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Hope is the Thing With Feathers

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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.