LOVER SOFTLY CHAPTER 9 - HAUSA NOVELS
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LOVER  SOFTLY CHAPTER 9

LOVER SOFTLY CHAPTER 9

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LOVE HER SOFTLY CHAPTER 9
The next few days were the best Emma had ever had. She learned so much about Liam. She learned about his childhood and family relationships and certain things that had made Liam the man he was today.+ She loved his quiet, gentle nature. His peaceful strength. She was lying awake in his arms, watching him sleep soundly beside her. The sun came through the window, shining on his sharply angled jaw, accenting the stubble growing there. Her husband was the most handsome man she had ever seen in her life.... And he was so patient. Not once had Liam pushed her to do anything more than simply lay curled up together while the slept at night. She suspected one reason behind that might be the fact that his shoulder was still paining him.... But she knew that wasn't all of it. Liam was giving her time—waiting until she was ready. Emma wasn't sure if she was ready to take the next step.... She knew she was expected to. As a wife, it was her duty to tend to her husband's needs.... but would it hurt? Emma had only ever seen the rough and cruel side of what happened between a man and wife. Her mother had made it sound as if it were a miserable, painful experience for a woman while the man seemed to enjoy it immensely. Why? Why would a man enjoy something that pained his wife? Surely Liam wouldn't be that way.... Maybe lovemaking wasn't always painful for a woman. Maybe it all depended on her partner.5 "What are you thinking about so hard?" Liam's sleepy voice questioned. Emma smiled. His eyes were still closed and she hadn't realized he was awake. "How do ya know I'm thinking?" "Because you're awake and you're always thinking when you're awake." "Is there something wrong with a thinking woman?" Emma teased. That was something else Liam had begun to bring out of her. A playful, teasing, joking side that she hadn't realized she possessed. Liam chuckled, his arm tightening around her. "Nothing at all." "Are we going into town today?" Liam's eyes opened and he raised a brow. "Are you eager to get away from me?" Emma rolled her eyes. "No, I want you to come with me." Liam laid a gentle hand on her cheek. "I don't think I want to go anywhere. I'm enjoying being here with you too much." Emma blushed and averted her gaze as she chewed at her lip. "And I've enjoyed being with ya too. But..... I need to get orders and supplies. And I'd like to visit Anita. I haven't been in town since we brought ya back from the docs and I think it'd be good for folks to see that ya are up and around and alive and well...." Liam silenced her ramble by pressing his lips to hers in a feather light graze. Emma instantly fell silent as her breath was stolen and she forgot how to speak. "Aw, hell lady," Liam growled as he pulled away. Then, before Emma could speak, he was on her again. This kiss was firmer, more intense and it consumed her. Instantly her body responded with an ache and a longing for something she knew that only Liam could give her.6 Liam hand smoothed the hair from her face and he pulled her body flush to his. All doubts and worries seemed to vanish from Emma's mind. This was Liam and he would never hurt her for his own selfish pleasure...3 STORY CONTINUES BELOW And, judging by the aching pleasure that his kiss and closeness were building within her, lovemaking with Liam would be something amazing. Liam's fingertips trailed down her cheek and danced along her neck. Emma trembled as he left flames across her shoulder. He pulled away and looked into her eyes, clearly asking permission to move his touch lower. Emma swallowed hard and nodded. Liam's eyes darkened and his lips were once again stealing her ability to think. Those calloused fingers moved lower, brushing her hardened nipple through the thin fabric of her nightdress and causing her to gasp against his mouth. His grin was devilish and full of mischief as he pulled away once again. "Do you want me to stop?" Emma shook her head and surprised herself by pressing herself tighter to him. As Liam moved in to kiss her once again, the cabin door opened. "Oh hell! Damn. I'm sorry....."42 Emma and Liam flew apart and Emma pulled the blanket tight around her as Liam stood from the bed and clenched his fists. "Hell Patrick, don't you know how to knock?"1 "I.. well yeah, of course.. but I didn't know you'd be busy." Emma's face was burning as she fought the urge to completely bury herself beneath the blanket. Liam grumbled. "Why did you come in? Is something wrong?" Emma wanted to remind Liam that his father lived on the property and had the right to come and go from the house but she didn't believe now would be the time to have that conversation.... And she wasn't in any hurry to speak and draw any further attention to herself just now. "Nothing's wrong." Patrick wrung his hands and kept his gaze on the wall behind them as he shifted his feet. "Company is riding in so I wanted to let you know before they got here."2 "More company?" Liam shook his head. "I miss the days when I folks avoided me." "Did you recognize who was coming, Patrick?" Emma asked. "Anita. I'm gonna slip out the back and be real busy in the woods for a while."3 Emma smiled. "Don't ya think it's time the two of ya faced each other and made peace?" Patrick's eyes nearly bulged from their sockets. "No, ma'am, I do not."17 "Well go on then." Liam motioned for the back door. "Eventually, maybe I'll get some alone time with my wife." Emma watched Patrick make a