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Five Verbs

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“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.”

“And I’m-”

“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.

Chapter Text

To Take -

Women in particular fall into the trap of believing that whatever someone gives you is what you’re going to get, but that simply doesn’t work. Sometimes you have to take what you want. It’s a matter of asserting yourself. Assertiveness helps you land jobs or promotions at the office, and it’s important in the bedroom as well. It involves a healthy sense of entitlement - that you deserve that promotion, that orgasm, to be respected, to be desired...


The sun had barely crested the surrounding mountains when Emma rolled her Beetle to a stop at the end of the dirt drive. This time she fully expected to see her new boss waiting for her on the porch, possibly even indulging in a bit of hair o’ the dog, but instead, all she found was a note tacked to the screen door in a surprisingly tidy, looping script:

Leave your bags in the house. Park around back. Meet me at the barn. -KJ

Straight to the point, but she couldn’t decide if that was reassuring or not.

She retrieved her single duffle bag from her trunk quickly. On her return, she noticed  a carved wooden placard above the lintel, tricked with gold leaf and proclaiming the place to be “The Jewel of the Range” - just as Jones had called it the day before. She wondered about the name. It seemed a bit grandiose for the man she’d met yesterday, like something out of another time, but who the hell knew? She wasn’t about to sit on his knee and ask for the story, even if his gravelly accented voice could make reading the phone book sound alluring. Dammit, Emma. Don’t start that.

She pulled open the screen door bracing it with her rear end while she tried the weathered brass door handle. It opened easily with a homey creaking of hinges. Her residual law enforcement instincts balked at the idea that the house was unlocked while no one was home, but she tamped them down. Honestly, it would take a pretty damn determined burglar to bother to come all the way out here, and besides - if Jones didn’t care, why should she? It wasn’t as though she owned anything worth stealing.

Emma glanced around as she entered, enough to get a general impression of tidiness and a vaguely nautical bent to the decor. Much as she wanted to take a look around now that she was inside the house for the first time, she followed Jones’s instructions, such as they were, merely dropping her bag in the foyer next to an old fashioned coat rack bedecked with a couple of weather-beaten Stetsons before heading back out to move her car.

From her vantage point behind the house, the ground sloped gently downward past the barbed wire fence which marked the edge of what could loosely be termed the backyard. Jones hadn’t left her directions to the barn, but the looming structure of rusty corrugated metal was damn near impossible to miss. The walk from the main house to the barn wasn’t terribly long, but even in the relative coolness of morning, the ever-present dust and unfamiliar heft of her work jeans and boots had Emma feeling like she already needed a second shower. Then she set eyes on Jones, and suddenly her body grew warmer for an entirely different reason.

He pushed his way through the rickety wooden door separating some kind of supply room from an open breezeway outside the main part of the barn. He carried a saddle in his arms, which she likely would’ve recognized as finely crafted had she been able to pay attention to more than a little flash of silver here and there. No, her focus was drawn by the way the sleeves of Jones’s faded button down pulled tight over his biceps and the veins and corded muscle that stood out in his forearms where the shirt was rolled up.

He paid no mind if he noticed her ogling, only giving her a cursory raise of his chin as he passed. A few more steps and he reached the set of thick metal pipes that made up the gate to a large fenced-in area, that Emma assumed was the working pen. With surprising ease, he slung the saddle over the top rail, balancing it there and giving Emma an excellent display of the rippling movements of his back and shoulder muscles (not to mention a fantastic view of his ass) as he worked.  Of its own volition, Emma’s tongue darted out to wet her lips at the sight, and she found herself grateful Jones couldn’t have seen it.

He finally turned his attention to her with a businesslike, “Morning, Swan,” which she echoed with matching brevity. His voice was clearer and smoother this morning than she remembered. No hint of alcoholic haze clouded the crystal blue of his eyes, but the dark circles beneath them remained. She guessed neither of them got much sleep last night.

“I wasn’t sure whether I’d run you off yesterday or not, but Ruby called last night to inform me in so very many words that she’d met you and gotten you all squared away.”

Emma cracked a small smile at the memory of Ruby cheerfully giving her the third degree the day before. “She did seem awfully chatty . Are you two related or something? You’ve both got the light-eyes-dark-hair thing going on.”

“Ah, no. Ruby and the Widow Lucas are simply kind souls who have seen fit to put up with me.” He reached up to scratch behind an ear, a vaguely self-deprecating move that he quickly turned into a wry smile. “It’s faded over the years, but you may also have noticed from the accent that I’m not exactly a native?”

Emma wanted to smack herself, because of course the guy with the goddamn English accent isn’t actually from the freaking Rio Grande valley. She hoped the blush she could feel creeping up the back of her neck wouldn’t reach her face, but Jones’s smirk suggested she wasn’t so lucky.

“Nonetheless,” he continued, the tiniest hint of a twinkle in his eye, “I have been instructed in the proper usage of the word ‘y’all’ as well as the pronunciation of ‘pecan’ and so my continuing presence is permitted.”

“Right.” He was teasing her she knew, but she wasn’t quite ready to push back yet. So, obviously he had to go one further.

“Ready to mount up?” There was no mistaking the emphasis he put on the word ‘mount’ or his downward glance at himself as he said it.

Emma crossed her arms and cocked an eyebrow. “You sure you’ve got something big enough for me to ride?” I can play, too, asshole.

A grin split his face and he tipped his hat to her. He turned and strode toward the stalls in the main barn, calling back over his shoulder, “Oh, Swan, I’m sure I’ve got something that will satisfy.”

Emma rolled her eyes, but couldn’t stop the grin flirting at the corners of her own mouth. So, that’s how it’s gonna be. Okay. I can work with this. She knew Snow would lecture them both about using innuendo as a defense mechanism or some other psychobabble, but it was actually kind of comfortable in its own weird way. For God’s sake, it's not like people have to go around being earnest as fuck and spilling their tragic backstories all the damn time. Nothing wrong with a little flirty deflection.

“Big enough for you?”

Killian’s voice snapped Emma out of her thoughts, and she looked his way, her mouth falling open. “I take it back. You’ve gotta be shitting me.”

Killian had emerged from a stall leading a huge black horse. A beautiful animal, its coat shone in the sunlight and a wide blaze of white down the length of its nose gave its face a striking, if strangely skull-like appearance. It nickered softly, tossing its head and Emma stepped back, taking a good look at its dark hooves and powerful legs. It may very well have been perfectly suited for chasing cattle up and down the rocky hillsides, but-

“There’s no way in hell I’m riding that thing,” Emma stated emphatically.

Killian and the horse both looked almost comically affronted. “That thing is the finest horse in the state,” he responded, running a placating hand down the horse’s neck before looping the lead rope around a fence slat. “But you’re correct. He’s far too much horse for a greenhorn like yourself. Bit like giving a teenager the keys to a Ferrari.”

“Got anything in the way of a Honda Civic?” Emma asked warily.

Killian regarded her with a laugh in his eyes if not on his lips and gestured to the stalls. “Just there. Second stall on the left. Smaller, chestnut fellow.” Emma nodded and he continued. “First lesson - how to saddle a horse. Step one - go get a horse. I’ll fetch the other saddle. Won’t be a moment.”

By the time she returned with her own mount, Killian had indeed retrieved a second saddle and Emma was once again treated to the sight of him hoisting it onto the gate next to the first. She led her horse over to the fence to tie him off next to his stablemate. He was a good bit smaller, but seemed solid and sturdy, and something about his big brown eyes and bright red bridle gave him a likeable aura. Emma gingerly extended her hand to lightly pet his nose, and he ducked his head to nuzzle at her side.

“He likes me!”

“Smee’s just checking your pockets for treats, love. Don’t let it go to your head. You might want to pull that hair back as well. It’s the same color as hay and he may try to take a nibble.”

Emma petted the horse gently on the nose again. “Oh, you’d do no such thing, would you?” she cooed at him, but just in case, pulled the elastic off her wrist and raked her hair into a messy ponytail anyway.  “Wait, did you say his name is ‘Smee’?” There was something familiar about the name, but she couldn’t quite place it.

“Aye. And this big brute here is Roger.”

The wheels whirred in Emma’s mind as she took in Roger’s inky coat and skull-like markings reminiscent of the skull and bones on a pirate’s black flag, and finally it clicked. “As in Jolly Roger ?” she asked incredulously.

Killian poked his tongue into his cheek and gave Roger a quick pat on the back before answering. “Not that jolly, really. He’s quite the stubborn son of a bitch sometimes, but we’re old friends.”

Emma scowled. “Not what I meant.”

“Yes, Swan, I chose my horses’ names out of Peter Pan . Rather favored the book in my youth.” He paused to gesture vaguely in the direction of the stalls. “Those two fillies over there are Tinkerbell and Wendy, but we won’t be working with them until they’re saddle broken.”

“Don’t Roger and Smee get, um, distracted with two fillies in the same barn?”

Killian scrunched his nose and shook his head. “They’re geldings.” At her confused expression he held up two fingers and moved them like scissors snipping. “The lads have their minds more on eating grass than chasing ass, if you get my meaning.”

The corner of his mouth quirked up as did one eyebrow, and Emma could tell what he was about to say when he hooked both thumbs into his belt loops and tapped his fingers against his front pockets. But dammit, she fell for it anyway, her eyes traitorously following the movement to look right at the bulge of his manhood.

“Only one set of stones in this barn, Swan.”

Emma rolled her eyes, but it was too late - he’d already seen the direction of her gaze. He grinned wickedly at her, intentionally adjusting his belt buckle just for an excuse to shift his hips in her direction. And hell if she wasn’t tempted to look again. What the fuck is wrong with me? She turned her attention back to Smee, petting his neck to distract her from the desire to take another gander at Killian’s package.

She cleared her throat and attempted to return to the previous subject. “So if you’ve got Roger, Smee, Wendy and Tinkerbell here,” she began to turn, casting a teasing look over her shoulder at Killian, “does that make you Captain H-”

She caught sight of his left hand, stopping herself mid-word. “Sorry. I’m an asshole. I didn’t think-” she started, her face burning flame red.

“Swan, my hand is fucked up. I manage,” he began wearily, the speech obviously one he’d made a few times before, but then his face shifted into a half-hearted attempt at a leer. “In fact, you might be surprised the things I can do with it.”

He wiggled the first two fingers in a lewd stroking gesture, and okay, maybe usually when he made with the innuendo, Emma was willing to toss it right back at him, but this time she felt like too much of a jerk to banter. “I’m still sorry, I shouldn’t have-”

“If you’re going to be bloody awkward about it,” Killian interjected icily, “you can hop right back in that yellow monstrosity you call a car and get the hell out. I don’t have time for your pity.”

She exhaled harshly, clenching and releasing her fists as she let the riptide of emotions wash over her - a peculiar mixture of irritation and understanding she was coming to associate with the man. She wasn’t overly fond of other people’s pity herself. She could respect that.

“Well, then aye aye, Captain, ” she replied dryly, tossing a half-assed salute his way.

Killian chuckled darkly, swaggering into her space. “Ooh. Careful there, darlin’. I rather fancy the sound of that.”


Horses saddled, Killian opened the gate and instructed Emma to lead the pair into the large working pen. He followed, closing the gate behind them. Despite Emma’s assurance that she knew how to mount a horse, Killian stubbornly insisted on helping her up. Before she could protest further, she felt the warmth of his body at her back and his strong hands gripping her waist as he boosted her up like she weighed nothing. And that absolutely did not set her heart beat ticking a little bit faster. Not at all.

Once mounted on Roger, Killian explained that the horses are weight trained, demonstrating as he spoke. “Heels down. Keep your ankles a little bit out from the horse’s sides, but not too far. Lean your weight on left, they go left. Right, and they go right. Leaning forward means go faster, backward means slower. It’s all in the hips and pelvis. Don’t hold the reins too tight, but don’t let go. Got it?”

Emma nodded, hoping she looked more confident than she felt. She had actually ridden before. Snow had owned a horse back when they were teenagers and she’d let Emma ride him once or twice, but that was years ago. A time before Snow’s bitchy stepmom had sold the animal to pay off her exorbitant credit card debts. Before Emma had been shuffled away to a new group home in a new city. Either her current uncertainty or the bittersweetness of her memories must’ve shown on her face.

Killian ducked his head slightly to catch her eye. “You just have to be assertive Swan,” he added encouragingly. “Tell him what you want. If you seem unsure of yourself, he’s going to do what he wants to do. Let him know who’s boss.”

Feeling slightly rankled at being caught out, and even more so at the tiny flicker of something in her chest that his gentle tone had sparked, Emma narrowed her eyes. “I’ve got it. Thanks.”

She clicked her tongue, lightly nudging Smee’s flank with her heel and set out to take a few slow laps around the pen. After she’d proved that she could, in fact, handle the basics, Killian asked her to cut some figure 8’s to watch her steer. The first attempt was halting and stiff, but with a little practice and some constructive correction from Killian, eventually Emma and Smee managed the maneuver smoothly. After reining him first to a stop, Emma leaned down and stroked Smee’s neck, whispering praise in the horse’s ear.

Seemingly pleased with her progress, Killian asked, “Think you can take one more lap at a full gallop?”

Emma nodded with a smug grin, “Just watch me.”

She clicked her tongue at Smee, this time giving him a firmer jab with her heels and he sprang forward, taking off at a surprising clip. They made the first turn without a problem, but after rounding the second turn, the barn came into Smee’s line of sight and his pace increased.

Killian hollered out something to her about not letting the horse have his head, but Emma couldn’t make it out over the pounding of hooves and her own burgeoning panic. They were rapidly approaching the fence that separated the working pen from the breezeway in front of the barn, and it looked for all the world like the stupid horse wanted to jump over it to get back to his feed trough.

Emma shifted her weight backward and pulled on the reins like Killian had told her, but Smee wasn’t responding. She shouted a near frantic “Whoa!” but still nothing.

Emma had damn near resigned herself to her own imminent demise when suddenly, she heard Killian’s voice calling, “Alto! Alto, bastardo estúpido!”

Smee skittered to a stop so abruptly that Emma pitched forward, completely lost her footing and tumbled off, landing squarely on her ass in the dirt. She lay back letting the relief and exasperation of the ordeal pass as she surveyed the cloudless blue depths of the sky above her. But soon, the sound of slowly approaching hoof beats intruded, followed shortly by a shadow falling across her supine form. Emma closed her eyes.

“Just leave me to die, Jones.”

Killian chuckled and dismounted, crouching down to offer her a hand up. She begrudgingly accepted it and soon was on her feet again, making a token effort at dusting off her jeans.

