“Dave, I’m not in the fucking mood for...”
Whatever Emma was expecting to greet her when she rolled up the long dirt drive to the old Victorian-style house, it wasn’t this. It wasn’t him . The house was grand and stately, if a bit worn, the white columns that lined its wrap-around porch showing the occasional chip and the once-yellow trim and navy shutters bleached by the unforgiving desert sun. Three stories tall and topped with a widow’s walk, it stood out in stark contrast to the bleak landscape surrounding it. This was a house with a name, a history.
Where the house was bright and welcoming, the man staggering out the front door onto the porch was dark, disheveled and very clearly drunk. Emma turned her wrist to check her watch. 10:00 a.m. Nice.
She crossed her arms and leaned back against the door of her VW Beetle to observe the man as he muttered a string of expletives at someone named ‘Dave’. He was dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, both dusted and stained with the red dirt that seemed to cover everything in this corner of Bumfuck Nowhere, and yet fitted enough to reveal a firm, trim physique. His dark hair and reddish scruff of a beard were just a little bit too long and a whole lot of unkempt.
She would like to have said he looked like hell, but that would be a lie. The same man on a bar stool? Somewhere dimly lit and smoky? Yeah, within a couple of hours she’d be wearing his t-shirt and making a more thorough mess of that dark hair with her fingers as his beard scraped against the inside of her thighs. But, thoughts like that begged for trouble - something she’d had plenty of in her life thankyouverymuch - so she shook them off and forced herself to focus.
Emma waited silently as the man reached a hand out to steady himself against one of the porch columns and finally looked up to meet her eyes. He cut off his rambling tirade mid-word, his face blanching, and he appeared to be as shocked as Emma felt. Those eyes . Blue as the endless sky above them, but haunted - the circles beneath them so dark it almost looked like smudged eyeliner. They pierced straight through her, the ghosts behind them calling out to her own phantoms. This was a mistake .
Suddenly Emma wanted to get right back in her bug and get the hell out of here, but just as her hand slid down the car door to grasp the handle next to her hip, the man’s demeanor shifted. A mask seemed to fall over his features, covering the darkness with a cocky smirk. He hitched a thumb on his belt buckle and leaned a shoulder against the column, this time using it less as a support and more as an accessory in the tableau of causal interest he now projected.
“My apologies, darlin’,” he drawled with a slight inclination of his head in her direction and Emma had a sense that if he were wearing a hat, he would’ve tipped it to her. “I heard that rattle-trap of an engine coming down the drive and I assumed you were someone else.”
The smile he gave her wasn’t exactly sincere, but he seemed to have collected himself enough that Emma took her hand off her car’s door handle and crossed her arms over her ribs again. She raised an eyebrow.
“Dave? Yeah. I got that,” she stated flatly. “What’d he do?”
The man shook his head slightly, an amusingly muted reaction considering he’d just been cursing a blue streak at the person less than a minute ago. “Just a well-intentioned, but meddlesome friend.”
Emma felt a corner of her mouth twitch up at that. “Guess we’ve all got those,” she offered. She hesitated for one last moment, then pushed off the car with her hips to stand up to her full height. Dithering would get her nowhere. She exhaled heavily, dropping her arms and reaching for the slip of paper in her back pocket. “You Jones?”
“The one and only,” he replied with another false smile, and Emma briefly saw that same darkness flash behind his eyes again.
She took a few steps in his direction, getting only close enough to hold the piece of paper out for him to examine. “I found this on the tack board at the diner in town. Says here the Jones Ranch is looking for some seasonal help.”
The man - Jones apparently - glanced down at the paper but didn’t take it from Emma’s hand. He pursed his lips, taking an annoying few seconds to rake his eyes up and down her, and Emma had to fight the urge to fidget under his scrutiny.
He stood up straight and took a step down off the porch toward her, a dash of swagger in his gait. “Can you ride a horse?” he asked mildly. Emma recognized the challenge for what it was and it sent a thrill down her spine as much as it pissed her off.
“I know the basics,” she answered, putting her hands on her hips and holding her ground.
His tongue ran across the edge of his top teeth and he nodded. “Throw a rope?” Again, his tone was innocent, though his movements anything but.
“No,” Emma gritted out, not sure she liked where this conversation was going. Dammit she just needed a freaking job and no one in town was hiring. Besides in a town that small (as small as all the towns in this part of the country were) there was absolutely no chance of getting lost in the crowd. Staying relatively anonymous. She much preferred the idea of being out here with no one around for miles. Well, no one except Jones , but she could handle one smirking (if unsettlingly attractive) drunk long enough to earn the money she needed to get her back on the road.
He pressed his lips together and dropped his chin before looking back up at her from beneath thick dark brows. “Ever worked with cattle before?”
Emma bit the inside of her cheek and glared at him. “No.”
He chuckled and took another step forward, swaying dangerously into her personal space. Emma tensed as his tongue rolled sinfully along his bottom lip. He lowered his voice to a low rumble and asked, “Then exactly what kind of services are you offering, darlin’?”
