This is the long-awaited companion piece to With Affection. You should read WA first if you haven't already; otherwise many scenes in this story will be much less meaningful, or not make very much sense.
This story is dedicated to lenfaz, who sparked the idea for this piece in the first place and wouldn't let me forget about it; optimisticgirl, who let me whine about writing and then very graciously agreed to beta-read the whole story for me; and killians-dashingrescue, who was super supportive while I was writing, and who made the awesome banner for the story over on Tumblr (a cropped version serves as the cover image here).
It began on a Friday.
Well, not exactly. Technically, it had begun over a year ago, as Killian had been wandering between the moving truck and his new flat, supervising the movers. He'd ducked back out of the flat to head down to the truck again, when he'd nearly knocked her over as she'd been walking down the hall. She'd simply glanced at him, said, "Sorry, excuse me," neutrally, and then disappeared into her own flat. Little did he know that would be the most significant interaction they'd share for over a year.
He had been able to discern very little about her, which was unusual, given how easy it had been for him to get to know plenty of his other neighbors. He was on a first-name basis with several other tenants, from the teenaged Peter from the fifth floor, to the taciturn Leroy and his brothers. He occasionally grabbed drinks with Will, the heartbroken pawnshop employee, and Robin, whose wife was a visiting professor out in California. He and Mulan would spot each other in the fitness center if they happened to be downstairs at the same time, and he'd even asked old Marco for help installing a few shelves.
All he had of this mysterious neighbor was her surname: Swan. He'd gleaned the information from her mailbox, which was close enough to his that he could convince himself that he'd merely glanced over, unconsciously, and taken in the name.
Swan. But no first name. No first initial.
She always dressed professionally Mondays through Fridays, but not in any fashion that could indicate a particular career. She worked out several times a week, but he'd given up trying to coordinate his own workout times to impress her with his physical fitness; he just couldn't seem to figure out her schedule.
She clearly had a large group of friends; he spotted her with the same people over and over, in the lift, in the hallway, or walking in and out of the lobby. He was at a loss as to whether or not any of those several people might be a significant other, though lately, he'd seen her with an overnight bag. But it was only occasionally, and he never saw any of her visitors carrying one.
Though it didn't seem to matter if she was in a relationship or not: he found himself incapable of even introducing himself. It wasn't fear that stopped him, but her almost aggressive disinterest: she very clearly did not want to get to know anyone in the building. No one else seemed to know anything about her either, including her first name, and he never saw her have a conversation with anyone besides her friends.
Besides, what good would it do, exactly? It's not as though he were the sort of person who could offer her more than a single night of passion. It would be bad form to ignore the signals she was sending simply to sate his own desires for one evening. Perhaps he was putting her on a pedestal, but then again, no woman looking for a relationship deserved what little he could give.
And so he admired her from afar, and sought pleasure elsewhere. Until that fateful weekend, starting on Friday.
On Friday, Jefferson came over after work to relax and have a drink. The man had barely entered the apartment before the words were out of his mouth: "Who is that?"
"Who is who?" Killian asked, accepting the beer that Jefferson carried with him.
"Drop dead gorgeous—does that make it easier? That's not Aurora, is it? Because that would explain her popularity in the building."
Jefferson was referring to a curious drama that had played out several months ago, when Mulan had moved to the building. Phillip, who lived down the hall with his girlfriend, had become quite attracted to the veteran, and he'd spent more than one night at the local pub with Killian, waxing poetically about how he burned so brightly for two different women. It hadn't mattered, though, as he wasn't the only occupant of his flat who'd fallen for Mulan. Aurora still lived in the building, but in apartment 209 instead of 201. The most shocking part of the situation, at least in Killian's mind, was that Phillip chose to remain in the building, facing his ex-girlfriend and her new girlfriend nearly every day. The story had been so absurd that Killian couldn't help but share it with his friends.
"The only information you've given me is that you spotted a beautiful woman in my building," Killian reminded him as he grabbed a bottle opener. "Where did you see her?"
"She got off the elevator with me, on your floor. Leggy blonde. Probably could model."
His heart skipped a beat; of course it would be her. "Oh, yeah. Her."
"Which neighbor is she? Kathryn? The one with the weird 'Z' name I can never remember?"
