It started with Elsa.
The very first day they looked at the space, a cheerful For Lease sign in the window, they had barely gotten out of the car before Elsa was grinning. Her friend pointed across the street with an arched brow. “We’d have great company,” she said with a sly smile, nodding at the sign stretched across the opposite building.
When Emma only stared at her mutely, Elsa shook her head, blonde braid tumbling over her shoulder. “Really? I couldn’t get Anna to shut up about it for almost three weeks after they ran that piece in the paper.”
“You know I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Emma glanced back over her leather-clad shoulder, eyes tracing the delicate swoop of the lettering. Second Star to the Right appeared to be a tattoo shop – the swirling paint on the front glass even proclaimed it to be so.
“The guy who owns it was on one of those tattoo shows. I have it on good authority he’s rather attractive.” Elsa waggled her brows, laughing at Emma’s eye roll. “C’mon, I know you don’t watch a lot of TV, but everyone was talking about him a few months ago.”
“I don’t know that I’d ever put your sister and authority in the same sentence. And isn’t she engaged?” she asked, ignoring the jab. Emma didn’t have a whole lot of time for TV – what little free time she did have she preferred to spend reading down by the ocean or stretched out in the park. Or hiking. Or really anything that didn’t involve someone else’s screwed up version of “reality” broadcast for the masses.
“Yep.” Elsa smiled ruefully, folding her arms and leaning back against the glass of the retail space they were hoping to call their own, if the realtor ever showed up. “But that doesn’t seem to stop her from gushing.”
Emma rolled her eyes again, thankful when she spotted the black Mercedes barreling down the road straight toward them. “Well, let’s not base our decision on your sister’s opinion of the neighbors. Your decision, I mean.”
“Our decision.” Elsa laughed, slinging her arm around Emma’s shoulders. “You’re stuck with me now. No going back.”
“I still think it should be just your name on the lease. You can pay me like any other employee.”
“No way. This was your idea. I’d never have convinced my mom without you. You pretty much saved my life.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re really dramatic?”
“Runs in the blood!” Elsa’s grin widened, and she squeezed Emma’s shoulder before letting her go. “C’mon, could you really see me in politics?”
“Yes,” Emma answered without thinking. Elsa’s family was powerful, and she had been groomed from an early age to take over the legacy. She had the political science degree to prove it – but she’d never wanted to rule. She’d wanted to be her own person, and she credited Emma with being the one to give her the confidence to do just that. So when she’d successfully convinced her parents she wanted to go into business for herself, they’d happily handed over a chunk of change to get their daughter started. They were convinced it was a stepping stone to a political career, that a young, independent business owner was an excellent foundation for a future senator.
Elsa hadn’t bothered to burst their bubble.
Thankfully, the realtor rushed up then, stopping Emma from having to awkwardly explain herself. The topic was dropped as the two women focused on evaluating their potential storefront, poking into dusty corners and murmuring to each other about where they could set up their wares.
They took it.
A month later, they opened the doors of Frozen to the small, seaside tourist trap of Storybrooke, Maine. To think, the whole thing had started with Emma whining about there not being a decent place to get ice cream in the tiny town, despite its heavy summer crowd. Elsa had jokingly said they should just open their own shop, and it would have died there, but over the winter, the idea had grown a life of its own. With the summer tourist crowd that inevitably descended on Storybrooke’s handful of bed and breakfasts, there was a market for it.
“Besides, do you really want to spend another summer waiting on tourists at Granny’s?” Elsa had asked with a smile, pushing her oh-so-official, neatly typed business plan at Emma. “Why not wait on them at our shop?”
“Glad to see that double major in business your mom made you get is good for something other than her bragging rights,” she’d commented, sipping her coffee and staring at the paper in front of her. She had a college degree of her own, not that she had thought far enough ahead to major in anything useful, and a looming mountain of debt to go with it.
And no, she didn’t want to work for Granny forever, either.
Elsa had shrugged, starting to pull the plans back. “Well, if you’re not interested, I guess I could…”
Emma snatched the paper back before Elsa managed to remove it. “I didn’t say I wasn’t interested.”
It hadn’t taken long from there for it to all come together. Amazing how that worked with Elsa’s family’s money, but Emma hadn’t been able to find it in herself to be bitter when it presented her with a solution to her own problems. So what if neither of them knew a thing about how to make ice cream? They’d figure it out. Elsa had the kind of personality that made people want to buy a bridge, and Emma, well, she had a stubborn streak that wouldn’t let them fail.
Not to mention those pesky student loans.
And by some combination of miracles and sheer determination, it worked.
