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Emma had slept peacefully her first night in Anita's boarding house. She'd had her own small room with a tiny brass bed, a wardrobe and her own wooden stand with a ceramic wash basin.1 Never had Emma had such fineries or a room of her own. "Did you sleep well?" Anita asked as Emma followed the scent of frying bacon and stepped into the kitchen. "Yes, ma'am," Emma replied politely. "Don't call her ma'am," a dark haired young girl currently eating at the table warned. "She hates it." "It's true," Anita sighed. "I do." Emma bowed her head, dropping her gaze to her feet. "I'm sorry." "Well don't do that!" the girl at the table exclaimed. "Now I feel guilty for scolding her!" Another young woman, probably just a few years older than Emma, stepped into the kitchen. "Lauren, stop torturing the new girl," she teased as she tossed back her blond hair. Emma was struggling to breathe. She was completely overwhelmed and fighting the urge to turn and run. Anita's hand gently patted her arm. "Don't mind them, sweetheart. Ladies, this is Emma. She's just come from a bad situation and needs time to adjust before the two of you give her too much trouble." Emma hated how weak that made her sound. She squared her shoulders and forced a smile, despite her shaking hands. "I'm okay, Miss Anita." "Yeah." The dark-haired girl with freckles and green yes stood up. She couldn't have been more than twelve years old. "She's fine." The girl held out her hand and Emma made herself shake it. "My name's Lauren and the rude blond is Sally."1 "Rude?" Sally laughed lightly. "Lauren wouldn't know manners if you smacked her with them."4 Lauren scoffed. "I've gotten better!" She nudged Anita with her elbow. "Tell her I've gotten better!" Ms. Anita's face revealed nothing but patience. "Of course you have. But, I must remind you that it's impolite to nudge."2 Lauren's face burned bright red beneath her freckles. "Sorry, Ms. Anita."1 Anita turned her smile toward Emma. "Eat some breakfast, Emma, and then the girls will take you to the dressmaker." Emma's heart skipped with excitement. A dress? A dress all her own? A new dress? She frowned. "But... dresses cost money.. I don't have any." She thought of the coins Liam had given to her. Would fifty cents buy a dress? Emma had no idea. She had never been shopping. Lauren snorted with a smile. "You're a timid little bird, aren't you?"1 "Leave her be," Sally scolded gently. She draped her arm across Emma's shoulders. "You can just buy things on Ms. Anita's credit and, once you've started earning money, you can pay her back."7 Emma felt lost. She knew nothing of the world and had so much to learn. "Don't worry, Emma," Anita comforted knowingly. "You're overwhelmed but we'll help you. You've got friends now." After Emma got her fill of breakfast, she, Sally and Lauren left for the dressmakers. "We're lucky the logging is doing so good," Sally noted as they walked down the rather crowded boardwalk. "And luckier that the mines are booming a bit further away. It means we still get travelers and revenue here in Spring Falls, without those uncivilized mining types and violence."1 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Emma simply nodded as Lauren and Sally continued talking about all the business and such that Spring Falls had to offer. She wished it was a little less! Maybe then she wouldn't fear becoming lost in the bustling crowd. Or maybe the crowd was good—it would make it harder for her father to find her. It hadn't been so crowded yesterday. Emma knew it was the warmer air bringing people out today. The sun was bright and it was at least fifteen degrees warmer than the day before. When Emma stepped into the dressmakers shop, it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the change of light. When they did, her jaw dropped. Never had Emma seen such beautiful dresses and fabrics! Most of these seemed fine enough for royalty themselves to wear. Emma ran her fingertips across a deep green silk gown and a sigh escaped her lips. Sally was smiling. "That would be beautiful on you, Emma, but it costs three dollars."64 Emma pulled away as if she'd been burned. She knew enough from her father's rantings about money to know that three dollars was a lot.16 Lauren pointed toward the back of the store. "They have more