Emma Swan is having a pretty good morning. She tracked down an especially wanted criminal last night, and her cut is enough that she doesn’t feel the slightest bit guilty spending more than five dollars on a fancy coffee that’s more chocolate than anything.
It’s a lie. She still feels guilty. But she tells herself she doesn’t have to, and that counts for something.
The sun is shining brightly. It isn’t too hot, the sky is clear, and the wind isn’t trying to kill people. It’s about as perfect as it gets in Los Angeles, and she’s happy to savor it. She doesn’t usually have time to sit at the wrought-iron tables outside the café, watch the traffic go by and actually enjoy her coffee, but today she does.
And. It. Is. Glorious.
She pulls a book out of her bag and settles in, getting lost in another time, another place, another world entirely. Her finger skims the rim of her coffee cup occasionally as she reads, and she’s so lost in her book she doesn’t notice at first when a woman slides into the seat across from her.
“Have you ever considered acting?”
The question startles her out of her thoughts, and she nearly spills her coffee everywhere. Sitting across from her is a rather severe looking woman in a suit. She’s staring intently at Emma, red lips pursed in expectation.
“No,” Emma answers once she manages to collect herself. This isn’t the first time someone has asked her this question. She has the blessing of being blonde, slim, and attractive in a city that prides itself on being beautiful - but she has no interest in that life. She goes back to her book without giving the woman another glance.
“I’m looking to fill a rather unique role, and aspiring actresses won’t do.” The woman smiles, revealing a row of perfectly white teeth. “Regina Mills.” She holds out her hand, all smooth skin and manicured nails.
Emma eyes the offered hand, but doesn’t take it, wrapping both her hands around her coffee mug. “I’m sorry, but what does this have to do with me?”
The woman laughs, a detached sort of amusement. “Oh, you would be perfect, Miss…?”
“Swan,” Emma answers begrudgingly, her curiosity beginning to get the best of her. “Emma Swan. I still don’t understand what you want with me.”
“I have a job offer for you. It’s a six-figure payment and would require a year’s commitment.”
“What’s the job?”
“All business, I see. Not a lot of that left in this town.”
“I’m not from here.”
“None of us are, Miss Swan.” Regina slides a business card across the table smoothly. It’s one of those horribly vague cards, bold black letters proclaiming an address and nothing more. With a flick of her wrist, she looks at her watch, diamonds sparking in the sunlight. “If you’re interested, come to my office at two.”
“I don’t even know what you’re offering.”
“Something for your ears only.” Regina glances around the crowded patio, reaching into her bag and sliding a very expensive pair of sunglasses over her eyes. “Two o’clock,” she repeats, striding away on a pair of red-soled stilettos without so much as a misplaced hair on her head.
Emma watches her go, holding the card between her thumb and index finger with a touch of apprehension. This could be the beginning of a horror movie – a strange woman approaches her, offers her a job, gives her a business card and walks off. But this woman, while cool and direct, didn’t give off the serial killer vibe. Whatever she does, whatever job she has, she must not be lying about the paycheck, because Emma sees the car she gets into – a Mercedes with a six-figure price tag.
She stares at the card as she finishes her now-cold coffee. The address is in West Hollywood, and she knows the area well enough to know the address isn’t cheap either.
Not that much in this town is.
She picks her book back up, resolving not to go. This is how people end up dead, taking offers from strangers to go to random addresses alone. She should know – a good number of the lowlifes she tracks down have lured their victims off to strange addresses.
But she can’t concentrate. What is this job that requires an actress who doesn’t want to be an actress? And with a six-figure paycheck?
It can’t hurt to go check it out, can it? She can take her gun – she’s got the permit to carry it. If it goes sideways, she can protect herself. She’s been in bad situations plenty of times before.
And if not…that much money all at once is a hell of payout. She could pay off some bills, afford a vacation – definitely replace her car before it quits one day on the freeway.