Anna had been right about their neighbor – Killian Jones was rather attractive. Emma found out first hand when he came by to introduce himself, all tanned skin and crisp accent. He appeared in a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt, simple clothes, but the jeans clung to his thighs and the shirt highlighted toned biceps, delicate lines of ink curling around them. Topped off with sparkling blue eyes and messy dark hair just long enough to want to run her fingers through, he was a little too easy to look at.
“Nice to have a bit of something sweet across the street,” he said after offering his name and obtaining theirs, glancing around the bright shop before landing on Emma behind the counter. Elsa stood beside her, but for some reason, his eyes dropped to Emma’s lips and stayed there as he added, “Very nice, indeed.”
“Um, thanks?” Emma lifted an eyebrow as he continued staring, and when he finally lifted his eyes to hers, the tips of his ears turned a shade of pink she absolutely did not find adorable.
“Should you ladies ever require any assistance, please feel free to ring. Always happy to assist a lass in need.” Whatever embarrassment he may have felt at being caught staring evaporated quickly, his grin filled with delight and his words dripping with innuendo, all in a lilting accent Emma was not charmed by in the slightest. “In the meanwhile, what would you recommend to your devilishly handsome new neighbor?” He ran his tongue suggestively over his bottom lip, winking at Emma.
“Does that actually work on women?” she asked, dodging Elsa’s elbow and smiling sweetly. She didn’t give a shit how good he looked with his arms folded across his chest, ink draped over his tanned skin – he knew he was good looking, and where she didn’t mind confidence, arrogance was another story.
“Emma just made up a batch of Rocky Road,” Elsa cut in before he could snark back at her, and a part of her was almost disappointed at being deprived the verbal sparring match. She so rarely came up against a worthy opponent. “It’s her favorite,” her supposed friend tacked on, offering up her own smug grin when Emma narrowed her eyes.
He left with a double scoop and another lingering stare.
“He likes you,” Elsa all but sang, watching Killian walk out the door.
“He’s just supporting another local business. And I suspect, in his mind, being nice.” Emma rolled her eyes, refusing to watch the way the wind ruffled his hair. “A man that looks like that flirts with everything that walks.”
Emma didn’t have time for flirting. She needed her business to succeed too badly. Someone still had to pay her portion of the rent along with all her other bills.
“Funny, I was standing right next to you, but he didn’t stare at me like he was imagining me naked.”
“He was not imagining me naked.” Emma paused, flushing to the roots of her hair. “And even if he was, that’s kind of gross,” she tacked on, summoning up what she hoped was an appropriate level of indignation.
“Not if you were picturing him naked.” Elsa narrowly dodged the plastic spoon Emma flung at her, her neat braid swinging over her shoulder as she laughed. “Oh, you were!”
Killian didn’t turn up again until a week later, and Emma cursed when she saw him sauntering across the road. She was alone in the shop, Elsa off with her sister at a dress fitting, and a rare afternoon lull left the place empty. Other than glimpses of Killian coming and going, she hadn’t seen him since his first visit, much to her relief. Elsa had teased her enough the first time.
“Afternoon, Swan.” The bell on the door hadn’t even stopped jangling before he was in front of her counter, leaning his elbows on the granite and peering up at her from beneath dark lashes. “How are you this fine day?”
“Busy,” she grumbled, ignoring him in favor of stocking the bottles of toppings. None of them were empty, but she needed something to do with herself to keep her hands busy and avoid strangling him.
“That’s a shame. I was hoping for another of your fine recommendations. I so enjoyed our chat last week.” She merely lifted her head, eyebrows raised. He shrugged in response, folding his hands together and painting the picture of innocence across his features. “I rather enjoyed such a delicious treat. Have you any other suggestions? A man likes variety.” He grinned, eyes dancing.
Emma smiled sweetly in response. “If I recall, Elsa was the one doing the recommending last time you were here.”
“Ah, but she did say it was your favorite, love.”
Something about the way he said love sent a shiver down her spine, but Emma didn’t have time for his flirtations or where they might lead. He wasn’t someone she could walk out on in the middle of the night and never see again – he owned the business across the street from hers. “So another double scoop of Rocky Road? We also sell pints of the stuff. Should last you awhile.”
“Trying to get rid of me, Swan?”
She huffed, folding her arms over her chest and forgetting her task. “Don’t you have your own customers?”
He shrugged, the action pulling today’s snug T-shirt tight across his shoulders. Emma kept her eyes on his face, refusing to allow them to wander over his toned chest and trim waist. She absolutely was not wondering what sort of tattoos might be hiding beneath his clothes to accompany the ones decorating his arms.