practical dresses—cheaper ones too—back there." Emma spared one last glance at the green gown with sequined neckline and fitted bodice, before following her companions. "May I help you ladies?" a matronly woman with a handsome face and a severe bun asked curtly as she stepped in from the a door behind the counter. Lauren elbowed Emma's stomach. "Mrs. Ryan doesn't like us, or any other girl that ever lives at the boarding house. She calls us Anita's riff raff and looks down her crooked nose at us." "Could we go somewhere else to shop?" Emma asked, not at all comfortable with the haughty gaze Mrs. Ryan was studying them with. "And give her the satisfaction?" Lauren winked. "No way."1 Emma hid her smile behind her hand as Sally stepped toward the counter to address the woman. "We need to purchase a few things on Ms Anita's credit. Emma is new here and...." Mrs. Ryan frowned as her dark eyes landed sharply on Emma. "You're Emma Hawke?"1 "Yes ma'am," Emma replied, hoping Mrs. Ryan didn't know her name because of her father. Mrs. Ryan sneered as she stared down her nose. "I was expecting someone a bit more special."1 "What are you talking about?" Lauren spoke up. Mrs. Ryan folded her hands in front of her. "When Liam McIntyre was here and paid money for her in advance I assumed she was something special."20 Sally's eyes were wide as she turned toward Emma. "You know Liam?" Emma felt heat rise on her cheeks. She shifted her feet and looked down at the floor. "Yes. He rescued me." "Charity." Mrs. Ryan's voice dripped with venom. "I should have known."23 "Why don't you eat dung?" Lauren spat, her tiny fists clenching.7 "Get out of my store!" Mrs. Ryan commanded the girl. Lauren snorted. "Gladly."2 She stormed out the door and Mrs. Ryan returned her attention to a confused Emma. "Liam left enough money for one of my premade gingham dresses and enough fabric for three more—as well as underclothes. Please, do your shopping quickly. I don't like your kind in my store."22 Sally rolled her eyes and led Emma to the premade dresses in her price range. "Four dresses?" Emma shook her head. "I've never even had one new dress..." "Four is quite a few.... I only have two. Liam must truly care about you." Emma's heart skipped and fluttered in her chest. Did he? Why else would he do something so kind for her? "Why is Mrs. Ryan so angry?" Emma asked, changing the subject. Sally made a face that had Emma laughing lightly. "Her daughter, Bethany, has been after Liam for years. She's desperate to marry him. He has made it clear he doesn't have any interest in her and Anita has made it clear that she doesn't approve of her either. Mrs. Ryan hates us because we're Anita's girls. Now she'll hate you twice as much because it looks like Liam has taken a liking to you."8 Emma shook her head, ignoring the joy she felt at hearing Liam wasn't interested in Mrs. Ryan's daughter... Emma didn't even know the woman! "No he hasn't.... He just feels sorry fer me, that's all." Sally laughed and patted Emma's arm as if she were a child. "You have so much to learn about life and men."2 Emma sighed. She couldn't argue that. Sally's light laughter filled the shop. "We'll worry about that later. For now, a lesson on fashion." *** Emma left the shop with a new dress wrapped in brown paper and enough fabric to make three more—if she learned how to sew. She supposed that was something else she'd need to have lessons in. "Let's go to the mercantile. Ms. Anita wanted us to get a few things." Emma followed Sally down the boardwalk. The noontime road was peaceful and fairly quiet save for the barking a several dogs and the laughter of children.1 It was, that is, until Lauren came flying out of the mercantile with tears on her freckled cheeks. She whirled around and faced the mercantile with clenched fists. "Don't you shove me!" she hollered. A boy, probably about the same age as Lauren, walked out snickering with two other boys flanking him. "Don't you step foot in my mercantile again," the boy shot back. "We don't need ugly critters in here." Lauren snorted. "You better stay out yourself then! And that isn't your mercantile. I don't see your name on it anywhere!"2 The boy stepped forward. "I'll knock your head clean off for speaking to me like that!" he exclaimed. Emma had seen enough. She'd spent her whole life being bullied—she wouldn't see