The train platform began to fill up with passengers, all awaiting the arrival of the last train scheduled to depart north. Milling about were a number of families; husbands and wives reunited now that the war was over, ready to take their children back into the cities so they could resume some measure of normalcy. The sounds of the youngsters’ excitement filled the air, mingling with the raucous laughter of service men ornamented in uniforms that denoted their country of origin, branch of service, and rank.
Men like Killian Jones. As a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy (well, technically a Captain now, but what did it matter), he did not enter into the merriment his comrades were revelling in. Unlike them, he wouldn't be headed home tonight. He’d arrived too late to secure a ticket, the incoming train fully booked and nothing available until the morning. Another delay in a long comedy of errors keeping him from returning home.
Dropping his duffle off his shoulder, Killian massaged the ache it left behind and waited for one of the benches to open up so he could settle himself there. He wasn’t looking forward to spending the night on its hard surface, but he had little choice. What few funds he had were needed to get him the rest of the way home. A deep sigh released itself from his chest, but was interrupted and replaced by a startled gasp when a pair of arms wrapped themselves around his waist.
“Hey there, soldier. I was wondering if you’d make it in time.”
Killian peered over his shoulder, his brows furrowed in confusion, and met an equally perplexed gaze of brilliant green which quickly morphed into mortification.
“Oh, God!” the woman exclaimed, pulling her arms away as she took several steps back. “I am so sorry. Clearly, I thought you were someone else.”
“It’s alright, lass,” Killian chuckled, enjoying the beguiling blush blooming across her cheeks. “Can’t say as I mind having a beautiful woman’s arms around me, especially when the war has made that an impossibility for so long. This someone else is a very lucky man.”
He’d meant for his words to hold an air of lightness, a sense of flirtatious frivolity that might assuage her embarrassment, but with the way her blonde hair was glowing in the setting sun, its dying rays hugging the curves of her body in their caressing silhouette, a note of soft sincerity found its way into the hushed tone of his declaration, causing a blush of his own to tint the tips of his ears.
“Um… thank you,” she responded, tucking a loose strand of hair that had come free from its pins behind her ear as she searched about the platform with her gaze. “Lucky and very late,” she muttered before looking up at him with an apologetic smile. “Sorry again.”
Instinctively, Killian reached out to lightly grasp her elbow when she moved to step around him. “Might I be of some assistance, lass? I take it you’re looking for a fellow British officer?”
“Yes… I mean, no. He’s American, actually. You just looked like him from behind.” Her eyes snapped shut and the tint at her cheeks deepened. “I mean, the uniform. Your uniforms look similar from the back.”
Killian quickly schooled his grin and choked back the laugh bubbling up from his chest, not wishing to embarrass the woman further. “I’m afraid I haven’t noticed any Yanks milling about, but if I do I’ll be happy to point them out to you Miss…”
“Swan,” the woman replied, taking his proffered hand and giving it a polite shake. “Emma Swan.”
“Lovely to meet you, Swan.” Killian grimaced and shot her a look of apology. “Sorry. Habit.”
“I get it,” she waved off with a smile. “It’ll take some time for me to get used to addressing people by something other than their last name or rank, too…” Her eyes narrowed, homing in on the details of his uniform before they widened slightly when she’d obviously identified his rank, “Captain.”
“Please,” he said, scratching behind his ear with an air of discomfort. “Call me Killian. Killian Jones.”
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Captain Jones,” she replied with the deference she’d likely been taught in whatever role she’d served in during the war.
He couldn’t fault her for the protocol, yet the hollow void in his chest, coupled with the sour feeling that occurred in his stomach whenever anyone addressed him as Captain, had him balling his hands into fists and gritting his teeth. “Please, love,” he responded in a strained and slightly pleading tone. “Just Killian.”
Emma wet her lips, her brows pinched together for a moment until understanding seemed to seep into her gaze, which he thankfully found lacking in pity, something he’d received enough of these past few weeks.
Killian gave her a small smile and wished her well on her endeavors. “I hope you find the man you’re looking for.”
“Yeah, um… thanks,” she said, seemingly having forgotten all about her beau and turning her attention back to the crowd. “I’ll um… Maybe I’ll see you on the train.”
Before he could respond with the unlikelihood of that possibility, she brushed past him and went on her way. Glancing at her over his shoulder, Killian couldn’t help the smirk that tugged at the corner of his mouth when he saw her do the same.
Off in the distance, the distinct rumble of the incoming train was heard and felt by all, prompting everyone to take their appropriate places on the platform and opening up a bench for Killian to procure for the night. He’d just reclined against the hard surface, having lowered the front of his cap over his face to shield his eyes from the setting sun when a shadow appeared, making the action unnecessary.
“Aren’t you coming?” the familiar voice questioned, prompting Killian to flick the bill of cap up so he could look up at her.
“Afraid not,” he answered. “Tickets were all sold out by the time I got here, so I’ll have to wait for the morning train.”
“So… what? You’re just gonna sleep out here?” Emma replied, incredulously.
“I assure you, love,” he replied with a small bit of sass, settling his cap over his eyes once more. “I’ve slept in worse places.”
He had not pulled the brim low enough to miss the way she worried her lip, casting a glance over her shoulder when the conductor called for those with tickets for the sleeper carriage, nor the way she scanned the surrounding area one last time before reaching down and grabbing his hand.
“Come on,” she repeated, tugging at him to get up. “You don’t want my other ticket to go to waste, do you?”
“But… what if your beau arrives just in the nick of time?”
“Then I guess you’ll have to sleep on that bench after all, but seeing as he isn’t here…”
She left the statement hanging between them, her hand still firmly wrapped around his own with her brows lifted in expectation. It took him less than a moment to snatch up his duffle, following her as they both rushed towards the train hand in hand.