With a sigh, she packs up her book and heads home to grab her gun. She debates changing – her skinny jeans and black tank are hardly job interview material – but Regina approached her dressed like this, her hair a mess and little more than a swipe of mascara on her lashes.
“This is ridiculous,” she mumbles to herself, sliding the gun into the back of her waistband and adjusting her shirt over it. How is she here to grab a weapon while at the same time worrying about how she looks?
Though it doesn’t seem quite so strange, given the world she’s used to.
The address leads to a well-appointed office building, the entrance made mostly of glass. A valet takes her key with a sigh of dismay over the appearance of her car, but there’s no option to park it herself. The massive glass door proclaims this to be Red Delicious Management, which only piques Emma’s curiosity further.
And makes her feel a little silly for bringing the gun. Between the valet and the fancy office with the perfectly styled receptionist, this is obviously some sort of Hollywood management firm.
“Um…hi,” she greets the girl behind the desk. The blonde doesn’t so much as look up from her iPhone, perfectly shaped nails tapping away while Emma grows impatient. “Hey!”
“Can I help you?” The girl looks down her nose at Emma, frowning at her appearance. “If you’re lost, we’re not a tourist direction giving place or whatever.”
“I have an appointment with Regina Mills.”
“Are you kidding me? Yes, really. She gave me this card.” Emma slams the card down on the granite counter, rapidly losing patience. “Emma Swan. Two o’clock.”
The girl doesn’t seem phased by Emma’s outburst. She simply gets up from her seat and starts walking down the tiled hallway, her heels clicking along. Emma rolls her eyes, assuming she’s supposed to follow.
She stops when her escort does in front of two dark wooden doors. “Ms. Mills, your two o’clock is here,” she calls through the door, and Emma has to bite back a laugh. The girl is sweet as pie now.
Emma doesn’t hear a reply, but there must be one because the bitchiest receptionist ever opens the door and stands there waiting for her to walk in. “Thanks,” Emma tells her with the least amount of sincerity she can muster.
The office is beautiful. Marble floors stretch to an expansive wall of glass overlooking a garden. There’s a massive desk pressed against one wall, two chairs before it and a couch along the other wall. Regina is sitting behind the desk – someone else is flopped on the couch, possibly asleep by the look of it.
“Ah, Miss Swan.” Regina gestures to the seat in front of her desk, and Emma crosses the room hesitantly, glancing over her shoulder at the leather-clad form on the couch. “Oh, don’t mind him.” Her voice is filled with contempt at her gaze follows Emma’s, her arms crossing over his chest. “He’s only here as a courtesy.”
“Sod off,” the pile of leather grumbles, voice thick with sleep or liquor, Emma isn’t sure. She can’t make out his face, what with the arm tossed over it, but there’s something oddly familiar about that voice.
“I’d really like to know what I’m doing here now.” Emma takes the offered seat, sinking into the upholstery. She’s surprised – for how cold this woman appears to be, her office furniture is remarkably comfortable.
“Here’s the deal, Miss Swan. I have a client who has gotten himself into a bad situation. I need a unique and capable individual to assist him in cleaning up his mess.”
“You’ve got an innocent face. You’re pretty.” Regina leans forward, smiling a knowing smile. “You’re good at finding people. I assume you’ve learned not to take other people’s crap along the way.”
“How did you…”
“Background check, of course. You wouldn’t have gotten past the front door if I had found anything unsavory.”
Emma snorts, getting to her feet. “Well, you obviously have the wrong woman. I was arrested…”
“And went to jail when you were eighteen for stealing. Yes, I know. I also know you got out of jail and have done well since, in spite of the obvious sacrifice you made during your stay. In fact, you help catch criminals.” Regina’s voice has dropped, too quiet to be overheard, and Emma stares at her in shock. No one knows about that part of her life – her employer knows about the jail time, she’s admitted to that. But the other part…that’s a secret she’s guarded closely.
