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That is a dandy of a horse, Liam," Chase said before whistling low and running his hand across the black stallion's side.+ "I'd been after this beast for years," Liam noted. Kyle chuckled. "It took a woman to get things done." Chase sighed. "And a pretty woman at that. Where is Emma today? I was hoping I might get to see her." Kyle snorted. "If I were a jealous man, I might be worried." Chase winked. "You're the only man for me."14 Kyle crossed his arms over his chest and raised a brow. "But Emma's a woman."2 Instead of saying anything further, Chase leapt forward and wrapped Kyle in a bone-crushing hug. "No need to be jealous, Kyle. I'm yours. Besides—" He glanced at Liam who was watching the duo with mild amusement. "Liam scares me."6 Liam rolled his eyes and headed out of the barn. "Emma wanted to spend some time in town today so I took her this morning. She's riding back with Anita this afternoon." Truth was, Liam was happy that Emma had decided to go to town. It had been a week since she'd been attacked on that mountain and Liam had been worried she'd retreat back into her shell and lose what progress she'd made since escaping her father. But Emma seemed to have shaken it off—though he'd heard her whimpering and crying in her dreams at night and done his best to comfort her. Patrick had been good for Emma during the last week. Liam was angry over the attack and still fairly on edge. Patrick, however, was his usual carefree self and he'd kept Emma company.1 Liam hadn't spoken a word to anyone else about that day. He figured it wasn't anyone's business unless Emma chose to tell them. Hell, Liam probably wouldn't have even told his father about it if Patrick hadn't caught him at such a vulnerable moment. "So, are you gonna sell that horse?" Kyle asked.1 Liam sighed. "I had planned on it. But, I think Emma's attached to him. I'll have to have a talk with her before I decide anything."3 "Yep. Can't make a step without that old ball and chain," Chase noted. Liam glared at his brain addled friend. "How about you do something useful with yourself today?" "Good luck with that," Kyle muttered. "I'm always useful," Chase grumbled. Liam grinned. "My cabin needs a couple new rooms. I need logs to build them with. You two up for some lumberjacking today?" *** "Emma, sweetheart, is there something bothering you?" Anita asked as the two sat in the swing on the porch and watched the townsfolk bustling about their day. Emma forced a smile. "No, of course not. I'm just feeling a little tired."1 Anita huffed and Emma saw the older woman's eyes narrow. "Now, don't you go lying to me, Emma McIntyre. I know that something is wrong. I can see it in your eyes just the same as I could see it in Liam's when he dropped you off here this morning. You might as well get to talking." STORY CONTINUES BELOW Emma crossed her arms over her chest, remembering how rough Shade's hands had felt as they held her and pinned her to the wet ground. She shivered and felt her stomach flip. "Emma!" Anita began to fan her hand in front of Emma's face. "Sweetheart, you're white as a sheet! What on earth is going on? Has that father of yours been giving you more trouble? Or Bethany?" Emma shook her head. She hadn't spoken about Shade since the attack.... She hadn't even spoken about the attack itself at all. Neither had Liam. She knew he felt responsible for not keeping her safe-and she felt guilty for not fighting harder.1 Emma met Anita's gaze and fought the tears that wanted to fill her eyes. "Liam and I were on the mountain when that storm hit last week. We were getting that black stallion he's been after for so long...." Anita nodded. "Yes, he mentioned that he'd finally managed to catch it—with your help of course." Her gaze was soft. "Did you run into your father up there?" Emma shook her head. "No... I haven't seen or heard from my father since the night of the dance." Her hands were trembling so she folded them tightly in her lap and tried to focus on breathing deeply. "Liam and I got separated on the way back down—the fog and the storm made it impossible to find one another... I knew that if I just kept going down, I would find the valley and be able to go home... I just wanted to go home...." Anita smoothed a strand of hair behind Emma's ear. "Of course you did, sweetheart. What happened?" "Shade Marxton found me... He yanked me off Honey and he...he..." Emma couldn't