“Are you sure about this, Swan?” he asked when they entered the cramped quarters of the sleeper compartment.
“It’s fine,” she assured him, lowering the bed still folded against the wall and plopping herself down onto the plush mattress. Her suitcase had already been delivered by the porters, stowed away in the storage area above them. “You can take the floor,” she told him with a coy smirk. “It’s not like you haven’t slept in worse places, right?”
“Aye,” he said with a chuckle, dropping his duffle and making himself cozy on the carpet.
Though he was happy for the turn of events, Killian couldn’t help but war with himself when the train began to pull away and Swan took one last longing look out the window, clearly hoping her man would magically appear.
“I’m sorry he didn’t make it, Swan,” he said, turning on his side and propping his head in his hand.
“It’s okay,” she shrugged. “He must have got caught up in town. I’m sure he’ll make it on the next train out.”
“I’m sure he will,” Killian agreed. “He’d be a fool not to.”
Her cheeks flushed and she dipped her head at the compliment, until a soft knock at their door interrupted the atmosphere his words had created between them.
“Miss Swan?” the attendant asked after she’d called out for him to enter. “This letter was left at the station for you with instructions it be delivered once we were underway.”
Swan accepted the envelope with a trembling hand. With her focus solely fixated on the letter, her fingers shakily running over the scrawled handwriting on the front of the envelope, Killian took it upon himself to thank the attendant and send him on his way with a tip from his own meager pocket. He could feel the dread and despair rolling off her in waves as she turned the letter over in her hands.
Sensing she would most likely need some time to collect herself after the letter revealed whatever it was she was fearing, Killian cleared his throat, snapping her attention up to him.
“I, uh… I’m going to go stretch my legs a bit,” he told her, thumbing over his shoulder to the corridor beyond the door. “Maybe get us both a night cap?”
Swan swallowed thickly and acknowledged him with a small nod before turning back to the letter. The soft crinkling of paper being unfolded followed Killian out the door.
Another tear splashed against the letter clutched in Emma’s angry fist. How? How could he do this to her? Balling up the paper, she threw it as hard as she could at the door, only for it to smack Killian Jones in the chest when he appeared with two steaming mugs in his hands.
“Sorry,” Emma mumbled, wiping her face on her sleeve.
“I gathered when I left you weren’t anticipating good news,” he said, extending one of the mugs towards her. “Hot chocolate?”
“Um, thanks,” she sniffled, taking the proffered beverage.
“I know I mentioned a night cap, but I’m afraid my funds wouldn’t extend to the outrageous prices the dining car is charging for rum, so I took a chance with the cocoa,” he explained, settling back on the floor and softly blowing on the piping hot liquid before taking a sip. “I hope you don’t mind it plain,” he went on, licking his lips. “I wasn’t sure if you were more a marshmallow or whipped cream sort of girl.”
Emma knew he was likely prattling on in order to avoid the elephant still laying crumbled up on the floor where it had landed, and she was grateful for it.
“Whipped cream,” she replied, taking a sip and letting the rich, warm liquid coat her tired throat, raw from the pent up emotion she hadn’t fully released yet. “And a sprinkling of cinnamon.”
“Cinnamon?” he hummed in consideration. “I’ll have to try that sometime.”
They lapsed into silence, enjoying the hot chocolate as the train rocked them with a gentle rhythm while barreling on through the darkness. Once finished, Killian collected her cup and set it outside the door with his. Picking up the discarded letter, he stood there apprehensively for a moment. Emma’s eyes were trained on him, expecting the words about to cross over those perfect lips of his.
Yes, she probably shouldn’t have been staring at them earlier when they’d met on the platform, but it was hard not to. Truth be told, she’d had a hard time not staring at any part of him. From the dark fringe that had hung over his forehead beneath his cap, to the bright blue eyes that had nearly rendered her speechless, Killian Jones was a hard man to ignore. His appeal only grew now that they were in close quarters and he’d had a chance to relax his appearance. Removing the cap had uncovered a riotous mess of dark hair her fingers itched to help smooth out, and when his uniform jacket followed, the tight fit of his shirt and the expanse of neck and chest displayed when he loosened a few buttons certainly didn’t help matters. It was clear from the several days' growth along his jaw that he’d been traveling and unable to shave, and while not exactly regulation, Emma thought the look suited him rather well.
Now, standing before her with his shirt sleeves rolled up his forearms and a hesitant expression in his eyes, Emma’s breath caught in her chest. It felt like a betrayal, being attracted to this man, which was ridiculous considering the letter she’d just received. And yet...
“I don’t wish to pry, love, but,” Killian paused, his tongue swiping over his lip and his Adam’s apple bobbing before he continued, “if you’d like to talk about it, I’m a pretty good listener.”
Emma’s eyes flitted between his and the hand he had stretched out, handing the crumpled paper back to her. She tried not to take notice of how both their arms erupted in gooseflesh when her fingers brushed his while taking the letter from his grasp, and instead patted the mattress beside her, inviting him to sit. She felt the bed dip when he settled himself next to her, patiently waiting for her to begin without any pressure, leaving plenty of space between them.
“He isn’t coming,” she told him, though she was sure he’d probably worked that out by now. “Said he can’t go through with it.”
“Can’t go through with what?”
“Facing my family.” She shifted uncomfortably, a mixture of shame and defensiveness coming to the surface when she confessed. “I’m pregnant.”
She knew his eyes had darted to her left hand, noticing the distinct lack of ring, but he said nothing.
