Emily was in heaven, filled to the brim with delight... it couldn't get any better, could it? Not as far as she knew.

There was a distinct flutter in her center, deep below her thundering heart, a hesitant and yet elated tremor that came with the delight of success.

She fit in.

Finally...

After six years, more than 600 miles, 32 towns and three forts.  They had finally found a place that she couldn't imagine leaving, and it was all about Ike.

She hadn't been looking for someone like him, or anyone for that matter. He'd found her.

Until Ike, her world had revolved around her father, and his constant need to stay one step ahead of the law and three steps ahead of his creditors. Now, it didn't matter anymore. All she wanted to do was stay. Right here.

In his arms.

The band played on, and there she was, swirling in the middle of the crowd... acknowledging the grins and curious stares of Ike's friends. Sure, the other people in the town were curious, too, but their stares were cold, wary... distrusting. Not so the riders. From what Ike had tried to tell her, they were all close, and had been through a lot. That's what she loved about them, and she hadn't really spent much time with them. All that mattered was how Ike felt. They cared about him and he for them, and now, he'd brought her into that circle. This was heaven.

A gentle pressure on the tip of her boot brought her startled gaze up to meet Ike's apologetic one. "It's alright, Ike..." She wanted to see his smile again, bask in the delicious warmth of his affection.

She felt the sway of her petticoats against her legs and tried to ignore the weak feeling in her knees. There was no way that she could allow herself to act like trussed-up, transparent, little darlings that had come to find a husband. Determined to trap a man into marriage. All she wanted was a few dances... a few stolen moments of quiet.. with him. Ike. Ike McSwain.

The name was on her lips and in her thoughts, all the time... and there was no one she could tell, except maybe the pigeons that had come to roost along their porch. For a moment, sadness clouded her eyes as the aching pain of loneliness brought embarassed flames to her cheeks.

Ever since Ike had come into her life, she'd wanted.. NEEDED to talk to a friend.. a woman friend... needed to know what it was she was feeling, the strange shivers in the hot light of the sun... the tender shadows of thought in her mind that begged to be understood.

A couple jostled against her on the dance floor and Ike tightened his hold on her, drawing her closer into the circle of his arms. Her startled gaze watched his dart to her parted lips, lingering there as she tried to think of something intelligent to say. A hundred ideas hurtled through her mind. Talk about the music, talk about his friends, talk about the town.. anything... something... soon... NOW! "Thanks."

Emily wanted to hang her head and cry. 'Thanks.' That's all she could say? Hot tears collected on her lashes, she could feel them weighing heavily on the sandy colored points, just waiting for a chance to spill onto her cheeks and complete her embarassment, here at the dance.

He was worried. It was written plainly in his beautiful features. Worried, over her.

She felt his hand, curve around to her back, leaving its resting place on her waist. The vacant spot burned with heat as if calling him back, but it was only a momentary distraction as his hand settled against the small of her back.

There it was again, that gnawing feeling in the pit of her stomach. It wasn't upset... rather...it felt like anticipation. Felt like... felt like... she had no idea. Tears again threatened to spill. She missed her mother... desperately needed her at times like this. There were so many things she didn't know. So many things she needed to ask.

His touch seemed to burn right through her clothes and made it nearly impossible to breathe. One of the riders whirled by with a young woman, calling out a greeting, but Emily couldn't imagine who it was. Ike's hand was still pressed softly against her spine, and try as she could, she could think of nothing else. She couldn't think of anything else.

Ike carefully stepped around her feet and she could see the concentration in his face, the serious set of his brows as he counted out the steps in his mind. She could see the way he nodded to the time of the song and the soft shimmer against the smooth skin of his forehead. This was not easy for him, and still he tried. To Emily, she didn't care how many times he stepped on her toes. She was dancing.. at a party... with the whole town watching.

She heard the giggles before she saw the two little girls darting their way through the crowded dance floor. The second little girl seemed to trip over her own feet and bumbled into Emily, making them both lose their balance.

Ike caught her before she fell, clasping her tightly against his side as both giggling girls ran back into the throng of dancers.

Struggling to regain her feet, Emily set her free hand against his chest and her fingers grasped the front of his shirt. Oh Lord, she was making a total mess of the moment.  The tears that had threatened to fall just a few moments ago were now on the verge of wetting the front of Ike's...

Emily looked up in alarm, her current situation all too embarassing to admit. The side of her face, from the high curve of her cheekbone to the strong line of her jaw was pressed tightly against Ike's chest.

The sensations were overwhelming. She felt as though she'd been frozen in place, her feet planted right through the floor, even as shame bloomed in her cheeks.
It took a moment to right herself, regain her footing in the middle of the jostling crowd, and take a step back from him.

His hand stirred against her back, a gentle sweeping touch against her backbone. A reassuring touch that had her gaze turned to the ground at their feet. What was happening to her? Why couldn't she meet his eyes?

The answer was too embarassing to consider. Lord help her if he saw the well of pain behind her eyes, this new and unfamiliar longing building deep within her heart. The way his gentle touch left her longing for more... needing more.

Ike held her lightly, swaying slightly to the music along with the rest of the couples on the floor. The softly lilting music was a panacea to her fears. There was little she could do to ignore the gentle melody that filled the air... little she could do to ignore the subtle strength of the man touching her, trying to guide her back into the dance.

Still, her gaze was rooted to the hard wood floor at their feet, trying to find something interesting in the sawdust and knot holes and failing miserably.

His warm skin brushed the point of her chin, and she felt the corners of her mouth curve up in a smile. Blinking furiously, she tried to clear her eyes of their unshed tears before he could see.

Her smile changed the instant she saw the concern in his eyes, the sweet unabashed concern she had seen so little of in her life. He lifted her spirits with just a look, just a touch. Her eyes drank in the look of affection in his eyes, determined to enjoy the moment, and leave her worries for later. He stood before her, caring, concerned, focused just on her.

It was a heady feeling, one that set the world spinning around her. She clutched his shoulder, her fingers biting into the back of his arm as she tried to steady herself. She wanted to apologize, to soften her hold on him, but she couldn't make her fingers listen. Couldn't make herself do anything more than hold onto him like a lifeline in the center of a storm.


The strains of a reel erupted from the stage and a rousing cry swept through the throng of dancers as more joined their number and lines began to form. Emily felt Ike pulling her along through the group and she desperately tried to call out to him.. tell him she'd rather sit this one out. That she'd never danced a reel and didn't have the faintest idea what to do.

He couldn't seem to hear her and he continued to plow throught the growing number of dancers and Emily began to feel a ball of nerves growing in her stomach. There was no way that she would be able to do this, no way to salvage her pride and beg off of the dance.. no way to... Her feverish worries came to an abrupt stop as the chill of the night air brushed across her skin.

Startled by this turn of events, she could do little more than turn a questioning glance in Ike's direction. He stood on the steps, just below her, his hand still holding hers. He didn't try to pull her along, didn't try to urge her along, he just waited.

Standing there just beyond the doorway, at the edge of the lantern light with the bright strains of music tickling their ears, he waited and held her hand.

The reel began in earnest, the fiddler leaning into his instrument as the dancers cried our their appreciation. Maybe it was the beat of the music, the driving push of the rhythm that started her feet. First one step and then another, down to the street and into Ike's warm embrace.

Blind to anything beyond the magic of his touch, they walked together down the street. There was no one to be seen.. and no one to be seen by, but the two wouldn't have noticed either way. There was nothing that couldn't have interrupted at that moment, nothing.

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