Freshly shaven and expertly pressed, Killian made his way downstairs for dinner and found Emma waiting for him, nervously pacing in the entryway. He paused for a moment to take her in, and to try and recapture the breath that had left him upon seeing her clothed in a jewel toned dress of deep green satin that hugged her curves in a way he found much too enticing. Her hair was smartly pinned back, but a soft wave flowing from her temple to a spot just behind her ear had started to slip from its fastening. Killian knew he would be tucking the wayward section back in place at some point during the evening, and his fingertips itched at the prospect of feeling those silky strands.
When her steps faltered, having realized he was watching her from the landing above, Killian shook off his musings and made his way down to her. Her lips were slightly parted as her eyes swept over his face, her brows pinching together in dissatisfaction.
“What is it, love?” he asked, anxiously. “Is something amiss?” Reaching up, he brushed a hand over his jawline. “Have I missed a spot?”
She caught him off guard when she reached up and ran her hand over the smooth surface of his face, his lungs once again seizing up and making it impossible for him to draw in a much needed breath.
“I rather think I preferred the scruff,” she told him, her eyes latching onto his and her hand still cupping his cheek. “You should consider growing a beard. Stubble suits you.”
“As you wish,” he replied on a soft exhale.
A shy smile began pulling at her lips, and a blush tinted her cheeks as self-consciousness overtook her, causing her to draw her hand away. Before he could apologize for making her uncomfortable with his retort, a voice called out from above, capturing their joint attention.
“Well as I live and breathe! If it ain’t my big sister, home from the war!”
A lanky young man bounded down the stairs and scooped Emma up off her feet, spinning her around in a tight hug as peals of laughter rang out through the hallway.
“Baby brother!” Emma cooed, reaching up and pinching the lad’s cheeks after he’d steadied her back on her feet. “How are you?”
Her brother pulled away, grousing petulantly. “Seriously, Ems? I’m taller than you now. Quit it with the baby.”
Killian chuckled, earning him tandemly raised brows from the siblings.
“What’s so funny?” Emma asked, crossing her arms over her chest and peering up at him with a challenging smirk.
“Nothing, it’s just…” His words trailed off as a hint of melancholy unexpectedly settled over him. “My brother used to razz me in much the same way,” he told them, ducking his head while he composed himself, so he wouldn’t cast a pall over the moment. “He would insist on calling me little brother when he knew full well I preferred younger.” Looking back up at Emma’s brother, he advised, “Best get used to it, lad. It’s an older sibling’s prerogative to take the mickey out of us. Just as it’s ours to be a right pain in their arse,” he cheeked, giving the lad a wink.
Emma’s brother laughed heartily and extended his hand towards Killian. “Leo Nolan. I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure.”
Killian shook Leo’s hand, but it was Emma who supplied the introduction.
“Leo, allow me to introduce Killian Jones… my fiance.”
Leo’s eyes widened and he shook Killian’s hand a bit more enthusiastically before letting go. “So the rumors are true? A wedding really is in the works?”
“What rumors?” Emma demanded. “You’ve been home for all of ten minutes. How did you--”
“You know how the servants love their gossip,” Leo answered with a shrug of his shoulders and wide grin. “So, you’re really getting hitched, huh? When?”
“As soon as your father agrees to it,” Killian replied.
“Good luck with that,” Leo snorted with a dubious expression, earning him a punch in the arm from Swan. “Hey!” he cried out, rubbing his now sore shoulder. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m on your side. I personally think Emma Jones has a nice ring to it.”
In spite of himself, Killian had to admit… he did, too.
“Then I expect your full allegiance when we get in there,” Emma told him, nodding her head towards the dining room. “If Dad’s interrogations start to get rough, I’m counting on you to run interference, got it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Leo replied with a mock salute before turning on his heel and marching towards the dining room.
Killian watched the lad go with fondness then felt Emma thread her arm into the crook of his elbow. Glancing down, he noted the way she chewed her lip in nervous anticipation, so he covered her hand with his own and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“Ready, love?” he encouraged with a fortifying breath.
“I should be asking you that,” she quipped under her breath, prompting them forward. “If we’re lucky, you’ll have time for a stiff drink before my parents arrive.”
