DISCLAIMER: Criminal Minds and its characters are the property of CBS. No infringement intended.
SPOILERS: Consider everything through Season 5 fair game, but this is an AU so nothing episode specific. Also, a minor appearance from one of my favorite John Wayne characters. J
WARNINGS: Some violence, but nothing worse than you'd see on the show. Also, f/f sexy time. If that bothers or offends, feel free to skip this fic.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To muppetmanda[at]livejournal.com
The woman's body slid off the wagon onto the dry, hard-packed land with a sickening crunch. Her face, beautiful in life despite the lines that bespoke of a ramshackle existence, was marred now by bruises and cuts and stains of her own blood. The wagon pulled away, the wooden wheels creaking as the mule brayed once and lumbered on. By morning, the wind had obliterated most of the tracks and scavengers had obliterated most of the woman's body.
"Mr. Rossi, there must be something you can do."
"Believe me, Mrs. Lamontagne, I wish there was. It's out of my hands now." David Rossi sat back and adjusted his tie, loosening it a bit to defray the heat of the morning. "Mr. Strauss put through the foreclosure paperwork. The property's been sold to another buyer. I'm sorry."
"But it's our land."
David Rossi felt truly sorry for the woman before him, and even sorrier that he had to tell her 'no.' Jennifer Lamontagne was too young to be a widow, even by the harsh standards of the New Frontier. As bank manager David had always considered himself an excellent judge of character - especially when it came to investing in that character. Will Lamontagne and his bride had been an excellent investment. Working in one of the newly discovered coal mines north of the town, Will had been well on his way to making foreman when a cave in had cut his life despicably short and left Jennifer, or JJ as she was known to friends, alone to care for their land and their 2 year old son.
JJ had tried, David had to give her that. She'd taken a job as the town's school mistress. She took in laundry and mending. He hadn't seen her in a new dress in months, the one she wore now mended but clean. Still, it hadn't been enough to keep Mr. Strauss, the bank owner, from filing the foreclosure notice and selling the land to the highest bidder.
She was a proud woman, but she couldn't hide the waiver in her voice as she asked, "What will we do?"
"I asked around and Miss Letty has room over at the boardinghouse. You should be able to rent a room there with no problem given your salary."
"And our stock?"
"Purchased on credit, with the land as collateral, I'm afraid they've been included in the foreclosure notice as well," David explained gently.
"So, we've lost everything. Everything Will and I worked so hard for."
"It's not the end, Mrs. Lamontagne. You're still young, you're a hard worker. You'll be back on your feet in no time."
JJ pulled herself up, her back ramrod straight as she wiped at tears that were threatening to fall before meeting Rossi's sympathetic gaze. "How long do we have?"
"Mr. Strauss says immediately... but seeing as the new owner hasn't shown up to claim the property yet, I think I can get you a few more days."
"I appreciate the kindness," JJ answered stiffly. She stood, nodded curtly, and walked out of the bank manager's office with more pride than most would have managed.
The sun shone brightly on the town of Mission Springs as JJ stepped out of the bank, momentarily blinded by the light streaming so effortlessly from the clear, blue sky. People moved about, some lingering over a friendly conversation, others moving with purpose, trying to get a week's worth of errands into a single day. It was a small town, a good town, but JJ knew it wouldn't take long for nearly everyone to find out she'd lost the ranch. The humiliation nearly drove her to her knees; instead, she stepped down onto the packed dirt street, avoided a pile of horse dung, and headed for the general store.
Aaron Hotchner swept the front of his store clean, pushing the dust and leaves and dirt accumulated on the wooden walkway off into the street with an affirmative nod of completion. Inside, he could hear his wife counting up a sale and turned just in time to grab up his son Jack in one arm as he chased little Henry Lamontagne out the front door. "Whoa there," Aaron chuckled, spinning them around once easily and eliciting giggles from both boys before setting them down again with a gentle nudge back into the store. Henry took off like a shot, Jack chasing right after him.
Aaron sighed contentedly. When he'd told his father he was leaving New York for the West he'd been met with nothing but scorn and a litany of reasons why he would likely fail in the venture. Friends he'd known since childhood had made wagers on whether or not he'd last the first year, much less make it all the way to Wyoming in one piece. Now, six years later, his store was thriving, his family happy and safe, and the nightmares of the War were finally starting to fade.
"Good day, Mr. Hotchner."
"Good day, Mrs. Munroe. You find what you were looking for," he said pleasantly.
"Sure did. Hailey's ordering me some new material and she said that bow saw for my husband should be here soon."
"Yes, ma'am. I'm expecting the stage coach any day now."
Aaron tipped his head politely as the older woman smiled and moved on to tend to the rest of her errands, a full basket of food and goods slung over her arm. Hailey stepped out of the now-empty store and slid her arm around her husband's waist, squeezing lightly. "Another satisfied customer."
He smiled and kissed his wife's forehead. "Of course she was. How could she not be with such a lovely clerk?"
"Are you flattering me, sir," Hailey asked, feigning offense.
"Is it working?"
"Absolutely." She leaned up and kissed him as much as propriety would allow for a Monday morning on the streets of Mission Springs, the promise of more to come lingering in her eyes as she pulled away.
Pulled away just in time to catch Henry as he scurried out of the store again. "Hold on there," Hailey admonished, grabbing the little boy up just as Aaron snagged their son up right after.
Henry's delighted squeal drew Aaron and Hailey's attention down the street as JJ approached, her face a mask of concentration. Hailey sighed. "Mr. Rossi didn't give her the extension."
Aaron cursed. Hailey didn't have the heart to scold him.
Jennifer Jareau had been her first friend when she and Aaron had moved to Mission Springs from the East Coast. While other women had smiled politely then made snide remarks behind her back about the "city snob," JJ had been kind and straight-forward, always willing to offer a hand. Hailey had been nearly as happy for JJ when she'd married Will Lamontagne as the bride herself, and almost as equally devastated when the man had died. For the last several months the Hotchners had done what they could to help JJ keep the ranch, including watching Henry while JJ held classes, but apparently it hadn't been enough.
Henry jumped into JJ's arms, fearless as only little boys could be in the face of a nearly five foot fall. JJ held him tightly, momentarily overcome. Hailey reached out, gently squeezing her shoulder. "Come into the store and tell us."
JJ set Henry down, the boys taking off once more into the store, and followed Aaron and Hailey inside.
"Strauss foreclosed and sold the property. There was nothing more Mr. Rossi could do."
Hailey and Aaron shared a look, an unspoken conversation passing easily between them. "Well, then you'll just have to come and stay with us for a while until you get back on your feet," Hailey offered.
"No, no I couldn't," JJ demurred. "I'll just take a room over at Miss Letty's."
"Nonsense. You're staying with us." Aaron's tone made it clear he wasn't taking no for an answer.
JJ wanted to argue, really she did, but it felt as if she'd been pushing back the ocean for months now. It would be nice to rest a bit and let someone help shoulder the burden, if only for a few weeks. "If you're sure you don't mind having another little ruffian running around," she smiled, not quite hiding her relief at their offer. "It'll only be for a few weeks I promise."
"It'll be for as long as you need," Hailey countered, taking her hands and squeezing.
JJ blinked away tears, whispering, "Thank you."
"No thanks needed," Aaron assured her with a soft smile, one of the few he ever graced anyone with other than his wife. "Besides, Jack loves having him around."
The adults turned to look at the boys, discovering instead that only Jack was sitting on the floor of the store playing with a tiny carved horse that Derek Morgan had made for him one afternoon.
"He couldn't have gotten far. He's probably just hiding."
"Jack, where did Henry go," Aaron asked his son. The younger Hotchner merely shrugged and pointed toward the door.
JJ bolted outside. Henry wasn't amongst the barrels of beans and bushels of apples. "Henry? Henry, come to Mama!"
Still, there was no answer, and worse, no sign of the boy.
Dread crept up JJ's spine, like a thunderstorm building in the distance, rumbling.
No, not a thunderstorm, JJ realized. That wasn't the rumbling...
Head whipping around, she spotted her toe-headed little boy purposefully chasing a lizard in the middle of the street just as the stage coach turned the corner and barreled forward.
All of them knew they'd never make it in time.
Henry caught the lizard and grinned, turning to hold up his prize in victory to show JJ, the horses thundering toward him unheeded. JJ screamed, unable to look away even as her knees buckled under her.
JJ heard the stagecoach's brakes squeal, the horses giving protest. And then, a flash of black. A cloud of dust. Like an angel, or maybe a demon, a horse and rider charged full-out toward the stagecoach, plucking Henry up out of the street in one smooth, perfect turn before easily galloping to safety. The stagecoach continued its charge right by them, the dust momentarily obscuring the street.
Hailey helped JJ stand, each of them holding the other for support as the cloud dispersed around them and the horse and rider trotted easily up the street, Henry laughing and smiling in the saddle, still proudly holding his captured lizard.
"I believe this belongs to you?"
The rider handed Henry down to JJ and for a moment JJ wasn't sure whether she should scream or cry. Instead, she merely grabbed her son and locked him in a death-tight hug. "My God, I can never thank you enough. You saved my son's life."
The rider shifted in the saddle and tipped her hat back.
JJ's knees nearly went out on her again.
Brown eyes, intelligent and deep enough to drown in, stared back at her. There on the street, surrounded by a dozen or more people, in that moment, JJ felt as if she'd been laid bare, alone. As if there was no one else in the world but her and this stranger. And she knew, somehow she knew, that no one would ever know her as well as this stranger did, right then, in that moment, if she lived another fifty years.
The stage coach driver yelled for Aaron. The stranger blinked. Her horse pawed the ground impatiently, tossing her head once. "Easy, Hasiba." The stranger leaned down, crooning something softly to the mare in a language JJ had never heard before.
"Thank you," JJ said again, still holding Henry tightly, despite his squirming.
The slightest of nods was the only indication the dark-eyed woman had heard her. Without another word the stranger clicked her tongue and the horse set off again, JJ and Hailey staring at her open-mouthed while Henry waved 'bye-bye.'
Penelope Garcia knew trouble when she saw it, and the woman who walked into her saloon was trouble personified.
Beautiful, but absolute, no questions needed, trouble.
Black hat tucked down over sable hair, black duster that covered a white button down shirt and black, heavy trousers. Two Colt .45 Peacemakers sat upon her hips, their heavy leather gun belts only made heavier by the several rounds of ammunition adorning them.
Penelope glanced toward the bar and saw her lover, and barman, Kevin squirm uncomfortably as the woman took a seat at the bar and slid coins toward him.
"Uh, what'll it be, ma'am?"
Penelope motioned for one of her girls to come take her place at the poker table and headed for the bar, flashing Kevin a reassuring smile before plucking the bottle of whiskey from his hand and pouring the woman's drink herself. "There ya go, honey."
The woman nodded and tossed back the liquor, setting the shot glass down for a refill. Penelope easily obliged her request. "New to town?" The woman nodded again. Again, she took a shot. Again, Penelope refilled the glass. "Planning on staying, or just passin' through?"
A third shot was done away with. "Why do you care?"
The woman held the glass up yet again but Penelope pulled the bottle back. "Not sure if you noticed, but you walked in less than five minutes ago and already you have most of my customers scared shitless. If you're planning on staying, they'll need to get used to you. If you're just passin' through, well, a drink on the house should ease any discomfort."
"Sorry I'm discomforting your patrons," the brunette grumbled.
"I'm not," Penelope grinned, flashing the woman a brilliant smile. "People need a little discomforting every once in a while. Keeps us youthful and vibrant. Isn't that right my love?"
Kevin smiled and kept his distance.
"What's your name sugar?"
"Prentiss? Did your parents hate you?"
"That's a distinct possibility."
Penelope quirked another smile. Trouble, all right. No doubt about it.
"What's your first name, honey?"
Prentiss held out her glass again. Penelope filled it. Shot number four went down as easily as shots one through three. "Emily. Emily Prentiss."
"Nice to meet you, Emily Prentiss. I'm Penelope Garcia, proprietor and saloon mistress."
Prentiss took the outstretched hand, surprised by the firmness she found there, the calluses evident on Penelope's fingers and palm. Done up in more sequins and feathers and lace than by rights any woman should have worn in her lifetime, much less all at once, the frippery couldn't conceal that Penelope was a hard worker. The ink on her fingers told Emily that she was literate and kept her own books, a rarity the farther west she'd come.
"I've been travelling a while," Prentiss explained clumsily. "There a place around here to clean up? A boardinghouse? Barbershop?"
"Well, there's a barbershop, sure, but I've pretty sure you'll scare Mr. Andersen to death if you walk in with those six-shooters. And there's no way Miss Letty is letting you into her boardinghouse wearing trousers, sorry to say."
"Did I say all hope was lost? I've got perfectly good rooms upstairs and a perfectly functioning tub."
"You gonna charge me by the hour," Emily asked dryly.
"Oh, Miss Prentiss, we don't know each other nearly well enough for that yet. By the day should do just fine."
Emily sunk into the steaming hot bath, releasing a bone-weary sigh. Miss Penelope had left the bottle of whiskey in her care; she managed to wait all of three minutes before pouring herself another hefty dose, sipping the liquor this time as her muscles loosened.
Someone had slipped lavender bath salts into the water. It triggered a memory of her mother sitting at her vanity table, dabbing lavender water behind her neck - her father's favorite scent. As a child, she would sit on her parent's bed and watch her mother dress for an evening out, entranced by the glittering jewelry, the fine dresses. On those nights she was under strict orders to behave the governess and go to bed without fuss, but Emily always managed to wrangle herself an extra hour to stay up, sitting in her father's library. She read Aesop's Fables, and Grimm's Fairytales, and told herself she wasn't frightened of monsters in the dark.
Thirty years later she was still telling herself that.
Bathing in a whorehouse in Wyoming drinking liquor... oh, if her Mother saw her now...
Emily sighed again, slipped deeper into the water, and took another drink. She closed her eyes and pictured the blonde woman's face again - terror and gratitude filling cornhusk blue eyes. Emily wasn't sure if she imagined the spark that passed between them, maybe it was just the rush of charging full out toward a thundering stage coach that had her blood up, but she could still feel her heart trip inside her chest when she pictured the other woman. For some reason, when she did think of her, the scene changed from a busy street to a green field cresting into a small hill at the horizon; instead of the look of terror, there was a warm, loving smile on the blonde's face.
"Stop that," Emily muttered to herself. "You're too old for daydreams."
The bath and the booze had loosened up muscles nearly sent into spasm from weeks spent riding across the country. Hasiba, her Arabian mare, had let her displeasure be known early about travelling by rail, but Emily had managed to bribe her well enough with sweet oats and plenty of apples and sugar cubes. Once they'd gotten out into open country the horse had lightened up, taking in the terrain with the same curious interest Emily had. It was a hell of a long way from French Algiers.
A knock on the door stopped Emily from going down that trail of memories. A pretty redhead - the same one Emily suspected added the bath salts - poked her head around the door and smiled shyly. If she was a day over eighteen, Emily would eat her hat. "Just wanted to let you know Miss Penelope put your saddlebags in one of the spare rooms toward the back. It's nice, real private-like..."
"You mean it's in the back away from all the customers I'm scaring the hell out of," Prentiss corrected with a smile.
The redhead blushed, something Emily was certain she didn't do often. "You'd have to ask her about that."
"Is there a good livery around to stable my horse?"
"You'll want Derek Morgan's place," the girl answered without hesitation. "Best place for miles, best blacksmith too." She eyed Emily's clothing lying on a pile by the floor. "I know a good laundry too, if you want. I can have them back to you by end of the day."
"I appreciate it."
Gracefully, the girl swept into the room and snagged up Emily's clothes, only stopping once to eye what she could through the cloudy bath water and another time to eye the guns within arms reach on a chair.
"What's your name," Emily asked as she girl scooted toward the door.
The girl looked back over her shoulder, a practiced, coy move Prentiss was certain she'd learned from the older women in the saloon. "Beth."
