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Nerves were already eating their way through Liam's stomach, and, it was only dawn. He still had a good eight hours to kill before he needed to head to town to pick up Emma.+ ....and already that woman was all he could think about. Hell, she was all he'd thought about since he'd found her in his barn. Liam ran his hand over Honey's mane and let out a long breath. "I'm thinking of asking Emma to become a more permanent fixture around here tonight."1 He was surprised to find his hands were shaking. "Hell, I ain't never been so nervous in all my life. I miss the days when I didn't need anybody." Misty let out a short whiney behind him. Liam smiled. "Yeah, I think she's worth it too."4 Liam went about grooming and tending the animals in an effort to pass the time and occupy his mind. His chores were interrupted by the sound of an approaching horse. Who would be riding out? Kyle and Chase had visited yesterday and Liam never got many other visitors. Unless Emma had decided to come out again. The smile on Liam's lips quickly vanished when he stepped out of the barn and realized who his visitor was. A man he hadn't seen in four years.... Four peaceful years. The bastard who had helped create him. His father.4 "Hello there, Liam." Liam growled and yanked off his gloves. "Why are you here?" Patrick let out a chuckle as he slid from the saddle. "Still don't waste time on pleasantries I see."3 Liam merely shrugged. Patrick had aged ten years in the last four. Hair that had once been as dark as Liam's was now more gray than black. His suntanned face looked like cracked leather and his body seemed crooked and weathered.4 He was no longer the straight, solid, strong mountain man who had caused his wife's death with his lack of care and neglect.... "I was hoping we could talk, son." Liam shook his head. "Not today."13 His father had never been a real father and Liam had spent much of his life hating him. Now he couldn't manage to care enough to manage hate. He felt indifferent about the man before him—and Liam could hardly be bothered talking to those he liked.1 Patrick seemed undeterred. "I want to have a talk with my son." Liam clenched his fists. Maybe if he gave the man what he wanted, he'd disappear for another four years. With a growl, Liam strode toward the cabin and motioned for Patrick to follow him. He threw some wood on the dying fire and took a seat at the kitchen table. "What do you want, Patrick?" "I'm an old man, Liam. I'm thinking about settling down. It sounds better every day." "Then go somewhere and settle."3 Patrick sat down across from him and met his gaze with determination. "I'm settling down around here, Liam. I've already visited some old friends on the mountain."9 STORY CONTINUES BELOW "I still haven't heard you say what this has to do with me," Liam interrupted. Patrick shifted in the chair. "I just wanted my son to know I was staying around." Liam tipped his head. "Now I know." Liam stood up and headed for the door. Patrick remained in his chair and glanced around. "I don't remember you being so neat and clean." Liam let his own gaze drift across the cabin, taking in all the small touches Emma had made. A quilt was draped over the sofa, the furniture was polished, curtains were draped over the windows and the dishes were organized. Emma had only been in the cabin for a matter of hours and she had somehow made it seem more like a home. "You can go now," Liam urged. He turned his attention back to his father just in time to see the older man use his hands to steal a chunk of the last piece of pie. Liam's temper flared. "That wasn't yours!" he snapped.7 "This is damn good pie." Patrick's eyes narrowed. "You got a woman, boy? This cabin is screaming woman."9 "I'm not a boy and you've never showed any interest in my life before. Don't start now." "Hell, son!" Patrick slammed his hands on the table and shoved himself to his feet. "You ain't married, are you? I taught you better than that."10 Liam's jaw popped as he opened the door. "You've never given a damn about me, Patrick. Don't start now. Now leave. I have plans in town tonight." "The dance?" Patrick frowned. "You're taking a woman, aren't you? Do you have to learn the hard way that they can't be trusted? Your mama...." "Don't you say a damned word about that woman," Liam all but shouted as he stepped forward. "She was a damn good woman who spent her short life being neglected, ignored and mistreated by her husband. Don't worry, Patrick. I don't plan on making your mistakes." Liam watched as the color drained from his father's face. Oddly enough, it didn't give him the oy he'd thought it