“My next appointment isn’t for an hour. And a man’s got to eat.”
“Ice cream for lunch? Are you twelve?”
Mischief danced in his eyes. “On occasion.” Behind him, the bell jangled against the door, and Emma breathed out a sigh of relief. Paying customers meant he would have to make a decision or leave.
He almost looked disappointed, but his teasing smile was back so quickly she was sure she imagined it. “Two pints of Rocky Road, then, darling.”
Good, she thought as she grabbed the containers and an ice cream scoop, putting her frustration into attacking the ice cream. Two pints should definitely last him awhile, she told herself, already knowing he hadn’t really come back for the ice cream.
Sure enough, the following Thursday, he was back again.
“Please don’t tell me you went through two pints of ice cream in a week,” she said in greeting, rolling her eyes as he approached with a grin. To her dismay, there was no bite in the words.
“What can I say, love? I was helpless against it taunting me from the freezer, just beckoning to be devoured.” The way his eyes lingered on her mouth sent a shiver down her spine, and when he glanced up, there was heat in his gaze. There was no way he was just talking about the damned ice cream.
“So what do you want, another two Rocky Road?” She was already reaching for a container, ignoring his bright blue eyes and the invitation in them – no matter how tempting it was to think about what sort of devouring he might be capable of.
“Have dinner with me.”
“Seriously?” She turned back to him, the empty pint in her hand. Something that looked a whole lot like insecurity flashed across his face, but then the confident grin was back. If she wasn’t so determined not to get involved with him, it might have been endearing.
“Aye. Perhaps tomorrow night? I’ve a lovely sailboat, and the weather is supposed to be quite nice. We could even have Rocky Road, if you like.” He rocked back on his heels, his hands shoved in his back pockets. Emma watched the motion, her gaze roaming over the tattoos she never let herself examine with any amount of interest. It didn’t surprise her he had a boat, not with the anchor and compass-rose, and what looked to be bits of rope delicately weaving up his arm. No, that man belonged on the sea. If she ran her tongue over his skin, she’d probably be able to taste the brine on him.
“Or I could show you the rest of my tattoos,” he offered with a teasing smirk, stepping closer to the counter and lowering his voice. “I think you might like the one right above…”
“You can’t be serious,” she cut in, ignoring the heat that rose in her cheeks at his implication – and the fact that he’d caught her staring. “Do you want ice cream or not?”
He hesitated, that odd measure of insecurity lingering in his eyes once more. The tips of his ears turned pink, but he smiled at her with his usual swagger. “Sure, Swan. Two pints of whatever you fancy.”
She packed up two containers of sea-salt caramel and didn’t let herself think about why.
“Shouldn’t you be putting tattoos of butterflies on college girls or something?” Emma asked, hot and annoyed when he turned up the following week. The air-conditioning had broken, and though Elsa was in the back on the phone with the repairman, it would probably be another two days before it got fixed. Even with the door held open to the breeze off the harbor, it was already unbearably hot before noon. “You’ve got a steady parade of them.”
His obnoxiously attractive grin lit up his whole face. “Jealous, darling?”
Emma hated him in that moment, all cool confidence while she stood there with her hair sticking to the back of her neck. “I’m not in the mood, Jones. In case you haven’t noticed, the air is out. Order something or go back to your own place.”
“It’s delightfully cool out on the water in the evening. The offer for a sail still stands.” And this time, it was a much more genuine offer, not filled with the brashness of the first. This time, he was actually asking, not toying with her, and for a moment, she was tempted to say yes.
But he still worked across the street, and it wasn’t like she could quit her job when she owned the place and needed it to pay her rent. “I’m busy tonight,” she lied, pushing the wisps of hair escaping her messy ponytail out of her face.
He nodded, offering a tight smile, and she had the sinking sensation he knew she’d lied. “All right, Swan. Might I get two pints of whatever it was you decided on last week? It was delicious.”
She didn’t feel guilty at all as she scooped his ice cream and sent him on his way, his shoulders ever so slightly slumped forward – she didn’t.
“So, how many Thursdays, exactly, has Killian come in?” Elsa asked, far too innocent as she stood next to Emma, helping to refill toppings as they worked on closing up for the night.
“You know he’s here every week,” Emma grumbled, giving the maraschino cherries far more attention than they required.
“Does he ask you out every week?”
Emma’s jaw tightened, ignoring the question as she continued to fuss over the cherries. Somehow or another, Killian usually managed to turn up when Elsa wasn’t around – almost as if he planned it that way. But today, her friend and business partner had been the one standing at the counter when he’d walked in.