quick escape before she got out of the bed. Liam was dressed in only the trousers he'd worn to bed and the sight of his lean, hard body did nothing to ease the fire inside hers. "We could tell her we don't feel well and don't want visitors today...." She offered. Liam stared hard at her a moment before chuckling. "She won't fall for it," he assured her. "If I tell Anita we don't feel well, she'll insist on staying and tending to us until we're feeling better."2 Emma chewed her lip as her gaze dropped with disappointment. Liam stepped to her and pulled her against his chest. "Don't worry, Emma. Starting tonight, we aren't going to be using that bed just for sleeping."30 Emma trembled in his arms, laying her hand gently on the crisp white bandage around his shoulder, the color contrasting sharply with his tanned skin. "Promise?"2 "Oh hell, woman...." Liam swallowed hard and a low growl rumbled from his chest. "Yeah, I promise."2 A knock on the door signified Anita's arrival. Liam sighed and grabbed his shirt off the back of the sofa. "I'll go out and visit while you get dressed.... And then she's yours while I find some quiet." STORY CONTINUES BELOW Emma nodded. "Sounds fair enough," she agreed, knowing that Liam was a solitary person who didn't enjoy visitors and had had far too many lately. "Just a minute," Liam called. He kissed her brow gently, slid into his shirt, yanked on his boots and went to the door. He slipped outside and closed it behind him, with Anita's voice already filling the morning quiet. Emma dressed quickly. She knew that Liam was at his limits when it came to entertaining. Every day since he'd awaken, someone had been out to visit. If it wasn't Anita, it was Kyle and Chase, or the preacher from town named Ben. And Patrick lived there as well, meaning there was never that quiet privacy that Liam needed.1 Sometimes Emma wondered if he would resent her being there.... She hoped not. She hoped that her company would be something he wished for. Emma fixed her hair and rushed out to the porch to relieve her husband. "Good morning, Anita." Anita smiled, her eyes twinkling. "Good morning, Emma. I'm sorry if I interrupted something." Emma felt as if her ears would burst into flames. "No... no, ya didn't interrupt anything." "Well good." Anita clapped her hands. "We're going to go to town today, Emma. Have a lady's day." Emma glanced at Liam. "Liam and I were going to go...."3 Liam shook his head quickly. "No, that's okay. You and Anita go, have fun and enjoy yourselves." He held up his hand. "Wait here a minute." Emma watched Liam disappear inside and he returned a moment later with money. "Have fun. Treat yourself. You deserve it. Get whatever you want and all the supplies you'll need for your orders. Okay?" Emma chewed her lip as she glanced down at the money. "A...are ya sure?" Liam's gaze went to the sky. "Yeah, I'm sure." Emma nodded as she took the money from his hand and placed it in her skirt pocket. "Are ya sure you'll be okay while I'm gone?"7 "I'm sure, Emma. I've been taking care of myself a long time," he assured her gently. Anita took her arm and smiled warmly. "Come on now, Emma. Absence will make your hearts grow fonder."9 *** Despite her hesitation to lave Liam home alone, Emma ended up having a wonderful time in town with Anita. They visited the boarding house, spent time with Lauren, did a bit of shopping and ate lunch at the café.2 Emma felt as if she were a new person. She was no longer so afraid of the crowds or everyone she passed. She was able to smile and greet those she walked past. She was a married woman with a newfound confidence. "I have several orders. I need to stop in at the mercantile before we go back to the cabin so I can get supplies," Emma stated, noticing that the sun was getting a bit lower in the sky. She couldn't believe she'd been in town so long. Anita nodded. "Alright then. And then we better get you home before your husband decides to come looking." Anita pulled the cart to a stop in front of the mercantile and the pair made their way inside. Emma gave the list of supplies she needed to the store keep before making her way to the fabrics on display at the back of the store. "Well, look what the cat dragged in." Emma frowned and spun around when a voice spoke behind her. Her eyes widened when she recognized Bethany standing there with a sneer on her red lips. Emma had nearly forgotten the woman existed. She hadn't seen her since the night of the dance so long ago.3 STORY CONTINUES BELOW "Hello Bethany," she greeted, quickly turning back to her fabric. Emma did not want confrontation—the thought of an argument frightened her terribly. Bethany huffed. "Don't turn your back on me," she snapped.8 Emma turned slowly to face her once more. She glanced toward the counter to see that Anita was deep in conversation with a lady there and hadn't seemed to noticed that Bethany had cornered her."I'm only doing some shopping," Emma insisted, hoping to somehow avoid a fight. Bethany yanked the fabric from her hands and curled her nose. "You shouldn't be. That fabric is hideous." Emma chose not to respond. She'd learned from experience in her life that most often, responding to such goading only made things worse.1 "I'm surprised to see you around," Bethany continued, as she tossed the fabric back onto the display table. "The last I'd heard about you, you'd gone back to where you belonged up on that mountain with your poor ol' pa." Emma frowned. "Where have ya been?" she asked, wondering how Bethany could have missed all that had happened since that night. Bethany fussed with her bright red hair. "I was on holiday