The west wing of the Nolan family’s Bath estate always smelled of freshly baked bread. A loaf was baked daily, the oven firing up no matter the temperature inside or out. The kitchen staff produced bread tirelessly, sourdough or even a baguette always fragrenting the estate and making the residents hungry. Each member of the Nolan family tended to visit the kitchen each morning, seeking an extra slice of the kitchen’s specialty, despite breakfast nearly being ready. And while each member of the Nolan family went seeking a treat, there never seemed to be enough by simple coincidence. However, there always seemed to be an extra serving made just for the eldest Nolan.
Leopold always became jealous, his annoyance clear as he pouted whenever his sister’s special helping of bread was given to her. Mary Margaret Nolan often blushed and grinned when she observed the single, small loaf being pulled from the hot oven by the young baker. David Nolan, the owner of the estate, seemed aloof to the happenstance surrounding his daughter and his baker, caring not to consider the scandal of a man in his employ falling in love with his eldest daughter.
The problem was never whether Killian loved Emma or Emma loved Killian. The problem wasn’t even whether Emma's family liked Killian enough to let him marry her, or even whether Killian or Emma could ever build up the nerve to tell her parents of their illicit affair. The problem was always the doubt that Killian had in himself and in his ability to provide for a wife of such high social standings. Emma would say that her parents would support them, that it made them lucky, but Killian saw it more as a curse. David Nolan never came out and stated that his estate’s baker was not good enough to be with his daughter, but Killian always felt it.
After all, what kind of life could a simple baker give to a woman who deserved the world?
It wasn’t as if Killian or Emma ever told her parents that they tended to sneak off together, or that they spent many a night in the family’s grassy meadow in one another’s arms, or that they hoped to spend the rest of their lives together. It also wasn’t as if they were very discreet about it, either. However, Killian could never move past his feelings of certain and impending failure.
And so, one warm night on the first of September, he told her his plan. He explained to her the assumption that the Prime Minister would declare war against Germany if they refused to remove their troops from Poland, and if that should occur, he would join the Navy and fight for his country without a need for conscription. Not only had he drawn such a conclusion because he was dedicated to his country, but also because, as a Navy veteran, he would have much more of a name for himself than he would as a baker. As a Navy veteran, he would prove himself worthy of her. To her, and to her family, but mostly to himself.
“Killian, you can’t,” she had told him that night, pulling him closer to her in the tall grass so that almost no space came between them. “I can’t lose you.”
“Who says you will?” he had asked with a soft smile. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
She sighed heavily, letting herself fall so that her back landed on the soft ground. The field felt warm from the long day in the sun, but not warmer than the glow of her cheeks. Her white dress, the one he had said that he liked with the small red flowers decorating it’s soft fabric, clung to her curves as it was held down by gravity, and he found her utterly irresistible. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Aye, it’s dangerous, but it’s also necessary. If they should declare war, they’ll need every able-bodied man.”
“But you’re needed here,” she argued stubbornly. “My father and grandfather avoided conscription in The Great War because of their work; can’t you do just the same?”
Killian chuckled as he lay by her side, his hand just barely touching hers in a scandalous and forbidden ghost of a movement. “My love, your grandfather was a veterinarian, as is your father. I’m merely a baker; my work is not important in the eyes of war.”
“It’s important to me,” she whispered, her small voice barely audible to him over the sounds of the crickets singing across the field.
“I want to marry you.”
“I want that, too. I also want you alive. ”
“I’m twenty-four,” he continued brashly, struggling to ignore her sentiment as he attempted to help her to see his point-of-view. “You’re just twenty-one. Should I… should I die, you’ll be able to find someone who can give you the life you deserve.”
The speed with which she sat up must have been dizzying, her form suddenly blocking his view of the sunset over the small pond before them. “Don’t you dare say anything like that again, Killian Jones. You will not die.”
He couldn’t help but to grin at her, the smile soft and adoring as he gazed into her eyes which matched the green grass they lay upon. “You've always been rather stubborn, my love.”
“And this instance is no different.” He nodded at her in agreement, his hand begging his mind to let it reach for hers, although he held back, desiring not to be caught in such a compromising position. “And I don’t suppose my stubbornness will convince you to stay?”
“I’m not sure your stubbornness will be a match for all of Parliament, my love. And besides… this is sure to be the best thing for us.”
The two were silent for a while after that. There were no words exchanged between them; only the sounds of their breathing and the songs of the crickets disturbed the silence as they lay together. Their hands touched easily and naturally, sparks seeming to fly, Killian finally taking Emma’s without a second thought and without the worry of being caught. They were almost caught years prior, when Emma was just eighteen and Killian almost twenty-two, the two of them having fallen in love easily and quickly when she had returned from college and started visiting him in the kitchens.
He had worked for her family for most of his life, his mother leaving him in the care and employ of the Nolan estate upon her passing. He and his mother had begun their work for the Nolan family just after his brother had passed from Smallpox, when Killian was only eight years of age. He knew Emma when he was just a boy, often laughing as she barged her way through the kitchen and earning a whack upside his head from his mother and then by Granny when his mum had gone. He knew that he loved her when they were just children, because he was in such pain following the death of his older brother, but she was somehow capable of making him smile. It wasn’t until she came home from college that she started to love him back.
She had told him first, that she loved him. She informed him that there wasn’t a day she was gone during which she did not have thoughts of him. He had vowed that night, to himself, alone in his drafty bed chamber, that he would become a man of worth for her. That he would become the kind of man who could care for her the way she deserved. He vowed that, aside from loving her, he would give her a life that would honor her perfection and her kindness and her beauty.
So, when he had heard of the impending war and the opportunity to fight for his country, he suddenly knew just what he had to do. He had considered joining the service before, but now, the choice was simple.
“I want to marry you,” she had finally whispered again into the darkening night, the sun having set and the stars peeking through the clouds. “I don’t want you to go away because I want to be with you.”
“You will,” he promised her softly. “I’ll not be gone too long, my love. Surely the Germans will retreat, and I’ll be home to you before you notice my absence.”
“That’s impossible,” she insisted to him firmly. “I’ve never not noticed your absence.”
He couldn’t respond, because it hurt too much to think of words that would do her justice. “I love you,” he chose.
“I love you, too,” she vowed. “I’ll wait for you. I’ll write you every day. I’ll think of you always, until you’re back in my arms and I can make you my husband.”
“I believe I’m to make you my wife,” he had chuckled, and she shrugged in response, sitting up until she could see him clearly and then leaning down to press her lips to his in a stolen, scandalous kiss. “There’s not a day that will go by in which I won’t think of you,” he promised her against her mouth.
“Good,” she’d whispered. “Hurry back then, soldier.”
He was gone from her three days later, Chamberlain declaring war swiftly as the Germans refused to remove themselves from their occupation in Poland. He couldn’t write to her for weeks. She wrote to him each day, although she usually saved her letters in her diary so that she could send them on a weekly basis, careful not to be too suspicious by sending so much in the post.
Every morning, she had awoken to nothingness. The smell of freshly baked bread seemed all wrong coming from Granny alone. There was no joyful humming coming from the kitchen, no Killian insisting that it never came from him. There were no soft, gentle kisses to her forehead at each fleeting and hidden opportunity. No one lifted her up onto the counter top to steal kisses and touches and soft laughs and smiles.
With nothing to do but wait and worry, Emma began to help her father with the animals. He was recruited again as a veterinarian for the military horses, just as he and his father had been during The Great War, and she saw a joy in him that she hadn't seen in years. Tending to the horses and dogs brought about a sense of happiness and helpfulness that she finally began to understand must have been necessary for Killian. She saw that he couldn't have forgiven himself if he had elected to stay, not that he had a choice, and she found herself almost glad that she let him go.
(Not that she had a choice either.)
But months after he had gone, fall turning to winter, winter turning to spring, spring turning to early summer, she found herself going nearly mad with impatience. She had hardly heard from him, only a few short letters describing the cold and the rain and the uselessness of all this fighting , and all she wanted was to have him in her arms again. Nothing could quell the irrevocable need to be with him again.