“Aye,” he concurred, then commiserated in a hushed tone. “I’m sorry you aren’t able to partake of one yourself.”
“Are you kidding?” she lightly scoffed, pouring him a glass of something from one of the decanters on the bar cart. “I’ll be lucky if I make it through dinner without the need to retch.”
Killian was about to ask if she was feeling poorly, scrutinizing her face for any sign of queasiness, when Mr. and Mrs. Nolan entered the dining room, enthusiastically greeting Leo.
“My dear boy!” Mrs. Nolan cooed in similar fashion to the way Emma had greeted him earlier, though he was more tolerant of her than he had been of his sister.
“You’re looking well, son,” Mr. Nolan stated with a tone of affection Killian had yet to hear from the man, and had begun to wonder if he was capable of such an inflection.
Leo greeted them brightly, giving his mother a hug and his father a hearty handshake before the couple turned their attention to Killian and Emma.
“Emma, dear, that color is so fetching on you,” her mother praised. “Don’t you think so, Killian?”
“Aye,” he agreed, casting a smile Emma’s way, its spread faltering a bit when he heard Mr. Nolan’s harshly remarked inquiry.
“You’re still here, are you?”
Emma’s head snapped up at her father, her jaw dropping incredulously. “Dad!”
“It’s alright, love,” Killian said in an attempt to diffuse the tension.
“No, it most certainly is not,” Mrs. Nolan admonished, rounding on her husband. “If you cannot find it within yourself to be civil, then you will find yourself dining alone.” Leaning in, she whispered into his ear, but her fervor carried more volume than she probably had intended. “Remember what we talked about, and behave yourself.”
“You expect me to be civil while he’s over there plundering my best scotch?”
“Killian isn’t a pirate, dad,” Emma sassed. “He’s a captain in the Royal Navy.”
“He’s a seadog,” David countered, “That makes him enough of a pirate in my book.”
“You’ll have to excuse Dad,” Leo told Killian in a mocked whisper. “He’s a bit of a landlubber.”
“All I’m saying,” Mr. Nolan continued, “Is that Emma comes from a long line of people who have toiled and nurtured the ground beneath their feet. People who worked the land and took pride in the literal fruits of their labors, leaving a legacy for the next generation as those lands passed between father and son. What sort of legacy does the sea give you, huh?”
Out of the corner of his eye Killian saw Emma roll her eyes, a hard tsk slapping against her tongue. “You don’t have to dignify that with a response, Killian.”
Killian felt Mr. Nolan’s challenging stare bore into him as the man braced his hands on his hips, awaiting a reply.
“Actually,” Killian responded, firmly meeting the man’s gaze. “I believe I do.” Stepping forward, Killian swirled the scotch in his glass and lifted it to his lips, taking a strong pull before replying. “It is true, Mr. Nolan, that the sea can be a fickle mistress, who only the foolish would attempt to tame, but a life spent in her service is not one without reward. Like your precious soil, she demands our labors and a solid work ethic as well. A life on the sea is one that requires discipline, resilience, and versatility when conditions change at a moment’s notice. And while, yes, the sea cannot be owned and passed down in the same way a parcel of land can, it does provide a different sort of legacy one can bequeath to one’s offspring.”
“And what’s that?” Mr. Nolan asked, refusing to give away any indication that he might have been impressed by Killian’s response thus far.
“A legacy of adventure and exploration,” Killian answered. “A promise of freedom and the ability to make one’s own way in the world.”
Mr. Nolan’s tongue ran over the front of his teeth as he considered Killian’s words, though he was clearly still unwilling to give up any ground on the matter. Killian’s gaze dropped down to Emma’s when he felt her arms circle his waist, a proud, awed expression shining from their green depths, making his heart flutter wildly.
“Well,” Mrs. Nolan commented, forcing them to tear their gaze from one another. “On that note, why don’t we all take our seats.”
Gesturing Killian and Emma to the seats opposite her own, Mrs. Nolan sank into the chair on her husband’s right hand side, thanking Leo for pulling it out for her. Mr. Nolan took his place at the head of the table, while Leo sat on his mother’s other side. Pulling out the chair on her father’s left, Killian deviously whispered into Emma’s ear as she gracefully lowered herself onto the cushioned seat.
