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
Emily had lived abroad for so many years she'd forgotten how much Independence Day meant to most Americans. It was a running joke among her British friends that they were just waiting for the "Great Experiment" to fail and her majesty's subjects to come running back to the crown. She'd never cared one way or another - privilege giving her a certain level of freedom no matter which country she'd resided in. Her experience with war had primarily been as a political observer, watching the carnage governments could exact for reasons no more substantial than signatures on aged treaty parchment. And what she'd known of war personally... that had been carnage wreaked by her own hand and the ever-present moniker of "duty" and "family responsibility." Politics, in all forms, had stripped from her any sentimentality about her homeland, any patriotism. At least that's what she'd always believed until she'd watched Hotch proudly lead a parade of veterans through the town square, some of them even having pulled on the old uniforms. Heroes of a war fought not for land, but ideals. Not for gain of a few, but the prosperity of many. And though he'd stood in the back, Morgan had stood amongst them, and received the applause of the crowd all the same. Emily had cheered along with the rest, blinking away tears.
True to her word, JJ had made Emily stand sentinel over the punch bowl at the picnic, dolling out cups of pink lemonade to adult and child alike. She met more people in an hour than she'd met in the nearly two months she'd lived in Mission Springs, and her head spun from trying to remember all the names. Some she recognized on sight - like Harry and several other miners, down from the hills for the holiday - and kept a decent distance from all of them. She hadn't been into the saloon since her bender but it didn't take a genius to know that she was still mostly unwelcome in the male-centered establishment.
Night fell, but the celebration only got stronger, as lemonade was spiked liberally with gin and dancing began, the rag-tag band of banjos and harmonica and fiddle working up two-step after two-step. On the other side of town the saloon was the center of attention as the copper miners made their way down from the hills and spent weeks' worth of pay in a few short hours on women and booze. It was likely one of the busiest nights of the year, which was just one reason Penelope's arrival at the town dance on Kevin's arm caused such a stir. The other was Mrs. Strauss appalled gasp. To her credit, Penelope merely smiled sweetly and let Kevin lead her to the dance floor, ignoring the gaping stares of everyone else.
Even though the men outnumbered the women an easy three-to-one, no one asked Emily to dance. Which wasn't surprising, as despite JJ's best arguments, Emily had refused to leave her Peacemakers at home. She observed the party at a distance, watching as man after man asked JJ to dance. Graciously, she accepted each one, her feet bearing the brunt of it as the barbarians trampled all over her toes. Still, JJ continued to smile, as carefree as Emily had ever seen her. Henry and Jack had been trusted to the care of Sadie Tucker, a mercenary young woman who charged a premium to watch over the children but assured they'd all be returned in one piece. Hailey had agreed with JJ it was worth the price to have a night alone, as adults, and not have to worry over the boys. Emily had happily chipped in a little extra for Sadie to keep the boys until the next morning, considering it a kindness for Hotch and Hailey, as well as JJ who could finally sleep in for once.
Emily grinned as Dr. Reid shyly approached JJ, blushing profusely as he asked her to dance. His face turned crimson when she accepted and Emily laughed.
"He's a nice young man," David Rossi said, watching the unlikely couple as well as he meandered to Emily's side. "A bit young for her."
"I'm not so worried about her as I am him."
"You think she's going to break his heart," Emily asked, thoroughly amused by the idea.
"I think she already has," Rossi answered quietly, his eyes tracking across the dance floor to where JJ and Reid were dancing. And although he was chatting up a storm, and a moderately good dancer, JJ was barely paying attention, her eyes focused just over his shoulder, searching out Emily at every turn.
The music stopped but Emily didn't hear it, didn't care. It wasn't until the crowd shuffled closer together, JJ swept into the middle and out of her gaze, that she actually understood the band had taken a break the party-goers were urging Dr. Reid up onto the makeshift stage.
"He's a fairly good orator," Rossi explained. "Usually reads the Nativity story for the children at Christmas."
The crowd settled down to a respectful silence as Spencer cleared his throat and then began, slowly.
The first words made Emily tremble.
"Half a league, half a league,
half a league onward
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred."
The tin cup of lemonade she was holding slipped from her fingers and dropped silently onto the grass.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred."
Unsteady and pale, Emily rushed past Rossi and away from the crowd into the darkened streets. Worried, he hurried after her, Dr. Reid's voice carrying after them into the night.
"Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred."
Prentiss made it as far as the bank before she ducked around the corner of the building and grabbed the wall, fighting down sobs that threatened to rip through her chest.
"Miss Prentiss?" Only the vague recognition of Rossi's voice through the haze of tears steadied her hand as she instinctually reached for her gun. "Are you all right?"
"I-I'm fine Mr. Rossi."
She heard him step closer, but refused to turn around. In the darkness, she could just make out the handkerchief he offered over her shoulder. "If you don't mind me saying, you don't sound all right."
"It's nothing... I'm being silly..."
Rossi chuckled softly. "Miss Prentiss, I've known a lot of women in my life, and the one word I'd never use to describe you is 'silly.'" He put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing lightly. "Would you like to talk about it?"
She didn't want to talk about it, actually, and had spent years ignoring it, forgetting it. But the memories were always there, underneath, surfacing when she least expected. "It was that poem... I hate that poem."
"They're just words."
"Not when you knew one of the six hundred."
"Oh, I'm sorry." He didn't press; he didn't need to. The words, the memories so long held back were clawing to the surface, needing an outlet for all the pain she'd kept bottled up inside.
"My father is a diplomat. I was educated at boarding schools around Europe when he was stationed abroad. Britain, France, Sardinia. Matthew was a childhood friend, only a few years older than me. His father was a partner in the East India Trading Company, so they moved around just as much as my family did. We tended to cross paths just when we needed each other the most."
It was easier to speak in the dark, to give voice to the secrets and guilt she'd carried for years. "I'm ashamed to admit I was a rather naïve young woman, Mr. Rossi. My family was asked to make a tour through Sardinia; there were rumors of unease between the Turks and the Cossaks. I met a young lord of the House of Savoy who promised me the world... I was fifteen and I didn't know then how lightly men could take their promises." Emily took a breath. "By the time we returned to France, I realized I was pregnant."
"I wrote to him, of course, and demanded he do his duty and live up to his promises, but all I received back was a letter from his secretary informing me of his lord's impending marriage to a Prussian countess and instructions that should I require financial assistance, I was more than welcome to continue correspondence with the secretary, but certain not his lordship."
Rossi muttered a string of curses. "What did you do?"
"The scandal would have ruined my father." Emily sniffed, wiping away a few stray tears. "The only person in the world I trusted was Matthew. When I told him... he just, he just looked at me and took my hand and promised everything was going to be all right." She could still picture him in her parent's salon, explaining the situation calmly and without fear, taking all the blame for himself and pledging to marry her.
"People would know, of course, at least they'd assume because of the clandestine wedding what was the truth, but it was still better than being shunned and alone... we'd barely announced the engagement when... when..." she took another breath, trying to steady the pounding of her heart. "When I lost the baby."
"I'm so sorry."
She forced a watery smile. "Matthew still wanted to marry me," she said proudly. "His father, however, had other ideas. Without the urgency of a child, his parents forced us to post-pone the wedding until after Matthew had served out a term in the Army."
"'Into the valley of Death rode the six hundred,'" Rossi quoted softly.
"He made it to the Russian battery, they said. Took out several of their gunners before being killed." The weight of memory finally lifting, Emily realized she could breathe again, and filled her lungs, letting the air out slowly. "His parents blamed me, of course, and with good reason. My parents waited the appropriate mourning period and then sent me to finish my education at a convent in Scotland."
"And how did that go?"