“He talked to me about the weather for almost ten minutes, Emma. He was stalling until you showed up. It was kind of cute, actually.”
“He just likes to annoy me.”
“Uh huh. That’s why he always wants you to pick what flavor he gets. And manages to ask you to dinner, or sailing, or for drinks every single week.” Elsa paused, stopping her work for a moment and staring out the windows at Killian’s shop. “You know, two pints of ice cream every week and that man doesn’t look like he’s gained a pound. He must work out a lot.” Her tone was far too suggestive.
Emma rolled her eyes and went back to work, firmly ignoring Elsa.
Summer’s long days gave way to fall’s cool nights, and business began to slow as the town emptied out. The summer season that craved ocean views and warm sunsets hung up its hat and made way for the rich reds and golden leaves of fall, and the majority of their business went with it. A welcome respite, even if a part of Emma grew nervous at the drop in income, despite their careful budgeting. Granny now regularly placed large orders to serve their ice cream at her diner, and she planned to continue to do so through winter, but Emma was still anxious.
Elsa yawned from across the counter, leaning down to pillow her head against her folded arms. “I swear this has been the longest summer of my life.”
“Even longer than that time your mom made you campaign with her?” Emma asked wryly over her shoulder before continuing to wipe down the large mirror above the shelf.
A groan emerged from beneath the blonde tangle that had once upon a time been a braid. “Okay, maybe not that long.”
Emma laughed, crumpling up the paper towels in her hand and throwing them in the trash. “At least I think we made enough money to stay in business until next summer.”
That got her friend’s attention. Elsa gave her a sharp look as she stood up, frowning slightly. “We made more than enough money to stay in business through the winter. Give yourself some credit, Emma. You busted your ass this summer.”
“We both did. And your mom sending everyone and their mother in for ice cream didn’t hurt. Or that huge order for her barbeque.”
Elsa shrugged, holding her hand out for the paper towels and glass cleaner. “Either way, we did it. I’m looking forward to sleep.”
“We still have Anna’s wedding in a few weeks.” Elsa’s sister had decided to serve their ice cream to her guests, but in true Anna fashion, she hadn’t been satisfied by anything less than ten different flavors.
“Which we’ve been planning for two months. And since I’ve checked the order about three hundred times myself, I think we’ve got that covered.” Elsa’s smile turned sly, her eyes wandering toward the front of the shop. “What are you going to do with all that spare time? Maybe take a walk across the street?”
“And why would I do that?”
“Killian is there.”
“And he spent an entire summer coming in here every Thursday to ask you out – despite the fact that you kept turning him down with incredibly flimsy excuses.” Elsa’s eyes narrowed. “And I think you’ve got to have run out of them by now.”
“He doesn’t understand the word no. Like a toddler. Or a stalker.”
“Oh, c’mon. The man likes ice cream. And annoying me. Because I’m stupid enough to let myself be annoyed.”
“The man likes you.”
Emma’s cheeks heated, her attention narrowing down to the task at hand as she struggled to ignore her friend as she did every time this topic came up. So what if Killian always gave her that devastating grin when he walked through the door? So what if sometimes he brought her a hot chocolate on a cool morning, extra whipped cream and cinnamon perfectly applied? He flirted with Elsa, too. Sometimes.
He never asked Elsa to dinner or drinks or his boat, though.
She never admitted to anyone how much she’d come to look forward to his Thursday appearances, despite what she’d told Elsa. Whatever crap the week threw at her, she knew on Thursday, Killian and his shit-eating grin would pop up at some point and make her laugh.
Until the Thursday he didn’t.
It was well into October, and they’d shortened their hours to account for the drop in business, but the shop was still open for the locals. Now that the summer crowds – and lines – had departed, more of the town found time to investigate their newest addition. Elsa had spent summers in Storybrooke since she was a child, her family’s massive seaside cottage – mansion – just on the outskirts of town, and most of the people remembered her. They remembered Emma too – as the troubled foster-kid the sheriff and his wife has adopted when she was fourteen.
But by the time they closed, the sun long set, Killian hadn’t set foot inside the ice cream parlor.
Elsa, to her credit, didn’t say anything as Emma scowled, her eyes on the lights across the street. His shop was still open, and she’d seen him walk into it this morning. He was there, right there. Why hadn’t he come in for his usual Thursday dose of ice cream and banter?
But Elsa did say something as she turned the key in the lock behind them, nodding across the street. “There’s nothing wrong with admitting you like him, Emma.”
“I don’t like him,” she answered automatically, ignoring the tightening of her ribs around her lungs.
Her friend sighed, fiddling with the end of her braid. “You spent the whole summer turning him down. Maybe he decided it was time to give up.”