finish her thought. She squeezed her eyes shut tight as she remembered the taste of his tongue as he'd shoved it into her mouth. Anita cursed under her breath. "Why that no good, rat-faced, son of a heifer! Emma, sweetheart, did he.....?" Emma knew what Anita was asking and she quickly shook her head. "No, I'm not ruined if that's what ya mean. Liam came and...."2 "Ruined?" Anita's voice was dangerously calm. "What on God's green earth would have you believing that you'd be ruined if Liam hadn't gotten there in time?" Emma frowned. "Because, Shade would have...." "That's Shade's sins—his mistakes. It would have had no bearing on you or the woman you are. You don't ever let yourself think that something someone does to you determines what kind of person you are or what worth you have. Do you hear me?"35 Emma had never in her life heard anything like what Anita was saying. It went against everything her father had ever said about women—and even her own mother had spoken of a woman's need to be pure and true only to her husband—to not tempt men into being unable to help themselves.13 She honestly liked Anita's outlook much better. Shade was a monster—a mean and evil man who had taken advantage of her. Emma loved Liam. She hadn't urged Shade on or tempted him in any way.... And Liam certainly didn't blame her for what happened.7 She needed to let go of the blame she herself had been holding onto. "Someone should go up there and pay Shade a visit," Anita grumbled, kicking up the rhythm of the porch swing.3 "It wouldn't solve anything," Emma countered. "And then the mountain men would come down seeking their own vengeance." Anita sighed. "I suppose you're right. I want you staying off that mountain, Emma. It's not safe. I'd like Liam to stay off it as well but that would be like asking that rock out there to sprout legs and run down the street. He's got trapping in his blood and that won't change.... But you? You keep yourself down where it's a bit safer." Emma simply smiled and nodded... but Anita wasn't completely right. It was just as dangerous down here. Liam hadn't been on that mountain when her father had shot him. And her father had kidnapped her right here in town. But Emma would agree with Anita simply to please the woman. She was the best friend that Emma had outside of Liam. "Hey Ms. Anita!" Lauren came barreling up onto the porch, her dark hair a mess and sweat dripping down her brow. She swiped at a patch of dirt on her blouse as Anita glared at the girl.1 "What are you doing in such a state? Covered in sweat and dirt and running around bellowing like a calf at feeding time?" "I was playing kickball with William and the others," Lauren admitted quickly. "You're the one that told me to make friends," she added pointedly. Emma attempted to hide her smile behind her hand while Anita simply sighed with defeat. "And what about the bellowing?" Lauren beamed beneath the dirt and freckles. "The stage just pulled up! Didn't you say you were expecting a new girl on the stage?" Anita's eyes lit up as she all but jumped to her feet. "Yes! I had nearly completely forgotten! I received a wire a few days ago about a young lady who'd shown up a few towns west. They were asking if I could take her in and, of course, I agreed." Anita turned to Emma. "Would you like to come with me to welcome her to Spring Falls?" Emma wanted to say no. She still wasn't entirely comfortable with the thought of meeting strangers. But Anita seemed so excited, Emma hated to turn her down. She forced a smile and got to her feet. "Sure." The walk to the stage coach office didn't take long, though Emma felt herself growing increasingly uncomfortable in the crowd that seemed to grow thicker as they neared it. There was the sudden sound of rustling fabric and a loud thud just before a female voice filled the afternoon air. "Damnation. Hell's bells. That hurt like the dickens!"2 Lauren laughed while Anita sighed. "That'll be her." Anita nudged her way to the platform and Emma gasped when she saw the new girl for the first time. She was short, and quite dainty with a headful of curls so wild and massive that they seemed to swallow her head and shoulders. Her face was red and flushed beneath a mess of dark freckles and her big green eyes were shining with good-nature. But what shocked Emma most—more than the curses she'd hollered and more than her swiping at her dirt streaked backside as she picked herself up off the