Killian quickly poured the beers into a couple of pint glasses and opted to change the subject. "Would it kill you to get something drinkable?" he asked.
"You're lucky we're not at a bar right now. Insulting Sam Adams? You could get your British ass thrown in the harbor."
"Point taken. Would you like to see if there's anything good on television tonight?"
But all of the deliberate dodging was, itself, a serious tell. "Oh," Jefferson said, his lips curling into a satisfied smile. "It's her, isn't it? The mysterious woman who sends butterflies fluttering around your delicate stomach?"
"I am absolutely embarrassed that I'm actually friends with someone who has spent a year forgoing the opportunity to hit that."
"Have you gone temporarily deaf each time I've also mentioned that she's disinclined to have a single conversation with anyone else in this building? 'Hitting that' would require a conversation, and I don't think she's willing to have one."
"You're afraid she'll say no," Jefferson said, matter-of-factly, as Killian handed him one of the glasses of beer. He then promptly set it on the bare table; would it kill the man to use a coaster?
"No. I just don't see a point in annoying her when she clearly doesn't want to be approached. Besides, she probably has a significant other. She carries an overnight bag sometimes; that's a tad unusual if you're not seeing someone, don't you think?"
Jefferson smirked. "You're a coward."
"Oi." He bristled. "I'm not a coward."
"You are. It's simple: you're afraid you'll ask her out and she'll say no."
"I am not." And he wasn't afraid of that.
"Then I dare you to ask her out," Jefferson said with finality, before taking a sip of beer.
Killian opened his mouth to protest, but Jefferson had already turned on the television and was clearly finished with the discussion.
As his friend settled on the baseball playoff game that was on (Killian had lost interest for the season, now that the Sox had finished in last place), he considered the dare. He knew he wasn't imagining her aggressive disinterest; other tenants had noticed as well. Phillip, in an attempt to move on from Aurora, had considered asking the woman out, but had later balked, claiming that she seemed too busy. And August, Marco's son, had asked Killian on more than one occasion if he knew the blonde, and whether he could introduce him to her. At the very least, Killian knew not to take her attitude personally, if other tenants had difficulty approaching her, too.
He was not pleased with Jefferson calling him a coward. But what else could he do? This woman was very clearly never in the mood to be bothered, and the fact that no one else seemed to know anything about her spoke volumes. It didn't matter that he'd caught her staring at him more than once in the fitness center: she was a woman who did not want to be approached, and he wasn't keen to violate that boundary.
And violating that boundary on a dare? That would be disrespectful. Bad form.
Then again, he remembered what Liam used to say to him: A man unwilling to fight for what he wants, deserves what he gets.
On Saturday evening, Killian had plans to stay in and get ahead in his case work, but those plans were derailed when he received a text from Graham:
Come to Pour House. Date had to go home early.
"That's rotten luck, mate," he said when he arrived and hopped up on the barstool next to Graham. "She didn't warm to your sparkling personality?"
"No need to be jealous, Killian," Graham replied evenly before flagging over the bartender so Killian could order a drink. "She was actually quite ill—nasty cold. To be honest, I'm flattered she kept the date."
Killian threw up his hands in mock surrender. "Very well; she's interested in you, my charming friend, and I stand corrected. So how was the date, her plague notwithstanding?"
Graham smiled sheepishly. "Quite excellent. I wasn't sure it would live up to my expectations, but it surpassed them."
"Where did you meet, exactly?" His Captain and Coke arrived, and he took a sip, trying to remember if Graham had already told him. The Tillman case had been taking up so much of his attention, he could hardly remember very much else these days.
"Match," Graham said, and Killian nearly spit out his drink.
"You met online?" he asked incredulously. He didn't mean to sound so surprised—or disparaging—but it was too late. He'd always known Graham was a bit of a lone wolf, but he'd never had difficulty meeting people. He tried to cover for his less than supportive reaction. "I didn't know you were on a dating website."
"Thanks for the completely nonjudgmental response, friend," Graham replied sarcastically. "To be perfectly honest, I think I actually prefer it as a method of meeting people to date. You wouldn't believe the connection we had, just sending messages to each other before tonight. So don't go judging me."
"Sorry." He rubbed his neck sheepishly. "All right, so you met online. What does she do?"