The last letter she received broke her when she read it again, weeks after the disastrous events of which he had taken part against his will. His descriptions of how warm his foxhole was and how he expected to be paid soon seemed casual enough at the time, but when she got the nerve to reread it after he had been declared missing in action, she nearly chose to burn it. His asking how Leo was faring after falling off his horse; his concern that he never learns to be careful , reminded her of how caring he was despite his sarcasm, and of how she may never know such kindness again. His gratefulness at her letters, his joyful explanation that they were coming in quite regularly despite her willfully putting off sending them, sent her down a dark path from which she could not escape.
When she reread the last line of his last letter, in which he described missing her more than the heat of the sun missed the warm grass upon which they liked to lie together, she had shattered.
He was drowning.
The water in his lungs burned. It was salty and hot and cold all at once. It was in his chest and in his throat and in his stomach. It began to sink him. It sent him near the bottom of the Channel, the chilling water cooling down his blood and calming him somehow despite the adrenaline burning through his veins. He could see nothing but blackness. He felt unreal, inhuman, dead. He felt dead . He wasn’t, not in that moment, but he may as well have been.
The man pulled him from the sea, his sopping uniform weighing him down and making things difficult. The ocean was drenched into every part of him, chilling him from the inside out and making him nearly unrecognizable. The frigid water paled Killian’s skin, giving him a bluish tint that made the man wonder whether his efforts were futile. The loss of blood and oxygen that the young soldier endured likely furthered the near-death-like state in which Killian hung.
“Comment t’appelles-tu?” the man had asked, although Killian would maintain that he heard only gibberish. The words burned into Killian’s ears just like the salty water had. The man noted the slight twitch to the soldier’s closed eyes and must have felt hopeful, giving Killian a shake. “Réveille-toi! Dis-moi ton nom!”
Killian could not respond, having found himself merely floating along a plane somewhere between life and death. He had found that everything had pained him, each movement causing a sting and burn and a dizziness which he had never felt before and would never feel again. Finally, after just a moment of clarity during which he stared up as his rescuer, a blurred figure who blocked out the harsh white sun, he had allowed himself to succumb to sleep once more.
Emma Nolan was determined not to get married.
It was nearly August by the time her parents had begun to insist that she hear Neal Cassidy’s attempts to court her, entirely certain that the two would make a handsome pair. Mister Cassidy would prove himself entirely able to provide for the eldest Nolan, his wealth surviving through the start of the war. He was lucky, as some might have said, having been found ineligible for conscription because of the importance of his work in finance.
Neal Cassidy was a caring, wholesome man, Emma had found. He had soft eyes and kind features that made her feel a sense of safety that she was not expecting when they met. He had money, inherited from his father who broke his back as a foreman in the coal mines, but aside from that, Emma’s father was certain that he would care for her well. David Nolan worried endlessly for his daughter, always fearing her unhappiness, and it was all he could do to find her a suitable husband.
Mister Nolan was never blind to his eldest child’s pain. It became clear to him when she had returned from college years ago that she had harbored feelings for the young baker who took residence in his kitchen. Killian Jones was always respectful and kind to the Nolan family, his gratitude for their care of him clear in the passion of his work. Not only that, but he was a talented baker, one who could win anyone’s heart with his plaited brioche.
It was no wonder that his daughter fell for Killian Jones.
And while David Nolan knew of their love for one another, though he was sure they thought they were hiding it, he could not do anything about the fact that the man his daughter loved died fighting for his country. He could not change the fact that she needed to think of herself and of her well-being. He did not enjoy thinking only of her financial prospects, although it became a necessity as he aged.
The look upon his daughter’s face as she prepared for her wedding to a man she did not love burned through his heart and set a fire of pain and anger through his veins. Her loss, though it was one of which she would not discuss, especially with her father, was so palpable that it spread through the room, each member of her family watching solemnly as she stepped out from behind the curtain in the small boutique in a modest white gown.
“I can’t,” she had finally whispered as she stared deeply at herself in the reflection of the mirror. She had admitted openly that her fiancé was kind to her, a gentle soul who seemed devoted to her happiness, and yet she was painfully unhappy.
“Emma,” her mother said, hurrying towards her and placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Of course you can.”
“No,” she cried, a soft sob escaping her throat as she slowly placed a hand over her mouth, still staring painfully at the reflection of herself she did not care to recognize. “I promised.”
“Promised who?” her mother had asked. “Promised what?”
And so David stood firmly from his chair and walked towards his daughter, wishing to provide for her the comfort that he had been able to when she was just a girl. Now, as an adult with all of the maturity and life-experience of someone much older than she truly is, he had realized that there was very little that he could do to soothe the ache of her broken heart.
Killian Jones, the man who went off to war and took with him the heart of David Nolan’s only daughter, was pronounced missing in action, presumed dead, following the evacuation of Dunkirk beach. The chaos that came with removing hundreds of thousands of shivering soldiers meant that it was impossible to keep track of who went where, but Killian Jones was nowhere to be found.
And with him being missing, so was his lover’s heart and happiness.
“Emma,” David had said once he reached her, “I’m sorry.”
She had broken then, collapsing into her father’s arms and wrinkling the white satin fabric which she wished desperately to rip off of herself. Emma had always been close to her mother, the bond between a woman and her first child strong and hearty, but she would be considered her father’s little girl for the entirety of her life. At his understanding, she shattered once more, needing to be held together by the only other man in her life who had ever shown her the type of love that she so strongly deserved.
“I can’t,” she had sobbed again into her father’s shoulder, her grip upon his sport jacket violent and desperate. “I promised him I would wait.”
“I know,” David had consoled, although this was only a fact which he had come across through luck and assumption. He had never gained confirmation of his daughter’s affair with the estate’s baker, but they were shoddy at hiding the love they had for one another. “I know, I’m so sorry.”
“He could come back,” she begged desperately as she had pulled from him, her eyes shimmering sadly through her tears. “He might…”
“A lot of ships were hit with U-boats as they tried to cross the Channel,” David had tried, although it was clear in an instant that he had chosen his words incorrectly as he watched her face fall once more.
“He’s strong,” she cried. “He can survive anything; look at what he’s survived so far!”
“Of course,” her father had agreed, though he was unable to make himself change her wording to past tense. “But Emma… it’s been months now.”
“He’s missing ,” she had insisted, with her voice more firm and her face more angry. “Missing doesn’t mean dead!”
“Honey,” her mother had interrupted, “this is about Killian?”
David watched painfully as his daughter’s face fell upon hearing his name, one that he is certain she hadn’t heard since he left nearly a year prior. “Yes,” she had whispered in return, her face turning downcast as she pulled away from her mother.
“We understand,” David had told her. “We know this is hard for you, and that you made a promise to him. But now you need to consider yourself and your best interests. Mister Cassidy can give you a good life.”
“So can Killian,” she had said in a voice so small and weak and broken that David could feel his own heart shattering once more. Without awaiting a response from either of her parents, Emma had stepped down from the low podium, the one that had placed her on display in a gown she wished not to wear, and hurried out of the room.
Killian had grown to enjoy the manual work that kept his mind and body busy. As his wounds healed, he would say that tending to the animals on Nemo’s farm helped his thoughts to heal as well. He would watch as the chickens hopped along the rolling fields, following him as he set out to feed the cows, and the sight set his heart ablaze with joy.
Of course, one might argue that such a reaction was because of the way his Emma loved to follow him along each morning to fetch the eggs from the chicken coops, taken by the brazen birds.
It had taken him several weeks of recovery before he was conscious enough to recall the woman to whom he had given his heart. All he could ever see was a glow of golden tresses in his dreams, a figure gently healing him with compassion and love that he could feel through his state of oblivion.
When he had finally awoken, drifting out of his sleep, he felt sadness at the thought of no longer seeing his healer, his guardian angel, until he realized that who he was seeing was Emma. Then, the sadness turned to impossible anguish at the realization that he could never be with her again.
He had struggled when he had finally woken up; it had seemed as though too many thoughts had begun to swirl around within his mind. First came the knowledge that the son of the man who had saved him and cared for him shared a name with his late brother. Liam was kind to him from the start, often changing his bandages and bringing him water when he was asked, although the pain that came from being in his presence began to become unbearable to Killian after so much loss.