ground—was the trousers and blouse the woman was wearing! They hugged her tiny frame tight, showing off her legs and hips in a way that Emma had never in her life seen a woman do!7 "Oh dear me...." Anita muttered. Lauren laughed louder. "You might have found a harder case than I was!"1 Lauren received a sharp smack to the back of her head before Anita stepped forward. "Hello, sweetheart. My name is Miss Anita. Are you the young lady I received word about?" The young woman, probably about the same age as Emma, smiled in a way that lit up her whole face and nearly split her cheeks in half, deepening dimples in them. "Yep, that'll be me. Name's Cassandra Holland. I was raised up with a pa, eight brothers and no mama after I turned five. Apparently I'm lacking in what you'd call 'feminine airs'."9 "Really?" Lauren snickered. "I'd have never guessed."4 Lauren dodged another swat from Anita before Anita held out her hand to Cassandra. "It's wonderful to meet you, sweetheart. This here is Emma, she is married to my nephew and a wonderful woman to have as a friend. And, this urchin beside me is Lauren.... A work in progress."1 "Well, it sure is a pleasure to meet y'all!" Cassandra grinned. Then she crossed her legs a bit and gave a bounce. "If y'all don't mind, could you show me to an outhouse. I've been cooped up in that stagecoach and holding it for hours!"9 I should be getting home, Anita," Emma admitted after they'd shown Cassandra around the boarding house. "Of course," Anita agreed, glancing out the window at the late afternoon sky. "I'll take you in the cart." "Can I come along?" Cassandra asked. "I ain't quite used to being cooped up in a town."2 "Of course." Anita turned her gaze to Lauren. "You stay and get yourself cleaned up for supper. You look like you've been rolling around in a pig sty." Lauren wiped her dirty hand on her dress. "It ain't that bad." Emma, Cassandra and Anita loaded into the cart. They hadn't traveled far from town when they came upon Ben. "Hello ladies," he greeted with a tip of his head. Anita smiled. "Hello Ben. We were just taking Emma home." "I'll ride with you," Ben offered. "I was heading that way on my way up the mountain." "Why are you going on the mountain?" Emma questioned. His features were strained. "A funeral. Not one I'm too keen on performing but it is my duty as the preacher."2 "Preacher?!" Cassandra demanded. "You can't be a preacher! Every preacher I've ever meant is either old or fat. Why, you're plumb handsome!"19 Emma gasped with surprise, Anita laughed quietly into her hand and Ben's eyes widened so comically that they appeared ready to pop from his head. He cleared his throat as his cheeks turned a deeper red than Emma had ever seen. "Uh... well.. thank you, ma'am. You.. uh.. you're quite lovely, yourself....I.." Ben cleared his throat loudly and tugged at his collar. "I don't believe we've ever met."5 "No, you haven't," Anita aided the flustered man. "This is Cassandra. She just moved to Silver Falls to stay with me awhile. Cassandra, this is Ben Owens. He's our local preacher." Cassandra smiled as she picked at trousers. "It's nice to meet you, Benjamin. I probably shouldn't have come out and said what I did... I don't have real good manners. That's one of the reasons my pa sent me to Miss Anita's." Ben shook his head, seeming to overcome his initial shock and embarrassment. "Don't apologize, Miss Cassandra. I enjoyed the compliment and it's good to meet people who say exactly what they mean." "That's me," Cassandra beamed. "No filter."6 "Oh dear..." Anita muttered. "I'm afraid this one might make Lauren seem like a walk in the park on a Sunday afternoon." Emma bit her lip a moment before asking, "Who's funeral are you on your way to?"1 Ben's eyes softened. "Not that funeral." Then he shrugged. "Unfortunately." Before Emma had time to fully process what he'd just said, Ben continued. "Apparently a man was up there during that storm a week or so ago and he got turned around and walked off a cliff. They just recently found his body and have asked me to come speak a few words. I'm supposed to say a few good things about the deceased and offer his family comfort that he's gone to heaven...."9 Ben let out a sigh and glanced at the scenery. "And then pray for the Lord to forgive me for the sin of lying."22 Again Emma gasped before stifling her laugher behind her hand. Anita was quick to scold Ben, though Emma was certain the older woman was