Actions

Work Header

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

Chapter Text

Hopeful, Maine: 1693

              Milah Gold cursed her wretched skirts as she ran through the dark forest. Tree branches lashed at her arms and face, but she couldn’t let go of the fabric billowing about her calves lest she trip and fall. Shouts carried clearly on the crisp October air, voices filled with rage and hysteria. She tripped on a root and pitched forward, her palm ripping open on the pebbly soil. Yet she righted herself in moments, unwilling to do more than clench her jaw at the pain. If Killian hadn’t been at their usual meeting place, he must have gone to fetch her from the house.

              She swore again. There wasn’t much time.

              She stumbled from the woods and into the clearing. Looming ahead was the Gold Manor – a large, foreboding, ostentatious thing. A castle, really. A castle built in the colonies; a brick by brick replica of Gold Manor on the coast of Scotland. Ridiculous. Pretentious.

              Milah’s prison.

              She dashed up the stone steps just as smudges of flickering light could be seen at the end of the long drive. The shouting was drawing closer, Milah’s husband no doubt leading the mob. She drove her shoulder into the heavy oak door and stumbled inside, bolting the door behind her. Not that it would matter.

              “Killian!” she cried with a mixture of surprise and relief. He turned to her, the same emotions mirrored in his own eyes, catching her as she stumbled into his chest. “Why did you come? You have to go! There isn’t –“

              She stopped abruptly at what she saw over his shoulder: her husband’s tomes scattered across the parlor table, dripping candles, a noxious substance mixed and ready beside a stained mortar and pestle.

              “Killian, no,” she moaned, tears collecting in the corners of her eyes.

              “I found this spell that may –“

              “No,” she repeated firmly, taking a step back from him, shaking her head so vehemently that more curls tumbled loose from her low chignon, “these dark arts are the source of all our woes. Why would you turn to it now?”

              “I have to try,” he choked out. The candlelight danced eerily in his blue eyes as he reached for her.

              There was a crash against the heavy oak door, and they both startled at the sound. The shouts outside had become manic, more shrieks than shouts. Hate had become a tangible thing in Hopeful these days, twisting men and women into snarling, snapping creatures. Another crash. Wood splintered. Milah clutched at his arms.

              “You have to let me go,” she pleaded, “return to your ship. Enjoy the freedom I can never have.”

              Killian shook his head. “What is freedom without you by my side?” With those words, he lifted his right hand, fisted around a red powder; the crushed wings of a cardinal. The final ingredient.

              He opened his palm just as the doors gave way, the red powder floating down and sparking as it hit the liquid below it. Milah whimpered, her fingernails digging into Killian’s biceps, an unknown dread filling her heart. As the frenzied mob pulled her away, her screams were not for herself and the gallows they led her to, but for the lover who faded away before her eyes.

Hopeful, Maine: Present Day

              The sign that read “Welcome to Hopeful: Established 1603” was so weathered and splintered, that Emma and Henry could scarcely read it as they rolled across the town line in her battered yellow bug. It swung eerily in the darkness, illuminated by a lone streetlight that seemed out of place on the long, lonely stretch of road. Emma supposed that the light post was for the church directly behind the town sign. Emma slowed to a stop partly to take in the moment and partly to be sure the sight before her was real.

The church too had seen better days. It was small and a bit sad, dingy white paint peeling to reveal gray clapboard. Even by the light of the single lamp post Emma could see missing wood shingles on the sagging roof. A rusty church bell swung at a crazy angle from a broken chain inside the dilapidated steeple.

“I didn’t think churches were supposed to look so . . . creepy,” Henry finally said.

The tilt of Emma’s head matched her son’s as they both gazed up at the church through the front windshield. “Me neither, kid.”

“Not the greatest first impression for a town called Hopeful ,” Henry quipped, “why are we moving here again?”

“So you can grow up in a town that’s more wholesome than the big city,” Emma answered as she continued to drive down the country road.

“Yeah, right,” Henry muttered as he turned to scowl out the window. It was moments like this where her ten year old seemed way too close to puberty.

Emma said nothing as she flicked on her brights to see better on the dark road. Of course he hadn’t wanted to move away from his school and his friends in Boston. What kid did? But David and Mary Margaret had been begging her to come settle down in Hopeful for years now, and the timing felt right. As in Henry turning double digits and heading swiftly towards adolescence. That’s what made the timing right. Not Graham. This move definitely had nothing to do with –

“So what did Graham do?”

“Huh?” Emma nearly got whiplash turning to look at her kid.

Henry shrugged. “We left Tallahassee because my dad never showed up. We left Portland because August took off on his motorcycle with Tamara. We left New York because you found out Walsh was married.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “So what did Graham do?”

He proposed . But to Henry, she said, “Nothing, kid, I told you. I want you getting into teenage trouble on a smaller scale in a few years.” She ruffled his hair. “That’s it.”

Emma’s gaze hadn’t left the road for more than a second to toss Henry a smile, but that was all the time it took for the dog – wolf? – to dart into the road. It stood there, eyes illuminated by her headlights, and Emma screamed as she jerked the wheel. Thankfully, they veered off into a dirt drive instead of into a ditch, and Emma slammed on her breaks in time to avoid hitting a massive iron gate.

“You okay?” Emma gasped, reaching over to pat Henry to ensure he had no broken bones.

“Yeah mom, I’m fine,” he assured, and they both sat there breathing heavily, hearts pounding. “Whoa,” Henry breathed as he leaned closer to the window.

Emma followed his gaze, her eyes widening. “Is that . . . “

“A castle!” Henry breathed out. “Cool!”

It seemed ridiculous. A castle? In Maine? Yet there was no other word to describe what Emma was seeing. It rose impressively into the sky, illuminated by the light of the full moon. It was made of unfinished gray stone, and Emma counted at least three turrets, two of which were connected by an arched stone walkway. In the darkness, hunched figures seemed to lie in wait atop the castles precipices, making Emma shudder. They had to be gargoyles or some other decorative statues. The iron gate they had almost slammed into was imposing as well, decorated with ornate filigree. A metal sign was juxtaposed to everything else, declaring in block print: Beware Dog!

Emma rubbed the back of her neck, which was already a bit sore from the combination of stress and the near accident. “I could have sworn that was a wolf on the road, but I guess it’s the dog that lives here. He must have gotten loose.”

“Mom, nothing can live here,” Henry protested, “the windows are all busted out.” He squinted into the dark September night. “And I think the front door is missing.”

Emma shook her head. “That makes no sense. Who put up the sign?”

“I’m checking it out!” Henry exclaimed, unbuckling his seat belt.

Emma lunged across the seat. “Oh, no you don’t! Wolf or vicious dog, you are staying in this car.”

“But Mo-om!” Henry pouted in that voice that was all little boy without a trace of prepubescent angst.

A spattering of plump raindrops hit the windshield, and Emma smiled at her son in triumph. “And now it’s raining.”

Henry deflated as Emma put the bug in reverse. As she eased out onto the road, however, her son perked up. “I’ll just have to come exploring in daylight!”

              ***********************************************************

Emma lifted the hideous deputy uniform from the musty box and threw David an incredulous look.

“You know,” she quipped, “you don’t have to dress a woman like a man to give her authority.”

David chuckled over the rim of his coffee mug. “Thought you’d get a kick out of that. Mayor Mills dropped it off yesterday.”

Emma rolled her eyes as she tossed the offending garments back in the box. She stood and clipped her badge to her belt loop. She gestured to David’s attire.

“Obviously Madam Mayor hasn’t been able to do anything about your lumberjack look.”

David simply grinned broadly. “I’m happy you’re here too.”

David and his wife Mary Margaret had known Emma long enough to take her sarcasm in stride. Emma had met Mary Margaret during her brief attempt at community college, which led to the two most reliable babysitters she could have hoped for. Even through multiple moves, they hadn’t lost touch.

“I’ll give you the rundown on Hopeful while we’re out on patrol. As you can imagine, it’s pretty quiet around here. We spend most of our time on minor traffic violations.”

              Emma nodded. “After Boston, that sounds like heaven.”

              David chuckled. “After you spend a day filling out paperwork about Leroy causing another disturbance over pie at Granny’s diner, you may change your mind.”

              Emma followed him out to the squad car. “What about the teenagers around here?” she asked as she opened the passenger side door. “Do they cause mischief because they’re so damn bored?”

              David leaned across the top of the car as he thought about it. “There’s some of that, I guess.” Then his eyes widened. “Oh, wait, it’s almost fall! Sorry, Emma, you picked the worst time to start as deputy.”

              “What do you mean?” she asked as they both slid into the car and buckled up.

              David sighed as he put the car in reverse and pulled out of the space. “We’ll have to be ready to head out to Gold Manor near the town line.”

              Emma’s eyes widened. “You mean that creepy castle Henry and I saw when we pulled into town?”

              “That’s the one. There’s all kind of ghost stories surrounding that place as you can imagine. People say a witch lived there who was put to death during the witch hysteria back in the 17 th century. They say she haunts the place.”

              Emma drummed her fingers on the dash. “Who lives there now?”

              David gave her an odd look. “No one. You didn’t notice that the place was falling apart?”

              Emma shrugged. “It was dark. Besides, there was a ‘Beware the Dog’ sign. Who put it there?”

              “Not sure. Probably one of the farmers who lives near there as a deterrent to drunk teenagers. One that doesn’t work. Trust me. The closer it comes to Halloween, the more teenagers will head out there hoping to see the witch’s ghost. Or the pirate’s.”

              “The pirate’s?”

              David leaned towards her and said in a cheesy attempt at a spooky voice. “The witch’s lover, of course. The one she cursed with dark magic.”

              Emma snorted. “Sounds romantic.”

              “Maybe it is, in a twisted way. She couldn’t bear to part from him. Even in death.”

              Emma rolled her eyes as David turned onto Main Street. Emma didn’t believe in ghosts or magic, and she certainly didn’t believe in undying love and devotion. Actually, a ghost would be easier to believe in.

                            ************************************************************

              David hadn’t been kidding about the paperwork. Or how often Leroy and Granny got into, and not just over pie. The man was a grump, and Granny claimed that she was too old and too ornery to take his crap. That morning Leroy had to be escorted off the property when he lost it over the temperature of his coffee.

              Despite how mundane the issues were in Hopeful, Mayor Mills still demanded detailed documentation, and she came religiously every Friday afternoon to check over that weeks’ files. David said the woman had run for mayor uncontested for the last decade, and no one crossed her. If anything. Emma had certainly learned that the hard way last Friday.

              So here she was writing up a detailed description of Leroy’s most recent tirade, and typing up every single witness. Which was pretty much the whole town, since Granny’s was the only place to get a decent cup of coffee in Hopeful. When Mary Margaret’s name popped up on Emma’s phone, she was at first happy for the distraction. Until she heard her friends frantic voice, that is.

              “I can’t find him!” were the first words out of her mouth.

              “What?” Emma cried out, jumping up from her desk so fast, her rolling chair went flying across the room. She didn’t have to ask who Mary Margaret was referring to.

              “We were getting a snack at Granny’s, and he said he had to use the restroom. I thought it was taking him too long, and when I went to check on him, he was gone. I didn’t want to make this call, so first I checked your room, then the park –“

              “Did he leave his backpack,” Emma interrupted her friend’s rambling.

              “What? His backpack? Why?”

              Emma repeated the question as she grabbed her keys and dashed outside to her car. David could tell something was wrong, and gestured that he’d make sure things were covered at work.

              “He . . . um, no . . . now that you mention it, he took it with him.”

              “Shit,” Emma grumbled. Her kid was way too much like her. “I think I know where he went.”

              “What can I do?” Mary Margaret asked, and she could hear the tears in her friend’s voice.

              “Head back to our room at Granny’s just in case Henry comes back there.”

              Mary Margaret assured her she was heading that way, then hung up. Emma raced down Main Street, not caring that she was breaking the speed limit. She headed out towards the edge of town, her hands gripping the steering wheel so hard her knuckles turned white. Henry had talked of nothing the past week and half but that damn castle and the ghost stories he had heard at school that surrounded it. He had begged her last weekend to take him out there to explore, but she had a million and one things to do, like scour the real estate listings.

              The gravel popped under her tires as she turned into the drive in front of the massive iron gate of Gold Manor. She had barely put it the car in park before jumping out and shouting Henry’s name, but she heard nothing in response. Nor could she see her son’s familiar head of brown hair anywhere nearby. Before searching the property, she headed back to her car and grabbed her gun and a flashlight, just in case.

