I truly apologize that this chapter took so long to publish. Life really got the best of me this past few weeks. Enjoy - and the next chapter is where the fun really begins! :]
Emma awoke at an almost embarrassing hour the next day, the clock on her phone lighting up with an obnoxious glow that announced the time to be almost half past eleven. She'd never really been much of an early riser - well, at least not once she was allowed to break the prompt routines of living in the house of a regimented military linked father - but sleeping late as a guest in one of the most prominent buildings in the country and maybe even the world made her feel a bit guilty. Her parents had departed for the seaside Navy base in Plymouth just after dawn, getting an early jump on the flight that would take a little over an hour via royal helicopter. They'd been courteous enough to not wake her before leaving - a gesture she was most grateful for given the fitful sleep she'd battled without victory until about three that morning - and though she wouldn't see them for a couple of days, Emma was somewhat glad to have a break from her mother's particularly watchful eye.
If anything, their absence meant she wouldn't be questioned about her whereabouts the previous night. That was, of course, supposing that they'd noticed she'd been out late - and god, she could only pray that they hadn't.
The events of the recent evening were a bit hazy she realized as her head lay flat against a very fluffy pillow. She wasn't sure if that was by her own need to block some or well, most of it out - but it was likely a combination of that and something else she certainly wasn't ready to analyze. The memory of a pair of clever yet troubled blue eyes slipped into her mind and she immediately shook the thought with a muffled huff. She didn't want to be thinking about that or him right now - at least not until she could find a strong cup of coffee and recall exactly what had been said.
Maybe we should just start over?
Emma was rather certain those had been her nervous words - almost as certain as she was that the smirk of the man she'd made that offer to was probably the most handsome one she'd ever seen. The hope that had filled his very symmetrical features had been unexpected and when he'd reminded her once again of the name he preferred her to address him with, her pulse had thumped hard several times in a row.
Killian will do.
How in the hell she'd ended up post bar battle with a beat up Prince of Wales was still beyond her. It seemed like the stuff from some curious fiction story or a cheesy romantic comedy, but it couldn't be - mostly because there was nothing romantic about her bantering and bandaging scene with a man who was more than just superior. He was royal…and she was Emma Nolan. There was nothing complicated about that.
Choosing to go to her newfound safe place posing as a pub on some corner wasn't a decision meant to reignite some rivalry she still knew little about. They hadn't talked much about it and it wasn't like she'd been given long to prod him into elaborating. The news that Killian's older brother - a guy Emma hadn't gotten to know very well yet and also the actual heir to the freaking throne - was minutes away from the bar had cut into their short conversation. Killian had almost leapt from the chair she'd nudged him toward, steadying himself with a quick clutch of the wooden countertop and a gruff groan. It was that reaction that had tempted her to help him once more in the form of one simple solution she still couldn't believe she'd provided him with.
"It's okay, lass. You were kind enough to deal with me after…all this. I can deal with my brother."
"This wasn't your fault though…and won't he be mad?"
"Well, I suppose it's likely-"
"Then go - and I'll…I'll cover for you."
Sitting up against the lavish headboard of the giant bed, Emma ran her hands over her tired eyes and back through her tangled hair. Why had she given him an out? It wasn't like she was…totally responsible for how the night had unfolded, but for some reason, the sight of his apparent panic and the way he'd glanced toward the only exit with obvious unease made her believe she was more than partly to blame.
For some reason, it was that thought that started her conversation with the prince who stormed into The Round Table only minutes after the younger prince had bolted out the back door. The encounter with Liam hadn't been as shock worthy as the one she'd torpedoed into with his brother, but Emma quickly found it was still a bit unsettling to explain some very strange circumstances to the man who'd one day rule the a large part of the free world.
"I should apologize, Emma - for whatever happened here. My little brother can be….difficult."
"Actually, this….wasn't his fault."
His eyes had gone wide at the hint of her explanation and it didn't take long for Emma to realize that Liam was rather used to making excuses for his sibling's actions. He did, however, seem very unaccustomed to the idea that Killian wasn't actually to blame. The observation made her heart sink slightly as she wondered just what sort of events in the two men's lives had led them to the default setting of Killian being the impulsive prince while Liam became the righteous one.