"Considering there were several girls there who were also considered to have questionable reputations, perhaps putting us all together in a remote Highland convent wasn't the wisest thing to do." And because the memories and the moment warranted it, Emily laughed. Soft and sweet, it cleared away the last taste of bitterness and grief that lingered in her mouth and helped to put Matthew's memory quietly back to sleep inside her heart.
"I can see why you hate that poem so much."
"It's not just Matthew," Emily admitted. "That was the beginning of the end for me. It started my 'rebellious' phase as my mother liked to call it."
"I heard they disowned you."
Emily cringed wryly. "Mrs. Strauss has excellent sources."
In the distance, the music started back up again. "You feel up to going back?"
She wiped the last wetness away from her cheeks and handed him back the handkerchief. "Thank you, Mr. Rossi. You've been very kind to me."
"Miss Prentiss, believe me, the pleasure is all mine."
She gave him a look. "Considering what I've just told you either call me Emily, or Prentiss. There is no Miss here."
Rossi smiled. "Emily suits me just fine." He offered her his arm - the first man to do so in longer than she could remember. She took it gratefully, leaning into his solid frame. Under other circumstances he was the type of man she would have settled for despite the age difference - they could make each other happy enough - but she'd promised herself she'd never settle.
People wandered about the streets, smiling and laughing, children running with sparklers. More than a few miners were living it up at the saloon, firing off their pistols into the air in celebration. As they walked back toward the dance, Emily saw a familiar figure lingering at the edges of the party. She motioned for Rossi to continue on and then made her way to the back of the dance floor, behind the stage where Beth was watching from the shadows. "You know, the view's better from the other side."
Beth smiled at her sadly. "The view's always better from the other side."
Emily sighed softly. "Come on, I'll get you a cup of punch. There's gotta be a dozen men who'd love to dance with a pretty girl like you."
"Oh, I got enough of that back at the saloon," Beth sighed. "But not these fellas. These are respectable men."
Prentiss snorted. "Men are men. Respectable is a sliding scale, trust me."
"How come you're not dancing?"
"No one asked me," Emily answered, her eyes drifting over the crowd until they found JJ speaking with Mrs. Strauss. "No one's going to."
Beth's eyes lingered on JJ as well, long after Emily stopped looking, and found the blonde stared back with a longing Beth understood far too well. "I better get back to the saloon. I just wanted some fresh air."
"Don't leave," Prentiss urged. "Stay a while. We'll cause a scene and scandalize Mrs. Strauss."
The comment was intended to draw a laugh from the younger woman but Beth didn't even smile. "It's not Mrs. Strauss you want to scandalize. And I may be a prostitute, but I'm no whore. I won't let you use me to make her jealous."
Emily swallowed hard, feeling like she'd gotten punched in the stomach. "I didn't... I didn't mean it like that."
"I know. But it's how it would be none the less." Beth reached up, gently letting her fingers trace over Emily's cheek, one last parting touch. And then, because she couldn't help herself, she leaned up for one last kiss. "Miss Penelope was right, you know. You're nothing but trouble." With one last, sad smile, Beth said goodbye and walked back toward the saloon, leaving Emily once more alone in the dark.
Across the dance floor, flooded in the light of lanterns and candles, Erin Strauss gasped. "Well, I never... can you imagine... it's appalling... it's... it's..."
"None of your business," JJ ground out, even as Strauss geared up for something akin to a hissy fit. She'd been standing there for several minutes, delicately grilling JJ about every aspect of the ranch, asking if JJ intended to return to teaching, what she intended to do with Henry while she was otherwise "occupied" by her employer's needs. JJ had easily read through it all and kept her answers non-committal, but still Strauss had persisted, a self-appointed guardian for town morality.
"That saloon girl has absolutely no sense, walking around with decent people... and that Prentiss woman is even worse. A wholly corrupting influence. If you knew the things I knew-"
"-I do know them," JJ countered, turning to meet Mrs. Strauss glare for glare. "I do know them and I don't care. Because I know Emily Prentiss. I know she saved my son's life when she didn't have to. I know she hired me and gave me a place to live when you were ready to throw me out to the dogs. I know she treats me like an equal, while you can't help but look down your nose at every single person who has to work for a living, who has to get their hands dirty. I know Emily Prentiss," JJ repeated. "And I know you Erin Strauss. I'll choose her every day of the week."
Gaping and speechless, Strauss stared in disbelief as JJ squared her shoulders, turned and walked away.
Mad as a hornet, JJ stalked off away from the dance toward the schoolhouse. It was closed up for the summer, although they still used it for town meetings if necessary, and JJ made sure to check in once a week to clear out any cobwebs. Tonight, shrouded in darkness, it seemed the perfect escape as she tried to will her temper to cool down but it was no use.
Her sense of justice railed at Strauss' condemnation - How could she judge Emily? What made her so much better than the rest of them? - even as another part of her brain worked through what had really set Strauss off. Emily had kissed that girl. Well, that girl at least had kissed Emily, but Emily certainly hadn't pushed her away, or seemed to mind in the least. Nope... she hadn't minded at all...
JJ whirled around, leveling an accusing finger directly at Emily. "Don't you talk to me right now."
"What did Strauss say to you? Hotch just told me he saw you having words-"
"Everyone saw me having words," JJ exclaimed. "Everyone! They all saw me defending you."
"No, you don't get to thank me. You don't get to say anything. Not after what you did-"
"-Is this about the other night?"
"Yes! No! I don't know," JJ growled desperately. "It's about the other night, and it's about tonight. I saw you with that girl..." Her voice dropped, the fight ebbing away, replaced by hurt. "She kissed you. I thought you wanted... how could you," JJ whispered desperately, turning away again for the safety of the schoolhouse shadows. "How could you?"
Emily followed, catching up to her in three long strides, her hand snaking out to grab JJ's arm, pulling her back around. Face to face they stared at each other in the dark, the sound of revelry a distant echo under the pounding of heartbeats. "I thought you wanted..." JJ whispered one more time.
"I want everything," Emily answered roughly, the leash snapping on her self-control as she pulled JJ to her. This time there was no restraint, no sweet press of lips. One hand on JJ's hip, the other tangled in her hair, Emily held her in an unbreakable embrace, kissing her deeply, lips unmercifully plundering, demanding, claiming what she wanted, what she'd denied herself for so long.
They broke apart, gasping, JJ's fingers curled into Emily's shirt, holding on for dear life. A cheer went up from the dancers as the band kicked into a lively tune. With an unintelligible growl, Emily shifted and tugged JJ with her to the backside of the schoolhouse. Shrouded in shadows and darkness, she pressed her up against the white clapboards and kissed her again. This time JJ didn't pull away, didn't hesitate. She dove in, devouring Emily's mouth like a drowning woman searching for dry land.
Searing hot kiss after kiss, they consumed each other, desperate for more. The dam had broken, all good sense crumbled and swept away beneath a deluge of want, of need. Emily let her hands roam JJ's body freely, pulling up layers of skirt to finally touch soft, warm skin. JJ moaned, her teeth sinking into Emily's bottom lip as she hiked her leg up around the brunette's hip, yanking her closer, bodies grinding together.
Never had JJ wanted so much, never had she known such desire was buried inside her, waiting for release. Waiting for Emily to set her free. Her hands molded over Emily's body, exploring the lines and curves of her, pushing open her shirt until her fingers found skin. She sucked in an unsteady breath as Emily shivered under her touch, skin prickling with goose bumps. A thrill washed through her as she understood she wasn't the only one who needed. Who wanted so much it ached.
JJ leaned up, kissing Emily once more, deeper, softer, the edge of their need a sharp razor momentarily blunted. "Take me home," JJ whispered roughly, pressing kiss after kiss to Emily's lips, her cheeks, anywhere she could touch. "Take me home please."
Unsteadily, Emily nodded, forcing herself to step away. Her heart raced, edged on by the glassy eyed look on JJ's face, her lips already kiss swollen. They waited, straightening clothes, pinning back errant strands of hair, the mutual blushes fading slightly in the cooling night air, and then they walked back toward the dance, a good five feet between them for safety.
