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LOVE HER SOFTLY CHAPTER 5

LOVE HER SOFTLY CHAPTER 5
Emma stepped out of the mercantile with a basket full of supplies for Ms. Anita. It was yet another cold, February day, but the sky was a clear, crisp blue overhead.+ Emma was too busy staring up at that sky to pay much attention to where she was going. Because of that, she ran into something hard and dropped her basket, sending the contents scattering. "Hell, Emma, I'm sorry," Liam's voice had tremors running down her back.1 His big, yet gentle hands, closed around her upper arms to steady her. "Are you okay?" he asked. "I wasn't paying attention to where I was going and ran you over." Emma finally looked up, seeing those deep, brown eyes she'd been dreaming of for over a week. "I wasn't payin' attention either. We ran into each other." A smile lit up Liam's face, highlighting his chiseled cheekbones. "Let me get all this up for you."2 Emma watched as Liam gathered up the basket and items that had fallen. She couldn't help but appreciate the way Liam's lithe body moved. He reminded her of the elusive big cats on the mountain.4 Liam hooked the basket over his arm. "Were you on your way back to Anita's?" Emma could only nod. She wished she knew why he was here. Had it been chance or had Liam come to see her? He held out his free arm and Emma hesitantly looped her arm through the crook of it. "How have you been?" Liam asked as they stared down the road arm in arm. Emma could feel eyes watching them from every direction. "Good," Emma replied, unable to deny the peace, warmth and safety she felt being so close to Liam. He made her feel as if nothing in the world could ever harm her. "I've been learnin' to read and write," she told him proudly. "That's real good," Liam replied with a genuine smile. "Has town gotten better since your bad first day?" "Yes." Emma laughed lightly. "Thankfully. Those boys came to Anita's with flowers for me, Sally and Lauren and they apologized."2 "Good. They needed to apologize. Is that something you like?" Emma frowned. "Apologies?"7 A chuckle rumbled from Liam's chest. "No. Flowers." Emma chewed at her lip. "I'd never been given flowers before. They were small, hardy winter weeds, but, yes. I liked them." Emma laid her free hand on Liam's forearm. "A funny thing happened the day they apologized."3 Emma wondered why his throat bobbed when he glanced down at her hand. He stretched his neck to the side. "What happened?" "One of the boys, William, asked Lauren to the dance this weekend."2 "Did she say yes?" Emma laughed lightly. "Yes. I still can't quite believe it."1 Emma felt Liam stiffen lightly and she glanced at his face to see him frowning as he stared straight ahead. "Has anyone asked you to the dance?" he questioned tightly.7 Emma nearly laughed out loud. "No, of course not! No one wants to go with the scrawny mountain girl who doesn't talk much..... Besides, I don't think I'd trust them...."1 STORY CONTINUES BELOW "There's not a thing wrong with you, Emma," Liam stated firmly. "Don't put yourself down." Emma chewed at her lip once again. Why had Liam asked about the dance... Did he wish to take her? "I've never been to a dance," she admitted quietly.16 They stepped onto Anita's porch and Emma watched Liam shove a hand through his hair, causing it to fall across his brow. "I just wanted to come check in on you, Emma. You look good...." Color rose on Liam's cheek. "Well rested, I mean."6 Emma was confused by him. Did Liam feel what she felt when they were together? She did not want to be a charity. She didn't want him seeing her as merely someone who needed his help—his pity. "Liam, I appreciate all ya have done fer me, I really do... But I don't need ya to take care fo me.. I don't want ya to waste charity on me." Liam held up his hand and Emma fell silent. "What are you talking about? Charity?" Emma shifted her feet and pulled the basket from his arm. "Ya don't have do do anythin' else fer me." Liam stared hard at her a moment. His expression was one of hurt. "Well, alright then."6 Liam began to turn away but the door opened and Anita stepped out. "Liam, I thought I heard your voice. I need your help." Liam heaved a sigh. "What do you need?" "Did I interrupt something?" Anita asked, looking back and forth between them. Emma gently shook her head as she fought back tears of both frustration and confusion.3 "What do you need, Aunt Anita?" Liam asked again. Anita frowned but motioned them inside. "I can't reach my spice tin. I could just climb on the counter but..." "Don't be foolish," Liam scolded gently. "You'd fall and