"I suppose I should be happy he was here for once - well, not for the fight, but to help you, I mean."
"Yeah, uh, I guess…"
"I hope that didn't come across the wrong way, lass. You don't exactly strike me as someone who needs saving. I just meant it's nice to have an ally at times."
She'd seen a flicker of subtle pride in his eyes then - the look of a man who clearly knew his reckless yet courageous younger brother was a good man. There definitely had to be a history reminding Liam to keep that look concealed much of the time and though Emma was extremely curious about what events made him so cautious, she knew it wasn't her business.
Making him recognize the fact that Killian had actually done the honorable thing probably wasn't either - but somehow, that didn't stop her.
"I'm sorry you had to come down here. It's late…and-"
"It's okay, lass. I was actually pondering stopping by the bar when I saw the blurry picture someone took of my brother pop up online. I haven't seen Arthur for a few days and I'd told him I'd be in for a drink one night this week. Just my luck I'd pick the same evening all of this went down."
"I don't think he planned it this way - Killian, I mean. It didn't seem like he was looking to make trouble."
"Well, that's refreshing to hear actually. Coming here isn't exactly a rarity for him. He's always been close with Arthur, but I think there's more to it than just that."
Emma knew what Liam really meant. The bar was a safe space for Killian, a place where he wasn't just a spare or even a proper prince. No, The Round Table was one of the only locations where he could be an average patron - where he could be normal. She could understand that need on some level and the way their common ground led her to defending the wayward royal in a conversation with his older brother wasn't totally surprising, even if it sure as hell wasn't the interaction she'd ever imagined having with Liam.
"Thank you, Emma - for handling this whole thing so gracefully. I know it's definitely not what you bargained for and surely not the type of atmosphere you'd meant to find while escaping to the pub on the corner."
"Yeah, not really…but it's okay. I'm glad I could help."
"As am I, even though this stuff with Killian isn't your mess. I'm grateful you were here and I'm sure he is too."
The chat she'd wandered into with the kind Navy captain replayed endlessly in her mind as the morning carried on. Emma fought the distraction the two brothers were creating in her head all through breakfast in one of the smaller dining rooms. She'd even turned to an unlikely reading of two of the university pamphlets Liam had given her when the vast palace menu couldn't keep her mind busy enough. Emma had tried desperately to absorb the histories and summarized highlights each document offered - the bold photographs on the Cambridge one a stark contrast to the deep blue text on the Oxford brochure - but she knew she could no more avoid thinking about the two princes than she could stop rereading the same sentence from one of the chancellor's messages.
Truly, it was the image of Killian that kept her pulse thumping in her ears as she skimmed the glossy folded paper. He'd left so suddenly, his plan for an escape and transportation unclear to her as he vanished into the darkness. She had tried not to worry during her own late night ride back to Buckingham, but the younger prince hadn't exactly been in the best condition when he departed. The memory of his deep blue eyes burned in her mind, the sight of the one beginning to bruise making her press her lips together as she tried to finish the light morning meal the palace staff had provided her with.
Maybe he was thankful for her intervening and she allowed herself to envision how that gratitude might be displayed on his likely smirking face. She hated to admit it, but she kind of liked that smirk - smug as it probably could be - and the idea of hearing a thank you from him made her smile briefly against the brim of her porcelain cup. She wondered what route would be best as the memory of his injuries and shaky voice played in her mind again.
Would it be wise to try to find him - to give him the chance to address her act of odd kindness? Would it be better to avoid him and pretend the night didn't happen? Her options bounced back and forth from one side of her brain multiple times as she soaked in the early afternoon sunlight.
What did he want from her - and why did she feel the strange desire to figure that out?
Her contemplation didn't cease as she attempted to read on the cozy armchair in the corner of her room. With a roll of her eyes, she accepted the failed attempt at distraction and deposited the novel back on the antique nightstand while a curious plan formed in her mind. Pulling a soft sweater from her still packed suitcase, Emma realized that battling her need for reassurance regarding a certain royal was futile. It was obvious now that staying cooped up in a lone wing of the palace all day just might drive her crazy and as she glanced out the large window overlooking the freshly cut lawn, she decided that perhaps she could manage to entertain herself for an afternoon.