              Emma shook the bars of the gate, but the padlock wouldn’t budge. She looked closer as she pulled on it once again. The chain was long enough to allow a narrow opening, and she attempted to wedge herself through. She swore under her breath as she wriggled her hips, and finally, she stumbled through to the other side.

              “Maybe I need to cut back on the pop tarts,” she muttered as she brushed dirt and bits of rust from her jeans. Henry was going to be in so much trouble when she found him.

              The front lawn of the castle was massive and the grass had grown as high as her calf. There were still traces of a cobblestone drive here and there, but for the most part, Emma had to wade through weeds as she made her way across the property yelling Henry’s name. When she reached the front of the massive house, she saw that Henry had been right the first time they had seen it: there was no front door.

              Emma made her way up the front steps and into the gutted interior of the house. Tree branches and leaves littered the floors, and vines snaked up the walls. Emma snapped on her flashlight and its beam bounced across a baby grand piano broken in half by a massive tree branch. She lifted the beam to find holes in the ceiling above her. The circular staircase on the other side of the foyer was rotted; the banister broken away in most places.

              “Henry,” Emma called, softer now, as if the house would fall in on her if she disturbed it. She neared the fireplace, and almost jumped a foot in the air when her flashlight beam illuminated a face with piercing, almost reptilian eyes. She laughed at herself as she realized that it was just a painting, leaning crookedly against the hearth as if it had fallen from its spot above the mantel. It was covered with layers of dirt, grime, and cobwebs, making the faces captured there difficult to see. Emma ran her beam across it. The face she had first seen belonged to a man who stood leaning on a gold-tipped cane. Next to him sat a woman with beautiful raven curls tumbling down her back. The artist had captured the fire in her gray eyes and the haughty tilt of her chin. A shiver ran down Emma’s spine as she stared into the woman’s eyes, but it wasn’t stories of witchcraft that flitted across Emma’s mind. Even in a portrait, she sensed desperation in the woman’s eyes. Like the look of a caged tiger.

              Emma shook her head as she turned her back on the painting, chastising herself for getting distracted when her son could be out there lost or hurt. The French doors flanking the fireplace contained nothing but broken shards, and as Emma made her way through them, the glass littering the floor cracked beneath her boots.  

              Emma turned off her flashlight as she made her way down the back steps of the manor, calling Henry’s name again. Remnants of the gardens could be seen back here; the lawn divided up into plots with weed filled rows of crushed sea shells. In the center of the decayed gardens sat a gazebo of rotting boards with a caved in roof. Emma’s cries of “Henry!” echoed across the empty space, and not even a bird’s call or bit of breeze answered her.

              The back of the property was lined with a hedge taller than Emma. It had grown to gargantuan proportions, threaded through with vines and clumps of mistletoe. She was just about to give up and cut back through the house to get around the hedge when something caught her eye. It was a break in the greenery, and the late afternoon sun glinted off the metal of a doorknob. Emma rushed to it, reaching out to grasp the doorknob. She was surprised to see that it was a modern one made of brass. The door it was attached to was made of wooden boards covered in chipped and weathered green paint, yet it too looked fairly new despite its wear and tear. Pushing aside the alarm bells going off in her brain, Emma pushed the door open and walked through.

              The woods on the other side were thick and overgrown, yet the sun still pierced through enough for her to see without her flashlight. She pushed through the thick trees, calling Henry’s name once again and scanning the forest floor for signs of him.

              “Mom!”

              Relief flooded Emma for a brief moment at the sound of her son’s voice. It was quickly replaced with fear once again when she noted the anxiety, pain, and fear in his cry.

              “Henry!” she screamed, plunging deeper into the forest, then forcing herself to pause so she could figure out which direction his cries were coming from.

              “Mom! Over here!” he cried again.

              He was closer now, and Emma followed the sound straight through a cluster of thorn bushes, ignoring the sharp jabs to her arms and legs. Then she saw him, her son, lying on the ground. Kneeling next to him was a dark haired man wearing a dark motorcycle jacket. Without hesitation, Emma pulled her gun.

              “Get away from my kid!”

              The man stood quickly, his hands lifted up, palms out towards Emma.

              “I’m not trying to hurt him,” he told her calmly. “He’s caught in the barbed wire here.”

              Emma looked closer at Henry as she took a cautious step closer. A coil of barbed wire was wrapped around his ankle, and blood was seeping through his jeans. Emma tried to still her shaking hands still gripping the gun as her eyes cut back to the stranger.

              “You better tell me how the hell you ended up in the woods with my hurt kid before I put a bullet in you.”

              The man didn’t get defensive or angry, but merely nodded his head, his hands still up in the air. “I was chopping wood behind my cabin over there,” he gave a mere gesture of his head towards the eastern side of the property, “when I heard someone scream, then call for help. When I came to investigate, I found your boy here. The farmers adjacent to this property are careless with their fences. They constantly toss extra coils of wire over into my woods. I’ve helped many animals get free of this wire.” He lowered his head in deference to Emma, then gestured with his chin to Henry. “So, may I?”

              Emma’s posture relaxed. He wasn’t lying. Yet she was still hesitant to put away her weapon.

              “He’s right, Mom,” Henry told her, and it was only the slight plea in her son’s voice that gave her the ability to holster her gun.

              The man knelt down beside Henry again. “Well, lad,” he told him gently, giving him a crooked smile, “we’ve already been introduced, and now that I’ve met your mum, what say we get this off your leg, shall we?”

              Henry bit his lip and nodded stiffly. His eyes widened as the man took a pair of shears out of the inside pocket of his jacket. “Will it hurt?”

              “These shears are for the wire, not you,” the man explained, giving a slight chuckle that seemed to make Henry relax.

              Emma narrowed her eyes. “You always carry around a pair of shears?”

              “I do when I hear someone screaming in the woods,” he replied sardonically, ignoring her otherwise as he carefully snipped at the barbed wire. With surprising slow and gentle movements, he pulled the barbs free of Henry’s ankle. Her son hissed and grasped her hand, but didn’t cry out. The stranger grinned broadly at Henry once he had pulled the wire completely free and tossed it aside. “You’re quite brave, my boy. I know grown men who would have bawled like a baby.”

              Henry gave him a wobbly smile, brushing at tears that glistened on his dirty cheeks. “Will I need stitches?”

              The man slowly rolled up the hem of Henry’s jeans. Emma shifted so she could see the wound, holding her breath in fear. Henry’s ankles was smeared with blood, and she could see deep lacerations all the way up to his lower calf. Not only that, his ankle and foot were clearly swollen, the skin turning black and blue where it wasn’t cut and bloodied.

              “You might, kid,” Emma told him, forcing her voice to remain light, “but it could be worse.”

              Wordlessly, the stranger opened a first aid kit and pulled out a small bottle of antiseptic. His eyes locked with Emma’s for a brief moment, and she gave a tiny nod of understanding. She shifted to cradle Henry’s head in her arms, brushing his hair back and whispering endearments as the man dabbed the wound with antiseptic. Henry did cry out then, tears wetting the front of Emma’s shirt as he clung to her. Tears slipped from her eyes too as she held him; no mother wanted to see her child in pain.

              Their good Samaritan finished cleaning the wound as quickly as he could, then wrapped it in gauze. “You need to get this looked at right away,” he told her, “like you said, he may need stitches, and it looks like he at least sprained that ankle when he fell.”

              “Thank you,” Emma whispered, her voice thick with all of the adrenaline and emotion of the last hour. He lifted his gaze to hers once again, and for the first time Emma got a good look at his face. His eyes were a brilliant, piercing blue. Yet it wasn’t so much the color as the intensity of them that suddenly stole Emma’s breath. Messy dark hair fell across his forehead and his strong jaw was covered in scruff. Emma had the strongest desire to trace the planes of his face, to feel that jaw beneath her palm. It was unlike anything she had felt before, and it made her feel suddenly exposed under his gaze. She quickly averted her eyes to her son, who still clung to her in a way he hadn’t since the first grade. She brushed his hair smoothly with her fingertips and kissed the top of his head.

              “I’ll carry him,” the man told her, “there’s no trail to my cabin, but I know the terrain well.”

              Emma hadn’t noticed before how the man spoke. It sounded a bit like a British accent, but more than that, it sounded old fashioned. As he bent to scoop up Henry, she noticed the gaudy rings on his fingers, the earring dangling from his lobe, and the cluster of necklaces against his chest. A chest that was exposed quite well beneath his half unbuttoned shirt and vest. The charms of his necklaces slide through thick dark chest hair, and Emma swallowed a sudden lump in her throat, guilt coursing through her at her wildly inappropriate thoughts. What kind of mother was she to check this man out when her son was hurt?

              Emma followed behind him, stumbling over roots and fallen tree limbs. He wasn’t kidding when he said he knew the terrain. He seemed to almost glide through the underbrush with cat-like grace and agility. He made Emma feel like a clutz in comparison. And he was carrying Henry, who Emma knew from personal experience wasn’t exactly light at ten years of age.

              Soon they were stepping out into a small clearing. There was a cabin, old and a bit dilapidated, but quaint all the same. Smoke rose from the chimney on this cool September evening, and Emma remembered what he said about chopping wood. A porch jutted out from the front of the cabin, and on it sat a lone rocking chair. Their strange benefactor didn’t head for the cabin, however, but made for the far side of the house where a tan pickup truck was parked. Out of nowhere, a huge wolf bounded into view, blocking their way to the vehicle. Emma jumped a foot in the air and scrambled to the stranger’s side, reaching out for Henry. The wolf spread its legs in a defensive stance and lowered its snout, growling menacingly.

              “Bloody hell, Smee, are you trying to give me a heart attack?” the man admonished the wolf in an obviously familiar way.

              “Um, is that your dog?” Emma whispered hopefully.

              “No, it’s a wolf,” he answered nonchalantly, “but don’t worry, he knows me. I told you I’ve saved many creatures from that barbed wire.”

              The creature sat on its haunches then, cocking its head at the group in front of him.

              “That’s right, Smee, they’re my new friends. No one’s going to harm me.”

              The wolf gave another growl, this one lower in timbre, then bounded away into the woods. Their guide simply chuckled at the animal as he pulled open the door of his truck.  He gently set Henry down in the passenger seat, asking the boy if he was comfortable as he helped him with his seatbelt. Emma was just beginning to feel a niggle of panic at the thought of being driven away somewhere by a stranger when the man turned to her and pressed a set of keys into her palm.

              “Through there,” he explained, pointing to a barely visible set of tire ruts heading east into the forest, “is a cut through the woods. It will take you to a road called Hangman’s Way. Take a left, and that will take you back to the main road. Can you get him to the hospital from there?”

              Emma clutched the keys in her fist and nodded. “Yes, but . . . you trust me with your truck?”

              He smiled at her in a way that made her stomach flip. “Aye. I’m good at reading people. Besides, then you’ll have to bring it back, won’t you?” And then he winked at her, and butterflies filled her stomach like she was in middle school again.

              Despite the butterflies, Emma rolled her eyes at his flirting. “My bug’s parked out front of the manor gates. I’ll just leave your truck there, buddy.”

              His eyes almost held a hint of disappointment, but then he blinked and it was gone. “Well, perhaps another time, then.”

              Emma nodded and then turned to walk around to the driver’s side. She paused by the hood and turned back towards him. “I never got your name.”

              “Killian Jones.”

              Emma smiled sincerely. “And I’m Emma Swan. Thank you for everything you’ve done for us.”

              “All in a day’s work for a hero, love,” he quipped, arching one eyebrow at her seductively.

              Emma just shook her head as a blush traitorously stained her cheeks. Then she scrambled into the driver’s seat, started the truck, and turned it onto the crudely made path through the woods. Despite Henry’s grunts of pain as they bounced along, he seemed overall thrilled with his adventures, telling her all of the creepy things he had seen in his explorations.

              “And Killian is cool too, don’t you think Mom? Can we go back and see him?”

              Emma shook her head vehemently as the cut through dead ended into Hangman’s Way. Hangman’s Way, really? Who thought that was a good name for a road?

              “Aw, why not?” Henry whined. “I bet he knows lots of stuff about that place.”

              “That’s exactly the point,” Emma told him, “that place is dangerous. You’re not going back there, ever, and that’s final.”

              “But Mom, Killian helped us, shouldn’t we go back and thank him? Take him some cookies or something?”