Emma narrowed her eyes threateningly and jabbed him in the chest with her pointer finger, not giving an inch. “ Don’t call me darlin’.”
To her surprise, Jones stepped back with a laugh, this time with genuine amusement in his eyes. “Oh, you’re a tough one aren’t you?” It was a statement, not a question, and he said it with a crinkle of his nose and flicker of his eyebrow that seemed to convey that she had impressed him. He gestured broadly with one hand. “So what should I call you then? Love? Lass? Sweetheart? You haven’t exactly told me your name.”
Emma looked down to the side then quickly back up at him, keeping her expression stony. “Emma Swan.”
“Drunk off your ass before noon?” she interjected in a saccharine tone.
His smirk fell for a split second. He quickly replaced it, but a trace of hardness remained in his eyes. “Killian Jones. And I’m not sure what the hell you’re doing on my land, Swan, but I’m running a cattle operation here. I need ranch hands, not-”
“Here’s the thing,” Emma interrupted again. “I need money and a place to crash for a while and there aren’t exactly a lot of options around here. I may not be some shit-kicking good ol’ boy or whatever, but I’m a hard worker and I learn fast. So, do you need the help or not?”
Killian eyed her for a moment and sighed heavily, the hand he ran through it doing nothing to tame his shaggy hair. “Fine. Your first job is to go back to town and get yourself properly outfitted.”
At Emma’s raised eyebrows he continued, “While quite fetching, those dainty little ankle boots and skinny jeans you’re wearing won’t work for… What did you call it? Shit-kicking?”
Emma bobbed her head to the side and shrugged. She supposed he did have a point there. “Fair enough.” The problem was, she was damn near broke and she’d almost hit the pitifully low limit on her only credit card.
As if he could read her thoughts, Killian explained, “Go to Lucas’s and ask for Ruby. She’ll get you fixed up, and you can tell her to put it on my tab. Her grandmother owns the inn in town, and you can stay there for the night. Come back tomorrow and we can get started then.”
With a final nod, he turned away and started toward the house, leaving Emma blinking at the abrupt end to the conversation. That’s it? Okay...
Feeling inexplicably awkward, Emma took a couple of steps back toward her car, but paused as her fingers grasped the door handle. She turned and fixed his retreating form with a quizzical look. “So what are you gonna to do the rest of the day?”
Killian stopped short. As he faced her, the false smile returned to his lips. “As you so astutely pointed out, I’ve been having a bit of a drink this morning, and I’ve every intention of continuing to do so.”
Emma scoffed. “What’s the occasion?”
He dropped the pretense of a smile, and his face became completely inscrutable. “Call it an anniversary of sorts. I’ll see you tomorrow, Swan.” The dismissal was clear in his tone, and Emma expected him to simply walk away again, but he made one final grand sweeping gesture with both arms extended to seemingly encompass the breadth of the ranch. “Welcome to the Jewel of the Range .”
It was then that she finally noticed it, the mangled flesh of his left palm, the way the fingers of that hand drooped and curved unnaturally, giving the hand an almost hooked shape. She quickly reviewed their short interaction and realized he’d only ever gestured with the other hand, not really hiding his left, but never drawing attention to it either. It didn’t bother her, God knew she had her own scars, inside and out, but she must have paused for too long in her observation. He traced her gaze, then dropped his arms immediately and stalked back into the house, letting the screen door slam shut behind him. Shit. Way to impress the new temporary boss.
Ruby proved to be just as helpful as described, if a tad too inquisitive for Emma’s comfort. Lucas’s storefront had been easy enough to find - the town literally only had one street after all - and now Emma was settling down in her room at Granny’s Inn for what she hoped would be a quiet night.
Emma walked over to the small window and stared out at the night sky. If there was one thing she loved most about being this far from civilization, it was the stars. Even with the meager amount of light from the tiny town, she could still see more stars out here than she’d ever be able to in Boston. Or Portland. Or New York, or Tallahassee or any of the other places she’d lived. Well, to be honest saying she lived there would probably be an overstatement. More like “visited” really. Passed through. Though there had been one place she’d lingered long enough to make a few friends, which reminded her…
Emma pulled out her cell phone and dialed. It only took two rings for a familiar chirpy voice to come on the line.
“Emma! Where are you?”
“Geez, Snow, it’s only been a week! You haven’t filed a missing person’s report or anything yet, have you?” Emma chided, but her voice was filled with fondness more than anything. “Per our best friend agreement of 1999, this is me officially checking in and alerting you to my whereabouts whenever I decide to stay somewhere longer than 48 hours.”
“The snark isn’t really necessary to the terms of our agreement, ya know.”
“ Ah, but it makes it so much more fun. And to answer your question, I’m currently at an inn in a town called Storybrooke which is about 20 miles from the Mexican border.”
“Do you think this’ll be the place?” Snow asked eagerly.