"She's been working for her parents' company—some sort of large business corporation … something."
"That's a bit murky."
"I was pretty fuzzy on the details. Her parents have been grooming her to eventually take over for them, but she's more interested in her work as a historian."
"She sounds interesting. What's the lass's name?"
"Merida. She's actually from Scotland, believe it or not."
Killian stiffened momentarily—Scottish and her parents were prominent businesspeople? But Gold had no daughters, at least not with Milah. Just the one son. He relaxed. "Sounds like we need to find someone from Wales and we'll round out our United Kingdom crew here," he joked.
"Well, I can help you set up an account, but I'm not sure, 'Welsch women only' is a search option." Graham sipped his beer. "All joking aside, you haven't really been seeing anyone lately. You ever think about trying online dating?"
"Not really." He felt himself stiffen defensively.
"Are you sure? It's been a while since your last … I'll go with 'romantic encounter.'"
"Oi, mate!" Although, he privately admitted, it was true. "How would you even know that?"
Graham shrugged nonchalantly, but he couldn't hide his small smile. "You just always have this look whenever we see you next, like you've got some huge secret. I'm just saying that if you're having trouble meeting women, I do recommend it. I mean, I'm not suggesting Tinder or anything—though mostly because I haven't got a clue what it is."
"Well, while I'm quite flattered to know how concerned you are about my love life, and a tad disturbed to learn that you can sense whether or not I've had, as you say, a 'romantic encounter,' I'm not sure online dating is going to be the answer to my troubles."
"What do you mean?"
He stared into his now empty glass. "Jefferson has dared me to ask one of my neighbors out."
"That sounds like our Jeff," Graham acknowledged. "Which neighbor? Mulan? Or is she the one dating Phillip's ex?"
"She is, but no. He dared me to ask out the woman who lives down the hall, who no one seems to know."
"Oh, her. I think I saw her the last time I came over. Long blonde hair? Facial expression that suggests you would do well not to speak to her?"
"That would be her."
"She is quite beautiful. Are you going to follow through?"
Killian shrugged. "I'm not sure. The more I think about it, the less certain I find myself."
"Why is that?"
"It's as you said, mate; the lady clearly does not want to be approached. I've no interest in making a woman uncomfortable just to prove myself to Jefferson."
"But you are interested in dating her?"
"She is beautiful, but I don't know anything about her. Who's to say if I'm truly interested? Maybe it's just the challenge of making a connection with someone who's made herself totally unavailable."
"You could always lie to Jefferson."
"Bad form, Humbert. Bad form."
"I just think it's worth considering," Graham said, with some hesitation. "Asking her out, that is."
"I am considering it," he replied. "But considering it doesn't mean doing it."
They spent the rest of the evening discussing Graham's date; it seemed as though they were an excellent match (both of them loved animals, and both of them enjoyed an afternoon at the shooting range—Killian had to give some credit to the dating website for that). It was quite late by the time he arrived at his complex; the doorman simply nodded at him as he strode towards the lift. Typically, he made conversation with the man—Billy—but it was late, and he was a little stressed, thinking both about the work he'd left unfinished all evening, and what to do regarding his neighbor.
As he stepped into the lift and punched the button for the third floor, he heard fast-paced footsteps approaching. Knowing that inconsiderate neighbors weren't asked to renew their leases, he quickly hit the open door button for the latecomer.
It was her. Of course it would be her. "Thanks," she muttered quietly, staring at the floor. She reached for the button for her floor—their floor—and retracted her hand quickly when she realized that he'd already pressed it. She clung to her overnight bag, which was slung over her shoulder, and the quick glimpse he caught of her face revealed red cheeks and smudged eye makeup.
The compulsion to hit the emergency stop button and demand to know what was wrong was almost too strong to resist. What had happened? Why was she so distraught? How did the overnight bag play into the situation?
And she was clearly upset; if he was looking for an opportunity to say something to her, this was it. But the words never came.
When the lift reached their floor, he let her exit first, and after stealing a glance at him, she quickly vanished into her apartment. He made his way into his own flat.