              “Henry,” Emma groaned, “this isn’t some 50s sitcom. You can’t trust everyone you meet, especially not men who live alone in cabins in the woods. Have you not seen any horror movies?”

              “No, I haven’t,” Henry grumbled, “you won’t let me.”

              “Well, guys like that are never good, trust me.”

              Henry’s only response was scowling and slouching in his seat. At least it was a sign that his leg was probably fine. Emma tried not to think about what could have happened to him in that decrepit house or those dark woods.

              She also tried not to think about a certain heroic, handsome man with dark hair and mysterious blue eyes.

                            ************************************************************

              Killian used his foot to kick the back door shut as he came inside with a stack of firewood in his arms. There was a chill to the air for the first time since spring, and he knew he’d probably need a fire once the sun went down. He stacked the wood next to the pot-bellied stove in the corner. Though he had installed indoor plumbing almost a century ago, he had never bothered with central heat and air. The old stove sent warmth through the entire space easily, and the heavy trees overhead kept it cool in the summer. And when he opened both the front and back doors, a nice breeze blew through.

              He rose, brushing the dirt from his hands, and glanced at his wrist watch. It was another hour at least before school let out, and Killian wondered what to do with himself while he waited for his young visitor. Henry didn’t stop by every day, but in just two weeks’ time, Killian had found himself looking forward to the lad’s possible visits. The first time the boy had come by was just two days after his accident, and Killian had been relieved to see Henry standing on his own two feet. The ankle, thankfully, had only been badly bruised, not sprained. The boy had clutched a bag of pastries from Granny’s diner in his fist and had thrust it into Killian’s hands with an eager grin.

              “Mom was too busy,” he had explained, “but we wanted to thank you.”

              Killian had been surprised that the lad’s mother had let him come back by himself. And, if he were being completely honest, he had also been disappointed that she hadn’t come to say thank you herself.

              Killian ran a hand through his hair now, frustrated at the feelings that the blonde woman had stirred in his chest. He had thought of her far too often, of the golden color of her hair, the fierce spark in her pale green eyes, the delightful freckles sprinkled across her nose. But most of all he thought of the way she protected her son; a mama bear if he ever saw one. He hadn’t encountered such a tough lass since his Milah.

              A knock at the door jolted him from his thoughts, and he grinned. Henry was so eager to explore every corner of the property and hear all of his stories. Killian was used to time as a constant, aching drip, but in the boys’ presence an hour or two would pass without Killian even being aware of it.

              “Henry, you’re early!” he spoke as he opened the door, then blinked rapidly when it wasn’t the ten year old on his front porch.

              “Henry’s been coming here?”

              Killian grimaced as Emma Swan stood there scowling at him, her hands on her hips. Mama bear was definitely the best comparison, and right now he was in her sights. His eyes cut over to the brunette standing next to her. Belle French smiled and offered him a sympathetic shrug of her shoulders.

              “I specifically told him not to come back here,” Emma hissed.

              Killian squirmed. He’d be lying if he said the possibility that Henry was sneaking out here hadn’t occurred to him. “Well, um, he said that you were okay with it –“

              “And you believed him!” Emma snapped.

              All Killian could do was stand there with his jaw hanging open, scrambling for a response. He was saved by the sound of growl at the bottom of the porch steps behind the women. Emma yelped at the sight of the wolf and scrambled to Killian’s side, clutching his arm. Belle on the other hand bounded down the steps with a grin on her face.

              “Belle,” Killian admonished, “I’ve told you, he’s not . . .”

              The brunette rubbed Smee behind the ears, cooing his name. The wolf went from growling to a contented whimper in a single moment, his tail happily slapping the ground behind him.

              “tame,” Killian finished lamely.

              “Oh, whatever,” Belle laughed, “he’s a big softie. Aren’t you, Smee?”

              Emma glanced up at Killian, and he smiled down at her, soaking in the features he hadn’t noted on their first meeting: the dimple in her chin and the flecks of brown in her green eyes. She suddenly blushed, releasing his arm and taking a step back. Smee set up growling again.

              “Why does he hate me so much?’ Emma grumbled.

              “Maybe he senses the hostility radiating off you, love,” Killian teased with a quirk of his brow.

              “Can you two please get along?” Belle spoke up as she soothed the wolf back down with a scratch behind the ears. “Emma, we didn’t come out here to talk about Henry.”

              “Actually, it is kind of about Henry,” she turned to scowl again at Killian, “and how this place is dangerous.”

              Smee started to growl again, but Emma stood her ground with a tilt of her chin in Killian’s direction.

              “Smee, go home,” Killian commanded, pointing towards the woods. Tail between his legs, the creature obeyed. “He’s a lone wolf, I think. Kind of small, you know. After I saved him, he sort of . . . adopted me.” He shrugged in Emma’s direction, but her withering glare didn’t abate. He sighed, his shoulders sagging in defeat. “Look, Swan, I simply took Henry to look around the grounds and the manor. I thought it was safer than him doing it alone. He told me he was doing a school project.”

              “Of course he did,” Emma said, closing her eyes and pitching the bridge of her nose wearily. Killian had a feeling her tone of frustration was now towards her son, not him.

              Belle came back up the porch steps, her head tilted and her arms crossed. “Aren’t you going to invite us in, Killian?”

              He shook his head, still a little thrown by the appearance of the two women on his doorstep. “Aye, of course.” He stepped back, opening the door wide for his visitors to pass through. “Can I get you anything? Some tea maybe?”

              Both women politely declined. Belle took a seat on his worn sofa, but Ms. Swan remained standing, leaning against the wall by the window with her arms crossed. Long ago lessons in propriety from his mother, Liam, and the Navy wouldn’t allow him to sit while a lady stood, so he leaned awkwardly instead against his leather armchair by the stove.

              “I’ll get to the point,” Emma said, “Mayor Mills has signed off on a project to turn Gold Manor into a museum. It’s apparently already on the registry of historic places, which means we can most likely get federal grant money.” She nodded towards Belle. “As the new head librarian, Belle’s already put in all the paperwork.”

              “So what does this have to do with me?” Killian asked nervously, his gaze cutting to Belle’s.

              Though Killian’s gaze was on his friend, Ms. Swan continued to speak. “Belle says you’re the best man to head the clean-up and construction. She says you know the estate’s history better than anyone and are handy with tools.”

              “You’ve done all the renovations on this cabin yourself,” Belle quickly added, sending him a silent apology with her eyes.

              “And the mayor didn’t give us much of a budget,” Emma added. “This will be done mostly via volunteers. You’ll be paid, of course, Mr. Jones.”

              Killian blinked and ran his hand over his jaw, not sure he was really hearing this correctly. He gave Belle a pointed look and took a deep breath. “Belle, may I speak with you privately?”

              She ducked her head as she stood from the couch and silently followed him outside onto the back porch. Once the door was shut, he hissed at her, “What the hell –“

              “Just give me a minute to explain!” she cut him off.

              “You mean explain how you just betrayed me?”

              Belle wasn’t the least bit fazed by his accusation. “Please, Killian, I did no such thing. You exposed yourself when you saved Henry Swan and flirted with his mother.”

              “I didn’t flirt with – did she say I flirted?”

              Belle laughed and patted his arm teasingly. “Just trust me, Killian, this is a great opportunity.”

              Killian’s eyebrows shot up. “A great opportunity? You mean an opportunity for the whole town to discover that I’m out here?”

              Belle shook her head, practically bouncing on her toes with excitement. “No, for you to be free of this spell! Those books of Gold’s that I found in the attic? I think I may have found the key to –“

              Killian shook his head. “Belle, I’ve told you, it’s hopeless. This is my lot as it has been for three centuries.”

              “The name of this town is Hopeful ! And it’s like I told you before, every curse can be broken.”

              His jaw clenched. “I’m not so sure about that.”

              “Halloween is a little over a month away. If my research is true, then this is the perfect opportunity to break the curse. You just need to let some people in.”

              Killian shook his head. “What people?”

              Belle bit her lip. “Well, specifically, the Swans.”

              Killian narrowed his eyes at her. “Why them?”

              She averted her gaze. “Just . . . trust me, okay?”

              He released a long breath, tilting his head back to gaze at the cobwebs covering the roof of the porch. “Okay, Belle,” he finally conceded, “I don’t know what you’ve got up your sleeve, but I’ll trust you.”

              She grinned gleefully as she opened the door and pulled him back inside by the arm. He remembered Liam ages ago telling him that women were his greatest weakness, and he almost chuckled aloud.

              “Okay, Swan,” he announced to the blonde beauty standing in his living room, “I’m in.”

        **************************************************************************

              Emma drove her bug up the front drive of Gold Manor, the chain on the gate now replaced with a coded lock box. She catalogued what needed to be done out front as she bounced down the barely visible seashell gravel drive. Killian had already mowed the entire grounds, which was impressive even with the riding mower owned by the city. However, they would need to re-gravel the drive and set aside an area for parking. Paving would be nice, and at some point landscaping would need to be done. All of that would have to wait, however. The bare minimum would be sufficient for their Halloween grand opening. Haunted houses weren’t supposed to look neat and well kept, after all.

              Emma parked in the circular drive right in front of the entrance. She wondered as she made her way up the stone steps how much of a liability they were. Then she started wondering about safety codes and handicap accessibility, and a full blown migraine was threatening to form at the base of her skull.            

              The sight that greeted her when she stepped through the doorway, however, moved every bit of tension away from her cranium and much farther south. Killian Jones, in tight jeans and a white t shirt, was bent over a table saw carefully guiding a piece of wood down the blade. Light spilled through the broken windows behind him, casting him in a golden hue and causing the beads of sweat along his biceps to glisten. The roar of the saw ceased and he stood upright, shoving the safety glasses up onto his head so he could check the edge of the wood. It made his dark hair stick up everywhere, and something about it made Emma’s fingers itch. Satisfied with the wood, he set it down, then wiped the sweat from his brow with the bottom of his shirt. The movement gave Emma a hint of his tight abs, and suddenly she was having a difficult time breathing.

              It was the saw dust in the air. Had to be.

              He glanced up then and saw her. “Swan!” he called out to her with a grin spreading across his face. “How are you this fine morning?”

              His gaze didn’t linger on hers as he turned back to whatever project he was working on, measuring and jotting things with a fat yellow pencil. She cleared her throat and wiped her palms down the front of her jeans as she picked her way across the floor.

              “What are you working on?”

              He gestured to the stairway. “A new banister.”

              Conversation was made impossible by the saw roaring back to life. Emma’s gaze, no longer distracted by the sweaty male specimen in the room, took in the inside of the manor for the first time. The rotting banister had been ripped away and every tree limb, including the large one that had split the piano in two, had been hauled off. The piano was gone as well, and all leaves and broken glass had been swept away.

              “You’ve been busy,” Emma commented as soon as the saw went silent again.

              “Well,” Killian said with an easy grin, “one, I’m an early riser. Two, we have no time to lose if we want this place ready by Halloween.”

              Emma nodded, beginning to feel twinges of that migraine again. She crossed her arms over her chest as if to protect herself from the overwhelming feeling that threatened to rise up.

              “I know. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve gotten in over our heads.”

              Killian stopped and laid aside the wood he had been measuring. He stepped around the table saw and came to stand in front of her. So close, she had to tilt her head up to look him in the eye. His smell washed over her; sweat mingled with sawdust.

              “We’ve only just begun, love. And don’t forget, Halloween is simply a ghost tour, remember? We don’t have to have every inch of the property ready.”

              Emma bit her lower lip. Hadn’t she just been telling herself that? “Yeah, but outside, I started wondering about parking and safety codes, and –“

              Killian cut her off by laying a hand on her shoulder. “Let Belle worry about the paper work, remember?” He winked at her. “You and I are the brawn.”

              Emma managed to laugh at that, finally letting her arms drop to her side. “I feel sort of guilty though. Regina’s given me a list a mile long to do on this project, but the whole reason I came here was to be David’s new deputy.”

              Killian cocked his head. “What does David say?”

              “That I’m helping the police force and the community by fixing this place up. He said teens won’t be out here anymore making mischief.”

              “And ten year olds won’t be getting caught in barbed wire,” Killian added. “See? Your guilt is completely unnecessary.”

              Emma let out a long breath, the tension in her shoulders lessening somewhat. “Well, okay, then. What do you need me to do?”

              Killian’s brow furrowed as he looked around. “Start looking through the furniture and rick rack. See what can be salvaged and what needs to be thrown out.”

              “Okaaay. I’m not exactly an antiques expert.”