“What the hell was that that you said to him?”

“I told him to stop,” he answered simply. “And I called him a stupid bastard. Did I neglect to mention that the horses speak Spanish?” Killian asked, not looking nearly as apologetic as Emma thought he should for such an omission. “They were trained by some vaquero friends of mine across the river.”

“Your horses are bilingual?” she deadpanned.

“Trilingual actually. I’m sure ‘equine’ is their first language, but they respond to commands in English and Spanish. If the usual whoa’s and giddyap’s don’t work, try throwing an alto or ándale at them.”

Emma frowned. Now he tells me. “Thanks for the tip.”

Killian chuckles and turned away to climb again onto Roger’s back. Once seated he gestured for Emma to remount as well. “Come on, Swan. Get back up and have another go. You know what they say about falling off a horse.”

Emma grumbled to herself as he turned Roger around to walk back over to the other side of the pen. When Killian’s back was to her, Emma picked up Smee’s reins from the ground and petted the horse on the nose. “Would you look at that, boy?” she said with feigned sweetness and loudly enough to carry. “Not every day you see a horse with two rear ends!”

Killian didn’t visibly react, but she knew heard her by the aggravation in his tone as he called back over his shoulder. “Mount up, Swan. Let’s try it again.”

Score one for Emma.


After that first night spent at Granny’s inn, Emma moved into the third story bedroom of Killian’s house - something she was really hesitant about at first, but he made a compelling case. The Jewel was a big house with plenty of empty rooms where she could stay rent-free, and her other options were not particularly attractive. Not that she wanted to put much thought into attractiveness of options as it related to Jones. Dammit.

She could either continue to pay for lodging at Granny’s which would take a healthy chunk out of her earnings and involve her driving back and forth from town every day, or stay alone in an old adobe shack halfway up a mountain that was only accessible by horseback or ATV. No heat. No A/C. Highly questionable plumbing. When she’d called dibs on the uppermost bedroom of the Jewel , Killian’s leer and subsequent comment that he loves a woman on top almost had her literally heading for the hills (as much because of the way her pulse raced at that mental image as anything else), but ultimately her affinity for comfortable beds and hot showers won out. So, yeah. Housemates it was.

She and Killian largely stayed out of each other’s way when they weren’t training or doing chores around the ranch. It felt strange living with another person after so long spent alone on the road, and she imagined it must be the same for him. Not awkward exactly - well, maybe a little bit awkward - mostly unfamiliar. Someone already in the kitchen when she stumbled downstairs in search of caffeine. A jacket hung next to hers on the coatrack. Large boots arranged neatly next to her smaller ones in the mudroom.

Nights were the strangest of all. In addition to the music of bugs, birds and other little scurrying things coming out of hiding from the intensity of the desert sun, she could hear in the stillness the old bones of the house itself creaking and settling, and - more often than not - the soft thump of footsteps down below her.

The nightly rustling from downstairs, snap of a screen door and eventual creak of a rusty porch swing seemed to confirm what Emma had suspected about Killian from the beginning. Like her, he had his own ghosts who came to pay him a visit at night. She thought about joining him more than once, sharing with him in a glass of rum and case of insomnia, but decided against it. She would be leaving again soon enough. No sense in getting accustomed to companionship. She had always been better off alone.

What would they be anyway? Drinking buddies? Friends? No. She had Snow who worried and fussed over her enough for ten friends. She didn't need to run the risk of anybody getting attached. Attachments were like anchors. They held you down, kept you in place. Emma couldn't afford that no matter how much the idea of some silent camaraderie appealed.

Instead of following the pull of gravity downward to Killian, she retreated further upstairs to the widows walk. Solitude and crisp night air helped to clear her head as she surveyed the diamond-studded heavens, laughing at herself as a verse of a song she’d heard god knows when drifted through her thoughts: The stars at night are big and bright, The prairie sky is wide and high… Guess those old cowboy movies knew what they were talking about.

Days were simpler. There was always enough work to be done that ridiculous and unhelpful things like thinking could be easily pushed aside. After a few days of practice in the pen, followed by a few more following Killian up and down some of the winding trails through the hills, Emma’s riding skills had strengthened considerably, as had her affection for Smee despite their rocky start. The feeling seemed to be mutual, earning more than one muttered “bloody traitor” from Killian, much to Emma’s amusement.

On her sixth morning at the ranch, Emma insisted it was time Killian moved on in her ‘greenhorn lessons’ and taught her to rope, but much to her consternation, he balked at the idea.

“Try me.”

“Look, Swan, you don’t really need to be able to throw a lasso. Most of what we’re going to be doing is riding out to check fence lines, do head counts, drop salt licks, that sort of thing. Exactly like we’ve been doing. When it’s time for an actual round up, I’ll get the boys from over the river to come help.”

Emma planted her feet and crossed her arms. “I am perfectly capable of-”

“It’s nothing to do with your capability. Do you know how big this ranch is?”

He was using his ‘I’m being the reasonable one’ voice and Emma wasn’t having it. She gave him a sickly sweet smile. “Oh, I’m sure you’d love to tell me just how big it is.”

Killian huffed irritably. “It would take two people ages to ride the whole thing making trips back and forth to bring in the herd. We need at least two teams out there and someone to drive the damn trailer. All I need you to do is ride drag and persuade the cattle to keep moving in the right direction.”

She raised an eyebrow at that. “Persuade?”

A smile played at the corners of his mouth as he stepped closer into her space. “You seem like a pretty persuasive woman.”

Emma shrugged a vague agreement. You’re damn right I am. Biting the inside of her cheek, she studied him for a moment. Locking her eyes on his, she took a step closer to him, placing a hand on his chest and smiling inwardly in victory as she felt him hold his breath.

“Okay. Then let me persuade you to teach me. I want to be able to pull my weight like any of the other hands.” She stepped back, removing her hand from his chest to chuck him on the shoulder playfully. “Come on, Jones. Show me the ropes.”

He answered with a long-suffering sigh, but she could see the admiration dancing behind his eyes. “Very well.”


Morning chores completed, they returned to the working pen. Emma, per Killian’s instructions, set up a hay bale with a plastic steer’s head attached to use as a roping dummy, while he saddled Roger and Smee.

“If you’re going to learn, you might as well learn on horseback since that’s how you’d actually be using this particular skill.”

Once they’d both clambered onto their mounts, Emma couldn’t help voicing something that had been niggling at her. “Okay, you said not to pussyfoot around the issue, so I’m just gonna ask. How the hell do you do this one-handed?”

He smiled at her with something akin to pride. “Same as you will. I hold the reins and the coils of rope in my left hand - the fingers bend enough to keep a grip, but they won’t straighten - and throw with my right. Have you ever thrown baseball, Swan?”

She nodded.

“It’s a similar idea,” he explained, demonstrating as he spoke. “Get a good sized loop and hold on to one side. Wind up-” And here he rotated his wrist several times making the loop twirl over his head, “-and follow through with your arm.” He threw the loop smoothly and it landed wrapped around the dummy’s horns. “Easy as pie.”

Emma gathered up the rope hanging from her saddle horn. She made a loop the way he had shown her, and raised her arm to try a few rotations. Despite her best efforts, the loop slipped out of her grip and fell around her shoulder, smacking her in the forehead on its way down.

“Shit!”

Smee whinnied beneath her while Killian laughed outright and Emma wasn’t sure which male she was more annoyed with. As she untangled herself from the loop, Emma hazarded a glance over at Killian only to be met with a ridiculous look of feigned innocence - lower lip between his teeth and eyes wide.

“Now we wouldn’t want you getting all tied up there, would we darlin’?”

Emma narrowed her eyes, but didn’t take the bait. This time.

She adjusted the rope to make a new loop, then sat up straight in the saddle to try again.   On her next attempt, the rope at least sailed in the right direction, but still it missed its target. Emma grumbled in frustration. It’s not like she expected to be an expert immediately or anything, she just wasn’t in the mood at the moment for anymore of Killian’s teasing. Weirdly, he seemed to sense that.

“Good, Swan! This time throw a little harder and make sure you're aiming with the tip of the loop.”

Emma cut her eyes to the side to  look at him. “Just the tip, huh?”

Killian waggled his eyebrows at her and she grinned. Emma pulled on the rope to retrieve the loop and gave it one more try, finally managing to get her loop around the dummy’s head.

“Good form, love!” Killian exclaimed, obviously impressed. He dismounted and walked over to free her rope, but instead of climbing back up on Roger, Killian stayed off to the side.

“Now, it’ll be a lot more difficult to catch a moving target…” Killian continued, going into some speech about the technicalities of roping, and how not to spook the cattle so you don’t have to rope them on the run, but Emma’s attention had already diverted a few inches to Killian’s right and the big aluminum horse trough full of water.

It wasn’t like she really planned it. He just looked too damn smug giving his little lecture and the opportunity was too good to pass up.

Emma made another loop and twirled it a few times over her head. At the last second, though, she threw it right at Killian. As a reflex, he jumped to the side to avoid getting smacked with the rope, but the back of his calf hit the trough. He stumbled and fell right into the water with a loud splash and an even louder curse.

He emerged spluttering a second later to find and Emma laughing so hard she very nearly fell off of Smee.

“Oh you think that’s funny do you?”

And Emma did, she really did - right up until she got a good look at him. His clothes were soaked and clung to skin as if painted on him, every line and sinew of his upper body visible through his thin t-shirt. His hair was slicked down against his forehead, dripping into his eyes, but above all it’s the look on his face that sent shivers running down her spine. Eyes dark and flashing like a thunderstorm, jaw muscles flexing as he clenches his teeth. She knew she was in for it even before he began stalking toward her, moving with the predatory grace of a mountain lion.

Emma drew back tightening her grip on the saddle horn. “You wouldn’t.”

Oh he would, and he did. Without a word he wrapped an arm around her waist, lifting her out of the saddle and bending her over his shoulder.

Emma pounded on his back. “Jones! Jones don’t you dare,” she yelped as cold water soaked through from his shirt to her own, before he unceremoniously dumped her into the trough.

While the rational part of her brain knew she had kind of started it, the rest of her was mad as the proverbial wet cat. Claws out. She scrambled out of the trough, and pushed hard at Killian’s shoulders until she’d spun him around with his back pinned against the fence.

“I thought you cowboy types were supposed to be gentleman ,” she snarled.

His eyes flicked down to her mouth and back up, his gaze so intense it practically burned. “I’m always a gentleman, love. Just helping a lady off her high horse. Besides, you were looking rather hot up there. I thought you might enjoy getting wet .”

“Listen buddy-” she gritted out, grabbing the front of his wet shirt in her fist, but her eyes locked on his mouth and whatever she was going to say faded from her mind. She was breathing too hard, and so was he. She could feel the rapid rise and fall of his chest beneath her hand. His head began to tilt incrementally, and she felt her own following suit, and it was too much. She pushed away from him with a growl of frustration and stomped back toward the house without looking back.

“I’m going to dry off. Don’t follow me.”

She barely heard his mumbled, “As you wish”.


They returned to a veneer of normalcy afterwards. They even developed something of a routine. Emma took charge of the coffee pot every morning, after learning her first day at the Jewel exactly how much truth there was to the adage about never letting a cowboy make the coffee. Good lord, the sludge Killian brewed could raise the dead. For his own part, Killian cooked breakfast, since Emma wasn’t culinarily inclined - though she did teach him the absolute revelation of putting maple syrup on your pan sausage.

Beyond that, their days consisted of morning chores, a break for lunch, taking it easy through the hottest part of the day, and more chores in the evening. More often than not, nights were left to solitary contemplation - Emma on the widow’s walk and Killian in the porch swing. If he noticed a glass or two worth of his rum missing, he never said anything. If she found a surprising amount of comfort in the mournful songs he sang to himself against the metronome of the creaking swing hinges, his voice drifting on the breeze up to her hidden perch, well - she never said anything either.  

Once a week, Killian made a list of supplies and they drove into town in his pickup. Emma bought their groceries (mainly to ensure the pop tarts she added to the list actually got purchased), while he walked over to the feed and tack store. They had a system and it worked.  She might even have admitted, if pressed, that they made a good team. But still…

Underneath it all something else was brewing. Subtle at first, but now every time Emma got near Killian she felt it bubble and simmer. Something in a glance, a touch that lingered, a tongue swept across teeth. They still bantered back and forth as they always had, and Emma liked it. It was fun, it was easy. Mostly. Except when it felt like it wasn’t only banter. Except when it made her pulse race or her thighs clench. It was worse when they weren’t teasing each other. When he smiled at her - a real smile that made his eyes crinkle at the corners - and her stomach did a little flip. Or when that soul-deep sense of kinship she sometimes felt around him dug its roots in a little deeper.

Emma was getting edgy, restless. The part of her that always told her when it was time to run had already started its caterwauling, but she didn’t have enough money saved up yet. Besides, she was really just getting the hang of life at the Jewel , and well… she actually kind of liked it there. There was a certain freedom to the wide open spaces, and while the work was hard - she had aches in muscles she didn’t know existed - it didn’t drain her emotionally the way… No. She didn’t want to think about her old job or that life. It was over now. Nope. These days the only thing causing her any emotional turmoil was Jones. Geez, she really needed to do something to take the edge off.

She shouldn’t have been surprised when Killian offered to take her into town to its dive of a bar one Friday night. He was good at reading her anyway (much to her frustration), and it wouldn’t really have taken a mind reader to see that she’d been snappish and sharper tongued than usual for a few days. Still, the offer set off one of her warning bells and it must’ve shown on her face.

“Relax, Swan. I’m not asking you on a date. Think of it as a Captain taking his crew to the tavern as a reward after long weeks at sea.”

Emma snorted. “You really do like that title, don’t you?” She’d used it on him a few times after that first day, mostly when he was being a particular pain in her ass, and he always seemed to smirk when she said it.

“I find it quite fitting for my dashing self. But, the offer stands: what say we go into town and you can deplete someone else’s liquor stash for once?”

He winked at her and she felt heat rise in her cheeks (at the wink itself or the acknowledgment that she’d been stealing his booze, she wasn’t sure), but she nodded her agreement anyway. Maybe this was her best chance to find someone to help her scratch the itch for the night.

“Alright then, Captain. Lemme go scrape the cow shit off my boots and I’m all yours.”