fighting a smile. Cassandra, however, smacked her leg and laughed so loudly, she startled several birds in a nearby tree. STORY CONTINUES BELOW Ben cleared his throat and sat up a little straighter in the saddle. The rest of the ride passed quickly with easy conversation and laughter. Emma found that she liked Cassandra. The woman was certainly rough around the edges but she seemed honest and friendly enough. When they arrived at the cabin, Emma couldn't hold back her smile. Liam was in the yard using a two man saw with Kyle to cut branches off a tree. He looked so strong.. so handsome. Liam looked up, his eyes caught hers and a smile formed on his face as well. Emma's heart sped up while butterflies fluttered in her stomach. "I'm guessing that must be your man. He sure does look at you like a man in love," Cassandra noted. Emma blushed and glanced down at her skirt. Anita smiled. "Emma's been good for my nephew. And he looks at her that way because that's exactly what he is." Patrick, Liam, Chase and Kyle stopped their work and, while Chase, Kyle and Liam approached the cart, Patrick made a quick escape to the barn—clearly he still wasn't quite ready to risk conversation with Anita.5 "I'd like for all of you to meet Cassandra," Anita spoke up, motioning toward the woman who was shifting in the seat and tugging at the knees of her trousers. "Cassandra, this is Liam, Chase and Kyle," Anita added, pointing to them each in turn. "And the coward that tucked tail and ran into the barn when he saw me was Patrick."6 "He's not really mean," Chase countered. "He's just got the good sense to realize Anita is a woman you don't want to tangle with." Liam helped Emma from the cart and as the group continued with small talk, he pulled her slightly to the side. "Did you have a good time?" Emma smiled up at him and nodded. "I did. I..." She bit her lip. "I told Anita about what happened on the mountain..." Liam tensed and Emma saw the guilt in his eyes. She knew he blamed himself for what Shade had done. "And?" he asked tightly. Emma placed a tender hand on his cheek and felt her heart swell as Liam leaned into her touch. "And, I'm okay."1 *** Liam stared down at his wife and was once again amazed at the strength in women. He believed her when she said she was okay. Emma was no liar and Liam could read her emotions like a book. She was tiny, small and delicate and yet she had greater strength than men three times her size. "I'll be going now," Ben called out. "Have fun telling lies at that funeral, Ben," Cassandra replied. Liam frowned. "Funeral?" "Lies?" Chase chimed in. "I thought holy men didn't tell lies." Ben cleared his throat. "Of course we can, Chase. The Lord allows us three a year to use wisely," he stated dryly. Ben turned his attention to Liam. "A mountain man died during that storm a week ago. He got turned around up in that fog and walked right off a cliff."8 The hairs on the back of Liam's neck rose to attention. "Who?"1 "Shade Marxton is his name. I'd rather not speak for him but I do as I'm asked."6 Liam felt the shock Emma felt as she gripped his hand tightly. Liam himself was feeling pretty damn shocked. Shade Marxton was dead? He'd died the day of the storm?2 "Hell, I thought mountain men knew those mountains and cliffs like the back of their hands. How does one walk off of one?" Chase demanded.3 "Maybe he had help," Kyle stated. Anita huffed. "Yes, the good Lord himself led the man up there and threw him off just to save us all the headache."15 "Anita!" Emma and Cassandra gasped in unison. Anita shrugged. "What? I refuse to sit and act as if his death is any great loss." She shot Emma a pointed look. "It is my most heartfelt belief that he got exactly what he deserved." "Damn straight he did," Liam all but growled. He was still trying to figure out how that had happened. Chase was right. Mountain men knew the mountains. They didn't just wonder off a cliff.....1 He felt eyes on him and glanced toward the barn to see Patrick watching him closely. His father had disappeared the night of the storm after Liam and Emma had returned home. Liam hadn't read much into it, or the limp the man had had the next morning—he'd assumed Patrick had just gone into town and possibly drank too much and stumbled his way into a curled ankle. But what if that wasn't what had happened.... Patrick had seemed awful mad that night. And Patrick knew those mountains just as well as any mountain man. Their gazes met and Liam saw his father give the smallest of nods.6 Hell. Just when Liam thought he was figuring things out life had thrown yet another surprise his way. "I say we call this canning business quits for the day," Anita declared as she wiped her arm across her sweat-slicked brow. Emma was happy to agree. With Cassandra and Lauren's help, the women had been canning apples and pears since just a little after dawn. Their hands were aching and each of them were overheated and tired of standing over the boiling water.