it done to Lauren. Without thinking much, Emma stepped forward. "Boys! That's enough! You should be ashamed of yerselves fer treatin' a girl that way!" The three boys shared a glance and then burst into laughter. "Did you hear her talk?" the ringleader demanded. "What's mountain trash doing dirtying up our town?"3 Emma tried not to let the insults bother her. "Ya need to stop. Yer being rude and immature and it ain't nice." "What's the matter, mountain hick? Are you gonna cry?" the boy demanding, taking a step toward her. "I'll hit you just the same as I was going to hit your ugly friend there."4 Emma knew it was foolish to be so afraid of a child—but she was. Images of her father's angry face, twisted and red with rage flashed through her mind. She saw his angry fists and felt the pain—saw her mother lying dead. Sucking in gulps of air, Emma fought back tears as her entire body trembled and shook. The boys, bolstered by her fear, hurled more insults and stepped closer. Emma was faintly aware of Lauren yelling for them to stop and she was faintly aware of Sally calling her name. The yelling was so loud..... Then all of that disappeared when a large hand closed on her shoulder and a shadow loomed behind her. Emma nearly cried out when a deep, familiar voice rumbled, "Is there a problem here?" Liam couldn't quite believe he was riding into town. Hadn't he just made the same trip yesterday? Didn't he usually go weeks, sometimes even months, between trips to town?+ The answer to those questions was yes. He was man enough to admit—to himself at least—that Emma had gotten under his skin and was the reason for his coming into town today.2 He did at least attempt to convince himself that it was only worry for the woman that had him wanting to check on her and not anything more tender or meaningful....but he wasn't a very well-practiced liar.2 Liam's thought of Emma were interrupted by loud shouts from the nearby mercantile. Turning his head, Liam saw three boys closing in on a woman. They were yelling and insulting her—threatening violence. All of that would have been enough to send Liam to intervene—then Liam realized who the woman was and his temper flared to life. Hopping off Honey and leading her by the reins, Liam stepped up behind a trembling Emma and put his hand on her shoulder. "Is there a problem here?" he demanded, forcing his voice to remain even and calm. The last thing Emma needed just now was to have him yelling and showing proof of just how angry he was.2 "Liam...?" Emma's soft voice whispered. Her shaking stopped and she leaned back into him. Her tiny body, barely more than five feet, would have fit perfectly against Liam's chest had he slid his arm around her. Damn.10 Liam's legs shook and his heart pounded. Emma did things to him that no other woman had ever done before.... And he was sure she didn't even realize it. "Mr. McIntyre?" Liam recognized the boy who'd been taunting and threatening Emma the loudest. "William?" Liam's gaze narrowed at the boy. "Does your mama know you're in town bullying ladies?" William's face paled. "Don't tell her Mr. McIntyre," he pleaded. "She'll whoop me good."25 "She should," Lauren spat.9 Liam smiled at the feisty dark-haired girl. His aunt certainly had her hands full with that one. "Lauren, could you and Sally take Emma back to my Aunt's while I have a talk with the boys?" Emma turned and those wide blue eyes stared up into his. She appeared frightened, confused and ashamed. Liam fought the urge to gather her tiny body up into his arms and protect her, shield her, from all the bad in the world.21 "Can ya..." Emma swallowed hard. "I'd like it if ya could..." Liam somehow knew what she wanted without having to hear her say it. "I'll be along shortly," he promised.1 Liam watched the trio of ladies walk down the road before turning his attention back to the trio of boys. "Please, don't tell my mama, Mr. McIntyre... I didn't realize the mountain lady was special to you." Liam grumbled. "What she is or isn't to me doesn't matter. What matters is how you treated ladies. A man doesn't bully someone weaker than he is. And he certainly doesn't attack a weakness when he sees it."20 William kicked at the dirt while the other two boys stared at their feet. "Yessir..." all three mumbled. Liam sighed. "A man helps when he can, leads by example and is