Then, there was his hand, or lack thereof. It had felt more like a dream when he had finally woken up, the realization that part of the reason he had slept for so long was because of the trauma of losing an appendage. He had lost far too much blood and oxygen as he had floated away listlessly in the water, Nemo had told him. It was nearly impossible for him to even be alive, Nemo claimed. But he had known that a part of him refused to let himself die as he sank, because he had to get back to Emma.
Once he had awoken, he learned that it would never be possible.
“You’re doing well, my boy,” Nemo had called one afternoon as the sun began to set, the gleaming of the golden sun reminding him painfully of her.
“Thank you,” he had mumbled in return, the bucket heavy on the crook of his elbow as he used his remaining hand to scatter the grain.
“Something interesting in the paper this morning,” he had told Killian, holding up the heavily folded stack as an offer before leaning his body weight against the fence that enclosed the chickens. “Or, at least, thought provoking.”
“The engagement announcements had caught my eye.”
Killian had taken the paper from the man who cared for him, the man who nursed him back to health, and when he cast his gaze upon the announcement that was surely fueling Nemo’s thoughts, he cursed him. Killian cursed Nemo for rescuing him, for bringing him back to life, because it meant that he had to live with the image of her with another man burned into his soul for the rest of his days. It meant that, each time he closed his eyes, he would be cursed with her face standing beside the man who would give her the life she’s always deserved. The life Killian had so desperately wanted to give her, although it had become far too late for that.
“That's… I’m glad she’s happy.”
“ Happy? ” Nemo had spit, casting a look of utter disgust and disrespect in the direction of his friend. The man had grown fond of Killian during his lengthy recovery, and watching him heal from such a horrid injury, watching him come back to life after sinking aimlessly for what seemed like days, had given Nemo an undying respect for him. “Are you a fool?” he had asked, seemingly able to look past his reverence for the lad.
“Look at her face,” Nemo demanded. “That is the face of someone who would rather be anywhere but by this man’s side!”
“The Cassidy’s come from money. He’s a good man; she’ll be well taken care of.”
“My boy,” Nemo had breathed, standing from his perch and shaking his head in disbelief as he approached Killian, who continued to mindlessly scatter grain across the ground as he was chased by the relentless birds. “You must have knocked something loose in that head of yours before I pulled you from the sea.”
Shoving a fowl from jumping upon his leg, Killian asked, “What are you on about?”
“She is miserable.”
Nemo had taken the paper from Killian then, tossing it over the fence of the enclosure so that it landed heavily in the ground. At the loss of her, Killian dropped his bucket, letting the handle of it painfully slide over his still battered skin, and hurried towards the small gate to the coop, crouching as he reached for the article again before tearing the page out. He struggled with the large sheet of parchment, pressing it to his bent knee with his blunted arm and ripping it carefully so that he could remove her face from beside the man who could never be him. While he recognized that he could never marry her, Killian could at least have a small, mud-covered reminder of the woman he loved.
“She… she’ll have a good life,” he had choked, finding it impossible to stand and face the man behind him.
“You were brave on the battlefield, my boy, and in the evacuation. You were the bravest man I’ve ever met while Liam and I mended you. But you are being an utter coward.”
“ What ?”
“This is the woman you love, and you’re letting her go. You’re here, Killian; you’re alive. Why wouldn't you want to give her the choice to be with you?”
Killian stood then, his hand carding through his hair, covered in dirt and sweat from his day in the fields. He’d enjoyed his work on Nemo’s farm, assisting where he could with the animals but always seeming to prefer the chicken coops. The cows were gentle, the lambs enjoyable to be around, but the chickens reminded him of his Emma. And, despite his affinity for the animals, the truth was simple; Killian was incapable of helping in any other way with only one hand.
“I can’t,” he had finally admitted, his hand clenching into a fist at his side, his jaw tight enough to twitch slightly beneath his skin. “I’m not… I can’t.”
Nemo had watched as his young friend sat back upon the soft grass, bending his knees against his chest and gripping the front of his hair with his single hand. The boy’s other arm, the blunted and badly scarred one, raised as well, but stopped short when it didn’t reach his face. With great empathy, and also with a struggle to fully comprehend what the lad had been through, Nemo sat by his side, struggling to get to the ground with his damaged knee and placing a consoling hand upon Killian’s back. “My boy,” he had started, “you are still you.”
Killian’s voice was rough, seeming to scratch through his throat as he had asked, “What are you talking about?”
“This woman… she loves you, isn’t that right?” Killian only sighed heavily in response, giving Nemo a single, tense nod. “I can’t imagine she would stop simply because you’ve been injured.”
“I haven’t been injured ,” Killian had spit back in response, his body appearing rigid in response to the words of his friend. “I’ve been… I’m ruined . What happened has destroyed me.”
“And you’ve done well to heal. My son, many men who were at the beaches are likely feeling just as you are. Many lost their lives. You’ve lost your hand, and you’ve been healing physically. It’s time to allow yourself to heal in here .” Nemo had reached his own hand up from the ground beside Killian and placed a finger upon his temple, tapping lightly before he had pulled away. “Many soldiers experience shellshock like you have, many of them far worse.”
“I know that,” he responded quietly, letting his head drop forward, his chin to his chest.
Nemo sat quietly beside Killian for a few moments more, allowing him to breathe in his surroundings and take solace in the fresh air provided by the long grass and the sea spray coming off of the cliffs to their right. He had been soft on Killian for the last few months, letting him heal as slowly as he needed to, but when he had admitted that he left behind a woman he loved, Nemo began to feel impatient.
He had been close to other soldiers, veterans who were hurt one way or another by the violence of war, and Killian was proving himself strong in the way that he had quickly gotten back on his feet. It was just over a month before he had gotten out of bed, three weeks in which he had slept off the ocean-induced coma. He had described fleeting, dream-like memories of his ship sinking, the very ship meant to take him and his fellow soldiers to safety. They had thought they were home free, enjoying bread and jam and tea below deck and counting themselves lucky. The U-boat struck the hull violently, knocking their ship on it’s side and sinking it almost instantly. Killian had described the scene playing before him so quickly that he had hoped it was a nightmare. He had hoped that he was still on that blasted beach, the thick foam spraying him and chilling him to the bone. He had wished to still be in France, dodging air raids from above and enemy fire from behind. Being in the water, a sudden, numbing pain taking over his mind, was worse torture than he’d ever felt.
It was when Elsa had gone to check on him that it seemed his memories had returned, young Liam told his father. She had checked his wound when she came for her eggs, and said that he was doing well. Killian told Liam later that night that, when he saw the glowing golden hair shining in the setting sun, he remembered everything. The sea had taken his hand, nearly took his life, but the sunlight gave his memories back and he was suddenly all-consumed with thoughts of his Emma.
He described her in great detail, speaking more than they had ever heard him. He spoke of loving her from the moment they had met as children. He spoke of her kindness, her softness, her stubbornness. He told them that he enlisted in the Navy so that when he returned he would be seen by her father as an honorable man worthy of taking his daughter's hand. When he told them this, it seemed to strike something within him, and he began to quiet. They hadn’t heard him speak so much since that day.
Now, as Nemo sat beside the young man, the man who had been through so much loss and so much pain, it made sense to him. Killian saw himself as incomplete, as broken. How could he return to the woman he loved, the one he had vowed to return to with the promise of a better life, with a missing part of himself? How could he provide for her?
Of course, Killian had also made the foolish mistake of proving himself worthy in his diligent work around his farm, so Nemo was easily able to see past the boy’s self doubt.
“Well, I feel sorry for her,” he had said to Killian frankly, staring ahead at the billowing clouds that met the field before them.
“Aye, I know. Why do you think I'm still here?”
“To have lost you, to think that she’s lost you permanently, when in reality, you’re here, moping about on my farm and perfectly capable of giving her exactly what you’d promised. It’s selfish, really.”
Killian never did lose that bit of rigidity, and it seemed to Nemo like he had stiffened even more at his side. He didn’t respond, at least not with words, simply choosing to shake his head and sigh heavily. Nemo had almost thought that perhaps the boy was giving in, accepting the truth in his words, ready to make the decision to go back to the woman he loved, but the boy simply stood, struggling to get to his feet with only the ability to hold the fence behind him with one hand for support.
“I’m not being selfish,” he had stated with finality. “I told her I would give her the life she deserves, and she deserves a man who can provide for her everything she could ever desire. That man isn’t me; it never has been.”
