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LOVE HER SOFTLY CHAPTER 1

LOVE HER SOFTLY CHAPTER 1
Kentucky 187351 The scent of burnt potatoes hung heavy in the evening air. Smoke from their ruined supper made Emma's eyes water as she cowered behind the table.6 "Who burned my damn supper!?" her father bellowed—his angry voice echoing off the rickety cabin walls.6 Silas Hawke was a giant oak tree of a man with a terrible temper and a heavy hand.9 Carolyn Hawke, Emma's mother, hung her head as she stood before her husband. "I'm sorry. I can make more." A resounding crack filled the cabin as Silas swung out and struck his wife sharply across the face. Emma winced as Carolyn fell to her knees and clutched her welting cheek. "Do ya think I have money fer wasted food? Do ya want to throw my money away?" Before Carolyn could respond, Silas kicked her and she fell onto her back on the dirt floor. Emma screamed as her father kicked her mother's battered body over and over and over again. Silas had always been angry and abusive but this was different. The liquor on his breath was stronger and his temper greater than Emma had ever known it to be before. He was going to kill her mother. Emma leapt to her feet and ran for him. "Papa, stop! Yer gonna kill her!" He didn't seem to hear her as he continued to beat his wife's body with his worn leather boots. Emma wished her mother would have fought back years ago against the devil of a man. She wished her mother could have found the strength to get away from the monster. But the woman had never put up any fight against her husband's abuse—and now that was going to cost her her life.5 In an act of pure desperation, Emma leapt upon her father's back. Silas roared with rage. He forgot about his attack on Carolyn and turned his attention to his only child. "Ya ungrateful, brat child!" he exclaimed, reaching behind him in a desperate attempt to pull Emma off. "Ya dare lay yer hands on me?"25 Emma was in no hurry to feel his angry fists striking her again—but enough was enough. The man had to be stopped! Silas spun in wide circles and Emma held tight. Bellowing his frustrations, Silas ran backward and rammed Emma against the wall. The breath rushed from her lungs. Pain dazed her and her grip on her father fell away. As Emma fell to the dirt, Silas whirled to face her. "How dare ya attack me...." He growled, rage flashing in his hard brown eyes. "Ya were killin' her...." Emma gasped, struggling to pull air into her stunned lungs. Silas snorted. "She's a worthless whore. Never was a good wife. Burnt meals and a messy home... and only one waste of a child came from her womb."25 Emma felt tears on her face. Tears born of anger and fear. "Please pa... Me and mama, we do the best we can..."3 Silas glared before stooping low and swinging his fist hard. It connected solidly with Emma's jaw. Stars exploded in her head and the world spun. She was faintly aware of her father storming from the cabin into the late February cold. As the door slammed shut behind him, Emma fell to the floor and her world went black.4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW *** Wind whistling through the cracks in the cabin walls brought Emma awake some time later. Night had fallen, the cabin was dark and her head was pounding. "Mama....?" Emma whispered through the pain. There was no response. Fear lay heavy on Emma's heart as she crawled across the dirt floor to her mother. Carolyn Hawke was breathing but the breaths were shallow Her face was swollen, discolored and unrecognizable. "Mama...?" Emma whimpered, laying a gentle hand on the woman's cheek. Carolyn's eyes fluttered open as she took a rattling breath. "Emma...." "What do I do, mama?" Emma asked, feeling so much younger than her seventeen years.12 Carolyn swallowed hard. The sadness was deep in what little of her blue eyes was visible. "Run Emma. Run away. Leave this mountain and don't look back. Don't let him kill ya too.. or marry ya off to a man who would do the same..." Emma shook her head. "But, mama, I can't leave ya...." Carolyn's sad eyes closed and her breaths grew weaker still. "I'm dying, child."2 "No mama...." Carolyn's eyes opened a bit and a sad smile curved her swollen cheeks. "Ya gotta be strong now. Yer a woman and ya need to leave this place and go somewhere where ya can truly live and be happy."10 Emma's heart was lying broken in her chest. She didn't want to believe her mother was dying—but she could see the proof for herself. "Promise me..." Carolyn pleaded. "Promise me you'll leave."2 Emma's throat was tight but she somehow managed to squeak out, "Okay." Her mother seemed to relax then. Emma watched in helpless horror as her chest ceased to rise and her head fell to the side.6 Letting out a cry of despair, Emma clung to her mother's broken body. She wept in sorrow for her loss. She wept in sorrow for the wasted life her mother had led married to a mean, cruel mountain man.6 And, she wept for herself. For the uncertainty and fear she was now facing. Emma had no real idea how long she laid holding her mother's lifeless body. A noise from outside drew her from her sorrow. Had her father returned? If he had, he would probably kill her too—she was a witness to murder, after all. Not that there was any law to report any murder to. And no one would listen to a poor, ignorant mountain woman anyhow. Men on the mountain would see her as nothing but a slave to meet their needs and no one from the valleys below would put much value in her word. But her father would kill her just the same. Or, he would beat her until she was begging, pleading, wishing