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I'm not sure I want to," Emma admitted as she stared at the piece of iron and wood resting in Liam's hand.+ A gun. Guns were dangerous and deadly and Emma wanted nothing to do with taking someone's life.6 Liam shook his head. "Whether you want to or not, you need to. What if I hadn't been around when that mountain lion attacked you yesterday? What if it had come earlier on the trail before you'd gotten to the cabin?" Emma sighed. "I know, Liam. I know that it could have killed me..." She bit her lip. "But guns kill, Liam.. I couldn't kill a person..."5 Emma saw Liam's eyes turn haunted just before he opened the cylinder of his revolver and check the rounds inside. "You'd be surprised just what you'll do when it comes right down to it, Emma. And I'm not saying you need to learn to shoot so you can kill every person you ever meet. I just want to know you can protect yourself against critters like that lion."3 Emma was still nervous, still uncertain and still uncomfortable. But, she could tell just how important this was to Liam. She knew he blamed himself for the incident with Shade. She knew that if anything else ever happened to her—or even almost happened to her—Liam would blame himself. If teaching her to shoot a gun gave him a bit of comfort and assurance than Emma would let him. After all he'd done for her, it certainly wasn't too much to ask. "Okay. But you'll have to tell me exactly what to do. I've never used a gun before." Liam beamed, clearly happy she'd come around. He showed her the gun. "First rule is, always treat a gun like it's loaded, even if you aren't sure it is. Never point a gun at anything or anyone unless you want to shoot that target. And you don't ever touch that trigger until you're ready to fire a bullet. Too many people get trigger itch and pull it too soon—that's how bad accidents tend to happen."24 Emma swallowed hard and nodded. This lesson certainly wasn't making her feel any more comfortable about using a gun. Next, Liam went through the steps of teaching her to load the weapon. When Emma was fairly capable of doing that, he turned her attention to a stump in the yard with a scrap of fur tied tight around it. "There's your critter, Emma. Time to learn how to shoot it." Liam stood behind her and wrapped his arms around her. He placed his arms over hers and guided her as she tried to take aim. "You want to line those sights there up with the target. You should be able to see the front sight between the back ones... take your time. Take a deep breath in, let it out real slow and squeeze the trigger—don't pull it real hard or your shot will jump." Emma attempted to remember all that as she held the gun. She had it aimed at the target and so she slowly breathed out before pulling the trigger. The gun jumped in her hand and the sound of the bullet ricocheted loudly in her ears. Quickly, she turned her head to look at Liam. "Did I hit it?" He had a proud smile on his face as a chuckle rumbled from his chest, vibrating against her back. "No. But you got close." He must have noticed her disappointment because he kissed her hair. "Don't feel bad, love. Nobody hits the target the first time. I have boxes and boxes of ammunition and we have all day. You'll be shooting just as good as me in no time."13 STORY CONTINUES BELOW By the time they called it a day, Emma realized that while Liam might have been exaggerating about just how good of a shot she would be, she had gotten much better. Most of her shots had begun to hit the target. They were spread out and not close together the way Liam's were but Emma was proud of herself all the same. And shooting had taken away much of her fear of the weapon. Learning the weapon had helped her to understand it and with understanding came a certain comfort.3 And the pride on Liam's face as she'd gotten better and better had been well worth overcoming her fear.1 Liam pulled her into his chest once they were finished and kissed her brow lovingly. "You're a hell of a woman, Emma." Pride blossomed in her chest as she snuggled close against him. Liam pulled away and took her hand in his. "I want you to start carrying a gun when you're going into town and I'm not with you." "Liam...." "Please?" he insisted. "It'd do a hell of a lot to ease my mind and you'll probably never have to use it." Emma sighed. She knew she couldn't tell him no... not when Liam rarely asked her for anything and it was concern for her causing him to ask now. "Okay. I'll carry one when I go to town." She glanced up at the sky and realized evening was