Faran Nemo, retired Naval Captain, was a knowledgeable man. He saw himself as perceptive, wise, and empathetic to the feelings of his friends and the people he cared about. Killian had quickly become someone he cared about, from the moment he saw him floating in the bottomless Channel and noted the slight twitch to his remaining fingers. He saw life in the boy’s eyes, fleeting from the moment he had noticed it, but it was there. He felt himself being drawn to the lad, a need to save him and protect him overwhelming, much like the way he had felt when he first found his son, Liam.
When Killian had finally come to, when he began to speak of a woman he loved, one to whom he had vowed to return, Nemo knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would make that happen.
And so, when he had woken one morning and found his chickens fed, but Killian’s quarters emptied, packed up and tidied as if no one had ever lived there, he knew. When he found Killian gone, having left in the night with a small thank you letter left upon his pillow the only indication that he had ever been there, he knew that Emma Nolan would have her soldier back in her arms by the week’s end.
The Nolan estate had been quiet since mid June, when the news about the evacuation and the Prime Minister’s speech became public. Emma had waited and waited for news of Killian, waited for weeks for his letter stating that he had survived and that he was coming home to her, but it never came. Eventually, his employer was informed of his presumed death, of his being missing, and Emma had become inconsolable. The Nolan estate had been quiet since that day.
It became difficult to speak in her presence, any words a reminder of the voice she was seeking. When Granny began to settle more permanently in the role that belonged to Killian, Emma became angry. It was the first time that Leopold Nolan saw any sort of emotion from his sister since the family’s baker had left. Emma had spent all of her days waiting for Killian’s return, and when it became evident that he would not, she appeared to fall apart.
Neal Cassidy could see easily that his fiance was painfully unhappy. He had never truly seen her smile, only witnessing a plastered-on fake grin from time to time. He had never heard her laugh, not even a falsified one. He had heard her cry many times, mostly when she thought she was being discreet. She would sometimes escape during dinner and hide herself away in a coat closet, closing the door upon herself and letting out sob after painful sob in what she thought was solitude. Neal never meant to listen in on her private moments, but it was difficult not to hear her when he had gone looking for her.
It was not as if he was dying to marry Miss Nolan himself, although he was not dreading it, either. Truthfully, he had simply made a vow to her and her family, and despite her obvious unhappiness, she had never appeared to be against the union. He knew that she had love for another man, but that man was gone, and the honorable thing for Neal to do was to follow through with a wedding to a woman who needed the support of a husband. He saw himself as a man who had the ability to provide for a young lady in need, and it was his goal to make her feel at least some semblance of joy, however he could.
But he could never comfort her, could never get close enough to even try. He knew that her heart belonged to another, and even with the news of his assumed death, it was apparent that she would not be moving on from the love she had for this other man. Neal couldn’t even find it in himself to be jealous, feeling for the young woman whose life seemed to have ended before it could begin. The sadness she felt seemed like it would follow her for the remainder of her days. It became clear very quickly that Neal would never be able to quell the anguish of his future bride. The only thing that could possibly hope to soothe her broken heart seemed to be impossible, as one could not simply return from the dead.
But then, just when Neal thought all was lost for the woman he was to wed, the man had returned. He was seen walking up the drive to the Cassidy estate one evening, his boots scratching against the stones as he trudged, his head bowed and his pack heavy on his back. Neal’s butler had informed him of the intrusion, but when he looked out his front door, it became impossibly clear to him just who this man was. His uniform gave him away.
Neal had sat across from Killian in the drawing room, handing him a dram of whiskey, which the man seemed to choke down. “Not a whiskey man?”
“I’m more drawn to rum, myself. But thank you either way for the offer.”
“I see. I’ll have Miss West look for some, then.”
“Mister Cassidy,” Killian had started, seemingly unsure of how to go on. He had cleared his throat, taking a long yet quick drag from his tumbler of whiskey-- making a sour face and coughing slightly-- before he spoke again. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Neal had cleared his throat as well, nodding as he took an easier sip from his own glass. “This one is meant to have notes of stone fruit and chocolate, but all I taste is that alcohol. I was never very good at tasting the notes.”
“Aye,” Killian had agreed, although he was certain he had no idea what Mister Cassidy was talking about. “I’ve never been good at tasting my alcohol, myself.”
After a moment of silence had passed between them, Miss West informing Mister Cassidy that they had no rum available, Neal had finally decided to speak. “I suppose you’re here to talk about Emma.”
Mister Jones appeared unable to respond, simply staring down at his glass, his eyes clouded with emotion and distress. Neal Cassidy had always seen himself as fairly sensitive to the feelings of those around him, which was why it was so simple to see the misery in his fiance’s eyes. And as he looked across the room at Killian Jones, he saw a matching demeanor to that of Emma Nolan’s.
“I am,” Killian had finally admitted, his voice rough as it slipped out of his throat. “I realize that this is not a very honorable thing for me to do, to simply show up here uninvited, but--”
“She thinks you dead,” Neal had informed him, though he was certain the soldier already knew this.
“She’s been in great pain at her loss, Mister Jones. I can assure you I've never seen her smile, at least not genuinely.”
“She has a lovely smile.” Neal had watched as the corner of Killian’s mouth had twitched as if considering the memory of the sight of Emma Nolan’s grin, and in that moment, it had become clear to him what needed to be done.
Emma was in love with this man. The woman he was meant to marry, the young maiden meant to become Missus Cassidy, was in love with someone else. And as Neal stared across the space separating himself from the other man, he knew with certainty that Mister Jones loved her, too. He had vowed to himself when he proposed to take her hand that he would do anything that he could to make her happy, and he saw that he had that opportunity as Mister Jones sat adjacent to him in his drawing room.
“You love her?”
Neal had watched as the emotion began to play across the face of the man adjacent to him, pain and anguish and loss mixing with love and desire and longing in a way that made him feel completely inadequate as Emma’s betrothed. “Emma Nolan is… I could never love anything or anyone the way that I love her. I can’t describe to you the way it felt to be apart from her for the last year. My cowardice is unforgivable, because your insinuation that she has not smiled is criminal. To be the one responsible for such pain… I don’t deserve this woman, and yet I long for her. I find that I need her like I need air, as selfish as that sounds.”
Neal nodded, taking another sip and leaning back. He found himself beginning to understand, the nature of their relationship private and elusive but sensical nonetheless. Emma was essentially unavailable to the young baker, her status higher than his and making it difficult for the two of them to build a life together. But they were in love, that much was obvious enough to anyone paying attention. Neal was never privy to Emma’s past when they’d met, but it was clear that she had suffered a great loss. He had assumed it had been a former lover, perhaps a husband, but her parents had informed him that she had never been married. As time had passed, it became more and more obvious, and as he watched the young, maimed veteran walk up his drive, each and every piece of the puzzle fell together.
“She loves you,” Neal had said, and as he said it, he had watched Killian’s shoulders sag in relief. “But… the evacuation was months ago. Where have you been?”
Perhaps he had no right to ask such a thing, but Emma was still technically Neal’s fiance, for the moment, and frankly, he was curious.
“I’ve… I've been cowardly. I was shown the error of my ways a few days ago. I lost my hand in the evacuation and I thought myself incapable of leading the life Emma so deserves.”
“You’re a veteran,” Neal had stated simply, “injured while serving your country. What is there not to respect in a man who loses a part of himself while protecting the citizens of our great nation?” It was not difficult for Neal to see the blunted shortness of Killian’s left arm, stopping short at the wrist and covered in fresh, ghastly scars. “Will you seek compensation?”
Killian had simply shrugged. “I’ll be receiving a sum for my service. I’ve been medically discharged as of two days ago.”
“And your hand?”
“I can file a claim.”
The man’s voice was rough and strained, the topic obviously making him uncomfortable, so Neal chose not to press. “And what will you and Emma do when you’re reunited?” Killian had stared at the man, his pain far too palpable and almost contagious in the small, bright room. “That is, certainly you hope to wed her.”
“Well, yes,” he had choked out weakly, although his demeanor was still as straight and strong as ever. “That is most certainly my hope, although I fear it’s far too unrealistic.”
“Well… she is betrothed.”