"Thank you, Beth."
Another blush. The door clicked shut.
Oh, yeah, Emily thought. If only her mother could see her now...
A bath, a nap, and a hot meal courtesy of the little outdoor cafe two streets over had restored most of Emily Prentiss's good humor. Freshly laundered clothing, still smelling of clean powder and sunshine restored the rest. Feeling more like a human being than she had in weeks, Prentiss strapped on the dual Peacemakers, but left the duster on the clothes hook. It was a warm enough afternoon she didn't need it.
One of the many errand boys Miss Penelope had hanging around the saloon had taken Hasiba around back and brushed her down. The horse opened her eyes from her own afternoon nap and gave Emily a look. "I know, I know, I should have brushed you down myself. Once we get settled at the new place, I promise you'll get all the pampering you could want." The horse snorted. Emily chuckled. "Not good enough, huh? Well, let's see this Derek Morgan about getting you settled for a couple of days at least."
Following Penelope's directions - obtained only after the other woman had grinned lasciviously and commented "Oh, I sure know where to find Derek Morgan," - Emily headed toward the east end of town, walking Hasiba by her reins as much to give her own legs a stretch as to let the horse recover from their long journey. The sound of hammer pounding iron let Emily know she'd found the right place.
Furnace billowing heat, coal glowing red in the fire, Emily stopped to watch Derek Morgan pound a horse shoe into better position. Dark skin and muscles slick with sweat strained under a thin cotton shirt as Derek pounded the iron into the curve he wanted, the clang of the metal a steady rhythm of his own as he whistled good-naturedly. She waited until he tossed the shoe into a bucket of water to cool it and wiped his face on a damp rag before calling out.
The blacksmith turned and took her in in one sweeping glance. "You must be the one causing all the chatter around here this mornin'," he grinned.
"My reputation proceeds itself again, I see," Emily laughed. She offered her hand. "Emily Prentiss."
He hesitated a moment, unsure of what she intended, and then shook it firmly. "Derek Morgan. Miss Penelope sent you over?"
"Well, then, you must be good people."
"You think that highly of her opinion," Emily asked, honestly curious.
"Miss Penelope's good people," Derek said firmly, as if that explanation was all anyone needed to know. Oddly enough, for Emily, it was.
Behind her, Hasiba neighed, and butted her head into Emily's back. "And this is my horse," Emily chuckled. "Hasiba."
Derek whistled softly. "I ain't never seen a horse like that before."
"You know that desert Moses wandered around for forty years?"
"Whoo boy, that's a long way." Derek held up his hand, letting Hasiba sniff him experimentally. "How'd she get all the way over here?"
Morgan looked at her aghast for all of two seconds before laughing out loud. "Yes'm, I bet she is."
Emily grinned broadly. She liked Derek Morgan. Liked him even more as she watched him coo over the horse, petting Hasiba and whispering more than just basic flattery. They arranged to board the horse for the next couple of days and shook on the deal.
"Can I ask how long you're plannin' on stayin'?"
"Forever, I think," Emily answered easily, surprised at herself. There was something innately trustworthy about the man that drew her to him. "I bought a ranch outside of town. I'm on my way now to the bank to finish the paperwork."
"Well, you might want to wait on those. I have no idea what shape it's in. I'm just hoping the stock that come with it are cattle and not goats."
Ten minutes later, following Derek's precise instructions, she found the bank and its manager Mr. Rossi. He stood up politely as she walked into his office, visibly blanching at the guns at her hips. She saw him edge ever so closer to the shotgun propped up in the corner. "Good afternoon, Miss, how may I help you?"
"Good afternoon. I'm here to meet with Mr. Strauss regarding some property I purchased in the area. My attorney made the arrangements in New York. I'm here to take title and possession."
"Mr. Strauss is out for the day. I'm Mr. Rossi, bank manager. I'd be happy to help you."
Emily sat and presented the papers in her leather-portfolio: letters from her attorney and Mr. Strauss regarding the sale, her letter of credit with the First Bank of New York, the telegram affirming the sale along with a draft purchase agreement.
"So, you'll be purchasing the property outright then?"
"Yes, as well as establishing an ongoing credit line for improvements and stock."
Rossi reviewed all the documents. Everything was in perfect order. He glanced once more at the twin guns on the woman's hips and the well-oiled, well-used shine on each of them. This was a woman who expected that everything be in order. "First Bank of New York, that's a fine establishment. Are you from New York?"
"Originally." There was something in the way she let the one-word answer hang that told Rossi no other answer would be forthcoming. Ever.
"We'll need to sign and execute the contracts. When would you like to take possession?"
"Soon as possible," Emily answered, eyes narrowing as Rossi blanched. "Is that a problem?"
"No, no problem."
It was as if a switch had been thrown. Rossi watched as Miss Prentiss sat up a little straighter, her gaze growing sharper, more discerning, and he knew the rough-n-tumble woman who had walked into his bank was not the same woman staring back at him. "I was told the ranch is in livable condition." The easy Western tone was gone from her voice, replaced with a precise annunciation Rossi remembered hearing decades before when he'd apprenticed in Boston at a large banking house. 'Old money' the clerks would whisper with equal measure reverence and disdain; the tone of voice a way to know the difference between the same two men standing in the same finery. "There is a well on the property. A barn and a homestead with a good roof and four sturdy walls. 100 acres of grazing land, including a stream to water the stock. Was I mislead as to the condition?"
America was changing. When she'd walked in, Rossi had wondered at the letter of credit and how a woman could afford such a purchase as a ranch in Wyoming. Now he knew. "Not in the slightest, Miss Prentiss. It's just as you say."
She relaxed into the chair, once more the rough-n-tumble woman. "Then let's get on with it."
JJ looked around the homestead, cataloguing what little she had left to pack. The furniture would stay - she had no place to take it and most of it had been hand-me-downs from friends anyway. What little "good" china she had from her mother had been packed. A few books, her father's Bible, Will's Medal of Valor from the war.
Childhood friends had disavowed him when he'd gone North to fight with the Yankees. He'd paid an even steeper price when his father had died, alone, the family business reduced to rubble and ashes as Union troops marched to victory. With nothing left to hold him, Will had gone West, like so many others looking to start over. A job with the rail road had brought him to Mission Springs as they decided on the best route through Wyoming territory. He'd taken one look at JJ and known he was never going to leave.
JJ hadn't nearly been so sure about him, but he'd grown on her, with his easy smile and charm, and when he'd asked her to marry him there'd been no reason to say no.
It didn't matter he'd never been able to afford a wedding ring; every cent they'd earned had gone back into the ranch, which was just how JJ had wanted it. Land and freedom were more important than a gold band.
And still, it hadn't been enough.
She went to Henry, brushing her fingers over his hair, the morning's events once more playing through her mind. Without the reckless abandon of that woman, JJ knew she would have lost him. Funny, she didn't even know the stranger's name, but it felt as if she knew her, as if they'd just been waiting their entire lives to meet and start a conversation. Which was completely silly as the woman hadn't spoken more than a few words to her, and had been, completely rude. And yet... JJ still couldn't stop picturing her eyes. When she got past the terror, when she got past the shock, all she could remember with any clarity at all were the woman's eyes.
Henry stirred. She ran a hand over his back, soothing him with gentle words until he dropped back into slumber. Straightening up, she squared her shoulders and moved to pack what little she had left into her trunks.
The morning sun hurt her eyes, as much from the hangover as from the brightness. Emily couldn't remember what Miss Penelope had been pouring last night, but it had been free flowing and she'd enjoyed far too much. She'd try to not make that mistake again.
"Like I said, it's only about a twenty minute ride from town. Longer by wagon of course."
Emily eyed her surroundings. June, and the scrub grass was still green and healthy. Plenty of birds overhead, and not just scavengers, but predators too, which meant there was plenty of small prey about on the ground. A good, thriving piece of land then, Emily smiled. Just what she'd been hoping for.
"Homestead is just up around this curve," Mr. Rossi smiled, forcing pleasantness. Emily wasn't sure what about the man she didn't particularly like, but she could tell well enough he was holding something back, and that always put someone on her bad side. She'd spent enough years around politicians, their wives, and society's elite to know when to trust her gut about human nature, and something in the back of her mind screamed a warning about David Rossi.
Hasiba's ears shifted forward. Emily left her musings and took a careful look around her. Nothing seemed out of place, but she knew the mare well enough to know she didn't tense idly. A sound, a shout carried on the wind, and an unhappy snort from Hasiba answered the question definitively. One hand sliding automatically to the butt of her Peacemaker, Prentiss urged the horse faster around the corner, Rossi right behind.
"Stop it, please! Mr. Rossi said I had a few more days!"
"Well, Mr. Strauss says you don't. He hired us to evict you and that's what we're doing."
"Be careful please-"
JJ's protests went unheeded and her mother's china paid the price as the crate dropped from one of the roughnecks hands and never made it to the other's. Inside the house, Henry wailed in protest as furniture was tossed out the front door.
"Hey! Stop it! Gentlemen please!" The men looked up, dismissed Emily out of hand, chose to ignore Rossi, and went back to tossing things into JJ's wagon. "I work for Mr. Strauss, he told me nothing about an eviction-"
On and on it went, Rossi arguing, JJ cradling Henry as she tried to pick up the pieces of broken china, and the workmen alternately arguing and ignoring them all while they continued to ham-hand a woman's home into the back of a wagon.
"Knock it off!" Prentiss' voice cut through the din, drawing everyone, including Henry to a halt. She cut a slashing look at the workman who had dropped the china, and was currently about to toss a small trunk filled with god-knew-what onto the wagon. "Put it down. Carefully."
"I don't take orders from you, lady."
He started to toss it again, the look of horror on JJ's face speaking enough to the fragility and value of the contents, then stopped short as the sound of a .45 being cocked cleared the air. Emily leveled the revolver at the man, the look on her face nothing short of deadly. "This is my land and I said put it down."
The men did as asked this time around, each of them backing up a good three feet from JJ and the house. Emily un-cocked the weapon, but kept it out of the holster as she dismounted. "Now someone tell me what in the name of all hell is going on here."
Rossi ran a hand through his beard. "Miss Prentiss, I'm sorry, this is probably my fault..." The look Emily gave him said plainly she was sure it was. "Mrs. Lamontagne is, I mean, was the owner of this property until yesterday when it was officially foreclosed upon. I wasn't aware Mr. Strauss had already put into place a new buyer - you - so I told her she could stay on the property until someone showed up. I figured she'd have a few days more. It was just a kindness, that's all."
"And you," Prentiss asked, gesturing toward the biggest of the men.
"Mr. Strauss hired us yesterday. Said we were to evict whoever was still squatting here... anyway we wanted."
Emily muttered something under her breath that sounded suspiciously to JJ like savages.
"Where the hell is this Mr. Strauss? I want to talk to him. Now. This isn't how I do business."
"I'm afraid that's not possible."
Another voice joined the fray - this time a woman's. Emily knew accents well enough to place the older woman's easily: Philadelphia. She turned, taking in the carriage, the driver, the pounds of petticoat and material the woman wore. Even worse: new money. "And who might you be?"
"Mrs. Erin Strauss. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Prentiss." She cast a disgusted look at the gun still in Emily's hand. "I'm afraid my husband is under the weather at the moment and unable greet you personally. He sent me in his stead."
"Was this your idea," Emily asked, shrugging toward the hulking men.
"Sometimes it is necessary to provide an incentive to vacate the property-"
Prentiss turned, cocking the gun once again and aiming it squarely at the first man who'd dropped the crate of china. "Get off my land. And if I ever see you anywhere near here again, I shoot first and ask questions later. Understood?"
The men glanced at each other, at Mrs. Strauss, and then back to Emily's gun. In just under thirty-five seconds they were mounted up and gone.
"That really wasn't necessary," Mrs. Strauss sighed.
Emily turned, only barely resisting the urge to give the older woman the same treatment the others had received. "I'll decide what's necessary and what's not around here." She holstered the gun but kept her hand close to it on purpose. "I was told this land had been abandoned. I was told it had clear title. I paid a thousand dollars to secure this land three weeks ago, which means for the last three weeks you've been taking this woman's money and mine for the same piece of property. That doesn't seem fair to me."
"Those were back-payments owed."
Strauss and Prentiss' eyes locked, neither giving an inch. "Mr. Rossi, you manage all the accounts at the bank," Emily asked, still staring at Strauss.
Not for long, he thought. "Yes ma'am."
"As you know, my line of credit is going to be depositing a rather large sum of money into your small little bank. I'd hate to think that accounts are so easily un-reconciled. I might have to look at putting my money somewhere else."
"I'd hate to see that," Mr. Rossi agreed.
"You know what would ease my mind? I'd like you to do an audit of this land. All payments made the previous owners," her eyes flicked to JJ for an instant, "to assure no unnecessary or double payments were made. When I've seen written documentation I'll be happy to clear the rest of my money for deposit."
Rossi looked at Mrs. Strauss, clearly torn. The blonde woman merely nodded. "I see no reason that request can't be accommodated." He let out a sigh of relief. Offering JJ a guilty smile, he saddled back up on his horse and took up position beside the carriage. "Miss Prentiss, if you need anything else..."
Emily nodded once and turned in dismissal. The carriage pulled away.
Somewhere in the melee Henry had stopped crying and found his way to Hasiba, who was currently butting her nose up against his chubby hand in what appeared to be a cross-species version of patty-cake.
JJ stared at Emily. Emily stared back.
They both moved to start picking up the broken china.
"I don't need a stranger to fight my battles."
"I don't like being used."
Their hands brushed as they both reached for the same piece of china. JJ pulled back as if she'd been burned. Emily felt her cheeks flame hot, although she couldn't say why. JJ straightened up hastily, Emily standing just a moment behind.
"I hope you're prepared to give this land everything you have, Miss Prentiss." She'd heard Mrs. Strauss use the stranger's given name and used it now as a shield against the emotions crumbling inside her. "Because it demands everything you have. Your time, your money, your sweat and blood. And still... sometimes even that's not enough."
She took the broken pieces Emily handed her and placed them in the wagon, reaching down to lift another trunk into the back, ignoring Emily's offer of assistance. In the background, Henry laughed as Hasiba licked his face.
"You probably know this land better than anybody," Emily said slowly. "Lived it. Worked it. Sounds like you even grew up around here."
Prentiss scuffed her boot against a clod of dirt the horses had kicked up. "I can't imagine any hired foreman would know what to do around here any better than you would."
"No, I can't imagine they would," JJ agreed, still loading the wagon.
"So, what'd you say then?"
It took JJ a long minute for the offer, such as it was, to sink in. "You want to hire me as your ranch foreman?"
"I'd be doing most of the work myself, but I could use an experienced hand. Can't think of anyone better at the moment."
"I don't need charity," JJ snapped, shoving the trunk farther into the wagon and strapping it down. "I have a job. I'm a teacher at the school."
"It's summer... they still pay you in the summer?" They didn't. The look on JJ's face said as much. "School won't start up again until when? September? October?" JJ nodded. "Those are some long months to get through without steady income."
"Is this just because you feel guilty about buying my land?"
"Maybe." Emily smiled, quick and dirty. "And maybe I'm just trying to take advantage of your inside knowledge and cheap salary."
Despite herself, JJ smiled. "I'll need enough to cover room and board in town."
"Why? There's a perfectly good homestead not ten feet from you."
"That belongs to you now," JJ countered.
"Yes, it does. And I say as part of her salary, my ranch foreman gets to live in it."
"No, I can't-"
"Can you cook?" JJ gave her a look that answered that question in spades. "I can't," Emily admitted easily enough. "I'll pay you a fair wage as foreman, room and board included, and extra for my meals." JJ still didn't look convinced. "Hey, you'd be doing me a favor. Otherwise I'll be eating in town every night and that adds up mighty quick."
"Where will you live?"
Good question. "I've got a room in town for the moment."
"Uh, no... over at the saloon."