someone others can count on. If he doesn't have something important, helpful or meaningful to say, then he keeps his mouth shut."28 STORY CONTINUES BELOW This time William met his gaze. "Yessir." "Now, if you'll give me your word that you'll apologize to Miss Emma, Miss Sally and Miss Lauren the next time you see them, I won't tell your mama." William smiled and nodded whole-heartedly. "Yes sir, Mr. McIntyre. We'll all apologize!" Liam nodded at the boy. He knew his friends would do whatever William did. William was the ringleader among them. If Liam could help send William down a good path, the other two would follow. A smile formed on Liam's face. "And William?" he added. "If you like Miss Lauren, you really should just tell her. Girls don't understand the pushing and shoving."57 Liam turned and walked away, leaving William red-faced and stuttering while his friends laughed.5 Knowing he had to check on Emma, Liam headed that way. He wasn't sure why she'd gotten so worked up over young boys teasing her but he had to see her now and ensure she was okay. Liam couldn't go home until he saw her smile at least once.....11 Stepping into his Aunt's home, Liam found Emma in the kitchen surrounded by Anita, Sally and Lauren. A cup of tea was in her hand and a weak smile was on her lips as everyone fussed over her. Liam didn't need to speak. It was clear that Emma sensed his presence as her eyes found him. "Hello Liam..." she greeted weakly. "Hi there, Emma." His Aunt came rushing forward, her face flushed and her gestures animated. "I won't tolerate this, Liam!" Liam laid his hand on her soft shoulders and nodded. "Aunt Anita, I spoke with the boys...." She snorted. "Yes, those hellions were bad but I'm talking about Mrs. Ryan and the trouble you caused!" Liam noticed the brown paper packages and frowned. "I caused trouble? How?" "Did you have to go in that dress shop and leave money for Emma? Of all the times for you to finally take an interest in a woman, did you have to announce it to that heifer?"18 Liam scratched at his thick brown hair with confusion. He could only focus on part of that rant at once. "I put money there because that's the shop you always use, isn't it?" Anita rolled her eyes, clearly exasperated by her nephew. "Yes, but, did you have to use it? All you accomplished was to draw more anger toward Emma!"3 Liam felt lost. "Why?" "Because you showed a special interest in Emma. To Mrs. Ryan of all people. Bethany's mother," Sally informed him. "Get it now?" Lauren demanded. Liam let out a long sigh. People were complicated. Relationships were complicated. That's why Liam avoided both and kept his dealings with them to a minimum.15 He rubbed roughly at his face and glared at the three woman standing between himself and Emma. "Can we have some privacy? I'd like to speak with Emma."1 Anita put her hands on her ample hips. "You better make things right, Liam...." Liam motioned toward the door. "Let me talk to Emma." "We'll leave you to talk," Anita relented, leading Sally and Lauren from the room. Liam sat down at the table across from Emma. He let out a sigh. "Emma, I... I'm sorry if I caused trouble for you. I'll admit I'm a simple man and don't often put much thought into how other people might react to things. People confuse me."10 Emma stared into the cup of tea in her hands. "No... Ya didn't cause trouble. At least not too bad, really." Liam shoved his hand through his hair causing it to fall across his brow. He wished she'd look at him. He wanted to see those blue eyes. "I should have thought before I gave that woman the money though. Aunt Anita was right about that." "She wouldn't have like me anyhow," Emma assured him. "She doesn't seem to like Anita's girls." Liam surprised even himself when he reached out and took her hand. "Don't you worry about her. She's got her nose so high in the air, it's a miracle a bird hasn't nested in a nostril."35 Emma laughed lightly, a smile remaining on her lips as she finally looked at him. Liam felt his heart tighten almost painfully in his chest. This woman had him wrapped around her finger bad... and he wasn't sure yet if that's where he wanted to be.5 Silence fell as they simply stared at one another. Liam didn't mind. He enjoyed quiet. He stroked Emma's soft knuckle with his calloused thumb and felt a peace come over him that he'd only ever