“I’m winning him over, I can feel it.”
Based on the steely flick of Mr. Nolan’s eyes and the clench of his jaw, Killian’s cheek had not gone unheard by the man. Killian cleared his throat and took his own seat, his hand seeking out Emma’s beneath the table as her father continued to stare him down. She gave his hand an encouraging squeeze as her mother rang a small bell that had been left at her place setting, notifying the servants they were ready for the meal. As the first course was served Killian was certain Emma wouldn’t be the only one tempted to lose the contents of their stomach before the night was over.
With each course that passed in front of her, Emma rigidly held her breath until she was sure the offering would not cause an upheaval to her stomach. In addition to the morning sickness - which she had learned early on was a total misnomer - her frayed nerves also had her gut churning, especially whenever her father opened his mouth. Fortunately, Leo had stepped in as soon as they’d all sat down, and the conversation had been focused on his studies for the first two courses.
It was a shame he wasn’t taking more classes.
“So, Killian,” her mother began as the third course was placed in front of them. “You spoke so passionately about the sea earlier. Tell us, why did you choose the navy?”
Emma wanted to groan at her mother. She really didn’t want another discourse of by land or by sea between Killian and her father. However, rather than express her disgruntlement, she politely waited for Killian to swallow down the bite he’d taken (and his nerves, most likely), so he could respond to her mother’s inquiry.
“It was because of my brother,” he replied. “Well, him and our upbringing. We were both raised by the sea, so it seemed a natural choice for us.”
“I see,” her mother said, daintily cutting her meat. “Why military service, though? Were you and your brother drafted?”
“No. We were already enlisted when the war broke out,” he informed her. “It was the best option for us once I came of age.”
“Were your parents not able to support any academic pursuits for you or your brother?” her father questioned with a hint of antagonism that had Emma gripping her fork a bit tighter.
“Actually, uh…” Killian hesitated, taking a sip of water before responding. “Our mother died when Liam and I were both young.”
“What about your father?”
Emma slid a hand onto Killian’s thigh, sensing he might need the added bit of comfort when he admitted…
“He wasn’t around much after my mother died, and he disappeared from our lives completely when Liam came of age.”
Her father slammed his cutlery down onto his plate with a jarring clang that made Emma flinched in her seat.
“And this is who you’ve decided to tie your life to?” he sniped at Emma. “A man with such a poor example for a father? What sort of husband or father will he be when his wasn’t around to properly demonstrate--”
“My brother was around,” Killian cut in sharply. “And he was the finest of men, if ever there was one. He took over our father’s position at the docks and worked relentlessly to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. He waited until I came of age before enlisting, and ensured my success by seeing I had a proper education and strong work ethic. He instilled in me a sense of good form, and he is the example I strive to live up to.”
“And what does your brother have to say about this whirlwind, romantic notion of marrying a woman you’ve only known a few months, hm?” her father laid into him. “Why isn’t he here now to help me talk some sense into the two of you?”
Emma felt a tremble begin to take hold of Killian, saw his fists clench and release as his eyes slammed shut and his breathing shallowed. Moving her hand from his leg up to his shoulder, Emma tried to coax his eyes to hers while her family looked on with a mixture of expressions.
“Killian?” she murmured softly, squeezing his shoulder with equally tender pressure.
For a second time, Emma flinched in her seat as Killian abruptly stood, sweeping a hand through his hair and grasping onto the wisps along the back.
“My apologies, Mrs. Nolan,” Killian offered. A tone of disgrace underscored his words, making Emma’s heart break for him. “Thank you for the lovely meal, but I… Excuse me.”
With as much dignity as he could muster, Killian walked out the dining room, his face pale and skin visibly clammy.
“Killian, wait!” Emma called out, getting up from her seat with the intent to follow.
“Let him go,” her father advised solemnly, grabbing onto her arm to stop her from going after him.
