There was a rock in the center of his back, but there was no rock in the entire world that would get the better of him. Stubborn as he was, he would lay there until he fell asleep or the rock crumbled. Odds were he'd collapse first, but it would be a welcome change.

Tossing his forearm over his face, he tried to block out the sounds of the warm prairie night. Even as he fought the feeling, he couldn't deny the his needling thoughts that tonight even the crickets took perverse pleasure in his lonely night among them.

He turned his head back in the direction he'd ridden from this morning. Back toward the biggest mistake he'd ever made... and it started with the words, "Maybe this isn't working."

**********

She tried for the third time to fold the blanket into a neat square, all the while trying to ignore the subtle shake of her fingers. Things don't hurt if you don't give them any attention, or at least that was what she told herself.

The house had never seemed so lonely as it did tonight. The timbers in the walls shifted and groaned as they settled into the ground.

Her voice rumbled in the empty pit of her stomach, that same unearthly groan that had passed her lips when she'd shut the door on her future.

Moving like a wooden soldier, come to life, she dropped the blanket back on the bed and sat down beside it. Her legs were shaking, sending quivers through the bedding and rattling the bedframe against the wall.

It was all a misunderstanding, right? When had everything changed... when had they both become cowards?

***********

The low lying wind rustled through the short tufts of grass before brushing through his hair. It didn't wake him... you can't wake a man that isn't sleeping.

Scrubbing a palm over his three days growth of stubble, he tried to wipe away the guilt, but only succeeded in scraping his palm raw. A hiss of pain erupted past his lips. "Damn my pride."

Slipping his hand over his woolen shirt, searching for a way to soothe the burning ache of his palm. It only brought the pain flairing to life, when his thoughts turned to her. There wasn't much in his life she hadn't touched. Her hands, those wonderful loving hands had woven themselves into his life, and the scary part was, he didn't really want her gone.

He should want her gone. His life wasn't one that any decent woman should share. He should push her away, keep her safe and out of the line of fire. He should..  he should.. he should run away. Take the easy way out.

Easy?

Good lord, he'd tucked tail and run himself out of town. What kind of a man was he?

Turning on his side, he pounded his bed roll into submission. Driving his fist into the thick roll beneath his head, he felt the satisfying pain splinter through the lower half of his arm.

Fool.
Fool.
Damned FOOL!

He deserved to be shot. He deserved to be alone... lonely for the rest of his life, always and forever alone.

********

She'd pushed him too hard. Asked for too much. Too much? She'd never asked him for anything she wasn't willing to give.

Liar. She played house for him. Making him dinner, sitting out on the porch, dancing in the moonlight. It had all been a pretty picture. Pretty and a lie.

She was married for God's sake... she wasn't free to offer him the kind of home she knew he needed. He was searching for it, even as he was trying to run from it.

Her laughter fell like boiling water, roiling and splashing beyond the dam of her lips. Sure, she had all the answers. Her father had said it was as much a part of her as her Irish coloring. She was pigheaded and stubborn as they come, but it had kept her alive... it had kept her sane.

*****************

There was a cramp the length of the Rio Grande in his leg and it was't going away. It didn't help that he'd left his flask of whiskey back at... Go ahead, say it.. say her name, you coward!

A dull ache radiated through his jaw from the side of his mouth. Teeth, clenched together, began to grind back and forth, the hollow scrape echoing in his ears. Her name was lodged back in his throat, stuck like a bone from his last meal.

Eatting at the restaurant wasn't anything like Emma's cooking. Nope. He doubted there would ever be anyone that could cook like Emma Shannon. What a surprise she'd been... a rose in the middle of the desert. When the hell did he get so lucky?

Not given to flights of fancy, nor did he waste his time.. there was nothing else to do while he lay beneath the stars... and so he thought of her. The quiet nights out on her porch, the rough wood of the swing digging into the backs of his legs through his denim pants, but he endured it, just to keep her company.

The first night they had stayed out there until even the crickets had gone to bed. He should have left hours before, should have been worried about propriety and what others would say, but he couldn't seem to make himself move from that scratchy swing seat. Not as long as Emma sat beside him gazing into the moonlight.

He'd fallen so fast, almost too fast where she was concerned. She didn't talk about it much, but there was something hurtful in her past... something she wouldn't let him see... wouldn't let him touch.  That was fine with him... at first. Then as they'd seen each other more, spent more time together, become closer.. he'd wanted in. Wanted to know what it was that haunted her past, but as open and independant as Emma Shannon was, she could outlast any mule in a stubborn contest when she wanted to keep a secret.