break something." Anita swatted his arm softly. "Don't be clever."2 The trio entered the kitchen but Emma wished she could be anywhere else. To be so close to Liam but feel as if he were so far away was a pain she'd never experienced before—and Emma knew a thing or two about pain. Anita pointed to her tin sitting atop a cabinet. Without much trouble, Liam snatched it down and laid it in his Aunt's waiting hands. "Thank you, Liam." "It was nothing," Liam shrugged. Then lips curled in a sneer. "Apparently I do too much charity."12 Lauren laughed as she entered the kitchen. "No, you don't. You're nice enough but I wouldn't call you charitable. An anti-social recluse is more like it."4 Emma swallowed hard as Anita's eyes bored holes into her before widening. "Is that what I walked out on?" Anita demanded. "Emma you need to stop being mean to Liam!"10 Emma's jaw dropped. Liam stepped forward. "No, take it easy on her....."1 Anita put her spice tin on the table and her hands went to her ample hips. "Are you still upset over what that heifer said at the dressmakers? I wish you'd stop worrying over that!" Emma felt tears burning behind her eyes and she fought them with everything she had. She only wanted to be worth something to someone. Emma wanted to be special to at least one person in the world. She'd never in her life known how that felt.26 "I..." Emma wrung her hands and wished she could disappear as Liam's studied her intently. Recognition finally dawned in his brown eyes and his jaw hardened. "Emma, will you come for a walk with me?"1 Emma couldn't read his expression or his tone. "Are ya angry?" she whispered. Liam grumbled. "You know I don't like that question." He shifted his feet as he gazed down at her. "Are you afraid of me?" "Of course not," Emma replied, knowing it was the truth. "Then come for a walk with me."3 Emma nodded. She couldn't explain it but knew that wherever Liam was, she wanted to be. "Have fun, Emma," Anita called out mischievously.15 Emma flushed bright red and followed Liam out the door. They walked in silence until they reached a bench behind the telegraph office at the edge of town. Liam leaned back, his long legs stretched out and his buckskin shirt pulling tight over his lean stomach and broad chest. Emma's breath caught. He sure was something to look at. "Emma, I'm a private man. I don't open up and I don't let people in too close...." Liam began tightly. "I'm sorry if I've confused you since you've been here, but, honestly, I'm pretty confused myself. I was perfectly content with my life and the way things were... until you came along." Emma wasn't sure if that was good or bad—his tone made it impossible to tell. "I want to make sure you know that you mean more to me than charity, Emma. A good deal more..."2 Liam grumbled under his breath and shoved his hand through his hair once more. "Damn, lady, I'm not good with feelings and words. Like I said before, I'm a simple man. I wish I could say things better...."1 Emma couldn't seem to speak. It was as if she'd forgotten how. Liam plucked at his shirt sleeve. "Aren't you going to say anything?" he pleaded. Emma was shaking, her throat felt dry and her stomach fluttered. She spoke before she had time to realize she was going to and once the words left her mouth, Emma realized she'd been spending far too much time with Lauren and the girl's impulsive nature was rubbing off. "Take me to the dance." Liam blinked several times, attempting to process the demand just tossed his way. The dance? Emma's eyes kept wavering as she struggled to hold his gaze. Her cheeks were red and she was abusing her full bottom lip with her teeth. Liam had to admit she painted a damn cute picture as she sat there letting him know what she wanted. He was happy that she felt comfortable enough with him to do so. But...... The dance? Liam had just opened up to her and poured his heart out more than he ever had before and she was worried about a dance?3 "I don't go to social dances," Liam grumbled. He'd been to three of them in his life and he hated each of them.15 Women batting their lashes, fawning over the bachelors like lovesick mares in heat hoping to snatch a husband. Men boasting and bragging. Gossips waggling their tongues. Crowds. Noise..... No. Liam hated social dances.3 "Oh..." Emma's face fell. "If course. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have blurted it out like that."1 "Don't," Liam scolded gently. "Don't make apologies and excuses for asking for something." "Okay..." Emma mumbled, lowering her gaze. Liam sighed. "I hate those dances, Emma. I don't like being around a lot of people."1 "Okay," Emma repeated, her voice stronger. "Really, Liam. It's okay." Liam frowned. He put his finger under her chin and lifted her gaze to his. She seemed to be alright. "If I was the type of man who went to dances, I wouldn't take anyone but you," he offered.9 A shaky smile curved Emma's cheeks and before Liam could stop himself, he leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips. Liam's heart was pounding and his hands were shaking as he pulled away.41 Holy hell.... He'd kissed women before.. but never in twenty-seven years of life had he felt anything like what that tiny brushing of lips did to him.8 Emma's brown eyes slowly opened and the surprise in them was obvious. "Don't ever think you aren't special to me, Emma..." Liam assured her, his voice tight. "You are. I've never felt like this before."11 She licked her trembling lip. "Me either."2 Liam felt a strong urge to kiss her again but resisted. He needed to give Emma time—hell, give himself time—before he went too far. Standing slowly, Liam pulled Emma to her feet. "Let's get you out of this cold." Liam held out his arm and Emma once again looped hers through. He held her closer to his side as they made their way to the boarding house. Once at the door, Liam pressed a tender kiss to her hair, breathing in the lavender scent before distancing himself.4 As they stepped into the kitchen, Liam rolled his eyes. His aunt was standing there with a knowing gleam in her eyes and a grin on her face. "Did you have a nice talk?"12 Liam noticed Emma's face flame red. "I believe I cleared up a few things," Liam replied. "Well, that's good," Anita winked. "Emma, sweetheart, since your sewing lessons haven't helped much, we'll try cooking today." "I....I can sew a little..." Emma muttered, clearly embarrassed. STORY CONTINUES BELOW Liam chuckled. "Baking," he stated. "Let her bake." He knew that his aunt did her best to teach her girls skills to help them earn money. "Emma made me the best apple pie I've ever eaten. Better than yours, Aunt Anita, and that's saying something." Anita pursed her lips at her nephew before turning her attention to Emma. "You bake?" It was clear Emma was unsure how to take Liam's praise as she flushed. "I made Liam a pie."1 "And I would gladly pay for another," Liam spoke up, enjoying the way Emma's eyes lit up. "I'd be willing to bet other people would too." "I wouldn't make you pay me for a pie," she whispered.23 Liam smiled down at her. He let his fingertips dance across her cheek, remembered he had an audience and headed for the door. "I'll see you around, Emma." Liam quickly made his way down the road, eager to escape before his aunt did something to embarrass him. He was caught off-guard when he was stopped on the boardwalk by Sally.1 "Have you been to see Emma?" Liam looked down at the blond. She'd' been living with Anita for three years and she liked butting in other's business. Usually Liam hated people like her, but, she was practically family, so, Liam usually put up with her. "Yeah, I did and I was on my way home." Liam attempted to get around her but she stood her ground. "Did she tell you about the dance?" "She mentioned it," Liam replied, wishing he could hear the last about that dance. "Did she happen to mention how much going to that dance would mean to her?"4 Liam frowned. "No...." Sally rolled her eyes. "Men sure are ignorant. She has never been to a dance, Liam. She was kept locked up in that mountain shack and never experienced anything. She is dying to dress up and hear the music and do something that she would have never been able to do had she not escaped." Liam grumbled. "Then she can go," he muttered. Hellfire, he wasn't her keeper. She didn't need his permission.23 Sally took a deep breath as if to calm her temper. "Since this is new to you, I'm going to help you with your love life just this once," she graciously offered.10 Liam glared at her. "Please don't."4 Sally seemed unfazed. "Emma is doing well at Anita's. She truly is. She's learning things and beginning to come out of her shell a bit. But she's scared. She's scared of people, of crowds, of too much noise. The smallest bit of yelling terrifies her and she nearly leaps out of her skin if people accidently bump her on the street. "But you, you make her feel safe. She has put a lot of faith in you, Liam McIntyre, whether or not either of you realize that. Emma won't go to the dance without you, but, I think it would be selfish of you to let that happen just because you don't like dances."11 "Are you done?" Liam grumbled. "Yes." "You're awful damn pushy."1 "And you're awful damn