              He shrugged. “I’m sure you know garbage when you see it.”

              “You can say that again,” she replied, “I’ve certainly dated plenty of it.”

              She cringed as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Killian laughed at her joke but, to her relief, asked no questions. He went back to his table saw, and she started in on the junk littering the room.

Soon, the sound of the saw was replaced with the pounding of the hammer. Emma was surprised that her headache had completely disappeared, despite the racket. There was something strangely calming about working side by side, the only sounds that of their respective chores. Emma had just cleared several candle sticks from the mantel above the fireplace when the portrait she had noticed the last time caught her eye.  She carried it carefully across the room and propped it up on a settee that had long ago lost most of its stuffing. She cleared off the dust and grime to get a better look at the nameplate.

“Lord and Lady Gold,” she read out loud.

“Her name was Milah.” Killian’s voice startled her.

“They were the original owners?”

Killian kept his back to her, still concentrating on the project in front of him. “Aye. The Gold property encompassed much of the area, and even parts of town.”

Emma tilted her head as she gazed into the woman’s gray eyes once again. Or maybe they had been blue? The painting was centuries old, after all. She gnawed at her lower lip as she searched the woman’s face. Why she fascinated her so, Emma couldn’t say.

“Was she the one accused of witchcraft?”

Emma looked up to find that Killian was standing now, his project abandoned, fists clench. “Aye. She was hanged not far from here.”

“Hangman’s Way,” Emma deduced softly, looking back at the portrait. “Who accused her?”

“Her husband.” Emma could hear the tension snapping in his tone.

“Because of her lover? The pirate?” Emma tilted her head, surprised to see him blinking rapidly. His tongue wet his lips in an almost nervous gesture. She shrugged. “That’s how the story goes. At least the way I heard it.”

“He was certainly one of the reasons,” Killian admitted, turning his gaze away.

“What’s the other?” Emma asked, stepping across the room.

Killian paused, then picked up his hammer. For a moment,     Emma didn’t think he would answer. But then he added, “To hide his own guilt.”

He pounded away at a nail for a few moments, then tossed the tool aside. He turned to her then, his normal confident expression back on his face. “You see, love,” he told her as he crossed the room (did this man always strut when he walked?), “it was actually Lord Gold himself who had sold his soul to the devil. He was apparently a master of the dark arts. It was why no one crossed him. Until his wife, that is.”

              By the end of his tale, Killian had encroached far too much into Emma’s personal space. The intensity of his gaze and the low timbre of his voice left Emma entirely too unsteady on her feet. She was tempted to take a step backwards, but would never give him the pleasure. Instead, she scoffed and rolled her eyes.

              “How would you know any of that?”

“Belle isn’t the only one with an interest in history, love,” he replied with a sinful smile and a wink.

Emma gave a short wry laugh as she lightly pushed him away. He grinned back at her teasingly as he went back to his tools. Emma shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans and rocked back on her heels.

“What happened after Milah was hanged?”

Killian turned back to her, eyes narrowed. He looked slightly angry at her question, and she couldn’t fathom why.

“I mean,” Emma stuttered, “this is the kind of stuff we need for the ghost tour, right? After visiting here, tourists might want to go see her grave or something.”

She almost prattled on about the web sites she had visited for ghost tours in New Orleans, Savannah, and Salem, but Killian’s face softened and his shoulders relaxed. The fierce spark in his eyes was gone, and in its place was something more like melancholy.

“She was buried in a pauper’s unmarked grave with no Christian rites and no one to mourn her passing as she was laid in the ground.”

Emma glanced back at the defiant, strong woman in the portrait and felt sadness wash over her as well. “Oh. Well . . . “

“Until her son had a marker erected,” Killian tossed the comment over his shoulder, then continued the explanation between the pounding of the nails. “He never lived here, was somewhat of a cad frittering his time away in Europe, first in boarding schools and then as a wealthy playboy. But he begged his father to erect at least a wooden cross, and when Gold himself passed, he had a marble tombstone delivered from France or somewhere.” He looked up once again from the banister he was making and smiled at her. “So you’ll have your . . . tourist attraction.” He bit out the last two words as he ran a hand through his hair.

The tension was thick, and Emma wasn’t even sure what she had said or done. She picked up the painting, balancing it against her midsection. “She was beautiful,” Emma commented.

“Aye, she was,” Killian answered softly.

Emma’s head snapped up, and Killian’s eyes widened when their gazes met. He gestured to the painting.

“I mean, even the artist captured it.”

Emma ran her hand over the grime to try and reveal more of Milah’s face. She still felt a connection to it that she couldn’t explain. “She felt trapped.”

Killian’s appearance at her side should have startled her, but it didn’t. “You speak as if you understand her.”

Emma tilted her head to see that he was gazing at her and not at the painting. His expression was soft, and she had the strangest sense that he could see right through her. “Perhaps I do,” she whispered.

Chapter Text

Hope is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words-

And never stops – at all

              Henry paused in his reading. “You know, Emily Dickinson was a lot like you.”

              Killian looked up from the spindle he was examining. “How so?”

              The boy was perched on a stool in the corner with his literature textbook open on his lap. He rolled his eyes, looking for all the world like his mother. “Isn’t it obvious? She was a recluse.”

              Killian’s eyebrows rose slightly. “That’s a big word for a ten year old.”

              Now Henry scowled openly. “I hate when people say that. It’s not a big word at all; only seven letters.”

              Killian chuckled at that. “You are not only incredibly bright, lad, but perhaps my kindred spirit.”

              Henry seemed pleased even as he focused again on his textbook. “Mom does say I’m an old soul.”

              “Oh ho! Now you’re calling me old!”

              Henry laughed freely. Killian gestured towards the book in his lap.

              “You didn’t finish the poem. It goes on to say, And sweetest – in the gale – is heard, and sore must be the storm – That could abash the little bird that kept so many warm – I’ve heard it in the chilliest land and on the strangest sea – Yet, never, in Extremity, it asked a crumb of me.

              “You know that by heart?” Henry exclaimed.

              Killian shrugged. “I have a book of Dickinson poems. They’ve always spoken to me I guess, and it’s not as if they are difficult to memorize.”

              Henry picked at the binding of the thick book in his lap. “My teacher thinks studying Dickinson is cool for Halloween. I don’t get it.”

              “Maybe Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me, but if she wanted Halloween poetry, she should have gone with Edgar Allan Poe.”

              Henry’s brow furrowed. “Who?”

              Killian clapped his palm to his heart. “You’ve never heard of Poe? Quothe the Raven, nevermore?”

              Henry shook his head. “Nope.”

              “A tragedy, truly.”

              “I figured you must read a lot,” Henry commented, “since Belle’s always bringing you big stacks of books. Why don’t you just go to the library?”

              “I’m a recluse, remember?” Killian cleared his throat nervously and scratched behind his ear. “Why don’t you come over here, and I’ll show you how to use this lathe?”

              “Cool!” Henry exclaimed, tossing aside the book and jumping up from his stool. But he hesitated before coming closer. “But Mom only let me stay if I promised to finish my homework, and you said you’d help me with those lit questions. There are more questions than there are words in the poem!”

              Killian clapped his hand on Henry’s shoulder. “But I’ve also got to get this banister finished. The faster I get this last spindle done, the sooner I can help you with that poem.” He leaned closer to the boy and cocked an eyebrow at him. “And isn’t making a mess and using a loud machine more fun anyway?”

              “It sure is!” Henry agreed excitedly as he donned the safety glasses Killian handed him.

              Killian stood next to enry

Henry and handed him the final post of wood. “Put the wood on the spindle here,” he instructed, then he handed Henry the chisel. “Do you see this narrow part here?”

              “Yeah,” Henry said with a nod.

              “It doesn’t match the others, so I need to trim it just a bit. So I’ll turn on the machine, and you’ll run the chisel along this spot right here,” he shifted the chisel and lined it up properly.

              “But what if I trim it too much?”

              “I’ll be guiding you through it,” Killian assured him.

              “Do you have like a measurement or something? I mean, do you mark the wood? I . . . I don’t want to mess it up.”

              “I won’t let that happen,” Killian assured him, stilling the slight tremor of the boy’s hand. “But to answer your question, yes, many carpenters use specific measurements. But for me, it’s art. Do you do any type of art, Henry?”

              The boy gnawed on his bottom lip. “Does writing stories count?”

              Killian grinned at him. “Aye, my boy, it sure does. So crafting these spindles is like crafting a story. I have an idea in my head, but as I work, sometimes it turns out differently than I expected. Better, even.”

              Henry narrowed his eyes, then nodded. “I think I get it.”

              “Okay then, ready?” Henry gave a nod, and Killian turned on the machine. The boy leaned in concentration over his work, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth. Killian once again though of his mother, for he had noticed the same look of concentration come over her face yesterday when she was carefully cleaning the paintings they had found throughout the house. He guided Henry’s hand when it drifted, but he was impressed with how steadily he worked. He couldn’t believe the warmth he felt in his long cold heart whenever this boy and his mother were near.

              Killian stopped the lathe and lifted the spindle to examine it, then ran a square of sandpaper across the newly trimmed wood. He looked at Henry with a smile upon his face. “Good job, my boy!”

              He grinned broadly “Really? But how do we know it matches the other ones? If you don’t measure, I mean?”

              “Well, after a while, it’s kind of instinct. But more than that, the slight variations add character. It would look odd if this old house had perfectly matched, machine made spindles on the banister, wouldn’t it?”

              Henry tilted his head to think about it. “Yeah, I guess that’s a good point.” He looked down at the floor and ground his toe into the sawdust covered floor.

              “What is it, Henry?”

              “I don’t know . . . I was just thinking . . . At school, being a little different doesn’t mean you have character. It means you’re just . . . weird. Especially when you’re the littlest kid in seventh grade.”

              Killian’s eyebrows rose to his hairline. Now the Dickinson poetry and those algebra problems in the boy’s homework made a bit more sense. “Henry, you are a bright boy. That is something to be proud of.”

              Henry’s chin only sank lower. “Being smart isn’t cool, believe me.”

              Killian sighed and set aside the spindle. “I don’t know that I was ever as intelligent as you, Henry, but I was small for my age. Smaller than my brother was at that age too. Liam was built broader than I was, and I wanted nothing more than to be as strong and good as he was.”

              Henry finally met his gaze. “So what did you do?”

              Killian chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck. “There wasn’t much I could do except wait to grow up.”

              “Were you ever as big and strong as Liam?”

              Killian rubbed his chin in thought, but in the end couldn’t lie to the boy. “No, but I did work hard when we joined the Royal Navy. And soon, I had callouses and muscles, and could hold my own with a swo- a weapon. I was never as good as Liam either, but I tried. And learning Greek came easier for me than Liam.” He chuckled again and gave Henry a light punch in the shoulder. “I always liked to rub that in just a bit.” Killian grew serious then and grasped Henry by both shoulders. “But listen, this is very important. Never, never be less than you are just to get people to accept you. Understood?”

              Henry nodded, then gave a tiny smile. “Mom says girls like smart guys.”

              “I sure do.”

              Killian straightened to find Emma Swan herself leaning against a post in the entryway from the foyer, her arms crossed over her chest. There was a smile on her face he hadn’t yet seen, a light in her eyes he couldn’t read. He liked the look on her, though, and he hoped in some small way it was because of him.

              “Mom, look!” Henry cried. “I got to use the – what’s it called again?” He turned to look up at Killian

              “A lathe.”

              “A lathe! I got to use the lathe!”

              “That’s awesome, kid,” Emma said, walking up to rub her son’s head. Henry wrinkled his nose and reached his hand up to fix his mussed hair.

              “I promise the lad finished all of his schoolwork except for his literature assignment,” Killian assured, both hands raised.

              Emma tilted her head as she gazed up at him. “I trust you.”

              No three words could have flooded Killian with more elation. The sparkle hadn’t left her eyes, and he had the strongest desire to trace that dimple in her chin. Instead, he gave his head a slight shake and took a step backwards.

              “I did promise to help him with Emily Dickinson, though. After . . . we . . .uh . . . finished the spindle.” He cleared his throat, wanting to curse himself. He hadn’t been tongue tied around a woman since . . . He pushed the thought away, unwilling to complete it.

              Emma quickly lowered her gaze from his, taking a step back herself. “Right, well, you two get to it. I’ll . . . just . . . start sweeping out this room and the foyer, then get to work in the library.”

              “Of course.”