back east. That's something that well-bred folks with money tend to do to escape the stresses of mingling with lesser folks." Emma rolled her eyes. She took a deep breath as she realized she had no reason to be threatened by Bethany. Liam was her husband. He was out of Bethany's reach—and Bethany didn't even know it. "I was only with my pa a matter of hours before Liam came and got me." Bethany's face reddened; nearly matching the color of her hair. "Emma Hawke, you belong on that mountain." Emma stood her ground, despite the shaking of her legs. "Actually, it's Emma McIntyre now."41 The shriek that escaped Bethany's mouth was terrifying and certainly not ladylike or poised in the least. Emma flinched and cowered against the fabric table.2 Anita immediately hustled over. "What's going on here? Please, place a cork in your mouth, Bethany. No one wants to hear that racket."10 "How could you marry him?" Bethany demanded, her fists clenching. "How could an ignorant mountain girl like you come down here and take the one decent man this town has to offer? Liam is mine!" "Oh poppycock!" Anita exclaimed with a wave of her hand. "My nephew has never had any more interest in you than a dog has in a cabbage head."21 Bethany crossed her arms over her chest and stared hard at Emma. "When did this marriage take place?"1 Emma chewed at her lip and dropped her gaze. "The night of the dance." "I heard that Liam left shortly after the dance to deliver a herd of cattle." "He did." Bethany laughed, the harsh, pointed sound ringing in Emma's ears. "You poor ignorant girl. Liam only married you out of pity! He saw you hurting at your father's hands would be my guess and he married you because he felt bad for you. Then he left right after. Bored of you already?" Emma shifted her feet as a rock settled into her gut and her throat seemed to clog. She felt her lip trembling. The last thing Emma wanted to do was cry in front of Bethany. Bethany stepped closer. "Liam is a man. A real man. An ignorant piece of mountain trash can't satisfy a man like Liam. Soon he'll come looking for a woman more suited to his needs and I'll be waiting."2 "Spoken like a true whore," Anita spat.28 The color drained from Bethany's face as her jaw dropped. "What did you just call me?" she hissed.4 Anita shrugged. "I called you exactly what you are. You prance around town as if you're something special but everyone knows that the only people you're special to are the men with low standards—the good men see your kind and steer clear. And there's not a single man in this town that's going to marry you, Bethany.""And why's that?" Bethany whispered, her voice tight. Anita smiled. "Because they aren't going to buy a cow when they can sample all the milk for free." Anita took Emma's arm gently. "Let's go now, sweetheart. Liam will be expecting us."58 Emma nodded, feeling very grateful for Anita and the protection the other woman provided. The two began to walk away but Emma felt Bethany's hand close on her wrist and she stopped to look at her. "Don't listen to that fat old bird," Bethany sneered, glaring at Anita before turning her gaze back to Emma. "Liam enjoyed my milk very much and he'll be back for much much more before it's over."29 With that, Bethany stormed away. As Anita led Emma outside and they boarded the wagon, Anita kept speaking reassuringly and insisting that Emma not pay Bethany any attention. Emma simply nodded but as she curled up into herself on the cart seat and watched the passing scenery, she couldn't help but feel doubtful and sick. The fact remained that Liam had married her when he had simply to save her life—if not for her father nearly killing her, the two of them would not have been married when they were.12 And Emma honestly had no idea how to please a man—she was terrified that she would let him down and he would go running to a woman like Bethany, who clearly knew what men liked. And had Liam and Bethany been together before? Images flashed through her imagination and caused Emma's gut to burn. Tears threatened to pour from her eyes but sheer will power held them at bay. At least until they pulled up to the cabin and Liam stood up from the porch chair with a smile on his face. "Did you two have a good time?" Emma let out a choked sob, unable to fight back her emotions any further. Without a word, she leapt from the cart and dashed past Liam, to hide herself inside the cabin. No matter how badly Emma wanted to believe her happiness and life with Liam were real and lasting—she knew it was pointless. She couldn't compete with a woman like Bethany. Liam whirled around to face his aunt. "What did you do to her?!" he demanded.5 Anita's eyes narrowed from her perch upon the cart. "Don't use that tone with me, Liam. I didn't do a thing to Emma. She had a run in with Bethany Ryan." Liam groaned and pinched his nose between his fingers. He truly hated that woman. "Emma ought to know by now not to listen to a damn word that woman says." Anita simply sighed and shrugged her shoulders. "You know as well as I do that Bethany Ryan is the worst kind of woman. I put the girl in her place and I tried to reassure Emma but I believe she needs your reassurance—not mine." Anita tipped her had toward the back of the cart. "Get these things unloaded and then go tend to your wife, Liam." Liam used his good arm to unload all of Emma's purchases—mostly baking supplies for her orders. He stacked it all on the porch as he attempted to understand women. Why in the hell would Emma pay a single bit of attention to anything Bethany said? Hadn't Liam proved it was Emma he wanted and not Bethany???5 Hell, he hadn't