Emily went for Hasiba; JJ found Hailey.
"Are you all right," Hailey asked, giving JJ a curious look. "Aaron said he saw you and Mrs. Strauss having words, and he sent Emily after you but you've been gone a while now and " she stopped abruptly. "Is that a love bite?"
JJ just smiled. "The boys are all right with Sadie?"
"I'll check on them before Aaron and I head home," Hailey offered, still staring at JJ's neck where her collar didn't quite cover a red mark.
"I'll be out early to get Henry tomorrow," JJ promised. Behind her, Emily rode up on Hasiba.
"Don't worry about it, I'll watch him 'til you get back into town."
"Thanks, Hailey." JJ turned, her smile only for Emily. One step, a hand extended, and JJ swung up behind Emily in the saddle. Emily tipped her hat at Hailey, smiling softly, and then they were gone, riding off into the night.
Hailey watched them go, laughing to herself. Hotch joined his wife, staring off into the dark. "Was that JJ? And Miss Prentiss?"
"It was indeed." He made a vaguely displeased noise. Hailey leaned up, kissing Aaron's cheek. "You wanted JJ to be happy."
"And is she?"
"Ask her tomorrow," Hailey grinned. "She's pretty busy tonight."
It should have scared her more, but nothing countered JJ's sense that she was exactly where she ought to be. Where she was meant to be. She tightened her grip around Emily's waist, burying her face against the other woman's back, inhaling the scent of leather and clean soap and a hint of lavender as they rode toward the ranch at a steady pace.
One hand on the reins, Emily kept her other on top of JJ's around her waist, a rather absurd and silly grin splitting her face as she rode. She'd loved Matthew, but she'd never been in love with him. When he'd died, Emily had honestly never expected to love anyone, in any form, ever again. Oh, there had been dalliances and affairs, and she'd left a string of broken hearts through most of Europe, but she'd never let anyone in close enough to break her own. Not until she'd rode into Mission Springs, Wyoming and given a mother back her son. And in return, she'd found everything she'd ever been looking for.
Without direction Hasiba meandered toward the barn, patiently waiting for JJ to dismount before craning her neck back to give Emily a baleful look. The brunette smiled as she slid to the ground, giving the Arabian an affectionate scratch. "Give me a minute to brush her down?"
JJ smiled. "Take your time."
Emily did just that, seeing to Calla and making sure the bay had fresh hay and oats before leading Hasiba into her stall and brushing her down. It was quiet work, and even though JJ was waiting inside the homestead, Emily didn't rush. For once, there was no need. This was no mere clandestine meeting of lovers, no rushed touches and muffled groans of pleasure. This was so much more something she didn't even have words for. Not yet at least. And while that terrified her, it also settled her. Made her see things more clearly than she'd ever seen them before.
With a fond pat to Hasiba's neck, Emily left the horses to munch on their oats and closed the barn up. Across the yard the light inside the homestead flickered warmly, welcoming her. She hesitated at the door, took a breath, and walked inside.
JJ sat on the bed, biting her lip nervously. She was still in her blue cotton dress, but she'd pulled the pins from her hair, letting it tumble about her shoulders in soft waves. When Emily walked in she stood up, taking a step toward the brunette before stopping.
"There are things you should know about me."
"All right "
JJ took a breath. "I loved my husband."
Emily's eyes narrowed. "I never thought you didn't."
"He wasn't the smartest man ever, but he was sweet, and he was good to me. And I'd been alone for so long I never understood, before now, why I never cared about dating boys. Why I never worried about finding a husband. When Will came along, he was funny and kind and I thought, 'It's now or never JJ. You're not going to do any better than him.' That doesn't make me sound very good does it?"
At that, Emily smiled. She'd known women who'd gotten married for far less. "It makes you sound human."
"I wanted things when I was younger. I wanted land, a place to call my own. I wanted to travel and see the world. And I wanted to find someone who would kiss me until my knees went weak." JJ took a breath, took a step closer. "And until I met you I thought I'd just given up on all those dreams. But here you are." She reached up, her fingers tentatively touching Emily's cheek. "Here you are." Emily's hand covered JJ's as she leaned into the touch, turning to press a soft kiss to JJ's palm. "I loved my husband " JJ whispered, "but I had no idea what love was."
Emily leaned in, pressing a soft, slow kiss to JJ's lips. She knew JJ wanted her to say the words, but now wasn't the time. Not yet "Close your eyes." JJ complied, lashes fluttering downward. Emily kissed each eyelid with a feather soft touch.
JJ tried to keep her breathing steady even as her heart raced with each feather soft kiss. Emily's hands slid down, fingers lightly tracing the line of her jaw, the curve of her lips. It was like she was being mapped and memorized by touch and kiss, and with each moment her need grew, frustration building until she was trembling in Emily's arms. "Please," JJ whispered harshly, not even sure exactly what it was she needed; only certain that she needed it from Emily.
"Shhh," Emily soothed, kissing her slowly, her tongue expertly sweeping in, light but demanding. "I've got you."
It was a powerful thing, Emily realized, to hold this woman's heart. To make her tremble with need. She took JJ's hand and led her to the bed, holding her gaze steadily as she reached up and undid button after button before pushing the dress loosely to the floor. Where her hands touched, her mouth followed, tasting, teasing, nipping until JJ moaned in vexation, her hands pushing at Emily's own clothes.
Control, so tenuous at best, snapped completely as JJ grabbed the back of Emily's neck and pulled her into a deep kiss. Will had always treated her with a light touch, as if she were a fragile piece of crystal, able to be broken with just a look. No more There was no waiting, no holding back as JJ poured herself into the kiss, buttons popping off Emily's shirt as JJ fumbled them and dragged the material down the brunette's arms. Emily's gun belt hit the floor. A moment was spared to kick off boots and unfasten hooks. And with each new patch of skin revealed there was the delighted grin, a heated stare, a tentative touch until finally Emily pressed JJ back onto the bed, covering her naked body with her own.
JJ may have been a novice, but she wasn't slow to learn, to understand just what brought Emily pleasure. She rolled with Emily, pulling her underneath so that she could take her time. Kissing, tasting, her mouth found the pulse point at Emily's neck and marked it with teeth and tongue until Emily scraped her nails down JJ's back, growling in pleasure. And then she moved lower. Inch by inch. When her fingers met Emily's wet folds it was pure instinct and need that drove her on.
"You don't have to-"
But there was no holding back for JJ now, no reason to hesitate. She'd wanted this woman from the moment their eyes met even if she hadn't understood what it meant, where it would lead her. Now, all she could see was Emily. Nothing else mattered in that moment but the woman in front of her.
Emily gasped as JJ slid a finger inside, hips rocking up in encouragement. The grin that split JJ's face was pure wicked delight which only served to draw another shuddering gasp from the brunette. Now it was Emily's turn to beg, to whisper harsh pleas as JJ touched her, softly at first and then more firmly with Emily's encouragement until her fingers curled inside, matching a steady, pulsing rhythm to Emily's body.
"JJ... Yes..." Emily's words morphed into moans, barely cognizant as pleasure burst through with every touch, and then JJ was there, kissing her, dragging her over the edge into oblivion.
JJ's hands didn't stop, the power of bringing this remarkable woman to a trembling climax coursing through her, demanding more from both of them. Emily clutched at JJ's shoulders, digging in hard enough to leave bruises as she opened herself fully, let herself be taken. Be loved. Again she came, crying out JJ's name with a desperate shuddering cry.
Sprawled out in a mess of limbs, JJ sucked in a breath and then another, not sure if the pounding in her head was her own heartbeat or Emily's thundering in her chest. Eventually she realized, it just didn't matter. Emily was still trembling underneath her as she pushed herself up, propped on one elbow, and leaned down to kiss the brunette softly. "Are you all right?" Her bemused smile belied the more serious tone to her question.