“We were supposed to go to my family together. Announce our engagement and insist on a quick wedding, so no one would find out that we…”
She buried her head in her hands, a sob choking in the back of her throat as she pictured the looks on her parents’ faces when she would now have to tell them she got pregnant out of wedlock. Killian’s arms tentatively wrapped around her, only tightening when she leaned in and pressed her face into his chest. He held her, gently smoothing a hand over her back while she cried tears of anguish and anger, not saying a word until her emotions were spent.
“He knew you were pregnant and chose to leave rather than facing the consequences?” She wasn’t sure if it was actually a question, but she nodded in response anyway. “Then the man is a bloody wanker and not at all deserving of you or the child you carry. You’re better off, love.”
Irritation flared within her and she pushed him away. “That’s easy for you to say,” she spat. “You’re not the one who has to face those consequences alone!”
Regret and contrition over his words pulled at his features. “You’re right, Swan. I’m sorry. But surely your parents will--”
“It’s not my parents’ reaction I'm worried about.”
Once again, he stoically sat beside her, his posture and expression open and accepting with his apology still swimming in his eyes, encouraging her to continue. Emma sighed, and dove into the tale.
“It’s my grandfather,” she began. “Shortly after the last war, he came to England and bought up estates that were on the verge of financial collapse. He’d made his fortune in America, and wanted to… I don’t know, make a name for himself among the nobles here. He brought my Uncle James with him, but years ago when my uncle died, my father, mother, and I relocated here to assist Grandpa George with his estates. Reputation means everything to him, and while I couldn’t care less if he disowns me, I couldn’t live with myself if he took his disappointment out on my parents.”
“Would he really do such a thing?”
Emma shook her head. “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t put it past him.” Tears welled up in her eyes again, and try as she might, she couldn’t keep them from falling down her cheeks. “My father and uncle aren’t his biological sons. He adopted them when he married their mother after their real father died. He always favored James for some reason, so he and my father never really got along. My father marrying my mother only made matters worse, because she wasn’t from the right sort of family.”
“Your grandfather sounds like a peach,” Killian quipped, squeezing her hand.
When had they started holding hands?
“Look, Swan, I didn’t mean to make light of your situation before. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.”
She reciprocated the squeeze on his hand, hoping he’d take it as a sign of her forgiveness. When she glanced up at him, he wore a pensive expression, his tongue once again running along the seam of his mouth before asking, “Are your parents expecting you to arrive with your fiance, or was this to be a surprise visit?”
“A surprise. I’ve never even mentioned him to them.” That detail seemed to surprise him, causing his brows to shoot up his forehead. “It was sort of a whirlwind romance,” she muttered defensively, dropping her eyes to her lap.
“Then they won’t know the difference when you introduce me in his place?”
Now it was Emma’s turn to look at him incredulously with wide eyes and high brows, her mouth dropping open as a half shrieked, “What?” left her tongue. “Introduce you in his place? Are you insane?”
“Hear me out, love,” he pressed. “You and I can do exactly as you and your… he were planning to do. We’ll tell your parents how hopelessly in love we are, that the war taught us how short life can be, and how we wish to be married immediately. Once wed, I’ll stick around for a week or two then skulk off in the middle of the night. Everyone will believe you became pregnant after our nuptials, and even if they don’t, our marriage certificate will legitimize the babe. You can hardly be held at fault for a low life wretch like me cutting out on you, forcing you to seek a divorce sometime in the near future when you do meet the man you’re meant to spend your life with.”
Emma’s throat was drying out from having her mouth hanging open all this time. Was he serious? He didn’t even know her. Who in their right mind would offer to do something so insanely selfless?
“It’ll be my way of repaying you for the ticket.”
Emma wasn’t even aware she’d said all that out loud. Taken aback by his response, she snorted and quipped, “The fare wasn’t that expensive, Killian.”
“Then this will be my way to repay your kindness.” Reaching behind his neck, Killian rubbed the muscles between his shoulders, the tension he carried there apparent on his face. “Look, Swan. You don’t deserve to go through this alone, and if I can help you in any way then… let me.”
“What about your family? They must be expecting you. You can’t just disappear for weeks. Don’t you need to get home?”
Killian’s jaw clenched, the muscle beneath his cheek flickering briefly before he confessed, “I have no more family, and I’m not sure the destination I was heading to is even home anymore.”
Killian’s jaw clenched and his eyes dipped momentarily. “I, uh… I lost someone close to me during the war.” His Adam’s apple bobbed and his voice became tight as he continued. “My brother.”
Emma took his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’m so sorry.”
A tight smile pulled at his lips; one that did not reach his eyes. “It’s alright, love. It just means I have no obligations awaiting me, and am therefore available to stand-in as your betrothed.”
Sensing the pain festering just beneath the surface, Emma shied away from pressing him for details about his brother. Instead, she gave voice to another concern that had just come to mind.
“Um… when you say stand-in what, exactly, are you expecting once we, uh… you know?”
From the slight tilt of his head and scrunched forehead, it was clear he did not readily know what she was asking. After a moment, comprehension seemed to dawn on him.
“I have no expectations,” he assured her. “Our marriage would be in name only, and while I am sure we’ll have to share quarters in order to make it seem convincing, I assure you, love, I am a gentleman.”
Emma nodded at his reassurance. She’d already expected as much, but wanted things to be clear between them. It occurred to her that they’d have to discuss other details as well. Things they’d have to be in agreement on when they introduced him to her parents; how they met, how long they’d been together, how he’d proposed. Her mother would insist on a play-by-play, and her father would most likely give Killian the third degree.
After relaying these thoughts to Killian, they spent the next several hours coming up with and rehearsing their story. Before finally bunking down to try and get a few hours of sleep, Killian brought up one more issue that needed resolving.