That's when the problems started. His own damn stubborn nature butting heads with hers... and his own need to keep digging for an answer when he should have turned tail and walked away. Not from her. No. He cared for Emma a great deal more than he was willing to reveal to anyone else, and the truth was he was hiding it from himself.

***************

Her coffee had faded to cold over an hour before. Her toes, now buried in her homemade afgan had followed suit and sent their chill through to the top of her head. She should go in. She should slip under the covers of her bed and get some rest, but she couldn't seem to move beyond the windows at the front of her house. she could barely see past the porch, but still she waited.

It was an excersize in futility, but so was living out on the edge of 'civilization'. The women in town had told her as much, chastizing her for her controversial ways. Telling her with their silence and cold shoulders that she would never be a part of their lives, their socials... their hearts.

Then there was Sam. Sam Cain had ridden into Sweetwater with the changing of the seasons and things hadn't been the same since. He gave everyone the same care..  listened to their problems and gave fair advice when it was needed. Of course, it didn't hurt that Sam Cain walked through life with confindence most men would kill for.

He wasn't bad on the eyes, either. Emma hadn't been a blushing virgin for years and she knew from the moment she set her eyes on Sam Cain that he was a man who knew how to treat a woman. A man who would never raise a hand in anger... a man she could love. Then why had she pushed him away?

A stiff wind rattled the chains of the swing. The empty sound drove right through the wall and drowned out her worries with its demanding squeal and haunting hollow echo. There was little she could do with that ruckus in her ears besides give into the rhythm and let it drown out her own thoughts.

The howling of the wind was relentless, driving... soul numbing. Touching her palm to her icy cheek, Emma gave a long weary sigh and felt her shoulders fall in resignation. He was gone and the sooner she realized it, the better.

She stood and gathered the afgan together and draped it over her arm, taking her cup in hand. Emma paused before the door and looked out at the coming dawn with one last wistful gaze. "You take care out there, Sam Cain. You stay alive... stay safe." She turned away from her own troubling thoughts and disappeared inside as the screen door slapped against the frame.

****************

He couldn't remember how long he'd been standing under that tree, couldn't remember when he'd felt his toes last either, but lord, it certainly warmed his blood to see her.  He'd been denying himself for too long, held the memories too close and it wasn't doing him any good. Now, here he was standing here like a scarecrow when what he should have done was marched right up on the porch and held her tight.

Tell her that he'd be there for her when she decided to let down the walls and tell him her secrets. He had his own and lord knew he wasn't perfect.. he just wanted her, Emma Shannon, however he was allowed to have her. He watched as the lights in the house dimmed one by one until the last light left was the one in her bedroom.

He could almost picture it in his mind, the soft worn surface of an old quilt from her mother, the way she sat there on the edge of the bed and combed out her hair. He'd had the chance to see that miracle once and it had never left his mind.

How would he be able to put that picture from his mind. Her long capable fingers pressed softly against the bristles of the brush, guiding it through the red-gold waves of her hair. The gentle rise and fall of her shoulders as she smoothed though the tangles he had left. Sam fisted a hand and felt the satisfying bite of his nails against his callused palm.

The light above his head flickered and surrendered to the dark, leaving him standing under the journeying stars... alone.

He could hear the relentless beating of his heart echoing in his ears and he pressed his palm against his chest in a vain attempt to slow its frenzied pace. He wasn't a hardened man in every sense. No, he still held his heart open to the town he'd made his home, but where it mattered in the depths of his heart, he'd been quiet for too long.

When Jenny died... the thought sent a fresh stab of pain through his middle... when she died, he thought she'd taken the best of himself with her.

That is, until he met Emma.

Good lord, she'd taken him on a wild chase. Those saucy words... and heated looks... he'd have been a fool to ignore her. 'And now?' his mind questioned. 'You're standing out here, when you could be inside...'

He could still feel her gentle caress against his back as she settled the blanket over them both, wrapping her arm around his middle as she settled against the mattress.

"Lord, I need a drink."

'What you need,' answered his mind, 'is upstairs sleeping.'

"True enough." Sam looked up at the window, squinting into the darkness. He knew he wanted her. He wanted her more than air... but she wanted promises... and now,.. now he could give them.

He leaned against the trunk of the tree, ignoring the bark biting into his spine. He knew that if he went to the door... just knocked on it once, maybe twice. She'd let him in.. let him upstairs... let him-

Sam fell asleep there, standing beneath the tree. His mind filled with images of her, sleeping in his arms. Come the dawn, Sam would greet the morning sun with a smile on his lips and a promise in heart.

If you dream of me
Like I dream of you
In a place that’s warm and dark
In a place where I can feel
The beating of your heart*


*Song: The Promise
Sung by: Tracy Chapman

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