blind, stubborn and set in your ways. But it's okay. I heard that Clarence Tackett was thinking of wooing Emma. Maybe she'll feel safe with him too and he'll take her dancing."47 Liam felt jealousy, a new emotion for him, burn to life in his gut. Clarence Tackett? That near-sighed bastard needed to keep his hands to himself and off of what belonged to Liam.42 If the dance meant so much to Emma, why the hell hadn't she said so? Liam was no damn good at reading subtleties. He needed her to tell him what she wanted, and if it was something that meant a lot to her, she needed to make sure he understood that.32 He was man enough to admit he'd do just about anything to make her happy—that smile of hers was a masterpiece.2 Without another word, Liam turned and strode back to the boarding house. He entered the kitchen and Emma looked up from the pie crust she was rolling out. Liam smiled, unable to stop himself from doing so as he took in the sight of her with flour on her nose. "Yes," he stated.7 Emma frowned as Anita and Lauren shared a smile. "What are you talking about?" she asked.2 Liam shrugged. "Yes. I'll take you to the dance."9 The smile that lit up Emma's face had her shining like a diamond and Liam nearly swallowed his tongue. "Yep... well.. I'll see you then," he stammered before stumbling out the door and feeling as awkward and nervous as a school boy.24 But he was a nervous schoolboy with a smile.... Maybe this dance wouldn't be so bad—the company would definitely be better. The moment Liam had agreed to take Emma to the dance, time had slowed to a crawl. Only one day had passed and four more needed to pass before the day of the dance but Emma wanted to see Liam now.+ He had said he wanted another pie and she just happened to have a freshly baked one in the kitchen.... Walking to Liam's cabin would take a few hours but it was still early and the day was already unseasonably warm. Emma was used to walking and she would enjoy doing so today.32 Sliding into her new blue chambray dress that Ms. Anta had somehow managed to salvage, Emma checked her reflection in the mirror. She had been away from her father for a week and a half and the already she could see a difference. She had a healthier glow to her pale skin and the dark circles around her blue eyes were gone. Regular meals had her body slowly beginning to fill out as well.3 Emma wondered if Liam liked the changes in her.2 She smiled as she recalled their kiss the day before. Never had she known a kiss to her lips could seem to reach clear to her heart. Emma had never seen tenderness or gentle love between a man and a woman. She paused. Did she love Liam? Did he love her? Emma didn't know but she was eager to find out—to learn more about the good side of life.3 Emma pulled on her new ankle boots Anita had gotten her and slipped into her threadbare coat. Thankfully, she was able to get her pie and slip unnoticed from the house. If someone had seen her, they probably would have insisted on coming along and Emma didn't want that. Liam seemed to like privacy and he was more open with her when others weren't around. The walk was a long one but to Emma it felt good to leave town behind and breathe the open air. Nerves attacked her stomach when she saw the chimney smoke. She nearly ran the other way when Liam's cabin and barn came into view. What if Liam wouldn't want her there? What if he would be angry by her bothering him at home?3 Emma forced that fear down and swallowed hard. Liam had said she was special. He had said she meant a lot to him. He had kissed her.... A smile curved her lips at the memory. Surely he'd be happy she had come for a visit. Emma started toward the house until she heard a voice in the barn. Did he have company? Emma shifted the basket to her other arm. She hoped she wasn't interrupting anything important. "Liam?" she called hesitantly. Liam's head popped out of the barn. "Emma?" A surprised smile lit up his face, highlight his rugged features and stealing Emma's breath. He was dirty and it was clear he'd been working. Emma chewed her lip. "I hope I'm not interruptin'. I heard ya talkin'..." Liam shook his head. "You'd never be interrupting anything. I like your company better than anyone else's I'd be talking to." He shrugged. "I was just chatting with the horses."15 Emma felt as if her heart were going to soar right out of her chest. How had this happened? How had such a kind and gentle man fallen for a mountain hick like her?3 Emma hadn't even known that men like Liam existed.3 He made his way to her and Emma's heart raced when he pressed a tender kiss to her hair. As he pulled away, he