A huff of laughter, a broad grin, and then JJ was on her back as Emily rolled them both over. "I'm doing just fine, darling."
"I like the way you say that."
"I like having someone to say it to."
JJ blushed under Emily's easy gaze, a move that was utterly charming. "Did I... was it?" She sighed, rolling her eyes. "I don't even know what to say."
"You don't need to say anything," Emily whispered. "Just feel." She traced a finger lightly over JJ's jaw, down her throat, watching the muscles move as JJ swallowed in anticipation. Emily leaned in, her teeth grazing the shell of JJ's ear as she spoke. "This is how you make me feel."
It was like soaring on the wind, the way JJ's body reacted to the push, the pull, the swell and sudden drop as Emily worked her way across every inch of her body. Places she'd never considered held hidden wells of pleasure: the back of her knee, the top of her hip, the inside of her elbow. Her stomach dipped as Emily nibbled her way up the inside of her thigh; her heart soared with each tender kiss. And when finally, finally, Emily slid her fingers inside, when she used her mouth, it felt like JJ had been flung off the tallest cliff, the pure exhilaration of the fall crashing through her with a joyous shout.
Lying together, after the fall, JJ's heart continued to thunder even as the rest of her body remained gloriously, blissfully lax. "This is how you feel?"
"Every time I see you. Every time I even think about you," Emily admitted.
JJ snuggled in closer, comfortable in the silence. "I think I think I've been waiting my whole life for you."
"Well, I'm here now. And I'm not leaving any time soon."
"As if I'd let you."
Laughter filling the room, Emily pulled JJ closer, intent to show her one more time how intent she was on sticking around.
The rooster had long informed them that the sun was up and the day had begun, but JJ and Emily lingered in bed still.
"Tell me another," JJ urged, turning to lie on her stomach, head pillowed on her arms as she gazed over at Emily.
"Hmm let me think," Emily drawled, tracing a finger up JJ's naked back. "St. Petersburg."
"My father had a brief assignment there when I was a child. The sun never goes down during the summer, it just lingers at night in this twilight state. I thought it was the most magical thing I'd ever seen."
JJ watched as the wonder and sentiment of childhood lingered in Emily's eyes, replacing the normally world weary state. "You've been so many places."
"There's a lot of world out there to see."
"I'd like to, someday, maybe."
"Where do you want to go," Emily asked, leaning in to kiss JJ lightly. "Anywhere you want to go I'll take you."
"I prefer the countryside, but sure."
"Sure - no, wait, I'm not allowed back there."
JJ laughed and dragged Emily down for a lingering kiss, laughter bubbling up between them. "You were banned from an entire country?"
"It was the sultan's daughter."
JJ laughed again. "Did you regret it at all?"
"Not for a second," Emily grinned wolfishly.
"Emily Prentiss, you're an irascible cad."
"And you love me for it."
"Yes," JJ beamed, "I do."
The long progress of their slow kisses was interrupted minutes later by the distinct sounds of horse and rider barreling into the front yard. Emily had just enough time to yank on her pants and shirt - terribly wrinkled from a night spent crumpled on the floor - before someone started banging on the front door. She yanked open the front door just enough to glare at Morgan while JJ hurriedly pulled on her dress.
"Is Henry okay?"
"He's fine," Morgan assured, "but ya'll have got to come back to town. Hotch sent me out for you."
She felt her stomach clench, like a ghost hand had reached in and took hold of her guts. "Someone else was murdered." Morgan nodded roughly. "Who was it?"
"Miss Penelope's girl Beth."
Prentiss felt her knees waver but she stayed upright and within seconds the shock was replaced with anger. "Give me five minutes. Will you go grab the horses?" He nodded again and took off for the barn. Emily shut the door quietly. Not saying a word she walked to the bed and tugged on socks and her boots. With brutal efficiency she settled her gun belt on her hips, her fingers running over the ammo to make sure every notch was filled with a bullet.
JJ handed Emily her hat. "It wasn't your fault."
They both knew she was lying.
"Miss Emily? Horses are ready!"
Without another word Emily walked out. JJ took a deep breath and followed.
The argument was in full-swing by the time they rode up. Mrs. Strauss' voice carried over the assembled crowd despite Rossi and Hotch's attempts to quiet her.
"-I'm telling you, it was that woman! I saw her last night. I saw them together at the edge of the dance and then they both disappeared. Mr. Hotchner, you need to arrest her instantly-"
"No one is getting arrested," Hotch soothed, obviously having been through this conversation more than once. "As I told you, Hailey and I saw Miss Prentiss leave the party last night and Beth was not with her."
"That means nothing," Strauss dismissed. "She easily could have come back after she left. A lovers spat we all know what she is. There's no trusting her word."
Those assembled dropped to an uneasy silence as Emily swung off her horse, Hasiba's bridle jangling in the eerie quiet. Strauss's sneer melted away as Emily stalked toward her silently, eyes burning with cold fury. Prentiss didn't stop until she was directly in front of Strauss, bare inches separating their faces. To her credit, Strauss didn't back down despite her obvious fear.
Prentiss' voice was nothing more than growl. "I don't murder women."
"Considering what else you do, nothing would surprise me."
Emily's clenched her fist, her temper begging to be unleashed. Distantly, she heard JJ say her name, felt a soft hand touch her shoulder, easing some of the fury. "Emily don't."
Through clenched teeth, Emily repeated, "I don't murder women."
"Where were you last night," Strauss asked, her eyes darting between Emily and JJ.
"I was at home."
"Alone," Strauss challenged. Emily refused to answer even as the crowd started to murmur. "Either you were alone or you weren't Miss Prentiss. Either you have an alibi or you do not. Can anyone say for a certainty you didn't ride back into town last night?"
Emily closed her eyes. "JJ don't."
The blonde ignored her, just as Emily knew she would do. "She was with me, Erin."
Strauss sneered in partial triumph. "All night?"
There was a pause, a rush of whispers as innuendo passed amongst the crowd. JJ lifted her chin, meeting Strauss glare for glare. "All. Night. Long."
Rossi stepped in, inching Strauss back, away from a still fuming Prentiss and a mutinous looking JJ. "There you have it, Mrs. Strauss. Mrs. Lamontagne has given Emily an alibi, and I trust we can all agree her word is above reproach. Therefore, there's no need to push the issue," he said firmly. "Don't you think, Mr. Hotchner?"
"Now, why don't we move this discussion off the street," Rossi urged.
Strauss pulled herself together, disengaging her arm from Rossi's tentative grip. "I am wiring for the marshal. Immediately. Any other discussion you want to have, feel free." She huffed away; the rest of the crowd scattered like crows to their respective nests, enough fodder and gossip to share to keep them going for years.
Emily released a gulp of breath she didn't realize she'd been holding. JJ squeezed her hand and then let go.
Rossi grinned unexpectedly. "I know I'm not supposed to promote violence against the fairer sex, but I think most the town wouldn't have minded seeing you take a swing at her."
Even more unexpectedly, Hotch smirked. "It's not really the time Dave."
The banker sighed. "No, I suppose not."
The exchange served to lighten the tension buzzing around all of them like electricity before a thunderstorm. JJ felt like she could breathe again. "Can you tell us what happened?"
Hotch nodded and they fell into step with him as they walked toward Dr. Reid's clinic. "Miss Letty found the body found Beth," he corrected, "this morning. She's always up with the sun. Went for her usual morning constitution around town and found Beth laid out in the street in front of the saloon. Her screaming woke up the whole town."
"Is it the same as the others?"
"Looks like. Strangled. Bruises all over her neck. There were other bruises as well," Hotch added delicately, mindful of the two women in his presence despite the fact neither had blanched from the information before.