After all, the building she was currently confined to had well over seven hundred rooms - there had to be something interesting to discover in one or two of them.
"This feels-" Arthur decided, glancing down at his hot metallic thermos. "-wrong."
Killian grinned both in agreement and amusement as he leaned back against the hard stone barrier. The low wall crafted out of cement and cobblestones didn't serve much of a purpose truly, especially since so much of the large garden surrounding the backside of Kensington Palace was already quite secluded. It was, however, a boundary line that he and Arthur knew very well. It was a marker of their childhood - the stopping point that had outlined the spring and summer playdates Katherine had insisted they have as boys. The path the makeshift fence took was where they'd been allowed to venture to, but only with the warning that going beyond it was possibly dangerous and therefore not an option. The hazard of doing so didn't come from any threat of getting lost or kidnapped or even the unlikely chance that one of them might tumble into the slowly moving stream that curved around the property. No, Killian knew his mother's fears regarding safety were centered around what perils the paparazzi and their incessant need to know might create. She'd never been given a chance to have the average maternal worries about her sons and somehow, she had always managed to endure that burden with the utmost grace.
She'd been right to take whatever caution she could though - and Killian had spent a lot of years regretting the fact that he'd never told her how grateful he was for that. Of course, he had been far too young when she was taken so tragically and his ability to predict such a disastrous outcome wasn't exactly up to par yet.
Something lingering deep within his soul made him believe she would forgive him for that - even if he'd never fully forgive himself.
"Well, I believe it was you that insisted on this uncharacteristically early meeting, mate," Killian reminded him with a raised brow. "But, I've got to agree - the coffee kinda sucks."
"It's not that bad," Arthur scoffed. "Though I think we'd both prefer something stronger given the circumstances, I suppose I understand your brother's decision to discourage that for now."
Pursing his lips in frustration, Killian gave a reluctant nod. Honestly, he was still trying to figure out just how he'd received such a mild form of Liam's stern wrath the night before. It had been late when he finally arrived back at the Kensington grounds, the place he hadn't been much lately and therefore his choice for hiding out. His avoidance plan had been squandered shortly after he located an ice pack for his battered eye when his older brother had walked calmly through the Nottingham Cottage's front door with little more than a tired frown. Killian had been in minor pain, yes, but bracing for the speech he had been sure Liam would give him was a necessary task. Staring off toward the water flowing smoothly down the shallow river bed now, Killian silently recalled the short exchange they'd had and the way relief had flowed through his body when the man he often angered had only interrogated him briefly about the repeat performance at the bar.
"You've looked worse, brother, but is it fair to assume you're okay?"
"Aye - fine…but I doubt that's what you're wanting to hear."
It wasn't yelling or judgement that followed, but instead Liam had offered him an understanding. He'd told him about what basic details he learned once he'd arrived at The Round Table and as Killian observed his brother's willingness to listen, he was almost sure his cousin wasn't the true source of Liam's unexpected calmness.
It was perplexing at first, especially since the mental state the fight had left him in didn't leave much room for clarity. The pieces slowly shifted into place as his brother talked and it didn't take long for Killian to face exactly what emotions he likely deserved - total embarrassment and the strangest sense of confusion.
"I know it wasn't your fault."
"Yeah, I spoke to the admiral's daughter and for what it's worth, I'm glad you were there tonight - even if I still don't approve of your methods. She was…fortunate to run into you. At least, she seemed to think so when we spoke I'm guessing shortly after you left."
Killian's mind still reeled at the knowledge that the girl captivating his every thought had followed through on the assurance she had given him just after bandaging his injury. He hadn't expected that - her probably impulsive promise or the realization that she'd upheld her end of a deal he didn't deserve. Hell, he hadn't expected to ever encounter kindness like that after acting the way he had and the fact that she'd been so quick to gift him with it was something he was still attempting to decipher.