approaching. "I'd better go start supper. I'm sure you're getting hungry." Liam shook his head, twining the fingers of their clasped hands together. "Can we go for a walk around the valley? There's something I've been wanting to talk to you about." Emma frowned. "Of course... is everything okay?" "I'm just confused and I'd like to talk about it with someone I trust." Emma's frown quickly morphed into a smile. "Talk away." As they strolled slowly, hand-in-hand, Liam spoke about his father. He spoke about the way his father had never been and how the man who was here now was not the same man who had been around then. He told Emma about his confusion toward this new version of his father and he admitted that he wasn't sure how to accept him or move forward.1 They came to a stop beside the river and Emma put her hands on Liam's chest as she looked up into his eyes. "Patrick, the man he is now, is a good one. You're right when you say he's changed. Liam, he cares for you and I think you care for him too." "I don't know how... I don't know how to show him that, Emma. I'm not ready to throw my arms around him and call him pa." Emma smiled. Of course he wasn't. Liam was a man who did not say anything unless he was certain he wanted to say it and he didn't make a move until he was positive it was the one he wanted. He was a private man who wouldn't openly display his feelings until he was good and ready. "Small steps then," she offered. "He is still sleeping in the barn." A smile curved Liam's lips, accenting his sharp features. He stooped low and pressed a tender kiss to her lips, leaving Emma breathless and wanting more. "My wife is such a smart woman."7 *** Liam stood on the porch, looking out at the land around him. His cabin was nearly complete. His father had worked tirelessly right beside him to finish the work—the old man didn't deserve to call the barn his home. Stepping off the porch, Liam made his way to the barn and found Patrick inside sitting on a bucket and sharpening his knife. "Hello there, son. Is supper ready?" Liam shook his head. "No, she's got it cooking though," he replied, absently motioning toward the house. Patrick chuckled as he continued to look at the blade and stone in his hand. "I saw some of that target practice today. You better be careful. Emma seems to be a natural and after a few more practices she'll be dangerous with that weapon—you're gonna have to walk the line." "I've always had good balance," Liam assured him. He rubbed at his neck and cleared his throat as he shuffled his feet. Patrick seemed to notice his discomfort and looked up. "Is something wrong, son?" Liam gripped the banister beside him with one hand and avoided his father's gaze. "We're gonna need to get some more logs cut." "What for? The cabin doesn't need anymore—unless you plan on having a wagonload of youngins," he added with a grin. Liam swallowed hard and squared his shoulders. It was time to stop being a little boy. He met his father's gaze. "I figure since you're sticking around, you need a better place to sleep than the barn loft. There's plenty of room in the valley and plenty of good weather left this year to get a cabin built."1 Patrick's eyes widened. "Are you sure, son?" Liam nodded. "I'm sure." For a moment Liam thought his father might stand and hug him and was grateful when he remained seated and went back to sharpening his knife. "That'll be real nice, Liam. Thank you."22 Emma stepped out of the doc's feeling as if she were floating on air.+ She was with child.19 She'd been fairly certain she was but she hadn't told Liam about her suspicions. He had brought her to town that morning before going back home to work on Patrick's cabin which was nearly complete. Emma had used a visit with Anita to disguise her true reasons for wanting to come into town. A babe was growing her belly. A piece of her and Liam would soon join the world and be in her arms.12 The smile on her face was impossible to wipe away as Emma breezed down the boardwalk, paying no attention to those she passed along the way. She was so lost in her happy thoughts that she didn't hear the footsteps closing in behind her. When a hand suddenly tapped her shoulder, Emma nearly screamed and spun quickly. "Emma! Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you!" Ben gasped, covering his chest with his hand. "I called your name several times but you didn't seem to hear me." Emma took several breaths to calm her heartbeat before offering him a reassuring smile. "It's okay, Ben. I'm sorry I was so lost in my thoughts." "I won't keep you long," Ben assured her. "I was wondering if you'd seen Cassandra this morning. I spoke to Miss Anita and she said Cassandra was somewhere in town running errands." Emma shook her head. "I'm sorry, Ben. I haven't seen her. I was at the doc's and...." "The doc's?" Ben quickly interrupted with concern. "Are you ill? Where is Liam?" Emma was quick to shush him and he tilted his head as she spoke. "I'm not ill, Ben.. I was at the doc for personal reasons and Liam does not know I was there. He's at home working on Patrick's cabin." A knowing light lit Ben's eyes but if he understood her reasons for visiting the doctor, he didn't say. Instead he laid a friendly hand on her arm and Emma forced herself to accept the contact. Ben was a friend—not a man who wished to hurt her. "I'll let you get on about your day then, Emma. I really do need to find Miss Cassandra...." "There she is." Emma pointed to the overwhelming mass of curls currently coming out of the mercantile. "I'll walk with you, Ben. I was needed to buy a few things." Emma noticed that the man was no longer speaking and his face grew more pale with each step they took across the bustling street. Cassandra caught sight of them and a smile lit her face. "Well will you look at that! My two favorite people in the whole world both appearing at once."4 "Hello, Cassandra," Emma replied. She waited for Ben to speak as well but the man's mouth simply moved up and down as if he were a fish struggling to breath out of water. What in the world was wrong with him? Emma cleared her throat. "Cassandra, Ben said he had something he wished to speak to you about. I'll just step into the store and give the two of you some privacy." Emma slipped away, hoping that whatever Ben had to say was a good thing. Cassandra truly had fallen for the preacher and Emma didn't want to see her friend hurt. She peered through the dusty haze and found the small fabric section toward the back of the store. Making her way around barrels of dried fruit and nuts, Emma approached the meager selections. She could go to the dress shop for a more ample supply of fabrics but she didn't want any of those shop keeps to let it get around town that she'd been buying the fabric she was hoping to find—all she needed was for Bethany's mother, Mrs. Ryan, or Bethany herself to find out. Emma had so far managed to completely avoid them since her last run in with Bethany and she wished to keep it that way. Emma ran her fingers over a soft, thin yellow fabric adorned with dancing bears. She could see her child swaddled up with that and sleeping soundly upon Liam's chest. The price was nearly triple the rougher, plain white fabric that she would typically use for a blanket or outfit—but she did have money from selling her pies and Liam surely wouldn't mind if she splurged on enough to make only a couple blankets and perhaps a pillow. Emma picked up the fabric bundle and was on her way to the clerk when Cassandra came bursting into the store. The woman collided with her, taking her hands and hopping up and down like a person possessed. "What in the world?!" Emma demanded. Cassandra's cheeks were flushed bright red as she tossed her curls from her face. "Hell, Emma, you won't believe what just happened!" Emma glanced toward the door but no one was there. Where had Ben gone? "What happened?" she found herself asking. "Ben done went and asked me to marry him! Can you believe that? A man that good and decent and handsome wanting to marry a woman like me?"19 "You're a very good woman," Emma quickly assured her. Before she could say anything else, Cassandra was speaking once again. "My pa and brothers sent me here sure that I was a waste of womanhood and would only ever be in their way. And now I got a man better than all of them put together wanting to make me his wife!"1 Emma smiled, her friend's happiness was truly infectious. Today was a good day. "What did you say?" she asked. "Are you going to marry him?" Cassandra gasped, pulled away and slapped herself in the forehead. "I plumb forgot to answer!"40 The store keep chuckled from behind the counter. "I can see the poor man from here. He's pacing that boardwalk and appears ready to fall over dead. You might want to go put him out of his misery."5 Cassandra let out a curse and barreled from the store, nearly toppling over a barrel of dried meat and forcing an elderly couple to leap from her path. Emma went to the counter and as she was paying for her purchase, she heard Ben let out a happy holler and her smile grew. She gathered up the brown paper wrapped bundle and stepped outside. "I'm so happy for