“He wasn’t serious.”
“Oh, Emma.” Elsa shook her head, taking a step closer and laying her hand on Emma’s shoulder. “He was serious. The whole town knows he likes you. I’m surprised your parents haven't asked you about it yet.”
Killian didn’t come in the following Thursday, either. Emma spent the day alternating between glaring at the clock and glaring at the shop front across the street. When Elsa caught her, she sighed, following her gaze.
“Just go over there.”
“Fine, I’ll go. What flavor does he like these days?”
“The man spent a fortune here on ice cream this summer. I think we can afford to give him a free pint,” Elsa said slowly, each word carefully enunciated. It did nothing to hide the smile tugging at the corner of her lips, and Emma hated her a little for it.
“Why?” she demanded, far more annoyed than she should have been. Why did Elsa care so much about Killian Jones? Why did it bother her that Elsa cared so much about Killian Jones?
“Because I’m worried about him. Granny said he hasn’t been in her place, either.” The hint of a smile dropped, Elsa’s pale brows knitting together. “He’s been going to work, but otherwise not really talking to anyone. I think something is wrong.”
Emma hesitated, not wanting to admit to the worry she’d been trying to ignore herself. Snatching the pint out of Elsa’s hand, she pushed up her sleeve and started scooping out the blueberry ice cream Killian had loved so much when she’d first made it in late July. It had been better then, with the fresh berries, but this was the last of what she’d made from her frozen stash. It would be a shame for him to miss out.
“I’ll be right back,” she muttered, shoving the pint and a handful of plastic spoons into a paper bag. Ignoring Elsa’s knowing look, she stalked across the street without bothering to grab her coat. It wasn’t far, and she wasn’t staying.
The cold gust of wind off the harbor snarled her hair instantly, and she shivered violently as she ripped open the door to the tattoo shop. Killian was nowhere to be found, the shop tidy but seemingly empty.
“Hello?” she called out, the silence disconcerting. Where the hell was he? She glanced over her shoulder, the ice cream shop’s lights spilling onto the dark street cheerfully. She should just leave the bag on the counter and go.
Except then it might melt, and with how much ice cream he bought from them, he had to have a freezer in the place. And the last of the blueberry ice cream Elsa had frowned at before it became their most popular summer flavor, well, that shouldn’t go to waste either.
“Killian?” She took a tentative step, then another toward the darkened back of the shop.
The sound of broken glass came crashing out of the murky light, Killian’s vigorous cursing following. That made up her mind quickly enough, and she hurried toward the back room. “Are you all right?” she blurted out as soon as she laid eyes on him, already kneeling down to mop up the broken glass. The smell of alcohol stung her nose, and as she swept her eyes over the mess, she realized it was a broken rum bottle.
“You’re going to cut yourself on the glass. Where’s your dustpan?” It came out too harshly, but Emma ignored her irritation with herself and set the ice cream down on the closest flat surface.
“No need to fuss, Swan.” He glanced up, revealing bloodshot eyes and dark smudges beneath them. “I’ve got this in hand.” His words slurred together, alcohol and deep, heart-wrenching pain coating every syllable. Turning his attention back to the mess, he swept another pile of it together – and swore again.
“Bloody hell that stings!” He dropped the paper towel, a splotch of red clearly visible as he lifted his palm to his face. It was Emma’s turn to swear as blood trickled from the cut, plain against his unusually pale skin.
“I told…” She stopped, swallowing the rest of her sentence. Something was desperately wrong already, and saying I told you so while he bled all over the floor wouldn’t help anyone. “Let me see,” she said more gently, carefully stepping around the mess and reaching for the roll of paper towels on his desk.
“I’ll sort it out.”
“Give. Me. Your. Hand.” She stood above him expectedly, her patience thinning rapidly. His eyes met hers, still a startling shade of blue despite his obvious fatigue, and held for a long, challenging moment before he muttered something unintelligible under his breath and rose shakily to his feet.
She inspected his hand silently, relieved the cut wasn’t deep. He winced as she dabbed at the blood, squinting to make sure he hadn’t gotten glass stuck in the gash. “Do you keep bandages here?”
“Gauze and tape,” he mumbled, jerking his head back toward the front of the shop.
“Honestly, Swan, you needn’t…”
“First drawer down beside the sink.”
She left him standing there, struggling to swallow her irritation. Why was she even so upset? He’d been stupid and hurt himself. People were stupid and hurt themselves all the time. It didn’t fill her with an inexplicable combination of burning anger and sharp concern.