felt in the last few days since knowing her.1 "Liam....?" Emma began quietly. "Why did ya help me again? Why would ya leave that money? Ya had to know that Anita buys her girls the clothes they need." Liam shifted in his chair. "My aunt always taught me to help others. I was just trying to do as I was taught." Emma bit her lip and Liam was certain he saw pain and disappointment in her blue eyes before she averted her gaze. Liam grumbled under his breath. What did the woman want him to say? That he helped her because she had gotten to him and he had to know that she was protected and provided for? No, he wasn't about to say that.....6 "I'm sorry again for any trouble I caused," he muttered as he pulled his hand away and stood up. "Don't mind them boys too much. I spoke to them and they won't be bothering you anymore. Most boys go through a stage where they think bullying makes them tough. Hopefully, I showed them different today." "I've heard worse than they said," Emma whispered, not looking away from her tea. Liam's fists clenched. Damn but he wanted to touch her. He wanted to hold her close to him, breathe in the scent of her hair and kiss away every line of worry and pain etched so deeply into her face.26 "I'll see you around, Emma...." Without waiting for Emma to reply, Liam made a run for it. He needed to go back to his uncomplicated life. His solitary life.4 As he slid onto Honey's back another description of his life entered his mind that had Liam's heart hurting. Lonely. But lonely was better than broken.... He'd seen the harm that love could cause.... He wasn't eager to end up in that shape.9 Liam pointed Honey toward the road out of town and headed that way quickly. The next week passed in a blur. After Emma had spent a night crying over Liam, she had decided that she needed to focus on herself. Her mother had told her to build a life—a happy life—and that's what she was going to do.18 Liam had admitted, without so many words, that Emma had indeed only been a charity case. That uppity Mrs. Ryan had been correct about that at least.2 Emma knew that a part of her heart would always be Liam's. He'd been the first to show her true kindness and caring. She would forever be thankful to him for all he had done. But she had to move on to the life she'd promised her mother she would find. "Emma, how's the dress coming?" Anita asked, settling herself down on the floral sofa beside her. Emma held up the monstrosity of a dress to reveal a lopsided neckline and a sleeve growing out of the waist. Anita sighed. "Well that settles it. You're hopeless."5 Emma laughed lightly, hiding her embarrassment. "I truly am." What kind of woman couldn't sew?26 "It's time for your lessons, sweetheart. They're waiting in the kitchen," Anita told her. "I'll see if there's any hope for this dress," she added, taking the blue chambray horror. Emma quickly left the room, eager to meet with the tutor. In the week she'd been here, Emma had been taking reading and writing lessons with Lauren. Their teacher, a middle aged woman with the softest voice Emma had ever heard, reminded Emma of her mother. At first it had hurt to even look at Ms. Evan's, but her kind and gentle spirit had soon overcome Emma's pain and Emma had quickly begun learning. She could now recite the entire alphabet and was even learning to write most her letters. She even knew each different sound they made. She was quite proud of herself. At seventeen, she was far too old to only now be learning those things, but reading and writing were considered unimportant in the mountains. No one there ever received an education.11 "Good morning, Emma!" Ms. Evan's greeted brightly. "Good morning," Emma replied with a smile. Smiling was something she was doing more and more often.1 With every day that passed without seeing or hearing from her father, Emma was healing. "Do you see this book she wants us to read?" Lauren demanded, holding up a book that had to contain over two-hundred pages. "She's off her rocker!"19 Ms. Evans' response was to simply smile. "You'll thank me one day, Lauren." Lauren mumbled under her breath and slouched in the chair. Ms. Evan's motioned for Emma to sit. "Let's get started." *** "Liam, are you okay?" Liam growled in response to the hesitantly asked question. He glared at his two best friends. They'd known one another since