About an hour later, Emma descended the stairs to find Killian waiting for her in the living room. The second he laid eyes on her, his jaw dropped - much to her gratification - and after a couple of dumbfounded blinks, his eyes devoured her in a way that sent pinpricks of electricity dancing over her skin. Anticipation flooded her veins and she couldn’t have been more glad that tonight just might provide her the opportunity to take out her frustrations on some willing stranger. If Killian kept looking at her like that, she feared she’d end up doing something regrettable. Or really, really enjoyable.

“Swan, you look…” he trailed off, swiping his tongue to the corner of his mouth.

Emma gave him a self-satisfied grin. “I know.”

He smiled broadly at her. “I think you did a little more than scrape your boots off.”

“Well,” she answered with a one-shouldered shrug, “I figured it was about time to break my skinny jeans and dainty little heels out of retirement. You clean up pretty nicely yourself, you know?”

That he did - both know it, and look fantastic, that is. He wore faded black jeans that hugged his lean legs and a black vest over a barely buttoned dark print shirt. From the top of his artfully mussed hair to the pointed tips of his polished black cowboy boots, he looked like chocolate-covered sin, and Emma took a bit longer than she intended in giving him a thorough perusal. When her eyes finally reached his face, she found his features marred by an expression of exaggerated indignation.

“And you’re surprised? I’m absolutely offended. Here I thought you found me devilishly handsome even covered in hay and manure.”

Emma rolled her eyes even as she laughed. “You may not be covered in it, but you're still full of shit.”

“Oh, am I?” He smirked, the dimple in his cheek deepening. “Come on, Swan. You want me to do a little turn so you can get a better look?”

Dammit, yeah kind of… “Ugh. Let’s just go already. I’m gonna need a drink as soon as possible if I’m gonna have deal with your preening all night.” Emma breezed past him and grabbed his keys from the coffee table. She tossed them at him, and he caught them easily. Great. Now he’s even more smug. “We’re taking your truck, Jones. Your ego won’t fit in my Bug.”


The Rabbit Hole proved to be a classic small town dive, awash in the glow of neon beer lights and livened by the tinny whine of an aged jukebox in the corner. Before Emma had finished giving the place a full once-over, though, Killian spotted someone across the room and gave them a head bob of greeting. He patted Emma’s arm to get her attention.

“Order whatever you like, Swan, and tell the barkeep to put it on my tab. I’m going to pop by and pay my respects to Ruby over there, and I’ll join you shortly.”

Emma followed his line of sight, and sure enough, there was the brunette she’d met several weeks ago. If Ruby-at-her-day-job was pretty enough to hate on sight, Ruby-at-a-bar was absolutely deplorable. All glossy dark hair and long legs and a tiny dress that left little to the imagination. Of course Emma didn’t actually hate her. Ruby was bright and bubbly and had treated Emma with nothing but kindness the few times they’d seen each other. If Emma stuck around town long enough, they could probably even be friends. Not that she had any intention of staying. Just hypothetically.

And yet somehow, Ruby’s general likeability made it worse when she squealed in delight at Killian’s arrival at her table and jumped up to hug him. It set Emma’s teeth on edge and she couldn’t pinpoint why. She knew Killian and Ruby were old friends, he’d said as much more than once. No reason they shouldn’t be happy to see each other. None at all.

Emma shook herself, still feeling uncomfortably like a phantom gnat was buzzing in her ear, and turned her attention back to the bar. And to the man sending a very appreciative look her way. He was taller than she usually preferred - very tall men always seemed to be looking down on you metaphorically as well as literally - but the tousled brown hair, light eyes and peppering of scruff along his jaw made up for it. He had an air that was just the right side of disreputable about him. Exactly what she needed. Emma sauntered over and sat down on the bar stool next to him.

“You,” he said with a leering smile, “are too good for this place, little lady.”

Emma grinned back enticingly. “You’d be surprised.”

Eyes sparking with interest, the man leaned toward her and extended his hand. “Keith Nottingham. And you are?”

“Just here for some fun.” She took the proffered hand, and he brushed a kiss to her knuckles.

As he raised his head, he spared a glance over her shoulder. His eyes narrowed and he released her hand. “You sure your boyfriend won’t mind?”

“Boyfriend?” Emma swiveled in her seat. There was Jones, seated next to Ruby with her gabbing in his ear, though he seemed to be watching Emma intently. The hell is that about?

Emma turned back to the man next to her. “You mean Jones?”

“You two did come in together.”

Emma shook her head dismissively. “He’s just my designated driver. Not my boyfriend.”

The man chuckled. “Your designated driver has a pretty healthy glass of booze in front of him.”

Emma smiled, reaching out to trace a finger over the man’s knee. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to find someone else to take me home then, won’t I?”

“I guess you will,” he answered with a raised eyebrow. “Can I buy you a drink then? Might as well get started on that fun you came here for.”

“I suppose it’s the least you could do,” Emma purred, scooting closer to him so that her knee pressed against his leg.

Keith’s smile broadened and he took a terribly unsubtle glance directly at her cleavage. “Well, then let’s get you taken care of.” He turned to get the bartender’s attention and signaled for another glass of whatever he was drinking.

Emma was mildly annoyed that he didn’t even bother to ask her what she wanted, but not nearly as annoyed as she was the moment she felt a pair of rather distinctive hands grip her shoulders from behind as a warm body leaned over her shoulder to speak in her ear.

“Come join us, Swan. David’s just arrived.”

Keith turned back toward them at the sound of Killian’s voice, his face falling as if he’d drunk something sour. “Jones,” he gritted out in greeting.

“Nottingham,” Killian rejoined with equal pleasantry.

Rattled by the sudden turn of events, not to mention Killian’s continued proximity - he’d stood back up to his full height, but not removed his hands from her arms - it took Emma a few seconds to process what exactly it was he had said to her.

She wiggled her shoulders subtly and Killian got the hint. He moved to stand behind the barstools between her and Keith, his stance wide and both hands hitched on his belt buckle. Emma scowled at the ridiculous display of testosterone.

“David?” she asked, hoping her exasperation could be heard above the ambient bar noise.

“Aye, David Nolan. Town Sherrif. You took a fair piece of cursing on his behalf the day you waltzed onto my ranch. I reckon it's about time the two of you met in person.”

She did have to admit she was curious about David. If the stuff Killian had told her about him was true, he sounded like a real knight-in-shining-armor hero type, and she’d never met one of those outside of fiction. But, her curiosity was taking a back seat tonight to her libido, and Killian needed to take a damn hint.

“Maybe later, Jones. I haven’t even gotten my drink yet,” she said with a conspicuous tilt of her head at Keith.

To her dismay, the bartender picked that exact moment to set her drink in front of her, but Keith had picked up her thread.

“That’s right. The lady and I were just having a-”

“Nonsense,” Killian interrupted. He leaned over to give her drink a sniff, then crinkled his nose in disgust. “Never drink the whiskey in this place, Swan. It’s bloody rat poison. Come along, love.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and guided her off her stool. “We’ve a bottle of the good stuff over at the table. I know how you fancy rum.”

“Jones! What-”

Emma tried to splutter a protest as they walked away together, Killian strangely rigid at her side. His arm was still around her, though it had drifted southward from her shoulders to rest lightly at the small of her back, practically steering her. Emma was fuming. She looked up at him, surprised to see color high on his cheeks and the tips of his ears, and she prepared to unleash a string of swearing, but he raised a hand to quiet her.

“No thanks necessary, darlin’.”

Emma opened her mouth to retort, but only managed to grit out an, “Oh, I wasn't-” before  they reached the table and a blondish man stood to greet them. He had an affable grin and all-American good looks, too clean cut for Emma’s taste, but objectively handsome. She tried to get her temper back under control as Killian began the introductions.

“And here’s the man himself. Dave, this is Emma Swan.”

She offered David her hand to shake, but to her surprise, he pulled her into a quick fraternal hug. “Glad to finally meet you, Emma. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

That gave her pause and she shot a curious glance at Killian who seemed to be conveniently looking at the chair he was pulling out for her, but she recovered quickly. “Well don’t believe a word of it,” she replied and David chuckled. The three sat down together, and Killian poured Emma a drink which she accepted with great relief.

A thought occurred to her. “Is Ruby not joining us?”

Killian eyed her in a way that irked her, almost as if he knew what she’d been thinking earlier in the evening - not that she’d been thinking anything, really - then gestured with his glass toward the small dance floor. Emma looked over to see Ruby slow dancing with another lovely brunette woman in a blue gingham shirt and tight jeans, which Ruby seemed to be quite appreciating if the way her hands kept drifting lower on the woman’s ass was any indication.

“As you can see, she’s a bit preoccupied at the minute. That’s her girlfriend, Dorothy.”

“Oh.” Emma blinked a couple of times. “So she’s…”

Killian smirked. “As Ruby puts it, she’s a people person.”

“Gotcha.” Emma couldn’t help a small smile at Ruby and Dorothy. They really did make a gorgeous couple, and it warmed her heart to see Killian’s friend so clearly smitten. With someone who is not Killian , her brain unhelpfully added.

She turned her attention to David. “So, Jones here’s been talking about me, has he? Did he tell you the day we met he cussed me out thinking I was you?”

David laughed. “Yeah. I think I heard about something like that. I actually did call him later that day and offered to come over. I didn’t get nearly the hostile response I was expecting, so I knew something was up. Apparently some ‘stubborn blonde’ had already shaken him out of his funk.”

Emma felt a flutter of inexplicable pride at that, but her curiosity was getting the better of her. She leaned forward on her elbows. “So what was the deal with that? He said it was some kind of anniversary-”

He is sitting right here,” Killian interjected, “and he thinks that we should all do less discussing of his personal life and more drinking. We’re here for a good time, aren’t we?” He reached for the bottle and added a splash of rum to each of their glasses. His tone was light, but held a note of warning, and Emma didn’t miss the significant glance exchanged between him and David.

Emma swallowed a sip of her drink, catching a stray droplet at the side of her mouth with the tip of her tongue. If she noticed the way Killian’s eyes tracked the movement, she chose not to think about it. “Okay, let’s talk about David then,” she suggested. “I know you’re the sheriff, and apparently part time animal shelter volunteer. So lemme guess…” She crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes in assessment. “Frequent blood donor, dog owner, and married to some cute little school teacher, right?”

“Two out of three,” David answered. “I do donate, and Wilby is a rescue and the smartest dog in the world.”

“Dave here just recently avoided an arranged marriage,” Killian added, speaking over the rim of his glass before drinking deeply.

“It wasn’t a-” David started to retort at a very smug looking Killian, but then sighed heavily and turned to Emma. “It wasn’t an arranged anything. Our families are old friends, and they sort of strongly encouraged it. But, Kathryn ran away and eloped with a soccer coach from the next county over.” He shrugged, clearly not heartbroken over it. “I guess I’m still waiting for that cute little school teacher you mentioned to show up out of nowhere and sweep me off my feet. You don’t happen to know any, do you?” he asked with charming grin.

Emma raised her eyebrows, the corner of her mouth quirking up. “Huh. Maybe I ought to introduce you to my friend Snow.”

“Is this the one that keeps sending you magazine articles?” Killian asked.

“That’s the one,” Emma answered as David glanced between them with obvious interest. “But I take it back. If those two do-gooder types ever got together, the world would probably explode in rainbows or something.”

Killian laughed. “You’re right, Swan. We absolutely can’t have our meddlesome friends teaming up against us. They’d never let you or I have any bloody fun ever again.”


The rest of the evening had gone well enough. Emma actually liked David - a tiny part of her hadn’t even been kidding when she’d suggested introducing him to Snow - but she couldn’t get over the way Killian had acted at the bar with that Keith guy. It gnawed at her. How dare he interfere like that? If she didn’t know any better she’d almost think he was jealous.

Whoa, wait. Jealous? No. That can’t be right. Why the hell would he be jealous? They weren’t anything to each other, were they?

If he’d gone home with Ruby or somebody she wouldn’t have been-

Besides, he couldn’t be jealous because that would mean that he-

And he clearly didn’t, so-

And even if he did, she didn’t, so-

Liar, liar, her mind whispered. To drown out that small voice in her head, she rehearsed all the things she wanted to yell at Jones as soon as they got home. Round and round her thoughts spun like the truck’s tires on the gravel beneath them, and Emma got angrier by the mile.

The second they set foot on the front porch, she finally snapped, rounding on him with a murderous glare. “What the hell was that about?”

“What the hell was what about, love?”

“I’m not your ‘love’, and you know damn well what.” she hissed, and Killian’s face reddened. She didn’t know if it was from embarrassment or anger and she didn’t give a rat’s ass at that moment. “You swooping in for the cockblock is what .”

“Cockblock?” he asked incredulously. “Sorry, I thought that wanker was bothering you.” He raised his hands as if he were a perp she was about to arrest. If he’d been trying to look innocent, he’d made the wrong move. “I suppose I misread the situation. I was simply trying to be a good wingman, love .”

“Nuh-uhn. Not buying it. You’re a perceptive guy. Sometimes even annoyingly perceptive. So don’t give me some bullshit about playing wingman. A wingman helps his buddy get laid. That was the exact opposite.”

Emma could see the muscles twitch as Killian clenched his jaw. “Get laid ? By Keith Bloody Nottingham?” He scoffed. “Please. He’s beneath you, Swan.”

“Funny. Beneath me is exactly where I wanted him.”

Killian’s eyes darkened, his features forming that familiar cocky smirk. “You could do a lot better, darlin’.” He dropped his hands to hitch one on his belt buckle and swaggered toward her. “If a good time is what you’re after, I’d be more than happy to-”

“Would you?” she interrupted. “Would you really be happy to oblige? Because you talk a big game, Jones - actually I don’t think you’re capable of holding a conversation without making an innuendo - but I don’t see you doing much to back it up.”

Killian’s smirk remained, if anything growing more lecherous by the second. “Oh, come now, Swan. You love the innuendo. Otherwise why would you lick your lips every time I make one?”

“I do not.” Did she? Shit. This was not how the argument had gone when she’d rehearsed it in her head.

“Oh, but you do.” He swayed closer, his voice dripping with honey. “I think you like it. I think you’re curious. So, what do you say, love?” He widened his eyes innocently, scratching a finger behind his ear then letting it slide across his stubbled jaw to tap enticingly against his lips. He looked up at her from beneath dark brows. “Care to give it a go?”

Emma held her ground, trying not to swallow hard, though her mouth had gone completely dry. “Please. You couldn’t handle it.”