"Sounds similar enough."
Hotch knocked once on the door and then let himself into the clinic. Penelope was sitting in the waiting area, valiantly fighting tears. She stood up as they walked in, her eyes locked on Emily. "You gotta find who did this, understand? You gotta find them and you gotta make them pay. That girl never hurt anyone a day in her life. I don't care what that Strauss woman says, I don't care what people think about me or the life I lead. But my girls are good girls. They're sweet and kind-hearted and I won't let them be forgotten, you hear me? You gotta find out who's doing this. I want justice."
Everyone else shared concerned looks, none of them having ever seen Penelope so angry. Emily merely nodded. "So do I."
They waited silently until Reid came out, wiping his hands on a cloth. "She was strangled, although Beth seems to have taken quite a beating before, unlike the others.."
"So, it was the same guy," Morgan asked.
"It looks the same person, but really, there's no way to verify that."
"Is there any information you can give us?" Hotch pressed. "Anything that might help?"
"Her face had a jagged laceration. Her attacker likely punched her, but from the tear I'd say he was wearing a ring of some form. And I'd venture he's left-handed."
"That doesn't narrow it down much," Morgan sighed.
"But it's a start."
Hotch turned, addressing them as a group. "Strauss has insisted on wiring for the marshal again, and I'm sorry Emily, but it's likely she'll be implicating you despite JJ's assurance of your innocence. It'll be two, maybe three days before he gets here."
"Which means if we don't want Emily and JJ caught up in mess of trouble, we need to find who did this," Rossi explained.
"It should be easier now, shouldn't it," JJ said. "Now that we know since we know it was Beth and not some stranger."
"Yeah, but think about how many people were in town yesterday and last night. It could've been any of them."
"We'll split up," Hotch decided. "Everyone take a piece of town. Interview everyone, even the children. Ask about any strangers. Ask about men wearing rings. I doubt people will realize someone's left-handed but they may remember a nice piece of jewelry. We'll meet back together and discuss what we've found."
"Where? The store?"
"The school," JJ offered. "It's empty right now. Plenty of room to meet."
"Good. Then let's get started."
Hours later, Prentiss stared at the school blackboard.
They'd worked out a timeline of Beth's death, incorporating as they went statements from witnesses in the saloon, in town. Jamie Hicks had stumbled from the saloon around three a.m. when Kevin cleared the bar and locked up for the night. He'd passed out on sidewalk and come to about an hour later when a one of the town's stray dogs had decided to relieve itself on his leg. Beth's body hadn't been there when he woke, but it was there sometime after six when Miss Letty went for her morning walk.
They'd gotten names from people of the strangers in town and even rode out to ranches and farms to ask those on the outskirts what they'd seen.
Upon further examination, Reid had found hair fibers caught under Beth's nails. Her attacker was brown haired.
Hailey brought dinner for them, Henry and Jack in tow. JJ had swept up her son and refused to release him despite his wriggling. Hotch and Morgan took Hailey and the boys home while the rest stayed and continued to go over the information, eliminating town citizens one by one.
There were still more than twenty men on the list. Some they knew, some they didn't.
"What if we're going about this the wrong way?"
Rossi, JJ, and Reid all stared at Emily in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"I mean we're compiling a list of names, but it will take days to narrow it down, confirm their alibis, and that's only if we're sure we've talked to everyone. What if we concentrated on the victims instead? Maybe if we knew why these particular women were killed we'd know more about who did the killing."
Reid nodded, standing up to erase a section of the blackboard. He scrawled "Victim 1," "Victim 2," and "Beth" up on the board, each woman getting her own section listing out the details they knew. It didn't take long. "This doesn't fit," he announced after a moment's examination.
"What?" The others stared, not sure what to make of Reid's declaration.
"The first two victims were found on your property, but Beth was left in the middle of town. The first two victims were hidden away in areas you normally wouldn't traverse on your land, but Beth was left outside the saloon where someone was certain to find her. The first two victims were women no one would miss, no one has come looking for, but Beth would've been noticed missing within hours this morning if she hadn't been left for us to find. Why would a killer hide away two bodies, virtually assuring that he never gets caught, and then leave a third out in plain sight?"
"A smart man hides his mistakes," Rossi agreed. "Like the first two. Only an idiot leaves a dead body to be found. Anyone in town could've seen him dump her. He's just been lucky so far no one saw him do it or they don't know that they saw it."
"The man who killed the first two women didn't leave anything up to luck," Prentiss agreed. "He put those bodies out of the way."
"It's not the same man," JJ said. "But how could there be two who else would want to kill Beth?"
Who else would want to kill Beth? Who else would want to kill Beth? Who else would want Beth Emily felt the ice that had lodged in her veins melt into a molten rage. "Son of a bitch!"
The rest of them paused in stunned silence as she tore out of the schoolhouse, sprinting through the town like the hounds of hell were on her heels, JJ, Rossi and Reid belatedly trailing after her.
Activity in the saloon came to a grinding halt as Prentiss burst through the doors, barely pausing to scan the room before she found the face she was looking for. The face she'd seen the night before in the crowd, going into the saloon.
Harry saw her eyes narrow on him, her hand inching toward her gun.
"Emily! What the hell-" The momentary distraction of Penelope coming down the stairs was enough time for Harry to flip over the poker table and bolt, using men and women alike as a shield as he rushed for the back door. Prentiss shoved through the crowd seconds behind him. Through the backdoor, rushing between buildings, through back yards and laundry lines, Prentiss chased him down, gun in hand.
Lungs burning, heart pounding, she circled with him, cutting off one avenue of escape as he tried to double-back, narrowly missing him as she fired once, the bullet just nicking a fence post instead of his leg. And then they were out in the open, racing down the sidewalk toward the edge of town, where Emily could see a line of horses tied up and idling happily near a water trough.
A body came flying out of nowhere; Harry and Dr. Reid went tumbling to the ground. Reid cried out in pain and in the moonlight Emily saw the brief flash of a knife as the young man clenched his leg and Harry kept running. She slowed, just long enough for Reid to wave her on, yelling, "Go! Get him!"
Prentiss ran on, angling for a clear shot as Harry wove in between town folk and railings.
Ahead of them, the horses scattered. Emily's eyes caught on a blue dress and blonde hair as the animals hustled away at JJ's urging, cutting off Harry's escape. Prentiss grinned menacingly, closing in, taking aim, her hand barely stilled as Harry lunged for JJ and yanked her around for protection, holding the knife to her throat.
Emily skidded to a stop as women screamed and cleared the street.
"You move and she dies!" Harry shouted, the blade of his knife nicked into JJ's skin. "Drop your gun!"
Lamps flickered on the street, casting shadows everywhere. Emily didn't dare move. Didn't dare breathe. The Peacemaker clattered to the ground. "Why, Harry? What did Beth do to you?"
"I was gonna pay her! I told her I had money! And she laughed at me!" He took a step, dragging JJ back with him toward the edge of town. Prentiss inched closer; her hand slowly edged toward her belt. "I saw her with you I saw you kissing her how could she want you and not me?"
"So you killed her?"
"She wouldn't come back to the saloon I tried to take her back but she wouldn't listen to me I had to make her listen to me!" In the ruckus of the party, no one would've heard Beth scream. No one would've noticed Harry drag her behind a building, into a back alley. "I didn't mean to kill her but I ain't gonna hang for no whore who don't know her place!"
It was amazing what could pass in the span of a moment, what could be said with just one look. Emily's eyes met JJ's and even in the darkness JJ knew what Emily intended, what she had to do. In the space of a breath, trust took on tangible meaning.
Harry never felt a thing as JJ went rigid in his arms, unmoving, a perfectly still target for Prentiss to avoid as she drew her left-handed pistol and fired, the bullet piercing right between Harry's eyes.