JJ's eyes went wide. She knew Miss Penelope by sight and they'd been friendly enough to each other as they passed on the street, but propriety dictated nothing more. "You can't stay there! Not while I'm living in your house. People will talk."
For the first time since arriving in Mission Springs, Emily laughed out loud. "You think people aren't talking about me already?"
"What's that over there?"
JJ looked in the general direction of Emily's nod and screwed up her face. "It's a tack shed. Will - my husband - used to keep extra tools there."
"Looks big enough for a bed. I'll sleep there."
"This isn't right. You own this land now. You should be living in the house. You should be gettin' a real foreman to work your cattle."
"In case you hadn't noticed, I don't put much stock in doing things the usual way." JJ smirked. That much was obvious. "Don't think this is charity. Truth is, I've priced out experienced foreman and I can guarantee you're gonna cost me less. As for the shed over there... I've stayed in worse places." She smiled and took a step closer to JJ. "This is the first time I have a chance to do something on my own and I'm not gonna let that pass me by. I'm gonna work hard, and I'm gonna expect the same from you. Can't promise you much except to say I'll be fair and I'll always listen to you. Now, if you think you can work with me, then I say we make a go of it."
Common sense told her to run screaming. Something she couldn't name told her to stay, whispering again and again you're home.
Emily stuck out her hand. "Deal?"
JJ nodded slowly and slid her hand into the brunette's, again feeling the burn. This time she didn't pull away but squeezed tighter. "Deal."
To the side they heard Henry squeal in delight and turned to see Hasiba lift him into the air, her teeth clenched around the scruff of the boy's shirt.
"We're going to need to talk about your horse."
Emily walked into the saloon and felt every pair of eyes turn to stare at her. She sighed heavily and headed for the bar. Miss Penelope grinned broadly and poured her a drink.
"Apparently news travels fast around here."
"It does when it comes with a pair of Peacemakers, honey." Emily took a drink of the whiskey and then a longer one. "That's on the house, by the way."
Penelope's grin shifted from friendly to predatory in the blink of an eye. "Heard you gave that banker's wife a piece of your mind. Never did like her much. She looks at my girls like they're trash."
"And how does she look at you?"
"She's smart enough not to look."
Prentiss chuckled. "Yes, ma'am, I bet she doesn't."
"So, when'll you be moving out there and leaving my fine establishment?"
"Why? Your customers still nervous?"
"Maybe. But you've only been here a day and you're startin' to become a customer attraction. I may start charging these boys two-bits just to walk in the door."
"Place needs some work before it'll be ready. I'll need to buy supplies - how's the general store?"
"Oh, Hotch's place?"
"Aaron Hotchner, proprietor, general mercantile store," Penelope said formerly, pouring another whiskey. "People go to him for just about any problem they have around here, so he's kind of the unofficial 'mayor.' Derek calls him 'Hotch,' so I call him that too. They knew each other. In the war," she continued to explain, this time taking the coins Emily slid across the bar in payment for the liquor. "Hotch came out here about six years ago with his wife, Hailey. Derek followed. I asked him once why he came all the way out here instead of going back to his family in Chicago after the war. He told me Hotch had saved his life, more than once, and where Hotch went, so did he. That's some kind of loyalty," Penelope sighed dreamily.
Prentiss nodded. "That's some kind of man." She took a drink, already liking this Aaron Hotchner. Now, she just needed to see his prices. "And what about the school teacher," she asked casually. "What's her story?"
"Mrs. Lamontagne? She's sweet enough I guess. Looks you in the eye when you see her on the street, which is how I judge most people. Why?"
"I hired her to be my ranch foreman."
Garcia let out a cackle that had every head in the saloon turning to look at her. "Miss Prentiss, I must say you are going to be the best thing to happen to this town since we got a telegraph!" Still laughing, Penelope reached under the bar and brought out the really good whiskey and poured them each a hefty shot. "To you, my friend, a woman after my own heart."
Glasses clinked and the rest of the bar went back to its own business as the women made quick work of the whiskey. "You still didn't answer my question. What's her story?"
"Not much to tell s'far as I know. Grew up around here. Parents died young, sister too I think. Her aunt raised her. Every boy in town had a crush on her but she never had a steady fella. Thought she was on her way to being an old maid when she met Will Lamontagne and surprised the hell out of all of us."
"How'd her husband die?"
"Mining accident. Few miles north of town, up in the hills, there's a small operation. Whole town was real sad when he died. Used to come in for a drink but he never went for my girls. That's a sign of a man who loved his wife."
Unlike my own father, Emily thought.
"Since you've been asking all the questions, you mind if I ask you one?"
"Won't guarantee I'll answer it, but you can ask."
Penelope smiled, eyes raking over her customer, and Emily could see clearly the keen intelligence the woman kept hidden under layers of lace. "Who do you think you're fooling?"
"You walk the walk, I'll give you that. You know how to use those guns, you're too smart to walk around with them as a prop, but you're no gunslinger. And you sure as hell aren't a roughneck cattle hand. So who are you, Emily Prentiss? And what are you doing here?"
"That's three questions."
"Feel free to answer any of them."
The brunette finished off the last of her drink. "I'm Emily Prentiss, daughter of John and Elizabeth Prentiss. I bought a ranch and I intend to make it my own, my way. And I don't know or care if I'm fooling anyone else as long as I'm not fooling myself."
Penelope suspected that was as much of an answer as anyone had ever gotten to those questions, if they'd ever been brave enough to ask in the first place. For now, they would have to be enough.
"Fair enough. Now let me grab my purse - we're going shopping."
The general store was the biggest building in town, except for the church, and the Hotchners had put every inch of available space to good use. Canned goods, dry goods, tools, clothes, material and millinery all communed harmoniously on the first floor of the store. The second, once divided evenly as storage and living quarters for the young family, was now solely devoted to domestic use as two years before Hotch had purchased the store front next door and expanded his growing empire.
It was nothing like his father's shipping business in New York; a business Aaron had been born and bred to run. Then the War came.
He could have bought his way out.
More than a few of his friends had done so, especially when a few hundred dollars could buy you a medical dispensation, and so many were dying. But not Aaron. He'd been an abolitionist before the war and when Mr. Lincoln had made the call, he'd felt it his moral duty to respond.
His father threatened to disown him if he joined the Union Army.
He shook his father's hand, kissed his mother, and vowed to Hailey that he'd return, and then he'd walked out the door. Four long years he'd spent with the New York 59th. He'd seen rivers of blood flow at Antietam and Gettysburg. He'd been taken prisoner at Petersburg. And when he returned, just as he promised, he couldn't stand the sight of the city. Couldn't bear the crowded streets, couldn't sleep at night for the noise. Hailey never questioned the reason why her husband woke screaming from nightmares, but she knew, in its way, the city was killing him as much as the war.
This time his father's threat to disown him had been real. Aaron had left anyway and never looked back.
Seven years and the nightmares still came, although infrequently. Lean winters and hard work were all he remembered of those first years, but now, watching his son grow, Aaron knew it had been the right decision. Even if the letters to his father still received no answer.
The shop bell rang, drawing him out of his thoughts. Aaron pushed away from his desk at the back of the shop and walked into the main room, eyeing the unlikely pair of women in front of him. "Afternoon Miss Penelope. How can I help you?"
"Afternoon, Hotch. This is Miss Emily Prentiss. She's going to be staying on for a while. Bought the Lamontagne ranch."
"So I heard," Aaron said dryly, looking Emily over. She was cleaner than yesterday, days worth of travel and grime washed off and replaced with fresh clothes, but he still wasn't quite sure what to make of a woman who charged a stagecoach to save a child but couldn't manage a simple 'hello' afterward. "Prentiss... that name sounds very familiar."
"It's common enough-"
"-Her parents are John and Elizabeth, if that means anything," Penelope offered before a scathing look from Emily had her shutting up.
Something clicked into Aaron's memory. "Ambassador and Mrs. John Prentiss?"
Emily nodded slowly. "How'd you know..."
"I lived in Manhattan. My family owns H&A International Shipping. I worked with the Ambassador several times on my father's behalf when he was in Europe and the Near East. I'm surprised we never met before."
"I was educated in Europe," Emily admitted with some embarrassment, her cheeks turning pink. "We travelled quite a bit."
"Of course," Hotch nodded, sensing the topic was not one that the woman wanted to discuss further. "So, how may I help you?"
"I'm going to be putting a lot of work into the ranch and I'll need supplies. Lumber, hardware, that sort of thing. Miss Penelope said you were the man to speak with."
Good business told him to jump at the opportunity; loyalty to JJ had him hesitating.
"She hired Mrs. Lamontagne as the ranch foreman," Penelope offered, earning another glare from Emily and a dumbfounded gape from Hotchner.
"But... but she's a woman."
"Your point," Prentiss asked dryly.
Aaron closed his mouth, unable to find one. He wasn't sure what had brought a diplomat's daughter - a very, very wealthy diplomat's daughter he knew - out to Wyoming, but he was certain she couldn't be lacking for funds. And he knew that even the lowest wage JJ could earn would be better than what she'd been making as school mistress. "Don't really have one." For some reason, Aaron felt himself smile. "Let's sit down and talk prices."
Three days and JJ had seen neither hide nor hair of her new boss and landlord. Not that she was complaining - not at all. She had plenty to do around the ranch. There were cattle to be fed and fences to check and a son who was too smart and too fast for his own good. With all that to tend to there was no reason for her to even notice, or care, that Emily Prentiss hadn't felt the need to come out to the ranch for three whole days. No reason at all.
Which didn't explain at all why she felt her heart stutter when she heard the tell-tale sound of hooves and neighing. She walked out onto the porch just as Emily slid off her horse. "Afternoon."
"Afternoon," Emily repeated, slinging Hasiba's reins over the post and giving the horse a soft command not to wander off. Hasiba gave her a look that said she'd consider Emily's request, but wasn't making any promises. "Where's Henry?"
"Down for a nap. Finally. He has more energy than a locomotive."
"Funny you should mention that," Emily smiled. She pulled out a small, carved steam engine from her pocket and handed it awkwardly to JJ. "Thought he might like this."
JJ took the gift, smiling back at Emily. The gesture was sweet, a stark contrast to the woman who had just days before stood in the yard and threatened two men with a pistol. "Thank you... did you make this?"
"Oh, hell no," Emily laughed, "I was over at the livery and Derek had a bunch he'd carved up on a shelf. He never thought of selling them 'til I offered to buy one. I talked to Hotch and he's gonna put them in the general store."
"'Hotch,' huh?" Emily ducked her head at the familiarity, long-ingrained manners and her mother's voice internally chastising her. "You seem to be settling in well enough with everyone."
"Well, not everyone." She and Mr. Rossi had made peace, but she'd yet to meet Mr. Strauss and was fairly certain that Mrs. Strauss would've had her run out of town if Emily's name hadn't come attached with a very large bank draft. As for the rest... well, most had kept their distance, which suited Emily just fine. "Sorry it's been a few days, I had some business to take care of."
"I guess we should talk about that then... can I offer you a cup of coffee?"
"You can more than offer," Emily grinned, climbing the short stairs up onto the porch before following JJ into the homestead. It was bigger inside than she expected, and though the furniture was simple, well-tended. A family lived here, loved here. The thought made Emily ache.
JJ set the coffee percolating on the stove and checked one more time on Henry before coming back to the kitchen table where Emily had taken up residence comfortably enough. "So what was the ranch business?"
"Setting up letters of credit at the bank and the general store for supplies. We're gonna need to make some improvements."
"You haven't even looked around the land yet. How do you know what we need?"
"I don't," Emily answered steadily. "But I wanted to hear the prices first so I can prioritize. And I wanted to make sure they weren't going to go up once I did take a look around."
"You think Aaron would try to cheat you?"
"I did before I met him."
JJ laughed dryly. "Fair enough." She got up and poured them each a cup of coffee, adding sugar to both. "He's a good man, you know. This is a good town."
"I know." Emily took a sip of coffee, smiling. "This is a damn good cup of coffee."
"Thanks for the compliment, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't curse around my boy."
"Just when he's around is all," JJ clarified. "Hard enough raising a boy by myself. Gets even harder when every other miner comes down out of the hills to town with no manners and too much whiskey. When do you want to take a look 'round the land?"
"How about tomorrow? I, uh, took the liberty of asking Mrs. Hotchner for you already. She said she could be by first thing in the morning."
"Well, you've just got everything all planned out, don't you?" The comment was gently reproving, with more than a hint of amusement behind it. Emily found herself blushing again for no particularly identifiable reason except the hint of a smile on JJ's lips.
"S'pose I do. At least in theory."
"Well, I'd hate to ruin your plans. Tomorrow it is then." Emily's smile nearly lit up the room; JJ couldn't help but smile back and ask impulsively, "You up for tryin' some of my cooking?"
"I make it a policy never to turn down an offer of food."
"Good, then you can stay for dinner."
Chicken and dumplings. Simple enough fare, but Emily hadn't enjoyed a meal that good in years, something she'd told JJ more than once. The company sure as hell hadn't been bad either, Emily thought as she pushed through the saloon doors and received a nod of recognition from Kevin at the bar. The barman was getting used to her, something that couldn't be said for some of the regular patrons of Miss Penelope's who barely gave her more than a hostile glare before turning back to their drinks.
Penelope waved her over from the back poker table, smiling brightly at the pile of coins in front of her. Beth was perched on a man's lap who seemed more interested in her cleavage than the cards in front of him - which Emily assumed, was the entire point.
"Evening, ladies," Prentiss greeted, ignoring the disdainful looks from the men.
"Evening, Miss Emily," Beth smiled, delicately shifting the man's hand off her breast back to her waist. "You had dinner yet? I can run out for something if you want-"
"I've eaten," Emily answered with some regret. "Mrs. Lamontagne-"
Penelope let her eyes shift from her cards long enough to take in Beth's disappointed look and filed it away for a later conversation. The last thing she needed was one of her girls getting soft on a patron. "Join us for a hand," Penelope offered, pointing to an empty chair. The man holding onto Beth cursed something unintelligible and spat on the floor, missing the spittoon entirely. "You gotta problem with that Harry?"
"Not as long as the bitch's money's good," he grumbled, shifting Beth higher onto his lap to grind against her, his hands wandering places Emily really didn't need to see his hands wander.
Penelope shifted her fan in one swift movement and smacked the grizzled miner upside the head. "Either pay up and get a room or behave yourself and play."
Harry settled Beth on his lap and grumbled something else then tossed in his ante. "Let's play."
Harry looked up, sneering at Emily again. "You in or out?"
She should've gone to bed, there was a long day of riding ahead of her in the morning, but she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction. "I'll play a few hands."
Penelope hid a smile behind her cards. "Then sit down honey and we'll deal you in."
A 'few hands' turned into several hands, especially once Emily started winning more and more of Harry's money. Perhaps she should've felt guiltier about taking what was obviously the man's wages for the week and probably all he had to live on, but every time his hands went wandering up Beth's skirt or down her corset what pity she felt fled. A few men had joined and then quickly left the table once it was apparent Emily's luck was going to hold for the night, until the only ones left were Penelope, Harry, Emily, and another miner who had passed out half-way through the hand.
Emily tossed a dollar's worth of coin onto the pot. "Raise."
Harry looked down at the remaining few coins in his pile, about sixty cents all told, and then the pair of kings in his hand. He shoved the last of his money into the pile. "I call."
Penelope matched the bet and sat back, cursing when Harry's pair of kings out did her pair of jacks.
The miner reached for the pot, stopping just short as Prentiss tossed not one, not two, but three aces onto the pile. "Sorry, Harry."
"You cheatin' whore!"
The table was upended, Beth dumped to the floor as Harry pulled a knife and lunged at Emily. He didn't make it a full step before both Peacemakers were drawn, one of them smoking as she fired a perfect shot that split open his right hand, the knife dropping to the floor. Behind the bar, Kevin cocked a double-barreled shotgun and leveled it at the room, eyeing anyone who might be thinking of taking Harry's side.