+ "We got quite a bit done today," Emma observed, taking note of the cans—well over one-hundred of them. "I want you to know that at least one-third of these are for you and Liam," Anita stated. "You can use them to get through winter and help with your pies." "I couldn't take them!" Emma argued. "These are all from your fruit trees." "Yes, which you helped pick and you helped with all this canning. You've earned them," Anita assured her in a tone of voice that made it clear she was done with the conversation. Lauren chuckled. "You oughta know better than to turn down free food." "Yeah," Cassandra agreed. "As my daddy always says, you should never look a gift horse in the mouth."4 Anita raised a brow. "Are you comparing me to a horse?"1 Cassandra's cheeks flushed slightly. "No, of course not." "I should probably be heading home. I'm sure the men are getting hungry," Emma noted, glancing at the clock on the wall. "I'll ride with ya," Cassandra offered. "That way you're not alone. I'm sure Miss Anita is tired after working so hard all day." Anita smiled. "I have plenty of energy left to take Emma home... unless the real reason you're so eager to ride with her is so you can once again ride back into town with Ben."5 Emma smiled at the embarrassment and surprise on Cassandra's face. It was no secret to anyone around them that Ben and Cassandra had taken a liking to one another in the last few weeks. Ben had been working quite often on the cabin additions with Liam and nearly every day Cassandra would ride out to the cabin just so that Ben would offer to accompany her back to town. It was certainly an odd match. Cassandra cussed more than it would deemed proper a preacher's wife to do and, while Anita had finally convinced her that trousers were not proper lady attire, she had insisted on only wearing split skirts—as dresses and proper skirts made it too difficult to hop straight onto a horse's back and ride off. But Ben didn't seem to mind Cassandra's quirks. Her lack of filter and her tendency to say whatever came to mind. As a matter of fact, those are the very things he seemed to like most about her. "Come on, Cassandra," Emma smiled. "We better be going so Miss Anita can get her rest." She paused at the door. "Anita, if you're certain that Liam and I can have some of the cans, I'll have him come into town with me tomorrow to get them." Anita rolled her eyes. "Of course I'm sure, sweetheart." She made a big show of stifling a yawn. "You girls should get going now. This old woman needs her beauty rest." Lauren snorted. "Better be a long nap."9 She dodged a head smack from Anita before running from the room with laughter. Anita lips twitched with a suppressed smile. "A long nap sounds pretty good to me." STORY CONTINUES BELOW *** "Hell, Liam, when's that woman of yours gonna get home and start some supper. I'm starved to death," Chase complained. Liam grunted, pausing between hammer swings. "Hell, Chase, between you and Kyle, one of you must know how to cook or else you both would have starved to death by now." Kyle chuckled. "Chase is pretty handy in a kitchen." "Do you have an apron?" Ben spoke up. "All the good cooks wear an apron." Liam chuckled as he went back to nailing on shingles. Liam liked Ben. The man might be a preacher, but he wasn't an uppity bastard like a lot of them. He still spoke and voiced real opinions despite his holy background and he was easy to be around. Hell, Ben even knew about Chase and Kyle's secret. He'd figured it out pretty quickly. Chase had been worried the preacher man would judge them harshly or have them run out of town for their sinful way of life, but Ben had simply said there was far too little love in the world and if Kyle was foolish enough to tie himself down to a pain in the neck like Chase, who was he to say a word against it.14 Liam chuckled at the memory. Yeah, he liked Ben.5 "I could go down and start some supper," Patrick