Neal had shrugged. His nonchalance was felt by Killian across the room, and Neal was certain he could detect the smallest hint of a smile. “For now,” he had agreed. “However, I've never been one to force a lady into anything, particularly not something that seems to be causing her a great deal of distress.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, it certainly is.”
There was silence between them for far too long, Neal finishing his whiskey and Killian barely choking his down. Neal could tell that there was something else on the man’s mind, something that he was struggling to put to words. It was clear enough that his return took a certain amount of fortitude, his discomfort obvious enough, although he had chosen to face the fiance of the woman he loved despite it. While Neal knew himself as a man who could take care of Emma Nolan, at least financially, it became clear to him that Mister Jones was the one who could truly love her, and be given her love in return.
“Mister Cassidy…” Killian had started, but he was interrupted immediately.
“If I may, Mister Jones, I’m struggling to see the purpose of you still being here.”
“I… I beg your pardon?”
“The woman you love-- more importantly, the woman who loves you-- is a mere kilometer down the road, and here you sit in my drawing room choking down my whiskey. If I may be so bold, I feel that you should leave here and go to her. I’m certain her status as an intended woman will be rectified by morning.”
“You’re certain, Mister Cassidy?”
With a small, soft chuckle, Neal responded, “Mister Jones, I am certain that if you wait here any longer, Miss Nolan is sure to give you a well-deserved slap when she sees you, before enthusiastically ensuring that you know how much she has pined for you.”
Killian laughed as well, placing down his half-full glass as he stood, and stated, “Yes, that does sound like something she would do.”
“No more wasting time,” Neal had insisted, standing as well. “I have it on good authority that the rest of the Nolan family has missed your presence almost as much as Miss Emma.”
His hand had extended once his glass was placed upon the table between them, reaching towards Killian’s one remaining appendage and shaking it in respect. “Thank you, Mister Cassidy.”
“It was honorable of you to come here tonight, Mister Jones. Miss Nolan deserves happiness, and it’s clear that you are her best chance in that respect.”
As Killian Jones left the Cassidy estate, he had only thoughts of his love, mixed with the fear that he would be unable to provide for her. And as he walked along the road that led him to the Nolan estate, he began to find himself filled with more hope than fear, something he would say he could not recall feeling since he had lost his mother and brother as a boy. With the renewed sense of hope and promise, he walked to the estate he once called home with the purest of intentions, prepared to prove himself worthy of her hand, no matter the cost.
The Nolan estate was always quiet at night, the energy of the home setting with the sun in each wing aside from the kitchen. There, a woman affectionately known as Granny tended to her small herb garden, prepared her dough for the morning to come, and planned menus for the following evening’s dinner. Granny was used to the quiet by now, but before the deployment of her young partner, a man desperate to make a name for himself, she had enjoyed the energy that he brought to the space.
He was always a happy young man, one of the vitality and joy that came with young love. His eyes were bright, his personality beaming, and each morning, when he had given Miss Nolan her specially-made loaf of bread, Granny would swear that the heavens reflected in his smile. There was a change in Miss Nolan as well, when she had returned from college, one evident in the way that she hummed happily each morning, meeting Ruby by the chicken coops with a skip to her step as she completed a task not assigned to her, one that simply made her happy. Killian Jones often headed out to the chicken coops each morning himself, content to collect their eggs as Miss Nolan elected to toss the feed across the soil.
Since the previous September, Miss Nolan had not gone out to feed the chickens. She had started each morning with a straight face, her lips never seeming to turn into the gracious and joyful smile that she had worn for years on end. She had spent each morning in the front room, sitting quiet and still in one of the wingback chairs, staring out the large window that overlooked the drive, as if waiting. She had always been waiting, for something that could never be returned to her. She continued to wait even after her engagement to Mister Cassidy, never content to leave her spot in the front room, never content to stop her waiting.
She had spent her days in that chair, sometimes finding a book to keep her company, but usually choosing the company of her own thoughts, ones that Granny knew must have been playing a part in her pained face. Each morning turned to noon turned to evening, and Miss Nolan was never happy to remove herself from her spot in her wingback chair in the front room, never happy to remove herself from her post watching the drive. Always watching, always waiting, always disappointed.
One evening, nearly a year after Mister Jones had left, Granny watched on as Miss Nolan held her post watching and waiting, and she became surprised to see the young lady stand before the sun set behind the trees just beyond the pond out back. Typically, Granny would see Miss Nolan sitting in her chair until long after the sun had gone down, but something had changed on this evening. Emma had stood, sighed, looked longingly once more at the front drive, and turned away from the window towards the stairs that would lead her to her chambers. Granny could read the distress on Miss Nolan’s face easily, the way her eyes appeared sunken and her lips adopted themselves into a permanent straight line.
She had given up, it had seemed. Miss Emma was a strong woman, one who had proven herself capable of many difficult tasks, but her wedding was upcoming, sooner than she would likely want. It had seemed that young Emma Nolan had begun to fall into a space of acceptance, finally moving on from the painful depression and anger that had accompanied the news of her loss. Mister Jones was gone, and with Miss Emma leaving her post, it had become painfully evident to Granny that he was not coming back.
Of course, that was what Granny had thought, before she had watched in disbelief as Mister Jones himself walked stoically up the drive from the quiet road that night. It had been believed by all that he was gone, never to return, and he was sorely missed among the staff as well as by the Nolan family. And as Granny watched him march up the stony drive, she needed to tap her fingers against her temples to ensure that she still had her wits about her.
He had rung the bell, as if this estate wasn’t his home, and Granny had taken it upon herself to hurry towards the door and hoist it open, the first one to shout at him and pull him in for a bone crushing hug.
She had heard his breath leaving his lungs with aggression, a soft, gentle laugh that she hadn’t realized she had missed so sorely dancing in her ears as she squeezed him through her disbelief. She had slapped his arm just below his shoulder, through tears, accusingly asking him, “Where the bloody hell have you been?!”
He hadn’t said much, simply giving her that smile she had missed dearly, though it wasn’t nearly as bright as she had seen it. He nearly whispered, “Is Master Nolan available? I realize it’s quite late, but--”
“Yes, boy,” Granny had said. “But are you sure he’s who you’re here to see?”
“Aye,” he had responded, clearing his throat and giving her a forced smile. “I’d like to have a word with him, if I can.”
“You bloody foolish lad,” Granny had cried, laughing as she slapped his arm again, but when she did, she had looked down, taking in the strange appearance. “What’s happened?”
Killian had smiled softly, shyly, pulling down at his sleeve to hide the wrist that lacked his hand. “I suppose I won’t be much help to you in the kitchen, love.”
“You were never any help before, boy,” Granny had said tearfully, pulling him back for another hug. “Let me see that he’s not yet turned in for the evening. You wait just here,” she had said, pulling him towards the front room and seating him in the wingback chair just beside Emma’s. She had smiled softly when she took in the image of him finally here, back where he was meant to be. He was home.
“Truly, we weren’t expecting to see you again,” David said as he sat heavily behind his desk. He was wearing his dressing robe, the silk fabric covering his blue pajamas in a way that made him look as though he had been dragged from his chambers, although when Granny had delivered the news of Mister Jones’ return, he had sprung from his bed.
“I apologize for the late visit, sir,” Killian had answered, his head bowing in shameful embarrassment. “I hadn’t even realized the time when I arrived.”
“It isn’t a visit,” David had responded, shaking his head and meeting Killian’s fearful gaze. “I’m glad you’re home, Killian.”
“Sir?” he had asked, utterly and obviously confused despite David thinking himself quite clear.
The man chuckled and shook his head once more, leaning forward and resting his elbows atop the oak surface of his desk. “My daughter will be pleased to learn of the dissolution of her engagement, now that the man she loves has finally found his way home.”
“I’ve… I’ve a lot to explain to her,” Killian says softly, his brows deeply set in his forehead. “I was gone too long. And I’m not sure I'm worthy of her hand, sir.”
“Well, I suppose you’ll have to have a conversation with her, then,” David rebutted. “As for your worth, I struggle to see how a veteran who fought, was maimed, and nearly died for his nation could be considered unworthy of the hand of an eligible woman. Well, nearly eligible, I suppose.” David had given Killian a soft smile, one that he had hoped would relay a sense of ease to the young man, though he wasn’t sure that would even be possible.