Emma, he thought with his pulse pounding in his ears. Why had she insisted on helping him after his blatant stupidity? Why had she ever deemed him worthy of such selfless treatment? Killian was quite sure that the majority of the time, he wasn't worth it - so why did she appear to think he was?
He'd been trying not to think about it - or the meeting he was supposed to have with his father in a few hours - and failing miserably. Addressing the man who'd requested the mysterious chance to chat wasn't something Killian felt ready to face, but he knew it wasn't avoidable. He'd certainly been struggling with deflection lately and making another attempt at it wasn't something his dad would likely be cool with.
"Suppose you're right," he replied, shaking off his distraction before glancing in Arthur's direction. "Liam's always been one to heed to logic…doesn't mean I have to like it though."
"Fair enough," his cousin grinned as he closed the lid on the mediocre beverage. "Let's discuss other matters then?"
"Mmmm," Killian hummed. "Such as?"
"Well," the bartending man started, folding his arms in waiting. "We could start with you telling me what was really going on last night."
Uncertainty settled in Killian's posture as his shoulders stiffened. The cause of the fight wasn't hard to put together, but how the hell was he supposed to explain the workings of the back room scene Arthur had stumbled in on the night before? Killian didn't understand much of what had went on himself. He didn't understand how they'd managed to collide so spontaneously once again, and he definitely couldn't comprehend what it all meant or why this mysterious girl was starting to mean something to him. Maybe it was the unknown - the fact that she wasn't one of the foreign princesses he'd likely be coaxed into courting one day and she wasn't one of the royalty worshipping women he could sweet talk into a night or even a weekend of far too much elicit fun.
No, Emma was different. She wasn't obligated to tolerate his presence and something told him she didn't really give a damn about the status he held. There was more to her than he'd seen so far and while a desire to know just who she was continued to pull him in like a magnet, now wasn't the time to mention that to his curious cousin.
"I think we both know I don't really see eye to eye with Gideon Gold," Killian deflected. "I apologize that you and the rest of the bar had to witness that again though."
"We both know that's not what I'm talking about," Arthur said with an intention of redirecting the conversation. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you know her - the blonde lass."
He should have figured this was coming. Arthur had been flustered when he'd walked into the office Killian had been sent to in his beat up condition, but he'd still picked up on the clear fact that the admiral's daughter wasn't a stranger. His cousin had never been one to misinterpret the obvious and that instance had been no different.
Dammit, Killian thought with a bite to his bottom lip. He wasn't going to be able to talk his vague way out of this one.
"Kind of I suppose," he answered cautiously. "Her family is the one staying at Buckingham so we've…crossed paths."
"Hmmm," Arthur mused. "More than once I'm assuming?"
"What's leading you to that conclusion?"
"Well, she was quite quick to assist you after you took that rather solid right hook."
"Left hook actually-" he disputed, ignoring the explanation. "-and it wasn't that square."
"That's not my point, mate," Arthur countered. "What I'm wondering is why - why was she so fast to act as your savior?"
Killian let out a jagged exhale as he tried to summon an answer he didn't have. He didn't know why Emma had done what she'd done and while a part of him hoped that maybe it was because she cared for him….well, it was highly likely she didn't.
After all, they didn't actually know each other - and she sure as hell didn't owe him anything.
"I believe it was at Ruby's behest," Killian said, glad that his answer wasn't a total lie. "She was quite adamant about helping you out front and thought it best to avoid drawing attention I guess. Plus, you and I both know Rubes has never been one to willingly patch me up, at least not without a hell of a lecture."
"While I did appreciate her shuffling you out of the way, I'm not an idiot, Killian," Arthur told him, tapping the lid of his lukewarm coffee holder. "There's more to it than that, but…I've just…gotta remind you-"
"Ah, how I enjoy your ominous warnings," Killian interrupted with a sigh. "Remind me of what, mate?"
"She's not just some tourist," the man replied with a careful tone. "Her father, he's…"
"Liam's new admiral - I know."