              He watched her go, unable to help himself from admiring the way her tight jeans hugged her figure. He rubbed at that hollow place in his chest also unable to wonder if maybe, just maybe, he was able to make her tongue-tied. Of course, thinking of her tongue made his mind race further into inappropriate territory, and he was once again cursing himself.

              Bloody hell, Jones, her son is in the room!

                            ****************************************************

              Emma sneezed as she set the next stack of books onto the desk in the library. Dust billowed up from the leather bindings and yellowed pages, causing her eyes to water. She ran her now dirty cloth over the cover of the one on top; a book called Her Handsome Hero by an author she’d never heard of. She set it in the stack destined for the thrift store. She had learned in her research on the house that after Baelfire Gold died with no heirs, ownership of the entire property had been granted to the city of Hopeful. The house itself had been sold and used as a boarding school for wealthy boys until World War II. That meant the library was full of possibilities for their haunted museum.

              “Henry’s finished his homework.”

              Emma looked up as Killian entered the room. “Let me guess, he’s now playing video games.”

              “No, he’s actually sanding the fireplace mantel.” Killian said as he idly picked up a book from one of her piles.

              Emma raised her eyebrows. “Wow. He’s really into this project.”

              Killian simply nodded in reply as he continued to shuffle through the books. “I take it this is your discard pile?”

              “Well, donation pile. We’re only holding on to books of literary or historical value.”

              Killian chuckled at her imitation of Belle’s accent. He lifted a book from the donation pile. “This one was written by a Frenchmen in 1773. His only novel; and it barely sold any copies. A shame, really, because it’s quite good.”

              Emma’s brow furrowed when she saw he was holding Her Handsome Hero. “And you know this because . . . “

              He gestured around the room. “I’ve read many books in this library.”

              Emma put down the book she was dusting and crossed her arms. “When? Shortly after the first moon landing? There’s fifty years’ worth of dust on these books.”

              “Well, um,” he stammered, scratching behind his ear, “I didn’t mean these books exactly. I’ve taken copies from here, you know. No one else cared about them . . . ”

              He trailed off, flashing her a disarming grin, and she knew he was lying. But why would he lie about where he got a copy of an 18th century French novel?

              “You don’t have to justify anything to me,” Emma assured him. “We can’t be sure who bought all these books, so it’s not like they can be returned to their rightful owners.”

              He turned from her and grabbed another stack of books from the shelf. Emma watched him until he turned back towards her. Then she quickly lowered her gaze to the next book in her hand.

              “This one’s a keeper,” she said, “Tom Sawyer.

              Killian smiled fondly. “Ah, yes, about the mischievous orphan boy. I always identified with him.”

              “Which part? Being mischievous I assume?” Emma teased.

              “Both actually.” The grin he gave her was one she knew quite well. It was the kind that hid pain behind a mask of indifference.

              “Oh,” she said softly, setting the book aside in the too keep pile. The last thing she wanted to do was bond with this man over past experiences. She was already on dangerous ground with him. She had frozen in place when she walked in to find him patiently instructing Henry with the woodworking. And then Henry had actually opened up to him about his struggles at school, and Killian had encouraged him to be proud of his intelligence. It was something Emma had told him a thousand times, but she knew hearing it from a male, especially one he obviously looked up to, would make a world of difference to her son. The entire thing made her heart ache in a way she had never experienced before. Henry had never bonded with any of the men she had dated, not even Graham, who had actually tried to connect with him.

              “Have I said something to offend you, Swan?”

              Emma looked up into Killian’s concerned gaze and realized she had fallen silent for several minutes. “Oh, um, I just . . . “ she shrugged as she turned to get another stack of books, “I know what you mean, that’s all.”

              “You’re an orphan too?” He didn’t say it with sympathy or pity, just matter-of-factly, one orphan to another.

              “Yeah,” she sighed, “look, can we change the subject?”

              “Of course,” he told her softly, then swiftly changed gears. “That’s quite a lad you’ve got there, Swan.”

              “Yeah,” Emma said, a contented smile quirking her lips, “he’s pretty great. Thanks for spending time with him.”

              Killian rested his hand atop hers. “It’s no trouble. I enjoy his company.”

              “Hey, mom,” Henry’s voice echoed down the corridor. Emma quickly snatched her hand away from Killian’s as they both turned to the doorway.

              “Yeah, kid?” Emma hated how nervous her voice sounded. For God’s sake, all the man had done was touch her hand!

              “I think I sanded the mantel pretty good, and I’m starving.”

              Emma gasped as she pulled out her phone and checked the time. “Henry, I’m so sorry, it’s almost seven! Let’s head to Granny’s and get some burgers.”

              “Awesome!” Henry cheered, then he turned to Killian. “You should come eat with us! Right, Mom? I mean, he helped a lot with my homework.”

              Emma tilted her head at Killian and smiled, “I agree. I think he’s earned a bit of a reward.”

              She expected him to tease her or lean close and murmur an innuendo under his breath that Henry couldn’t catch. She didn’t know why she enjoyed flirting with him so much, but she did. Instead, Killian looked like a deer caught in the headlights, his eyes wide and his normally flushed cheeks suddenly pale.

              “I would love to,” he stammered, “but I really can’t.”

              Emma elbowed him gently in the ribs, “Come on Jones, everyone’s gotta eat.”

              “Yeah,” Henry put in, “please!”

              Killian’s eyes darted between the two, and then he leaned close to Emma. His eyes pleaded with her to understand as he said in a low voice, “I really can’t Swan.”

              Emma’s brow furrowed, and just like she knew he was lying about the book earlier, she now knew he was telling her the truth. She gave him a slight nod of understanding, then turned to her son.

              “Killian’s had a long day, Henry, let’s get out of his hair.”

              “Awww,” Henry pouted.

              “Sorry, my boy, I’m old remember?” Killian told him, ruffling his hair affectionately.

              “See you tomorrow, Killian!” Henry called as they headed out the door. Emma smiled at Killian over her shoulder, her arm flung around her son’s shoulder.

              It was all so strange. Emma’s gut told her she could trust this man, and her gut rarely went straight to “trust.” Yet he had lied to her about the book, something that should have been inconsequential. Then when he told her he couldn’t join them for dinner, he was being absolutely truthful. Not that he didn’t want to; he couldn’t. Emma somehow knew the distinction was important. Killian Jones was a mystery for sure; one that she was determined to solve.                          

                            *****************************************************

              The pungent aroma of wood stain flooded Killian’s senses and made a slight headache pound at his temple. Despite that, his thoughts continued to wander in the same direction, leading him right back to Emma Swan. He rubbed wearily at his forehead with the back of his hand before rubbing at the post in front of him once again. The feelings that were stirring inside of him were those he thought he was no longer capable of; things he hadn’t felt since Milah.

              For three centuries, he had watched the world pass before him, ever changing. Yet he was stuck as a mere spectator, forced to hide in the shadows lest suspicions be roused about a man who never aged. That was the reason that female company, or any company for that matter, had been rare in his life. Occasionally he would take a woman back to his cabin simply as a way to release his pent up frustrations and physical loneliness. He always chose those carefully; grifters who were just passing through, or a tourist who was up for a no-strings-attached tryst while she was on vacation. Of course, the more Hopeful deteriorated into a ghost town (pun completely intended), the more he found himself alone for long stretches of time. Until he woke up one day and realized it had been years, not months, since he last interacted with another human being. His voice was rough from misuse, and he startled to discover that he not only conversed with animals and inanimate objects, but himself. It had been a startling and frightening revelation.

              That had to be why Emma Swan consumed his every thought, awake and in his dreams. He had gone from being that recluse Henry had mentioned to being in her lovely presence on an almost daily basis.

              You don’t dwell on thoughts of Belle or Henry all day long. His mind argued. He sighed as he dipped the rag into the dark stain once again. And now here he was talking to himself again.

              Everything had changed the day he had literally run into Belle French poking around the castle. Like Henry, she had been curious about the old place rumored to be haunted. Not to mention she was the most adventurous and curious woman he had ever encountered. She had already done extensive research in her beloved library on Gold Manor, and had recognized him immediately, gasping out his name as she dropped her flashlight. Never for one second had she found his story unbelievable. Another way she was like Henry. And now she was determined to find a way to free him from his curse.

              In three hundred years he hadn’t had a single friend, and now he had three. Though if he were completely honest, his fantasies about Emma Swan were far outside the realm of mere friendship.

              “Ugh, it reeks in here! How have you not passed out?”

              Killian turned to find Emma Swan herself standing below the ladder he was perched on, the sunlight streaming through the brand new glass on the French doors illuminating her hair. The way she wrinkled her nose was adorable while her wide stance and hands braced on her hips shouted feisty strength. She was a contradiction in softness and strength, dark and light, and he found her absolutely mesmerizing.

              “I find it clears my head,” he replied dryly.

              She rolled her eyes. “Liar.” She reached down for another container of stain and a rag. “This looks tedious. I’ll start down here, and we’ll meet in the middle.” She knelt down at the bottom of the staircase, prying the lid off the stain can with a screw driver. He kept his mouth shut about messing with his tools; she hadn’t exactly been making a suggestion. More like an order.

              They worked on the banister in silence for several moment before he heard Emma make a little sighing noise. He glanced down at her to see her brow furrowed and her teeth worrying her bottom lip. Whatever she was contemplating, he had a feeling it wasn’t the banister in front of her.

              “You’re a mystery, Killian Jones.”

              He almost lost his balance on the ladder.

              “I’ve asked about you around town,” she continued, still not tilting her gaze up to his.

              Killian swallowed, unsure what to say as she paused. He should have expected as much. She was the town deputy, and Killian was spending a lot of time with her son.

              She calmly got more stain on her rag before continuing. His heart thudded in his chest.

              “The only people who’ve ever seen you around are the postmaster and the employees at the market.” She cut her eyes up to him. “You love to read, yet you never go to the library.”

              “Why do that when I have a lovely librarian who makes house calls?” he quipped with his most charming grin.

              Emma frowned as she turned her gaze back to the banister. Was she jealous? God, he hoped so.

              “Speaking of Belle, she’s the only one who seems to know your name. And she’s definitely the only one who ever comes out to see you.” She made a funny sound in the back of her throat. “Except for me and Henry now I guess.”

              “Belle is just a friend, if that’s what you’re beating around the bush for.”

              Emma snorted through her nose. “Don’t really care about your social life, Jones.”

              Killian made his way down the ladder. “So you say, Swan, and yet you’ve evidently spent a great deal of time looking into just that.”

              She huffed as she stood to reach the next part of the banister. Killian moved the ladder down a bit. “Please, don’t flatter yourself. You are an employee of the city, so I have every right to look into your background.”

              Killian couldn’t help scratching behind his ear. “I – uh – thought Belle handled my paperwork.”

              “She did.”

              It was all Emma said on the matter, but Killian couldn’t help but wonder. She certainly sounded suspicious. He rubbed his forehead wearily.

              “You know, this stain is giving me a bit of a headache. Do you mind finishing here while I install the new doors on the curio?”

              “Sure,” Emma replied, “but leave the ladder. I can barely reach where I’m staining now.”

              “It’s okay, Swan, I find vertically challenged women quite fetching.”

              Emma tossed her rag at him, shooting him a withering glare that held little heat. He laughed, pleased to see the spot of pink in her cheeks and the twinkle in her eye. God, he loved teasing her!

              They fell into a companionable silence again as they worked, only the sound of his drill bit and the occasional scraping of the ladder breaking the quiet of the room.

              “Shit, come on!” he heard Emma complain after about thirty minutes of working. He turned to see her atop the ladder, straining to wipe the last spindle in the center of the banister. She was standing on the very top rung, the one that was clearly labeled “not a step” in bright yellow. On her tip toes was more like it.

              “Emma,” he warned as he set aside his drill and came closer.

              “I’ve . . . almost . . . got it . . . “

              The ladder rocked as she reached up, and Killian surged forward as Emma lost her balance. She let out a sharp scream as she fell backwards. It was cut off when she collided with Killian’s chest. The rag she was holding hit him in the face before fluttering to the floor, and the can of stain wobbled before tipping over, sending the dark brown liquid streaming like a waterfall down the rungs of the ladder.

              He shook his face and blinked to get the dust from the rag out of his nose and eyes. When his vision cleared, he was practically nose to nose with Emma. Her green eyes widened as they stared at one another. Every cell in Killian’s body was keenly aware of Emma in his arms. The slight weight of her legs draped over his left arm, her skin beneath his calloused fingers where her shirt had ridden up, the curve of her breast against his chest, and the arms that were wrapped tightly around his neck. A smile hitched at one corner of his mouth as she continued to gaze at him, her fingertips idly toying with the hairs at the nape of his neck. It sent shockwaves all the way down his spine.