would.2 "I've made a lot of mistakes, Liam, but I loved your mama." Liam chose to say nothing. Patrick walked to the open door. "An old friend of mine, Silas Hawke, says his daughter ran away. He's been searching for her and thinks you may know where she is."15 Liam stiffened. Old friend? Yet one more reason to dislike his father. "His mistaken," Liam grumbled. "Now see yourself out. I have things to do." "Fine, I'll go for now. But I'll be back, son. Like I said, I'm looking to settle down."6 Liam slammed the door closed after his father walked out. He threw himself down on the sofa and glared into the fire. He had no idea why his worthless father had chosen now to come back but he wasn't happy about it. Liam had been happy. He'd been happy and hopeful about the future. Then Patrick McIntyre had come riding in with his hatred or women, his talk of settling down and his mention of Silas. Now Liam's temper was riled and he dreaded what he knew would be upcoming conflicts with his father.6 Liam laid his head back. When he closed his eyes, Liam saw an image of Emma's face. A smile instantly curved his lips. Liam was going to forget about his father and the stress the man would no doubt create. Tonight, Liam was going to focus on Emma and on the new life he wanted with her as his wife.19 *** Patrick stood in the sun and thought about his son. He had suspected he wouldn't receive a warm welcome but it had gone worse than he'd worried it would. Patrick had made quite a few mistakes where Liam was concerned. But his intentions were good now. He wanted to get to know his son and he wanted what was best for Liam.4 Which meant Patrick was going to ride up on that mountain and tell Silas where to find his daughter. If there was one thing Liam was not good at, it was lying.40 Liam planned on going to that dance tonight and the date he was taking was Silas Hawke's daughter. Patrick wouldn't watch his son make enemies of the men on the mountain.1 And he wouldn't watch his son have his heart ripped out by the woman he loved. Patrick would save his son that pain.... No man deserved that pain. Emma had not been able to eat all day. Her nerves simply would not let her. She would be seeing Liam tonight and Emma would be going to her first dance.+ Emma had no idea how to dance... would she embarrass Liam? And surely being around so many people would be intimidating. If not for knowing Liam would be at her side, Emma would be far too frightened. Emma only wished she had something more beautiful to wear other than her plain gingham dress.... The beautiful green dress had disappeared from the shop window days ago. Emma knew whatever women wore that dress would be the most beautiful woman there.9 "Emma!" Ms. Anita's voice rang out from the sitting room. Emma bounded down the stairs and found Anita standing with a brown paper parcel in her arms. "What is that?" Emma asked. It was clear that Anita was feigning ignorance as she batted her lashes. "I have no idea. It's not mine so I haven't opened it." "Who's is it? Do you need me to deliver it for you?" Anita shook her head. "I'll deliver it." She held the package out to Emma. "And it's delivered."1 Emma frowned as she tentatively took the package into her hands. "It's for me?" she whispered. "But from who.....?" Anita's eyes twinkled. "Liam."7 Emma couldn't breathe and tears filled her eyes. Liam had gotten her a gift? But he'd already done so much for her... No one had ever given her gifts or time or tenderness the way Liam did. "There's a note attached," Anita informed her eagerly, clearly just as excited and curious as Emma was. Wasting no more time Emma pulled the envelope from the package and tore it open. Frustration filled her. While she could make out several words and might have been able to eventually sound out the rest, her lack of reading ability kept her from reading the note as quickly as she wanted to. With a sigh, Emma gave the letter to Anita. Anita nodded and cleared her throat. My Dearest Emma I'm no better at writing letters than I am at saying words. And I'm not any good at reading between the lines either but I was listening close the other day. You could wear those worn, tattered clothes I found you in and I would still be taking the most beautiful woman in the world to the dance. But I want you to feel special.35 I hope you like your gift.5 Yours Liam "Oh, my nephew is such a sweet man!" Anita gushed. Emma swiped a tear form her eye before grabbing up the package and tearing away the paper. When her eyes fell on that green silk, Emma's tears fell harder and the fabric blurred.1 Liam had gotten her the dress she had admired since she had arrived in