He took one more shuffling step until the toes of his boots touched hers. “Oh, I’ll handle anything you put on me, darlin’. Perhaps you’re the one who couldn’t-”

It was more than Emma could take, weeks of tension finally coming to a head. She grabbed his shirt, tugging him the remaining inches to her and kissed the ever loving hell out of him. For one split second, he must have been shocked, his body going rigid against her, but just as quickly he was right there with her. His lips moved feverishly against hers, as his hand came up to cradle her neck.

She pulled back just barely enough to look at him - to see if he was as gone as she was. All it took was him growling, “It’s about bloody time,” against her mouth before she shoved him back against a column on the porch, their lips fused together again. She wanted this, wanted him, wanted to just fucking feel good for a while.

He groped her ass, squeezing firmly before sliding a hand lower to hitch her thigh over his hip. Emma rocked against him, grinding down on his thigh as the hard ridge of his arousal pressed against her fly. They broke for air, faces still touching at the forehead, chests heaving, hips still rutting. The friction was driving Emma nearly mad, so good, but just not enough.

She lowered her leg and pushed off of him, and for a split second Killian froze, uncertainty widening his eyes until she gave him a wicked smile. Emma grabbed hold of his wrist with a sultry, “Come on, cowboy,” and drug him toward the house.

She led him to the couch and he sat down. His eyes bored into hers as she stood between his knees, her fingers still wrapped around his wrist. The uncertainty from before was gone from his gaze replaced by unfettered desire, but also a sort of questioning. It felt to Emma as though he were trying to stare right into her soul, trying to read her. It was equal parts exhilarating and unnerving. That was not the kind of intimacy she wanted.

She straddled his lap, effectively avoiding his piercing eyes by getting her lips back on his as quickly as possible. Killian thrust up against her and Emma broke the kiss on a strangled sound of pleasure, her head falling back only to be cradled by his callused fingers tangling in her hair. Their hips molded together, moving in counterpoint as his lips and teeth began blazing a trail down her neck. Yes. Yes, better. She hummed her approval as heat began to build and swirl inside her.

“So fucking gorgeous like this,” he murmured, his voice a soft rumble against her skin in exquisite contrast to the scratch of his scruff. His hands clenched her waist, pulling her down tighter.

“Everytime I watch you ride, all I can think about is having you above me, rising and falling, faster and faster. It’s enough to make a man jealous of a damn horse.” The words went straight to her core, but Killian didn’t give her time for reaction. He gripped the neckline of her top with his right hand and tugged roughly, taking bra and shirt out of his way at once.

“And these” he cupped her exposed breast, brushing his thumb over the stiffened peak. “I’ve put a lot of thought into these as well. How they’d feel.” He squeezed gently. “What lovely shades of pink I could turn that pale skin.” He rubbed his stubbled cheek against the inside of the soft mound eliciting a sharp intake of breath from Emma at the rasping sensation. “The sounds you would make when I taste them.” He drew her nipple between his lips, sucking and laving as he caressed her, and Emma couldn’t have stifled her moan if she wanted to.

Emma worked her fingers into the dark silken hair at the back of his head, guiding and urging him even as she rocked her hips in his lap. More. She needed more.

She reached down to grab Killian’s other wrist from its place on her waist and brought his hand up, curving his fingers into her neckline on the other side. He stilled his ministrations, releasing her kiss-reddened nipple and looked up her, his expression suddenly guarded. For a split second, she was confused by his hesitance, then it hit her. His hand. For all his swaggering arrogance, he was worried about touching her with his injured hand. The flash of vulnerability from him sparked a sense of warmth inside her in strange contrast to the burning heat she’d felt only moments ago, but she simply squeezed his hand in hers and nodded breathlessly.

She arched her back and glanced down pointedly before locking her eyes on his. “That one’s getting lonely.”

A wicked grin spread across his face and he obliged her, exposing the other breast and testing its weight against his scarred palm before lavishing it with his lips and tongue. She cried out at the sharp nip of his teeth and he pulled back slightly, soothing the sting with a graze of his tongue before nuzzling at the valley between her breasts.

“Do you have any idea what you do to me, love?” he asked, his lips warm and wet against her soft flesh, punctuating the question with a thrust of his hips. “The long, cold showers I’ve had to take since you arrived? I’ve never been so bloody hard-”

He groaned as Emma swirled her hips in a particularly dirty grind. “That’s right, darlin’, take what you need.”

Emma took hold of his chin, looking him square in the eye. “What I need is for you to shut your filthy mouth and touch me.”

His eyebrow lifted as he dipped his head in imitation of a bow. “Yes, ma’am.” And then he pounced.

In a blink Emma was lying flat on her back, Killian’s left arm supporting her neck. She kicked off her shoes, extremely grateful in that moment that she’d worn heels instead of boots, as he worked her jeans open, pushing them down as far as he could reach. She raised her hips and took over the process, somehow managing to free one leg. Good enough.

She was fairly sure she must look utterly debauched, laying there spread out before him with her top pulled down to her waist and her jeans half off. She’s even more certain that he had something to say about it. She could practically read the ticker-tape of smut scrolling through his eyes as he took in the sight of her, but he followed her instructions and kept quiet, settling instead for tucking a finger under the waistband of her underwear and letting it snap back against her hip with a mischievous smirk.

Emma couldn’t decide whether she wanted to smack the smug off of him or pull him down for another kiss, so she met his gaze with a challenging expression of her own. “I said touch me, Captain.

He leaned over her and kissed her deeply, his tongue demanding entrance which she gladly granted. He caressed and teased each breast in turn, coaxing the nipples back into hard peaks until she writhed beneath his touch, squeezing her thighs together helplessly in an attempt to find the friction she craved. When she broke their kiss panting with anticipation, then and only then did he slowly slide his hand down the flat plane of her stomach and beneath her underwear to where she desperately needed him.

God she was so worked up. The first torturously slow strokes of his finger - a light drag of his blunt nails through her curls, a brush of his fingertips over her clit - had her halfway to coming already. She placed her hand over his humming in pleasure and relief as he increased his pace and pressure, then guided him lower still.

Emma heard his groan as his deft fingers found just exactly how slick and ready she was for him, but when she opened her eyes briefly, she could see through her own lust soaked haze that he was biting his lower lip hard. Part of her was dying to hear it - the commentary he held back at her command. How much he wanted her, the ways he wanted to enjoy her. But another part of her was scared. What if he said too much? What if he praised more than just her body? What if he actually - No. He couldn’t possibly. This was just a release of tension. Nothing more. It couldn’t be more.

Emma quieted her mind and gave herself over to sensation. He easily slipped one finger inside her, then two. Mewls and moans and something that vaguely sounded like his name poured from her mouth as she lost herself in his touch. Her hips bucked wildly, fucking his fingers with abandon. Holy shit, the man knew what he was doing.

The rare moments she managed to open her eyes, she found his gaze fixed on her face, studying her as though cataloguing what movements on his part elicited the greatest response from her. She didn’t want to think about that. She didn’t want to think about anything but the way he made her body feel - and she felt amazing. So, she reached up blindly near her head, grasping his hand without much conscious thought beyond needing something to hold on to, to ground herself.

There. He hit a spot within her that had her seeing stars.

Oh god. He hit it again, and this time she spoke the words out loud. “Oh god. There. Right there. Don’t stop. Don’t you fucking dare stop.”

She had a vague awareness of his lips on her neck and his denim-clad erection pressing thick and hot against her hip, but these thoughts were fleeting as with one more deep stroke of his fingers, she came hard with a strangled cry.  Lights danced across her vision and she breathed his name as he slowly worked her down from her high.

When she returned to herself, she realized she had a death grip on his hand by her head. She let go and wiggled her own fingers to loosen them. “Sorry about that,” she panted, still trying to catch her breath, and Killian laughed sounding slightly out of breath himself.

She lifted her head and he moved his arm out from under, raising up slightly to prop himself on his elbow.

“There was nothing about that you need ever apologize for.”

Though she was the one who just had a mind-blowing orgasm, he looked thoroughly ravaged, pupils blown, lips swollen - the lower one red from the way he’d been biting it, his dark hair more disheveled than ever. He was desire personified, and the vast majority of her wanted nothing more than to roll him over and return the favor, but something in those fathomless blue eyes of his eyes stopped her. Lust, sure, but there was also something else. Something… other . Something that made her feel exposed in a much more intimate way than their amorous activities had.

Suddenly her heart began thrumming in her chest, and this was exactly what she was afraid of, and she needed to shut it down right now. For his sake, of course. She wouldn’t want him to get the wrong idea or anything, or - you know - attached .

“That was-”

“An itch that needed to be scratched,” she finished for him. She puffed out her cheeks to release the breath she’d been holding. “Whew! I guess you’re not all talk after all, are you, Jones?” She tried to make it sound playful, but was pretty sure she’d failed utterly.

Still, Killian seemed to read what she was doing and went along with it, his cocky mask slipping back into place. “Right. Well, I am nothing if not a man of my word.”

Some awkward shuffling ensued as they attempted to untangle themselves from each other and straighten their clothing, neither seeming particularly keen to look the other in the eye. Finally, Emma leaned over to pick her shoes up off the floor, then stood up.

She cleared her throat. “Night, Jones. See you in the morning.”

Emma started up the stairs, but Killian’s voice made her pause. “Night, Swan. You just let me know anytime you’re feeling itchy .” And just like that he was back to his familiar suggestive tone.

She snorted a laugh and shook her head, smiling to herself as much in gratitude to him for his understanding as at his ridiculous teasing. She continued up to her bedroom without looking back. Her last thought before she fell asleep that night was that the funny thing about itches is once you start scratching at one, it’s really hard to stop.

Chapter Text

To Refuse - In order to feel like you can consent, you also need to feel like you are allowed to refuse. It isn’t a matter of only saying “No”, but also “Not now,” “Not yet,” and “Not like this.” Give yourself permission to tell a friend, “I’m not ready to talk about that yet,” or, “I’ve got too much on my plate right now.” To tell your lover, “I’m not comfortable with that,” or, “Let’s try something else.” Saying no and establishing boundaries is an essential dimension in a relationship.


“Twenty minutes ‘til housekeeping. C’mon!”

Giggling girlishly, she darted inside the shabby motel room after him. Showed him the dream-catcher the previous occupants had left behind. Delighted herself in the amusement she saw in his warm brown eyes.

“Anywhere you want to go, babe. Pick a point on the map or else we’ll just keep driving until we find a home.”

She looked down at the map he dropped on the bed in front of her and felt his arms wrap around her waist, the warmth of his body soaking into her back.

“Are you sure that’s what you want?”

Her breath hitched at the way his hand dipped dangerously low on her abdomen. “I want you, Emma. Just you.”

She wanted to look into his eyes to see the truth of his words shining back at her, but his hands began to roam her body, his tongue tantalizing the delicate skin behind her ear. She knew she should stop him, but every sensation was so new, so exciting. It felt so good to be wanted, but…

Emma furrowed her brow in confusion. His hands- they didn’t feel like she remembered. His voice was softer now. A different timbre. Her heart began to race. She couldn’t see him. She needed to see him. This was different, this wasn’t how it went.

She tried to turn in his arms, but found herself lying on her back on a couch, her head cradled on someone’s arm, hot breath on her neck. She turned her head as he raised his and saw not brown eyes, but startling crystal blue…

 

Emma’s eyes sprang open and she sat bolt upright in bed with a gasp, struggling to control her breathing. A dream. It was just a dream. The covers pooled around her waist, leaving her shivering as the sheen of sweat covering her body began to cool in the night air.

What the hell?

Her brain loved to torment her with her last good memory of Neal, that part was familiar enough. Her first time. The first time she ever felt free and happy and wanted. The only time she ever said ‘I love you’ to a man. The last time she let a man lie to her.

The dream always started with the good stuff and ended with her getting loaded into the back of a squad car. Funny how it sort of blurred over the little details. Like Neal stepping out to see if he can swipe a pack of cigs from the gas station on the corner and never coming back. Like the knock at the door that wasn’t him, but the police. Like the watches stashed in her bag. Emma slid her hands up over her face and into her hair, scratching at her scalp as if she could scrape the images from her head.

She huffed a sigh. As it usually did, the dream left her beating herself up with the same old questions. Were the signs there and she ignored them? Was he just that good of a liar? Maybe.

Emma flopped back down against her pillow and pulled the covers up to her chin. She’d told him about her superpower. How she could always tell when someone was lying to her if she was looking them in the eye. He’d rolled his eyes about it at the time, used to tease her about believing in magic shit like that. Funny, though, how he got less and less inclined to look her in the eye.

But what the fuck was up with tonight? Why would her sleeping mind change the ending? She rolled onto her side burrowing further under the blanket. Oh, she could think of a reason.

She sighed heavily remembering the way Killian had held her, kissed her. The way he’d looked at her afterwards. Neal had looked at her that way once. Graham, too. As much as she hated that dream, she’s glad in a way. It was a good reminder to her. Not to trust anyone. Not to get too close to anyone. They let you down or let you go. A home is for other people, not her. Emma didn’t regret last night. She just needed to remember not to let Killian get under her skin, as much for his sake as for hers. How hard could that be?

Emma glanced at the clock on her nightstand, cringing at the glowing green numbers. Too early to get up, but too late to go back to sleep. She flopped onto her side, facing away from the clock again in a childish attempt to ignore it and get at least a little bit more shut-eye, but restlessness pulled at her. Despite the softness of her bed, she couldn’t get comfortable, mentally or physically. She struggled against herself. Her mind yelled at her to shore up her defenses. Stop thinking about Killian, or at the very least remember that she’d be leaving soon. That whatever she did with him had an expiration date.

Her body, however, had other ideas. Her skin flushed at the memory of Killian’s calloused hands caressing her. Her nipples tightened at the thought of his lips and tongue pulling and teasing them. Emma allowed her fingers to trail down her stomach and slip inside her underwear, heat pooling between her legs as she indulged the fantasy. She was embarrassingly wet just from the memory of how he’d made her body feel, legs shaking even though her own hand was a poor substitute for his touch. She bit down on her lip to keep from crying out his name as she came all too quickly.

By sunup, Emma was… well, freaking out might’ve been an overstatement, but not by much. She called Snow, hoping to catch her before she left for work.

As soon as Snow greeted her with a far too cheerful hello for 7:00 am, Emma launched right in. “I hooked up with Killian.”

There was a muffled coughing sound and Emma briefly wondered if she’d actually made her friend choke on her tea. “ Oh! Um… why?

“I don’t know. It’s been awhile? I was feeling good? Or actually, not good. I was kind of mad at him? But then he was all smirky and ‘you couldn’t handle it’ and I don’t know…”

Did it mean anything?

