashed his duffle in Leo’s room, knowing it would not be in the lad’s way, seeing he was set to arrive later that evening from the end of his school term.
Emma offered to give Killian the grand tour of the manor and the surrounding estate while her mother went to work on her father’s attitude, hoping to smooth things over before they were all forced to sit down together over a meal. Killian couldn’t help but think it would only make matters easier if the man went on hating him and opposing the marriage. It would certainly lend credibility to Killian’s abandonment when the time came, yet he could not deny there was a piece of him that fervently wished for the man’s acceptance and blessing, even as he told himself it was for Emma’s sake and not his own.
“How many estates does your father manage for your grandfather?” Killian asked as they strolled through the garden.
“Just this one,” Emma answered. “Over the years he’s sold off most of the other lands he acquired, charging a premium. Now, there’s just the house in London and Misthaven Estate, though he does have other properties in America and some in other countries as well.”
“Does he spend much time here?”
“You mean, are you likely to have to face him before this is all over with?”
Killian chuckled at the way she knowingly read into his question.
“I suppose it would be too much to hope for that he won’t pay us a visit once word gets out about our marriage,” she sighed.
“If your father ever agrees to it,” Killian pointed out. “Any ideas on what’s to be done if he refuses?”
Emma stopped and sank down onto one of the garden benches, wringing her hands in her lap. “I knew this wouldn’t be easy, but…” Killian sat down beside her and took her hand, an action that was quickly becoming second nature to him. “If he doesn’t come around, we’ll just have to get married without his blessing. I’m twenty-four, it’s not like he can actually forbid it, I just…”
“You don’t want to hurt him anymore than you know he already will be once I’ve gone and the truth of your condition is revealed,” Killian finished.
Emma nodded then stood once more. Swaying slightly, her hand grabbed onto Killian’s shoulder in an attempt to steady herself.
“Swan? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said, looking a bit green. “I think I might need to go lie down for a bit, though.”
Killian stood and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, steering her back to the house.
“Let’s get you settled then, love.”
Once safely back to her room, Killian suggested she rest until they were called for dinner, waving off her concerns about leaving him alone. Before he made it back to Leo’s room, a liveried young man approached, notifying him that his things had been moved to the room Mr. Nolan had the servants prepare for his use. Killian followed the man up another flight of stairs and down a long corridor that looked as though it hadn’t seen use in quite some time.
“Pardon me, but where exactly are you taking me?”
“This part of the house used to be reserved for staff,” the footman explained. “The Nolans have not employed a full contingent of servants in years, so this area of the house, unneeded, now sits empty.”
Killian huffed and rolled his eyes. The man certainly wasn’t pulling any punches, making it perfectly clear how he viewed his daughter’s would-be husband. Well, Killian always did like a challenge. The man was going to have to do better than this to throw him off his game. Before the young man departed, Killian requested a fresh shaving kit and basin of hot water be brought up, (seeing as how the lavatory on this level was not plumbed like the rest of the house) and requested his uniform jacket and pants be pressed for dinner. Once the man was on his way with uniform in hand, Killian regrouped and set himself to the task of winning over Emma’s father.