for death. The noise proved to be a false alarm but it was enough to get her moving. Emma pressed one last kiss to her mama's cool brow and got to her feet. She pulled on her threadbare wool coat and slipped her dirty bare feet into her father's tattered cast off shoes. Her wool cap and gloves had holes the rats had chewed into them but Emma pulled them on—they would have to do. Emma cast one last mournful glance toward her mother, wishing she could do something and yet knowing she could not. Her father could return any moment. She had no more time to waste. Pulling her coat tighter, Emma opened the door and set off into the deep snow and freezing wind.2 Down. Emma's legs carried her down the mountain.3 She had never been off the mountain before. Her father had insisted she never venture to the towns and valleys below. He swore the people there were evil and hated anyone from the mountains. Emma had never in her life met a valley person.1 All she knew of them she had learned from other mountain folk. Which made her wonder and doubt whether any of those snobbish folks down below would help her at all. The cold quickly sapped her of strength and energy as it seeped into her bones and stole her breath. Still Emma trudged on through the nearly knee deep snow. Her family didn't own a horse. She wished they did. She could have stolen it and made her escape a bit easier. Her steps began to falter as Emma stumbled alone, barely noticing that the snow seemed to be getting shallower. She knew she had to find shelter soon—or the cold would kill her before her father got the chance to do it. The ground began to even out and the snow only came to her chins as Emma neared the bottom of the mountain. She'd been walking for miles and miles. Her face and hands were numb with cold and her strength was quickly failing.7 Still she went onward in the dark, the wind, the snow.... Emma nearly cried out with shock when a dark building suddenly loomed in the distance. A barn. A home stood behind it but Emma didn't dare knock on a door in the middle of the night. Not this close to the foot of the mountain. She couldn't be sure if the homeowner would be friend or foe. Emma pulled the barn door open a crack and slipped inside. The milking cow and two horses barely seemed to notice her arrival. Emma stumbled through the darkness to an empty back stall. She buried herself within the hay, her body shaking so violently, her teeth chattered together. She wasn't sure if she would live until tomorrow. She was so very very cold. Tears froze to her cheeks as she remained buried in that hay and wondered what she would do if she lived. Liam was awake with the dawn. He had checked and reset all his traps the day before to free himself today. Today he had plans of hunting and combing that mountains over for a black stallion he'd seen glimpses of over the years. The giant beast was a beauty of a horse but it had so far eluded capture for four years.23 Liam was hoping today would be the day its luck would run out. A horse as nice as that one would fetch a fine price. He shoved several bites of jerked venison into his mouth, adjusted his fur lined cap and headed out into the cold. He made his way through the snow and pulled open the creaking barn door.3 "Good morning, ladies," he greeted the two mares and cow inside.28 They weren't very talkative in response but Liam didn't mind. He was a solitary man and liked it that way. Conversation just wasn't for him. He only had a handful of friends and didn't see them too often. They knew he liked his privacy. Liam busted the ice that had formed on top of their water troughs and refilled their feed bins. He patted his favorite mare's neck. "Honey, I believe I'll let you eat before we head out for the day."1 Liam stepped into the spare stall where he stored hay, straw and oats. Bending down, he grabbed up some hey—then yelled in shock, leapt away and dropped the hay to the ground.4 He sure as hell hadn't been expecting to see an arm! He was a twenty-seven year old man and had been living out here alone for eleven years and this was certainly a first.47 Liam stepped back toward the hay pile and used his hands to quickly uncover the body. It was a young woman with porcelain skin and midnight hair. A large angry welted bruise marred her jaw and her full lips were nearly purple. Was she dead? "Ma'am?" he called, nudging her gently in the shoulder.12 Liam was relieved when she groaned in protest even though she didn't regain consciousness. He pulled of his glove and laid his bare hand against her face. He hissed as he jerked his hand away. The woman was damn near frozen solid. It looked like finding that black horse was going to have to wait. Heaving a sigh, Liam stooped down and lifted the limp woman into his arms. She was light as a feather and he realized she was quite scrawny beneath that oversized, threadbare wool coat full of holes—starvation scrawny. Where in the hell had she come from? Liam carried her into his cabin and laid her on the bed. He went to the fire and stoked it up, tossing on several more logs to add more warmth to the air. Town was a good two hour ride away in this weather and she'd likely freeze to death if he tried to take her now. Looked like he'd have a damn house guest a while. He'd warm her up, get her awake, feed her and then get her wherever it was she'd been heading before she'd ended up in his barn.11 Liam spread his bear fur on the floor and returned to the bed. The woman's clothes were wet and would only kill her faster if she kept them on. He swiftly undressed her, doing his level best to be a decent man