He dropped down on his couch, feeling more inept than he'd felt the first day Liam had tried to teach him to sail. That had been the opportune moment to speak to her. He could have asked if she was all right, or asked what had happened. Or even just let her know he was someone she could count on if she needed to talk. He was silver-tongued enough that he was sure he could have found a way to phrase such an offer without seeming creepy.
Maybe he was a coward.
But no—that was unrelated. Perhaps he could have spoken to her just now, and maybe consoled her, but that wasn't the same thing as asking her out for the purposes of a dare.
Sunday morning, he woke up early to catch up on his work, only to receive a text from Belle. Brunch?
He immediately replied, unable to resist such an invitation. Meet you there at 10?
Of course. He chuckled. It was unspoken where they would meet for brunch: his favorite restaurant, Stephanie's.
"How has your weekend been?" he asked after they ordered their meal.
"Uneventful," she said. "And more importantly, quiet."
Killian laughed. "Your newest employee still doesn't seem to grasp the concept of a library?"
"Not quite. I really do love Anna, but either she's talking much too loudly in the stacks, or she's talking some poor student's head off at the circulation desk and holding up the line."
"Is she sure that working in a library is right for her?"
"Besides her inability to be quiet, she's a good fit," Belle admitted. "And there will be no living with Elsa if I fire her sister. How has your weekend been?"
"Reasonably uneventful. Though I admit, it should have been even more uneventful."
"What do you mean?" she asked, taking a sip of the tea that the server had just delivered.
"I was planning on spending the weekend catching up on some of my casework, but instead, I spent all Friday evening after work with Jefferson, and last night, I met up with Graham. And of course, I couldn't resist brunch with my favorite person."
She chuckled. "Well, you mean you couldn't resist brunch."
"Two things can be true at once, darling." He grinned before tasting his Blood Mary. Perfect, as always.
"I thought Graham had a date last night."
He nodded. "Aye, but she was ill, so the date was a bit abbreviated. I met him at the bar to help him salvage the night."
"How did it go? I know he was very excited about meeting her."
"It went fine, but I should leave it to him to give you the details."
"That's fair. Well, I'm glad to hear that at least his date went all right."
"You had a date?" He frowned; since she'd ended her engagement years earlier, before he'd even met her, she rarely dipped her toes into the dating pool. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"To be fair, I didn't know I was on a date until we were halfway through." They were interrupted by the arrival of their meal. He took a moment to mentally detach from the conversation, for the sole purpose of closing his eyes and taking in a nice, deep breath of air filled with the scent of corn, chorizo, and cilantro. By god, did he love brunch. When he was with Milah, he would imagine that they would serve brunch at their wedding.
He exhaled. Well, that ruined the moment. He opened his eyes to find Belle already digging into her omelette.
"It was a friend of Elsa's," she explained as they ate. "Some social worker. She decided to set us up by inviting him over to hang out with her while I was home, and then very conveniently needing to leave to run some sort of errand. And, of course, she suggested I keep him company in the meantime."
"I take it you didn't warm to the fellow?"
"Well, he was all right. But you know I'm not interested in dating anyone, so I didn't appreciate the sneaky set-up. And then, of course, Anna came over to borrow something, and once she started talking with Kristoff, it was over."
"Yeah, I think his family is Scandinavian."
"No, I mean, Kristoff Bjorgson?"
She pursed her lips and set her fork down. "It figures you would know him. How?"
He chuckled. "Family law, love. He's been called in on some custody cases I've worked. He's an all right fellow, but I wouldn't have thought him a match for you."
"That's the thing I love about our little group," she said happily. After taking another bite of her meal, she elaborated. "The four of us respect everyone's dating decisions. I know that you, for example, would never push me to date someone. Even if you thought you'd met the perfect person for me, you'd probably do nothing more than just make the suggestion and leave me to make my own decision."
He paused, mouth slightly open, before deciding to take a bite of his food instead. She noticed. "What?"
"Well," he said slowly, when he'd finished the bite (bad form to talk with a full mouth). "Jefferson dared me to ask out my neighbor."
She laughed. "He what?"
"He rode the lift with her and was apparently astounded that I had not yet 'hit that.'" He made the appropriate gesture for quotation marks. "And so he dared me to ask her on a date."
"Is this the neighbor who seems incredibly aloof?"
"That would be the one."
"I take it you'd rather not cross her boundaries."