“We’ve nowhere to live,” Killian had argued, making David roll his eyes into the back of his head.
“Emma has always been promised her grandfather’s house in Bristol,” he said. “No more excuses.”
“Well, that is good news,” Killian had agreed. David could see something simmering beneath his skin, a soft smile pulling at the lad’s lips that he tried to fight. It was hope, he had realized. “I suppose I’ll see Miss Nolan in the morning, sir, if you’re… in support of…”
“She’s in her bed chamber,” David had told him. “You know where that is, aye?”
“It’s late, sir.”
“Well, it’s no secret that you’ve been in her chamber before,” David had said, a smirk deeply set upon his face. “Though I tend not to dwell on the happenings in either of my children’s chambers.” He had watched on in amusement as Killian’s eyes grew wide, his cheeks reddening as he bit his lower lip between his teeth anxiously.
“It’s alright, sir,” he had conceded after a beat, seeming to need to regain his bearings. “I desire not to disturb her or to disrespect your hospitality by going into her chamber. I shall see her in the morning.”
David smiled, pleased with his answer despite giving him his blessing to see his daughter. Killian had always been a pleasant lad, one who brought with him a sense of easy lightheartedness, making each member of their household smile simply by being in the room. The mood of the Nolan estate had been significantly bleak since the day Killian Jones had gone off to war, and even more so following the evacuation of Dunkirk beach which failed to bring him home. Meeting him in his study, David had noted the stark change in the young man’s demeanor, as if his time away had taken from him far more than his hand.
He hadn’t wanted to ask for an explanation. Whatever was holding him back from returning had seemed to melt away, something convincing him to return to where he belonged, and despite the arrangement David had made between his daughter and her betrothed, he was pleased. Mister Cassidy had already phoned him earlier in the evening, informing David of Killian’s return and of their agreement, and it was almost too easy to allow things to fall into their natural order.
Emma’s love was finally home, something she believed so firmly would happen. It would seem as though her fierce hope and belief was enough to convince the heavens to let Mister Jones return from his tenure. And for that, and for her impending joy, David couldn’t be more pleased.
Killian was too nervous to sleep, he had found as he lay in the bed that used to be his. His heart was racing almost as quickly as his thoughts, his eyes wide in the darkness of the room as he considered every possible scenario in great detail. Emma could reject him as easily as her father and fiance had done just the opposite, deciding that his excuse for his absence was as weak as he felt it was. She could take one look at his blunted wrist and decide him unworthy of her love and devotion. She could feel exactly as he had felt since he was pulled from the Channel; she could hate the broken man that the war had made him.
But he had decided that he hadn’t a choice. Nemo had told him that he had owed it both to himself and to the woman he loved to try to fight his way back to her, whatever the cost may have been.
He rose from his bed, the surface of the mattress feeling to foreign after a year away, and walked slowly and quietly through the door of his chambers until he got to the kitchen in the west wing of the house. It was too quiet, the sound of his heart and his memories overwhelming in the dark silence, but when he had arrived in the kitchen he used to love, he was able to hear the sounds of the chickens rustling just outside, the soft hum of the refrigerator settling his nerves.
He hadn’t even been thinking before he found himself gathering ingredients, combining his yeast with the warm water and sugar before sieving his flour. He struggled greatly with the eggs, finding it difficult to separate the yolks from the whites with only one hand. When it came time to knead, he nearly tossed the dough out the window to his left, his one hand barely able to roll the dough while also collecting it, and his bare wrist too painful still to provide any help. He had cursed and hissed and kicked the leg of the table he worked at, but everything had stopped and become unimportant at the sound of his own name.
When he had looked up, his world had stopped, his vision going black, a halo surrounding her as he blinked away the rest of the world.
He was home.
Emma Nolan was too filled with melancholy to sleep. Her thoughts were swirling, never ending, always too loud, and she found herself as she often did, wide awake and staring at her ceiling when she should have been sleeping soundly. Her wedding was upcoming, Emma doomed to marry a man she did not love while she mourned the loss of the one she did.
She did not want to admit to anyone, especially not to herself, that she had lost Killian Jones. When he had left, she was so filled with hope, so determined to have him back and to marry him once he had finally accepted his own worth. He always had been unsure of himself and she was sure that would have changed when he had come home a veteran of the Second World War.
But he had been lost months ago, and he still hadn’t come home.
She had been waiting. She had spent her days and night waiting, and watching, and hoping. But he still hadn’t come home.
Her husband-to-be had been kind enough for the few times they’d met. She knew that he would take care of her, that he would respect her and be kind to her, but it didn’t seem to matter. There had been nothing to take her mind off of the man she was meant to marry. She’d known she would marry Killian when she was merely seventeen, and now, years later, to have that taken away from her was too painful to think about.
And yet, it seemed to be all she could think about.
She stood from her bed as she had every night, finding it too difficult to slow her thoughts and choosing instead to do what she had done each night since her love had left, wandering the house in which she grew up, choosing to busy herself exploring all of the things she had already explored years prior. She had always found herself in the kitchen, tearfully running her fingers along the countertops and peeking out the window at the chickens, content to pity herself for her sorrow. The counters reminded her where she sat while he cooked, accepting his kisses and his hands as they explored her over her dresses. The chickens reminded her of where they met on occasion, stealing more kisses and more touches. She couldn’t be in her own home without some painful reminder of the man she loved and could not find.
She wasn’t sure what had possessed her to give up that evening, standing from her usual spot in her wingback chair and ignoring the pull she had felt to stay and stare out at the stony drive. A part of her knew that he was alive, but she had been given far too much evidence against the fact, and she could simply take no more. She had heard a soft commotion downstairs while she had sat in her chambers, but she ignored that as well, figuring if her fiance fancied a late-night visit, her ignoring him would have sent the message that she wasn’t interested in seeing him.
Staring at the chair as she walked by, she pushed heavily against the swinging door leading to the kitchen, and when she made her way inside, she had stopped short in her tracks, her hands shooting up to cover her mouth in response to her utter shock.
She couldn’t speak, not only because her mouth was covered. Her eyes were blown wide, hardly blinking as she took in the sight with which she thought she would never be blessed again. He was cursing just as he used to, working his dough roughly and with great aggravation, and her heart stopped. It was something so simple and natural, something that she used to walk in on so frequently, but as she stared at him, all she could do was call his name through her fingers.
“Killian?” she said softly, her voice muffled. He lifted his head slowly, although his eyes darted quickly from his dough, his hands dropping from his tortured project.
No, hand , she noted.
But it didn’t matter.
“Emma,” he breathed, his lips pulling softly at the corners, obviously not nearly in the amount of disbelief that she was. He hit his hand against the white apron tied around his waist and stepped out from behind the counter. “My love…”
“You’re--” she started breathlessly, unable to speak as her hands returned to her mouth and then moved to cover her eyes. With a sob, she dropped to her knees.
“Emma,” he whispered once more as he hurried to her, squatting before her and placing his hand on her shoulder hesitantly, as if she may have cracked if he touched her. “Emma, darling, are you…”
“How are you here?” she’d asked through her tears, barely able to catch her breath. “I've always known you were alive but a part of me started to think you were really gone.”
“I’m… I’m sorry, my love. I’ve been gone too long; I thought-- that is, I thought I wouldn’t see you until the morning.”
“Killian,” she choked.
“I know how disappointed you must be,” he started, his hand landing heavily on her own before he removed it. “I’m so sorry, Emma. I just didn’t know how to face you after--”
His words were halted, Emma having leaned forward with such power and enthusiasm that Killian could barely catch her before falling backwards, the two of them landing upon the stone floor firmly, though neither of them cared. Emma’s lips were upon his own, finally , and she cared not where they were or in what condition. He was home , returned to her after her prayers and hopes and dreams and nightmares. It didn’t matter that he was not his complete self, his hand having gone in what she could only imagine to have been a painful and mortifying experience. What mattered to her was the fact that he was in her arms again.
“You’re here,” she said against his lips before kissing him once more. “I knew you would come home to me.”
His hand moved from her waist and up to her jaw, cradling her face to his as he returned her kiss through his obvious shock. It was as if he wasn’t expecting her to react in such a way, like he thought he would have to fight so much harder to have her back in his arms, but that would never have been the case. No cost would have been too great, so long as Emma had gotten him back. And she had gotten him back, a fact which she knew in that moment would be near impossible to wrap her mind around after months of hoping and praying and dreaming.