town. But more than that..... He'd ensure that she would have the confidence to step into that dance without feeling like the poor mountain hick she'd been her entire life.1 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Emma would be the woman shining so beautifully in the shimmering, emerald gown.1 "Emma, that's beautiful!" Sally gushed as she came into the sitting room. "Isn't that the dress you'd been wanting from Mrs. Ryan's shop?" "Yes. It's a gift from Liam." Sally laughed lightly. "I'll bet Mrs. Ryan's head nearly burst into flames when he went in and asked for it."1 Emma bit her lip and fought back laughter. She'd never thought of that. She glanced at the dress and then back to Sally. "Can ya....?" Sally smiled. "Can I what?" Emma swallowed hard and shrugged. "Help me. I've never gotten all dressed up before..." "Of course I'll help you!" Sally assured her. "Lauren is in the bath now. Come on and we can all get ready together." Emma felt as if she were floating as Sally wrapped her arm around her shoulders and led her from the room. Her life was different, better, than she'd ever thought it could be. She had friends and she was free to live without fear.... She had begun baking and selling pies and already had several orders filled and more lined up. And she had Liam—a man so different from any she'd ever known existed. Warm, caring and thoughtful. A man who didn't yell at her, raise angry hands to her or force her into anything. Emma was building her life. The life her mother had wished so desperately for her.2 "I know what that smile means." Sally wiggled her brows. "Let's get you all prettied up so you're ready to see that man you're daydreaming about." Emma flushed red and chewed her lip. She hoped Liam was just as excited about tonight as she was.4 *** Emma felt as if her nerves were going to eat a hole straight through her stomach as she paced the sitting room and waited on Liam to arrive. A knock on the door had her stopping in her tracks. Lauren leapt to her feet. "I've got it!" She skidded to a stop at the door, adjusted her wool skirt and pulled the door open. William stood there with a nervous smile on his young face. "Hi there, Lauren. You look uh..." His face reddened. "Real pretty." Lauren, in a moment so out of character for her, blushed, bit her lip and tucked a loose tendril of dark hair behind her ear. "Thank you."5 Ms. Anita stepped forward and greeted William. "Hello there, William. I trust you'll take good care of Lauren and return her home before too late?" William nodded. "Of course, ma'am." "I'll walk them down to the dance," Sally offered, slipping on her shawl. "Clarence is waiting for me. He's going to be playing music there tonight." Emma watched them leave and resumed her pacing. Where was Liam? Had he changed his mind? Had something happened to him? The sudden knock on the door startled Emma from her pacing and caused her to let out a startled cry. The door flew open at the sound of her cry and Liam barged in appearing ready for a fight.3 "Liam!" Anita exclaimed, clutching at her chest. "What has gotten into you?" Liam ran his hand over his slicked hair and glanced sheepishly at his aunt. "I heard Emma and I thought something was wrong...."7 Emma felt as if a jolt of lightning swept through her as Liam's dark eyes truly landed on her. "Emma...." His voice was strained. "You look..." Liam cleared his throat. "...real pretty."17 Emma smiled and dropped her gaze to the floor as she nibbled at her lip. "You look nice too," she murmured. And he did.1 Liam had traded his buckskin for black trousers and a matching jacket over a gray waistcoat. His dark hair was slicked back and he was far more dapper and handsome than Emma had ever seen a man look. "That dress looks a while lot prettier on you than it did in the shop."2 Mention of the dress had Emma overcoming some of the nerves and shyness that she felt in Liam's presence. "Liam, I want to thank ya so much for the dress.. I've never worn anythin' so pretty." Liam smiled. He stopped forward, took Emma's hand and swooped down to kiss her temple. "And I've never seen a more beautiful woman." Liam released her hand and held out his arm so Emma could loop hers through. "Are you ready, Emma?" Emma shook off the happy fog of Liam's tender kiss and took his arm as her excitement grew. "I'm ready." Liam glanced at his aunt who was watching them with adoration. "Are you coming? I have a second arm," he offered.7 Anita waved away his offer. "No, I believe a quiet night in appeals to me more." "I should probably tell you that Patrick showed up today. He claims he's going to stick around awhile."1 Anita snorted as her nose