"Don't be stupid," Prentiss hissed coldly. "Just walk away. I'm not in the mood to kill anyone tonight."
"You shot my hand, you stupid cu-"
Another shot, this time less than an inch from his boot and fired from her left-hand Colt. "Harry, I'm warning you. You know I didn't cheat you, so just get out and we'll forget this ever happened."
Drunk and stupid was a bad combination on most days, but Harry's pride was hurt, which made things even more dangerous. Prentiss saw him shift, saw him close the fist on his left hand, and knew that stupidity had won the day.
He swung for her, landing a glancing blow which she took standing up before flipping her gun around and smacking the butt first across his face and then down on the back of his head, knocking him out cold.
She turned, guns cocked again and ready for whoever might be lurking, but the rest of the saloon patrons seemed stunned, and begrudgingly impressed. Slowly, Emily put the guns back in their holsters as Kevin lowered the shotgun off the rest of them. A couple of regulars grabbed Harry up and hauled him out the front door. Emily bent down and helped Beth back up to her feet as Penelope straightened up the table.
"You all right?"
"Better now," Beth smiled shyly. "'Course, I just lost a night's worth of pay, but it was worth it."
Prentiss stooped down and grabbed a handful of coins, pressing them into Beth's hands. "That ought to make it worth your while."
"No, no, I couldn't. You won those-"
"And I can do what I want with them."
Beth's eyes shifted just enough to take in the rather displeased look on Penelope's face. She took a reluctant step back from Emily and pushed the coins back into her hand. "I don't take charity."
"It's not "
But there was no arguing with Beth as she turned and pinning her sights on the last of the men still scrounging around the bar, went to promise him a night of heaven for just the right price. Emily shoved the coins into her pocket and accepted the rest Penelope handed her.
"Let's have a drink." It wasn't really a request, so Emily went along to the bar. Kevin just slid them the bottle and two clean glasses before he went back to wrapping up the night's business. Penelope raised her glass in silent toast. "I knew you were gonna be trouble, Emily Prentiss. I just knew it." She took a drink. "She's sweet on you."
"I haven't done anything-"
"I know," she interjected. "Which is the reason I'm still being civil." Penelope finished her drink and poured another. "Most of my girls know how lucky they are to be here and not at one of those whore-tents up at the mining camps. Up there, those men are as likely to take what they want as pay you fair. Beth don't know any better."
Emily took a drink. "That's a hard lesson to learn."
"And you're not makin' it any easier, coming in here like you are. Giving her ideas. Ideas about the kindness in this world that don't exist for girls like her."
"Or you," Prentiss added softly.
"You may not believe me, but I live by my own code out here, and I teach these girls best I can how to survive. It ain't often fair, but it is what it is. Someone like you gives 'em ideas this world could be a whole different place than what it is and that's not right."
"'We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.'" Penelope gave her a curious look. "Just something I read once," Emily explained, taking another drink. "I just want to live my life, on my land, and be left alone. I've spent years trying to figure out who I am and what I want and it hasn't been easy. I'm not looking to cause an uproar."
"Then we understand each other."
"Yeah," Emily agreed, taking the last of her drink. "I guess we do." She set the glass down and turned to find Beth trying to entice one of the regulars back to her room. It looked like they were haggling over the price.
The red head turned as Emily walked over and pressed the coins back into her hand. "I said I don't take charity."
"I got that message already. Maybe you're missing mine?"
Beth glanced down at the stack of coins in her hand; it was more than enough to buy her services for the entire night. Hell, two nights. The momentary pang of hurt was soothed by the knowledge she wouldn't have to hustle for piss-drunk, sweaty miners. "No, honey, I think we understand each other real well." She gave her regular a sweet smile and wound her arm through Emily's, meeting Penelope's gaze steadily now as the two went upstairs.
Penelope corked the whiskey, shooed the rest of her regulars out, and closed the bar up tight. Kevin sidled up behind her, his arms slipping around her waist, mouth at her ear. "Till's locked in the safe already and I'm ready to spend the next hour kissing every inch of your body... I'll start with a foot rub and work my way up." He nibbled along her neck, getting a head start. "How's that sound?"
Penelope turned, sliding her arms around him and kissing him softly. "You're a good man, you know that?"
"Feel free to remind me as many times as you'd like."
"I plan on doing just that."
She was late.
JJ swept her front porch clean, washed and hung clothes to dry, and gave her rugs a good beating, and still Emily Prentiss hadn't come. Hailey had already come by and picked Henry up so that the boys could go down to the river and swim and catch frogs, and still Emily Prentiss hadn't shown. JJ was working her way toward a nice fit of temper when she heard hooves and the gentle coaxing of Emily's voice.
She walked out onto the porch and stood at the rail, jaw dropping at the sight before her. "That's some shiner."
"Would you believe," Emily grinned, "that I got it defending a lady's honor?"
"Then you'd be right."
JJ fought a smile and nodded toward the extra horse being led by the reins behind Hasiba. "What's that?"
Emily looked down at the horse and then back at JJ. "If you don't know, then I may need to rethink hiring you as my foreman."
JJ gave her a look, which only made Emily smile. "Why do you have an extra horse?"
"It's not extra. It's for you."
"You bought me a horse?"
"I bought the ranch a horse," Emily clarified, having already worked the speech out in her head. "Which is why I was late. Something, for which I apologize profusely." JJ didn't seem at all impressed with the horse or the apology, so Emily continued. "Your mule is steady, but he's not fast enough for ranch work. We may only have thirty head right now, but that's not going to be for long if I have any say. So you need a horse."
JJ eyed the dark bay quarter horse, finding that the animal was eyeing her right back. No challenge, just a mild curiosity and generally relaxed feel. The horse seemed, well, sweet. Much like the woman holding her reins and waiting expectantly for JJ to offer any comment on her not-gift. "What's her name," JJ asked, walking forward to run her hands over the mare's long face, scratching lightly as the animal nuzzled closer, eager for a more fervent scratch.
Emily slid off Hasiba, handing JJ the reins. "Calla. It means 'beautiful' in Greek."
JJ smiled softly, her fingers sliding against Emily's as she took the reins, their touch just a moment longer than necessary. "She is beautiful."
Hasiba snorted and knocked the back of Emily's head with her own, drawing a startled laugh from the woman. "Not as beautiful as you Hasiba," Prentiss soothed, turning to give the mare a hearty scratch and hug.
"What does Hasiba's name mean?"
"It's Arabic, means 'of noble birth.'"
JJ looked the Arabian in the eye and knew the name was no exaggeration. "Seems fitting enough. Where ever did you find a horse like her?"
"She was a gift, actually." The memory brought another type of smile, and a faint blush, to Emily's cheeks.
"A lover's gift," JJ teased gently, nudging the other woman with her shoulder.
"Something like that," Emily conceded. "It was a token when I left French Algiers. That's over in the-"
"I know where French Algiers is," JJ interrupted. "I teach geography, remember?"
"We're not all uneducated hicks out here, you know."
"Never thought you were," Emily said cautiously, knowing she'd strayed into a sensitive area without realizing it. "I guess I'm just accustomed to explaining it so much I've forgotten what it's like to have a conversation with someone knowledgeable."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far. Everything I know, I've learned from books and newspapers."
"At least you have an interest," Emily smiled. "I can't tell you how people I've met over the years with absolutely no interest in what goes on outside of their own town, much less the whole country. The worst are the people in the government; they're the most narrow-minded of anyone when it comes to dealing with other countries."
"Sounds like you've had some experience with politicians."
"Not directly," Emily answered off-handedly. "But I saw what my father had to deal with on a regular basis as an ambassador and it was enough to know that I hate politics."
"You're father's an ambassador?"
It occurred to Emily, then, just how much she'd relaxed around JJ that she'd so easily slipped and mentioned her father. Having Aaron Hotchner recognize her name had been a stroke of fate she hadn't been prepared for, but letting the information loose herself was just foolishness. Now, there was no taking it back. "My family... we have relatives... really it's more of a symbolic designation."
JJ couldn't help the laugh that bubbled up as Emily foundered trying to give an answer to such a simple question. "Wow, you really don't like talking about it, don't you?"
Prentiss sighed heavily. "Not particularly."
"Then we'll just have to find something else to talk about," JJ said kindly.
JJ saddled up, settling herself comfortably on Calla. "Like these plans of yours to buy more cattle."
Prentiss smiled up at the other woman, swinging easily up into the saddle. "Now that I can talk about for days."
"At the rate we're going it's going to take that long just to get around the ranch."
Emily laughed again, feeling a freedom she hadn't felt in years. "Oh, that's all right. I've been promising Hasiba a chance to stretch her legs."
"Well, we mustn't let her majesty down."
Hasiba tossed her head. Calla snapped a warning bite. Their riders looked at each other. "Looks like the start of a beautiful relationship."
One hundred acres. It had taken most of the day to make their way across the land, especially with JJ stopping to point out weak spots in the fences and vulnerable areas where wolves had come down out of the foothills. There was work to be done, sure, but Emily knew she'd made the right investment, especially with the federal land the ranch abutted being open for grazing.
"You got the land as a homestead?"
"We did. Built the cabin and barn, bought a few head, and got the title after about two years. But then we had a couple of nasty winters, which killed the stock off. We sold some acres here and there at the edges. Took out a mortgage to buy more stock. Sold some more land. Then little Henry came and money got real tight, so Will went to work up at the copper mine. You know the rest."
It was like a damn Greek tragedy, Emily thought, feeling more than a little guilty about her good fortune. Or at least her parent's good fortune, which had somehow been passed to her as well.
"Why didn't you come out and homestead yourself? Could've gotten 160 acres for free."
"Well, my father always said, 'work smarter, not harder' so I figured..."
"You figured you could pick up a piece of land someone had already broken in for cheaper than breaking it in yourself."
"I was told it was abandoned," Emily defended. "I never would have bought it if I knew... if I knew you were still here."
"I wasn't passin' judgment."
"You sure about that?"
JJ reigned Calla to a stop, her eyes meeting Emily's. "I'd rather you have the land than anyone else."
"That's an awful lot of faith to have in someone you just met a few days ago."
"You saved my son's life, you gave me a job and a place to stay. You've done an awful lot to earn my trust in those 'few days.'"
It had been a very long time since anyone had given Emily that kind of unreserved praise and she found that while she couldn't quite understand it, she could do her best to accept it. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," JJ smiled. "Now, come on, we still have the northeast corner to cover. Not much up that way except scrub, so I don't graze the cattle there."
"What else is up there?"
"Foothills. And if you keep going up, the copper mine. They set up camp on Jackson's plateau."
Emily nodded, visualizing the land and terrain in her head. She'd gotten her tract deed on purchase, not to mention a territory map, but it was much different actually seeing the land, picking out markers and territory visually and memorizing the boundaries in your mind.
A vulture called in the distance. Another answered back. JJ slowed, looking up at the circling birds. "They must've found something big."
"When'd you do a herd count?"
"Yesterday, but they never wander this far up themselves. There's nothing up here worth eating."
"Let's check it out anyway."
Emily clucked her tongue, urging Hasiba toward the area the birds were circling over. From a distance she couldn't quite make out what type of animal it was the scavengers were feasting on like Sunday dinner but the closer she got the more her gut told her to run away. Far and fast. "Whoa."
Hasiba stopped immediately; Emily reached out, snagging Calla's bridle before JJ could go any closer.
"What? What is it?"
"Stay here," the brunette ordered, sliding off the horse and pulling free a Peacemaker in one fluid motion. Inching closer, the vultures barely paid her any attention as they continued to pick at the carcass - a carcass Emily realized with dread - that was covered in satin and lace.
She shoved her gun back into the holster and grabbed up the nearest rock, flinging it at the birds. "Get out of here! Go on! Get off you bastards!" Another rock went flying, knocking a vulture square in the head as it dazedly stumbled off the corpse. Emily charged at the birds, finally scattering them into the air, barely resisting the urge to turn her six-shooters on all of them.
Reluctantly, she knelt down by the body. It was obviously a woman's, the left over blonde hair and torn dress enough indication, but who the woman had been was a mystery. Most of her face and eyes had been eaten away by the vultures. Bigger pieces were missing - including the woman's arm. Emily suspected coyotes had gotten to the body before the crows and vultures.
"Oh my god..." JJ hadn't listened to her, but that was the least of Emily's concerns as she turned to find the blonde ashen-faced, a hand covering her mouth in disgust and shock, blue eyes locked on the desecrated corpse. "Oh my god... oh my god..."
Emily sprang up, pulling JJ into a tight hug and turning her around so that she couldn't see the carnage anymore. JJ buried her face in Emily's jacket, shaking in her arms. "Shh... shh.. it's all right."
"W-what happened to her?"
"Don't know, but I think we need to get the sheriff," Emily replied calmly.
"We don't have a sheriff."
"No sheriff?" Law enforcement hadn't been a major priority in Emily's property search; she'd assumed every town came standard with a sheriff, just like they had back east, even if most of those were corrupt. "Who usually handles problems in town?"
"Right. Right, of course. Why don't you ride into town and get him? And a doctor. Do we have a doctor?"
JJ nodded, still shaking. "Dr. Reid... Spence. I'll get him. What are you going to do?"
Emily's eyes turned hard, all the warmth flooding out of them in the afternoon sunlight. "Keep the scavengers away."
It took a couple of hours for JJ to get into town, rustle up who she could, and then get back out to the north end of the property, but Emily hadn't let that time go to waste.
There were no papers on the dead woman's body, no purse with money or coin either. Nearby there were no tracks, at least none left that had been made by humans. There were no weapons she could find tossed into bushes nearby. She'd explored as far out as she'd dared and then circled back, still finding nothing.
"Up this way!"
Hasiba pawed at the ground, clearly unhappy to be tied to a branch as strangers approached, but Emily soothed her enough the horse didn't try and uproot the tree as JJ rode up, several men in tow. She recognized Hotch and Derek immediately, and was surprised to find Rossi with them as well. Another man - if he could be called that - lumbered in behind them on a rather obstinate looking mule.
She watched with mild amusement as the man struggled to dismount the mule, and fell flat when his shoe got caught in the stirrup. Derek reached down and yanked the young Dr. Reid to his feet.
"Uh, yes, thank you."
"No problem, kid."
Reid dusted himself off and walked over to the body, ignoring Emily completely. "Given the skin discoloration, muscle rigidity, and general condition of the body I'd say she's been dead five days, maybe a full week. I can't say for certain until I get her back to my office and perform a full autopsy."
"Anyone recognize her," Rossi asked. The men collectively shrugged. "Maybe someone in town will know her."
"We have a bigger problem than that," Dr. Reid proclaimed. He adjusted the body slightly, pulling open the woman's high-collared blouse. The group stepped closer; JJ instinctively took an extra step toward Emily. "See here - this bruising - you see that in people who have been hanged, or strangled. I'm afraid to say it, but I think there's a relative certainty this woman was murdered."
JJ gasped. "Who would do something like that?"
Oddly enough, it was Hotch who looked up and met Emily's gaze, something unspoken passing between them. This was a man, Emily realized, who'd seen darkness and knew exactly what evil the hearts of men could possess. And he knew, in that moment, that somehow Emily had seen that darkness as well.
"She's not wearing any jewelry but she's wearing a pretty nice dress," Derek pointed out. "Think maybe someone robbed her and dumped her body out here?"
"It's a long way off the main roads the stage coaches use. Most bandits just shoot you and leave you," Rossi answered.
"So someone brought her out here on purpose."
"But was she alive or dead when they did it," Prentiss asked.
Everyone turned to look at her. Rossi cleared his throat. "Does that really matter?"
"Seems to me," Emily said slowly, "that if she was alive when she brought out here then she either had to come willingly, or he had to threaten her somehow to get her up here."
"So if she came willingly," JJ jumped in, picking up Emily's train of thought, "then she knew who killed her. She trusted him."