              “Um,” Emma finally spoke, “why are you still holding me?”

              “Oh . . . right,” he muttered, his face burning as he quickly put her down. He rubbed at the back of his neck as she straightened the bottom of her shirt. “Are you okay?”

              “Yeah,” she said with a shrug. She stepped close, invading his space. His heart was beating so loud, he wondered if she could feel it beneath her palm when she laid it upon his chest. “Don’t try to distract me with flirting, Killian Jones. I’ll figure out your secrets.”

              He quirked a brow at her, then leaned close, swiping his lower lip with his tongue. “Who’s flirting, Swan? I just saved you from a broken neck. You’re the one who was fiddling with my hair just now.”

              Red crept up her neck as she blinked rapidly. “You – you are such a – a,” she stuttered, “a . . . “

              “Dashing rapscallion?” he teased with a pout.

              She narrowed her eyes. “An arrogant jerk,” she finished with satisfaction. He only chuckled as she marched over to grab some rags from the floor. “Oh, and by the way,” she added as she began to rub vigorously at the wood stain still dripping down the ladder, “I’ve never heard of a cocky recluse.”

              His mouth fell open at that. She glanced over her shoulder at him with a smirk.

              “I don’t know why you’re hiding out here, Jones, but I will find out. I’m not taking my eyes off you for a second.”

              Killian threw her smirk right back at her as he sauntered into her space. He leaned close and winked at her. “I would despair if you did.”

                            ****************************************************

              The music had been Killian’s idea, and despite the fact that he was humming a tune by The Cure under his breath as he made even strokes with the paint roller, Emma couldn’t help wondering if it was a subtle way of avoiding her. Or something.

              She chose to focus instead on the fireplace mantel so she wouldn’t accidently paint it “cranberry sunrise.” God, why did paint colors have such ridiculous names? She sat back on her heels, brushing at a stray hair with the back of her hand. Only half of the room was painted, but it really was a great color. For a “haunted house” anyway. The dark wood stains and deep reds would create the gothic ambience they were going for. It would look even better once they put up the gilded wallpaper and the heavy brocade curtains.

              Emma glanced over at Killian and smiled when she saw him swaying his hips slightly to the music. She sighed and carefully set the brush down on the drip pan. Then she rose from her position on the floor and walked cautiously over to him.

              “Um, Killian?”

              He didn’t stop with the paint roller, simply looked at her and winked, still swaying a little to the music. “Like what you see, Swan?”

              Emma rolled her eyes. “No, we, uh . . . need to talk.”

              He wearily lowered the paint roller. “In my experience, it’s never a good thing when a woman says that.”

              Emma grimaced. Of course he assumed she was about to give him a hard time again. When hadn’t she? Pulling her gun on him, calling him arrogant, insinuating that the time he spent with her son was anything less than innocent and kind. He rescued Henry from the barbed wire, and even saved her from a broken neck when she fell from that later. Yet how did she thank him?

              “Look, about my . . . asking around about you . . .”

              He came incredibly close, causing her to lose her train of thought. He reached up and began to rub his thumb gently over her cheek. She literally felt herself sway as the breath rushed from her lungs. He smiled softly at her.

              “You had a bit of paint there.”

              “Oh.”

              His thumbed stopped rubbing gentle circles, yet his hand didn’t leave her face. His fingers gently caressed her jaw line, his thumb hovering over the dimple in her chin.

              “And as for your little investigation,” Killian said in a low voice, “try something new, darling. It’s called trust.”

              Her eyes widened as he lowered his hand. “I do trust you! That’s what I’m trying to say.”

              His brow furrowed in confusion as he pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket. Who carried a handkerchief anymore? He wet it with his tongue, an act that she found fascinating. Then he tilted her chin up with the tips of his fingers and dabbed at the same spot on her cheek again.

              “Uh, are you wiping spit on me?”

              He chuckled. “Aye. I didn’t quite get that paint off. You were saying?”

              Emma swallowed thickly. It was really hard to concentrate when he was staring at her face that way. Her skin tingled where his fingers brushed.

              “I just know what it’s like to screw up big time. To want to start over, and not have your stupid decisions come back to bite you in the ass.”

              He smiled again, brushing his knuckles down her cheek. “There, all gone.”

              Emma shook her head. “Do you know what I’m trying to say?”

              He tilted his head at her, both eyebrows raising. “Perhaps.”

              She let out a long breath of exasperation. “What I’m saying is I don’t care why you’re a loner or what you’re running from. Because . . . you and I . . . we understand one another.”

              Killian nodded as he shoved the dirty handkerchief back into his pocket. “Aye, love, I believe we do.”

                             **********************************************

              Emma couldn’t believe how everything was coming together. The new staircase was complete, not only with the beautiful stained banister, but with patched and sanded steps. They were waiting for a runner to be delivered, and she couldn’t wait to see the rich crimson against the dark stain of the wood. Killian had picked it from the sample book she and Belle had brought form the hardware store, the same way he had chosen the paint and wallpaper.

              Emma shook her head to clear such thoughts and chose instead to admire the new coat of stain on the fireplace mantel and on the hardwood floors. The house was coming together, that was what mattered. Not Killian Jones and his reclusive tendencies.

              “So what are we doing today?” she asked him.

His back was to her as he hoisted a large, rolled up oriental rug off his shoulder. It caused his shirt to ride up in the back, exposing the hard muscles there. The ones Emma couldn’t deny that she had fantasized about digging her fingernails into. Why did he have to be so damn hot?

Killian leaned the rug against several others that were nestled in the corner of the room. He turned to her, flashing that easy grin of his.

“Well, the room is incomplete without rugs, not to mention historically inaccurate. I found these in the attic. They were probably stored up there after the school closed in the forties, so they aren’t period accurate, but better than brand new.”

Emma tilted her head and frowned. “They’re disgusting.”

Killian chuckled. “Aye. But Belle rented a steam cleaner. It’s out on the veranda. We need to go through all of these, clean them up, make sure they’re in good enough shape, then figure out where they should go.”

She nodded, “Okay, sounds good. We’ll need one in the foyer, two probably in the parlor, and one in the library. Think we’ll have enough?”

Killian patted the rugs. “I brought six down, and left four more on the second floor. Hopefully the rodents didn’t nibble on too many of them.”

Emma wrinkled her nose as she thought of the disgusting things they might find as they unrolled them, and Killian laughed. She pulled on the first one and grunted. “How did you lug these down from the attic all by yourself?”

“Emma,” Killian suddenly said, voice low, “don’t move.”

A shot of fear made her spine go cold as she thought of rats, snakes, and –

“It’s a spider,” Killian continued.

She had to force herself not to scream and do a ridiculous dance around the room. On her list of things that freaked her out, spiders were at the top. Without turning her head, she cut her eyes to her left and saw a black spider slowly descending from a thread of web from the top of one of the rugs. As it spun, dangling just over her shoulder, she saw a distinctive red hourglass marking on its underbelly.

“Killian,” she hissed, her fear increasing ten-fold.

“It’s a black widow, I know, just be still –“

But before either of them could figure out what to do, the spider dropped to Emma’s shoulder and then crawled more quickly than Emma could have anticipated down the front of her shirt. All calm flew out of her mind then. She screamed, trembling all over, and without thinking, she pulled her shirt over her head and flung it aside.

              *************************************************************

Killian should have been thinking about the poisonous spider if he was a decent man at all. But instead, he was distracted by the smooth porcelain of Emma’s skin, the curve of her waist just begging to be grabbed, and the way her breasts bounced as she brushed at imaginary spiders. Her bra was a tiny thing that dipped low on the swell of her breasts, and as she bent over, brushing at her arms, they almost burst free of their confines.

“Killian, where is it!” she screamed, startling him out of his inappropriate ogling.

He forced himself to examine her torso in a more clinical way and didn’t see anything. He strode quickly over to the t shirt she had tossed upon the floor, and there, crawling calmly over the wrinkled fabric, was the spider. Killian quickly brought his boot down on the creature, leaving a nasty smear of spider guts on Emma’s shirt.

“Sorry, love,” he apologized, “I didn’t want to risk losing sight of it again.”

“Thank you,” she shuddered, placing her hand to her chest. Which was heaving in a very distracting way, he couldn’t help noticing. “Did it get me?”

She pulled her hair up and off her neck, turning her back to him. Killian’s own heart was thudding now, as he gazed at what she was offering up for his perusal. He noted every freckle; one on her collarbone, a smattering around the clasp of her bra, and one large one begging to be kissed at the small of her back.

“Um, no, I don’t see anything.”

She turned to face him, her cheeks pale and her lower lip trembling. He didn’t blame her; black widow spiders were nothing to mess with. He once again scanned her frame, this time trying (and failing) to be more clinical.

He let out a relieved sigh. “No, Swan. It didn’t get you.”

Color returned to Emma’s cheeks as she lifted her gaze to meet his. She was still holding her hair in a messy heap atop her head. The atmosphere was suddenly charged, and he noted that her chest was heaving again, but in a different way. This wasn’t fear; it was desire. She dropped her hair, and it went tumbling over her shoulder, resting between her breasts in a teasing way. He couldn’t help that his eyes drifted from her eyes to watch the tresses brush against her cleavage. When he tore his gaze away, he was relieved to see a slight smirk upon her lips. She took several steps forward, reaching for him with her palms out. Her gaze never leaving his, she slipped them up his shirt, dragging her fingernails through his chest hair.

He couldn’t take it anymore; he grabbed her bare waist as he had been longing to do, and captured her lips. Emma’s hands snaked around to his back, her fingernails scratching in an intoxicating way. They both groaned as they deepened the kiss. Emma pressed herself flush against him, and his only thought was that there was too much fabric separating their skin. Emma seemed to have the same thought as she began to push up his shirt.

They parted just long enough for Killian to get his shirt over his head, then they surged together again. If possible, Emma was pressing herself even closer to him. His hands trailed along her spine, then back up again, pausing at the clasp of her bra. He unhooked it, and relished the feel of her completely bare back under his palms.

He practically growled against her lips as he realized how few surfaces were available to them in this room. He pivoted, pressing her back against the nearest wall as he tugged her bra straps free of her shoulders. Emma broke their kiss to tilt her head back, a moan escaping her lips. He sucked at her neck as he ran his thumbs over her breasts, then he trailed kisses down to the valley between them. Emma arched her back, and he needed no further encouragement as he worshiped each breast with his tongue.

Once he had her crying his name, he fumbled with the button and zipper of her jeans. Then he sank to his knees in front of her as he yanked them over her hips. He trailed kisses teasingly up her inner thigh until he felt her tugging at his hair.

“Killian,” she gasped.

He simply looked up and grinned.

              **********************************************************

Emma hooked her bra, then reached down to retrieve her t shirt from the floor. She frowned and turned to Killian, who was pulling his own shirt over his head. Watching the muscles in his arms as he performed that simple task made her think of the way she had gripped his biceps just moments ago as he had thrust into her. She shook her head to clear it. This man was like a drug!

“I . . . um . . . can’t wear this shirt,” she told him lamely. Why was this so awkward? They had been far from awkward five minutes ago. Or maybe that was easier because they hadn’t been thinking then.

“Oh, right,” he said, scratching behind his ear. “Come on out to the cabin, and I’ll find you something.”

“Yeah,” she continued, “then we can get back to these rugs.”

“Um . . .aye.”

Yes, definitely awkward.

Emma followed him out of the back of the house, through the gardens, and out of the door in the hedge. She had come to find out that he was the one who had installed the door, which was why it was so much newer than everything else. They made their way through the trees and to Killian’s cabin, the cool October air making goosebumps rise up on Emma’s bare skin. The inside of the cabin held welcomed warmth, and Killian made his way quickly to one of the two doors off the kitchen. He stepped inside and began rummaging through the drawers of a dresser in the corner of the room. Emma stood in the doorway, clutching her dirty shirt self-consciously to her chest. The bed seemed to loom large against the far wall, invitingly soft with a homey quilt draped across it.

“This should work,” Killian said as he turned to her, but when their eyes met, his expression went soft. He tossed the flannel shirt on the end of the bed before striding to her. He cupped her face with his hands and searched her face. The blue of his eyes were bright. “Oh Emma,” he breathed out, and then they were kissing again.