curled. "That jackass didn't bother you too badly, did he?" "I can handle him," Liam assured her gently, leaving Emma very curious as to who Patrick was. Once Liam was guiding her down the boardwalk, Emma asked him. Immediately, Liam's face darkened. "He's my father. I haven't seen him much my entire life and he's never been a good father." "Did he hit ya?" Liam shook his head. ", he was never violent. He just wasn't...present." Emma hated the sadness in Liam's dark eyes. Tonight was a night for happiness. She squeezed his arm tighter and laid her head against his shoulder. "I've never been to a dance, Liam. Thank ya for this." The smile he flashed her way nearly had Emma tripping over her feet. "Anything for you, Emma."5 Emma felt as if she were glowing. And she truly believed him. Liam wasn't fond enough of words to waste time on ones he didn't mean. Liam had never felt more proud than he did stepping into that dance with Emma on his arm. "There are so many people..." she gasped, holding tighter to him1 Liam patted her hand resting on his arm. "I'm right here with you."2 He felt Emma relax and his chest tightened. Hell, he'd been a loner his entire life but Emma had busted down a wall and awoken a part of him Liam hadn't known existed. No other woman had ever even briefly tempted him to settle down but Liam knew that by the end of tonight he'd be asking Emma to be his wife.2 "Everyone is so pretty," Emma gasped. Liam glanced around the crowded barn at the mass of people milling about. They were talking, eating and dancing to the music currently filling the dusty, lantern lit space. Everyone was dressed in their best but no one could hold a candle to Emma. "There's Kyle and Chase. Come on and I'll introduce you." Liam gently guided Emma through the crowd, careful to prevent her from bumping into anyone. He knew how uncomfortable and fearful Emma was with strangers.1 "Liam?" Kyle greeted with surprise. "We didn't think you were coming. You didn't mention it yesterday." Chase grinned and elbowed Kyle's ribs. "She must have beat him until he gave in." Emma sunk further into him as she shook her head. "I would never hurt Liam."6 Kyle tipped his head. "Forgive Chase. He doesn't mean to say stupid things—it just happens." Liam chuckled quietly. "He's a natural." Liam looked down into Emma's nervous blue eyes and smiled. "Emma, this is Kyle and Chase." He pointed to each of them in turn. "They've been my friends since we were boys. They're good men and I trust them. You can too, I promise." Chase batted his lashes and laid a hand over his chest. "I think that might just be the nicest thing Liam's ever said about us, Kyle."4 Kyle rocked back on his heels. "I believe you're right. I wonder if the pigs down the road are flying."8 Liam glowered at the brain-addled duo. "You two, this is Emma Hawke." Chase made a big show of bowing deeply before taking Emma's hand and kissing it. Emma all but yanked her hand away and appeared ready to race for the door. Chase, however, seemed undeterred. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Emma. You are a beauty beyond compare and I am only sorry that Liam saw you first."2 Kyle smacked him on the back of the head and Chase grinned sheepishly. "Pardon him, please, Emma. He means well," Kyle assured her. Liam watched Emma carefully He wondered what was going on in her sheltered mind. Surprise filed him when she smiled and no longer cowered against him. "It's very nice to meet ya both."1 "It's good to finally truly be introduced," Kyle agreed. "We've been watching you since you came to town," Chase added.6 Emma bit her lip. "You have?" "Yeah, Liam gave us strict instructions to watch you and protect you as if you were.... What was the word?" Chase asked, glancing at Kyle.4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Liam hoped his less annoying friend would tell his man to stop talking but instead, Kyle flashed a mischievous smile. "Treasure. The word was treasure."3 Emma's cheeks blushed red as she dropped her gaze to hide her smile. "Treasure?" she whispered. "Really?"3 Liam cleared his throat loudly and rubbed at his neck. "As fun as this has been, I'm sure Emma's hungry. I'm going to take her to get some food." Liam quickly led Emma away from Kyle and Chase and he felt her eyes on him. With a sigh, Liam glanced down at her. He was blown away in that moment by the depth of emotion shining back out of her blue eyes toward him. "Did ya really have them watching over me?" Liam nodded. "Yeah..." He felt awkward and hoped she wouldn't get too angry that he'd had eyes on her in town. "I knew I couldn't be there all the time and they're almost always around town so I