“Are you not--” He laughed as he was cut off by her kiss once more before continuing, his grin contagious. “Are you not angry?”
“How could I be angry?” she asked through exasperation and with a shake to her head. “You’re home.”
“I took such a long time to--”
“I don't care,” she shook her head again. “You’re here; it doesn’t matter. I don't care how, I’m just so glad you’re alright.”
Their lips couldn’t seem to stay apart; at least, that was what it felt like as Emma had drawn herself to his mouth once more, unable to part from him for more than a moment without the same anguish that she had felt for the last year. She couldn’t be apart from him without a pain in her heart, so she pulled him close to her and strengthened her grip on his hair, refusing to let go.
“I love you,” he had whispered into the small space between them. “So much. I’m so sorry.”
“ I’m sorry,” she had whispered back, her fingers toying with his hair and her lips meeting his once more. “Killian,” she cried, unable to speak more, at least audibly. Her fingers trailed from his hair to his shoulder, slipping down his arm until she reached his forearm, though she felt she shouldn’t go any lower. He had lost his hand, the brief preview of his injury she had been afforded showing her the angry and painful looking scars spattered against his skin, and she could barely comprehend how close she must have come to truly losing him.
“It’s alright,” he whispered. The space between them was short and quiet, although the rest of the world was quiet as well. His fingers laced their way through her hair, finally feeling the softness that she thought he must have missed in the year that he had been gone. “I don’t really remember much, to be honest.”
“What happened?” she’s asked, her voice a soft whisper, her fingers moving away from his wound and stroking against the soft skin of his temple and down to his jaw. “If you… I mean…”
He had hushed her, smiling softly, his own fingers brushing her hair away from her eyes. “It’s alright,” he had said again, his voice so soft and tender in the darkness of the kitchen. “I was saved. A retired captain, Nemo… he rescued me and convinced me to come back, love. I was so fearful of facing you, but he--”
“Killian,” she had cut him off, her elbows planting firmly into the stony floors as she hovered over him. “Why the bloody hell were you scared? Scared to come home?”
Her face must have conveyed a sense of hurt, as her pain of being feared, her pain of him being too fearful to face her with his injury despite the fact that she would always love him, far too great. She would never deny the love that she had for him, hand or no hand. He could lose his legs, his arms, his mind, and she would still love him. “I’m sorry,” he had whispered painfully again.
“I love you,” she told him solidly. “I love you more than anything or anyone. I could never hold your injury against you, Killian, how could you not know that?”
She had watched as a small smile crept onto his face, pulling slightly at his lips before she noted the sadness still painted in his eyes. “Nemo said you would say just that,” he had remarked. “I was such a fool.”
“It doesn't matter,” she whispers, pressing her nose to his. “You’re here, and whatever else happened… we’ll figure it out. I don't care as long as you’re alright.”
He had told her everything that he could remember then, how he was stranded on the beach and finally found his way onto a ship, thinking himself saved before it was sunk by a U-boat. He had thought himself so lucky before he nearly died once more, the bombs dropping from the sky enough before the added fear of the U-boats. He thought he would never leave that beach, and then he thought he would never leave the Channel, doomed to never again see the woman he loved.
And then, when Nemo had dragged him from the painfully salty water and given him a new lease on life, he had determined himself unworthy of her with his missing appendage. Nemo was a former naval captain from Calais who had used his personal vessel to travel across the channel in search of men in need, and had happened upon Killian, nearly dead from drowning and blood loss although determined not to die. The loss of his hand had taken a great toll on him, the fear of being unable to provide for her becoming far too great. He had been able to convince himself that she was better off without him, despite how much she had loved him, and he feared ever returning home. He had informed her that it wasn’t until the announcement of her engagement that Nemo was finally able to convince him to leave the bloody farm, way up on the cliffs of Dover, and return home to her.
She couldn't begin to formulate a statement of gratitude to this captain Nemo, neither for saving the man she loved, nor for convincing him to return to where he belonged. She couldn’t seem to stop repeating her disbelief at his return, saying, “You’re home,” over and over in a soft whisper.
Killian had seemed to finally gain his bearings after a moment or so, his fingers tangling in her hair and pulling her impossibly closer before he had decided to roll them over gently. His hand moved to cradle the back of her head as her back landed on the stony floor, Killian carefully resting his body weight atop hers in a way that was soothing and grounding and exactly what she had been missing for the year he had been gone.
She didn’t care that they were in the kitchen, on the cold floor in the middle of the night. She didn’t care that it was unbecoming of a woman intended for another man to grind her hips up against her lover’s. She didn’t care that it was improper for a lady to have physical relations with a man to whom she was not married. She didn’t care, because as her tongue snuck along the inside of his upper lip, his hand left her hair and squeezed against her thigh, lifting her leg so that he could push his own hips against hers. The moan that slipped from her mouth into his was not ladylike, and she didn’t care.
“ God, Killian,” she whimpered as his hand moved from the outside of her leg to the inside, slowly climbing up her inner thigh and sending a shiver down her spine. Her thin cotton nightgown did little to fight off the autumn chill or the coolness of the stones beneath her, but it didn’t matter to her as the warmth of him was finally pressed heavily to her once more.
They had been with each other in certain ways prior to his leaving, each of them exploring their own bodies as well as each other’s, but they had never taken that step that she so desperately wanted to as his fingers tickled lightly along her skin, only just missing where she wanted him.
“I’ve missed you so much,” he murmured into her skin, his lips trailing down her neck to run his tongue along the sensitive spot beneath her ear. “There wasn’t a day that went by in which my thoughts were not consumed by the memory of you.”
“I thought of you every moment, Killian,” she whispered. Then, more boldly, but with her voice just as quiet, she told him, “especially at night, while I touched myself.”
“Bloody hell, love,” he uttered before lightly biting her skin. “You’re far too impossible to resist.”
“Then don’t,” she challenged.
“It’s not very honorable to sully the purity of a woman before marriage,” he’d argued, although it was clear to Emma that he was struggling to follow through with his own insistence as his hips jutted into hers again, the evidence of his desire clear.
“Please, I need you. I need to feel you everywhere, Killian. It’s been a year that you’ve been gone, and you… I thought you were… I need you.”
His lips had found hers again, finally fusing them together once more before he pulled back slightly and whispered, “I’m so sorry for what I’ve put you through, my love.”
“You don’t have to be sorry,” she’d whispered back. “I know that it must have been hard for you to come back. But you’re here now; that’s what matters. Just… be here with me.”
He had been cautious, his movements slow and gentle as he had brought her to the edge and beyond with his fingers just as he had done before. But when he slipped himself inside her, his empty arm bent and his elbow supporting his weight as his fingers drew soothing patterns along her temple. It was a different feeling from what she was used to, but no less pleasurable as he gently drove into her until they were both seeing stars. Though she had never done such a thing before, she knew that she could never be separated from him again after experiencing the pleasure of being with him, mind, body, and soul.
The sun had yet to rise, not even close to breaking over the front drive that overlooked the estate as they lay comfortably in each other’s arms. Killian had forgone his dough, realizing that his need to make Emma bread was for naught by the time they had finally been reunited. She hadn’t needed him to make her anything or give her anything; all she needed was him.
He’d started a small fire in the sitting room, gathering a nest of blankets around Emma on the small loveseat before he sat beside her, a gentle smile upon his lips as he lifted an arm, the right one, and cradled her close to him.
“How are you feeling?” he had asked, his fingers dancing lightly on the bare skin of her arm.
“Perfect,” she had whispered back. “Anything unpleasant that I was feeling melted away when I stepped into the kitchen earlier.”
“Oh, aye?” he laughed, planting a firm yet gentle kiss to the side of her head. She hummed and nodded sleepily, the weight of the lateness of the hour mixing with the emotional exhaustion of his return. He wanted to apologize, again, but he knew that if he had, he’d have gotten an elbow to the ribs.
“Will you tell me what happened to your hand?” she had asked after so much silence that he’d thought she was asleep. He wouldn’t have blamed her, though it had seemed as though she was too keyed up to sleep despite her obvious exhaustion.