they'd been little more than babes. "I'm fine, Kyle. Chase, would you please tell Kyle that I'm fine."3 Chase grinned a crooked grin. "He's fine, Kyle."4 Kyle glared at the man but Chase erased that glare with a quick peck to Kyle's lips. Liam knew the truth about his friends—had always known it. It was a truth that they had to keep hidden from nearly everyone else they knew in order to be accepted.70 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Chase and Kyle were in love. They were together and had been for as long as any of them could remember.24 "He's not okay, Chase," Kyle countered. "Hell, he's always been a quiet recluse but he's worse lately He won't even speak to us!" Chase tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Liam? Kyle says you're not okay."14 Liam tossed down hey in the feed trough. "There you go, Misty," he said, scratching the mare's neck gently.28 "Misty?" Kyle asked. Chase stuck out his tongue with a grimace. "That's a terrible name."4 Liam chuckled. "Yeah, I know." "Did she name her?" Kyle inquired.1 When Liam remained silent, Chase snickered. "You remember her, don't you? The woman who's got you so tied up in knots? The one you ordered us to guard like treasure?"15 Liam shoved past his friends and stepped out of the barn, breathing in the cold air coming off the mountain. "I never said treasure," he grumbled. "yeah, you did," Chase insisted. "The day you rode into town with her. You told us to keep a look out for Silas and guard her like treasure." Liam raised a brow. "Then why are you here instead of there?" Chase shrugged. "We're bad guards."20 "Yeah," Kyle agreed. "That's why we don't have any treasure."21 Liam chuckled despite his annoyance. "She seems to be doing well, in case you were wondering," Kyle stated. "There's going to be a dance at the barn on the edge of town next weekend," Chase added.1 "Why do I care if there's a dance?" Chase rolled his eyes. "It's a sad day indeed when we know more about women than you do."30 Liam shook his head. "I'm not going." "You should," Kyle insisted. "I think she'd be good for you." "The girl," Chase spoke up. "Not the dance.... Dancing would be good too though. With the girl, of course. It might help you a bit."3 "There's nothing wrong with me," Liam insisted. Chase sighed, his expression turning sad. "You're lonely, Liam, and it's all because you're scared." "I'm not scared of anything, Chase." "Maybe not physically but emotionally you're a damned chicken," Kyle accused.14 Liam snorted but couldn't come up with any clever response. His friends had always been better with words than he was... he was definitely at a disadvantage. "Love isn't your mother and father," Kyle said, sliding his arm around Chase's shoulders. "Look at us? Love can be good."1 Liam felt old wounds—wounds he'd kept covered and ignored for a long time ripping open. He glared at his friends and was happy when they both nodded and agreed, without words, to back down. They knew he liked his privacy and they were crossing a line. "We didn't mean to piss you off," Kyle apologized. "Yeah, we just worry about you," Chase added.2 Liam sighed and rubbed at his neck. "Don't. I'm fine. Now, if you're done playing matchmaker, Honey and I are going to ride up and hunt for that black horse." "We'll come along," Kyle offered. Chase nodded. "Six eyes are better than two."1 Liam smiled. His best friends drove him crazy at times but they were two of the best people he knew. He could always count on them when he needed them. *** Liam, Chase and Kyle parted ways at the path that led to his cabin that night. It was dark and cold as Liam settled Honey into the barn. The search had been fruitless and Liam was frustrated. He stepped up the porch steps and entered the dark, empty cabin. There were no lights burning. No fire roaring. No supper waiting for him. There were no blue eyes to get lost in and no quiet conversation to pass the time. Hell. Liam had always been content alone. Then Emma had come along, spent one night at the cabin and now..... Now, without her there, it felt less like a home.12 Liam hung his gun belt by the door, built a fire to warm up the air and settled down with a handful of smoked venison and hardtack biscuit. Liam had always enjoyed the solitude. Now, it just seemed lonely.

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