“No! I mean, he’s my boss and we’re friends. I guess. Sort of. It was just a hookup. Like third base, tops.”

Okay… well, have you talked to him about it since it happened?

“It just happened last night. And I was hoping to avoid the whole talking about it thing.”

Uh huh. But you were hoping it would happen again.”

“Maybe. It was pretty damn great.” Emma groaned in frustration. “I don’t know.”

Emma, you need to talk to him otherwise things are going to get weirder and weirder between you. Not to mention he’s your boss. That makes it more complicated. He could get the wrong idea about what services he’s paying you to do.”

God, that had never even occurred to Emma, but no. Killian wasn’t that guy. She wasn’t sure why she was so certain about it, but she knew it in her bones.

“No. No, it’s definitely not like that. He’s not like that.”

You still need to talk about it like adults to make sure everyone is on the same page .”

Emma relented with a sigh. “Yeah, I guess so. Thanks for being my mom-friend.”

My pleasure. And Emma? It’s okay if it did mean something. You know that right?

“Aaaannnddd then you go and ruin the moment. Talk to you later.”

--/--

Emma took a little more time than usual getting dressed after that, still turning over everything Snow had said in her mind. Her friend was just so annoyingly rational sometimes. Always trying to insist that Emma be an actual grown up. Ugh. Adulting sucked.

When she’d brushed her teeth so thoroughly her gums nearly bled and had braided and unbraided her hair four times, she couldn’t stall any longer. Emma wandered down the stairs to the kitchen hoping that maybe Killian would already be out in the barn getting ready for morning chores, but no such luck. He sat at the breakfast table, a picture of domestic tranquility complete with a half-drunk cup of coffee at his elbow and his phone in his hand, thumbing at the screen. He looked up when he heard her approach, and her step faltered.

He was wearing that t-shirt she hated. The one that had probably been navy at some point, but now was the soft grey-blue of a storm cloud. She hated the way it pulled taut across his well-toned shoulders. Hated the way it set off his eyes, the golden ring around his pupils nearly glowing against his blue irises like the sun bursting through after the rain. Hated most of all the way she wanted to rip the shirt off of him and slam his arrogant ass against a wall and find out exactly what that cluster of freckles on his neck tasted like and…

Okay, yeah. Maybe Snow has a point.

Emma didn’t even bother fixing herself a cup of coffee. She sat right down across from him at the table. Better to get this over with quickly.

She took a deep breath. “SnowsaysIhavetotalktoyou.”

Killian cocked his head to the side and set his phone down on the table. “Come again?”

Aaaand isn't that just the issue. Fuck my life. “Snow says we have to talk about the thing. That we did. That thing.”

It would have all been so much easier if his eyes didn’t twinkle at her like that.

“Ah, so you told your friend about me?” A grin tilted the corner of his mouth deepening the dimple just beside it.

“Shut up. But yes, I told my friend and she made me promise that I’d talk to you, so… yeah.”

Killian leaned back in his chair almost too casually. “There’s nothing really to talk about, love. We’re both consenting adults. We obviously have a certain chemistry. You're a red-blooded woman with needs, and I was more than happy to lend a hand as it were. Despite the well-intentioned moralizing of our best mates, I don't see anything wrong with us having a bit of fun from time to time. Do you?”

He stood, taking his mug with him, and raised a teasing eyebrow at Emma as he passed her on the way to the sink. She rolled her eyes in return, then stood and followed him. She noticed he’d used the plural ‘mates’ and the implication it carried that David had said something, too, but she couldn't even begin to deal with that thought right now. Better to stay on message.

“So you don't think it's weird at all to, you know, have sex with your boss?”

Killian placed his mug in the sink and turned to face her hitching a thumb on his belt. “Swan, if you think that was sex then the American educational system really is as questionable as they say.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Aye, that I do, and I don't mean to play word games with you, so let me be clear.” He stepped toward her looking her squarely in the eyes. “I enjoyed our dalliance very much and I’m rather certain you did, too. As I said, I think the two of us can have a lot of fun together. The other night was just a taste, and when I finally take you-”

“When?” Emma scoffed. The nerve of this guy. The gall. The-

“Yes, when . When I do, I want to take my time with you. I want to touch every inch of that creamy skin until I’ve mapped out each place that makes you moan, and oh, shall you moan , darlin’. I want to hear it.” With another swaggering step, he edged into her personal space. “I want every sigh and curse and keening until you shout my name as you come around my fingers again. Want to feel the way you squeeze me, all hot and tight and wet. But I won’t be done with you. Not by a mile.”

Emma’s breathing sped up as she swayed involuntary toward to him, the velvet purr of his voice going straight between her legs. She should stop him. Tell him to fuck off or call him an arrogant bastard or shit, do something besides lick her lips and-

“What next?” she asked, a hitch in her voice. He raised a dark eyebrow at the sound, but she pretended to ignore it.

“Next as you lay quivering, I would kiss my way down your stomach, perhaps a bite here and there. Leave my mark under one of those perfect breasts, or maybe...” One last step and they stood face to face, her feet between his. He rested his hands low on her waist, thumbs sneaking beneath the waistband of her jeans to caress the sensitive skin near the jut of her hips. “Right here. Somewhere no one else can see.”

Emma swallowed hard, fighting the urge to cant her pelvis into his touch, but he just kept talking.

“I wouldn’t taste you, not right away. I’d place a hand on each of your lovely thighs-” at this he trailed a hand down, delicately stroking her jean clad leg with the back of his fingers. “And gently work the tension out of them while spreading you wide, so I can take in the beauty of your womanhood. I bet you’ve got a gorgeous cunt, Swan, though I hardly got a proper look last night. Once I’ve looked my fill and you’re nice and relaxed, then I shall taste you. I’ll suck that sweet rosebud of a clit between my lips, and lick and nip and delve into the center of you until you’re a glorious writhing mess again and I won’t stop until you’re pulling my hair and begging me to fuck you. To fill you up over and over until I know you'll be feeling it hours later and thinking about it even longer. Those clever little fingers of yours just twitching to touch yourself at the very memory of me inside you.”

It was almost as if he knew exactly what she’d been up to in the wee hours of that very morning. Emma could feel the crimson flush extending from her hairline down her throat to her decolletage. His eyes followed it, lingering momentarily on the curve of her breasts visible at her neckline before returning his smirking gaze to her face. He paused, seeming to take a certain amount of male pride in the obvious effect his words had wrought on her. He could be as smug as he wanted, but if he bothered to check his reflection in that moment, he might have noticed that his own pupils were blown wide, eyes nearly black with desire.

Emma tried not to move under his heated stare, only carefully shifting her stance enough to give herself a teensy bit of the friction she deeply needed. This was ridiculous. At this rate they'd be literally rolling in the hay by lunchtime. But would that be so bad?

Emma stepped back far enough to get out of his reach, trying to shake herself out of the daze, but still… the man did kinda have a point. They were both grown-ass adults, perfectly capable of enjoying each other’s company without things going sideways. Well… maybe literally sideways, but that’d be something else altogether.

She crossed her arms under her breasts, taking no small amount of pleasure from the way his eyes dropped straight to her cleavage again for a moment. Guys can be so easy . She eyed him appraisingly. “Just a little fun, huh?”

He shrugged and offered her a cavalier smile. “Just a little fun.”

“There would have to be ground rules.”

Killian huffed a laugh and leaned back against the counter. “Sounding less fun now, but alright.”

“No strings. No expectations. No spending the night together afterwards.”

Killian nodded his agreement. “Fair enough. And I’ll add one more, because as you astutely pointed out, I am your boss and I don’t want there to be any question on this point. No one does anything they don’t 100% want to do.”

That was just what she needed to hear. This was definitely going to work. They were definitely on the same page. No problem. Emma smiled at him wickedly.

“So, hypothetically, what if what I want to do isn’t all that stuff you said a minute ago? What if all I want is a good hard fuck against the barn door?”

The smile that slowly spread across his face was all white teeth and dark intent - a pirate’s smile - and it sent a little thrill of anticipation through her. “Then, hypothetically , I’m at your service.”

--/--

If Emma thought there had been tension between the two of them before, it was nothing compared to the energy sizzling in the air as they went through the motions of their regular chores over the next few days. The question had changed. No more will they, won't they. The only thing left to answer was when, where and how. It felt to Emma almost like a stand-off. Neither one of them seemed to want to be the one to initiate, as if there was an implied admission in being the eager one, the one who wanted it more. Talking about wanting sex in the abstract, even sex with each other, was one thing. Actually being the first to grab onto the other and say, “I want you ,” came with a certain amount of vulnerability.

What if he changes his mind? What if he doesn’t want me? What if he wants more than I can offer him? What will happen when I leave? What if-

“Swan! Shut that gate, will you?”

Emma snapped out of it and realized she’d been standing there like an idiot holding the pasture gate open long after the horses had trotted past her. She swung it closed, slamming the rusty bolt home with more force than necessary, then looked over to see Killian ( and when did he become ‘Killian’ and not ‘Jones’? ) swaggering up to her with that damn smirk on his face.

“Something on your mind, darlin’?”

It was easier to tease him back than admit the real cause of her distraction, so she cocked an eyebrow and put some huskiness in her voice. “Oh, you know. Just kinda tired. Someone kept me up late last night.” And there. There was the swipe of his tongue across his teeth that she was going for.

Killian ducked his head in semblance of a bow. “You’re welcome.” He turned and walked away from her, leaving Emma to roll her eyes at his back, and yeah, okay, maybe sneak a quick peek at his ass. “Now, come along, Swan. We’ve got salt licks to put out.”

With some measure of reluctance, Emma clambered into the cab of the faded blue-green Dodge. If working side-by-side this morning had her skin tingling and her mind spinning, she didn’t want to think about what sitting two feet away from him on the big broad bench seat in his pickup would do to her. Snark seemed like her best option.

“Are you sure this thing can make it off-road to where we need to go? It’s gotta be like 300.”

Cranking the ignition, Killian kept facing forward, but cut his eyes in her direction. “She’s a fair sight younger than your geriatric yellow Beetle.”

“Your truck is a ‘she’?”

“All automobiles are ‘she’s’, Swan.”

Emma crossed her arms and stared out the window. “My Beetle is non-binary, thank you very much.”

He was quiet for a minute as the truck heaved forward and began bumping along the ranch road, but soon Emma could feel his eyes on her.

“What?”

“It’s got a name, doesn’t it? Your non-binary Beetle.”

Shit. Emma kept her gaze fixed out the window and mumbled something under her breath. It wasn’t that she was embarrassed that she cared about her car. Hell, that thing had been the only home she’d had for years. It was just that this all felt a little too-

“What was that, love?”

Emma finally turned to glare at Killian, daring him to laugh. “Buttercup. It’s name is Buttercup.” Emma uncrossed her arms and gestured matter-of-factly with her left hand. “It’s yellow and I like flowers, so…”

He reached out and caught her wrist with his right hand, turning it to run his thumb over the little flower tattooed in black ink there. “So I see. Does it mean anything? Your tattoo?”

Emma gave a small laugh. Well, at least this had a safe answer even if the way he was still caressing the pulse point of her wrist felt anything but.

“Yeah, it means I was a dumb fourteen-year-old who liked flowers.”

Killian grinned as he released her wrist, and she relaxed, grinning back.

“Such rebellion in one so young.”

Emma shrugged with a wry smile. “Well, at the time it seemed like a good way to give my foster mom the finger, so…”

Emma’s smile faded as she realized what she just revealed. How the hell had that come out of her mouth? Her heart pounded and she started to retreat into herself, but Killian seemed completely unfazed by her admission.

“S’alright, Swan. I may have engaged in a bit of rebellious behavior in my youth as well.” And then he winked at her, or at least tried to wink. More sort of a semi-blink with sass, but close enough. The simple acceptance inherent in the gesture had the tension melting out of Emma’s body again.

She looked down at his hand where it curled around the the gear shift, his thumb tapping against the knob in time with some twangy country song on the radio, and for the first time she really took note of the swirls of black and red ink extending up the inside of his forearm. She’d seen the mark or part of it before, but never paid it much attention. Now she could see it was a heart with a dagger piercing it, the name “Milah” scrolled across the middle.

“Rebellious behavior, huh?” Emma tapped two fingers against Killian’s tattoo, and cracked a half smile. “Is that how you got this?”

She wasn’t sure what exactly she expected, but the sudden flash of pain and darkness that crossed his features wasn’t it.

“Aye. Something like that.” There was no rudeness to his brusque answer, but everything about his tone and body language communicated that this subject was off limits.

Emma nodded and didn’t press. If anyone could understand about having a past you didn’t want to discuss, it was her. Still, it somehow knocked a brick or two loose in her defenses that they’d now both (intentionally or otherwise) let the other peek through the keyhole in their walls. What a strange and foreign idea, that there might be someone else out there who got it.

They drove in silence for a while after that, stopping here and there to drop off a salt lick or for Emma to hop out and open a gate. It could have been uncomfortable, but it wasn’t. An unspoken understanding had formed that they each needed a little space, and Emma could sense Killian was as grateful for it as she was.

One more gate led them into the field where they’d released the horses that morning, but as Killian drove over the cattle guard and Emma closed the fence behind him, the truck made a sickly spluttering sound and wisps of smoke snaked out from beneath the hood. He cut the engine and jumped out of the cab.

“SHIT!” Even from several yards away, Emma could hear his tirade clear as a bell. “No. No no no no no. Don’t you do this to me, godammit.”

By the time Emma made it to his side, Killian had the hood open and was angrily swiping at his forehead with the heel of his hand. “What happened?”

“A hose blew out and sprayed coolant all over the place. Bloody hell, this is a clusterfuck.” He slammed the hood closed with a snarl.

Well, shit. Emma knew enough about engines to know that this couldn’t be fixed in the middle of a freaking pasture. She needed to get Killian focused on problem solving instead of just being pissed. “So, what do we do? I’m guessing a tow truck isn’t coming all the way out here.”

Killian roughly tugged his fingers through his hair and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly to calm himself. “No, I’ll call Dave. Perhaps he can get out here with his dually and pull us into town. There’s a repair shop just down the street from Granny’s.”

“Okay. You call him, I’ll start walking. Someone’s gonna have to let him in the gate when he gets here.”

She turned to go, but quickly felt a hand on her arm spinning her back around. “Now hold on a minute, Swan. I’ll call him, sure, but I think I’ve got a better idea than walking.”

“Oh really? What, you’ve got a magic carpet in your pickup bed?”

“Darlin’, I could show you some magic in that truck bed, but that wasn’t what I had in mind. How do you feel about riding bareback?”