His body collapsed to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. JJ took a breath, and then another, and then Emily's arms were around her, holding her tight enough to bruise. "I've got you I've got you I've got you " Prentiss chanted roughly, pulling JJ away from Harry's prone body.
JJ clung to her, fighting down tears. "I know."
People ran toward them. Someone shouted out he was dead; some people cheered. Emily held onto JJ even tighter.
Reluctantly, Emily eased up just enough to find Rossi staring at her, a mix of amazement and wariness in his eyes. "When I saw you take off, I went to get Hotch and Morgan, we were running all over town trying to find you once you took off after Harry."
"Fine fine Hotch and Morgan helped move him to the clinic. I swear to god, he's stitching himself up right now." He paused, put a soothing hand on JJ's shoulder. "How are you?"
"Better than I could've been," JJ answered roughly. "Spence was the one he said there was really only one way out of town that would be the easiest to escape, so we double-backed. He saw you chasing Harry and went to help and then I saw the horses but I couldn't get them loose fast enough and get away and I I "
"Shh," Emily crooned, pulling JJ tightly to her again. "It's okay. He's not going to hurt you now."
Rossi cast a disparaging glance toward Harry's dead body. "You made damn sure of that. Nice shot."
Prentiss didn't acknowledge the compliment. She loosened her hold on JJ just enough to pull away and look at her. A trickle of blood dripped from the knick in JJ's neck. Emily wiped it away with her fingers, frowning when more dribbled out, eyes growing dangerous again. JJ reached up, her hand covering Emily's, squeezing until the brunette pulled her eyes away from the crimson stain and met JJ's calm stare. "I'm okay."
"I'm okay, Emily."
The citizens who'd seen fit to turn tail and hide while Emily pursued Harry were drawn back out to the quiet of the street. Someone shouted; Emily drew her gun, turning to put herself between JJ and crowd starting to form up in the street.
"Whoa whoa " Rossi cautioned, his voice neutral and pitched low, trying not to startle her. From the death grip Prentiss had on JJ's arm, he knew she wasn't about to let anyone near the blonde without a challenge. "Why don't we get JJ to the clinic," he offered lightly. "Put a bandage on that cut."
"Right," Emily agreed, easing the gun back into her holster. Rossi handed her the other pistol she'd willingly dropped. "Thank you." She let her hand find JJ's, eyes daring anyone to say a word as they walked toward the clinic together.
With a man's body lying sprawled in the center of the street, no one even spoke as they moved through the crowd.
Rossi hadn't been joking - Reid had indeed been stitching himself up, and where he couldn't reach, Hotch had taken over. He'd learned a lot of useful skills in the war - sewing being chief among them. It wasn't difficult to apply the same principles to stitching up flesh, especially once Reid swallowed enough whiskey to stop shaking in pain. Emily had to give him credit, he'd willingly put himself in harm's way based on little more than trusting her instinct.
JJ had only needed a couple of fine stitches, something Reid attended to himself once he was properly bandaged up. He was reasonably confident it wouldn't even scar.
The door to the clinic opened to allow some men to carry in Harry's lifeless body - and stayed open long enough for Mrs. Strauss to waltz in right after.
Aaron's face remained calm even as the rest of those assembled - which now included Miss Penelope who hadn't stopped fussing over Reid - rolled their eyes at the imperious way she called for his attention.
"Is it true? There was a gunfight in the middle of town?"
"It wasn't a gunfight," Hotch clarified. "But there were shots fired. One of the miners, Harry Milsap, was linked to Beth's murder. When he was approached, he attempted to flee. Miss Prentiss chased him down."
She sent a scathing look Emily's way. "And killed him."
Hotch's answer was cut short as JJ literally stepped between them, glaring openly at Strauss. "After he stabbed Dr. Reid and tried to use me as a hostage to escape." Unbidden, her hand snaked up to touch the fresh bandage at her neck. "Would you have preferred Emily let him escape with me?"
The vehemence of JJ's rebuke caught Strauss off-guard. "Well, of course not. I simply meant "
"I know what you meant," JJ said coldly.
Emily stepped beside her, her hand resting lightly on JJ's back. "It's okay."
Strauss gave her a curious look, torn between being affronted and grateful for the rescue. "I'm very pleased this nightmare has come to an end. This murderer has finally been brought to justice."
"One murderer has," Prentiss corrected.
"There is another man on the loose? You let one escape?"
"Harry killed Beth all on his own. Someone else killed the other women."
Hotch's eyebrows shot up. Morgan stared at her in disbelief. The others just nodded along. "I don't understand," Hotch interjected. "How do you know that?"
Reid explained what they'd deduced from comparing the victims. Hotch continued to stare. "And that led you to Harry how?"
"I saw him last night," Emily explained. "He'd been hanging around all day on and off, and I saw him go into the saloon, but no one remembered seeing him later that night after we'd left. He wasn't on our list." She paused, feeling a pang of guilt clutch inside her chest. "And I knew he wanted Beth."
"That's true," Penelope added. "He's been hanging around more and more since you moved out to the ranch, but Beth wouldn't well, she found other customers."
"He admitted it easily enough." Morgan shook his head. "You could hear him hollering it halfway across town. Hotch and I came running when we heard the ruckus."
"Well doesn't that settle it," Strauss prompted. "The man admitted killing the one girl, he likely killed the others as well."
"We're you not listening," Prentiss glared. "He killed Beth because he was angry and he was jealous. He had no reason to kill those other women and he didn't admit to it." She took a breath. "We've still got another murderer out there."
Rossi, JJ, and Reid nodded in agreement. Conflicted, Hotch looked at Morgan who didn't seem convinced either. Strauss pounced on Hotch's indecision. "As mayor, I think it's important you reassure the town that the murderer has been identified and that everyone is safe again. Unless, of course, you agree with Miss Prentiss?"
Eyes narrowed, Hotch met her insistent glare. "I'm not convinced either way. An announcement at this point would be premature."
"Fine. If you want to be responsible for continued public panic, go ahead and indulge this ludicrous theory. Rest assured, when my husband returns from his business trip to New York we'll be discussing this matter in depth," she sneered, the threat as subtle as a stick of dynamite. With a huff, she turned and left.
Rossi shot Hotch a half-amused look. "So she's using the 'New York business trip' routine again I see."
Prentiss stared between the two. "If her husband's not in New York, where is he?"
"Denver, most likely," Hotch answered off-hand. "He has a mistress there. Well, I'm not sure you can call her a mistress really, considering Mr. Strauss spends half the year with her."
"If not more," Rossi added. "Believe me, I've sat through dinner with those two. It's best he lives in Denver. The town couldn't stand the cold-freeze that would settle in if those two were near each other for more than a few months out of the year."
Inexplicably, Emily started to laugh. A quiet snicker, a giggle, and then a riotous laugh. It was infectious, and before they knew it, the rest of them were laughing as well.
"And I thought Wyoming was going to be quiet."
Business at the saloon was suspended for the day. Where Harry had been buried alone, and friendless, the crowd around Beth's grave was numerous and motley. Saloon girls, former customers, and of course, Prentiss and the others.
The minister hadn't felt particularly comfortable giving the eulogy but a quiet word from Hotch had smoothed things over. Hailey, JJ, and some of the other women in the town made food and took it to the saloon where a small wake was held after the service. By dusk, Penelope had kicked nearly everyone out and taken out a bottle of good whiskey which she poured in liberal amounts and handed out amongst Rossi and the others. Even Hailey and JJ took a glass, both of them steadfastly ignoring for the moment that their sons were being tended to by saloon girls who couldn't get enough of the adorable boys.
"To Beth," Penelope pronounced simply, and they drank. That task accomplished, she leveled a look at Emily. "So what are you going to do about the other one out there?"
"You're the one I'm looking at."