you both." "Ben asked me to go have some lunch with him at the café. I told him we should invite you. Do you want to come with us?" "No, I think you need to spend some time together and enjoy each other," Emma insisted. "I'm going to go visit Anita for a while and then ride home." "Are you sure?" Cassandra asked, her star-filled eyes seemingly unable to look away from Ben's smiling face. "I'm sure. Enjoy your day. I truly am happy for you both." "Oh, Emma?" Cassandra finally broke eye contact with Ben. "Please don't tell Anita. I wanna surprise her when I get back." Emma smiled. "Your secret is safe with me." Emma parted ways with her friends and headed toward the boarding house. She was just rounding a corner at the end of town when a shadow fell behind her.1 "Well, well, well.... Look what I found." 19 Fear clogged Emma's senses. She had thought she was safe. IT had been months since she'd seen him....+ Now her father had tracked her down. Emma turned slowly, her heart racing against her ribs. "What are you doing here, pa?"2 Silas' haggard, bearded face split in an ugly smile. "Well listen to ya! Talkin' all proper and forgettin' where ya came from and what ya are." Emma shook her head, hoping he couldn't hear her knees knocking together. "I haven't forgotten anything," she assured him. "Where's that husband of yers and all those bodyguards?" "Around," she whispered weakly. He laughed, the sound harsh in her ears. "Ya know better than to lie to me, Emma Hawke." Emma swallowed hard. "My name isn't Emma Hawke anymore. It's Emma McIntire now and you know that. Liam won't like you bothering me."1 Rage contorted Silas' features and Emma knew she had said the wrong thing. Damn! She'd gotten more and more comfortable with speaking her mind lately and it was going to cost her dearly. "Do ya honestly think I give a hell what that bastard of a man would want?" Emma knew violence was coming. She laid a hand over her stomach and thought of the life growing there. She would not let her father take something else from her! He had stolen her childhood with his abuse. Murdered her mother. Tried to murder her husband. He would not harm her child. There was a gun in her pocket....... Before Emma could build up her courage to reach for the weapon, and, before her father could resort to the violence Emma knew was coming—a furry body came between them.2 "Am I interrupting something?" Chase's voice was one of the best sounds Emma had ever heard in her life. "This is a family matter and not any business of yers," Silas growled. Emma could no longer see him but his anger was plain to hear.5 "And Emma's my family," Chase replied. "If you think for one single moment I'll let you harm a hair on her head, you're even dumber than you look."7 Emma nearly fell over. Silas was not a man most men wanted to cross and yet Chase had just threatened and insulted him at the same time! It seemed Silas was as shocked as Emma was. He stammered and huffed but remained at a loss for any real words. Chase smiled down at Emma and reached out a hand. "Hop on up, Emma and I'll find you some better company to keep."2 Emma was more than happy to have an escape from her angry father. She let Chase pull her up on the horse and she kept her yes on Chase's back, avoiding see her father again. Once they were safely back on the bustling main street, what had just happened seemed to truly sink in. Emma began to shake and tears filled her eyes. "Don't panic now," Chase gently scolded. He brought the horse to a stop, jumped down and pulled Emma down with him. "It's all over, Emma," he soothed, pulling her into a hug and rubbing her back. "I should probably get you home," Chase offered as Emma's trembling slowly subsided and he pulled away. "Why was he here? Why follow me?" Emma whispered. STORY CONTINUES BELOW Because scaring people makes him feel tough." "I was going to shoot him," she added, placing her hand over the gun in her pocket. Chase chuckled softly. "It's a good thing I got there when I did then, quick draw. I saved that man's life."2 Emma wrapped her arms around herself. "I want to go home." She wanted Liam.1 Chase nodded. "Where's Colt?" "Hitched at the livery." Chase led Emma there and the pair headed out of town. "Why are you in town anyway?" Emma asked as they rode. "I thought you were helping Liam at the cabin today." "We ran out of nails." He shrugged. "I was the errand boy." Emma fell silent. The trip home was tense and fearful. Emma expected her father to come bursting from the forest at any moment—or for a bullet to slam into her back, or Chase's, the way