“Is that some kind of euphemism?”

“Do you want it to be?”

Emma rolled her eyes at him, then looked around seeing nothing but open field up to the tree line. “Wouldn’t we need a horse for that?”

In response, Killian placed the thumb and middle finger of his right hand into his mouth and blew an ear-splitting whistle.

Emma flinched at the piercing noise. “Jesus, Jones. Could you warn a person before-”

But then she heard it, a distant thrumming growing rapidly louder. The unmistakeable sound of hoofbeats approaching. She whirled around in time to see Roger break past the tree line, barreling toward them.

Killian smirked. “You were saying?”

Emma favored him with a half smile, tilting her head in acknowledgement. “Yeah, yeah. That was actually kinda cool.”

Roger slowed his pace as he got closer, finally coming to a stop next to the tailgate. Killian opened up the diamond plate steel toolbox taking up the first quarter of the bed, and retrieved a small bucket of horse treats. Roger seemed to perk up at the sight of it, but Killian held out a hand to tell him to stay put.

“Want to feed him one, Swan?”

It sunk in that Emma was about to have to crawl up on top of the large animal and hope to God he didn’t toss her off into a cow patty in just a minute. So, as much as those big blunt teeth and heavy hooves concerned her-

“Yeah. Anything to get on his good side.”

Killian held out the bucket and she gingerly picked up one of the odd-smelling nuggets.

“Just place it right in the middle of your palm and keep your hand flat.”

Emma did as instructed, slowly approaching Roger who gave her a couple of sniffs, then lowered his muzzle to her hand. He snuffled and nibbled far more gently than she would have ever guessed, and it was a strange and but not unpleasant feeling.

As Roger finished his treat, she glanced back at Killian to find him leaning against the side of the bed watching her intently. “Can I give him another?”

Killian smiled warmly at her and extended the bucket again. She took another treat and offered it to Roger. This time she expected his warm breath and tickly lips, but not-

“He’s licking me!”

Killian laughed and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Can’t say as I blame him. So, now that you two are bosom friends, what say we take a ride?”

Killian put the treat bucket back in the toolbox and grabbed an extra set of reins, clipping them onto Roger’s halter. He then pulled out his phone and made a quick call to David.

While he was busy with that, Emma wandered over to Roger’s side, petting his neck and withers. She marveled at the softness of his coat and the warmth and strength of the muscles just beneath, but soon she felt another warm body behind her. Before she could protest, Killian’s hands were at her waist, boosting her up onto Roger’s back.

She took the offered reins from his hand with a scowl. “I could’ve just used the truck’s bumper as a step.”

Probably to irritate her further, Killian did exactly that, stepping up on the bumper while holding on to the edge of the bed, then throwing a leg over Roger to seat himself right behind her.

“Aye. You could’ve, but where would be the fun in that?”

He settled in close to her, his body wrapping around hers, and Emma… had not thought this through. Killian scooted forward incrementally and gave Roger a nudge with his heels to get moving. She threaded her fingers loosely through the coarse strands of Roger’s mane to give herself something to grip. Now her ass was pressed to Killian’s groin, his chest inches from her back. Right hand on her hip, left arm circled around her to hold the reins, and just… Emma had really, really not thought this through.

If the growing tension in his body was anything to go by, Killian hadn’t either. All the energy from earlier that had dissipated in the wake of personal revelations and broken-down trucks, came rushing back. Something about the slow rolling gait of the horse beneath them and how it practically had her grinding between Killian’s legs. Something about the heat of him against her back, or the way his hand was gradually inching from her hip to splay across her abdomen. It made Emma’s pulse accelerate and her breathing shallow, a flicker of heat igniting inside her.

For a moment, Killian shifted back away from her, his hand suddenly absent from her side. It took a second to click in her mind what he was doing. She had a quick flash of insecurity before, oh… okay. Well, that was interesting. Pressed intimately together once more, she now very obviously felt the proof of her effect on him. With a little self-satisfied smile, she leaned back rocking her hips into his lap to feel his hardening length against her ass.

“Careful there, love. A man could suffocate in all that blond hair of yours.”

Trying to keep the mood light, Emma gathered her hair to one shoulder. She pulled aside her shirt collar and cast a teasing glance back at him. “Better?”

A moment of hesitation passed, another flash of oh-my-god-what-am-I-doing , but before she could laugh her implied offer off as a joke, Killian nuzzled into her neck, his warm breath making her shiver. His lips soon followed, kissing a slow, lazy path up behind her ear, each touch of his mouth tingling and stoking a growing desire within her.

Emma tightened her grip on Roger’s mane, keeping her voice as level as possible. “Eyes on the road, cowboy.” This was getting quickly out of hand, but damn if he kept kissing her like that, she might not mind if it did.

She felt Killian shrug behind her. “Roger knows where he’s going.” He traced just the tip of his tongue along the ridge of her ear making her skin prickle with goosebumps, then he leaned around to catch her eye. Her neck was immediately unhappy at the absence of his lips. “Unless you want me to stop?”

Nope. No, don’t stop. Stopping is bad. Wait, Emma. Be cool. She attempted a wry smirk. “I didn’t say that. But just…”

He resumed nibbling and sucking at her neck, not hard enough to leave a mark, but enough to make her forget why she was trying to argue with him. God, he felt good. There was nothing wrong with feeling good for a little while, was there?

Roger twitched underneath them, probably shaking off a fly, but the movement helped ground Emma to the here and now. As much as they’d agreed to the occasional ‘fun’, she had to keep her wits about her. “Is this safe?”

She felt the scratch of Killian’s stubble as he smiled against her skin. “There is nothing about you that is safe , Emma Swan.”

His words sent a shiver down her spine, and Emma forced a laugh, one last pretense that she had any kind of upper hand. Whatever. He had the hard-on first. I’m counting it as him caving.

“I meant, are we gonna fall off the horse, smartass.”

Killian tightened his arm around her in response, pulling her impossibly closer. Upper hand? Lower hand? The only hand she cared about in that moment was his on her body. She felt every lean muscle of his torso pressed to her back, the swell of his bicep against her ribs. He raised his head to whisper in her ear, his thumb grazing torturously back and forth against the underside of her breast. “You don’t think these arms can hold you? Don’t worry, darlin’, I won’t let you fall.”

Emma was glad she couldn’t see Killian’s face in that moment. It allowed her to willfully take his words at face value. No good would come of reading anything into them. Into this. Don’t think. Just let go. All she let herself think about was how much she wanted him to move his damn hand a little bit further. North or south, she didn’t care which.

As if reading her mind, he slid his hand up to fully cup her breast and at the same moment bit down sharply at the junction between her neck and shoulder. Emma moaned aloud, a spike of pleasure jolting her system, but Killian calmly shushed her. He gestured with the hand holding the reins toward Roger’s ears which were flicking back and forth.

“Now see that?” he purred in her ear, “That’s where we might get in trouble. He doesn’t care for loud noises, so I’ll need you to be nice and quiet for us.” His hand remained at her breast, alternately massaging and teasing her hardening nipple with his thumb. “Do you think you can do that, love?”

Emma pressed her lips together, stifling the dirty sounds threatening to spill from her lips, and nodded quickly. Heat swirled and bloomed at her core, and she arched her back pushing her chest into his hand, wordlessly begging for more.

Killian hummed low in the back of his throat, moving his hand to undo a couple of buttons on her shirt. “That’s a good girl.”

He slipped his rough, calloused fingers inside the placket of her shirt and under the thin cotton cup of her bra. Mmm.. yeah. Keep going , she thought over and over, softly humming in pleasure. She bit her lip hard, letting her head drop back against Killian’s shoulder as he continued to caress and knead her. He rolled the stiff peak of her nipple between his fingers, every touch going straight to her clit.

The seam of her jeans pressed too hard against her oversensitive core, the rocking movement of the horse beneath her only worsening the throbbing ache between her spread legs. This wasn’t the friction she wanted. No, needed.

“I- I need…” she breathed, tugging at his wrist to stop his ministrations. It took every ounce of her concentration to remember how to work the zipper on her jeans, distracted as she was by the way his hand now rubbed up and down her thigh. Taking him by the wrist again, she moved his hand low on her stomach, hoping he’d take the hint from there.

A deep rumble of laughter shook his chest, then slowly, one fingertip at at time, he slipped his hand into her underwear. Her hips rolled forward toward his touch, and she snaked one arm up to cup the back of his neck, needing something, anything to ground herself.

He groaned against her shoulder at the first brush of his fingers against her sex. “You’re a bloody marvel.” He murmured gently as he began to stroke her, and Emma closed her eyes, surrendering to her body’s wants. “So wet and responsive. I like you like this, Swan. All wanton and needy. Do you want to come like this, darlin’?”

Between shallow breaths, Emma nodded. “Yes.”

His fingers moved more quickly, one sliding easily inside of her. “Come on now, love, I want to hear you say it. Tell me what you want.”

Talking was the last thing on Emma’s mind and she’d probably have been furious with him if he didn’t feel so fucking good. “I want you to make me come. Right now. I need you to-”

He curled his finger inside her, hitting just the right spot and Emma was practically whining now. “I need you to keep touching me.”

“Good. So very, very good. God, you feel like heaven.” He added a second finger, stroking hard and fast and it was all Emma could do not to buck her hips and fuck herself on his fingers. “Come for me, love. I’ve got you.”

And that was all it took to send her over the edge. Emma’s world shattered and rebuilt itself as Killian slowly wound her down, her body going limp in his arms. He kissed her softly on the cheek as she came back to herself, the gesture sweet and almost chaste. Completely at odds with his dirty talk only moments ago. In fact, neither of them seemed keen on speaking, simply resting against each other. He pulled his hand back from her soaked underwear, but left it draped lightly across her lap.

Emma felt him raise his head and his back straighten. She hadn’t actually looked around since, well, since he started kissing her neck, and she was surprised to see they were almost back to the barn. As amazing and boneless as she felt (and a little awkward because holy shit I just got felt up on horseback ), there was still a pleasant buzz of arousal stirring in her veins. Twice now, Killian had taken care of her needs, and today just like before, he seemed to not ask for anything in return. She appreciated that more than she cared to express. But… maybe she wanted to do something for him.

Just before he swung himself down off Roger’s back, he leaned down to speak in her ear. “Enjoy the ride, darlin’?”

Arrogant, twinkly-eyed bastard.

Emma rolled her eyes and zipped her jeans. Okay, maybe it wasn’t only for him. Maybe twice now, she’d felt his hard length pressed against her and she wanted to see for herself what he was working with. If the cock matched the cockiness. Maybe she wanted to see if she could render that filthy mouth speechless. Something like that.

She allowed him to help her dismount, hoping the wicked ideas in her head didn’t show on her face. She looked over at the barn, particularly the sturdy metal door, and remembered the saucy comment she’d made to him that morning. Oh, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. But was there time?

“How long ago did you call David?” she asked casually.

Killian pulled his phone from his pocket and glanced at the screen. “About twenty minutes ago. No worries, Swan. He ought to be here in another fifteen.”

“That’ll work.”

Before he could so much as raise an eyebrow in question, she grabbed his hand and drug him into the barn.

“Swan, what are-”

She shoved his back against the door, enjoying the resonant clang of his body hitting the corrugated metal, and swallowed his surprised “oof” as she kissed him hard. It didn’t take him long to respond by wrapping his arms around her until her body was plastered against his. Graceless and a little rough, they scrambled to get closer, for more contact. Her fingers found their way into his hair and pulled a little harder than necessary, angling his head to deepen the kiss. She could feel his growl of approval reverberating through her own chest.

Emma broke the kiss and grinned mischievously, licking her lips to catch a last little taste of him. He already looked properly fucked, hair standing on end, lips reddened, eyes dark and a little glazed, but she wasn’t done with him yet.

His handsome features shifted into his usual smirk. “Still hungry are we?”

He began to lean back in for more, but Emma pulled away, running her hands down his chest to hold him in place. She tilted her head as her hands reached his belt. “Interesting choice of words.”

Emma worked the buckle open and dropped to her knees on the dusty floor, the bulge of his arousal now right at her eye level. It thrilled her, knowing she had done that to him. Seeing how much he wanted her. She made quick work of the button and zipper on his jeans, but then felt his hand cup her face, raising her chin to look up at him.

All amusement had gone from his eyes. “Swan, you don’t have to-”

“Do anything I don’t want to do? I know. This isn’t tit for tat, Jones.” She raised an eyebrow in imitation of his smirk. “Maybe I want to show off a little.”

That did it. The twinkle was back in his eyes. Grinning wickedly, he raised his hands in surrender. “If the lady insists.”

“The lady does,” she said with a sly smile, sliding her hands inside his open zipper and over his lean hips. “Now be a good boy and hold still a sec.”

He inclined his head in imitation of a bow. “Yes, ma’am.”

Still trying to get in the last word, huh? We’ll see about that... She hooked her fingers over the elastic waistband of his boxer briefs and lowered them along with his jeans down to mid-thigh. His cock bobbed free and Emma took a few moments to appreciate the sight. Long and thick, but not so big it’d make a girl gag. Straight and pink and hard and straining just for her. Not that she considered herself a connoisseur exactly, but damn, it was a nice dick.

She smoothed her hands up the coarse hair on his thighs, and gave his ass a playful squeeze, knowing full well the warmth of her breath was teasing his tip. He gripped the wooden crossbeam behind him to brace himself.

Emma looked up at him through her eyelashes and pursed her lips in consideration. He was nearly panting with anticipation, conspicuously silent as he stared down at her with lust blackened eyes. She pulled the hair elastic off her wrist and sat back on her heels, quickly tying her long hair back. “I figure you’re the kind of guy that likes to watch.”

She raised up again and took him in hand, licking a hot stripe up the pulsing vein all the way to the tip. The sound he made in response was absolutely obscene, if not articulate, and she watched a small tremor shake his body. Now that’s much better. Oh yeah, she could get used to this.

Gently stroking his shaft, Emma made eye contact with him again. Though she was the one about to get a mouthful, he was licking his lips, struggling to keep his eyes open as she pleasured him. She toyed with her hair using her free hand and smiled at him sweetly. “Don’t be afraid to, you know…” She tugged twice on the end of her ponytail. “ Really get into it.”

And that was the last bit of warning he got before Emma took him into her mouth.

She worked him over root to tip slowly at first, licking and sucking, a little graze of her teeth every so often. When she wasn’t using one or the other to pump his shaft, her hands roamed freely. Groping his ass, the hard muscle of his thighs, even delving up under his shirt to feel the way his abs flexed and quivered.