“It’s really strange that you looked all this up, and you haven’t even told me what you want.” Emma doesn’t sit back down right away, her hands gripping the back of her chair at she levels her gaze at Regina. She’s not going to ask how Regina knows about her son. Not with someone else in the room, someone Regina obviously hasn’t filled in on her past. “No more talking in circles. What’s the job?”
“Be his girlfriend for a year,” she says bluntly, nodding at the slumped form on the couch.
“This is bloody ridiculous!” The protests come at the same time, and Emma turns to watch him lurch up from the couch. Bloodshot eyes flicker to hers, his face a mess of stubble, but still familiar, like she’s seen him before somewhere.
“Killian, sit down. We agreed this was the best plan. At least, that was before you got into whatever dive you did last night.” Regina wrinkles her nose at him. Emma can smell the liquor on him, and it’s a struggle not to walk right out then and there.
“You want me to date him?” She ignores the drunk, incredulous. Of all the offers she’s gotten for work in this town, this is the strangest. “I’m not an escort! And you know people will find out about my past if they start looking, right?” she hisses, quieter, too quiet for the belligerent man behind her.
“I didn’t say you had to sleep with him, Miss Swan…and I’ve buried it,” Regina replies just as quietly before going on in a louder voice, “I want you to make the world believe you’re dating him. Go to lunch, go to dinner. Spend the night in his house. Attend a premier on his arm. The usual things a girlfriend does. Also, keep him out of clubs and bars…and from trying to attack photographers.”
“The lass doesn’t even bloody know who I am!”
Regina sighs, the mask dropping for a fraction of a second to reveal a weariness Emma is beginning to understand. She’s been in the same room with the man for five minutes – she’s put enough together to understand he’s Regina’s wayward client. “Miss Swan, may I present Killian Jones?”
“That’s why you look so familiar!” Emma turns to face him, unable to resist making a face. “You’re that actor they keep talking about. Didn’t you just get kicked off of some movie?”
“Not her,” he declares, glaring with all his might at Emma. The fact that he’s obviously drunk in the middle of the day doesn’t make it very threatening. He can barely keep his feet under him, swaying as he points at Regina.
“Yes, her,” Regina replies firmly. She turns her attention back to Emma. “As you so eloquently put it, he did in fact just get kicked off a movie for his poor behavior. The producer has another project in the works, and should it get green lit, and Mr. Jones can prove himself not an insurance impossibility, the role will be his. He wants the role, and will therefore do as I say to ensure he gets it.”
“I don’t know. This is hardly my thing. I chase down criminals who skip bail. I don’t babysit messed up actors.” She can’t help the sidelong glance at Killian, sprawled across the couch and once again possibly asleep. It’s hard to tell with the way he’s crumpled against the cushions.
“Ah, and I suppose you just walk up to these upstanding citizens and request they come along nicely?”
“No, it’s a lot of undercover work.”
“Well, Miss Swan, it appears that you're used to being someone else for a living. This isn’t so different – except I’m willing to pay you quite handsomely for it.” Regina slides a stack of paperwork across the desk. “I had the contracts drawn up in the event you were willing to accept. You’ll find your compensation addressed on the first page.”
Emma glances at her before pulling the top sheet of paper free, her eyes easily finding the sum. “You can’t be serious.”
“Perfectly. The arrangement will pay for itself, should you keep your end of the bargain.”
“You want to pay me half a million dollars to pretend to date him for a year?” Emma gestures behind her, struggling to make her mind catch up. This morning she was excited to enjoy her over-priced coffee. Now this woman wants to pay her a ridiculous amount of money to pretend to date a fairly famous actor – though he’s a lot better looking when he’s not in yesterday’s clothes, reeking of liquor.
“Well, Miss Swan, only the three of us would know. To the rest of the world, you would be dating him. No one outside this room would be aware of our arrangement.”
“It’s not my fault the bloody crocodile is intentionally ruining my career!” He’s apparently awake, and when she looks at him, sitting up. He’s got the look of a petulant child, brows drawn together as his gaze wobbles between the two women.