let them keep an eye on you. I didn't want your father sneaking in...." Emma smiled. "Thank ya, Liam. Thank ya for carin' about me so much." Liam nodded as they arrived at the refreshment table and he filled her a cup with cold lemonade. "I more than care about you, Emma. I....." "Liam?" Liam stiffened and his head immediately began to ache. He knew that high-pitched whine. Bethany.6 Poor Emma. She was too kind, innocent and pure to have to put up with the likes of a blood-thirsty harpy like Bethany. Turning slowly, Liam gaze landed on the woman who'd been panting after him for the last few years. "Hello Bethany." She smiled, her flawless pale cheeks painted pink and full. "I had hoped I would see you here tonight." Liam forced a polite smile to his face. "I couldn't let Emma down. You haven't met Emma have you?" Liam glanced down at Emma who looked confused and quite unsure of herself. "Bethany, this is Emma Hawke. Emma, this is Bethany Ryan."3 Recognition dawned in Emma's eyes as she once again looked at Bethany. Liam knew she was assessing the other woman. Bethany was beautiful—it was true. She had a perfect hourglass figure, porcelain skin, red hair that lay in soft curls and brilliant green eyes—but she was a snake. A loose woman who preyed on men. Seducing them and attempting to trap them into marriage.7 Liam was not fool enough to fall for her. "Oh..." Bethany's voice was laced with venom as her eyes too took in the woman she considered competition. "My mother told me you had recently begun dabbling in charity."8 Liam took a deep breath. He was known for being level-headed. Losing his temper in such a crowd, with a woman, certainly wouldn't earn him any respect. "Bethany, Emma and I were trying to enjoy our evening. If you don't mind..." "Why doesn't she speak, Liam?" Bethany mused, looking down her nose at the smaller woman. "Do they not learn to talk up in those mountains?"5 Emma gripped Liam's arm tightly. "We learn to speak when we need to and hold our tongues when we don't. I don't have anything to say just now."30 Liam tried desperately to hold back his laughter but a chuckle escaped and it caused the shock on Bethany's face to morph into rage. "You dare speak to me that way? You are nothing but an ignorant, mountain hick—and an ugly one at that." Bethany turned her attention to Liam. "Whenever you're ready to stop with this foolishness, I'll be ready to dance."1 STORY CONTINUES BELOW "I will certainly keep that in mind," Liam replied with a quick tip of his head. "But, I would suggest you dance without me. If you wait until I'm ready to give up Emma to dance with you, I'm afraid your shoes will get dusty."13 Bethany was fuming and Liam found amusement in her temper. He watched her fists clench as her nostrils flared. Clearly she wanted to scream and yell—possibly even hit him. But she wouldn't. Her concern over what everyone else in the barn thought of her would keep her from making such a scene.3 Letting out a snort, Bethany spun on her heel, tossed her hair over her should and stormed away. Liam turned his attention back to Emma. "I'm sorry about her," he muttered. Emma was frowning. "That's Bethany? She's very pretty." Liam only shrugged. "Are you hungry, Emma?" "I want to dance." She bit her lip. "I mean.... Can we dance?" Liam wanted to say no. Hell, he didn't dance. He'd never in his life danced. But he couldn't deny Emma anything she wanted. She had him wrapped around her dainty little finger and didn't seem to realize it.11 "Sure." He smiled and sat the cup he'd filled down. "Let's go dance." Around and around Liam spun her and the laughter that bubbled from her throat made any of his own dislike of dancing fade away. Emma seemed so relaxed, so at ease and so happy. Gone completely, at least for a moment, was every bit of fear and uncertainty. After three songs, Emma's cheeks were red and it was clear she was overheated. Liam motioned for Chase who quickly came over. "Emma, let Chase take you out to cool off a minute and I'll bring some lemonade out for you."4 "I'm okay..." Emma began but Liam took her hand. "Please? I want to talk to you about something away from the crowd."2 Emma appeared confused but she nodded and Chase made a big show of looping their arms together. "Don't you worry a bit, Liam," he stated with a wink. "I'll take good care of her."2 Liam watched Chase lead Emma away and he was relieved when she didn't seem tense or afraid. He wanted to see her heal and able to go about life without her past holding her back.1 Liam walked to the refreshments table and his hands shook has he filled a glass. He was going to ask Emma to be his wife..... and he was terrified.3 Liam