"But if he had to threaten her," Emily finished, "then she either didn't know him, or she knew to be afraid of him."
"Makes sense," Hotch agreed. "Either way, we're not going to know what happened until we get her back to town and see if anyone recognizes her."
Dr. Reid had brought a collapsible field stretcher on his mule to carry the woman's body down to JJ's wagon. Emily watched as Derek and Hotch lifted her body with more reverence than was due a dead stranger and placed her carefully on the canvass.
In silence, they rode back to town, all of them wondering to varying degrees when they would ever see enough death in their lives and then no more.
News travelled fast in a small town. Despite the lateness of the day, more than a few onlookers idled outside of shops and buildings as the group rode through town toward Dr. Reid's clinic, most openly trying to get a glance at the body Derek had been kind enough to drape a blanket over.
At the clinic, he and Hotch once more moved the corpse, laying her out carefully on the examination table. "Give me a second, will you," Reid asked, snatching up a piece of paper and charcoal.
"I'm going to go check on Henry," JJ said, nodding toward Hotch. "I'll tell Hailey you'll be a few minutes more."
Emily took off her hat and wiped her brow on the edge of her sleeve, rolling her shoulders and neck as she waited with the men outside of the clinic. "Will you be wiring the Marshall?"
Hotch nodded. "Not sure how long it will take them to send someone out."
"Let's hope this was an aberration."
"If you don't mind me saying so... I've seen women faint for less than being within spitting distance of a dead body. And you... you haven't blinked."
"I guess I just deal with tragedy better than most of the women you've known," Emily answered evenly.
"I guess you do," Hotch responded, matching her tone.
The clinic door opened. "Ah, good, Mr. Hotchner you might want to circulate this when you ask about the woman." Reid handed Hotch a fairly good drawing of a woman's face. "It's the best approximation I could do on short notice. I'll spend some time tonight doing a more accurate sketch after I've completed the autopsy."
"Thank you, Dr. Reid."
The young man nodded and hurried back inside the clinic.
Prentiss gave the men a curious look. "Can he even shave yet?"
Derek snickered. "Aww, he's a good kid."
"And a hell of a doctor," Hotch added. "JJ had a hard delivery. Probably would have lost Henry if Reid hadn't been there for her."
"Where did you manage to find him," she asked with barely concealed amusement and amazement.
"I heard he was left on Harvard Medical College's doorstep," Rossi teased as the group started to walk back across town toward the general store, leading their horses down the street.
Emily laughed despite herself. Whatever initial misunderstandings she'd had with Rossi were fading, and she found that she liked him well enough, especially considering the lengths he'd gone to help keep JJ in her home.
The last of the day's sunlight was fading out into the horizon as they approached the store. Hailey and JJ were on the porch, their respective sons laughing and running around their skirts as JJ obviously filled Hailey in on the events of the day. Both women turned at the sound of the groups approach; out of the corner of her eye Emily saw Hotch smile as his eyes met his wife's and wondered if anyone in her life would ever be that happy to see her walk down the street.
"Have you been keeping my husband out of trouble, Morgan?"
"Doin' my best, Mrs. H. Doin' my best."
Emily gave him a look. "Morgan?"
He shrugged. "Mrs. H says it's only fair since I call him Hotch, like we was still back in the Army."
Morgan. The name seemed to fit him better than Derek for some reason. "Works for me."
"I've got supper made if you'd like to stay. All of you," Hailey added, directing her gaze specifically to Prentiss. "If you've got an appetite to eat that is. JJ was just telling me about what you found out there."
Hotch handed her the sketch Reid had made. "Does she look familiar?"
Hailey eyed the sketch for several seconds and then handed it back with a sigh. "Not that I remember. We've had a lot of people passing through since the spring."
"I'll pass it around town in the morning," Hotch said. "See if anyone might recognize her."
"Why don't you let me take it tonight," Prentiss offered. "I'll show it around the saloon. Probably won't find anyone who knew her, but it's worth a try."
"Not a bad idea," Derek agreed. "Miss Penelope's got an eye for people better'n most."
Hotch handed over the drawing. "I'd appreciate it, Miss Prentiss."
"Now, come on up," Hailey urged. "There's plenty of food upstairs and you've all had a trying day."
One look from JJ let Emily know Hailey Hotchner wasn't the type of woman who took 'no' for an answer. "That would be lovely. Thank you."
Dinner had been oddly comforting after the horror of the day. Small talk and chatter had melted away most of the immediate memories of the carnage to the point that Emily found herself enjoying Hotch's stories about Manhattan; for once, they didn't make her long for something she couldn't have. With some regret she'd said good night to JJ - who agreed after much cajoling to stay in town with the Hotchners instead of riding all the way back out to the ranch - and wandered down the nearly empty streets toward her temporary accommodations.
For once, the saloon was relatively subdued when Emily walked in. The few regulars present looked up and looked back down, barely noticing her entrance before returning to their drinks and cards. Emily took a seat at the bar and gratefully took the drink Kevin placed in front of her.
"Heard ya'll had a long day."
"Longer than most," she agreed, taking a sip. "Quiet in here tonight."
"Might have something to do with last night and those Peacemakers," Kevin commented with a nervous smile.
"Do I really scare men around here that much?"
He smirked. "Especially after last night."
"You don't seem too scared any more."
Kevin wiped down a glass and put it back up on the shelf. "You don't look like you're looking for a fight any more."
"I was never looking for a fight."
"Maybe not, but you were ready to give it to anyone who stepped in front of you." Kevin poured her another drink. "Seems to me, a lady like you's had a hard time. Makin' her way, buildin' a life of her own. You learned to shoot first, ask questions later. Don't always have to be like that."
"You seem to understand quite a bit about human behavior."
"I'm a barman," Kevin answered with a quick grin. "It's expected."
"How long have you and Penelope been together?"
"A few years now."
She eyed him skeptically. "And you haven't married her yet?"
"I keep askin', she keeps sayin' no. I'm beginning to think she doesn't want to be an honest woman." They both laughed. "Took me a long time to convince her I wasn't gonna bolt on her like every other man she's ever known. Even longer to convince her I'd never raise my hand to her. If it takes the rest of my life," Kevin continued, his tone growing soft and serious, "I'll spend every day proving what she means to me."
"You're a very sweet man."
"Well, don't go spreadin' that around or I'll have a hell of a time rousting the drunks every night."
Again, Emily laughed, and found the reaction came easier and easier the longer she stayed in Mission Springs. "Your secret is safe with me," she vowed. "Oh, take a look at something for me, will you?" Emily laid out the sketch Dr. Reid had made. "You seen her around?"
Kevin eyed the sketch. "Can't say that I have. She the one you found up on your property?"
"Shame. She's a pretty woman." He looked up as Penelope came down the stairs from her rooms and waived her over. "Honey, take a look at this. You recognize her?"
Penelope glanced at the sketch and did a double-take. "Oh, oh no. Poor thing."
"You know her?"
"We didn't meet, well, not really. She was in town maybe a week ago. She came in by stage coach and asked where she could get a meal before the next stage arrived to pick her up. The one she was on was going north up toward the mines, but there was another coming in going south. I told her to try Miss Elle's cafe. I even complemented her on her necklace. She was wearing a beautiful gold cross with a tiny pearl in the center. She said it was an heirloom from her grandmother."
Emily memorized every word Penelope spoke, filing them away to relate to Hotch and Rossi and Morgan in the morning. "Well, I don't think she made that coach, or we would have found more bodies."
"You don't think... you don't think someone 'round here did this, do you?"
Prentiss shrugged. "All I know is that woman's body didn't get up there by accident."
"Let me know if I can be more help."
"Appreciate it." Emily finished the last of her drink and took a look around.
Penelope caught her glance. "She's with a customer," she filled in, knowing Emily had been looking for Beth.
"Good for her."
"Really? I thought you might've minded some."
"She's got a right to earn a living."
"The way you were lookin' at her last night, I thought maybe... maybe you'd taken a liking to her."
Emily finished her drink in one long swallow and slid the glass across the bar into Penelope's hand. "Have a good night."
Penelope watched her go up the stairs toward her room, muttering under her breath, "Nothing but trouble."
As speculated, Dr. Reid confirmed the dead woman had indeed been strangled, and explained as gently as he could with women present that there had been other violations. Despite their best efforts, and the additional information Miss Penelope had provided, the dead woman's identity failed to be discovered amongst the town of Mission Springs. As the days stretched on, what little hope they had of finding out what had happened or who the victim was depleted to nothing. She should have been buried in a pauper's grave, but for reasons passing understanding, those involved in the woman's discovery were also the ones who chipped in what they could to see she was properly buried.
Hotch shuttered the store, Morgan closed up the livery, and Rossi left the bank in the capable hands of his assistant. No one raised an eyebrow when Miss Penelope walked over to the graveyard from the saloon, black satin rustling. Reid, still tying his tie as he walked up, managed to make it just in time before the preacher started the abbreviated sermon. Emily kept close to JJ at the gravesite, her black hat tucked low over her eyes to keep out the morning sun, ignoring most of the pastor's words, as she usually did whenever it came to the church.
"And now, dear Lord, we commend this woman's spirit into your loving arms. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
One by one, they each picked up and handful of dirt and sprinkled it into the grave over top of the pine casket. JJ, going last, took a bunch of wild flowers she'd gathered that morning and dropped them in. With that, the service was finished. The group wandered to the edge of the graveyard, at a loss for what to do now. Under normal circumstances there would have been a wake, with tears and laughter for the dead, but how did you mourn a stranger?
Reid broke the strained silence. "So, have you heard from the marshal?"
"He sent a telegram," Hotch answered. "Since there's no suspect, and no identity, he's not going to make an extra trip out here to chase down a ghost."
It was a harsh decision, but pragmatic, and no one could really find a reason to argue otherwise except for the vaguely uneasy feeling each of them had that this wasn't an isolated incident.
They said goodbye at the church yard gate; Emily followed JJ to the wagon, holding onto Henry as JJ climbed up before handing the boy over to his mother.
"I'm expecting a lumber delivery this afternoon. Thought I'd come out and start working on those fences. And, uh, my things should be arriving on the stage coach next week."
JJ nodded. It had been over a week now since Emily had bought the ranch; she'd known the brunette wouldn't be satisfied to own land she didn't live on, even if she did seem to enjoy living at the saloon far too much. "I'll put some lunch on."
"I'll see you in a little while, then."
Emily headed for the saloon; JJ watched her go, not knowing why, a faint flutter in her stomach stirring when halfway down the street Emily paused, looked back at her, and smiled, tipping her hat once before carrying on.
JJ flicked the reins, urging the mule into motion and shoving the lingering memory of Emily's smile into the dark recesses of her mind.
Squinting in the last, dying light of the sunset, Emily walked over to the pump and shoved the lever down. The water gushed from the spigot into her hands and was just as quickly splashed up onto her face and neck, rinsing the first layer of dust and sweat away. She stood, stretched her back, and took a long look at her ranch.
The lumber was stacked neatly inside the barn; she'd marked and roped off the area she would use as a corral. She'd even started digging post holes.
It was half a day's work, nothing more, but it made her feel as if anything were possible.
Emily turned and smiled at JJ, who was equally grimy from dealing with the stock but smiling none the less. "It's only a start, but it'll do."
"I've got supper cooking. Hope you like stew."
The grumbling roar of Emily's stomach answered before she had a chance. "Stew sounds lovely. You need any help?"
"Thought you said you couldn't cook?"
"I can't, but my mother raised me properly, so I at least need to offer my services, such as they are."
JJ couldn't help but laugh. "Think you can keep Henry entertained for me while I finish up?"
A rambunctious toddler seemed less imposing than any attempt on Emily's part to cook; she readily agreed and walked into the house after JJ.
Henry ran full ahead into her, wrapping his arms around her legs and nearly tripping her. JJ snickered. "He's taken to you."
"Seems that way." Which was odd, Emily thought, since she'd never particularly understood children or really even wanted them. Especially not after... No. She stopped that train of thought cold and ruthlessly shoved the hint of memory to the farthest crevices of her mind.
Henry reached up, grabbing Emily's hand to tug her across the room to where wooden blocks and the carved train Emily had given him littered the floor. JJ hid a smile as Emily obligingly got down on the floor and started moving the blocks around per Henry's instruction. It didn't take long to finish up supper; before JJ even had to ask, Emily had corralled Henry into helping set the table.
They sat down to the meal together. JJ reached for Henry's hand, and then Emily's. The brunette hesitated for the slightest moment, confused. "We say grace at this table before meals, Miss Prentiss."
"Right. Of course. Sorry, it's just been a while." She crossed herself, a habit too deeply ingrained to forget, and noticed that JJ didn't seem in the least bit bothered. Taking JJ's hand, and Henry's as the little boy reached across the table, she bowed her head.
"We thank you, Lord, for the blessings of this table. For the strength you give to get through each day, for the faith to continue when troubles overwhelm us. We ask your protection and guidance on those gathered here. Amen."
Emily had sat at the table of royalty, captains of industry, even the President of the United States once, but never had she heard such true gratitude and grace for so few blessings. It staggered her. JJ squeezed her hand lightly, smiling as they all looked back up. "Amen."
While Henry picked at the peas in his stew, JJ and Emily got down to business discussing the ranch. Pencil and paper were brought out, the oil lamps turned up in the growing darkness, and plans laid out step by step. It was a sign of Providence, JJ supposed, that many of Emily's plans to expand the ranch had been things she and Will had talked about on late nights, when dreams were all that was left to sustain them. They would start with the corral; the operation was small enough right now it was easy to keep track of the cattle, but Emily wanted to expand quickly and they needed some basic containment for breeding and branding.
JJ brought out the original homestead map to show the ranch; Emily compared it to her own territory and area maps, showing the other woman areas they could expand into, including federal lands where grazing was free. By the end of the night, Henry was curled up asleep in JJ's lap, still clutching his wooden train, and Emily was fighting a series of yawns.
"I didn't realize it had gotten so late," she muttered, standing up to stretch the protesting muscles of her back.
"Well, that happens with good company," JJ smiled, fighting her own yawn as she laid Henry down in his bed, clothes and all, before tucking him in.
Emily felt a sudden pang of longing, something she couldn't understand, as JJ brushed her fingers over the boy's hair before kissing his cheek softly. "I should, uh, I should head back into town."
"It's pitch black out there."
"Oh, I can find my way easily enough. Besides, Hasiba has an excellent sense of direction."
"Sense of direction or not, it's a long way back. Besides, I meant to show you something earlier." JJ picked up a lamp, going to the front door as Emily followed behind curiously. Across the front yard, past the barn to the tack shed. JJ turned up the lamp all the way as she opened the door, stepping to the side so Emily could walk in first.
Emily wasn't certain what the shed had looked like before, but the word 'cozy' was the first to strike her as she took in the rug, the bed piled with blankets, the small table and chair that could be used as a desk, and a two drawer dresser.
"I know it's not much-"
"-No, no it's it's lovely," Emily ground out, swallowing an unexpected lump in her throat. "It's lovely," she repeated, voice barely above a whisper. She turned to JJ, smiling. "It's perfect. I'll bring the rest of my things out tomorrow."
"Miss Penelope's gonna be sad about that."
"Oh, I think she'll manage along without me scaring her customers just fine."
JJ laughed. Emily smiled.
The small shed seemed to grow, if possible, even smaller.
Emily took a step closer. "Thank you for this, JJ."
JJ kept her eyes fixed on Emily's watching pupils expand, eyes growing impossibly darker. "You're welcome." Was that her voice, she wondered. Why was she so breathless? Why did it feel like her heart was going to pound out of her chest?
Emily started to take another step and then stopped, shifting instead to rock back, farther away. "I should get some sleep. So should you."
JJ swallowed hard. "I will."
A tight, unsteady smile and then she was gone.
Emily sunk onto the bed, took a deep breath, and cursed softly. "This is not good."