"Penelope, we have no idea who else could be doing this," Prentiss answered. "How am I supposed to figure out who killed those women?" Penelope just looked at her. "This isn't my responsibility."
"Happened on your land," the redhead said flippantly, immediately regretting the words as both Emily and JJ flinched. "I'm sorry, I just there's gotta be something we can do."
"We've tried," Emily ground out. "I don't know what we're missing."
"It happened on your land," Reid repeated to himself.
The others just stared at him. "We know that," Morgan chided when Reid didn't elaborate. "We found the bodies on Miss JJ and Emily's ranch."
"Do you have a map of your land?"
Prentiss shot Reid a look. "Uh, yeah, I keep one on me in case someone randomly asks for it."
JJ elbowed her. "Get me some paper, I can sketch one for you."
Kevin fetched pen and paper; a table was cleared and then surrounded by the group as they hovered over JJ while she did a fair sketch of the town, her ranch, and the areas around it. The others chimed in suggestions for landmarks and roads as she went until there was a fairly complete and accurate accounting of the lands.
Reid took the map and tacked it up to the wall, staring at it long and hard before marking the approximate places the bodies had been found. "The bodies are nowhere near each other," he commented finally.
"Uh, yeah, we figured that part out."
"But they are near these roads, look."
He pointed to the northern side of the property where a road had been hewn out up into the foothills where the mining camp had been established, and over to the southern side of the property which dipped near the main highway the stagecoaches used.
En mass the group took a step closer to examine the map.
"I'll be damned," Rossi hissed, following it a moment later with an apology to the ladies. "He knows the roads. Knows them well enough to know which sections are completely isolated and unused."
"And he knows that up until a couple of months ago JJ wasn't keeping up with the property. You rarely let the cattle down into the south pasture."
"No, I didn't. Even with only the few head I had, I couldn't round them all up. That's why I kept most of them toward the north."
"But not far enough up to cross near the mining road," Prentiss added. "You told me that when we first went around the property."
"He's familiar with the town," Morgan said slowly. "Familiar enough that he knows our roads, knows our people. Knows just where to dump a body nobody's likely to find."
"Except I did find them."
"The first one was an accident. But the second," Rossi said, pointing to the map. "You'd been here for a few weeks by then. Maybe he didn't know you were letting the cattle down into the south pasture, but if he's been around the town he certainly knows it's your land now."
"He left the body there on purpose," Hotch filled in. "To test and see if anyone would notice and how long."
"If I hadn't gone down that day, I probably never would have found her. You all saw how far back in the woods she was and the vultures had been at her a while." Prentiss stopped, a chilling thought occurring to her. "He's done this before."
"Of course he's done this before-"
"No, not just twice. He's done it a lot of times. He's good at it."
"She's right. People kill for money, they kill for revenge, they kill in anger. And when they do, it's usually sloppy and unorganized." Hotch took a breath. "This man plans these murders. He's picked women who won't be noticed if they disappear. He isn't sloppy. He's planned this all out and he's been doing it right under our noses."
The weight of his words hung over those assembled, a stark contrast to the lives they thought they'd been living in the town they thought they'd known. A monster was living among them, walking and talking and smiling. Pretending to be normal. Pretending to be human.
The question now was how to find him.
There was no returning to normal but they managed to fall back into a regular routine. It was a comfort, JJ found, to get up in the morning, to cook breakfast and do chores and tend the ranch with Emily, side by side. It was a comfort to lose herself in work, in sweaty exhaustion, and to forget for even a moment that a man had held a knife to her throat; that Emily had killed him; that another was still on the loose, searching for more women to kill.
They stayed out of town for a week, letting the rumors and gossip cool, tending to the ranch and the animals. Life, for that week, was surprisingly simple. They worked, they ate, they played with Henry and read books, and curled up by the fire at night. And later, when Henry was tucked in, Emily took JJ to bed and showed her again and again all the things she didn't have the words to say.
Emily wasn't particularly happy about going back into town, but when her hand saw busted and her bailing wire ran out she had little choice in the matter. She insisted she could handle the errands on her own, but JJ was just as insistent on going.
"Are you sure," Emily asked one last time as they came around the curve in the road that opened up into the main part of town. Hasiba's ears pricked up as the sounds of the bustling Saturday crowd wafted from town. Beside her Calla continued trotting on, not the least distracted.
"Relax," JJ chided, keeping Henry tight on her lap as they boy pointed out passing birds and rabbits.
"You don't know how people can be small town gossip. Hell, why do you think I left Manhattan, and that wasn't exactly a small town."
Emily cringed as Henry enthusiastically repeated the profanity, earning a glare from JJ. "Right, I'm just going to sit here and be quiet."
They hitched Hasiba and Calla at the livery, taking the time to visit with Morgan as he shoed a horse before heading toward the General Store. JJ smiled and waved to a few of the women as she crossed the street. No one waved back. Inside the store several women, some Emily recognized and some she didn't, tittered at the sight of them even going so far as to grab their children's hands before walking out in a huff.
Hailey gave them an amused look. "You're bad for business."
"Is there some place else they can shop for dry goods," Emily asked dryly.
"Then they'll be back."
Hailey grinned. "That they will. For now, how can I help you fine ladies?"
"Well, Emily needs some bailing wire and a new handsaw," JJ answered, "and I need some flour, some sugar, and " she turned eyeing the bolts of fabric stacked to the side, "and I'm just going to take a look over there."
Hailey laughed and started collecting the items. "There's nothing too exciting yet. Aaron is next door cleaning up the storage area. Stage coach came in this morning but he hasn't sorted out the new goods yet. Should have it on the shelves by tomorrow or next day at the latest."
"Oh, it's all right. I'm not really looking for anything special, just the usual to do some mending."
Emily perused the glass counter, eyeing the trinkets as she surreptitiously watched JJ's fingers linger over yards of fine lace and satin before selecting a sturdy muslin. When was her birthday? Lace - imported if she had the time - would make a nice gift.
"Should I put this on the ranch account?"
Across the store JJ and Emily stared at one another. "It's for the ranch."
"It's for a dress."
"For you to wear on the ranch." Hailey watched, amused, as the battle of wills surged between them. It surprised her, although it shouldn't have, to see Emily sigh and back down. "Fine. Split the bill between the ranch account and JJ's please."
"Whatever you say."
"I'm, uh going to go over to the saloon."
"Say hello to Miss Penelope for me," JJ smiled, plenty sweet now that she'd won their battle. Emily merely rolled her eyes before strolling out of the store. Hailey tallied the amounts separately, deducting the appropriate expenses off of the ranch's account draft before accepting JJ's money for the few yards of fabric. When Hailey just smiled and handed JJ back her change, she sighed in exasperation. "What?"
"Nothing, I just she's a good influence on you."
"A good influence," JJ snorted. "Don't let anyone else hear you say that or they'll start gossiping about you as well."
"You were content with Will," Hailey said softly, "but you're happy with her."
JJ fought a sudden prickling of tears. "I am happy."
"Then I don't give a damn what anyone else has to say."
"You'll be about the only one in town."
"Then I say we take a lesson from Miss Penelope - it's none of their damn business what two consenting adults do so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses."
JJ's laughter could be heard echoing out of the store and down the street.
Penelope smiled to herself as she looked out over the saloon. A Saturday afternoon and business was at a good clip. So good, in fact, she'd sent Kevin to the bank to request more change from Mr. Rossi. It was a pay weekend and the miners had come down from the foothills to spend their hard-earned money in earnest, which suited Penelope just fine.
Her keen eyes surveyed the scene, watching the table games for signs of cheats, eyeing the customers to see who'd already had too many, who might be looking for company. She poured a fresh drink for Max, a regular, and rolled her shoulders back to ease some of the tension. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw a potential customer chatting up one of her girls. She wouldn't have noticed anything special, the man was clean shaven and average enough, but he was showing off a pretty gold necklace. Penelope had a straight "cash only" policy with her girls and their customers. Smiling genially she wandered down to that end of the bar, eavesdropping enough to hear Myra reaffirming the said "cash only" policy herself.