Killian let the avoided reminder of where Emma fit in test his thoughts again, his stomach sinking a bit in repeated reminder. He'd wanted to forget - even just for a moment - that she wasn't a part of such a complex world. It wasn't right to pretend that her status in his life would ever be less than complicated, but it was still an idea he'd let himself believe a few times. Soon enough, she might fade into the background as a simple acquaintance he only had due to her father's promotion. It wouldn't be long until she was little more than a distant accessory to his resumed royal life.
So why was he suddenly not okay with that? It was what was meant to happen - the only thing that could happen - but why did he feel this need to prevent losing the small presence she offered?
"But you don't seem to care about that, Killian," Arthur deduced. "Which I must say is sort of worries me."
A mutual concern swelled within Killian's chest, the conflict of possibility and prevention raging in his head as his cousin spoke. It worried him too - the fact that he did care. He cared more than he should and in ways he shouldn't. The whole thing almost scared him on some level, but he couldn't tell Arthur that.
He couldn't tell anyone that.
"I care plenty," he admitted. "So don't worry about that."
"Hmmm, guess I'll do my best not to - but be careful. Her father's acceptance of this position in the Navy means a lot to Liam so just…don't screw this up, okay?"
It wasn't an unfair request, especially since Arthur had witnessed a fair amount of his blunders lately. Killian had always held a monopoly on regal mistakes and this was one occasion he truly couldn't afford to mess up. This whole thing was a great deal to his brother and likely the rest of the royal house, but most of all, he knew it probably meant a lot to Emma - and he wouldn't ruin this for her or her family. From what he'd gathered, they'd been through enough already without him adding to the shakeup their lives were surely withstanding.
"Aye," Killian acquiesced. "So I suppose that means I won't be around the pub much for a while."
"Well," Arthur said, not meeting his stare as a steady smile spread over his face. "In that case, I suppose she might not either."
Killian huffed at the comment, downing what was left of his subpar beverage. It was a taunt perhaps - the conclusion that this perplexing girl might not return to the bar Liam had asked him to avoid for the time being. Killian knew it wasn't like she'd gone there initially to see him and despite how the evening had evolved, it was quite unlikely that she could be anxious to see him again. Still, he couldn't shake the thought that he wanted to see her, even if he didn't totally know why.
To say thank you, he quietly decided. Yes, gratitude was in order - and that was the only reason he could possibly have for needing to find out where she might be.
Walking down the painting lined hallway, Emma smoothed her hair back and pulled her fingers through the wavy tendrils. It was strange to think that her family had spent nearly a week at one of the most legendary buildings in Europe and she had seen little beyond her borrowed bedroom and the handful of dining spaces they had frequented. Her navigation of the outside grounds was less limited. She'd traversed a few of the garden walkways more than once and returned to the bench near the pond a few times. It had only been a few sunrises ago that she'd found a new quiet corner to have her morning coffee - a seat courtesy of a brick ledge that fenced off a plot of white flowers that had just begun to bloom. There was something calm about being in the midst of new nature and Emma had been allowing herself to enjoy the floral view there the past few mornings.
Today was different though. She was alone in the palace - well, aside from the dozens of staff milling about. Her parents had made it to the coast hours ago and were likely in the honorable company of Liam as well as the rest of the high ranking officers. The trip was one that even the Queen had opted to make, a fact that made Emma conclude she was likely the only person who remained behind. Her father's promotion had made quite the splash and it made sense that the royals who had connections to the Navy would want to offer their support at the coastal base.
She was happy he'd found his niche again, but part of her resented the fact that the work had taken him to the waterside while she sat cooped up behind the grand walls of Buckingham. It wasn't fair to feel that way and she scolded herself for it once again as she walked.
Emma bit her lip as she peered toward an elaborate oil painting of a past king cloaked in red and blue. She paused her feet as she took note of how unique the piece seemed to be in this particular corridor. Most of what she'd observed since starting down the hallway were works with a maritime theme - broad brush strokes that pulled together paintings of Navy ships and respected sailors who'd honored the country and the royal family. This man didn't seem to fit the bill she'd grown accustomed to though. She wondered quietly who it was that was captured with such valor in the portrait as her mind flickered to the realization that there was one royal who was as out of place as the ruler trapped in the artwork.