offered. "I know a thing or two about a kitchen." "Well thank you, Patrick. That'd be damn womanly of you," Chase grinned. Patrick simply shrugged before heading off the roof and down the ladder. Liam wasn't quite sure what to make of the change in his father. Gone was the angry, drunk wandering man who Liam had known for nearly thirty years.2 Patrick rarely drank, was no longer hot-headed and had stayed around longer than he ever had before. He cared for Emma, took care of anything Liam needed done and Liam was pretty damn sure the man had even murdered Shade Marxton to save Liam the trouble.3 It was a confusing thing and Liam was having trouble figuring out just what he wanted to do... he was struggling to figure out how to open up to the man he'd barely known most of his life. With a sigh Liam decided he'd talk to Emma about things. He'd gotten pretty damn good at opening up to his wife and she had a kind, caring spirit. She'd help him work things out. "Well, speaking about pretty women, here come two sunshine daisies now," Kyle said, pointing toward the path from town. Liam followed his gaze and saw Emma and Cassandra riding their way. Emma was riding the black stallion she'd named Colt. She'd taken such a liking to that stallion, and him to her, that Liam hadn't even had the heart to mention selling it.5 He figured he could still make a fairly good money off Colt just by using him as a stud. He'd already had a few folks asking how much he'd charge.8 "Miss Cassandra came with her," Ben quickly noted, before scrambling from the roof so quickly, Liam thought for a moment he might have disappeared into thin air.2 "Did you see that?" Chase demanded. "He flew off this roof like a damn spider monkey."28 Chase followed after Ben and Liam glanced at Kyle. "What the hell is a spider monkey?"7 Kyle shrugged. "No idea. I don't understand half of what that man says."5 Liam was about to head down the ladder himself when a flash of movement behind the approaching women caught his eyes. Mountain lion.5 And it was stalking. What kind of mountain lion stalked two women on horseback in the middle of the day with so many other people around? Was it rabid? Liam wasn't going to wait until it attacked his wife to find out. He pulled his revolver and took aim, knowing from the beast's posture that he only had moments to fire before it would be on his wife—and knowing that his aim had to be perfect or else he'd be hand delivering the big cat a meal. Emma saw him aiming the gun and she let out a gasp just as Liam pulled the trigger. Cassandra cursed loudly and the horse she was riding let out a shrill cry before tossing Cassandra from his back and racing back down the trail toward town. Ben raced to Cassandra and took her hand to help her to her feet as her curses filled the air. "That damned beast! Threw me right off onto my backside!" She began swatting at the dirt on the back of her skirt. "Am I real dirty, Ben? Miss Anita will kill me if I stained up my skirt. Does my backside look bad?"15 She turned and pointed at her backside and Liam, even from a distance, saw a flustered Ben tug at his collar and shake his head quickly. "No, Miss Casssandra.. uh.. your backside looks just fine."11 Liam slipped down the ladder and rushed to Emma just as she was getting from Colt's back. "What were you shooting at?" she demanded, her face pale. To the3 Liam pointed behind her about ten yards and she clutched tightly to his arm when she saw the mountain lion. "I had no idea it was even there!" "You don't," Liam assured her. "Until they're jumping on your back and snapping your neck." "That thing sure was awful brave to try to attack humans in broad daylight like that," Patrick noted, stepping off the porch with a rifle in hand. "Is it mad?" Kyle asked. Liam shrugged. He walked to the dead creature, fully aware of Emma still holding tightly to his arm. Looking closely at the mountain lion, Liam realized just how skinny the beast was and, it appeared to have an injury to its paw. That explained that. The cat hadn't been rabid—it had been desperate, hungry and wounded; searching for any prey it could find.9 Liam looked down at his wife and knew what had to be done. The cat hadn't been rabid but it had been a wake up call. With so many dangers in the word—from mountain men to mountain lions—he needed to know Emma could protect herself. He had to teach her to use a gun. 23

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