Emma raises an eyebrow, glancing from Regina and back to Killian. “The crocodile?”
Regina rolls her eyes, silencing her client with a glare. “The guy is a creep. Rumple Gold, have you heard of him?”
“Bloody nuisance of a man. Too much of a coward to ever face me, just sends his ridiculous little spies!” Killian cuts in from his spot on the couch. He’s still sitting up (barely) and his head lolls back against the cushions following his outburst.
Emma sighs, shaking her head at Regina’s question. “No, I can’t say I have.”
“He owns one of the paparazzi companies and a few of the trashier magazines. He and Killian have had a bit of a disagreement, personally, and he’s found an outlet for his grudge in selling photos we wish he wouldn’t to the highest bidder. It’s not helped by Mr. Jonesbehaving in such a manner to constantly give him material.”
“He’s a bloody git.”
Emma twists in her seat to face him, half-afraid to even ask. “Why do you hate him?”
“He slept with his wife,” Regina supplies, her tone one of a very fed up parent.
“She never told me she was married! How many bloody times must we go over this ridiculous tale? I did not steal the man’s wife.” There’s real emotion in the words, and for a second, Emma wonders at that story, because it’s clearly more than a case of a scandalous affair by the tone of his voice.
“Be that as it may…” Regina silences him with another glare when he seems ready to continue, turning her full attention to Emma once more. “Gold is trouble. Part of your duties would be to keep Mr. Jones out of trouble with the photographers.” Regina’s eyes narrow, her steely gaze settling firmly on Killian. “No falling out of cars. No getting kicked out of clubs or bars. No punching photographers or being videoed threatening photographers. Do I make myself clear?”
“I’ve a right to defend myself!”
Emma sighs as Killian and his manager get into it once more. Regina is the picture of cold collectedness, while Killian is all over the place, cursing and ranting and raving. She would be insane to take this on, but she might be ever more insane to turn this down. The amount of money Regina is offering her to do this, with (if she’s reading this paper correctly) a bonus if he lands the movie role this is all about of an equally shocking size…she could move out of her crappy loft and maybe buy an apartment.
It’s the first time in a long time that having a home, an actual home that belongs to her, seems attainable – if she can spend a year with Killian Jones without murdering him.
“I’ll do it,” she finally says, nearly shouting to be heard over the two of them bickering back and forth. His eyes widen in surprise, and he simply stares at her, all blue-eyed wonder while Regina’s carefully painted lips curl in satisfaction.
“Excellent, Miss Swan. I’ll need you to sign those forms. A contract for your services, as well as a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement. Should you like to have your attorney look these over, we can call him or her to the office. I’m afraid I can’t let you leave without signing the confidentiality agreement.”
“Like I have an attorney on speed dial. I said I’d do it. The contract doesn’t have some weird nonsense in it, does it?” Emma flips through the first few pages in the stack of paper Regina has pushed across her desk, her eyes not catching on anything. It seems like a lot of legalese that basically says she keeps him out of trouble and she gets paid – and she can’t tell anyone about it.
“You do understand you can tell no one about your arrangement? Not a friend, not a family member.”
“I have no family.”
“Fine, then. Your friends, your coworkers, whoever you talk to outside this room. To them, you are dating Killian Jones and you are blissfully happy. When he behaves badly – and rest assured, Miss Swan, he can’t help himself and he will – you will continue on with this until such a time as your contract expires or we release you. You are clear on these facts?”
Emma hesitates, turning to the man in question. His brow is furrowed at Regina’s words, but he’s not trying to defend himself. Instead, when he finds Emma looking at him, he pulls a flask from his pocket and drinks deeply, refusing to meet her gaze. There’s something about him, something that’s just a little bit sad, that makes her wonder if there’s more to his story than either of them are letting on.
But it isn’t about that – it’s about doing something for herself, something that could finally give her a leg up and out of a life on the move.
“Yeah, I’m clear. Where do I sign?”