He rocked his pelvis toward her mouth, the small rutting movement and his white knuckled grip on the crossbeam evidence of his struggle to maintain his restraint. God, the sounds he made, though. She’d actually done it. Reduced him to nothing more than animalistic grunts and groans interspersed with steady stream of incoherent gibberish that was probably supposed to be words. The occasional ‘bloody hell’. It made her feel powerful. Alive. Not to mention more than a little aroused.

Emma pulled back slightly, keeping her fingers wrapped around his shaft and only delicately licking the head of his cock, so she could get a good look at him and evaluate her progress. “Wrecked” was a cliche, but honestly the only word for it. His face and neck were flushed and blotchy, his eyes rolled back in his head, lips parted on a pained moan. He looked vulnerable and gorgeous, completely at her mercy. His hips now bucked away from the door, pleading for her to take him in again.

When he opened his eyes to look down at her, they were crinkled at the corners with the strain of chasing an orgasm just out of reach. “Swan, you are an absolute goddess.”

She could tease him, keep him on edge a little longer, but no. She wanted to see him fall apart for her. The goddess would be merciful. One corner of her lips curled up in a wry smile.

“You’re damn right. Now show me what you like.”

She reached for his hand with her free one and placed it on the back of her head. He took her lead and grabbed hold of her ponytail, using it to angle her head as she took him once more into her mouth. She hummed around his cock, savoring the silky hardness and they both moaned. He started out tugging at her hair gently at first, but when she hollowed her cheeks and sucked hard, his control finally snapped. He set a faster pace, and she moaned around him again, his desperation for her the ultimate turn on. She kept one hand at his base to keep him from fucking her mouth too deeply, and used it to twist and squeeze his shaft whenever she had a chance.

Her eyes were closed by now, but she felt him widen his stance and she knew he was close. She hollowed her cheeks again, laving at him with each dip of her head until his whole body shuddered, and he came with a groan. Her mouth filled with his salty release, and she carefully licked him clean.

As his breathing finally slowed, he slumped back against the door, but held his hand down to help her stand. Emma took it and let him pull her up, her own legs almost as shaky as his. He was smiling at her, broad and unrestrained. Dopey, happy, sleepy, a little bashful. That was what? Four out of seven dwarves in one stupid smile? Emma had used quite a few words to describe Killian Jones over the last few months, but here in his post orgasmic haze, she had one she’d never used before. Adorable. What an odd thought.

“We should…” He gestured vaguely between them with one hand. “Dave’ll be here soon.” He hitched his pants back up and fastened his belt as Emma straightened her own clothes. Once they were both set to rights again, he reached out to her. “Come here.”

She placed her hand in his and let him draw her into him. One last kiss. Tender and gentle this time and if he tasted himself on her tongue, he sure didn’t seem to mind. In fact he looked kind of… she couldn’t think of the word. Her own insides felt a little funny, too, if she were being honest with herself, but that was probably just leftover adrenaline and arousal.

Killian opened his mouth to speak, but as if on cue, the sound of a diesel engine clattered up the driveway. They sprang apart like guilty teenagers, and Emma yanked the elastic from her ponytail, fruitlessly trying to make her hair look less ravaged. Killian’s hand found it’s usual itchy spot on the back of his neck. When he finally faced Emma again, his eyes widened.

“You’ve, erm…” He gingerly cupped her cheek, thumbing at the dimple in her chin before dropping his hand. “I seem to have scruffed you up a bit.”

Emma put a hand on her face where she could feel the traces of beard burn still tingling slightly. Shit.

“Right. Um, I’ll just…” She pointed her finger but couldn’t remember which direction the house even was at the moment. “I’ll just go freshen up. I’ll open the gate on the way to the house. You and David can pick me up before you head into town.”

At that, Emma practically ran out of the barn. She wasn’t sure if she was running from Killian or to keep their dalliance a secret from their friend, which was stupid either way because this was exactly what she and Killian had agreed to and it didn’t mean anything and David probably already knew that they had... dallied or whatever. But, it seemed really, really important that she get out of there right that second.

Back in the safety of her own private bathroom, she stared at herself in the reflection of her mirror, her fingers tracing the red patches on her chin and neck. Fuckstruck. The word she’d been searching for earlier, the word that described the look in Killian’s eyes after that last kiss. It was fuckstruck. And dammit if she didn’t look the same.

--/--

Two weeks. It had been more than two fucking weeks. No, make that two decidedly NOT fucking weeks. What the hell?

Emma half expected after their performance in the barn (and on the horse, geez she couldn’t look Roger in the eye for days), that life at the Jewel would turn into some sort of pornographic montage of her and Killian banging on every available surface. And it did… sort of. They did stuff. Really, really good stuff. They just didn’t do it.

Starting the morning Killian’s truck broke down, at least once a day one of them snapped and couldn’t keep his or her hands off the other a second longer. One minute, they’d be mucking out stalls and the next, Emma’s ass was on a square bale with Killian between her legs, grinding her into ecstasy while he whispered sweet, filthy nothings in her ear. Or he’d be innocently standing at the kitchen island pouring a bowl of cereal, and before he could reach for a spoon, Emma’s hand was down the front of his pajama pants, stroking his hardening cock until he completely forgot about breakfast. Or something as simple as him grabbing her hand and pulling her into a corner to kiss her within an inch of her life. As soon as they broke for breath, he’d walk away with smirking lips and teasing eyes, leaving her wet and wanting for hours (the rat bastard), but he always finished what he started sooner or later.

Oh, yeah. Each and every instance ended happily for one or both of them. It just didn’t end in sex. They sort of came and went, so to speak. Right back to business as usual. They didn’t talk about it, but they didn’t not talk about it either. They teased, they argued. He made ridiculous innuendo, and Emma rolled her eyes. Life was exactly the same as before their agreement, just with sporadic orgasms. Perfect. Simple. Never weird. Just what she wanted.

Emma was about to lose her fucking mind.

Their dalliances or trysts or whatever the hell fancy name Killian had for it happened frequently enough to take the edge off of the sexual tension between them (he was right, they did have a certain chemistry), but seriously - why hadn’t they had sex yet?

She hadn’t tried to push the issue one way or another. Neither had he. But he wanted it, right? Eventually? She wanted it. She was almost definitely sure she wanted it. In theory.

The one time she actually thought they were going to do it, fate had had other plans. That morning Emma sat at the kitchen table, watching Killian cook. God knows what he was making. Pancakes? Bacon? She didn’t care, because he looked so damn edible. Extra scruffy, extra disheveled. Wearing those sweatpants that hung off his hips and showed every flex of his ass when he shifted his weight, to say nothing of the front view. Yep, she’d get quite an eyeful if he turned around, but it wasn’t her eyes that she wanted him to fill.

Abandoning her coffee mug on the table, Emma snuck up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist, fingers creeping under the hem of his t-shirt. She pressed herself to his back, and he hummed appreciatively. Taking that as a go-ahead, she let her hands wander up the trail of hair on his stomach, coarse strands slipping through her fingers until she felt him twitch.

“Careful there, Swan, I’m a bit ticklish. You’ll make me ruin the pancakes.” If he meant his tone to be chiding, he’d failed. It sounded more like a challenge to her.

Emma extracted one hand from his shirt and reached past him to turn off the stove. “To hell with the pancakes.” He must’ve agreed because in seconds, he’d backed her against the kitchen table, plundering her mouth hungrily as if she were on the breakfast menu.

With her clinging fiercely to his shoulders, he reached beneath her thighs and lifted her onto the tabletop, never breaking their kiss and oh, God. This was it. This was finally it. Just a few thin pieces of clothing between them, none of which were doing anything to hide his arousal or hers. Her underwear were soaked. If he rutted into her any harder, they’d be testing the efficacy of cotton as a condom. It wouldn’t take much and he’d be inside her. Untie his drawstring pants, shove her ruined panties to the side and then-

“Hey, Jones! I talked to Billy at the garage this morning. Your truck will be-”

Emma froze. She hadn’t heard the door open. This was - it was - oh, shit. David looked as freaked out as she felt.

“I’m interrupting something.” Stating the obvious seemed to be all he was capable of at that moment.

Killian not so discreetly adjusted himself and glared at his friend over his shoulder. “Very perceptive, mate.”

David coughed, looking everywhere around the kitchen but at the two guilty parties at the table. “I’ll just, uh… come back later.”

Blushing redder than she’d ever felt herself blush in her life, Emma scrambled down from the table. “No, no. Don’t worry about it. I’ll, um…” she shoved her hair behind her ears. “I’ll just go take a shower.” And at that she’d scurried away with David’s embarrassed tone and Killian’s irritated one as the soundtrack of her retreat.

That was about a week ago.

Their after-dark activities had changed, too. They never fooled around at night. It kept the whole ‘sleeping over’ issue from ever arising, so that was good, she guessed. After dinner, instead of making out hot and heavy on the couch, they binge watched whatever new series had recently come out on Netflix. Who knew they had broadband streaming way the hell out in the desert?

Sometimes when they hung out in the living room after dinner, he’d sling an arm across the back of the couch and she’d kind of lean on him while they watched TV. She only did that because he was warm. Like human radiator warm. Emma had always been kind of cold natured, that was all. No big deal.

And sometimes at night, instead of taking a drink up to the widow’s walk like she used to, she’d pour two glasses of rum and sit with him in the porch swing. Why shouldn’t she? He already more or less told her he knew she was drinking his liquor, so no sense in hiding. True, the nights were getting colder as October turned to November, but it was peaceful outside and it gave her an excuse to bring her favorite old red leather jacket out of summer hiatus. The gentle rocking of the swing, Killian’s soft voice humming those old country songs, the absolute stillness that came from being so far removed from ‘civilization’… She could close her eyes and imagine that she was gliding along on ocean waves, the creaking wooden swing beneath her a ship in the middle of a vast sea. No worries, no troubles. It relaxed her. Kept the ghosts away. It’s not like she and Killian were sitting there pouring out their darkest secrets to each other. They barely spoke, really. She just slept better those nights. That’s all.

It surprised Emma, how okay she was with the friend-y type stuff. It was nice. Companionable. It seemed like a million years since she’d just hung out with a guy. Not since… anyway, it was nice. Emma loved Snow to death, but she could get a little smothery and bossy, and Killian never did that. He was simply there with a dirty joke or a casual touch. Or a less than casual touch. Not that she and Killian were friends exactly. Were they? Would it be terrible if they were?

Then morning would come and he’d look at her with the devil in his eyes and a promise in the way his tongue traced the corner of his mouth and yes. Yes, it would be terrible. They had an arrangement. The last thing either of them needed was to get… confused.

Fuck, maybe she’s already confused. Or just really, really needed for them to close the deal. Uninterrupted.

“Girl, where even are you?”

Emma blinked at the sound of Ruby’s voice and shook her head, realizing she’d been staring at a box of oatmeal for way too long to be normal. It was Saturday morning. Emma and Killian had come to town for their weekly supply run and Emma had bumped into Ruby at the grocery store. As nice as it was to have someone who wasn’t Killian to talk to, Emma couldn’t seem to keep her mind from wandering.

“What? Sorry, I kind of clocked out for a second. Guess I need another cup of coffee.”

Ruby gave her a skeptical look, but didn’t press. “Well, what I was saying before you got lost in your own head was that I think you need a break, and clearly I’m right. So, how about you meet Dorothy and me tonight at the Rabbit Hole? A little girls’ night out might do you some good.”

“Wouldn’t I be a third wheel?”

“Not at all! It’ll be fun. I promise.” Ruby paused, eyeing her appraisingly. “That is, unless you and Killian have plans?”

Emma’s eyes widened and she clamped her mouth closed to keep from gaping. “Did David tell you-”

“That he walked in on you two having breakfast ? Don’t worry, he’s not gossiping all over town. He came into the diner looking shellshocked and I wheedled it out of him.”

Emma breathed a sigh of relief as Ruby continued. “That said, I do have eyes, you know. I’ve noticed how close you and Killian seem to be getting.”

“No. No, nothing like that. We’re just…” Emma tried her best to muster a casual shrug. “Having a little fun together.”

“Then he can spare you for one night. You in?”

Emma chewed on her lip as she considered the offer. Maybe Ruby was right. Maybe she did need a break from the Jewel and Killian Jones. “I’m in.”

“Perfect. We’ll meet you at 9. Wear something you can dance in!”

--/--

Emma flopped into her seat and lifted her sweaty hair, fanning at the back of her neck with her other hand. Ruby sure as shit hadn’t been kidding about the dancing. She’d tried to heed Ruby’s advice, opting for lower-heeled boots, comfortable but form-fitting jeans and a paper thin white top. Even so, her feet were screaming and she probably looked like a hot mess. But, God it felt good to let loose for a while. ‘Girl time’ was not something her life on the road typically allowed, and tonight reminded her how much she missed it. Maybe she should call Snow tomorrow?

Dorothy sat down to Emma’s right, raising her face to accept a smacking kiss from Ruby who then took a seat across from Emma. Their waitress stopped by to take drink orders, and Emma asked for an ice water this time. She felt the perfect level of buzzed at the moment and just needed something to cool her off a little.

“So was I right, or was I right?” Ruby began without preamble.

Emma smiled. “You were right. I needed this. I can’t remember the last time I had a Girls’ Night Out.”

“Well that’s a shame. Are you from one of those little Bible belt towns where dancing is illegal or something?” Dorothy said it as a joke, but something in Emma’s expression must’ve given her pause. She furrowed her brow. “Wait, you’re not, are you?”

Ruby leaned forward, loosely crossing her arms on the table. “Yeah, where are you from, Emma? I feel like I don’t know much about you besides your dancing skills and the fact that you’ve managed to wrap Killian Jones around your little finger.”

Emma felt her face immediately go red. “I do not have Kil-”

Ruby waved a hand to interrupt Emma’s stammering answer. “Nevermind. Forget about him for now. Tell us about you. What’s your story?”

Emma huffed an awkward laugh. This subject wasn’t any better, but from years of practice she had plenty of non-answers at the ready. “Well, I’m not a character from Footloose , that’s for sure.” That got a laugh from Dorothy and Ruby, and Emma relaxed slightly. “I just travel around a lot. I like the freedom of life on the road. Seeing the world and all that.”

Dorothy raised an eyebrow. “Most people who want to see the world end up in Rome or Paris, not Storybrooke.”

Emma smiled ruefully. “Yeah, well, that would require two things I don’t have: money and a passport.”