Emma wasn’t surprised in the least when they tumbled down to Killian’s bed for round too. Somehow, she had known all along this was why she had followed him here.

              *************************************************

Killian pulled Emma close, pressing soft kisses to her shoulder blade, her back against his chest. He marveled at how perfectly she seemed to fit against him. She turned in his arms, and he was relieved to see a relaxed smile upon her face. She reached out and traced his jaw slowly, her fingers then drifting to trace the scar on his cheek. He held his breath, partly at her tender touch, and partly from fear that she would ask about the scar. The last thing he wanted to do was lie to her directly. Lies of omission weighed on him heavily enough.

“This feels strangely right, doesn’t it?” she finally said.

He arched his brow at her. “Are you calling me strange, Swan?”

She rolled her eyes and smacked him lightly in the chest. “You know what I mean.”

He pulled her closer, pressing kisses to her hair. “If you mean this feels like exactly where we’re supposed to be, then yes.”

He felt her lips curl into a smile against his collar bone “Exactly.”

He swallowed hard, then pushed her shoulders gently so he could look into her eyes. He cupped her face again, this time kissing her forehead gently. He murmured against her skin, “There’s something I want to say, but I’m afraid you don’t want to hear it.”

“Then don’t say it,” she whispered back, “please.”

He nodded, deflating somewhat, but he had been expecting her to react that way. She startled him though, when she shoved him onto his back and straddled him. She grinned down at him, pinning his arms over his head.

“I prefer we not talk at all.”

She kissed him roughly, almost desperately. “Emma,” he groaned, sitting up so he could gather her in his arms. He broke the kiss, brushing her hair away from her face. She looked almost panicked as she pressed her fingers to his lips.

“Please, Killian.”

He sighed as he let strands of her hair slip between his fingers. “I need to at least tell you that this isn’t just –“

She wouldn’t let him finish, but brushed his lips with a chaste kiss. “I know.”

For now, it would have to be enough.

              ***********************************************************

“Belle?” Emma called as she stepped into the Hopeful Public Library.

“Over here!” the brunette called, waving her hand from behind a study cubicle in the back of the room.

Emma headed that way and found Belle surrounded by books and papers, all of which looked hundreds of years old. Emma smiled as she propped her arms on the edge of the cubicle’s partition. “I’m glad you love this part because that looks incredibly boring to me.”

Belle shrugged. “I can’t lie, I’m a total nerd. Plus, if I’m going to lead part of the ghost tours, I need to know all the facts backwards and forwards.”

She tucked her hair behind her ear in an almost nervous gesture, then quickly slammed the book in front of her shut like she had been caught at something. Before Emma could give her actions too much thought, the little bell at the circulation desk dinged, and the librarian hurried to her feet.

“Coming!” she called to her new patron.

After she left, Emma sat down in the cubicle, suddenly curious what had Belle so jumpy. An extremely old and yellowed paper, covered in a plastic sleeve, poked out from beneath the pile of books. Emma slid it out and gasped at the face she saw sketched there. The resemblance was uncanny, the slightly mussed hair, the scruffy jawline, the thick eyebrows. And even though they weren’t blue, the intensity in the eyes was the same.

It looked exactly like Killian.

In the bottom corner, the artist had scrawled her name: Milah. Emma sat back, her mind reeling. Was there a deeper reason why Killian seemed to know so much about Milah Gold and the estate? Was he a descendant of the man in this picture? And if so, why hide it?

Emma glanced over the edge of the cubicle, but Belle was guiding the elderly visitor to the arts and crafts section. Emma turned back to the stack of dusty books and opened the one Belle had shut so quickly when she arrived. Luckily, the brunette had left a slip of paper inside to mark her place. Emma scanned the words, their old-fashioned phrasing tripping her up a time or two. It was a recounting of Milah Gold’s affair with her pirate lover, that much she could comprehend. And two words stood out starkly on the page: the pirate’s name, Killian Jones.

Emma suddenly felt the air leave her lungs as she looked between what she had just read and the drawing before her. Her mind struggled to make sense of it.

“I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.”

Emma jumped to find Belle standing next to her, an intense expression on her face. Emma shook her head. “I don’t . . . I don’t know what you mean.”

“That’s him,” Belle said simply, gesturing to the drawing, “that’s Killian, the one we both know.”

Emma closed her eyes tightly. “That can’t be . . . it isn’t . . . possible,” she breathed out the last word.

“He’s cursed, you see. He can’t leave the manor grounds. He tried to save Milah, but he didn’t understand the magic he was dabbling in –“

“Magic?” Emma interrupted incredulously. She stood quickly, shoving Belle aside. “I – I – have to go.”

She dashed from the library, her breaths coming out in gasps. She raced down the sidewalk, not slowing down until she found herself at the docks. She leaned forward on her knees, waiting for the world to stop spinning. Part of her brain told her it was crazy, but another part started to process all the little signs. How he turned down Henry’s invitation to dinner at Granny’s. How he never went to the hardware store. How Belle brought him books from the library. The way he reacted to the painting of Milah and Emma’s suggestion that her grave could be a tourist attraction.

Then there was the drawing made by Milah Gold herself. It was clearly drawn by a woman who knew every inch of her lover’s face. A face Emma herself knew so well, down to the scar Emma had traced with her finger just yesterday.

Shit, was she sleeping with a three hundred year old pirate?

 

 

Chapter Text

“Get off your ass. You’re taking me on a date.” 

Emma Swan bursting through his front door with a demand upon her lips wasn’t how Killian foresaw his evening going. He set the beer he’d been nursing down on the coffee table next to his bowl of evening stew, Emma seemed to take that as Killian not taking her seriously judging by the scowl on her face and the way she fisted her hands on her hips.  

“Did you not hear me, Jones?” 

Killian lifted both hands in surrender. “I heard you, love, I’m just a bit taken aback by the delivery.” 

She shuffled nervously, but the spark of anger remained in her eyes. “Well, I’m here to ask you out, okay. Like to dinner or something.” 

Killian arched a brow. “Now?” 

“Yes now!” she practically shouted. “So why are you still sitting there?” 

He rose from the couch and approached her cautiously. He gave her a flirtatious grin as he fiddled with the ends of her hair. “A man likes to be wooed, love. Why the demand?” 

Her brow wrinkled as she searched his face frantically. “Come on, Killian, let’s get out of here and go somewhere.” 

“What’s happened, Swan? You were fine when you left here the other day.” 

She worried her bottom lip. “Maybe I want to be sure it wasn’t just sex for you. Is it so wrong to ask that you take me out?” 

He rubbed her arms up and down. “Of course, but give me time to plan the evening. You can come here tomorrow night, and I’ll serve you the best meal you’ve ever eaten.” 

Emma shook her head vehemently, stepping quickly away from his embrace. “No, I want you to take me somewhere.” 

He swallowed down the sudden fear that welled up inside and forced himself to smile charmingly. “Perhaps a picnic then, I know the perfect spot -” 

“A restaurant,” Emma interrupted firmly, “maybe even a movie.” 

He felt the color drain from his face. “I prefer a more intimate setting.” 

She stubbornly crossed her arms over her chest. “We’ve done intimate. I want to go out.” 

He let out an exasperated sigh and rubbed wearily at his forehead. “Emma, I just don’t like being around people.” 

“Bull shit. You are many things, Killian Jones, but a recluse is not one of them. It doesn’t suit your personality.” 

“Oh, really,” Killian snapped, stepping into her personal space, “you think you know me so well?” 

“Actually, I don’t think I know you at all!” 

She shouted the words so loudly, it startled them both into silence. He felt a knife twist in his gut as Emma’s face fell into a mask of hurt.  

“Are you a ghost?” she whispered. 

His eyes widened. “What I am . . . who I am . . . you wouldn’t believe me.” 

“Try me.” 

Killian collapsed onto the couch and rested his arms on his knees. He gestured to his dinner. “Ghosts don’t eat, Swan. Do they?” 

She eyed him and then his stew as if she might run out the door any second. “No. I guess not.” 

“I’m very much alive.” He winked at her in an attempt to lighten the mood. “Or did you not feel that the other day?” 

She huffed out a wry laugh. “So why can’t you leave?”  

“You’re quite perceptive, Swan. The best way to explain it is . . . I’m cursed.” 

Emma blinked, but didn’t move. “That’s what Belle said, but I had a hard time believing it. You’re the pirate. The one who was Milah Gold’s lover.” 

“Aye.” 

Emma sank onto the couch, shaking her head in disbelief. “But . . . how? Why?” 

Killian stood and paced to the window. “Gold cast the spell first, on Milah, after he learned of our dalliance. He knew it was the only way he could keep her. Milah and I truly loved one another, but she also craved freedom. She longed to travel and see the world.” 

“No wonder she fell for a pirate.” 

Killian turned to see Emma smiling at him. He nodded. “Gold assumed I would sail away and forget her. He didn’t know how deep our feelings ran.” 

“But you couldn’t just give up the sea . . . or did you?” 

Killian chuckled, rubbing at his jaw. “You sound like Milah. She wouldn’t hear of me giving up my ship.” He stepped closer to Emma and extended his hand. “Come, I’d like to show you something.” 

Emma tilted her head skeptically, yet she took his hand anyway. He searched her eyes. 

“You have nothing to fear from me, Emma,” he told her sincerely, squeezing her hand. 

She nodded. “I trust you.” 

***************************************************** 

Emma stood in awe, her hair blowing on the wind gusting up from the sea. The sound of waves breaking on the rocky Maine coast was as soothing as the warm sun beating down upon her face. It was like something out of a movie, this jagged cliff with a pristine view of the sea. 

“This is one of the farthest boundaries of my curse,” Killian said softly at her side, “and Milah’s before me. She would watch for my ship from this very spot as often as she could, and I likewise would look up to this cliff as we approached Hopeful Harbor.”  

His eyes were wistful as they gazed out at the  gorgeous view.  

“It’s so beautiful here,” Emma breathed out.  

“Aye, the sea can be so calming,” he agreed. Then he gave her a wink. “Yet it can also turn volatile on a whim. Like a woman.” 

Emma elbowed him, and he gave an exaggerated grunt. “So I take it you found reasons to come back to Hopeful often?” 

“Naturally,” Killian agreed, settling down on the quilt he had laid out on the grass. “I wasn’t about to abandon the woman I loved. This was our meeting place.” 

“Kind of exposed isn’t it?” Emma asked as she settled down beside him.  

He arched a brow. “Makes it sort of thrilling, actually.” He inclined his head towards the tree line. “There was a spot over there in the forest as well, more secluded. We not only made up for lost time with moments of intimacy, we also racked our brains trying to figure out how to break her bloody curse.” 

“Belle said you dabbled in magic you didn’t understand.” 

He chuckled. “That was an understatement. And those books of her husbands she smuggled out of the manor? They were the very ones the Hopeful parson caught her with that fateful day when everything changed.” 

Emma put her hand on his arm gently. “I’m so sorry.” 

Killian took her hand, rubbing his fingers over her knuckles. “I don’t know exactly what went wrong. All I know is the curse was transferred to me. And ironically, by freeing Milah, I gave the mob the power to kill her.” 

“That wasn’t your fault.” 

Emma took his arm and looped it over her shoulder. He pulled her close against him, pressing his lips to the top of her head. She leaned into him, closing her eyes as she relished the scent of him that enveloped her.  

“So you can’t die?” she whispered. 

“No,” he sighed, her hair fluttering under his breath, “there was a dark time when I tried to end my miserable existence. To no avail.” 

“What about Gold? That had to be some strange karma, his wife’s lover stuck on his property.” 

Killian chuckled. “Aye, that was the one silver lining in it, actually. I got my revenge rather spectacularly.” 

Emma pulled away, her eyes wide. Not that she was scandalized. In her opinion, Gold got what was coming to him. “What did you do?” 

That cocky grin of his filled his face. “I may not be a ghost, Swan, but I do a rather good impression of one. I can haunt people with the best of them. Robert Gold did indeed fall to his death from his third floor balcony, but it wasn’t because he was consumed with grief.” 

Emma grinned back. “You didn’t!” 

Killian raised both hands in defense. “Hey, I didn’t say I pushed the man. Physically, anyway. But mentally? I don’t think he could take my . . . haunting him anymore.” 

Emma laughed, shaking her head at his smug expression. Killian lay back on the quilt, crossing one arm under his head and reaching the other out to her. She gladly came to him, settling in the crook of his arm and resting her cheek on his chest.  