He didn’t want to tell her what happened. He didn’t want to put to words the traumatic events that had separated them for so long, finding it both painful and embarrassing. His excuses were pathetic and childish, and he wasn’t sure he could move on.
But he loved her far too much to deny her of something she had wanted, and so he nodded. “I suppose it had started on the beaches,” he told her, relaying what had happened over those few days during which they had realized that they were doomed. He couldn’t seem to avoid talking about it. He told her of the vessel he had thought himself lucky to get onto, until he was below deck eating jammy bread when the U-boat had struck, sinking them more quickly than they could escape.
He told her of his hand getting caught in the heavy steel door, of the blankness in his mind blocking out the unimaginable pain of what had come next, of his almost inability to even comprehend what had happened, before he got out of the ship and had allowed himself to succumb to his fate. That was, until Nemo.
He didn’t know how long he had been floating, how long it had been before he had let himself sink below the surface of the water, content to let death take him away from the pain he’d begun feeling. His hand was screaming, though he had later realized that it was the wound being washed with the salty, oil slicked water causing the intense throb. His lungs had burned with each failed breath, taking in salt water instead of his much-needed air.
He didn’t even realize how easy it must have been to become emotional, the fear that he had felt coming back in droves and reminding him of the terrors of war. He cleared his throat, stirring slightly in an attempt to shake off his feelings of horror, and apologized again for his weakened display.
“Don’t, Killian,” she had whispered, her hand cupping his cheek-- the one with the scar that he got after she had pushed him too hard on the swing when they were children-- and brushing away a rogue tear with her thumb. “I’m sorry you went through all of that.”
“It’s no excuse, I should’ve been here for you.”
“No, my love. You needed to heal.”
“I could’ve come back and healed with you, Emma,” he’d said. “I knew I should return to you; I was too much of a coward.”
“Please don’t say that,” he whispers. “It’s not. I realize I had a reason at first, but I was too afraid.”
“Of what? My reaction?” she’d asked as she sat up, a look of obvious disdain spread across her face. “Killian, I could never--”
“No, my love. No, I’m sorry. I just… it was never you. It was the fact that I had left you with the promise that I’d return a man worthy of your hand. And instead, I’ve returned with… Well, with one less hand.” Her fingers stroked lightly against the scar on his cheek before she kissed it, just as she had refused to do when they were children and he had goaded her for causing his fall. “There are so many things I can’t do now, my love. It’ll only make things more difficult if I--”
“There’s no if , Killian. You’re here, aren’t you?” Henodded. “Then there’s no if . I don’t give a damn that I’m engaged; I call that off tomorrow. And the only reason I care about your hand is because I know how much it must’ve hurt for you. I hate what’s happened because of how clear it is that it affects you so strongly. It doesn’t matter to me that you’ve lost your hand, Killian. I just want you to be safe and happy.”
“I am,” he whispered.
“Then be with me,” she whispered back.
“I will if you’ll have me, my love.”
She kissed him again, her hands cradling his face against hers, her thumb slipping along his scar and her fingers pulling at the hair at the back of his neck. “Always,” she whispers. “I don’t want to ever be apart from you. I wish to be with you, always.”
With a smirk, he had stared into her eyes happily, informing her, “Luckily, I’ve had a word with you intended already. Your engagement is off.”
“Is it?” she’d asked, pushing away from him to give him a bright grin. It has been obvious enough by her reaction that she hadn’t been interested in the marriage, and he knew that he had done the right thing by speaking with Mister Cassidy prior to returning to her.
“Aye, I spoke with your father as well.”
“So you’ve been back, and the first thing you did was not come and find your beloved? How rude,” she had joked before leaning in for another kiss.
“Apologies, but I figured it would be the honorable thing, to announce my intentions to be with you.”
“It was,” she grinned. “And will you have me, then?” she asked, as if his answer would not have been completely obvious.
“Always. You, and only you.”
“Then marry me,” she whispered.
“Aren’t I meant to ask you that?” he asked softly, bumping his nose against hers.
“Well, you bloody well haven’t yet, have you? You’ve been here all evening and still haven’t proposed; one of us had to eventually.”
“I love you,” he’d laughed. He wrapped his arms around her more tightly, pulling her so that she had landed upon his lap, and repeated, “I love you.”
He cut her off with a kiss, grinning against her lips at the way she laughed lightly. “Emma Ruth Nolan, will you marry me?”
She hadn’t answered, although the way that her legs had parted to straddle his lap as she deepened their kiss seemed like answer enough. Without words, without actually saying yes , she took control, taking her pleasure from him as she eventually helped him slip inside again, never once letting his lips part from hers. She did eventually say yes as he drove up into her, though she was also quietly crying his name and her love for him until he finally took her over the edge.
“Yes,” she finally said breathlessly as she dropped her head to his chest just beneath his chin, and this time, he knew what she had meant.
“Mhmm,” she said as she kissed his neck. “We’re getting married.”
He had hummed, his smile soft and tired as he kissed the crown of her head. “I’ll be there.”
David Nolan was surprised by the quiet lack of energy in his estate when he had woken up the morning following Killian Jones’ return. It wasn’t as though he had expected some fantastical celebration, but he knew that the staff as well as his family had loved and missed Killian, and he was not expecting how sleepy the home was after he’d returned.
His wife was not in bed when he’d awoken, though when he’d gotten to the dining hall, he noticed that she was there at the table, and that it was not set for breakfast. Mary Margaret sat, her hands folded on the surface and a beaming smile drawn across her lips as she stared at the doorway leading into the kitchen. Granny was also there, staring coyly at the door while Ruby stood with her ear pressed against it.
“What’s wrong?” David asked as he took in the sight.
His wife looked up to him, her grin somehow growing wider and causing a small smile to tickle at the corner of his mouth as well. “See for yourself,” she had suggested, gesturing towards the door against which Ruby was listening intently.
Stepping over, he pushed against the door lightly, letting it swing just a bit so that he could peer silently into the kitchen, and what he saw was of no surprise to him.
“You’ve got to use all of your body weight, love,” Killian had said, coming up behind Emma and placing her hands where they should be on the ball of dough. David noted the bare finger on her left hand, her engagement ring given to her by Mister Cassidy haphazardly left on the counter, likely to never be worn again. “You really need to work the gluten so it proves properly.”
“It’s hard!” she’d exclaimed with a smile, turning her head to press a kiss against his cheek.
“Yes, I know. I’ve slaved over these for years.”
“But that was so that you could get my attention,” she’d giggled.
“Aye, and so I could keep it,” he agreed with a laugh. “I never claimed to be sly in my intentions, though I will admit that my labors were worth it.”
“I’ll say,” she grinned. He watched for just a moment more before she turned in Killian’s arms, forgoing the bread dough as she kissed him. David noted another ball of dough lying on the counter, obviously abandoned hours ago, and wondered what had gone wrong with that batch.
He stepped away from the door then, content not to watch his only daughter displaying her affection for the estate’s baker as he let the door fall shut once more. He fought the small smile as he turned back to his wife, who stared at him excitedly.
“He’s back,” she’d exclaimed.
“So is Emma, it seems,” he agreed.
“Did you see how happy she is? David, we can’t make her marry Mister Cassidy, no matter how comfortable she would be with him.”
He hummed, taking a seat across from his wife, resigning himself to the fact that he may never get his breakfast. “Yes, that’s what I told Mister Cassidy when he called me last night.”
“He called you?” he heard from Granny, who snapped her mouth shut but gave him a smirk to his weak glare.
“After Killian visited him. It seems things have worked themselves out quite nicely.”
“Yes they have,” Emma had agreed as she carried a bowl of fruit to the table, her grin impossibly wide as Killian followed her out with a heavy stack of plates. “Haven’t they, Killian?”
“Indeed, love,” he had smiled. “Master Nolan, may I offer you some fruit to start your breakfast this morning?”
“No,” David had chuckled, shaking his head. “Take the car to Bristol, for goodness sake. It’s time you and your future bride see the home you’ll share.”
“Father,” Emma had beamed. “You’re certain? Killian can have the day off?”
“Killian doesn’t work for me,” he’d argued easily. Then, with a smile, he said, “Killian’s family.”
And with their union a mere month later, he truly was.