There wasn't much to gather from the saloon but her saddlebags, still Emily lingered over the task, trying to work out in her mind exactly what had happened the night before now that she had some distance from JJ. What didn't help was wearing a shirt borrowed from the other woman, being able to smell her with every move she made.
How was she supposed to think when every breath reminded her of sunshine and soft smiles?
"Movin' out already?"
Beth leaned casually against the doorframe, but Emily noticed the way her fingers worried the lace on her dress. "I am."
"Sick of us, huh?"
Emily straightened up, cinching her saddlebag tight. "Just time for me to move on."
"That's good. Good for you." Beth's smile was less than convincing. Emily hitched her saddlebags up onto her shoulder, pausing at the doorway, her body inches from Beth's. Beth reached up, fiddling with the buttons on Emily's shirt. "You gonna come back and visit me some time?"
"I've got a lot of work to do on my ranch."
"That ranch is gonna keep you that busy?"
"It just might," she answered, offering an apologetic but genuine smile. She took a breath and thought of JJ.
Beth slowly pulled her hand away. "Don't let them cattle give you too hard a time."
"I'll do my best."
Downstairs, Penelope excused herself from a group of gentleman newly arrived on the stage coach and met Emily at the bar. "Packed up?"
"Didn't have much." She pulled out her billfold, counted out more than enough money to cover her expenses, and handed it to Penelope who dutifully tucked it away in her cleavage.
"Gonna be sad to see you go. You brought an interesting color to this place." Her eyes drifted up to the staircase as Beth walked down, heading for the newly arrived customers even as her eyes stayed on Emily. "I'm not the only one who'll be sad to see you go."
"She's a sweet girl."
"Mm hmm. And she's sweet on you. Probably best you're moving on before she starts gettin' ideas."
"And what kind of ideas might those be?"
"That she's got half a chance with you."
"Who says she doesn't?"
Penelope just pursed her lips. "That's a nice shirt you've got on there new?" Prentiss glared. "See what I mean?"
"I " There was no good response to that so Emily just shut up. "Thank you for the accommodations, Miss Penelope."
The saloon mistress just grinned. "Miss Emily, it was a pleasure, to say the least."
Kevin waved from behind the bar. She tipped her hat to him as she walked out, calling back, "Don't give up Kevin. You'll make an honest woman of her yet."
Two weeks later
JJ lingered on the porch, watching the morning light glint off of Emily's dark locks of hair as the woman continued one sweeping motion after the next, chopping log after log with a practiced ease that made JJ yearn, although she couldn't say for what. They'd settled into a pattern of living that was surprisingly easy between them, divvying up chores and work, including, JJ thought with some amusement, keeping Henry occupied. What JJ hadn't expected, however, when she'd agreed to stay on as Emily's foreman was to feel like a partner and not an employee. The brunette was smart - very smart but she made a point to ask JJ's opinion about everything. Not just the cattle or moving the chicken coop to the far side of the yard, but details as small as purchasing new tools.
Tools they had put to good use building the new corral. It had taken days of back-breaking work, but they'd gotten it finished, and despite the town gossip, it hadn't fallen down yet.
Emily let the ax fall once more, splitting the wood into smaller kindling, then turned, wiping her face on a bandana. JJ's chest hitched as she took a breath. "Morning."
"I'm headed into town for church services. Afterwards, Hailey and I are working on quilts for this winter. Probably'll be gone most of the day. I can wait a bit if you'd like to go in with me."
"Thank you for the offer, but the Church and I aren't exactly on speaking terms."
JJ had noticed the hesitancy at the dinner table, something that had eased a bit as the days went by. She assumed it was from lack of practice, but it seemed Emily's reluctance went much deeper. "Is it because you're Catholic? I know we don't have the same rites, but I'm sure the pastor wouldn't mind."
"It's not about the rites." Although she appreciated JJ's openness. "You might've noticed, but I don't exactly like to follow other people's rules."
A quick grin; JJ matched it. "I had noticed that, yes."
An easy joke, a small, sarcastic tease. They'd been doing more of that lately now that they were comfortable around each other. It was driving Emily a little crazy. "You should get onto church. Don't want to be late for your minister."
"Do you need me to pick anything up for you while I'm in town? Post? Newspaper?"
Emily eased back into a smile, walking the few steps toward the porch to snag little Henry up before he could examine a mud puddle too closely in his Sunday best. "No, I'm all right. Probably going to head out to the south pasture and take a look at the fence line. I'll be back before dark."
JJ nodded and took Henry from Emily, smiling as well as the little boy continued to giggle while Emily made faces at him. "Have a good ride." Bundling Henry up into the wagon, JJ released the break and urged the old mule into a plodding trot, looking back just once to find that Emily was watching her drive away.
A long ride had been just what Emily needed to clear her mind. Hasiba had agreed obligingly when Emily had taken her down to the south pasture and given her horse free rein. Down into the small valley, across the pasture, the cattle merely looking up with mild disdain as horse and rider raced past, a shout of joy as Hasiba easily jumped a fallen tree and raced on.
It made her remember Algiers and racing across the desert; tumbling down the mountain side in the Alps on her grandfather's estate. She lowered her head to the mare's neck, the wind whipping her face, and tasted freedom. She couldn't remember how long she'd been out there, racing the wind, but eventually she slowed as they approached the stream that ran along the western border of the land.
Swinging out of the saddle, she led Hasiba to the stream and let her drink her fill while she practically dunked her head into the cool water. She pulled her hair back into a loose pony-tail, tossed another handful of water down her neck and back, and shook the excess off with a laugh. Plopping down onto the grass, she let Hasiba wander a bit, confident the horse wouldn't go too far as she started to lazily doze in the afternoon sun.
In the twilight world between dreams and awareness she drifted, letting the sunlight lull her, letting her mind wander. As it did whenever she had a free moment, it went to JJ. A smile, the echo of her laughter, the way she cared for her son. Emily had never felt that love in her own home, had never realized it had been missing, had never known she'd wanted it.
But God did she want it now.
Overhead a vulture screamed. Another answered.
She peeked an eye open and watched the birds circle something in the distance to the south where the woods met the pasture. Too many birds, she realized.
A chill went through her.
Hauling up to her feet she whistled for Hasiba and checked her guns as the horse trotted over. It didn't take much to follow the carrion calls of the scavengers and once inside the woods the smell took her the rest of the way.
Please just be a cow please just be a cow
It wasn't a cow.
She didn't even get off the horse from the condition of the body there was no point. Muttering a string of curses she turned Hasiba and charged back toward the ranch, and then, on toward town.
"So, things are going well then between you two?"
An innocent enough question, and yet it startled JJ such that her finger slipped and she jabbed the sewing needle into her thumb. She cursed, blushed, and immediately apologized for cursing. Hailey just gave her a curious look. "Yes, uh, things are going well."
"Hmmm. Well that's good."
Something in Hailey's tone made JJ stop shaking her injured finger to meet the other woman's amused gaze. "What?"
"You like her."
"She's my employer."
"But you like her," Hailey countered. "You make an odd pair, but it works."
"She's smart," JJ explained. "Her plans for the ranch are exactly what I've always wanted to do, I just never had the funds. It's hard not to like that."
"And it doesn't bother you? I heard some stories when she was staying in the saloon. Those guns aren't for show. Neither is her swagger."
Inexplicably, JJ blushed again. "I wouldn't know anything about her swagger."
Boots pounded up the back steps; someone pushed all polite-society aside and banged on the door. Hailey set the quilt aside and opened up the door a crack, widening it as she recognized Emily's grim face. "Miss Prentiss, is there something the matter?"
"Pardon the intrusion, but I need to speak to your husband."
"Aaron's downstairs doing paperwork. Why? What's happened?"
"Emily?" JJ's voice held all the uncertainty Emily felt in that moment, but the brunette made herself stand still, shoulders back, and deliver the news even as her stomach twisted.
"I found another body."
"I'll get Aaron," Hailey whispered, hurrying out to find her husband.
For long moments the two women just stared at each other in the silence of the store's apartment.
Boots pounded on the stairs; Hotch shoved open the door. "You found another body?"
"South pasture," Prentiss answered, far steadier than she felt. It wasn't seeing another dead body that was bothering her so much, as the fact there was another dead body. Another dead body on her property. "I rode out to check the fence line and the cattle. Saw some scavengers and went to check it out. It's another woman," Prentiss said softly, letting the implication hang.
Hotch didn't say anything for a moment. "All right. All right Hailey, will you keep the boys? I'll get Morgan and Mr. Rossi. Miss Prentiss, would you mind alerting Dr. Reid? We'll all ride out together."
"I'll go get the wagon," JJ offered, already moving, already needing, wanting to be useful. Emily followed her out.
Aaron waited until they were gone before going to far cabinet and pulling out his Remington revolver; he handed Hailey the shotgun. "I know you don't like guns-"
"No, it's okay." The slightest tremble in her voice was the only indication she was at all upset. "I remember how to use it."
"I should be back before dark." He strapped on his gun belt, hating the way the weapon fit so easily against his hip.
"Be careful." He nodded; the same nod he'd given her before walking out to join the Union all those years before. She grabbed his arm as he started to walk out, pulling him down into a lingering kiss. "Don't keep me waiting too long."
Aaron smiled, just the tiniest upturn of his lips, and then walked out.
Despite the gorgeous day, no one spoke as they rode to the south pasture. The cattle scattered as the group of riders crossed the field, JJ behind them in the wagon with Dr. Reid.
The body was just where Prentiss had said it was, just as she'd said it. This time, JJ didn't go near it.
Reid bent down, moving the woman's hair aside before sighing in recognition. "She was strangled."
"You think it was the same person?"
"Marks look the same. She was beaten pretty badly. I can't say for certain, but I'd guess she's been out here a few days at most."
"Anyone recognize her?"
Now, JJ did take a closer look, but kept her eyes on the woman's face as much as she could. Underneath the bruises and the cuts she could tell the woman had been beautiful in life. Sadly, she didn't recognize her and neither did anyone else.
"This guy is starting to really piss me off," Rossi grumbled.
"Bodies are piling up," Morgan said softly. "People are gonna get real uncomfortable, real fast."
Shared looks. They all knew who the obvious targets were when a town needed a scape goat.
"If no one recognizes her in town, maybe we should ride out. Up to the mining camp. Check out the towns along the railroad," Prentiss suggested. "Someone has to have seen her."
"We should check with all the stage coach drivers," JJ added. "That's the last place the other woman was seen, wasn't it?"
"Good thinking," Hotch nodded. "For now, I think you and Miss Prentiss should stay in town. We don't know what's going on here, and I don't feel comfortable leaving you ladies alone this far from town."
Only the severity of the moment and the earnestness of Hotch's words kept Emily from laughing outright. JJ gave her a warning look. "I appreciate the offer, but we'll be fine."
"-This is my land," Emily cut off, her voice edging toward a growl. "It took my thirty-five years to get here. I will not be scared off. Ever."
"I understand, but-"
It was like lightening; like that first day all over again. A flash of movement, a blur of motion. Two Peacemakers drawn, spun, cocked and pointed at Hotch in under a second. Just as quickly, Emily had them holstered again.
She did it once more to prove the point.
Rossi cleared his throat. "Well, it seems as if Miss Prentiss has the matter under control."
"I still don't like it," Hotch grumbled.
"You don't have to," Emily answered, meeting his stare measure for measure. She relented momentarily, glancing at JJ. "I'm only speaking for myself. If you want to stay in town-"
JJ didn't let her finish. "- I have a job to do."
"Then I guess that settles that."
None of the men seemed particularly pleased, but there was little an argument would accomplish. The body was loaded into the wagon. Upon their return to town, Dr. Reid made a sketch of the victim once more. Sadly, Miss Penelope had no information this time. Neither did anyone else.
Despite Hailey's best attempt at Aaron's urging JJ packed Henry into the wagon with her, the mule plodding side by side with Emily's Arabian as the two women went home.
Henry went to bed with minimal fuss a full day of playing with Jack and trying to keep up with the older boy tiring him out completely. JJ pulled the sheet she used as a curtain around his bed, giving she and Emily the illusion of privacy as they sat down across from each other at the kitchen table.
JJ poured them both a cool cup of water. Summer was stretching on, the nights growing shorter, the days longer, and the heat oppressive even once the sun had gone down. "I'm not particularly happy with how Hotch went about it, but he's not wrong. There's a certain amount of danger for two women, living alone, miles from town." She couldn't help but grin, and add, "Even if you are a fancy gunsmith."
Emily smiled softly. "Most of that was for show."
"Not all of it, though." She took a sip of water. "I always hit what I'm aiming for."
"I wouldn't expect anything less." Emily smirked. JJ felt her chest hitch, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end despite the heat. She gulped the rest of her water. "Even so I think it would be best if you weren't out in that shed alone."
"I'm not leaving you out here every night to sleep at the saloon-"
"-Of course not," JJ countered, "My bed sleeps two." She blushed softly. "I mean, if you want there's no where really else to sleep except the floor. And that just seems silly."
Silly right just like the way Emily's pulse danced under her skin felt completely silly at the mere idea of JJ's bed. But there was no graceful way to turn down the offer without offense of some kind. "It wouldn't be too much of an imposition?"
"None at all."
"I'll, uh, just get my things."
"I'm, uh, gonna get changed for bed."
Did she run from the cabin? Emily thought she'd walked at her usual pace, but the way her heart thundered in her chest she might as well have been running up the side of a mountain. Inside her cozy little shed she stripped off her clothes and washed up with the small basin of soap and water she kept on the table.
The night gown came to her knees, the long sleeves rolled up in deference to the heat. She tied her hair up into a loose knot and shoved her feet into a well-worn pair of moccasins she'd bought from a Cheyenne Indian months before. Her trunks had come the week before, bringing a few more items of clothes, but most importantly, her books. She'd been working her way through Great Expectations again, despite having read it several times. She grabbed it now, pulled her robe around her, her gun belt slung over one shoulder, and headed back for the cabin.
JJ was already in bed when Emily knocked; a softly-called "come in" had her opening the door even as nerves danced through her stomach for reasons she wouldn't admit. Emily made a point of bolting the door firmly when she shut it - checking it twice to make sure.
The oil lamps burned on each side of the bed. JJ leaned back against her pillows on the left side of the bed, a pair of Henry's pants laid out in front of her as she started to stitch up a rather large tear in the knee. Emily crossed to the other side and slung her gun belt up over the bedpost, keeping the pistols within immediate reach. She purposefully kept her eyes off of JJ and the smooth expanse of her bare arms. Her robe tucked at the end of the bed, she climbed under the covers, settling in far-too easily beside the other woman.
Just read your damn book, she told herself once. And again.
She opened the pages and might as well have been staring at Sanskrit for all the sense they made.
"You make a habit of reading books upside down?"
The burning heat of a blush crept across Emily's face. "Guess I'm distracted... from, uh... everything."
"Hmm, I know." No, Emily thought. You really have no idea... "You're a fan of Mr. Dickens I see," JJ smiled when Emily finally righted the book.
"I am. Have you read his work?"
"Mr. Rossi was kind enough to lend me his copy of Oliver Twist so that I could read it to the children at school. I've never read Great Expectations, though. He's a wonderful author."
"You can borrow it, if you'd like. I've read it before."
"Oh, no - I couldn't."
"No, no, I insist-"
Emily had already closed the book and was on her way to pressing it into JJ's hands when the other woman smiled, unexpectedly, a gleam in her eye. "You could read it aloud. That way, we can both enjoy it."
Emily tried desperately for a reason to say no and couldn't find one. "I... I could do that." She flipped the pages back to the beginning of the book as JJ settled back against the pillows, still stitching Henry's pants. She cleared her throat, suddenly nervous, and let her tongue dart out to moisten dry lips before she began. "'My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip...'"
And so it went, for more than an hour Emily read, eventually losing her nerves and letting the words flow freely as she read Dickens' words. At times, she found herself slipping into an easy accent gleaned from years living among the British, patriot and ex-patriot alike.