Wrenching her arm out of her father’s grasp she seethed down at him, not at all placated by his look of contrition. “You want to know why Killian’s brother isn’t here right now, Dad? Because he’s dead, that’s why.” Her father actually blanched at her words and tone. “He died during the war, leaving Killian completely alone.”
“I didn’t know,” he mumbled, thoroughly abashed.
“Well, now you do,” she clipped, marching past him towards the dining room door. “And I hope you’re happy with yourself,” she accused before slamming the door behind her.
Emma continued to fume all the way up to Killian’s room, angered further at the lodgings her father had bestowed upon him. She was practically shaking with fury when she reached his door, knocking a tad harder than she’d intended to.
“Killian?” she called out, trying to keep the ire out of her voice. After all, it wasn’t him she was mad at. If anything, he had every right to be angry with her for putting him through this farce. “Killian, are you in there?”
“Aye, love,” he answered shakily. His voice was muffled, but given how clearly she’d heard it she deduced he was just on the other side of the door.
“Killian, I am so sorry. Are you alri--”
“I’m fine, Swan,” he replied, sounding anything but. “I just need… please, you needn’t worry about me. You should rest. Dinner was taxing for all of us, and you… I’ll see you in the morning, love.”
“Are you sure?” She reached down to try the doorknob, but it only rattled in her hand, securely locked.
“Please, Emma,” he strained out on a broken breath. “Please just go.”
“Alright,” she whispered out on a quiet sob, her throat having grown tight from the frustration and compassion warring within her. “But if you need anything…”
She left the offer hanging, hoping he would know she meant it, and made her way back down to her room. Both her mother and Leo tried to engage with her, but she brushed them off, telling them Killian was fine and that she’d decided to turn in early. Once in her room, with her door firmly shut, she yanked her suitcase down from where she’d stored it atop her wardrobe not but a few hours earlier, and began filling it. She wasn’t quite sure yet about where she would go, or what she would do once she got there, but she was sure that both she and Killian were going to be on the first train out of there come morning.
Killian groaned at the pounding on his door which reverberated in his skull the next morning. Or was it morning? Prying his eyes open, he saw only darkness. Blinking away the haze of sleep, he grabbed the clock from his nightstand and groaned again.
“Bugger off! It’s four in the bleedin’ morning!”
“I thought you sailors typically got up before the sun,” Mr. Nolan’s voice taunted from the other side of the door.
Killian rolled out of bed, unlocked the door, and opened it only wide enough to glare at the man.
After a long night of contemplations, Killian had come to the decision he was done trying to win the man’s approval. That wasn’t to say he’d given up on his vow to help Emma save face with her family, but he was no longer going to do the song and dance required for her father’s blessing. Emma had made it clear the day before that if it came down to it, they would simply seek out a justice of the peace and handle the matter themselves. Besides, it wasn’t as if Killian would have to spend a lifetime with David Nolan as his disapproving father-in-law. He could manage a week or two of the man’s barbs, his episode from the previous night notwithstanding.
“Only those who are unlucky enough to pull the first watch,” he informed the man with an purposefully obnoxious yawn.
“Well, around here, our day begins before the sun.” Nolan’s posture shifted and a sort of reluctance came over him. “And since you managed to make me appreciate what might be appealing about a life at sea, I thought I’d show you how rewarding a day spent tending the land could be.”
Killian’s brows pinched together, and his head cocked to one side in disbelief. “Hang on, mate. Is this you… apologizing to me?”
The man gave Killian a hard look and stated, “This is me making an effort. So, get dressed and meet me out back in ten minutes.”
Tempted as he was to go back to bed, Killian couldn’t bring himself to snub Emma’s father that way, not when he was essentially extending an olive branch. Plus, Liam’s voice in the back of his subconscious, cracking on about good form, would never have allowed him to fall back asleep anyway.
Liam probably would have been retracting those statements if he’d known Mr. Nolan’s idea of tending the land meant mucking out stalls in the family stable. Although, knowing his brother, he would be laughing his arse off telling Killian he should have known better, throwing in a little brother just to add insult to injury. The git.
Gods he missed his brother.
Burying thoughts of Liam before they could turn to those he worked so hard to suppress, Killian accepted the pitchfork Mr. Nolan handed him (he wasn’t about to give the man the satisfaction of backing down), and made his way into the first stall. Which was currently occupied by another man already toiling away.