“It wouldn’t do for my fiance to not have a ring,” he said, reaching back and unclasping the necklace he had hidden beneath his shirt. “This was my brother’s,” he told her as he unthreaded it from the chain, turning it over in his hand before reaching out to slip it on her finger. “I know it isn’t much, but--”
“It’s perfect,” Emma assured him, the words catching in the back of her throat as her eyes pooled with tears.
“Swan? I’m sorry, did I… have I upset you?”
“No,” she shook her head, flicking away an errant tear that had broken free from her lashes. “It’s just… that was the errand Neal said he had to make when he left our hotel this morning.” Swallowing thickly, she looked up into Killian’s eyes, swirling with a heated mix of compassion and anger as she continued on. “After brunch, he said he was going into town to find a jeweler. Said he’d likely be gone all day, and I should just meet him at the station.” Emma’s eyes fell to the red stone resting on her finger, feeling foolish for believing it would have taken him all day to find a ring. “I suppose the fact he took his luggage with him, rather than having me send it to the station with mine, should have been a tip off, huh?”
“You couldn’t have known, Swan,” Killian said softly.
“I’m starting to think I didn’t know him at all.”
“Perhaps not, but you do now.” Killian took her hands into his own. “Better to find out the truth of what sort of man he is before he could ruin more lives.” His gaze fell to her stomach.
A haunted shadow peeking around the corner of his expression told Emma he might have had some experience with that, but as with his brother, she had no wish to pry, despite her curiosities.
Lifting one of her hands, he placed a soft kiss to the back of it and murmured, “Get some rest, Swan,” before settling himself back on the floor.
Emma switched off the compartment light and sank beneath the covers when she began to worry her lip with one last revelation she knew she needed to reveal.
“Aye?” he said groggily. How long had she been lying there warring with herself?
“There’s one more thing you need to know.”
“What’s that, love?”
“My name,” she said. “It’s not… it’s not actually Swan. I, uh. I changed it when I enlisted so I wouldn’t be treated differently from the other ladies working as clerks.”
“Treated differently? Why would you be treated differently? What’s your name?”
“Nolan,” she replied, “Emma Nolan.”
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.
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?”
A warm glow infused the room, casting a honeyed tone upon the white satin adorning Emma’s body. She ran her hands over the smooth fabric, admiring how it accentuated her curves while still giving her the demure quality a bride should possess. It was a wonder Granny had been able to fit it to her proportions so quickly, especially given how different Emma’s body was compared to her mother’s.
While both slender, Emma had always been more voluptuous, taking after her Grandmother Ruth. She’d doubted whether her mother’s dress would even fit her in the hips or bust (and thanked all the gods she wasn’t farther along in her pregnancy, otherwise they would have had another rounded area to contend with), but with few options, given the urgency with which Emma and Killian had expressed their desire to wed that very weekend, Mary Margaret’s dress was the best option they’d had.
Agreeing to wear it had also been the necessary compromise needed in order to get her mother to abandon the binders - and the dreams they’d represented - and get on board with Emma and Killian’s plan.
Her chest tightened over the reminder of that conversation. After her father had given his blessing, they’d wasted no time in approaching her mother about pulling together a simple wedding for them. Emma hadn’t been joking about the binders. Her mother had been compiling ideas for Emma’s wedding for as long as she could remember. And honestly, what mother hadn’t? All the grand plans, the intricate dress designs, the fashionable floral arrangements, the lavish locations were thrown to the wayside, and it broke Emma’s heart every bit as much as it had her mother’s, but they simply did not have the luxury of time to do a proper wedding.
To say nothing of the fact, Emma had no wish to put such an expense on her parents when, in reality, her marriage would not be a proper one either.
So many dreams had to be sacrificed, and all because Emma was in a shameful state she could not bear to reveal to her parents. Tears had pricked her eyes numerous times over the past day and half. After all, they weren’t just her mother’s dreams. Emma had dreamed of this day all her life, and never once thought she’d be standing in her old bedroom (a larger one was being readied for her and Killian to share as husband and wife), looking herself over in her dressing mirror, wearing her mother’s wedding gown, pregnant, about to be falsely wed to a man who was not the father, on the grounds of her family’s estate instead of a church with only her family and their staff in attendance.
There would be no string quartet or organ announcing her arrival, then serenading her procession towards the altar. No pews filled with the societal elite to ooh and ahh her gown, which would have been custom made for her from the finest silks and satins. No lavish dinner or resplendent reception, overflowing with spirits and merriment as her guests danced the night away. There would be no toasts, no father-daughter dance, no bouquet toss, just a simple gathering over cake and champagne to commemorate the moment before she and Killian would retire to their room for a private meal and their wedding night.
Not even a real wedding night, Emma thought to herself. Because she didn’t even have a real groom.
Treacherous tears burned behind her eyelids, and she swallowed down the unsettling feeling rising from her churning stomach. Pressing a hand to her belly, Emma inhaled deeply then steadily blew out the breath as she ran her palm over her abdomen. This petulant melancholy was of no use to her now. The damage was done. She’d foregone the traditional route, choosing a lover rather than a groom, a night of lust and scandal rather than one of true intimacy. She’d made her bed, and now she had to lie in it. At least she had someone willing to lie down in it next to her, even if it was only figuratively and not literally.
Although, she wouldn’t be opposed to sharing it in the literal regard with Killian.
More and more she found herself increasingly drawn to him, seeking out the comfort of his touch and flushing under the intensity of his attention. There was no mistaking the attraction between them, but it would only make things more complicated should they fall into temptation. Despite his assurances to the contrary, Emma knew Killian had a life to get back to; one he’d been planning for himself as a source of hope to help him get through the war. Though he hadn’t shared exactly what those plans were, she knew most soldiers had them and expected sailors would have been no different.