did not open up to people. He was afraid that he would put himself out there, bare his heart and his wants to Emma and she would crush him.... Damn, it was petrifying to give someone that kind of power.3 Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Liam turned and found himself nearly running into Bethany. She giggled and Liam knew she was pushing her impressive cleavage just a bit higher in her blue dress on purpose. His stomach rolled. "Excuse me, Bethany. I didn't realize you were behind me." She put her hand on his arm. "Liam, let's leave this place. We can go somewhere more....private." Liam shook his head. "I'm here with Emma, Bethany, and I'll be leaving with Emma. Now, if you'll excuse me..." Bethany's grip on his arm became tighter. "Stop with this nonsense. That mountain rat can't possibly please you the way I could." Liam felt his jaw pop. He yanked his arm from her grasp and saw Kyle heading his way. "I have tried hard to remain polite and patient with you, Bethany, but I've tolerated about all I can tolerate. I'm sure you will find a husband someday. Someone who will love and care for you... but tonight is not that night and I am not that man."3 She batted her lashes and moved in closer, rubbing her body flush against his. "But you haven't even tried me yet, Liam. Just give me one night and I will change your mind."14 Liam had had enough. Using his shoulder, Liam shoved his way past Bethany, causing the woman to lose her balance and topple to the floor. "I said no," he growled before striding away. Faintly, Liam was aware of Kyle laughing as he pulled a snarling Bethany to her feet. He didn't care. He only wanted to get outside to Emma and feel the peace of her presence in the quiet night air. Stepping out of the barn, Liam glanced to the left and to the right. A frown pulled down his lips. Where was Emma and Chase? "Liam...." Liam turned his head toward the weak voice and saw Patrick stepping around the barn. Blood poured from a gash on the man's temple, running down his face. "What the hell happened?" Liam demanded of his father. "I....I didn't know... I didn't realize." Fear gripped Liam—especially when Chase came around the same corner, staggering and gripping the wall with a lump on his forehead. "Where is Emma?" he asked, his body vibrating with dread. "He took her, Liam..." Patrick held up his hands, his face pale and his eyes pleading for mercy. "I thought it was best but I didn't know... Silas and I were friends as boys but I hadn't seen much of him in over thirty years.. I didn't know he'd hurt her."12 "Hurt her!? You led Silas here?" Liam was shouting but he didn't care. He lunged for his father, grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and threw him against the barn wall. "Where?! Where is Emma?"1 Tears fell from Patrick's eyes. "He took her to the mountain..... Please, Liam... I swear I didn't know he'd hurt her. I was protecting you."4 Liam clenched his fist. Everything in him wanted to hurt the man in front of him. But that wouldn't solve anything.. and every moment he wasted here with Patrick was one more second Emma was suffering at Silas' hands. Kyle came rushing out the door. "Chase!" he called out before rushing to his partner and helping him support his weight. "Who did this?" "Silas," Liam hissed. "And he has Emma." Liam turned and headed toward the livery. "Where are you going?" Kyle demanded. "To get her back." "You can't," Kyle countered. "The mountain has their own laws, Liam, you know that. Emma is his daughter. She's his property. They won't allow you to ride up there and take her away."14 Liam stopped. Kyle was right. Liam had to make sure that whatever he did, no one could say he'd stolen Silas' property—just thinking of Emma in that way made his gut burn. Struggling to form a clear thought or plan with so much anger and fear clouding his mind, Liam breathed deep and shoved his hand through his dark hair. He had to play by the mountain rules. Since Emma was Silas' daughter she was his property until she married—then she would become the property of her husband.5 Spinning around, Liam rushed back into the barn. He scanned the crowd until his eyes found Ben Gibson. A small, wiry young man with a proper tongue and glasses. He was the newest preacher to come into town and known for being less rigid in his mindset. Liam strode to him on a mission. "Ben? I need your help." Ben pushed his glasses up on his nose and nodded. "I'll do what I can. What do you need." Liam swallowed hard. He hated doing this. Hell, he hadn't wanted things to happen like this! "I need you to perform a marriage."

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