"Yes, thank you!" He raised his glass to her before taking a sip. "See, you understand."
"I'm all for respecting boundaries," she said firmly. However, her expression indicated that this was a qualifying statement, not an unwavering demonstration of agreement. "But maybe there's a way to convey your interest without making her uncomfortable?"
"My interest in what exactly?"
"You talk about her all the time," Belle said emphatically. "You're clearly interested. It might be worth thinking of a method besides just walking on up to her and asking her out."
"Right, but I'm interested in what?" he repeated, unable to hide his frustration. All three of his friends nudging him into asking his neighbor out, all in the same weekend? Was there something in the water? "Interested in fucking her and then never speaking to her again?" A few older women at a nearby table glared at him when he uttered the expletive.
"Why are you so sure that would happen?"
"How long have you known me, Belle?"
She frowned, as though she knew where he was going with the question. "Ten years."
"And how many times, in those ten years, have I ever been on more than one date with anyone?" He was glad he had polished off his meal, as he'd now lost his appetite entirely.
"Who says this has to happen that way? Why not take the chance?"
"Didn't you just speak glowingly about how we don't pressure each other on the romantic front?" He had never been so happy for the check to arrive in his life. There was no point in splitting the bill—it would take far too long—and he was relieved to find that he was carrying exactly the right amount of cash to cover the whole meal plus a generous tip. He quickly shoved the cash into the check presenter and fumbled for his coat.
Belle was quiet, though he could tell her silence was one brought on by anger and frustration, and not by shock at his behavior. "This is who I am," he said firmly as he stood up. "I don't do relationships anymore, not after what happened, and I'm not going to harass some poor woman just to prove to Jefferson that I'm not a coward. We all know what a date with Killian Jones entails, and there's no use pretending otherwise." When it became clear that she wasn't going to reply, he turned and left (nodding curtly at the clearly offended older ladies, who were still staring at him).
He debated walking the three miles home, mostly as a way to work off his anger. It wasn't terribly chilly out (and he found himself wishing he'd grabbed his leather jacket instead of his peacoat), but the T would be preferable to strolling down Newbury Street, with its sidewalk crawling with tourists and shoppers. Were they quite unable to move at a reasonable pace? Or move to the right and let people pass? Apparently. By the time he reached the next T station, he'd lost what little patience he'd had after leaving brunch, and he gave up on walking.
It was especially frustrating having Belle put even the smallest bit of pressure on him. In their ten years of friendship, he had never pushed her to date anyone, or even questioned her commitment to staying single. He knew what she had been through before coming to the States, and she'd seen firsthand what had happened with Milah. At least Graham knew to back off, and Jefferson … well, Jefferson enjoyed pushing people for his own entertainment. It hardly counted.
But then again, it hadn't just been Belle. Graham seemed to think it was worth considering. And yes, Jefferson did enjoy pushing people; but if had been for entertainment purposes only, would Jeff have insinuated that his reluctance was due to cowardice? That seemed a little too far, even for Jefferson.
And now Belle, whose attitude towards dating had always been so similar to his own, was explicitly pressing him to follow through. Both she and Graham had indicated that he might do well to think of a method that would be respectful of his neighbor's aloofness.
By the time he reached his apartment, he felt like quite a fool. But there was no time to dwell on what had happened at brunch, not when he had casework to finish. Of course, he was only perhaps halfway through (enough done that he wouldn't start the week behind, but not enough to start the week ahead) when he finally gave up all pretense of having his mind on his work. It was still too early to start cooking supper, especially given the meal he'd eaten earlier, and the fact that he knew he'd need to call Belle at some point and apologize. His stomach suddenly felt much too small to even consider a meal in the near future, and so he picked up his phone.
"I'm sorry," he said immediately, foregoing a more respectable greeting. "I'm a wanker."
"You are," she said firmly. "And you're also an idiot."
"I am." A gentleman took his lumps when he behaved dishonorably. "I shouldn't have lashed out at you. I know you're just trying to look out for me."
"I really am," she said insistently. "And you know, I listen when you talk. I know that you've got more than a passing, mild interest in your neighbor. And I know that you're not satisfied with your love life. You've hardly been on a date at all in the past six months."