Pushing her emotions aside, she located the gauze and tape, then made a quick inspection of the shop until she located a broom and dustpan. She found Killian where she’d left him, collapsed into a leather chair, his palm cradled to his chest. His eyes were closed.
“You better not be asleep.” He blinked up at her when she spoke, blearily squinting. “Good. Give me your hand,” she demanded once she had his attention.
He obeyed this time, watching her with an unreadable expression as she bandaged his hand and swept up the glass. It was only once she’d dumped the last of it into the trash that she remembered the ice cream, probably already beginning to melt in the warm shop. “Where’s your freezer?”
“Yes, freezer. You have to have one with the amount of ice cream you buy, since you obviously don’t live here.”
“Aye, but why do you need it?”
He sounded so genuinely baffled her cheeks grew hot, and she kept her eyes on the wall behind him. “I brought you ice cream,” she said awkwardly, snatching the bag off the cabinet it had been sitting on.
“It’s Thursday,” she said, as if that explained what she was doing there. Her teeth sunk into her bottom lip, suddenly nervous. At a loss for what else to do with her hands, she handed him the bag. “You didn’t come in last week, either.”
“Aye.” He didn’t say anything else, the crinkle of paper and the clatter of plastic spoons the only noise in the quiet.
“It’s the last of the blueberry. Not as good as the stuff I made in July, because the berries have been frozen since I picked them, but still good. There won’t be anymore until next summer unless I go down to Costco in Portland for more blueberries, but that would be really expensive, and they’re not even from Maine anymore. I don’t actually know where blueberries come from this time of year. Chile, maybe? Or California, or…”
“Swan.” Killian arched a brow at her, setting the bag down and saving her from her own stupidity. Why was she talking about blueberries so much? Killian didn’t give a damn about blueberries. And what was she even still doing standing there? He clearly wasn’t in a good mood and probably wanted to be left alone. “Why did you bring me ice cream?” he asked again, his words so quiet she barely heard him.
“I told you, it’s Thursday.” Emma’s cheeks grew warmer, and she shifted her weight toward the door. She should really leave, but something about him made her hesitant to go. Why had he been sitting in the dark drinking by himself in his shop? And why did he look like he hadn’t slept in days?
“Why did you stop coming in?” she blurted out, shoving her hands in her pockets to keep from doing something stupid, like touching him. Emma wasn’t a touchy person, never had been, but there was something about the slump to his shoulders that made her want to wrap her arms around him.
He shrugged, whatever vulnerability she thought she saw wiped clean. “It will be winter soon. I can’t eat that much ice cream all winter, cooped up inside.”
“That’s all?” She didn’t know why she asked, but for some reason, she couldn’t let it go. Something was off with him, and after an entire summer of their weekly verbal sparring matches, she thought she knew him enough to recognize he wasn’t himself.
“Should I have another purpose?” he asked, grabbing the ice cream bag with his uninjured hand and bending to open a door she hadn’t noticed below the desk. The small fridge/freezer combo didn’t contain much, just a few bottles of water and a tray of ice cubes, but the ice cream fit neatly.
“No, I guess not.” She shifted her weight from foot to foot, glancing over her shoulder at the door. “Well, uh, don’t be a stranger.” Silently groaning at herself, she turned to leave, a fresh flush creeping over her face to the roots of her hair.
“Emma?” She stopped at the sound of her name, pivoting around in the doorway. He was watching her, but his eyes fell to the floor when she looked at him. “Thank you,” he said softly, scratching behind his ear. When he lifted his head, he kept his focus on the wall behind her.
“You’re welcome.” She hesitated another moment, wondering if she should ask what was wrong, wondering if he would invite her to stay – wondering why she even was considering him asking her to stay like it could happen. “Goodnight,” she said eventually when it became clear an invitation wasn’t going to be forthcoming.
But she felt his eyes on her the entire walk back to her shop.
She didn’t tell Elsa Killian had been drinking, or about the broken glass, or about the haunted expression he’d worn – she didn’t say one word about how his quiet thank you had made her chest ache, something inherently sad lurking in the simple words.
Instead, she spent the next week wondering if he would appear or not on Thursday. She made a batch of sea-salt caramel, telling herself it was not because she always thought of him when she made it. She’d give him something else when – if – he came in.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about last week?” Elsa had been not-so-subtly trying to pry information out of Emma since she’d come back to the shop, flustered and refusing to say anything more than she’d given him the ice cream and he’d said thank you. Now that Thursday was upon them, and there was only an hour left before they closed, her friend’s gentle prodding had turned into full on concern every time she caught Emma glancing at the clock or the building across the street.