Emma let her gaze linger on the picture for perhaps a little too long as she realized how ironic it was that she'd managed to find this painting in a similar manner to how she'd encountered the dark haired prince - aimlessly but somehow fortunately. Well, maybe anyway. She still had yet to settle on what those multiple meetings meant.
That familiar moniker crossed her mind as she reminded herself to later research the red haired man on the canvas with the prideful crown and royal uniform. Killian, she thought as she started walking again. She had no clue where he was now, but for some reason, she was almost sure his destination was not the one she was currently exploring.
Her exploration led her to a few previously discovered locations in the palace - the most secluded path through the rows of flowers she'd wandered most nights and to the quiet courtyard where she had first unknowingly met the acquaintance of the infamous spare to the heir. She hadn't been aware of his identity during that conversation, but it hadn't kept her from feeling an odd connection with him.
She was still trying to sort out if perhaps he felt it too - and honestly, for some reason, she kind of hoped he did.
The threat of an afternoon storm eventually coaxed her back inside, her unshakeable need to learn more about the palace taking her to an almost concealed door at the opposite end of the building. The appearance of the long hallway she ended up in mirrored that of the one containing her temporary room, but it held a hint of formality that tempted her toward the various rooms at the end of the corridor. It didn't take long to realize that she'd made her to a wing of Buckingham that was more businesslike than the rest, especially once she entered a well-lit space that appeared to act as a office. Deciding who it likely belonged to was a task that might take more effort and as Emma closed the door just a bit, she took a deep breath at the prospect of some casual snooping.
The room was truly beautiful, everything from the red draped windows to the packed bookshelves agreeing with that opinion. A large mahogany desk sat adjacent to the glass panes and its immaculate state was marred only by a pair of elegant pens, an engraved wood box, and a couple of parchment envelopes. To the side of the writing surface, there was a freestanding globe suspended by brushed gold framework. An armchair and a dark leather couch made up the rest of her comfortable surroundings as she wondered just who owned the solitude suggested by the space.
Peeking toward a distant shelf, her eyes narrowed as they fell upon a picture frame. Emma couldn't help the way her fingers skimmed the front of it as she noticed who was preserved in the photograph.
Princess Katherine, she thought with a small smile battling the ache her heart suddenly felt.
The picture didn't seem like it could be a popular image. It wasn't a portrait or a formal photograph of any sort, but rather a simple snapshot that didn't explain much other than she'd clearly been happy at the time it was taken. The carefree grin on her face was contagious and Emma's mind processed the dozens of details with a pure desire to understand. She truly was stunning and the captured view of her proved that on so many levels - the way her dark hair hung in wavy curls and how at ease she looked in a simple floral sundress with tiny white flowers creating an elegant appearance. An elated laugh seemed to linger on the woman's lips as life filled her eyes, their deep cobalt hue instantly reminding Emma of another familiar gaze.
Of course he looked like her, she noted as her mind moved to Killian. The train of thought wasn't intentional, but she couldn't help it as she compared the features of the lost woman to those of the man she'd been unable to shake. It was almost like admiration and her will to fight it was fading fast as she wondered what could be making the princess display such a happy expression.
Her sons were likely the cause of her smiling reaction, a determination Emma settled on as she briefly noticed the two young princes in the photograph. They were young, both of them dressed for summer in tailored shorts and pressed polo shirts. It was easy to see just how much love existed between the three of them as she observed the scene captured by a casual camera and Emma tried to will away the conclusion that pictures like this one were rare - especially since the princess had likely passed only a short time after the snapshot was taken.
They must miss her terribly, Emma thought as a slight frown landed on her lips.
"Can I help you, miss-," a voice suddenly said. "Oh…Emma."
With her hands freezing fast, Emma's head turned sideways to meet the tone sounding from the doorway. The lilt hinging on the curious greeting was a bit sharper than that of the other prince she'd been reminiscing only moments earlier. Her eyes quickly made out the shape of the man who'd located her, but it took a second for her to fully process just who had caught her in full fledged investigation.