“Hello there,” the man greeted. “You must be the infamous Killian Jones. August Booth,” he introduced himself. “I believe you met my father, Marco, yesterday.”
“Aye,” Killian said, shaking the man’s gloved hand with his own. “Emma’s told me quite a lot about you.”
“Believe everything she says,” August told him with a bit of bravado. “It’s all true.” Giving Killian the once over, August nodded at the pitchfork with a smirk set on his lips and asked, “Need me to give you a few pointers with that?”
Killian reached up and scratched behind his ear before confessing, “Aye, that would be grand.”
After a quick course in its proper handling, and few tricks of the trade demonstrated by the gregarious man, the two fell into a rhythm of work. Killian found he rather enjoyed August’s company. The man was amicable, but not too chatty, and while Killian deduced early on that his tales should be taken with a grain of salt, he also knew the man’s fabrications were meant in good fun with no intent of malice.
When they began work on their third stall Killian asked, “I know what penance I’m working off, but what did you do to get on the wrong side of Nolan that he has you cleaning out stalls before dawn?”
“Oh, I do this most mornings,” August told him, between shovel fulls. “I work for the estate as one of the stable hands.”
“Really? I was under the assumption your father owned his own business.”
“He does,” August affirmed. “But he and my mother worked for the estate before the elder Mr. Nolan bought it. I practically grew up here.” He paused, leaning against the handle of the pitchfork he’d embedded in the floor of the stable in order to catch his breath. “When Old George bought the place, he didn’t see the need for all the staff that was here, so he offered a tidy sum to those who agreed to resign their post. My mother had passed the year before, so my dad took the severance and started his own woodworking business. He always liked carving and working with different species of wood, but I…” Shrugging, he picked up the tool and threw himself back into the task.
The man had made it clear he wasn’t up to divulging anymore on the subject of why he didn’t work with his father, so Killian let the matter go and asked, instead, about whether or not August had served in the war. He had noted a slight limp in the man’s gait and silently wondered if it had perhaps been caused by a wound he’d received in battle.
His answer came in the form of August lifting up his pant leg to expose the wooden prosthetic beneath. “An accident when I was a small boy,” he said. “I don’t even remember it happening.”
“I’m sorry,” Killian replied, though he could tell from the man’s demeanor he remembered every agonizing detail of the event.
“Don’t be.” August waved him off. “Besides, it was fitting me for my first fake leg that got my dad interested in wood carving in the first place.”
Once again, Killian sensed an emotional landmine, and was prepared to side step it when the stall door swung open and hit the post beside it with a loud thud.
“Seriously!” Swan shouted. “He has you mucking stalls?”
A wide, mischievous grin split August’s face. “Settle down, Emma. Your father just wanted to show Killian what it takes to be a man of the land like him.”
“When was the last time you ever saw my father muck a stall?” she shot back, raising her hand up to her nose to ward off the pungent aroma. “Come on, Killian,” she beckoned, already heading for the stable door, “We’re going.”
Killian gave August an apologetic look before handing off his pitchfork to the man’s already outstretched hand.
“Swan, wait!” he called out, running after her.
When he caught up to her next to the pond that sat at the center of the estate’s buildings, he lightly grasped her elbow, turning her back to him. He was alarmed to see her choking back tears.
“Emma? What’s wrong, love?”
Her feet shuffled along the ground, and for a moment he wasn’t sure she was going to answer.
“I thought… I thought you’d left,” she finally confessed in a small voice. “When I went up to your room and you weren’t there, I thought you’d changed your mind, which you would have had every right to, and I--”
“Oh, Swan,” Killian soothed, pulling her in close.
Before he could firmly lock his arms around her, she shoved him away and bolted towards a row of hedges. When he heard the beginnings of her plight, he glanced around to make sure no one was about that might see her throwing up her breakfast, then approached her tentatively.
“Don’t come any closer,” she told him, still gagging.
“Because it’s you making me sick. You positively reek!”
Killian couldn’t help the laugh that burst from his chest, earning him a withering look from a green about the gills Swan.