“There’s nothing to talk about.” Emma huffed, straightening the already neat stack of sugar cones. “I think maybe we should start closing earlier. No one comes in this late anymore, and it’s only going to get colder.”
“What do you want me to say? I told you, I went over there, I gave him the ice cream, and he said thank you. That’s it.”
“You were gone for almost twenty minutes. It doesn’t take that long to hand over a bag and leave. You’re hiding something.” Elsa frowned, toying with the end of her braid. “Usually I’d just let you be. I know you have your secrets. But whatever happened is bothering you, and I hate to see you in pain.”
“I’m not…” She trailed off, swallowing her words. Lying to Elsa really wasn’t her style, and it was impossible to deny that she was bothered by the time she’d spent with Killian. He was always so full of life, ready to tease and joke and shamelessly flirt, but that night, he’d been quietly melancholy. She didn’t know what bothered her more – that he had been upset, that he hadn’t wanted to tell her why he was upset, or that she cared so damn much about it.
But she didn’t want to say any of that out loud, so instead she shrugged helplessly at her friend. “I…Killian…it was just…” Out of habit, she glanced across the street, only to find the man in question hurrying across. “Shit.”
“What…oh.” Elsa grinned, inching toward the back. “I’ve just got to…paperwork.” She was gone before Emma could protest.
“Evening, Swan,” Killian said as he entered, once again scratching behind his ear with his eyes on the wall behind her. He was almost shy, and that alone was enough to unsettle her. Killian Jones was a great many things, but he’d never been shy in her presence before.
“Hi,” she said stupidly, wiping her hands on her apron and pasting on her cheerful-ice-cream-shop-owner smile. “Decided it wasn’t too cold for ice cream after all?”
“Something like that.” He raked a hand through his hair, the flex of muscle visible beneath the snug long-sleeved shirt he wore. With his arms covered, only one delicate line of ink was visible where his shirt was unbuttoned. Emma had the ridiculous desire to trace that line with her tongue, to tug open the rest of the buttons that ran a third of the way down his shirt and see just what was hiding beneath.
“Any preference tonight?” Emma asked, snapping herself out of her thoughts with a hard shake of her head.
“Which flavor says best I’m a bit of an ass and I’m sorry?” A hint of his usual good humor shone in his eyes, tentative and fragile. He laughed quietly, a nervous, anxious sound, and shoved his hand through his hair again. “I fear I owe you an explanation, love.”
“You don’t owe me anything.”
“No, really, it’s okay. You were…I just showed up, uninvited, and you were, well, whatever you were doing, and…”
“I was…trying to forget what day it was,” he finally said, pain flashing through his eyes. “It wasn’t a day I wanted to be aware of.” He smiled, hesitant, and let out his breath in a sigh. “I’ve never spoken of this before. I didn’t expect to find it quite so difficult.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself to me.”
“Perhaps, but I wish to.” He hesitated, glancing around the empty shop and taking another deep breath. “Last Thursday was the anniversary of my brother’s death. Ten years, and it still smarts like it was yesterday.” There was a catch in his words, and his eyes snapped shut for a long, silent moment. “It had nothing to do with you, love,” he said as he opened his eyes once more, reaching for her hand where it lay on the counter. His skin was warm against hers, the pressure of his fingers light. “I’ve spent ten years drinking myself into oblivion when the anniversary arrives. I hadn’t expected company.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“You have nothing to apologize for.” He let her go, shoving his hands into the pocket of his jeans. “You didn’t deserve my behavior.”
She waved her hand dismissively, swallowing past the sudden rise of emotion. She’d never had siblings – no family at all, for the first fourteen years of her life. It was impossible to imagine what it would have felt like to have that kind of love, only to have it ripped away. Killian didn’t seem that much older than her – he’d lost his brother young. “It’s fine, really. If I had known…” Her voice trailed off, unable to complete her sentence. What would she have done if she had known?
“While I regret my behavior, I do not regret you stopping by,” Killian said when it became clear she wasn’t going to speak. Flashing her a wry grin, he added, “The headache is much less terrible in the morning when one overindulges in blueberry ice cream in place of rum.”
Emma laughed despite herself, unable to resist his playful teasing. He really was a beautiful man when he smiled, especially the smile he wore now – genuine and open, none of the innuendo-filled smirks she’d met with over the summer in sight. “That’s the last of it until next year. Hope you enjoy it.”
“I enjoy your company.” There was a brutal honesty in the words, and Emma sucked in her breath as she met his stare. He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something else, something devastating and likely to leave her helpless before him, but his expression shifted and he was grinning his normal grin again. “I also rather enjoy your ice cream and would be much obliged if you would select me another two pints for this week’s overindulgences.”