"Oh, your, uh….highness…."
He smiled at that, subtle lines framing his smile as her nervousness built quickly. The details soon fell into awkward place as she deduced what room they were in. This was his office - the immaculate and professional headquarters of Prince Brennan.
"There's truly no need for formality," he reminded her, scratching at his stubbled cheek the way his youngest son often did. "After all, it appears I'm the one lacking properness. I apologize you've yet to be offered a tour."
Emma blushed with embarrassment, noting he clearly wasn't upset that she'd wandered into what might be a rather off limits place. Given the photograph gracing the shelf, it was probable that he preferred to keep his office private, but he didn't seem mad that she was there. No, he seemed more curious than anything and she silently thanked some higher power that he was perhaps amused by her line crossing.
"I didn't mean to….well, end up here," she attempted with a guilty and very weak smile. "I didn't know-"
"It's okay," he assured her. "I guess this part of the palace warrants a little attention, especially since it's the one area many guests leave unexplored. I only wish you'd been fortunate enough to find something besides the dusty desk of this abandoned study. The office where my mother pens her letters is far more interesting."
Emma breathed a steady laugh at that, catching the little nickname he'd chosen to tag onto the end of his words. They all called her that - the royals and the help alike. She wondered if it was a cultural thing or just a little quirk the two princes had picked up from their father.
"I'm sorry you've been on your own a bit here," he said sympathetically. "This new assignment of your father's can be…well, let's just say I know that the demands required for a high ranking Navy man aren't exactly simple."
There was something kind about his comment and Emma wondered why he'd chosen to offer it. The oldest heir had definitely once known a militant lifestyle like her father's and it was apparent in his uneasy state that he'd had a hard time letting it go. It made her sad almost as she watched him pause with a half smile.
"You know, I'd wager there are very few people who understand and own the ability to put up with that as well as she did."
Emma was so preoccupied with noticing how he'd passed on parts of his appearance to his sons - the obviousness so easy to see despite his silvered hair and tired eyes - that she almost missed his nod toward the photograph she'd picked up. With her grip holding steady on the intricate frame, she tried to convince herself to put it down.
"She was truly the picture of patience," he told her with a reminiscing smile. "With everyone I suppose - not just me."
The question was perhaps too forward, but the prince gave no indication of that as he arrived at her side. His focus was firmly on the memory of his departed wife and Emma wondered just how deep the pain of that loss ran.
"Definitely with them," he nodded. "Especially-"
Killian, she thought instantly as his voice trailed off. Her heart ached at the idea - the thought that Katherine was the one who understood the prince she currently felt so perplexed by. They likely had an amazing mother and son bond once, but Katherine had died almost fifteen years earlier.
Maybe he'd somehow been alone after that. He'd had everything a person could dream of, but no one to understand why he wanted very little of any of it. At least, that's the impression she had gotten thus far - and it pained her in the strangest way.
"She always seemed to get him in ways I've never managed to," he sighed. "A fault of my own, I must admit."
Emma knew that regret all too well - the one that came from a strained relationship with a struggling parent. She'd been down that rocky road with her mother first and even her father once or twice, but something told her that her past in that area was not quite as troubled as that of the youngest prince.
"He's a good lad - well, man now," Brennan chuckled. "He gets much of that from her."
"But some from you too, I think," Emma commented. "If it's not too bold to say."
"Maybe," the man smiled. "But Killian's always been more of a Spencer than anything else."
She watched in silence as he studied the picture, knowing by the glint of sadness in his stare that he likely looked at it often. It was in that moment that Emma realized how much she truly wanted to know as questions flooded her thoughts. She wanted to ask about the dark haired woman who had radiated beauty and compassion constantly until her life was stolen. She wanted to know how she'd met the heir with the loving eyes who clearly still adored her. Dozens of inquiries sat on the end of her tongue - ones about who Katherine had been as before the royal spotlight and ones about what she'd been like as a mother to a pair of young boys. Emma's sudden curiosity was prodding, but she kept her wondering at bay with only one conclusion in mind.