There was also the small matter of her being knocked up by someone else. It was one thing to stand in the gap to help her diffuse a potential scandal, knowing the situation was only temporary. Choosing to engage in a potential romance with a woman carrying another man’s child was an entirely different matter altogether. It was easy to forget she was spoiled goods when the evidence had yet to make itself known in the physical changes that would soon arrive, but once they did...
No. She couldn’t even bring herself to think about it, couldn’t bear to have her heart broken again like that.
She was grateful for all Killian had done and was still willing to do for her, and she wouldn’t take advantage or put them in a position of potential hurt feelings and needless pain when the time came for him to leave. Because he would leave, sooner rather than later. A couple of weeks tops. It was the deal they had made, and she would make sure they stuck to it.
They just had to get married first.
A gentle knock on her door preceded the entrance of her father, his eyes widening with a hint of fatherly somber upon seeing his little girl dressed and veiled all in white.
“Emma,” he exhaled, awe and wonder shining from his face. “You look beautiful sweetheart.”
Emma blinked back tears and swallowed past the lump that had formed in her throat. “Thank you, Daddy.”
“I have to say,” he stated, approaching her. “Granny is something of a miracle worker.”
Running her hands down the sides of the dress with her gaze focused on their path, Emma said, “I don’t know how she managed to get it so perfect, but I’m glad she was able to pull it off.”
She lifted her gaze and met her father’s, a thousand emotions swirling in his eyes as he took her in. “Don’t tell you mother I said this,” he whispered. “But you might look even better in it than she did.”
A giggle passed her lips. “Might?”
“Well,” he hedged, teasingly. “To me, she has always been the fairest of them all… but you are a very close second.” Kissing her on the forehead, he took a deep breath in and asked, “Are you ready?”
Not trusting her voice, Emma nodded and picked up her bouquet from where it rested on her vanity. Turning back to David, she let him cover her face with her veil before accepting his arm so he could escort her down to the gazebo by the pond.
The walk had to have been the longest of her life, with fresh turmoil raging within her. Was she really doing this? Was she really about to go through with this farce? Could she really marry a man, actually marry him, just so she could legitimize her child, whilst making him out to be the villain when he had done nothing to contribute to the trouble she was in?
By the time they arrived at the path that led around the pond and up to the gazebo where her mother, brother, the staff, and Killian were all awaiting her, Emma almost had herself talked out of it. But then… she saw him.
Or more to the point, she saw him seeing her.
His eyes had been cast down towards his nervously shuffling feet, but the soft reactions and gasps of those gathered had pulled his gaze upward. He went completely still when his eyes landed on her, slowly trailing up her form until they reached her shrouded face. Lips parted, and sticking a bit at the corners, he continued to stare at her so intently Emma almost missed the jesting comment from her father about it not being too late to turn back. When he finally remembered to breathe, he licked his lips and straightened his posture, bringing himself to full height as a smile bloomed upon his face.
Emma didn’t hear the opening words of the Reverend, focused as she was on her groom. It wasn’t until she heard her father clearly announce her mother and I do, in response to the question of who was giving the bride away that Emma tore her eyes from Killian so she could face her father. Lifting her veil up and over her head, David leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, making her chest tighten once more. She held her breath to try and ward off tears when he shook Killian’s hand before placing hers within its calloused grasp.
After her father took her bouquet and joined her mother, Killian assisted Emma up the three steps of the gazebo opening, placing them both before the Reverend. Taking her other hand in his, Killian’s eyes bounced between hers with awe radiating from those forget-me-not depths.
“You look stunning, Swan.”
All Emma could do was smile appreciatively up at him, the words caught in her throat and threatening to release the emotion lying in wait just behind their utterance. The gentle caress of his thumbs running over her knuckles helped to calm the racing of her heart, but she still couldn’t quite keep her focus on the minister. It was a good thing Killian seemed able to keep his wits about him, considering the groom cited his vows first. However, when that moment came, with the dulcet timbre of his baritone pledging to love, honor, and cherish her for better or worse, Emma had to remind herself a dozen times that none of this was real.
Or was it?
Not the love and til death do us part vows, but some of the others… he had already proven himself dependable on those promises. During the worst of her father’s tests, the sickness she’d been battling from the pregnancy, and the disparity between his means and hers, Killian had vowed to stay by her side, from this day forward, until such a time they both felt it right to go their separate ways. These vows may not symbolize for them what they did for other brides and grooms, but the earnestness with which Killian recited them, and the sincerity with which Emma echoed back when her turn came made them no less binding in regards to the agreement they had made on the train mere days ago.
This pragmatic distinction did not keep a tremor of nerves from manifesting when the Reverend asked Emma to take the ring, already blessed by the clergy, and place it on Killian’s hand. It was a wonder she’d been able to slip the band - which had been her Grandfather Leo’s - on his thick ring finger, given how much her hand had shook. Thankfully, Killian’s hand was much more steady, re-enacting the moment he’d first placed his brother’s ring on her hand, right down to the soft kiss he brushed over the back of her hand once it was secured upon her finger.
All the air rushed from her lungs and she barely had enough breath to confirm her I do before her knees went weak at the prospect of having to kiss her groom. How had she forgotten that particular detail? Killian’s Adam’s apple bobbed as the minister declared them husband and wife and directed him to kiss his bride. Running his tongue nervously over his lips, he hesitantly brought his hand up to her face, his fingers grazing the side of her neck while the pad of his thumb caressed the apple of her cheek, and leaned forward. His eyes stayed fixed on hers until his lids fell shut when she raised up on her tiptoes to meet him halfway.