married Bethany! Liam watched his aunt ride away. Patrick stepped out of the barn once Anita was gone. "What's wrong?" he asked. Liam simply shook his head. "I'm not sure. Just let us have privacy for a while, okay?" Patrick nodded. "Sure son. Whatever you need." Liam took a deep breath as he turned to face the door. He was definitely entering uncharted territory for him. He didn't want a repeat of the morning after he'd married her—he had to stay calm and just keep in mind that Emma had lived a violent but sheltered life on that mountain. She wasn't used to dealing with venom-mouthed harpies like Bethany. And Emma wasn't used to being happy or having good things happen to her. Bethany, like all predators, seemed to have found Emma's biggest weaknesses and was using them to her advantage.3 Stepping into the cabin, Liam found Emma at the kitchen counter, peeling potatoes. Her tears seemed to have stopped but she was wielding that knife with much more gusto than necessary. Was she angry?? "Emma? Are you okay?" "Yeah," she mumbled without looking his way. "I'm fine."27 Liam was tempted to take her word for it. He wasn't eager to have any kind of talk that could lead to what had happened between them a little over a month ago. But, he knew she wasn't truly fine. And, as her husband, he owed it to her to attempt to soothe whatever hurt she was feeling.3 He stepped slowly toward her, stopping when her shoulders tensed. Liam didn't know much about women but he knew animals—and tensing up was always bad. He was clearly walking near rough waters.6 "Anita said you had a run-in with Bethany. Did she say something to upset you?"3 Emma turned very slowly, the knife still clutched in her hand and her gaze on the floor. "She always upsets me, Liam...." Her voice was trembling, making it clear she was holding back tears. "Because she tells me the truth and I don't want to hear it."1 Liam frowned. Bethany spouted a lot of things from that mouth of her but the truth sure as hell hadn't ever been one of them. "And just what truth did she tell you?" STORY CONTINUES BELOW Emma whirled around and went back to peeling potatoes. "Ya married me out of pity, Liam. Plain and simple. If it hadn't been for my father having me, ya wouldn't have married me that night....."4Liam sighed and flopped down at the table. "This again?" he demanded with exasperation. "Emma, I don't know how many times I can say that I married you because I wanted to. If I hadn't done it that night, I'd have done it just as soon as I could have after. You've gotta stop listening to her and her mother." Emma began to chop the potatoes with a vengeance. "Do you like milk, Liam?"85 Liam shifted on the chair. Milk? They were talking about milk now? Damn... he was confused. He wasn't entirely sure what the correct answer to that question was.9 "Uh... yeah. I reckon. I like milk just as much as the next person."6 Emma snorted. Was that the wrong answer?1 "Bethany's very pretty," Emma added, never once glancing his way.9 Liam stood slowly. He could tell he was walking a narrow, rocky path on the edge of a cliff and he was one misstep from plunging into some raging rapids.....11 "I might have thought that for about two seconds when I first saw her... then she opened that mouth of hers and that was that." Liam rubbed at his neck. "Can I ask what the hell we're talking about milk and Bethany's looks for?"1 Emma's shoulders sagged and she began to sob. Liam rushed forward and whirled her around, pulling her against his chest. He kissed her dark hair. "Emma, love, talk to me.... I've done told you I'm no good at this opening up business. If this is gonna work you've gotta speak plain English to me and quit talking in circles."14 Emma's voice was muffled as she began to speak and words poured out of her almost as quickly as her tears. "Bethany is beautiful and knows exactly how to please a man. She said you liked her milk. And she said it would only be a matter of time before you went back to her for more because a woman like me could never satisfy a real man. She said I don't know how and she's right, Liam. I don't... I don't know what to do to make ya happy. And I know I don't deserve a man like ya and I'll always know in the back of my mind that, no matter what ya say now, ya were forced to marry me to keep me, and yourself, safe that night...."9 Liam pulled away and swallowed back his temper. "Hell woman.. you sure know how to cut a man to the bone."1 She blinked her wide, blue eyes several times and tilted her head. "What...? I didn't..." Liam shoved his hand through his hair and stared out the window. "You don't have an ounce of faith in me, do you? I've shared more with you in the short time we've known one another than I've ever shared with anyone—even my best friends I've known my entire life. You say you love me and then you go and say something like what you just said and it...." Liam swallowed hard and clenched his fist. "It rips me open, Emma."10 Emma shook her head. "Liam, I didn't mean to... I do love you and I do know you're a good man...."2Liam reached out a gentle hand and placed it on her cheek—feeling his own heart hurt for her when she flinched impulsively. "Then why do you pay attention to her? Why do you let yourself believe for a second that I would hurt you? That I would leave you? That I would be unfaithful? Like it or not, Emma, you're stuck with me. I don't always know what to say or how to act. I'm messy. I have frequent one-sided conversations with my animals. I smell like an animal most of the time and I like to spend more time in the woods than in a town, but, I'm yours and I'm not anyone