glanced around and Liam's smile became a frown. "How did you get here?" STORY CONTINUES BELOW "I... I walked." "Alone?" Liam's voice raised. "Do you have any how foolish and dangerous that was? You could have been....."1 Liam's angry tirade trailed off. Emma was trying to fight back tears as she held her hands up protectively and winced backward.19 She was certain that Liam was going to hit her.1 Instead, he let out a muffled curse before launching forward and pulling her into a tender hug. Emma's head was resting against his chest and his steady heart beat slowly calmed her fear.7 "Hell Emma..." he whispered. "Don't ever look at me like that again. I would never lay an angry hand on you. I won't ever hurt you, Emma." "I know..." she assured him. And she did, but, old habits died hard and she'd learned long ago that a man's angry voice often came just before his angry fists. Liam slowly pulled away and Emma couldn't help but notice how tight his jaw was. "Coming out here alone was dangerous, Emma, but I am happy to see you. I was worried is all. I shouldn't have yelled. I don't want anything bad to happen to you...." He shoved his hand through his hair and Emma knew he was trying hard to be open with his feelings and that was new for him. "I don't want to lose you." Emma found herself fighting back tears once more but these were of happiness..... as well as guilt. "I'm sorry I came alone, Liam. I never even thought about the danger and I know I should have... I just wanted to see ya." Liam sighed and tucked a loose strand of her hair behind her ear. "And I'm glad you're here. At the dance, I'll introduce you to my friends Kyle and Chase. They're real good men and they live real close to town. When you want to come see me, they can get you here safe." Emma nodded. If Liam trusted them, Emma would meet his friends and give them a chance. She trusted Liam's judgement. Liam seemed to notice the basket for the first time. His nostrils flared. "Did you bring me a pie?"5 "Yes. Ya mentioned wantin' one yesterday." Liam's smile returned. "You're one hell of a woman." Emma beamed. Liam took a step back and cleared his throat. "Why don't you take that pie in and I'll be in in a minute. I'm gonna go to the stream and clean up."1 Emma nodded and headed to the cabin, happy that Liam was pleased to see her and sorry she had worried him. He was right. She'd taken a large risk. If her father had been on that road..... Emma took a steadying breath. She just had to be thankful that he hadn't been and remember not to be so careless again.1 *** Liam felt like a giant horse's ass as he strode to the stream.2 Emma, the woman who had him tied up in knots and thinking about a future, had come all the way out on foot just to see him and what had he done? He'd yelled at her!3 Liam was not a man who yelled, or, at least not usually. But, the thought of Emma being out there alone and that bastard getting his hands on her... It riled his temper and froze his blood all at the same time. With a growl, Liam splashed water on his face, rinsed his hands and headed back to the cabin. As he stepped inside and saw Emma standing beside the table with a smile on her face, Liam knew it was right. STORY CONTINUES BELOW Her smiling face greeting him after a long day's work was what he wanted forever.8 Damn.3 Two weeks ago if someone had told him he'd find a woman he wanted to spend every day of the rest of his life with, Liam would have accused them of being brain addled. And, yet, here he was wondering if it was too soon to ask Emma to be his wife.25 "I hope ya don't mind. I remembered where everythin' was," Emma said, gesturing toward the table. Only then did Liam notice the two pie-filled plates on the table. His mouth watered. "That's more than fine with me," he assured her with a smile. Liam stepped to the table and pulled out her chair before sitting across from her. "You'll be happy to know that Misty is enjoying having a real name," Liam said before shoving a big bite of pie into his mouth.1 His eyes slid closed and he groaned. Damn, that woman baked pure heaven. Emma's face lit with surprise. "Ya kept her name?" Liam grunted before taking another bite. "Yeah. I think she likes it better than Horse."5 "Can I learn to ride today?" Liam nodded. "I don't see why not. Just let me enjoy this slice of heaven and we'll head out to ride."2 *** Liam was proud of how quickly Emma seemed to pick up on riding. She had remembered his earlier warnings about trusting the hose to gain its respect and Misty had taken to Emma quickly. The small-bodied mare was a good fit for the tiny woman.8 "We should