While Graham (apparently) could guess when "romantic encounters" occurred, Belle was usually in the loop. And he really hadn't been satisfied lately—emotionally, at least. "I don't know," he said, unable to articulate himself well—a rare occurrence. "To be honest, I've no idea how to turn this around, if that makes any sense."
"It does make sense. I wish I had a formula of sorts for you, Killian. I really do. But I'm hardly one to talk about successfully dating someone, or starting a relationship. The most romance I'm ever ready for is whatever's in the book I'm reading."
He chuckled. "Darling, we both know that it's possible to give advice on a topic, even if you're struggling in that arena yourself." He sighed. "I just wish there were some way for me to get to know her a bit better before having to, you know, really put myself out there."
"Well, what do you mean exactly?"
"I don't want to put her on the spot, and if we don't know each other too well, I'll likely either end up rejected, or worse, leaving her apartment at six o'clock in the morning, rushing out the door with my shoes half on, feeding her some bullshit over having to get to an early meeting while she comments that it's Sunday." The comment garnered a laugh from Belle, but as he said it, he realized another significant issue he'd have to contend with. "Bloody hell. This is never going to work. She lives down the hall. I'm a confident man, but I'm not looking forward to bumping into her after either scenario."
"Maybe that just means you won't be able to sleep with her and never see her again."
"What if I end up disliking her, though? I don't even know her. And this is just assuming she accepts an invitation to dinner. If she declines, I don't want her being uncomfortable or, worse, afraid every time she sees me."
"So basically, you want to get to know her first. Why don't you just ask her to join us sometime when we're going out for drinks?"
"That's still very date-like, isn't it?"
"Yeah, I suppose." She sighed. "It's too bad you didn't meet online like Graham and his date did."
"What do you mean?"
"They could send each other messages through the website," she reminded him. "If they hadn't really connected that way, they would have known that meeting in person was a waste of time. That's the only way I can really think of how you could get to know each other without going on a date first."
"Well, even then, I assume these websites involve photographs. Even if I were to be so fortunate as to find her online, she would recognize me immediately."
"True." There was a sound in the background. "I need to go. Elsa just got home and I know she's going to want to talk about the 'date' last night. I'll talk to you later?"
"Of course, love. Best of luck with Elsa."
And so his weekend ended with him staring at his laptop screen, trying to get work done, while mulling over what his friends had said to him regarding his neighbor.
His problem was clear: he wanted a way to get to know her before dating her. There seemed no other way to avoid what he knew would happen otherwise, which involved him going back to her place after dinner or drinks, engaging in a night of passion, and then sneaking out the next morning (or, as he'd begun to do more recently, later that same night).
It wasn't simply that it would make their living situation extremely unpleasant, since they would inevitably bump into each other. He just wanted to be done with the business of one night stands, but it had been years since he had done anything else. Did he even have anything else to give?
It was too bad he couldn't take Graham's route, at least not with his neighbor. Perhaps he'd consider it if this venture failed; Graham did seem excited about the potential he had with his newfound lady love. It was unfortunate that there was no way to implement some of the mechanics of online dating in this situation, since—as Belle had mused—it would be quite beneficial.
But it wasn't as though he could simply write up a message and, say, stick it under her door.
He shook his head and forced himself to focus on his casework. But thirty minutes later, he'd hardly made a dent in it.
Could he just write her a note and leave it under her door?
Of course not.
Another thirty minutes passed, and he found himself rereading the same passage of the case over and over without taking any of the information in. Why couldn't he leave her a note? She was free to ignore the message if she wasn't interested. And he could remain entirely anonymous; if they were incompatible, or she declined to reply, she never need know that he was the one contacting her.
He went to open a new document, but the thought of Spencer's disappointed expression gave him pause. He could think of what to write to his neighbor during his lunch break tomorrow, but he'd spent enough of the weekend distracting himself from his work.
And so, during his lunch break (abbreviated, due to the new communications he'd had with Amelia Zimmerman's attorney), he found a few minutes to type out the least provocative message he could think of. When he returned home, he slid it under her whimsical doormat before heading down to the fitness center to burn off some of his anxiety.
It is my sincerest hope that you had a lovely Monday.
A secret admirer
I hope that it's entertaining/interesting so far! I would love to hear your thoughts. Updates will be every other day.