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Can you ride a horse?" Liam asked the next morning after breakfast.+ Emma pulled on her coat and shook her head. "My family never did have one." Liam nodded. "You'll have to ride on Honey with me then."3 "Honey?" Emma smiled. "That's a pretty name." Liam's eyes locked on her mouth a moment before he grunted and turned away from her. "Only horse I've ever seen try to raid bee hives for honey. The name seemed to fit."22 They finished pulling on their gloves and caps before Liam led Emma out into the cold. After being so warm inside the cabin, the freezing air was a shock to her system. The sun, shining brightly in the sky, just didn't seem to have much power behind it.1 They stepped into the barn and Liam began saddling Honey. She was a pretty brown mare with a white star on her forehead. Emma walked to Liam's other horse. She hadn't asked him about money, or how much of it he had, but she knew he must be well off. The man somehow had two horses when most people she knew could not afford to have even one. Emma reached out and stroked the mare's soft gray neck. "What's her name?" Liam glanced over his shoulder before shrugging. "She doesn't have one." Emma frowned. "She has to have a name." Liam turned his attention back to Honey. "She's a horse. She doesn't care." Emma shook her head. "But maybe she does." Liam grumbled under his breath before letting out a sigh. "Horse. Her name is Horse."36 "That's a terrible name," Emma muttered.1 Liam stood straight and turned to face her. Emma shifted her feet. Was he angry? She hadn't meant to insult him. But it wasn't anger in Liam's brown eyes as they gazed at her. It was amusement. "And what exactly would you name her?" Emma chewed her lip. "Misty." Laughter, a sound Emma had never heard rumble so freely from a man, filled the barn. "Misty?" He shook his head. "I think she prefers Horse." "No, she doesn't. Misty suits her." Liam's brow rose. "Why?" "Because she's gray," Emma replied timidly. Speaking her mind and voicing an opinion weren't things she had much experience with. "Have you ever seen gray mist? I haven't. I think Smoke or Storm would suit her better." Emma lowered her gaze and nodded. "Okay." She wasn't going to argue.3 When Liam remained silent, Emma peeked a glance at him and realized he was frowning. "I'm sorry," she offered. Liam's frown deepened. "Don't." "Don't what?" "Apologize when you haven't done anything wrong. And don't bow down like that. You don't lower your head and give in. If you want something or believe in something then speak your mind and stand your ground."8 Emma couldn't believe her ears. She was sure her jaw nearly hit the floor. Her head shook quickly. "No man wants a willful woman. My pa would....." Liam grumbled loudly and interrupted her. "I'm not your pa and not all men are afraid of a strong woman."25 Emma was unsure what to say and so she said nothing. Liam returned to his task of readying Honey. Emma followed him as he led the horse outside.1 Liam slid fluidly into the saddle. He reached out a hand to help Emma up. The moment she slid her hand into his calloused palm and his strong fingers wrapped around hers, Emma felt a shockwave rush through her. Her knees grew weak. Every time Liam touched her, Emma felt the same heart-pounding reaction. What did it mean? Did Liam feel it too?7 Emma looked up to his face, hoping to see some kind of answer. Instead, he simply frowned and gave a tug, lifting her up into the saddle behind him. Emma, who had never before been on horseback, clung to Liam and trembled violently. Honey shifted restlessly beneath them and Emma nearly screamed. Liam patted the mare's neck. "Calm down, Emma. She can sense your fear."1 "But....But what if I fall, or she spooks and throw me off, or...." "You have to trust the horse and you have to trust yourself. If you do that, she'll respect you." "Could ya..." Emma stopped speaking as Liam started Honey down the snowy trail. "Could I what?" he asked patiently. "If ya have time someday, I'd like to learn to ride a horse." Liam nodded. "When things settle down and if you decide to stick around here, I'll teach you." Emma stopped speaking then as they rode along in silence and she thought about her future. Would she stay so near the mountain? Could she? Surely if she was where her father could find her, she would never know peace. But where could she possibly go? She had no money, no education and no knowledge of the world. As if he could sense the turmoil in her mind, Liam laid his hand over hers on his lean stomach. "Don't be afraid. Town is far enough from the mountains to keep your pa from trying much there. And there are a lot of good folks there. I'll point you in the right directions." He let his hand fall from hers. "And I'll look out for you too. I won't just abandon you, Emma."7 Emma couldn't explain the warmth she felt at his final words. No man had ever been a comfort to her. Never had one made her feel safe and protected. But with Liam, she was beginning to feel both those things. Maybe she would find safety in town. Maybe, away from that mountain, more people would be like Liam. For the first time in her life, Emma felt hope.2 As they entered town, Liam felt Emma grow more and more tense behind him. Her grip on his middle grew tighter, but, Liam didn't mind. Her touching him that way, taking comfort in him, felt damn good.5 Liam grunted. Where the hell had that thought come from?4 "Liam... I can't.. I can't do this..." Liam immediately pulled Honey to a stop. His hand covered Emma's on his middle and the next words were out of his mouth before Liam realized he was going to speak them. "Do you want me to take you back to my cabin?"2 Why had he asked her that! Didn't he like his solitude? Yes. But, he also liked her company.6 Emma was silent a moment as they remained in the middle of the cold street. Liam could feel eyes on them but he ignored them. He never had given much thought to what other might say or