probably head back toward town," Liam stated morosely as he realized how low in the sky the sun was sinking. They would barely make it back before dark. Liam wished Emma could stay with him and never have to leave. Someday, he promised himself. Someday Emma would be his wife.17 He'd known from the beginning that Emma would make someone a fine wife—now he knew that someone was himself.12 Liam helped Emma back into Misty's saddle and he took a moment to gaze at the woman. The time she'd spent at Anita's so far had been good for her. Her beauty, once subdued by fear and scrawniness, was truly beginning to shine through. She was the most beautiful woman Liam had ever known. "What are ya lookin' at?" Emma asked, shifting in the saddle.1 Liam realized he'd been staring and he quickly averted his gaze. He hopped on Honey's back and shoved his hand through his hair. "Let's head on into town and test your newest talent."2 Emma smiled. "Am I good at it?" Liam nodded and led her down the trail. "You ought to know me well enough to know I don't say things I don't mean." Emma kept conversation going all the way to town. For once, having his silence interrupted didn't bother Liam. He enjoyed the sound of her voice and the insights into her mind that their conversations allowed. Unfortunately the ride into town seemed to end faster than usual. They were passing Mrs. Ryan's dress shop when the horror herself stepped out. "Liam, it's good to see you," she spoke.1 Liam barely managed a polite nod in response. After the way the woman had treated Emma, he wanted nothing more than to give her a swift kick in the ass.13 "Will you be attending the dance, Liam? I know Bethany has spoken of little else." Liam grumbled, then smiled. He sat up straighter. "Yes. I will be. I believe you've met my date Miss Emma Hawke?"4 He smiled proudly at Emma as her cheeks flamed red and she seemed ready to be anywhere else. Mrs. Ryan, however seemed fit to be tied. He could practically see the smoke billowing from her ears. "Yes... well.. it's very charitable of you to give up your night to show an underprivileged mountain hick a nice time."1 Liam simply chuckled. "Come along now, Emma. Have a nice day, ma'am." Liam noticed Emma's silence and when he helped her from Misty in front of the Boarding House, he held her just a little closer and tighter than was proper. "What's wrong?"2 "Nothing," she whispered. Liam would have usually let it go at that. He would have assumed she truly meant nothing was wrong because that's what she said. But, he was trying hard to learn to read between the lines... and something was wrong with Emma.9 He figured he knew what it was.1 Liam stooped down and kissed her temple. "Don't let that jealous old bat bother you."2 Emma's eyes found his and Liam wanted so badly to taste her lips... But not here. If Liam kissed her, he'd have a hard time stopping and there were too many people out and about. "Are ya sure ya want to take me to the dance instead of someone else?" Liam took a deep breath. He had to be patient. Emma was sheltered and naïve to the world outside those mountain shacks. Of course she'd easily fall prey to women like Mrs. Ryan and their spiteful tongues.1 "Emma, I wouldn't even bother with the dance if not for you." A smile brightened her face and suddenly Liam didn't care about onlookers. He swooped down and captured Emma's mouth beneath his. She gasped with surprise just before her arms slid around his neck and her body molded to his.7 Liam couldn't get enough of the taste of her. He wanted to deepen the kiss. He wanted to taste more of her—all of her. With a groan, he pulled himself away, putting a foot of distance between them. "What am I doin' wrong?" Emma questioned with flushed cheeks and kiss-swollen lips.4 "Huh?" Damn, but Liam's brain wasn't working quite right after that kiss. "Ya always pull away like that... what am I doin' wrong?"2 Liam chuckled. "Nothing Emma. You do everything just right. I gotta go now, it's getting dark. I'll be in the woods for the next few days but I'll pick you up here for the dance." "Okay." Emma sighed. "I probably shouldn't go... I don't own a nice dress—not like the one in the dress shop window."19 Liam laid his hand on her cheek. "You'll be the most beautiful woman there."3 He swallowed hard at the look in her blue eyes as she gazed up at him. Fumbling and nearly dropping them several times, Liam grabbed Misty's reins. "I'll see you Saturday," he quickly stated. Then he headed off down the road before he gave the townsfolk anything else to wag their tongues about.

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