“You’re ridiculous, you know that?” But she was already reaching for the stack of empty pint containers, an easy smile on her lips to match his. “Are you feeling more sinfully chocolate or citrus fresh?”
“I find I’m rather partial to sin.” His gaze darkened, his tongue running over his bottom lip in a move that appeared to be unconscious, his attention fully on her. Heat blazed down her spine, and Emma forced herself to look away.
“Chocolate it is!” she said a little too cheerfully, all her attention on the ice cream case. She was thankful for the cold air wafting up from it once she opened the glass, a much-needed icy blast against her warm cheeks.
“Aye, chocolate,” he repeated, distracted and far away.
Emma didn’t bother to stop herself from staring as he left, the bag of ice cream neatly tucked into the crook of his arm. His jeans hugged his thighs and ass almost too perfectly, and she was just starting to daydream about what might be beneath all that denim when Elsa stepped out of the backroom.
“Just ask him out,” her friend said, following her gaze across the street. “He’s not going to say no. You obviously want him.”
“Wanting isn’t the problem,” Emma said softly, a pang of longing so intense ripping through her she wrapped her arms around herself. “It’s what happens when the wanting runs out.”
Beside her, Elsa sighed heavily. She dropped a hand to Emma’s shoulder, squeezing before she walked away. “For what it’s worth, I think you’re wrong,” she said quietly from the doorway to the backroom. “I don’t think that man will ever stop wanting you.”
“I do,” Emma whispered, tearing her eyes away from the empty road. She ignored Elsa’s noise of protest, turning her attention to wiping down the already-clean counter. It didn’t matter what her friend thought, or what Emma wanted – she knew how the story ended, and it wasn’t worth it.
Except maybe it was.
Emma couldn’t get Killian out of her thoughts. Much to her chagrin – and Elsa’s amusement – any time she found herself spacing out during a slow moment in the day, her eyes inevitably found themselves trained on the shop across the way. And with it being late October in Maine, there were a lot of slow moments.
“I don’t know why you keep torturing yourself.” Elsa folded her arms across her chest, raising a pointed brow. “Just go over there and tell him you changed your mind about seeing his boat.”
“You know it’s almost November, right? I’m sure the boat is put away for the winter.” Emma rolled her eyes, ignoring the pang of longing. Would it really have been too much of a distraction if she had taken him up on his offer in August? She walked by the harbor every day, and every day she stared at it with longing, breathing deeply with the taste of salt on her tongue. Except by this time of the year, it was more a sideways glance and a shiver, the water already turning icy.
“Then go over there and tell him you want to jump him. It’s more honest.”
“Then why are you bright red?”
“Yeah, okay.” Elsa sighed, reaching around Emma to where her car keys hung on the hook. Elsa shoved them into her hand, giving her a not-so-gentle push toward the door. “It’s grocery day. I think you need to get out of here more than I do. There’s a list in the office for Costco.”
Emma glared at her friend, but she went.
It was a long drive, and since the stereo in her Bug had gone some time ago, she had little but her thoughts to keep her company. I really should let David fix that, she thought with a sigh, glancing forlornly at the silent radio. He’d offered, several times, but she felt guilty asking him for anything. David and Mary Margaret had already done so much for her, and while they had been telling her for years they were her parents and wanted to help, sometimes it felt like too much.
Despite being back in Storybrooke, she’d barely seen them all summer either. Mary Margaret had popped in for ice cream once in awhile, school out for summer, but David had his hands full with a town full of tourists. Those quick glimpses hadn’t really been enough, but she’d been driven with an almost desperate urge to ensure they made it through the summer with enough to spare for winter.
So though she was always happy to scoop her foster parents a sugar cone of vanilla or whip up a chocolate milkshake, with winter waiting in the wings, she knew she needed to make more of an effort to see them. The ice cream shop would keep. Maybe she would invite Killian, since he seemed to be lacking when it came to family. He shared a sense of humor with David, and they’d probably get along.
Sitting at a red light, Emma shook her head with a mumbled curse. What the hell was wrong with her? She wasn’t going to invite Killian to dinner with her parents out of the blue. She wasn’t going to have dinner with Killian, period.
But somehow, though they hadn’t planned to make any new flavors this month, Emma found herself adding extra cocoa and chocolate to her massive cart. She had the strangest impulse to make a more decadent chocolate ice cream, dark and creamy, with chocolate chunks and fudge swirl.
It had nothing to do with Killian’s sinful chocolate preference and the desire to see the look on his face when she packed up two pints of the stuff. Nothing at all.