else's."18 Liam felt his chest get tight when a slow smile curved Emma's lips. "I'm sorry, Liam...I didn't mean to hurt you..."9 Liam sighed as he put a finger to her lips to silence her. "Don't apologize. Bethany is a snake in the grass and you..... you're an innocent little field mouse." Emma's eyes narrowed a bit and Liam couldn't help but grin before kissing her brow. "Just do me a favor and stop paying a bit of attention to anything she has to say. Next time she opens her mouth to you just tell her to turn her wide ass around and get it back to the brothel."20 Emma's eyes widened comically. "Liam!" she exclaimed.2 He chuckled and laid a tender hand on her cheek. "I've worked hard in my life to be a man men can trust. To know that my wife doubts me—it hurts but it makes me even more determined to earn yours." "I trust you," Emma insisted. "I just worry that I won't be enough to satisfy you..." Her face flushed bright red and her gaze dropped to her feet.5 Liam felt himself tremble—damn but the woman had no idea the ways she could satisfy him.2 "Could you..." Emma's voice trailed off as she fiddled with her apron. Liam tilted his head, put his finger under her chin and raised her gaze to meet his. "Could I what?" "Teach me?"16 Liam bit back a curse. "Yeah..." He cleared his throat. "Yeah, I reckon I could give you a lesson."1 "What if it takes more than one?"16 Liam damn near choked on his tongue. While Emma meant the question in the most innocent way possible, it lit a fire in Liam's blood like he'd never felt before.2 Liam grabbed her hips and pulled her body flush against him, earning a gasp from her lips. "I'm up for as many lessons as it takes, Emma." She sucked her bottom lip between her teeth and gazed up at him through her lashes. "Let's get started then."Liam stared down at his wife sleeping peacefully on their bed. They'd spent the last week holed up in the cabin, making love, learning each others bodies and, somehow, he'd fallen even deeper in love with her.39 Liam glanced around the cabin. It was small and cozy and it had served him just fine as a single man but he had a wife now and someday he hoped to have children—a family. They would need more than one room. Liam mentally added that to the list of things he hoped to accomplish before winter. But for today, he planned on heading up the mountains and taking another shot at bringing home that black stallion.4 He was rummaging through his wardrobe for clothes when he heard the sheets rustle on the bed. Turning his head, Liam found Emma gazing at him from her pillow. "Where are you going?" she whispered sleepily. Liam knew she wasn't going to be happy but honesty was always best. "I'm going up on the mountain," he admitted. "There's a horse I'm hoping to find." Just as he'd knew they would, Emma's eyes widened. "The mountain? Why do ya want to go up there?" Liam sighed and began to tug on his buckskin trousers. "There's a horse that runs around up there. I've been after him for a while now and I'd like to catch him."1 Emma bit her lip. "Ya could just stay here with me."1 Liam let his gaze wander over the tempting picture she painted with that sheet all tangled around her slender body and her dark hair spilled across the pillow. He felt his newly donned trousers tightening but he shook his head. "We've been in that bed for damn near a week, love. I have to get some things done or winter will be on us before you know it." "Winter?" Emma huffed. "It barely summer." Liam slid into a shirt. "Is there another reason you don't want me leaving today?" Emma's gaze dropped to the sheet covering her. "I don't like the thought of ya up on that mountain. What if....what if something bad happens?" Liam crossed his arms over his chest as he stared down at her. "What exactly do you think is gonna happen?" Emma shifted upon the bed, raising up to sitting and throwing her legs over the edge. "I might be sheltered and fearful, Liam, but I'm not a complete fool. I know it was my father that shot ya. And he's up on that mountain probably looking for any chance to do it again." Liam swallowed hard and averted his gaze. He hadn't realized that Emma knew who had shot him. They hadn't spoken about it. "There's no proof..." Emma's snort cut him off and Liam sighed. "I'll be just fine up there, Emma. I'm not an easy man to sneak up on." "He did it once," she reminded him. Liam rolled his shoulder which was still tight and red. "And once is all he'll get." Liam sighed before sitting down beside her on the bed. "I won't live my life hidden in this cabin out of fear of him. I promise you I'll be just fine." Emma was quiet a moment as she studied her hands folded on her knees. Liam wondered what she was thinking. He wasn't used to having someone question his comings and goings—He didn't care for it but he also understood that she loved him and cared. He wouldn't want her going somewhere that he felt was dangerous either. STORY CONTINUES BELOW "What horse are ya after?" she finally asked. Liam wasn't prepared for the sudden change of topic. He cleared his throat and took her hand gently in his. "A black stallion. I've had my eye on him for years but he's managed to stay ahead of me." Emma met his gaze with a smile. "A black stallion with a white star on his head?" Liam was so to reply. "Yes." Emma stood up, keeping the sheet wrapped around her. The sunrise coming through the window seemed to make her bare shoulders glow and Liam was forced to fight the urge to pull her right back down into the bed. "I know the horse you're after. A family moved up on the mountains a few years back. The mountain families didn't want them there