She paused to turn the page and stopped altogether when a soft snore disturbed the silence. Glancing over, she found JJ fast asleep, Henry's pants having been exchanged for knitting needles and the beginnings of a tightly woven blanket.
The smile that tugged at Emily's lips was unabashedly foolish. Ridiculously sentimental. Still, she couldn't fight it, and found easily enough she didn't want to. It felt right, being here with JJ like this, listening to the soft whiffles of sound from Henry's bed as he slumbered, watching his mother mirror his repose.
She wanted to curl against her, to bury her face against JJ's neck and inhale the sweet smell of lilac and lavender that lingered everywhere the woman went. She wanted to close her eyes and forget everything that had come before; she wanted to start the day owning her land, a woman of her own making, with a lover of her choosing who wanted her back.
And that was what stopped her.
She might want JJ, but she had no idea what the other woman wanted, and to ask... No. She couldn't risk it. Wouldn't risk it. She'd finally found a place to settle, a place to put down roots where she felt accepted, as much as she ever felt like she could be accepted. So, no, she wouldn't ask. She wouldn't say anything.
She would run her ranch, and tend her cattle, and defend her land from whoever dared to try and desecrate it.
It would be enough. It had to be enough. After all, it was all she had.
The kettle started to whistle shrilly, something JJ barely noticed as she went about beating the rugs on the back porch, clearing them of a week's worth of dust and dirt. In truth, she'd given the rug more than a needed thwacking simply to have something on which to focus her energies instead of letting her mind wander to places she knew it absolutely couldn't go.
Like remembering the way she'd woken up that morning, warm, content, and safe - her arm tucked over Emily's hip, spooned up behind the brunette. It was a small miracle JJ had woken up first and managed to extract herself from Emily's side while the other woman slept on, but she'd paid a price, and hadn't been able to stop thinking about it all day since.
It was only a few moments, nothing more, but JJ hadn't felt that... content in longer than she cared to remember. Certainly not since Will died, and maybe, not even before then. But there was something about Emily Prentiss that made JJ feel protected; not that she needed protecting, but that for once, someone was actually looking out for her. She wasn't in the middle of a hard-scramble life any more. Things were looking up.
And she was about to ruin it by literally cuddling up to her boss.
Whether or not Emily was the type of woman who wouldn't mind a good cuddle from another woman was an entirely different matter, although town gossip implied she was just that type of woman. No, what mattered was that it was completely inappropriate, and JJ simply wouldn't let... whatever was going on inside her interfere with a good, working business relationship.
The kettle continued to whistle. She got in one last good swat at the rug and hurried inside to move it off the stove. Her tea had just had a chance to steep when Emily's familiar voice called to her outside. She poured herself a cup, and a cool cup of water for her boss, and went out to the front porch.
Emily tipped her hat back, gratefully accepting the water and guzzling half of it down. "Henry down for a nap?"
"Just woke up actually. He's playing inside with his train."
"Think he'll keep for a few minutes?"
"Long as I don't go too far from the house."
"Just around the side of the barn," Prentiss assured.
JJ checked on Henry again, content to find him happily building block cities and then driving his train through the middle of them only to rebuild once more. She assured him she'd be right back and then headed across the yard to the barn, finding Emily already waiting. Several yards out, she'd set up various pieces of scrap on top of crates at varying heights.
"If you're bored, or somethin', there's plenty of things I can think of for you to do," JJ smirked.
"Very funny," the brunette responded dryly. In one swift move she pulled her left-side Peacemaker, spun it fluidly, and handed it over to JJ. "I'd like to see you shoot."
"You're kidding right?"
"I should've asked when I hired you. Honestly, it didn't occur to me, but with everything that's happened, I figured I should check."
"I can shoot," JJ assured her.
Prentiss eyed the gun in JJ's hand. "Show me."
JJ gave her a look, but Emily's determined gaze didn't waver. Reluctantly, JJ raised the pistol, took sight of the first piece of scrap wood on the left and fired off a shot.
The wood splintered into the air; a solid, perfect shot.
"Told you I can shoot."
"Do it again," Emily ordered, adding softly, "please."
Rolling her eyes, JJ took aim at the next piece - a broken canning jar, and fired. The resulting shards of flying glass sparkled in the sunlight before landing on the ground with soft tinkles of sound.
"You've got a good eye. You could use some work on your grip though." Emily stepped in behind JJ, her hand reaching out to cover the other woman's, gently correcting the placement of the pistol against JJ's palm. A soft inhale was the only betrayal JJ allowed herself, nerves fluttering inside her stomach inexplicably, and that warm, safe feeling from that morning once more returned, enveloping her. "You feel the difference," Emily asked.
"It feels..." She swallowed once, settling herself. "I feel the difference."
"Good. Now try squeezing the trigger a bit more, less of a snap. It'll help with the recoil."
With Emily's hand covering her own, JJ squeezed the trigger slowly; the recoil of power travelling up her arm was nothing compared to the pounding of her heart.
The broken china plate exploded into a hundred tiny pieces as the bullet struck dead center.
Emily stepped back, smiling brightly. "You're a quick study. Not that there was much you needed to be taught, mind you."
"My daddy said it was important I learn when I was a girl. Never know when you might come up on a four-legged beast."
"Or a two-legged one," Emily muttered. "I saw you have a rifle in the corner. Maybe we should think about getting you a pistol too."
"Another 'business' expense?" JJ inquired, her tone deceptively mild.
"A rifle will get you one shot, maybe two or three if you can reload fast enough. Pistol gets you six good shots. I like those odds a lot better."
"I can buy my own gun."
"Today?" Reluctantly, JJ shook her head. "We'll go into town, see what Hotch has in the store. I'll advance you the money for the pistol, and I'll take a bit out of your wages until it's paid off. Sound good?"
"It means that much to you?"
Something dark swept over Emily's eyes. "I've found two dead women on my land. I'm in no mood to find a third."
JJ found herself agreeing. "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"What can you do with those pistols," JJ asked, easing the moment with a smile.
Emily eyed the remaining bits of scarp she'd set up on the yard crates: a tin can, a broken tonic bottle, a piece of mirror no bigger than her palm. In the space of a breath she drew and fired, shattering the mirror and tonic bottle in rapid succession before putting a bullet into the tin can. When it popped into the air, she sent another bullet through it, and a third before it hit the ground. JJ walked over, nudging the bullet-riddled can to count the holes. "Where in the world did you learn to shoot like that?"
Prentiss grinned, quick and broad. "Finishing school."
Summer was in full-swing and though the memory of two dead women lingered over the town of Mission Springs, it was soon in the background as the season's chores took precedence.
The new corral and pens had been built, and at JJ's suggestion, the chicken coop had been expanded. Emily had also taken the time to inspect the roof on the homestead and make what repairs were needed. She was new to Wyoming, but she wasn't new to the hazards of winter. An ounce of planning and prevention here would save them a pound of heartbreak during a bad storm in December.
A full three weeks had passed since the discovery of the second woman's body, and still Emily slept in the homestead with JJ even though she'd made more than a few repairs to her own small room. It was comfortable, and easy, and neither seemed to mind the company, which surprised Emily all the more as she'd never been one to eschew a solitary night. They'd worked their way through Great Expectations and had moved onto A Tale of Two Cities. This time, JJ had been the one to read aloud.
And now, it was Saturday, time enough to put the weekly chores away and run the pile of errands in town that had accumulated during the week. Henry sat on JJ's lap as they drove into town, Emily at the reins of the wagon.
She parked at the livery and helped JJ down, giving Henry an affectionate toss in the air before handing the giggling boy to his mother. "You go on to the store, I want to talk to Morgan for a bit."
"I'll meet you over there. Tell Derek I said hi."
Hand in hand, JJ and Henry crossed the street, waving to those they knew as they walked towards the general store. The door opened, just as JJ reached for it, bringing her face to face with Mrs. Strauss.
They'd seen each other on the street of course, and at church. Mrs. Strauss was a regular attendee, even if her husband wasn't. Still, they hadn't spoken since that fateful day when Strauss' hired goons had tried to forcibly evict JJ from her home and Emily had stopped them.
JJ wanted to sneer at the older woman; instead she smiled, all sugar and honey. "Good morning, Mrs. Strauss."
"Good morning, Mrs. Lamontagne. Fine weather we're having, isn't it?"
"Pretty as a picture."
"How's the ranch?"
"Coming along splendidly."
"And your new employer?"
There was something in Mrs. Strauss' tone that had JJ's hackles rising even if she couldn't put a name to what it was. "I couldn't be happier."
"Hmmm. I'll bet." Strauss plastered on another smile. "Good day to you."
"And you," JJ offered, stepping aside to let her pass. Inside the store she found Hotch pulling stock and Hailey helping Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Wentworth with swaths of fabric, so she settled her basket on her arm and went about her shopping. When the two other ladies finally paid for their wares and left, JJ headed for the counter. "Busy today?"
"Oh, you know how the weekends are," Hailey smiled. "How are you? I saw you ran into Mrs. Strauss."
"As always, she's a ray of sunshine."
Hailey laughed. "Good for you. I'm glad you're not taking any of her gossip to heart."
"Gossip? What gossip?"
Hailey's face paled, her smile fading. "I thought you knew..."
"Knew what, Hailey? What is it?"
"Mrs. Strauss... apparently she wrote to some society friends of hers in New York and Washington D.C. Her letters inquired about Miss Prentiss. The responses, apparently, were rather unfavorable."
"What did they say?"
Hailey glanced at Henry meaningfully; whatever needed to be related wasn't appropriate for young ears. "Henry, why don't you go play with Jack? He's in Mr. Hotchner's office there." Off like a shot, Henry didn't waste time being asked twice before racing to play with his friend. Hailey pulled JJ to the back corner of the store, behind the barrels of dried beans.
"All right, now you're worrying me," JJ laughed nervously. "What in the world is Mrs. Strauss saying?"
"Your Miss Prentiss has quite a past," Hailey began, "if Mrs. Strauss is to be believed. You know Miss Prentiss' parents are diplomats? They spent all that time in Europe, travelling, and taking her with them at first. Trying to marry her off to an eligible young man, but that never worked out. So they let her continue her schooling including among some of the more liberal universities, but they could never get her to settle down, and despite many suitors, she refused to marry. The reason, apparently, became clear enough when her father was assigned to French Algiers."
"What happened in French Algiers?"
"A scandal," Hailey whispered. "Mrs. Strauss was light on the details, but apparently it involved Miss Prentiss and the regional sultan's wife."
It was confirmation of no more than what JJ had suspected. Hasiba, JJ remembered. A lover's gift. "What happened?"
"Her parents disowned her. Not formally of course, it would have caused even more of a scandal, but she was completely cut off from all financial support. She hasn't spoken to them in years. Apparently, all the money she's been investing into the ranch is an inheritance from her grandfather."
"That's terrible... for her family to just..." JJ thought of Henry and tried to imagine a situation in which she would ever willingly cut him from her life. Nothing came to mind. "It's terrible."
"And now, well, Mrs. Strauss has been making other insinuations. About you." JJ snorted. "It's not funny," Hailey reprimanded. "That woman's word carries a lot of weight in this town. People are starting to talk."
"About me? And Emily?"
"About two women living alone, on a ranch, doing men's work."
"Hailey you don't really believe-"
"-JJ, I don't care one way or the other," Hailey assured. "I only care about you getting hurt by town gossip. You've been through enough. You don't need that woman's baggage hanging on you too."
"She's been nothing but kind to me when she didn't have to be. I'm not going to abandon her so easily just because of some town gossip started by Erin Strauss."
Hailey nodded, appreciating JJ's loyalty. Still, she couldn't help but worry for her friend. Men fought with money and fists, but women women were skilled in the deadly art of gossip and the wounds that were left by a well-placed rumor could haunt someone forever. She prayed Erin Strauss had enough sense to leave well enough alone.
Across town, Morgan and Prentiss were having a similar conversation.
"So, Mrs. Strauss thinks she knows all about me, huh?"
"Way I heard tell from Miss Penelope, she's been tellin' anyone in earshot what a scandalous woman you are."
Emily snorted. "If she knew half the things I've done, the word 'scandalous' would be a compliment from her." Morgan merely raised an eyebrow in question. "Those are stories for a much different time, my friend. With a lot more whiskey. I appreciate you keeping me informed."
"Sure thing, Miss Emily." With a decisive nod, Emily said goodbye and headed for the general store. Morgan watched her go, whistling to himself. "There is a whole 'nother side to that woman."
Halfway to the store, Emily heard a familiar voice call her name. She turned and smiled at Beth, changing direction easily enough to amble toward the saloon where the young woman was busy lounging outside, fanning herself in the shade.
"Hey, stranger. You weren't kidding about that ranch keeping you awful busy."
"I don't kid about hard work," Emily answered with an easy grin. "How's work been treating you?"
"Not nearly as well as it did when you were here."
The faintest blush crept up Emily's cheeks. "That's not saying very much."
Beth reached up, brushing at invisible dirt on Emily's shoulder. "Oh, it's saying plenty sugar. When you gonna come back and visit me, huh?"
Emily took a careful step backward. "Can't really say. You just try and keep yourself out of trouble, all right?"
A brave smile. Emily wished she wasn't the cause of the pain she saw beneath it. "I'll do my best, but only because you asked so nicely."
Another goodbye and Prentiss was walking back toward the store, more than a few pairs of eyes following her as she went. She looked over, meeting Mrs. Strauss penetrating gaze with one of her own, neither of them giving an inch across the long expanse of street.
Until, of course, Emily grinned, even white teeth pulled back in a predatory snarl, and winked.
Strauss turned like a skittish colt and hurried down the street.
"Enjoying yourself," JJ asked dryly.
Her hands were full of rambunctious boy and groceries. Emily did the heavy lifting and grabbed a squirming Henry out of her arms before settling him on her hip. Her smile was wholly unrepentant. "Just having a bit of fun."
The reprimand drew an uncharacteristic laugh from the brunette. "My mother used to say that. I always did love testing her patience."
The comment was far more light-hearted than JJ would have imagined considering the stories she'd just heard about Emily's parents. Together they walked to the wagon, loading up the groceries. "Is there any use in denying the stories she's spreading," JJ asked as Emily helped her up onto the bench seat.
"I've found there's never any use in denying gossip. If strangers want to believe lies, I can't stop them. I just hope my friends have the guts to ask me."
"All right then," JJ said as Emily climbed onto the seat beside her, unlocking the brake before urging the mule into motion. "I just want to know one thing." Emily looked at her side-long, eyebrow raised expectantly. "Did you really bed a sultan's wife?"
Emily ducked her head ruefully. "Of course not." She flicked the reins, prompting the mule into a steady trot. "It wasn't the sultan's wife it was his daughter."
And so it went.
A solid week was spent clearing nearly a quarter of an acre on the north side of the homestead and fencing it off - more than enough land for JJ to plant herbs and vegetables. Emily already had plans for an orchard if the land proved fertile enough.
It was good, hard work, and both of them were grateful for it. And if the gossip in town continued, spurred on by Mrs. Strauss' none-too-subtle insinuations, well, neither of them cared enough to address it.
JJ had always wanted a home, a ranch, but more than that, she'd wanted a purpose. She'd thought she'd found that with Will, working side by side to create a life for themselves, their family. But as she worked with Emily, she discovered it wasn't just about her family any more. She was doing this for herself. Making a mark that no one could take away.
Emily had been alone for so long, she'd forgotten what it was like to share her life with someone. As a child, her parents had been distant, not that she'd expected or understood any other way. Only her grandfather had been openly affectionate, gregarious and lively with her - she'd always assumed it was because he was French. But watching the easy, loving way JJ interacted with her son, Emily began to understand that there was more to most families than quiet disappointment and resentment. And though she'd had lovers, more than a few, she'd never felt as intimate with any of them as she did when JJ simply brought her a second cup of coffee, or handed her a freshly laundered shirt.
Together, they were filling in the cracks in each other's lives, cracks neither of them had every realized were there, or bothered to care about before.