Emma cringed. She knew her friend only wanted her to be happy, but after years she couldn’t believe that Snow was still clinging to the hope that Emma would find that one special place and finally stop drifting.
Emma liked drifting. She’d given up on the idea of ‘home’ way back during her years in the system. She wasn’t looking for a home. The allure of the road itself was enough for her. No strings. No responsibilites. Just get a job long enough to pay for the next leg of the journey. That’s what the songs all said, right? Life’s a journey, not a destination?
“For the millionth time, there’s not a ‘place’,” Emma grumbled, running a hand down her face though her friend couldn’t see it, and shaking her head when Snow huffed at her almost as if she had seen.
Emma tried to lighten her tone. “I will say, I already like this place more than Austin. It was…” she pauses trying to think how to explain, “It was like everyone there was trying really hard to be weird, but they were all doing it in exactly the same way.”
Snow laughed. “So what’s the new job? You must’ve gotten one already, or you wouldn’t be calling for your official check-in.”
Emma took a deep breath. She wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about her new job, but at least it would be something wholly different from her usual temp work or waitressing. Hell, it might even be fun, playing cowgirl for a while.
Her new boss though… he brought up a whole slew of confusing feelings. He was a cocky asshole, sure. That was probably the easiest part to deal with. He was handsome as hell in a rugged, messy way. That was trickier, but she was a grown-ass woman, and fully capable of keeping her libido in check - or for that matter indulging it, should she so desire. No need for that to be a complication, except that…
His eyes. The few times he let his arrogant mask slip, she’d seen a pain in him that went far beyond the scars on his hand. It spoke of loss and heartbreak and being left alone. Emma knew that all too well. A lost girl can always recognize a lost boy. That’s what could make this complicated. She didn’t want to empathize with him. She didn’t want to connect with him. She just wanted to do her job and move on down the road. No strings. Nothing to hold her down or hold her back.
“Emma? Earth to Emma? Did the phone cut out?”
Snow’s voice breaks through her thoughts and Emma realizes she hasn’t actually said any of them out loud.
“What? Oh, sorry, guess I’m more tired than I realized. What were you saying?”
“Your new job?” Snow prompted. “Back to waitressing again?”
“Oh! Nope, you’re never gonna believe this: I’m a cowgirl!”
“Like in a rodeo?”
“No, like a literal girl who works with cows. On a ranch. Crazy, right?”
“Well, you were always pretty good at rounding up Leroy and getting him into the drunk tank, and he’s about as bull-headed as they come, so I guess you’ve got some experience,” Snow replied with a chuckle, but then her tone turned sly. “You know they’d take you back at the Sheriff’s office in a heartbeat if you ever-”
“Snow-” Emma warned.
“Emma, are you ever coming back to town?”
Emma sighed. It always came back to this. She missed Snow like hell - and the handful of others that she’d mistakenly let herself get attached to back then - but she can’t stay there. That picket fence life is not for her. But she didn’t want to hurt her friend’s feelings any more than she already had, so all she says is, “I’ll visit soon. I promise.”
“You better.” Snow sighed, too, and Emma hoped the subject was closed for the time being. “Hey did you get that article I emailed you?”
It took Emma a second to catch up with the shift in the conversation, but as soon as she remembered what her friend was talking about, she narrowed her eyes and bristled. “I did.”
“And what did you think?”
“I think that you, Mary Margaret Blanchard, should stop trying to head shrink me with a bunch of pop psychology you pulled from an issue of Cosmo .”
“Don’t you ‘Mary Margaret’ me. It’s got some good points!”
Emma put Snow on speakerphone and scrolled through her email to find the article. She read the title out disdainfully. “Five Verbs to Change Your Life. Really? I like my life, Snow. I don’t want to change it.”
“But if you would actually read it-”
“And I don’t see how learning…” Emma scrolled down through the article to find these supposedly magic words. “To take, to refuse, to give, to receive or to play is going to mysteriously change anything.”
Emma heard Snow’s heavy exhale through the line, and turned off the speaker function, pressing the phone back to her ear.
“I worry about you, okay?”
“I know,” Emma replied gently.
“Look, I know why you left and I believe you when you say you’re okay. But please, make- make sure you’re actually living and not just running. You deserve a life , Emma.”
Emma swallowed hard, swiping with the heel of her free hand at the wetness that had gathered at the corner of her eye. “I am living. And thank you.”
The women said their goodbyes and Emma tossed her phone on the bed. She eyed the device curiously as she changed into her pajamas, and picked it up again before flopping down on the squeaky mattress. It couldn’t hurt to just read the thing.
She leaned over and switched off the lamp on the nightstand, leaving the blueish glow of her phone screen and the starlight filtering in through the window as the only illumination in the room. She read until she fell asleep, letting the words echo through her mind on a loop: to take, to refuse, to give, to receive, to play. Yet as she drifted more deeply into slumber, the words were replaced by the more familiar sounds and images of the dreams she’d tried for so long to outrun. So much for a quiet night.