it had Liam's. But neither of those things happened. The trip was long and uneventful. Emma realized Liam was back in the valley, atop his father's cabin. She didn't think he had seen her and, now that she was this close, she was afraid to see him. She had been so excited, both to tell him about the babe and the engagement of their friends, but now..... now she knew she would have to tell him about her father and that would be a dark cloud over any happiness they both felt. "Chase, can you tend to Colt?" she asked, slipping from the horse's back. Chase let out a whine. "But that horse hates me. He bites me every time I get close enough." When Emma said nothing, he sighed. "Alright. I'll tend to the demon horse. You better be glad I love you."2 Emma made a quick escape into the cabin with no idea what she would tell her husband when he realized she was back. *** "I saw you lead Colt into the barn," Liam said, standing straight and wiping his brow with his shirt sleeve. He frowned at Chase. "Did Emma come home already?" Chase's face paled. "Uh.. yeah... she's home." Kyle stepped over. "What's wrong, Chase?" "I reckon we should head home for today. Liam needs to talk to Emma." "What the hell is wrong with Emma?" Liam demanded. "Is she sick?" "She didn't get hurt, did she?" Patrick asked.3 Chase sighed and took Kyle's hand. "Liam needs to go talk to her. I think it'd be best if she told you what happened." Unease rushed down Liam's spine. Without another word, he leapt from the roof. With the shock of the impact still echoing through him, Liam's legs ate up the ground as he ran to the cabin he shared with Emma. Barging in, Liam found the kitchen and main rooms empty. He immediately went to their new bedroom and found Emma sitting in the center of the bed with her knees pulled into her chest. "Emma?" Liam rushed to the bed and sat beside her, pulling her into his lap. "Hell woman.. what's wrong with you?" he demanded when he realized her face was wet with tears. Emma remained silent and Liam tensed. "You didn't run into Bethany or her mother again, did you? Tell me you aren't still putting any weight in what they say...." A shake of her head followed his question. Liam sighed. "Then what's wrong? I can't read your mind, love. What happened in town? Chase said I needed to talk with you." "I... I saw him," Emma whispered. Liam frowned. "Him who?"8 A sniffle came from Emma and her grip on his shirt became a bit tighter. "My father... he followed me. He cornered me away from main street." Liam tensed. Anger shot through him. Along with guilt. Hell..... It seemed like every time something bad happened to Emma, he wasn't there to protect her. "Did he hurt you?" "No," Emma was quick to reply. "But he would have.... Or I would have hurt him..." Liam held her a bit tighter. "I'm glad you didn't have to pull that gun, love," he admitted. He'd taught her to shoot so she could defend herself but he didn't actually want her to have to use it. Killing a person was never easy—even when that person left you no choice. Emma's face was pale and her eyes were red-rimmed and distant as she stared at the wall. "I thought I was safe there.... I was walking to Anita's and went around the edge of town to get there. He came up behind me and he laughed and mocked me.... I spoke my mind when I shouldn't have and it made him more angry. I knew...." Emma's voice broke. "I knew he was going to get violent and I knew I couldn't let him hit me... I couldn't because....." She stopped suddenly. "....because I'm tired of being hit." Liam remained silent. He didn't know what to say. What could he say? He simply held her close against him and tried to offer what comfort he could. Emma shifted slightly to look up at him. "Chase came just before things turned violent." "I'm glad for that," Liam admitted. "Why won't he just let us live in peace?" she whispered. Liam sighed. "He's an angry, lonely man who has built his whole world around controlling and hurting those he feels are weaker than him. The fact that you escaped that life is a blow to his pride he seems to be having trouble getting over." "Well, I wish he'd get over it." Silence fell. There wasn't much Liam could say. He just held his wife close and was grateful that nothing worse had happened to her. He wasn't going to let her go unaccompanied around town any longer. Just like Emma, Liam too had thought she was safe in town in broad daylight—being wrong had nearly cost him his wife. Liam couldn't go back to a life without Emma. It simply wasn't an option.

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