JJ hung the last of the laundry on the line and picked up the empty basket, intent on heading back into the homestead when a ruckus out front drew her attention. She came around the corner just in time to see Emily and Morgan riding herd with twenty head of cattle between them as they drove them into the newly created corral.
"What in the world..."
"Heya! Get on there! Heya!"
JJ's confused utterance was lost in Morgan and Prentiss' shouts as they drove the cattle between them. She waited, staring dumbfounded until the last head was coaxed into the corral and the gate shut behind them.
With a grin as broad as the Wyoming sky, Emily dismounted and slapped Morgan heartily on the back, both of them laughing and joking as they headed up for the homestead.
"Would someone like to tell me what's going on," JJ asked mildly, unable to fight the smile that Emily's pure joy was eliciting.
"Ol' man Wilkes died," Morgan answered.
"And we're celebrating that because ?"
"-Because I just bought his herd for half-price," Emily answered triumphantly. "Sheep and chickens too, although there's fewer of those. Morgan and I are going back out for them this afternoon. I'll need you too, if you think you can get Hailey to watch Henry for you?"
"Sheep... and chickens? More chickens?"
"Don't forget that plow and wagon, too," Morgan added, his grin nearly as broad as Emily's. "Here, I'm gonna go water the horses down. We don't want to run too short on time."
"More chickens," JJ muttered, dazed by the news. Their herd had nearly doubled in a morning. And now between the chickens and the sheep... They could sell eggs as a side business in town... And the wool...
Emily saw the look on JJ's face and recognized the moment everything finally sank in. "It's all coming together, JJ. It's all right here for us. Right within our grasp. It's finally happening." She grinned again, wild and unrestrained, and without warning swooped in, pulling JJ into a bone-crushing hug before spinning her around with gleeful laughter.
The world spun, but that wasn't what pulled JJ off-center. No, that was the look in Emily's eyes. The genuine happiness, the sense of purpose, and as always, that frisson of electricity like lightening that sizzled between them whenever they got too close. It made JJ dizzy. Made her want to close those few inches between them and fit her mouth to Emily's. To taste her smile, to watch those brown eyes melt with warmth and desire and need.
And for a moment that stretched between them, JJ was absolutely certain Emily wanted it too.
"Mama! Cows! Cows!"
JJ broke away from Emily, cheeks blushing bright red as she intercepted Henry trying to run for the corral. "Hold on there, mister. I'll take you to see the cows..." She chanced a backwards glance at Emily to find the brunette hadn't moved an inch. The mile-wide grin was gone now, and in its place, a bemused quirk of lips that JJ couldn't read.
Henry tugged on her sleeve, pulling her gaze away. "Can we name them?"
"Sure thing... let's call that one there 'dinner' okay?"
Ol' man Wilkes, as the town of Mission Springs had referred to him, had died not a moment too soon for his young bride - a girl of twenty-five who'd chosen the security of a man over the love of a local boy. Wilkes having no other relatives, upon his death all property had passed to Mrs. Wilkes, who wasted no time in putting it all up for auction. Even with Emily purchasing the various stock and poultry for nearly half-price, Mrs. Wilkes still tucked away a tidy sum, a portion of which went for the first stage coach ticket to San Francisco.
It had been a very long day, between the two separate trips out to the Wilkes' ranch, plus a side trip to help Morgan deliver the horses and mules he'd bought himself for little more than a steal. Emily and JJ had been pleased to find out that the profit he'd make from re-selling the horses would be more than enough to pay off the loan on the livery. For the first time in his life Morgan would be a land-owner and master of his own destiny.
When they all finally made it back to town, long past dusk, Henry and Jack were fast asleep and Hotch and Hailey were waiting with discreetly poured cups of whiskey. The celebration was quiet, but no less enthusiastic, and hours later JJ finally retrieved Henry from Hailey and Hotch's bed. He woke up, immediately asking for Emily.
Aaron gave the brunette a significant look as she took Henry from JJ, mumbling soothing words before he started to fall back asleep against her shoulder. She met his stare evenly, a quiet assessment passing between them before Hotch finally looked away, satisfied.
JJ climbed onto her horse and reached for Henry but even in sleep the boy clung to Emily's neck. Shrugging good-naturedly, Emily merely shifted Henry onto her hip, letting Hotch give her an extra boost as she hauled into the saddle.
Hasiba shifted and snorted once at the extra weight just to let Emily know she was paying attention but that was the extent of her displeasure as they trotted off toward the ranch. With a full moon there was no need for a lantern, not that Hasiba needed one after almost two months of travelling back and forth to town. When they finally made it to the ranch, Henry relented just enough to let JJ take him while Emily took the horses to the barn to brush down and feed. He was sleeping soundly by the time Emily came back into the homestead, rubbing at over-worked back muscles.
"Keeping those hoofed-beasts in line was more work than I expected," she joked mildly, accepting a glass of water from JJ. "But it was so worth it."
"They'll need new brands," JJ reminded. "And we should keep them separate from the main herd for a few days to make sure none of them are sick."
"Hmm... right," Emily answered distractedly, still rubbing at her lower back as she tried to stretch it out.
"It bothering you that much?"
"Oh, it's not bad... nothing a hot bath wouldn't fix. Remind me of that next spring when we start adding onto the homestead. I want an honest to god bathtub."
"I'll heat some water and get you some liniment. That'll have to do for tonight," JJ teased even as her mind tried to reconcile that Emily was making plans...
Long term plans...
About where they lived...
"Water's starting to boil."
"Oh, right. Sorry..." She poured the steaming water into a bowl and soaked the rags, adding liniment to the mixture. She started to hand it to Emily only to watch the brunette wince as she reached for the compress. "Here, let me."
"No, you don't have to-"
"-Em, just let me help you. Lift your shirt."
Given the way her back hurt it was silly to argue, especially when JJ was simply showing her a kindness. She unbuttoned her shirt, slid it off her shoulders, and eased up the camisole she wore underneath. Breath hissed between her teeth as JJ pressed the compress to her stiff muscles.
"Looks like you have a bruise and some scratches too."
"Oh, right, one of the damn cows knocked me into the fence. Forgot about that."
"I have a salve Spence gave me. Henry's always falling down. Hold on, let me get it." Sitting at the kitchen table, slumped over with the compress, Emily had little choice but to wait as JJ rifled through her bedside table and finally came back with a tin.
Emily cringed at the first whiff. "Ugh, that's terrible." She could smell menthol and camphor and something else that made her eyes water.
"Yeah, but it works," JJ said, scooping a dollop out with her fingers before gently rubbing it into Emily's abused back. She felt Emily tremble under her fingers, a quiet shiver, and eased her touch. "Am I rubbing too hard?"
"Uh, no... no it's fine..." Emily sucked in another breath, trying to think of anything but JJ's hands on her skin, the heat emanating out across her body.
JJ rubbed harder, working the salve in deeper, her hands roaming more freely across the expanse of Emily's back. And the more she touched, the more she wanted to touch.
The more she wanted to be touched. God, how she wanted to be touched
Panicking in the face of her own need, she pulled her hands away. "Um, that's... that's all I can do. You can put your shirt back on."
JJ brushed past Emily, and felt herself caught, trapped, as Emily grabbed her hand, standing up so that they were face to face. "JJ..."
"Emily... I... I..."
"Shh." A step closer. Both eyes open and wide with anticipation. "Tell me now if you want me to stop," Emily whispered roughly.
JJ tried to force out the words, her mind panicking even as her body responded, but all she could get out was "I want you..."
And that was all Emily heard as she closed that last bit of distance between them and fit her mouth firmly over JJ's. No pressure, no demands, just the sweet, clear kiss that laid all her intentions out. It was JJ who stepped closer, JJ who slid her arms around Emily's waist, and JJ who took the kiss deeper, until they were both panting with need.
And, sadly, JJ who broke it off first.
She stepped back, hand raised to her mouth in disbelief even as her lips still tingled, confirmation of what she'd just done. "I... I shouldn't have done that."
"I wasn't complaining."
"You're my boss."
Emily ran a hand through her hair raggedly. "That's what you're worried about?"
"Henry and I are just getting settled. Just getting back on our feet. I can't afford to fall out of favor with you and lose this job. Lose our home."
"I would never - JJ, you don't think I'm pressuring you, do you? This... us... it has nothing to do with the ranch."
"No, I know... I just... I'm confused. I don't know what these feelings are and I... Emily, I just don't know."
There was room there, Emily knew. Room for sweet words and plenty of coaxing. She could still see the flush on JJ's face, the swift rise and fall of her chest. There was room; if she wanted her, it wouldn't take much to convince her, but Emily knew she'd never be able to face herself in the morning. And in the clear light of day, JJ would never forgive her.
It took more will power than she knew she possessed, but Emily stepped back. She pulled on her shirt, squared her shoulders. "I'm gonna sleep out in my room tonight."
"You don't have to."
Emily fixed her eyes on JJ, letting down the barriers she normally kept so firmly in place, letting her see the want, the need, the longing simmering just beneath the surface. Feelings she'd been fighting since that first day she'd rode into town. "Yes, JJ, I do."
She walked out quietly. JJ bolted the door behind her and then simply slid to the floor and let herself cry.
Emily Prentiss was in a piss-poor mood and it was evident to anyone with half a brain and an ounce of self-preservation.
She'd bought a bottle of whiskey from Kevin and relegated herself to a table in the corner of the saloon. David Rossi had gone over to invite her to join the poker game but she'd only glared and sent him away. Beth had tried to cajole her upstairs; Prentiss had wanted nothing to do with her and Beth had gone off in search of other patrons, nearly in tears.
And that had been the final straw for Miss Penelope.
She walked over to the table, sipping her gin and ignoring Emily's warning snarl. "She must be one hell of a woman."
Prentiss' glare grew darker. "Who said anything about a woman?"
"Honey, when you've worked saloons as long as I have you learn a thing or two about human behavior. Let me tell you there's only one kind of trouble that causes this level of drinking, and it's woman trouble."
"I'm a fool."
"Could be or could be she's the fool. Can't say one way or another unless I hear the story."
Penelope slid into the chair across from her, heavy skirts rustling. Emily ground her teeth, took another shot of whiskey, and told her what had happened. When the tale was complete and a good portion of whiskey shared by them both Penelope merely sat back and fanned herself in the stuffy heat of a humid summer night.
"She's no fool but she is scared. Can't say as I blame her with the rumors that Strauss woman has been spreading about." Emily's eyebrows shot up. "Oh, yes, I've heard all those stories. We may not run in the same knitting circles, but I know all the best gossip." She took a breath and kept fanning herself. "You're no fool either."
"She won't talk to me," Emily hissed miserably, her words slurring. "Three days and she barely can look at me! I just want things to go back to the way they were before "
"Even if they did, you'd just end up here again. I've seen you two together, remember? It's like those river currents on the surface everything looks pleasant and calm, but underneath," she whistled, "those currents are powerful strong. They can carry you away and drown you in the blink of an eye. And I think Miss JJ realized that. I think she dipped her toes into the river and realized one more step was gonna carry her away completely."
"You make it sound terrible."
"It is," Penelope answered, no trace of irony in her voice. Unbidden, her eyes tracked the bar until they landed on Kevin, a faint smile on her lips as she watched him work. "It's a terrible thing knowing you love someone. Knowing they hold a power over you. Even if you know by all the gods and saints that you want to name that they'd never hurt you on purpose, there's still that possibility. And when you love deeply enough, the hurt runs just as deep. That's a terrible, frightening thing. Especially for someone whose never felt it before."
"She was married."
"Don't mean nothin'," the saloon mistress clucked, waving her hand out expansively. "You think my business would run half as well if being married meant you loved your spouse? I know you're not that naïve." Emily wasn't. But she'd also never pegged JJ for the type who married solely for security and status. "I think she loved him in her own way," Penelope continued, as if reading her thoughts. "He was a sweet boy from all accounts and a good, hardworking husband. But there's love and then there's love, and I think JJ just figured out the difference."
"So what do I do?"
"For tonight, you stay here. You're too drunk to ride back to the ranch. Like as kill yourself falling off your horse and I am in no mood for that. And tomorrow "
"You want things to go back to the way they were, then you start acting like nothing's changed. See how she reacts to that."
"You could do this full-time, you know? Just sit in a bar and let people tell you their troubles and give them advice. You'd make a killing."
Penelope scoffed. "Can you imagine any such thing? Getting paid to sit and listen to people's problems and then telling them how to fix them. Oh, yeah, I could make a fine career out of that."
Together, they laughed hysterically and poured another drink.
Three days of Emily's ice-cold politeness had taken their toll on JJ's patience. Never had she known a human being was capable of such perfectly controlled manners. JJ wondered how many hours Emily had spent as a child having etiquette and protocol drilled into her by various tutors such that even a simple dinner conversation could become an exercise in exacting, calculating civility. By the third night dinner had become unbearable. Gone were the easy conversations about ranch plans and travelling and exotic foods, replaced instead by rehashed conversations about weather and almanac predictions. JJ had just about had enough when Emily had abruptly excused herself from the dinner table and walked out. Minutes later she heard Hasiba's annoyed whinny before the horse took off out of the barn, Emily urging her on as if the hounds of hell were on their tails.
And now, as dawn rose on day four, JJ trudged out to the barn to start her morning chore routine to find that Hasiba wasn't in her stall. She knocked once on Emily's door and then shoved it open, panic snaking its way up her spine as she found the bed made and no sign of the brunette anywhere.
"Probably spent the night at the saloon," JJ muttered to herself, yanking the door closed with more force than necessary. Or, she realized, she could be lying in a ditch somewhere. Hurt. Dead. The panic turned into a clutch of fear. What if the same man who'd murdered those women had gone after Emily?
She bolted for the house, making it as far as the porch before the sound of a disagreeable horse echoed up the lane.
Relief morphed into fury in the blink of an eye.
Employee or not, JJ wheeled around, fixing Emily with a vicious glare that would have had anyone else running for the hills. "What in the name of all that is holy do you think you're doing? Running off like that! Not coming home! You scared me half to death this morning when I saw Hasiba was gone. I thought you were dead, or in a ditch, or that murderer had gotten at you. Of all the stupid, foolish, idiotic..." She trailed off, finally looking at Emily and seeing her. Seeing the dark circles and the miserable grimace of a night spent hating herself. The brunette slid off the horse, all her usual grace absent as her foot caught in the stirrup. "You look like hell."
A cold bucket of water hadn't cleared the cobwebs the whiskey had left but it had cooled Emily's anger. Sheepishly, she ducked her head. "Sorry I frightened you."
"That was an incredibly stupid thing to do."
"So you've said."
"This isn't funny!"
"No," Emily agreed, finally looking up to meet JJ's eyes, "I don't think it's funny either." She saw then, beneath the anger, beneath the worry, what incited JJ's temper. And she saw the moment JJ realized what was beneath it as well.
"Okay, then," JJ said unsteadily. "Just so it doesn't happen again."
"Now, you're mocking me," the blonde huffed, but a smile played at her lips.
"Just a bit," Prentiss teased.
"This mean you're talking to me again? Not just at me?"
"I guess so."
"Fine." JJ nodded as if that settled the matter; Emily knew better, but she let it go. For the moment. "Those sheep need to have their hooves trimmed. And we need to see about finding some rams. It's gonna be breeding time soon."
"It's only the first of July," Emily retorted. "We've got time."
"There may only be a few good breeding rams nearby. A month's time'll go by fast enough."
"I told Hotch and Hailey we'd help out with the town's Fourth of July party. You're manning the punch bowl."
"I'm not wearing a dress."
"Did I say you had to?" JJ paused, adding, "Do you even have a dress?" Emily smirked. "Never mind."
"Sounds like we've got a lot to do."
"I'm ready when you are," JJ challenged.
No, Emily thought. You're not... not yet... but you will be. And I'll wait for you. "Let's go."
Return to Criminal Minds Fiction
Return to Main Page