taking up land and so they burned them out. They stole most of the livestock but the horse got away."1 Liam stared up at his wife in shock. "You've seen him?" Emma nodded. "Of course I have. And I know where he stays up there." Liam stood quickly, rubbing his hands together with anticipation. "Tell me. Hell, I've been after him for a while." Emma chewed her lip and shook her head slowly. "No, I won't tell ya." Liam bit back his temper and took her hand. "Emma, this means a lot to me. I want that horse. I could sell him for a lot of money." Emma's blue eyes filled with determination as she stared him down. "I won't tell ya. I'll show ya. Yer going to take me up there with ya." Liam was certain he must have misunderstood her. Hadn't he? "I don't think so." He could feel the tension rolling off Emma in waves. "Why not? If it's safe for ya to go up there, then it's safe for me." Liam stood slowly and crossed his arms over his chest. What was he supposed to say to that? Hell, he didn't want Emma up on that mountain! They stared each other down and, while he wished she would back down, he couldn't help but feel proud of her ever growing bravery. Emma was changing every day—becoming a little less scared and showing more of who she was beneath the battered girl her father had raised. Finally, Liam sighed. "Fine. But if you come up there with me, you'll ride Honey and you'll mind my every word if we end up in trouble." Fear flashed in Emma's blue eyes and her lip shook a bit. "Do ya really think they'll be trouble?" "If I thought there would be trouble, I would have told you no." Liam grabbed his boots. "Now get ready and I'll saddle the horses." He walked out the door, grabbed his gun belt on the way and not at all happy with today's turn of events. *** Emma was nervous as she rode behind her husband up the tight mountain trail. Being up here among the thick pines and oaks, with shadows all around, terrified her. She was certain that her father was going to jump out at any moment and put yet another bullet in her husband. The ride was a quiet one—as were most trips with Liam. It was a comfortable quiet but it gave Emma too much time to think and worry.1 A low whistling tune sounded from in front of her and she realized that it was Liam. The tune was a cheerful one and Emma couldn't help but smile. He glanced back at her and smiled, his chiseled face softening. "Come on up here next to me, Emma. The trail should be wide enough now." STORY CONTINUES BELOW Emma was happy to do as he said. She felt her own worries lightening as Liam resumed his whistling. She was amazed that her husband seemed to know just what she needed without her ever having to ask for it. She hoped that she could help him find the horse he wanted and then he wouldn't feel the need to return to the mountain. "I'll let you take the lead. You're the one who knows where that critter is up here," Liam offered.1 Emma nodded. "It's quite a ways still... and before we get to the clearing we should probably leave the horses and finish the trip on foot. I've always been on foot when I've found him before. The horses might spook him." Liam nodded. "You're the boss."2The two continued on their way, Emma's fears were forgotten as they spoke light heartedly about the horse and how much money Liam could sell him for. Emma held up her hand and pulled Honey to a stop when she knew they were getting close to the stallions favorite grazing place. "We should go on foot from here," she whispered. With a nod, Liam slid from the saddle and helped Emma from hers. They secured the horses to a low hanging bough and Emma slipped silently through the brush. She paused once to look back at Liam and hold finger to her lips. Didn't her realize how loud he was. Liam's reaction was to chuckle and Emma frowned. "What?" she whispered.2 "I guess I forgot I was married to a mountain man. You can sneak around up here better than I can."8 Emma wasn't sure how to respond to that so she simply resumed her trek toward the meadow she knew the black stallion loved. What Emma hadn't told her husband was that she had done more than simply look at the horse, she'd sat with him, petted him, combed his mane and tail.1 The black horse was a secret of hers up here on the mountain and she'd snuck away from home every chance she could to be around the gentle creature. As they neared the meadow, Emma turned once again to Liam. "Stay here. He might spook if we both go together." Without giving Liam time to respond, Emma slipped out of the cover and stepped into the meadow. She saw the horse standing at the other side of the clearing. Instantly his head raised and appeared startled. Emma held out her hand. "I'm sorry I've been gone so long," she cooed gently. He let out a snort, tossed his head, and started quickly her way. At the last moment, he pulled to a stop and nudged her shoulder with his nose.4 Emma laughed and stroked his neck, knowing that's what he was wanting. She heard Liam curse behind her. Turning her head, Emma saw her husband stepping out of the brush with his gun in his hand. "Hell woman!" he growled. "I damn near shot that horse when he was running toward you that way." "Why would you shoot him?" Emma demanded, rubbing her face against the horse's cheeks. "He's a good horse."1 Liam snorted, holstering his gun. "Yeah, but you're a good wife and I wasn't about to let him trample you."10 Emma felt a blush color her cheeks. "He won't hurt me, Liam," she assured him. "I should have told ya that I used to sneak off with him quite often. We're friends." Liam took another step forward and the horse laid his ears back. Emma was quick to