The well wishing, celebratory cheers from their assembly fell away the moment her lips touched his. What was initially meant to be a soft graze, intended to seal the moment and satisfy tradition, instanting became something much, much more. The soft, supple quality of Killian’s lips evolved into a firm declaration sliding against her own, the friction of which ignited a suppressed spark, electrifying Emma’s body. Though the contact lasted only a scant few seconds, a smouldering remained, sizzling between them as they both released a shaky breath before affixing their pretenses back into place.
“It is my honor to present Mr. and Mrs. Killian Jones,” the Reverend announced.
“Ready, love?” Killian whispered down to her, placing her arm into the crook of his.
Nope, Emma thought as her mother could no longer be contained and rushed forward to gather them both up in a tight hug of congratulations.
One foot in front of the other. That was all Killian could focus on. One foot in front of the other as he made his way down the long corridor to his and Emma’s new accommodations. His wife softly padded beside him, her hand tucked securely in his while her family and a few of the staff she considered friends followed behind, giggling and smiling as they watched the nervous couple retreat towards their wedding night.
Killian could practically feel Emma’s racing pulse keeping time with his own from where their hands were joined. Could see her worrying her lip out of the corner of his eye as a flush rose from the delicate lace at her decolletage the closer they got to the door. They both knew what the assembly had gathered for; they wanted to see the groom carry his bride over the threshold. With so few traditional elements for them to witness, Killian couldn’t find it within himself to begrudge them such a simple bit of entertainment, but it did not make the prospect of having to engage in yet another bit of duplicity any easier for him to stomach.
Even if he was eager to have a legitimate reason to hold Emma in his arms.
Swinging the door open, Killian glanced over his shoulder at the myriad of expressions behind him. Mary Margaret looked positively giddy, with a glitter of emotion shimmering in her eyes. Leo and August were already preparing the teasing remarks Killian knew they’d unleash on both him and Emma come morning. Marco looked a tad uncomfortable, clearly still overcome by the invitation to bear witness to the ceremony in the first place. A few maids, whose names Killian had yet to learn, twittered away with blushes coloring their cheeks while Granny attempted to smother a smile as she quietly admonished them. And David… well, let’s just say his stern look and tightly crossed arms almost had Killian wanting to assure him nothing of an intimate nature would be happening once the door was closed, lest he continue to think of a way to dispose of Killian’s body.
Swallowing heavily, Killian turned to Emma and met her anxious expression with a soft, hopefully reassuring smile. Not wishing to prolong either of their torment any further, he bent down and grasped her behind the knees with one arm while wrapping the other behind her back. A surprised gasp vocalized from the back of her throat as she threw an arm around his neck, hanging onto him for dear life while their entourage cheered, and offered up suggestively laden good nights. Another round of cheers and a few peals of laughter muffled their way through the door after Killian kicked it closed behind them, pulling more genuine smiles and a rumble of chuckles from the pair of them as well.
Looking down at the beautiful woman cradled in his arms, beaming up at him with a smile he now knew she did not tend to offer freely, Killian had to give himself a stern reminder that despite the vows, the rings, the buzzing attraction between them, and the performance they had given to her friends and family that evening, it was all just that. A performance. A lie. A fabrication. She was not truly his, and he had no business wishing the circumstances to be any different than what they were.
Her smile began to fade when reality set in, and Killian gently placed her back on her feet, his hands lingering at her waist, ensuring she was stable before reluctantly pulling them away.
“Shall we, uh… shall we see what Granny and your mother had the kitchen prepare for us?” Killian asked, walking over to the cozy table for two that had been set up in their room.
“I’m not really very hungry,” Emma answered, softly. She laid her bouquet on the foot of the bed and slowly sank down beside it, her hands wringing in her lap.
The insistence that she eat died on his tongue when Killian took in the large bed, a rush of heat flaming at his cheeks when he remembered Emma’s mother’s statement about their need for something with more room to maneuver in as they picked through the surplus furniture within the attic, looking for pieces to adorn their marital room. A small sniffle snapped Killian’s focus back onto his, er… Swan, and his brows furrowed in concern at the glimpse of tears threatening to spill from her lashes.
“Emma?” Kneeling before her, Killian placed a hand over hers. “Darling, what is it?”
The endearment only seemed to make matters worse as her composure crumpled completely, pitching her forward as Killian rose and gathered her into his arms, settling them both back onto the foot of the bed as he rocked her and gently stroked her back.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed into his chest. “I’m being stupid.”
Resting his cheek against the crown of her head, Killian tightened his hold and soothed into her hair, “No, love. You’re not being stupid. You’re grieving. There is no shame in mourning the plans you had to set aside today. But…” Tenderly, he pulled back and tucked a hand beneath her chin, prompting her to look up at him. “You can still have the wedding you’ve dreamed of one day, Swan.”
Killian’s heart clenched at the promise he was about to make, but his feelings of anguish over the prospect were not enough to quell the potential happiness the notion might bring her.
“One day,” he continued, folding her back into his chest. “You’ll be swathed in the finest lace and silk money can buy, making your way down the long aisle of a cathedral, the envy of every socialite in attendance as your groom awaits you with bated breath, wondering how he ever got so lucky as to have you as his bride. You’ll be dizzy from the heady aroma of all the exotic blooms your mother will have imported for the day, and by the end of the night your head will be swimming from all the champagne you’ll actually be able to consume.”
A small huff of amusement puffed against his chest, and he knew she was thinking of how they’d had to sneakily trade glasses back and forth throughout their brief reception so it would appear to all those in attendance she’d been drinking the celebratory beverage.
“Those dreams aren’t dead, Swan,” he professed. “Just delayed.”