think about him. "No.." Emma finally whispered. "No, I'll be okay." Liam tried hard to tell himself it was relief he felt at her answer. Once again Liam urged Honey forward. He stopped outside the large two-story boarding house. Liam slid down and helped Emma down as well. "This is Ms. Anita's place. She's a real good person and will see to you just fine."1 Liam had to put some distance between them. He was staring to think things and say things that just weren't him. "Yer not comin'?" Emma asked, fear thick in her voice.1 Liam tried hard to smile reassuringly—damn this woman had him rattled. "You'll be just fine. I don't make it to town often and have business to tend to." Plus, he wasn't about to let his aunt see him with Emma and start getting thoughts in her head. He saw her lip quiver as she wrapped her arms around herself. Liam cursed inwardly. He reached in his pocket and pulled out several coins. "Here..." he grunted. Emma stared down at the money a moment before raising her chin and meeting his gaze full force. "I don't want yer money." Liam shook his head. "Don't be stubborn. You might need it." After several moments of standoff, Emma took the money from his hand. "I'll pay ya back." Liam simply shrugged. "Ms. Anita will take care of you, Emma. You'll be safe here." She nodded as she sucked in a shuddering breath. "Thank ya fer everythin'." "I'll see you around, Emma." Liam quickly turned and led Honey away. This was best. Liam liked his life just fine the way it was and he didn't want complications. Emma would be just fine here in town. Liam would make sure of that. *** Emma was terrified. Her knees shook and her breath was hard to draw as she walked up the stone path to the porch of the boarding house. Emma spared a glance over her shoulder but Liam was well on his way up the road. She knew her hurt and disappointment was unfair. Liam had done so much for her—more than anyone else ever had—she had no right to want more. Turning her attention back to the task at hand, Emma climbed the porch steps and knocked three times gently against the door. She fiddled with the frays on her coat sleeves as she waited for the door to be answered. The thought of meeting a new person all alone terrified her but if Liam trusted this woman, Emma would too. The door opened and Emma found herself face to face with a plump woman who appeared to be near fifty. Her blond hair was graying and lines surrounded the corners of her kind brown eyes. "Can I help you?" "Are ya...." Emma took a breath to stay her voice. "Are ya Ms. Anita?" A smile formed on the older woman's lips. "I sure am. What's your name, sweetheart?" "Emma..." Emma wasn't sure she should tell the woman her last name. Anita raised one graying brow. "Emma Hawke?"1 Fear clawed at her gut. Her pa must have beat her heare! Now he'd know where she was! These people would tell him. Liam had been wrong. She wasn't safe. Emma turned to run but Anita's hand closed around her wrist, stopping her. "Don't run, sweetheart. You'll be safe here. That bastard won't touch you here."8 Emma's eyes widened at not only the woman's promise but also her language. She seemed far too innocent a lady to be using such a word. Emma didn't know whether she wanted to laugh or cry.1 Anita smiled once again and patted Emma's arm gently. "Who brought you here? Surely you didn't walk all this way in the cold." "No." Emma glanced up the road and saw Liam stepping into the mercantile. "Liam McIntyre found me... I'd fell asleep in his barn and he took me in, fed me and brought me here to ya." "He did?" Anita's brown eyes filled with pride. "My nephew turned out alright, if I do say so myself. He was young when his mama passed on. My sister's husband is a terrible father and I did the best I could to teach Liam wrong from right so he wouldn't end up like his pa."2 Emma's head spun as all that information sunk in. She'd learned more from Liam in the last sixty seconds than she'd learned in the last couple of days.6 Why hadn't Liam told her that Ms. Anita was his aunt? "You seem lost, sweetheart," Anita spoke gently. Emma nodded. "I am.... So much has changed in so little time." Anita took her hand. "Come in out of the cold and we'll talk about it." Emma let herself be led into the home. It was finer and grander than any she'd ever seen. The floors were polished wood. The walls were painted and papered. A short hall led into a sitting area with a floral sofa and a roaring fireplace.1 Anita motioned for Emma to sit, poured water into a shimmering glass and placed it in Emma's hand before sitting beside her. "Okay, sweetheart. I've already decided to take you in and help you every way that I can. I'll teach you skills helpful to a woman, help you find a way to earn money and get you on your feet. Part of that growing process is you telling me exactly what led you to my doorstep today."1 Emma gripped the glass tightly. The faster she got the story out, the less time she'd have to break into tears. So, after a deep breath, Emma began. She told Anita all about the terrible night her pa had finally taken his beatings too far and killed her mother. She'd been honest about her own fear and uncertainty as she'd run away and fled that mountain in the dark and cold. She even found herself telling the other woman a little about growing up on the mountain. Isolated and seeing little more than those four cabin walls all her life. Anita's brown eyes were sympathetic as she patted Emma's hand. "You're safe here, sweetheart. I'm respected in this town and so is Liam. You don't have to worry about a thing."1 Emma stiffened at first when Anita wrapped her in a warm embrace. Then she relaxed into the kind gesture—so unlike most of what she'd known her whole life. Withthat hug, Emma felt warmth and peace blossom in her heart. It was only thesecond time in her life she'd felt such things and she wondered if every memberof Liam's family would have such an effect on her.diΜP

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