and avoid letting his gaze linger on her bare body. He couldn't help but notice several bruises—some old and some recent—and her bones were clearly visible, jutting against her skin.7 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Beaten, bruised, skinny, frozen and hiding in a hay pile in his barn. Who the hell was this woman?3 Liam wrapped her up tight in a thick quick before laying her upon the bear fur, close to the fire's warmth.3 It was with a bit of annoyance that Liam realized he couldn't leave the cabin at all until she woke up. He didn't want her waking up and being terrified in strange surroundings.... He didn't like being cooped up. Sighing with defeat, Liam strung her clothes up to dry before the fire and set about cooking breakfast. There wasn't any sense in gnawing on jerky all day when he had plenty of time to cook a good meal.4 *** The scent of bacon frying teased Emma's senses and stirred her into consciousness. It had been a long time since her mama had cooked bacon. Where had her pa gotten the money for a hog? Emma sank deeper into the fur and quilt she was bundled up in. Never in her life could she remember being so very warm. Memories flashed through her mind. Supper burnt. Her father flying into a fit of rage. Her mother's death. The freezing cold as she had trekked down the mountain and the hay pile she'd buried herself inside..... But it wasn't hay she was covered in now—and where were her clothes? Opening her eyes just a crack, Emma saw a man standing at the other side of the one room cabin. He was tall and broad beneath his buckskin shirt tucked into pants of the same material. He seemed to feel her eyes on him because he turned toward her. Emma swallowed hard. His skin was tanned from the sun. Messy brown hair fell across his brow and hung to the collar of his shirt. He had brown eyes and the unmistakable look of exactly what she'd been running from.1 A mountain man.11 "Nice to see you're finally awake." Emma frowned. He didn't talk like any mountain person she knew.1 "Not a real talkative person are you?" He shrugged. "Good, I don't like a lot of chit chat." He sat a plate of bacon on the table beside a heaping pile of potatoes and eggs. "Breakfast is ready." Emma's mouth watered at the sight of so much food. Had he cooked it himself? Emma hadn't known that men knew how to do such things. Women's duties is what her pa would have called them.1 "Can I..." Emma's voice trembled and she licked her lips. "I'm not dressed." She was certain she saw color rise on his cheeks as he headed for the door. "I'll step out while you dress. Your clothes are hanging behind you. They were wet and half frozen so I had to remove them. I didn't do anything improper..." His jaw snapped closed as he seemed to realize he'd been rambling.23 Without another word, he strode out the door and slammed it behind him. Emma was quick to rise and yank her worn and tattered clothes on—mindful of the soreness in her back from being slammed against the wall so roughly the night before. She rushed clumsily through her task, not wanting the stranger to return and see her.3 Then again, he'd already seen her bare of clothes.2 Swallowing hard, Emma shoved her hair behind her ears and simply stood awkwardly upon the bear fur. She still was quite unsure if this man was friend or foe. He lived very close to the mountain and dressed in skins like a mountain man—but he hadn't yelled or been cruel to her. He had even saved her life.2 Emma stood there a long while, simply chewing her lip and staring at all that food. She was starving but she didn't dare touch it without permission. The ma returned and frowned when he saw her standing where he'd left her. "Aren't you going to eat?"3 "C...can I?" The man tilted his head and studied her as if she were the strangest puzzle he'd ever seen. Then he shook his head and headed for the table. "I can't eat it all myself."4 Emma stepped gingerly to the table, the pain in her back quite intense. She could feel his sharp gaze on her as she sat down across from him at the table. Hesitantly, Emma placed one strip of bacon and a spoonful of eggs upon her plate. The man's brown eyes narrowed and his firm jaw tightened. Had Emma done something wrong? He reached out toward her and Emma whimpered as she ducked away.6 "God almighty, lady," he grumbled as he grabbed several more strips of bacon and tossed them on her plate.6 Emma's face heated and flamed red. "Thank ya, sir." "Liam," he quickly amended before shoving a large forkful of eggs into his mouth.1 Emma took a small bite of her own and realized he was staring at her expectantly. She frowned, unsure of what he wanted. Liam seemed quite annoyed and Emma felt her own temper rise—though, she would never be foolish enough to be rude to a man. "When someone tells you their name, it's custom to tell them your name back," Liam informed her. "Emma," she quickly replied, eager to please him and avoid his anger. Liam simply nodded and continued his meal in silence. Emma did the same. The food was delicious but her stomach, unaccustomed to such large meals, could barely hold any at all. Her place was more than half full when she pushed it away.1 Liam grunted his displeasure. "You need to eat more. You're skin and bones." Emma couldn't explain the hurt in her gut at his insult. It wasn't her fault there had never been enough food. Liam stood and began to clear the table. Emma opened her mouth to offer to help but was silenced when a voice rang out from outside. "Liam McIntyre? It's Silas Hawke. I need to speak with you!"

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