“Maybe,” she murmured, whisking away an errant tear. “I know I’ve said this a hundred times or more, but…” She flicked her gaze up to his, her eyes sparkling from their teary sheen. “Thank you, Killian. Thank you for doing this, for putting aside and delaying your own plans in order to help me this way.”
Killian waved her off. “I’ve told you, Swan. I have nothing pressing to get home to. No plans to concern myself with.”
Her head tilted to one side, an expression of disbelief pinching her features. “I’m sure that isn’t true. You must have had some sort of plan for what you’d do after the war.”
Killian’s stomach fell away and his throat tightened, making it difficult to clear. “Aye. I did,” he admitted. “But…”
The soft touch of Emma’s hand on his cheek had him involuntarily nuzzling into her palm. “Tell me?” she prompted, tenderly. “Please? You know so much about me, but I hardly know anything about you.”
That much was true. Knowing they would not be able to fake details of Emma’s life, they had spent much of their preparations in getting Killian up to speed with her upbringing and background. The particulars of his life weren’t as big of a deal for her to know inside and out, especially when they’d both known he’d face the inquisition of her father upon arrival. All he had to do was play along with whatever she told them when filling in the blanks, and it wasn’t as though they’d know if she got a detail about his youth wrong here or there. She only knew the bare bones of his story: his mother’s passing, his father’s abandonment, his years of naval service, his brother’s death. In the beginning, it seemed prudent to not share so much of himself with her, to keep a measure of distance between them, but now…
“Tell you what,” he said. “I will share with you what I thought my life might entail after the war if… you will agree to sit and eat something.”
“Fine,” she sighed with a roll of her eyes. Standing, she glanced over at the table then down at herself. Flicking her eyes up at him, a rosy hue pinked her cheeks as she pulled her bottom lip between her teeth.
“I, uh…” she began, hesitantly. “I think I’d like to change before we eat, but, um… I need help. With the buttons.”
Killian scratched awkwardly behind his ear when Emma turned, revealing the trail of satin buttons that ran the length of her spine.
“Aye,” he acknowledged, stepping forward and bringing his fingers up to begin the tedious work.
He could see the shallowing of her breaths from the stunted rise and fall of her shoulders, and when his knuckles brushed against the warmth of her skin, the fine hairs of her body stood on end, fanning out in all directions from his touch. His own breathing became erratic, and his lips became parched from the arid response the glimpse of her bridal lingerie, peeking through the ever-widening opening at her back, had on his mouth. When the last button was finally slipped from its fastening, Killian hastily stepped away and turned his back, lest she catch a glimpse of other effects the simple, and unexpectedly erotic, act had on his body.
“I’ll, um…” He swallowed past the dryness and tried to rein in his desire as he made his way to the wardrobe where his clothes had been put away, retrieving his pajamas. “I’ll go change in the bathroom and give you some privacy.”
Her barely audible thank you followed him, and he had to splash a fair amount of cool water onto his face before his body finally seemed to get the message. Once changed, he took a deep breath and cracked open the door, calling out to make sure she was decent before exiting in his pajama bottoms and undershirt. Tossing his uniform on a nearby chair, hoping he wouldn’t have to wear it again for a good long while, Killian joined Emma, who was already sat at the table, her delicate robe cinched tightly around her with her hair, now free of its pins, cascading over her shoulders.
Lord, give me strength.
“Shall we make a toast before we begin?” Killian suggested, pouring them each a small portion of wine, figuring a sip or two wouldn’t do her any harm.
“Alright,” Emma agreed, taking the wine glass from him and swirling its contents. “What shall we toast to?”
Raising his glass, Killian said, “A toast to… a well executed plan. Even if it wasn't one either of us anticipated.”
Emma raised her glass in solidarity, adding, “A toast to the unexpected.” A soft smile curved over her lips and her gaze dipped to her lap where Killian noticed her hand was gently caressing her stomach. “And all the what ifs that come with it.”
“A toast to what if,” Killian echoed, softly clinking his glass to hers.
“To what if,” she whispered, sipping a small bit of wine from her goblet.
They tucked into the meal, a casual silence settling over them while they savored the first few samplings of their marital repast. Though she did her best to eat as much as she could, Emma’s bites soon turned meager and less frequent, favoring the starchier offerings and even requesting whether Killian intended to eat his bread. He gave it to her quite willingingly, and it was as she was picking at it that he finally kept up his end of their bargain.
“You asked about my plans for the future,” he reminded, swiping his napkin over his mouth and leaning back in his chair. Her eyes met his, full of eager curiosity as she nodded. “Liam and I wanted to start our own shipping company,” he told her, focusing his thoughts on the conversations he and his brother had during quiet moments the war rarely offered, and not the looming spectres gathering at the fringes. “Or rather, we had planned to buy into the company Liam had worked for before we joined the navy.”
“The one your father had worked for before he…”
“Aye,” Killian answered, his tone only slightly strained at the mention of his father. “The owner of the company, Nemo, was more than just a boss to Liam,” he continued. “He looked out for us both as best he could after Father left. Even made an arrangement with our landlady, getting us a lower rent in exchange for odd jobs I did for her after school.” A fond smile pulled at Killian’s lips as he reminisced. “It was at his urging that Liam and I both entered the service, and we had hoped to repay his kindness and make a future for ourselves by partnering with him.”
“Why can’t you still do that?” Emma asked. “I know it won’t be the same without your brother, but--”
“I don’t have the funds,” Killian admitted. A rush of heat flared to the tips of his ears at the humiliation he was about to confess. “I lost it all. Everything I had saved… it’s all gone.”
“Gone?” Emma gasped, her eyes widening in shock. “How?”