Ruby nodded. “I hear ya. I actually did some road-tripping myself for a while. I’d never been anywhere outside Storybrooke and Granny is kind of overprotective and one day I just snapped. I had to get out. I only made it as far as Kansas before I ran out of money.”

Dorothy smiled warmly and reached out to lace her fingers through Ruby’s. “And am I ever glad you did. I found this leggy brunette stranded on the side of the road, lipstick as red as her broken down Mustang and I haven’t had a quiet moment since.”

Ruby swatted at her girlfriend’s arm. “Shut up. You love me.”

“Never said I didn’t.”

“So that’s how you guys met. How’d you end up back here?” Emma asked, genuinely curious. “You’re obviously not in Kansas anymore.”

Ruby and Dorothy shared a look, then both turned back to Emma. “Well, it took her awhile, but Dorothy finally convinced me there’s no place like home.”

“I’d lost my Auntie Em to a tornado a year or so before Ruby showed up, and I’d never really felt like I fit into that town. But Ruby, she had her Granny and a family business and friends - well, everything I wished I had. She’d had a pretty big fight with Granny before she left. All I did was talk her into calling Granny. Ruby’s heart knew where it’s home was.” Dorothy turned to look Ruby in the eyes. “So did mine.” She ended the story with a soft kiss to Ruby’s lips.

Ruby pulled back, thumbing discreetly under her eyes. “Now stop. You know you’re not allowed to mess up my makeup until we get home later.”

“Okay, now I’m feeling like the third wheel, you guys,” Emma teased, her smile lingering. They were so sweet together. She was happy for them, of course, but somehow watching the couple filled her with a longing she couldn’t explain. She took a deep breath and wiggled her toes under the table. “I think my feet have recovered for now. How about some more dancing?”

About half a dozen songs later, Emma excused herself to go to the ladies’ room, and Ruby tagged along after her. As Emma stood in front of the mirror trying to scrape her hair into some kind of updo to keep it off her neck, she noticed Ruby giving her a side-eye.

“What?”

“So you and Killian...”

“We’re just having some fun.”

“So you’ve said. A couple of times now.”

Emma scrunched up her face. This was not a conversation she wanted to have ever, much less in a public bathroom. “Ruby...”

“I mean, I get it. There’s not much to do in this town for fun besides drink and fuck.”

The thought popped into Emma’s mind - not for the first time - and the words came out of her mouth before she could stop them. “Have you guys ever- I mean, have you and Killian-”

“Done the do? No.” Ruby shook her head. “Can’t say I’ve never thought about it, but no. Killian was with someone when I met him, then after that…” Ruby paused, searching for the right word. “ ended , he wasn’t interested in much of anything for a long time. Somewhere in there I met Dorothy, and she’s the love of my life. But Emma? Be careful with Killian. I like you. I really do, but he’s probably my best friend in the world besides Dorothy and if you hurt him, I’ll have to rip your throat out.”

Emma raised her eyebrows in confusion. Why on earth was Ruby giving her the protective best friend speech? “You say that like he’s delicate or something.”

Ruby laughed, her posture relaxing a little. “Delicate is not the word I would use. He’s just had it rough. But…” She pursed her lips, eyeing Emma appraisingly. “Something tells me you have, too. Hell, maybe you’ll be good for each other. Shake each other up a little bit. Get him to stop hiding out on that damn ranch.”

That caught Emma’s attention. “Hiding?” She remembered the tattoo on Killian’s arm. How it seemed to be a memento of a painful past. “Ruby, what happened to him?”

Ruby sighed. “That’s not my story to tell. It’s just- it’s good to see him opening up to someone again. Now come on. Enough serious talk. One more dance before last call.”

--/--

By the time Emma climbed into her Bug to drive home, the buzz of a few whiskey sours had long since faded. Her ears still rang a little bit from the combined decibel level of a raucous crowd and blaring music, but it wasn’t enough to keep the silence of the drive home from pressing in on her. It was easier at the bar not to think, to stay distracted. Here alone in the dark, her mind kept replaying the things Ruby told her.

Hiding out on that damn ranch… He’s had it rough… He was with someone when we met, but after that ended…

His tattoo. Milah. It had to be what Ruby was talking about. Emma knew Killian had ghosts of his own. She still didn’t know his story, but she was beginning to understand. Ever since she met him, she’d felt some kind of connection to him. She spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince herself it was only a physical attraction, but there was exactly enough whiskey left in her system for her to call out her own bullshit. To be honest enough to admit to herself that the connection ran deeper than that.

... the fact that you’ve managed to wrap Killian Jones around your little finger…

Nope. That was too much. Too far. Even if Emma believed that, she wasn’t ready to think about it. But maybe she could admit that she and Killian had a something . That they understood each other. That was enough honesty for tonight.

Emma parked her car behind the house. Killian had kept the porch lights on for her, and she smiled to herself at the little act of thoughtfulness. She opened the door as quietly as possible assuming he must be in bed already, and she had every intention of sneaking straight up to her own room, but somehow that wasn’t where her feet took her. This is terrible idea. Worst idea I’ve ever had. Completely insane.

She knocked on his bedroom door.

Killian called out for her to come in, his voice sounding ragged and weary even muffled by the wooden door, but she knew she hadn’t woken him. He’d answered too quickly. She hadn’t knocked that loudly.

She turned the knob and the door gave way without a sound. He lay on his side facing her, one arm tucked beneath his head and the covers draped at his waist. He seemed to be keeping his body intentionally still and his expression blank. She couldn’t tell what color his t-shirt was, couldn’t make out the pattern of his quilt. But the shadows and plains of his face, the way the moonlight cast him in shades of blue and grey, the spark of something in his eyes - carefully restrained but still there. He was beautiful, heart-stoppingly beautiful and Emma couldn’t fight the pull toward him any more than she could fight gravity.

As she approached, he raised himself up and leaned back against the headboard. Watching her. No questions. No what-the-hell-are-you-doing-here . Just waiting for her.

Emma sat on the edge of the bed next to him, their bodies close, but not touching. Tentatively she carded her fingers through his hair, pushing the messy fringe off his forehead. He reached out and placed his right hand on her thigh, but she stopped him, gently taking his wrist and turning his arm over. Even in the darkened room, she could see him flinch as she traced her fingers over the dagger and heart on his forearm, but he didn’t pull away. She placed her hand in his and he held it tightly.

“Who’s Milah?”

Killian kept his eyes down, focused on their joined hands resting against her leg. She had about decided he wasn’t going to answer, but then-

“Someone from long ago.”

“Someone you lost.”

“Aye.” His voice was rough, his eyes dark when he finally met her gaze.

“Someone you loved.”

His expression softened into a sad smile. “Aye. Have you ever been in love?” It wasn’t a question, anymore than hers had been. They knew the answers. They each knew why the other was asking these things, but they both seemed to need the confirmation that everything they’d sensed about the other was true.

Emma swallowed and glanced down at their joined hands. The way his thumb ran back and forth over her knuckles. “Maybe I was once.”

Killian was silent for a long moment. Emma felt his eyes searching her, reading her. When she finally met his eyes she found his expression more open than she’d ever seen it, and it scared her.

“Emma, I-”

She shook her head. “Don’t.” He let go of her hand and began to turn away. Emma could see him closing himself off, retreating into himself and no. That’s not what she meant, not what she wanted, so she cupped his jaw turning him to face her again. To make him see .

“Whatever the story is, whatever you were about to say, don’t tell me tonight. Just- can you just be kissing me right now?”

Emma wasn’t sure if it was a trick of the moonlight, but she’d swear she saw a flicker of light in his eyes just for a split second as they crinkled at the corners and he leaned toward her. His whispered, “As you wish,” the last thing she heard before he pulled her into his arms and into his bed.

They kissed for ages, chest to chest, legs tangled together. Slowly, painstakingly as though trying to learn to speak with the other’s tongue. Completely wrapped up in each other and their little cocoon of sheets. When such silly things as clothing or blankets became an impediment or nuisance, these were cast aside with little fuss or ceremony.

Emma felt as though she were underwater, completely submerged in this moment with this man. Her usual fears and baggage and anxieties, everything that made her run, those were far away. As long as she stayed under, stayed in the moment, she could drift through the waves and ripples of pleasure washing over her entire body. She could feel warm and perfect and alive and wanted .

And Killian was right there with her, surrounding her. His breath on her face, his fingers slipping through her hair, trailing down her back, digging into her hip, guiding her leg up and around his waist until she felt his hardened cock sliding gracelessly against her sex. Felt him shudder at the sensation of her lush and ready and willing.

But his lips grew restless against hers and began to wander. First down the column of her throat, then taking a detour for his tongue to map the contours of her clavicle before proceeding lower to the valley between her breasts. He pressed his body against her, rolling her onto her back and she complied, her head falling back against his pillow and eyes drifting shut. She focused on nothing but the way he made her feel. Like a queen. Like a goddess.

He continued his worship of her body, cupping her breasts, kneading and suckling. The contrast of his rough hands and soft lips coaxing needy whimpers from her. Her back arched, her hips rutted against his stomach where he lay between her spread legs, and he raised up only enough to look at her. When their eyes met, she expected him to look smug, but there was no teasing in his gaze, only raw emotion and desire and for once, she didn’t look away. He seemed to be waiting for her, asking for permission and there was only one answer she could give. She nodded. He smiled.

Killian resumed kissing a path down her stomach with renewed vigor, dipping his tongue playfully in her belly button just to get her to twitch. He shifted himself further down the bed, his lips never leaving her skin, and just when the anticipation had gotten to be almost too much for Emma to bear, he stopped. Just above the blonde curls covering her womanhood.

Tense as a bowstring, she was about to scream with frustration when she met his eyes again. Open, clear and blue as a summer sky, they pleaded with her to trust him. And in this moment, she let herself. Watched as his dark head dipped down again. His mouth found a spot just inside her hipbone and sucked hard, while his strong hands held her hips in place. Marking her. Claiming her. The sharp sting of feeling him so close to where she wanted him was infuriating, maddening, amazing.

He sat back on his heels, inspecting his handiwork and placed a hand on each of her thighs. He took a few long moments to squeeze and massage the tense muscles there, all the while, his eyes raked over her, spread as she was before him. No one in her life had ever looked at her like that. The softness in his gaze something utterly new and foreign.

“So beautiful,” he whispered and she wasn’t sure if he knew he’d even said it out loud. Because this wasn’t the man who used his words as a shield. Humor and innuendo and dirty promises to cover a heart that life had treated cruelly. This was just the two of them, alone together in the dark, souls as bare for each other as their bodies, if only for this moment.

Killian lazily stroked his straining cock, using his thumb to swipe a bead of arousal from the tip and Emma licked her lips at the sight, but before she could reach for him, he resumed his place at the foot of the bed. Emma nearly cried in relief when his lips found her clit and he began to suck and lave her in earnest. That mouth of his. She suspected he had certain talents and he’d demonstrated as much on other parts of her body, but this? Could a person actually die from pleasure?

“God, Swan,” he mumbled against her between licks and kisses, the scrape of his stubbled beard against her folds heightening the sensation. “Ambrosia.” He dipped his tongue inside her and she cried his name aloud. “Could have you for every meal.”

He must’ve meant it for all Emma could tell through her lust-filled haze. He tasted her like a man half-starved, desperate, yet still wanting to savor. The bed shook and Emma wasn’t sure if it was her bucking hips or his rutting against the mattress seeking friction of his own. Words were far beyond her capacity, so she praised him with keening and moans and whispers that sounded like his name. Her release was just within reach, she knew it, could feel it tingling under her skin, but she also knew she didn’t want to fall alone.

She sank her fingers into his hair and tugged until he looked up at her. His eyes were dazed and nearly black, his mouth and chin covered in her arousal, and she knew the image would haunt her dreams in days ahead. But right now-

“Come here.” She reached over and pulled on his hand. “Come with me. Need you inside.”

And then he was with her, his body a welcome and strangely comforting weight on top of her. He kissed her or she kissed him, and he tasted like her and he felt like home. And when he finally pressed inside her, sinking to the hilt in one slow thrust, they both took in a sharp breath not because anything was wrong but because everything was right.

Emma’s world contracted, all her focus narrowing to the point where she and Killian were joined. To the quickly building pleasure within her as with each thrust and grind of his hips, he drove her closer to the edge.

“Emma.” His voice, thin with strain, made her open her eyes. “Emma look at me.”

She could not refuse him. Their eyes locked, and it seemed as if time both stopped and raced ahead all at once, and then she was coming, first his name and then his kiss on her lips as he tumbled after her. Wave after wave of pleasure washed over her, the force of it shaking her to the marrow of her bones. Did she even have bones anymore? Who knew. All she knew was this moment and this bed and this man curled up beside her with his warm breath tickling her neck and his coarse chest hair tickling her arm.

He kissed her shoulder and got out of bed. He said something about getting a cloth or cleaning up or whatever, but Emma wasn’t listening anymore. Because the second he flipped on the bathroom light, reality had rushed back to her. Their moment had ended.

Now she had to deal with the fact that she had just fucked- No. Emma knew fucking and that wasn’t fucking. That was...It was... She couldn’t say it. Couldn’t think the words. She sat up abruptly, scanning the floor for her discarded clothing. All the fears she kept at bay came screaming back, riding rough-shod over whatever truths she’d admitted to herself only hours ago. She could feel her entire body tensing, and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Her fingers gripped the edge of the mattress since she couldn’t seem to get a grip on her thoughts. This was nothing. This had to be nothing. There were rules. There was an agreement.

When Killian returned he noticed the change in her immediately and slowed his step. “Swan, are you alright?”

Emma looked at him standing there framed by the light from the doorway. Bare-chested still, but he’d pulled on a pair of plaid pajama bottoms that hung low on his hips. Everything in her had 100% wanted to do what they just did, and even now, everything in her 100% wanted to stay right here with him. That was exactly why she needed to go.

She grabbed her clothes from the floor, put her underwear back on and yanked her shirt over her head. “I’m fine.” With her jeans, bra and shoes bundled in her arms, she headed for the bedroom door. “I’m just going to head on upstairs and-”

Killian caught her arm, turning her to face him. “Swan, please stay.” His eyes spoke the rest of the words for him. Don’t run from me. Don’t run from this.

“I can’t,” Emma insisted. “You know the rules.”

Killian’s eyes bore into hers and she thought he was about to argue with her, but he simply released her arm, raising the hand that had held her to scratch at the back of his neck. “Aye, that I do.” He gestured toward the door. “Goodnight, Swan.”

“Goodnight, Killian.”