“How did you . . . live?” 

“In the beginning my first mate was my connection to the outside world. He became Captain of my ship, but continued to share a portion of all the spoil. He also brought me provisions. I didn’t spend all my coin, squirreling away as much as I could.” 

He fell silent as he ran his fingers through her hair. Emma twisted so she could look up at him. His expression had gone wistful again. 

“Then, after Smee,” he continued, “there were others like Belle, like your boy, who had a heart of belief. Each one was a tenuous link to the rest of the world out there.” His jaw clenched and his arm tightened at her waist. 

“But eventually they all . . . “ she couldn’t finish the thought.  

“Aye,” was all he said. Finally, he looked at her again and flashed her a light-hearted smile. “Then technology advanced by leaps and bounds. Radio, TV, cell phones, the internet. Especially the internet. As time marched on, I withdrew more and more to avoid suspicion.” He pressed a kiss to her temple. “Until now.” 

Emma rolled over, perching her chin on his chest. “It sounds lonely.” 

“It was,” he said softly, tracing her jawline with his fingertips, “and I certainly never thought I could love again after losing my Milah,” he swallowed nervously before continuing, “that is until I met you.” 

His words made the breath leave Emma’s lungs. Since she didn’t know what to say, she slid forward and pressed her lips to his.  

******************************************************* 

Killian had been right, there was something thrilling about making love out in the open in broad daylight. Though the sun was now dipping closer to the horizon, and the breeze was a cold gust. Killian had the quilt cocooned around their naked bodies. As she watched the sky turn yellow and red and felt Killian’s hand drawing circles on her back, she couldn’t think of being more content.  

“We need to head back,” Killian told her softly, though he made no move to release her. 

Emma didn’t move either, running her fingers instead lightly through his chest hair, their breaths rising and falling together. “This project with the manor . . . why is Belle so insistent on it? Won’t it make it harder for you to stay under the radar?” 

Killian’s hand stilled on her back, and he cleared his throat nervously. “Belle has this crazy idea that she’s found a way to break my curse.” 

“And how is that?” 

“Um . . . you, actually.” 

Emma sat abruptly, clutching the quilt to her chest. “What?” 

Killian sat up too, and Emma tried not to be distracted by the fact that his muscular body was no longer covered.  

“You see, the key ingredient in the spell I cast was the crushed wing of a cardinal. A symbol of freedom, or so I thought. And apparently, the other side of that coin is . . . a pure white Swan.” 

Emma’s eyes narrowed. “So this is all about my name?” 

Killian shrugged. “Belle thinks maybe it doesn’t have to be a literal Swan. Especially since she sensed a connection between us . . . “ 

Emma stood abruptly, reaching for her clothes discarded on the grass. 

“Emma,” Killian said softly.  

“So you what?” she snapped, her hands trembling as she slipped into her underwear. “You seduced me because of my last name? Thinking it might do the trick?” 

He leapt up, heedless of his nudity, and reached out for her arm. “No, Emma, of course not. My feelings for you are real. I haven’t felt alive in a hundred years, and then your boy shows up -” 

“Don’t bring Henry into this! Or are you interested in him too? Because he’s also a Swan?” 

Emma shoved her feet into her boots, trembling all over. She blinked rapidly as she faced him, refusing to let him see her cry. “I trusted you!” 

“And you were right too!” 

She backed away, both hands up in warning. “I’m leaving, okay. Don’t follow me.” 

As she turned away, he whispered, “As you wish.” 

 

 

Chapter Text

Emma couldn’t sleep that night, tossing and turning as she remembered Killian’s hurt expression as she’d left him standing by the cliffside. She’d told him twice that she trusted him, yet when it really counted, she had jumped immediately to thinking the worst of him. Just before dawn, Emma threw the covers back, frustrated with her inability to settle down. She threw on a pair of sweats, then slipped out of her and Henry’s room at the inn. With all the work on Gold Manor, she still hadn’t gotten around to finding a realtor to look at listings.   

She walked through the quiet town, amazed to find that even on Main Street, you could hear the sea. She wasn’t the least bit frightened at being out before the sun, time in her youth of living on the streets having hardened her. She did, however, remain on the alert. Some habits never left you.   

Emma didn’t have a plan when she left the inn, but suddenly she knew exactly where she wanted to go. She turned around and headed back to her bug parked behind the inn. She winced when the engine revved to life; hopefully she hadn’t awakened anyone, especially Henry. She headed down Main Street, passing the dark post office as she made her way towards the town line. She passed Hangman’s Way, then the front of the Gold Estate. She glanced that way, wondering if Killian was having as restless a night as she was.   

Finally, she turned off the road and into the tiny parking area beside the Hopeful Primitive Baptist Church. According to David and Mary Margaret, it too had been abandoned for years. Most people now worshipped at the large Catholic Church downtown where a cloister of nuns served the community.   

It wasn’t the church, however, that she was here for. She exited her bug and made her way towards the tiny plot of graves behind the church. The wrought iron fence was falling down, and the weeds grew so high that you could hardly make out the headstones. Emma tapped the flashlight app on her phone and shone the beam over the tombs. She had probably lost her mind deciding to come out here in the dark.   

The grave she sought was near the tree line. The tombstone had sunken into the ground over the years   and tilted sideways. The letters carved into the stone had been worn away almost completely over several centuries. All Emma could make out was: M  i  h G  d 166 -  693. But she knew what it said:  Milah  Gold, then beneath it 1661-1693.  

“Hi,”  Emma  said, setting her phone down on the ground at her feet so its beam would illuminate the tombstone. Emma shuffled her feet, suddenly feeling very silly. “Yeah, so I’m out here like a crazy person talking to the dead ex of the guy I’m sleeping with. Oh God, that was an awful way to break it to you . . . “  

NIce , Emma like she’s  gonna  answer you back.  

“But Killian, he uh, he’s doing well,” she tucked her arms across her chest. What was she even doing here.? “I guess I just wanted to say that you had it great, you know? A guy who could have sailed off and never looked back . . . instead, he kept finding reasons to see you again, kept looking up at that cliff, hoping you’d be there waiting. How could I have doubted him, a guy like that? I mean, did you wonder? While you were there on that cliff? Were you afraid you would never see him again? That you risked your heart for nothing?”  

Emma paused again, kicking at a pebble at her feet. “I couldn’t sleep because I felt so awful about how I left him yesterday. We had just made love -” Emma suddenly stopped and cringed. “You probably don’t want to hear about that.”  

“She’d probably say  it’s about damn time, Killian, I’ve been dead for three hundred years.”  

Emma spun towards his voice, jumping a foot in the air. “Killian, what the hell? You don’t sneak up on people in a graveyard!”  

He chuckled, but stayed where he was, shadowed in the trees. “Most people aren’t in a graveyard at four in the morning, Swan.”  

She rolled her eyes, even though she wasn’t sure he could see her. “And you don’t expect me to believe you’ve been celibate for three hundred years, do you?”  

“Well no, but,“ he started out with humor tinging his voice, but then it lowered an octave, “I wasn’t referring to just sex.”  

Emma was glad for the darkness as a blush heated her face.   

“I would come and wrap my arms around you, but I’m afraid this is as far as the curse will allow me to come,” he explained as the silence stretched between them.   

It was all Emma needed to hear. She sprinted towards him, tripping over the root of a tree, and reaching him just in time for him to catch her as she pitched forward. Even as they awkwardly regained their balance, Emma threw her arms around his neck and dove in for a kiss. But it was so dark, she missed his lips. She didn’t let it stop her, peppering his face with more kisses as he laughed. Finally, their lips connected, and he pulled her closer, his fingers entangling in her messy ponytail.   

“I’m sorry about how I took off,” she told him when he pulled away.   

“You’re forgiven,” he assured her, “and I hope you know I don’t see you as a mere means to an end.”  

She cupped his face in her hands, and at that moment the first hint of dawn illuminated his eyes. “I know that. Somehow, I’ve always trusted you. It’s just . . . running is my habit. Even when I was a kid, it’s just what I did. Henry’s dad actually told me once that home is a place where when you leave, you just miss it.  So  I guess I kept running, hoping to feel that, but I never did. Even now, as an adult, I keep running, but now from people. Except Henry.”  

“Home isn’t a place, love,” Killian said gently, brushing her hair out of her face.   

“Exactly,” Emma agreed, “Henry has always been my home, but tonight as I tossed and turned, I realized something. It sounds crazy, but . . . I just missed you. I wanted to turn the clock back and change how  I left , but not just because my words hurt you.” She shrugged. “I just want to be with you.”  

His smile widened. “And I want to be with you.”  

He bent and kissed her again, and she smiled against his lips.  ”Is  it weird that I was talking to her? To  Milah ?”  

“No,” he said, “brushing his nose with hers. The funniest part is, I was coming to talk to her, too. About you.”  

“You think she likes me? Or is she  gonna  start haunting me now?”  

“I think,” he said, thumbing her chin, “that the two of you understand one another.”  

*****************************************************  

“So, what do I do to break this curse?”  

Belle looked up from the computer at the library’s front desk, her eyebrows lifted almost to her hairline. Emma shuffled and bit her lip.  So  she didn’t do subtle, okay? She handed Belle the other to-go cup she was holding.   

“Earl grey tea with milk? They said that’s your regular order.”  

Belle smiled as she took it. “If this is bribery, I accept.” She took a sip. “I was running late this morning and had to skip stopping by the Leaf & Bean.”  

Emma grinned back as she reached for the pastry box under her arm. “I also brought bear claws.”  

Belle cocked her head as she rose from behind the counter and came around to the front. “Okay then, now that we have sustenance, let me show you what I found.”  

Emma followed her through the stacks to the table in the back corner of the room. Old books with cracked leather covers were stacked there along with piles of yellowed documents, some inside plastic sleeves. Belle set her tea down carefully on a small wheeled cart at her elbow, and Emma followed suit. It didn’t take a genius to know the items were of great historical value. It wouldn’t endear Emma to her new town if she ruined these documents with spilled coffee and vanilla glaze.   

“I finally made the connection in this book of ancient legends,” Belle explained as she thumbed through a thick volume. She opened to a wrinkled, brown-stained page.   

Emma’s brow furrowed; the writing indecipherable in her eyes. “You’re going to have to translate all this Belle, I’m lost.”  

“It’s in an extinct Celtic language,” Belle laughed, “and I had to get a friend from university to translate it for me. Anyway, it’s legends about birds.”  

Emma leaned closer. “Killian said you thought my name being Swan was important. He also said cardinals represent freedom?”  

“That’s right,” Belle said animatedly, “but Killian didn’t fully understand what kind of freedom. Legend says that every red cardinal is the soul of a person who has died.”  

Emma snapped her finger as she remembered something. “I had an elderly foster mother once who said her husband was visiting her every  time  she saw a cardinal. I just thought she was crazy.”  

Belle nodded. “That’s right. I mean, well, I don’t know if it was really that woman’s husband, but that’s what the legend is. The thing is, Killian wasn’t dead when he cast that spell -”  

“-  so  his soul is trapped,” Emma finished, finally realizing where all this was going. She shook her head. “But where does the swan come in?”  

“While cardinals represent freedom of the soul, swans represent souls tied together.”  

“You mean soul mates?”  

“Exactly.” Belle searched through her books again and pulled out a slimmer volume. She opened to yet another page that looked like an alien language to Emma.  

“Some extinct Celtic stuff again?” Emma quipped.  

“No, Latin,” Belle said, barely pausing for breath, “anyways, I tried re-casting Killian’s original spell, substituting a swan feather for a cardinal feather, but it didn’t work. Then after meeting you, I remembered reading this:  Swan in woman’s form, injustice to right, the enslaved to free .”  

Belle’s eyes were bright as she locked them with Emma’s.   

“What? Like a savior?” Emma stammered, her cheeks heating.  

“In a way,” Belle said softly. “He needs to be free of this curse, Emma. I think all you have to do is recite the incantation on the anniversary of when Killian first cast it – Halloween at midnight.”  

Emma swallowed hard, her tongue wetting her suddenly dry lips. “And what if you’re wrong? What if it doesn’t work?”  

Belle closed the book and hugged it to her chest. The smile fell from her lips. “What does he have to lose?”  

Emma’s eyes darted away from the brunette’s earnest expression. “What will happen when he’s free?”  

Belle’s answer made Emma’s blood run cold.  

“I imagine he will be free to join her. After three hundred years, he will finally pass on and be with Milah again.”