“It’s not funny!” she chastised, only to be cut off by another upheaval of her stomach.
“Well this certainly won’t do,” Killian muttered, now feeling rather badly for having found anything about her pitiful situation humorous.
Not wishing to cause her any further discomfort, Killian stripped off his shirt and boots then jogged towards the pond. The splashes his feet made when he hit the water before shallowly diving in grabbed her attention, and when he surfaced, blinking the water from his eyes, her incredulous face was the first thing he saw.
“What are you doing?” she called out.
“Rinsing off the stench.”
“Are you insane? That water must be freezing!”
“It’s actually quite pleasant,” he told her, his expression turning salacious. Hoping to make her forget all about the sickness she’d just experienced, he waggled his brows and invited, “Feel free to join me, if you like.” Finishing his offer off with a wink.
He could see her blushing even from this distance as she stammered, “I-I can’t. I mean, I don’t, um… I don’t know how to swim.”
“What?” It was Killian’s turn to stare at her with incredulous eyes.
Her blush deepened and her eyes widened before she cast them to the side as he climbed back out of the pond. Dripping wet and slightly out of breath from his dip in the, admittedly, frigid waters, Killian stood before her once more. Tucking his fingers beneath her chin, he prompted her to look at him, thankful the brisk breeze rippling gooseflesh along the length of him was keeping his ardor in check.
“I’ll just have to teach you then,” he murmured. “Because I’m not going anywhere, love. Not until you tell me to.”
Looking up at him with a mixture of emotions Killian couldn’t be sure he was identifying correctly, and knew he shouldn’t be hoping for, he’d never been more tempted to close the gap between them and claim her mouth for his own. He might have, had it not been for her father’s outraged bellow echoing across the pond.
“Have you no sense of decency! What sort of scoundrel parades around half dressed in such a condition?”
Killian sighed, fed up, and turned towards the man with an expression of indifference. “Actually, mate. I prefer dashing rapscallion.”
“Now see here--”
“No,” Killian clipped, stepping up to the man and raising himself up to full height. “I don’t believe I will. I’ve had enough, you see. You can think whatever you’d like about me, Mr. Nolan, but the fact is, I aim to marry your daughter, with or without your blessing. I’ve only put up with your disparaging remarks and disdainful looks, because I know what it means for her to have your approval, and her heart’s desire is all I ever want for her. Because your daughter is amazing. Bloody brilliant and amazing. She is strong, and beautiful, and special, and--.”
“I know,” David interrupted him with a sly smile pulling at his lips. “I just had to make sure you knew it.”
Killian balked and took a stunned step back.
“I also needed to make sure you wouldn’t fold under the Nolan scrutiny,” he continued with a pointed look. “Because if you think I’m a tough sell, well... you haven’t met Emma’s Grandfather yet.”
“Dad?” Emma said, stepping up beside Killian. “Does this mean you--”
“You have my blessing,” he affirmed, holding out his hand for Killian to shake.
“Th-thank you, Mr. Nolan,” Killian stuttered, taking the proffered hand.
“Please. Call me David. Son,” he said, giving Killian a slap on the back before leaving the two of them standing together, gobsmacked.
“Did that really just happen?” Emma said, as they both watched her father walk away.
“I believe so?” Killian replied, equally bemused by the turn of events.
A perplexity that vanished when Emma threw her arms around his neck, overjoyed that they’d succeeded in their plan. Whether it was the fact he was still drenched from the cool pond water, or her realizing there was no need for a display of affection with no one around to witness it, all too soon for his liking, Emma pulled away.
“Sorry,” she said, clearly feeling awkward over throwing herself at him.
She really needn’t be.
Another breeze swept by, tugging at a section of her hair. Killian reached out and tucked it back behind her ear, giving her a reassuring smile. “I don’t mean to upset you, Emma. But I think we make quite the team.”
An amused huff puffed from her lungs and she rolled her eyes at him, all discomfort forgotten. “Don’t get too ahead of yourself,” she cautioned. “We haven’t made it to the I do’s yet. There’s still my mother and her wedding binders to get past.”
Killian scrunched his brow at her. “Binders? As in plural?”