soothe him. "It's okay. Liam is a good man. Ya don't need be afraid."4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW When the horse seemed to calm a bit, Liam reached out his own hand and ran it down his neck. "I can't believe this... I've been after him for years and never got more than a peek...." Emma smiled and rose on her toes to kiss Liam's jaw. His arm instantly closed around her and pulled her flush against him. Emma felt her body heat instantly the moment she was against his warmth.2 "Damn woman, you're temptation..." Slowly Liam pulled away. "Let's get him back down the mountain. I believe I've got some more teaching to do."7 Emma found herself unable to form a response. Liam seemed to know exactly what to do and say to overwhelm her senses. She'd been so wrong when she had once thought that laying with a man could only be a painful and degrading. Every caress Liam gave to her body only made her feel more cherished and loved. She stood there, daydreaming about the things Liam would do with her once they were home, and was startled from her daydreams when Liam tapped her shoulder. She glanced his way only to realize he used his rope to fashion a bridle and lead rope which he'd already placed on the stallion. "We're ready if you are," Liam stated with a wink. Her blush deepened as she followed Liam to Honey and Misty. She had thought the stallion would be uncomfortable but he seemed calm and at ease with his new herd.1The ride off the mountain was uneventful and Emma simply wanted it to be over—until she realized the air seemed to be getting thicker. Fog was settling in. Mountain fog could be a dangerous thing. It tended to move in quickly and it was thick and completely did away with your ability to see more than a foot or two in front of you. Emma cast a nervous glance at Liam before looking behind her. The fog made her feel as if someone was behind her—it sent chills up her back. Suddenly the fog became thicker, falling as if it were a blanket over her eyes. "Liam?" she whispered, as she turned back around. Liam was gone. A crack of thunder boomed above her just before the skies opened in a deafening downpour. "Liam!" she cried as loudly as she could. If he heard her, or if he called for her in return, it was impossible to tell over the storm. Fear overwhelmed her. Breathing became hard and tears filled Emma's eyes as she glanced all around her, attempting to see in every direction at once. At any moment she expected her father, or some other mountain man, to come rushing through the fog and rip her from Honey's back. It was clear that Honey was fearful as well. The horse skittered sideways and let out a snort. Emma focused on calming herself. She had to be strong and lead Honey off the mountain. If she simply continued slowly downhill, careful to watch for any drop-offs or rocks that could cause them harm, she would eventually ride out of the fog and then she could focus on finding Liam or returning to the cabin. Thunder boomed again, causing Emma to let out a squeak of surprise as she jumped a bit. Her clothes were already becoming soaked through to the skin. It was time to focus on getting home. "It's okay, Honey. Let's get on home now," she gently urged. The trek downward was a slow one but eventually the fog became thinner and Emma found herself moving out of it completely. She glanced around her, attempting to gain her bearings. She'd left the trail completely and the rain was still pounding down. STORY CONTINUES BELOW Emma didn't know exactly where she was but she knew that if she continued moving down, she would eventually reach the valley's below. Despite the warmth, Emma felt a chill seeping in as the rain seemed to soak her to the bone. She kept leading Honey onward, calling out for Liam now and then, despite the volume of the storm around her. Emma let out a shocked scream when a figure suddenly stepped out of the trees beside her and a hand grabbed Honey's bridle bringing the horse to a stop. "Well, well, well. What do we have here?" Emma stared down at Shade Marxton, with fear settling deep and heavy in her gut. He sneered up at her with his rotten-toothed smile from under that dirty mustache. "Emma Hawke.... I can't tell ya how long I've wanted to get ya alone." "I.... I'm Emma McIntyre now...." She replied shakily. "And I'm on my way home so get out of my way.." Emma tried to urge Honey past the mountain man who'd been after her for as long as she could remember—always leering and threatening. "Yeah, I heard about that," Shade chuckled. "Silas is pretty damn mad that ya done run off. Doesn't bother me any to take another man's wife." Without warning, Shade grabbed her arm and yanked, pulling Emma from the saddle. Honey, frightened by the sudden loss of her rider and Emma's screams, ran off into the woods.2 Emma tried to get back to her feet but Shade's bare foot collided roughly with her ribs and sent her flipping sideways with a cry of pain. "Ya ain't got no idea how long I've wanted to get hold of ya." Emma scrambled backward. "Liam!" she screamed his name desperately as she slipped in the mud. Shade chuckled as she swiped his tattered shirt sleeve across his wet face. "He ain't comin', darlin'. Yer mine."1 Emma's screamed were cut off when Shade fell down upon her and his mouth covered hers. He tasted of tobacco and the stink of him overwhelmed her.1 Pain filled her senses. It felt as if he was going to break her jaw.1 Suddenly his hand snaked up her waist and clamped tightly over her breast. Emma bucked beneath him, struggling to get away. That only seemed to encourage him.1 Shade growled and thrust himself against her. She