Killian’s eyes turned downcast as he shamefully mumbled, “I gambled it away.” His hands fisted at the tops of his thighs as the memory barreled over him. “After Liam… I was in a dark place. Drinking heavily and allowing myself to get goaded into a number of situations I’d always had the sense to avoid. Although, in all honesty, it was Liam’s sense that had protected me more than my own.”
Breathing out a heavy exhale, Killian continued the tale. “I don’t remember much of the days after the war ended and my official discharge was issued. With honors,” he embittered. “Bestowing a medal and my severance upon me in the wake of my brother’s memorial. I do recall waking up in an alleyway I had obviously passed out in without a cent to my name. Well, all except for a small emergency stash I kept at the bottom of my duffle. A habit Liam had instilled in me.”
Another sigh was let go, and he slowly brought his gaze up to Swan’s, which was blurred by unshed tears. Chagrined over the distress he was clearly causing her, Killian attempted to smile as he teasingly self-depreciated, “And you thought a few tears over fake nuptials was a stupid way to react to grief. Imagine being so idiotic, you lose your entire life-savings.”
Emma slid off her chair and padded her way to Killian’s side, making him tense up. A response that only increased when she lowered herself onto his lap and ran a hand through his hair.
“You’re not idiotic,” she murmured. “You were, and still are, in pain.”
The muscle above his jaw flickered, a mixture of anger and sorrow threatening to brim over until she rested her forehead against his. “I don’t know the circumstances of Liam’s death, and I’m not going to ask,” she assured him. “But I do know your future didn’t die with him.” Pulling back, her eyes flickered between his. “You could still have your own shipping company someday, or become a partner in Nemo’s. One day,” she said softly, mimicking his tone from earlier. “You’ll be seated behind a fine mahogany desk in your very own office that looks over the water as you oversee mundane cargo manifests and employee time cards.”
A chuckle broke free from Killian’s chest, and his arms wrapped themselves around her in reciprocation of hers winding around his neck.
“Thank you, love,” he murmured into her hair.
As it had been wont to do since the moment they’d met on the train platform, the atmosphere around them started to spool with a crackling charge. When Emma pulled back, Killian knew she felt it too from the way her lips parted and her cheeks flushed a rosy pink. Willing his eyes to remain locked onto hers and not drop down to her mouth, Killian cleared his throat once more and suggested, “Perhaps we ought to turn in.”
“Yeah,” Emma agreed, breathlessly, though she made no attempt to move. “I am feeling rather tired.”
A few more heartbeats passed between them, and Killian became acutely aware of Emma’s soft form beneath the thin, silky layers of her robe and nightgown. Before he could do anything to try and ward it off, his body reacted to hers once again. Realization made her eyes widen, and she quickly scrambled off his lap, pulling a groan from the back of his throat while she pretended not to notice his sudden discomfort.
“You’re sure you’re okay sleeping on the floor?”
It was a conversation they’d already had. Killian nodded as he stood and took the pillow she’d already plucked from the bed from her, gripping it to himself, low.
“Aye, love. Like I said before, I’ve slept--”
“You’ve slept in worse places,” she finished cheekily, helping to alleviate the tension lingering between them.
Getting his pallet sorted on the floor, they wished each other a good night and turned out the lights. The atmosphere was still rich with temptation, but after a few moments Emma’s breathing evened out, the exhaustion of the day and her condition finally catching up with her, which left Killian alone with his thoughts.
Mindlessly, he twirled the unfamiliar band around his ring finger and contemplated what Emma had said to him. She was right. While it would not be the same without Liam, his brother’s death didn’t mean he couldn’t go through with what they’d planned. He may have lost his savings, but there was still Liam’s. As soon as he filed the necessary paperwork as Liam’s next of kin, Killian would have access to the funds Liam had set aside for their future. He wouldn’t be able to buy in as a full partner right away, but he could still make good on those dreams.
The only issue was… Killian wasn’t so sure it was a dream he wanted. Not because his brother was no longer here, or because his journey home had been interrupted by Emma’s plight. No. As Killian lay awake, he wondered whether returning to that place, the place where his mother had died, where his father had deserted them, where Liam’s ghost would haunt him on every wharf was truly what he wanted. He wondered whether he had ever really wanted it, or had simply gone along with the idea because he felt he owed it to Liam and to Nemo.
With sleep beckoning him from the edges of his consciousness, Killian’s mind thought back over other parts of their conversation that evening. Unanticipated plans they’d managed to implement, unexpected twists life had thrown at them, and a toast to the what ifs still to come.
What if he did something different than that which he and Liam had planned? What if he used the time here, helping Emma and adjusting to a life absent of war and military service, to truly figure out what he wanted? What if while aiding Emma in navigating her what ifs, he charted a new course of what ifs of his own?
Possibilities swirled through his mind as he surrendered to the pull of slumber. Images of a life tied to the sea morphed into a legacy of soil and earth. Plans shifted, expectations altered, and visions renewed themselves with details he never thought to consider before now. These fresh aspirations of an idyllic future free from the trauma of his past could not last, however. For as dawn began to creep its way onto the balcony of their suite, so too did the spectres of death and destruction.
It was not an early bird’s bright song, or gentle rousing from one of the servants, alerting him that their breakfast was ready to be served that woke Killian the next morning. No. Instead, the first morning of his marriage, false even as it was, was marred by the horrible truth that haunted Killian most nights. The truth that, regardless of what he might wish or plan for, he may very well already be too broken to achieve it.
Shaking off the vestiges of his nighttime horrors, covered in a sheen of sweat as his chest heaved, Killian watched as Emma thankfully continued to sleep in the soft glow of morning. Coveting the peace emanating from her face, Killian wondered, despondently, What if… I’m too broken to deserve it?