It wouldn't be fair to interrogate him. It would be wrong to drag up memories that still seemed to haunt him.
"Anyway, I'm glad I managed to run into you," Brennan said, watching her return the frame to the shelf. "One of the servers mentioned you left these."
She was nothing short of startled when he held up the handful of prospective education brochures. Emma tried to keep embarrassment from warming her face as she took the documents carefully, glancing again at the cover of the top one - the information about Trinity College almost taunting her.
"Forgive the biased organization if you will, but I've still got a little loyalty for my alma mater. Does this mean you won't be returning to Columbia?"
"Well, I'm…not sure," she managed to answer. "I guess I haven't thought much about it since…"
Her voice was lost to an awkward silence as she chose not to complete her reply. Brennan offered her a knowing smile as he glanced down at the glossy documents again. Emma wasn't really sure how much the man knew about her, but he had obviously deduced that she'd moved back to England in the wake of her father's accident and that the aftermath of that day was what kept her from returning to New York. It had become her obligation to stay - for lack of a better description - and that was something a prince in line for the throne could likely empathize.
"I know your father is quite grateful for your help these past few months, Emma," Brennan mentioned. "But I like to think I know David well enough to assure you that he'd never want you to give up on your dream so he can reclaim his."
He wasn't wrong. Emma had spoken to her father about that in several tones many times since he'd started healing. She was slowly becoming aware that this wasn't the expectation - it was her method of deflection.
"I know," she acknowledged, toying with the corner of the Cambridge pamphlet in the middle of the small stack. "I guess I just assumed that by the time I had the chance…well, that it might-"
"Be too late?"
With a slight nod, she held his gaze and waited for his countering words. Maybe he'd reaffirm that it wasn't impossible to go back - even if she didn't believe it.
"I like to think it's never too late to become exactly who you want to be," he told her. "Or at least so said Fitzgerald once - and if you're up to it, I'd be happy to make arrangements that could help you start to sort things out while you're in town."
Emma lift her eyebrow as she tried to discern what he could have meant by that. She hadn't planned on doing anything for herself or whatever vague future she had during her London stay, but it certainly seemed like quite a few people had an interest in helping her with that.
"Your highness, your appointment is on his way," a suddenly appearing palace employee announced from the doorway. "Shall I direct him down here?"
"That won't be necessary, Sebastian - one of the first floor staterooms should suffice," Brennan answered. "Let him know I'll be there shortly."
The man nodded and vanished back out into the corridor he'd traveled to find them, leaving Emma with little time to find clarification on what the eldest heir was hoping she would like to do while remaining a palace guest. Peering down at the college brochures again, she noticed his eyes already doing the same thing.
Dammit - of course that's what this was about.
"Assuming you may not be busy," the man started, his voice careful and questioning. "Perhaps I could interest you in joining us for a royal engagement tomorrow? There's a dedication scheduled for noon in honor of my mother and while it's not exactly what I believe the Americans call 'Ivy League', I am quite positive that Trinity's Wren Library would be honored to have you as company."
"Oh…ummm, I…well, I guess-" Emma stammered. "-I wouldn't mind getting out for a bit. Is this you casually asking me to come hang out with you and the queen for an afternoon?"
"Ah, well, my mother is actually still away on that same Navy business that left you stranded here," he explained, tapping his fingers on the side of the shelf. "Smaller company tomorrow - just me and Cora…perhaps the boys too, if Liam happens to be back in decent time."
"Oh," Emma replied, trying to keep her wavering voice steady. "Both…of them?"
"Aye," Brennan nodded as he headed toward the door. "That's okay, I assume?"
Emma swallowed hard, attempting to keep her composure at the idea of being in close quarters with the two men she'd recently run into. She had been hoping to avoid them for the remainder of the trip. She'd been trying to tell herself that was for the best, but now, the large butterflies fluttering like mad in her stomach were telling her that maybe it wasn't. She couldn't be sure what the most fortunate outcome here would be, but she knew that being in a position to see them again - especially at the same time - was very far from okay.
"Yeah," she lied, feeling her feet fuse to the floor. "Sounds great."