could feel his arousal through her skirts and a tear leaked from her eye.When his hand reached up her skirts, touching her bare skin, Emma knew she wasn't going to get away. He was too strong. Shade was using his stocky frame to completely overpower and pin her. She saw a rock beside her hand and closed her fingers around it. "Don't ya dare," Shade growled. Emma quickly dropped the rock when she saw the glint of a knife in his hand. The blade pressed against her neck. Her blood froze and she stilled completely. "Stop fightin' me now, ya little whore. Ya spread yer legs fer the vally trash and yer gonna spread 'em fer me."1 "And you're gonna get your hands off my goddamn wife now."24 Shade leapt to his feet but Emma still couldn't move. She was frozen upon the mud with her eyes squeezed tight and her body shivering. "Liam!" Shade exclaimed. "Yer wife? I didn't know she was yer wife."5 "Sure you didn't. Now toss that knife away and take ten good steps away from Emma."1 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Emma heard the knife clatter against a stone. She felt a hand close on her arm and she cried out as she cringed away. "Emma, love, it's just me." Opening her eyes a crack, Emma saw Liam's face close to hers. She sat up quickly, throwing her arms around his neck. Liam tensed as he brought her to her feet and gently pushed her behind him. "Get back on Honey." It was then that Emma realized Honey had returned. It took her two tries in her shaky state, but Emma managed to slip into the saddle. "Now, Shade, I should kill you," Liam growled. Shade licked his trembling lip. "Probably should, Liam." Emma watched Liam as he held his revolver tight in his hands, keeping the sights on Shade's chest. "You go ahead and scurry on home to your wife, Shade."4 Shade's eyes widened. He nodded and stepped toward his knife. Liam shook his head. "I'll be keeping that knife. You go on now." Shade glared at Liam but seemed to think twice about chancing his luck. He turned and raced into the woods. Liam leapt onto Misty's back. "Come on, Emma. Let's get you home." Emma was in a fog as she followed Liam down the mountain. She was numb and couldn't even remember most of the trip. She was surprised when she realized Liam was standing beside Honey to help her off as they stood in front of the cabin. "Go on inside and dry off, love. I'll take care of the horses and be in in a minute." *** Liam watched Emma step stiffly into the cabin and close the door slowly behind her. Rage vibrated within him as he led the three horses to the barn. Patrick met him at the doors with a frown on his face. "What the hell is wrong, son? You look like a man with murder on his mind." Liam slammed his fist against a beam and hissed in pain. "Shade Marxton." "What about him?" Patrick demanded. Liam clenched his fists tightly. "Emma and I got separated in the fog and storm... I managed to find her but when I did Shade Marxton was on top of her...." "Jesus Christ!" Patrick exclaimed. "Did he rape her, Liam?" Liam's jaw popped as he squeezed his eyes shut tight and breathed deep through his nose. "No.. I got there before he managed to." "Did you kill him?" "No." "Why the hell not?"7 Liam opened his eyes and stared hard at his father. "Because my wife had been through enough. She didn't need to see her husband murder a man.... And if I'd have fired a shot every man on that mountain would have been after us." Patrick nodded as he took the horses from Liam. "I've got them. Why don't you go in there and tend to Emma." Liam nodded, vowed to thank his father later and headed for the cabin. He wasn't sure what he'd say.. hell, what could he say? He'd taken her up on that mountain because he'd been sure he could keep her safe—and he hadn't. Liam stepped into the cabin and his eyes instantly went to Emma. She was sitting in the chair in front of the small vanity he'd gotten for her. She had a wet rag in her hand and was scrubbing violently at her face. Liam rushed to her. He dropped to his knees in front of her and grabbed her hands gently in his, stilling her movement. She'd rubbed her skin red and raw and his heart broke for her. "Emma, love, I'm sorry...." Her blue eyes met his and he could see the fear in them. "I can taste him...."3 Liam rose slightly and pressed his lips to her in a tender kiss. As he slowly pulled away, he realized her eyes had slipped closed. "Taste me, Emma."28 She nodded slightly and Liam kissed her again. He felt her fingertips dance across his cheek and Liam could no longer hold back his own emotions. He pulled away and buried his face in his hands. "I'm sorry, Emma.... Hell, I'm so sorry..."1 Instead of speaking, Emma pulled his face into her lap and Liam laid his head against her skirt and cried quietly. She rubbed his hair and never said a word about his sudden display of weakness as she offered him her strength.21 *** Patrick settled the horses down for the night. He didn't even take time to examine the black stallion his son had finally managed to get his hands on. His mind was on Emma and that monster up on that mountain who'd touched her. Emma was a godsend. An angel.5 Patrick went to the cabin and glanced in through the window. His heart broke as he saw his son—his proud, strong son—kneeling with his head on his wife's lap as he wept and she offered him all the comfort she could. Patrick clenched his fists. He understood Liam's reasons for leaving Shade alive—but Patrick had no such reasons.16 He went back into the rain and headed toward the barn. It was time to saddle up a horse and pay the mountain a visit.

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