"That's a real pretty bauble honey, but I need cash up front."
"I have the cash," the man smiled arrogantly. "This is just a little extra incentive."
"Only incentive I need is what's in your wallet," Myra answered with a quick smile. Penelope kept her smile to herself, glancing over at Myra just long enough to give her a nod of approval
and stopped cold as she recognized the necklace still dangling from the man's hand.
A gold cross with a tiny pearl in the center.
She'd seen that necklace before.
She couldn't help but stare at the necklace; the man couldn't help but notice her stare. Penelope looked away too late. He tucked the necklace into his pocket quickly. "That's real pretty. Family heirloom," Penelope ventured.
"Won it at poker," the man answered, smiling. Penelope could see that the smile and the lie were forced.
But she was a saloon mistress and knew how to fake it with the best of them. She smiled right back, sweet as sugar. "Well, aren't you the lucky devil. I'd say go try your luck at my tables, but I'm a little worried you'd clean me out!" She laughed heartily; the stranger laughed as well.
"Maybe I'll try my luck another day."
"What's your name, honey?"
"Michael. Michael Freeman."
It might have been a lie, it might not have. Penelope couldn't tell. "Well I'll let you enjoy Myra's company then, Michael. She's a special girl," Penelope smiled again. She poured him a shot of whiskey and slid it across the bar. "That's on the house." She winked once and put an extra flounce into her step as she moved back to the other side of the bar, but she kept her eye on the man, watching as Myra finally took him down the hallway to her room.
Penelope motioned Betty over, grabbing up her purse and double-checking the small Derringer pistol she had inside. "Take over for me, I gotta go find Hotch." Betty nodded, taking over easily enough as Penelope rushed for the door. The sun was bright as she stepped out of the dark saloon, making her eyes water in the afternoon heat. She took a glance down the street and started toward the mercantile.
She never made it to the next store.
"Hey there, need some help?" Emily offered as she spotted Kevin crossing the street, two hefty satchels bearing down his arms.
He smiled weakly, and then gave in, offering one to Emily. She took it, nearly dropping it as coins shifted and rattled in the canvass bag. "Appreciate the help. We ran out of change this morning and Penelope wanted me to get more before the weekend rush tonight. It's uh, pretty heavy," he laughed.
Emily hitched the bag higher, carrying it like a sack of potatoes as they crossed the street. "Glad to help where I can. I needed the distraction anyway before I got JJ too riled at me."
"Uh, oh, in the dog house?"
"I said I'd pay for the material for her new dress, and it was like I'd just shot her dog." Kevin laughed. "What?"
"I remember having a conversation with Penelope like that once upon a time."
"Good, then can you tell me what I did wrong."
"It's her pride," Kevin smirked. "You pricked it, offering to pay."
"Nope, don't argue," he teased. "Just accept it and move on."
"That makes no sense-"
Kevin stopped short, the bag of coins dropping into the dusty street with a clatter. "Penelope!" Emily glanced over, dropping her bag of coins and dashing after him.
In the shadow of the buildings, dragged to the back of the alleyway between the saloon and the next building, Kevin knelt beside Penelope's body, his hands pressed tight to her chest, trying to stop the bleeding. "I think she's been shot "
Emily glanced around in a panic, searching for an unseen enemy and caught a glimpse of a tiny Derringer pistol lying in the dirt. It was a lady's protection, only carrying one shot, but could be deadly up close. "I'll get Reid." Emily tore out of the alley, running through the throngs of people walking up the streets and sidewalks, before bursting into the clinic yelling for Spencer. The young man spilt a half-cup of coffee down his front but barely seemed to notice as Emily panted, "Come quick, Penelope's been shot."
"I'll grab my bag. Go get Morgan."
The news spread quickly, and by the time Emily had found Morgan, there was a crowd gathering around the alley as the saloon girls and patrons gathered, whispers and cries echoing among them.
"Help me get her up, I need to get her back to the clinic," Spencer instructed, showing far more calm than Emily felt as she and Morgan and Kevin helped lift Penelope up, carrying her through the town as others shouted to clear the way. In the confusion, no one noticed the stage coach left idling outside of the general store. And no one noticed the man skirting the edges of the building, easing toward it.
No one except Erin Strauss.
She came around the corner, seeking to discover the source of the town commotion, and nearly ran full on into the stranger. It would have taken nothing more than a simple nod and apology, and she would have been on her way, but the man roughly shoved her out of the way, cursing and muttering something that sounded like "filthy whore."
"Excuse me, sir-" the words were barely out when she saw the hand print in blood on his shirt sleeve. She turned, glancing at the crowd down the street standing just outside the clinic and tried to back away but it was too late. The man's hand clapped over her mouth, dragging her up against the empty stagecoach, his other hand around her throat, squeezing.
"What's going on out here-"
The distraction was barely enough, but Strauss managed a weak cry for help as Hotch walked out of the store, eyeing the street for signs of his missing wife. He turned, eyes landing on the man attacking Strauss. Instinctively, he reached to his side for a gun he no longer carried and found nothing but empty space. In less than a heartbeat, the stranger smiled grimly and swung out, catching Hotch on the jaw and knocking him down. Stunned, he tried to lurch back up to his feet only to be kicked in the face, the man's spurs catching his chin and opening a wide cut. Squirming, Strauss got free from her attacker's grip just long enough to scream hoarsely before he grabbed her and slammed her head against the stagecoach.
It gave Hotch just enough time to tackle the man, knocking all three of them down in a dizzying pile out into the street.
"How can I help," Emily offered as the men laid Penelope gently on the table.
"Bandages, quickly, and get the chloroform. I'm going to need to extract the bullet," Reid ordered without question. Emily rifled through the cabinets for the instruments as he cut away Penelope's lace blouse, trying to clean the wound in her upper chest.
"What happened," Reid asked gently, but all Kevin could do was simply shrug his shoulders, trying to stay out of the way.
"We found her we found her like that."
"Who could have possibly-"
The clinic door opened; Prentiss recognized Myra from the bar, and even more, recognized the look of panic. "What's wrong?"
"Something's going on out at Hotchner's store. Better come quick."
Emily barely looked up as she doused a bandage with chloroform and held it over Penelope's face. "Reid?"
"I've got it Go see what's going on."
Emily followed Morgan out, both of them breaking into a run as they spotted another group of people gathered around Hotch's store, Rossi's voice carrying through the crowd.
"Come on, you don't want to do this."
Emily pushed through the crowd just enough to see Rossi holding a gun on a stranger who alternately had a gun pressed to Hailey Hotchner's temple.
Emily pulled her gun as well, frantically looking around the street to find no sign of JJ and Hotch collapsed and unconscious on the ground. Morgan skirted the crowd to get to him.
This one was smarter than Harry had been. He kept Hailey in front of him as he backed up against the stagecoach. There was no room for a shot, no matter how good of a shot Emily was. Not from that angle. "Everyone back!" He screamed, scaring the crowd back a half dozen feet, Rossi and Prentiss keeping a distinct distance even as they kept their guns on him. For her part, Hailey seemed preternaturally calm, her eyes on Emily's the entire time.
"Everyone just stay calm," Emily said quietly, soothingly. "Just stay calm Why don't you tell me your name? Why are you doing this?"
"Like you don't know," he taunted.
"Are you the one who shot Penelope?"
"The saloon whore," the man scoffed. "Didn't figure anyone would miss that piece of trash." Morgan lurched at him, but Rossi managed to keep him back. Just barely.
"Why do you think?" A maniacal smile; a step closer to the coach. "She saw the necklace and she knew I saw the look on her face. She knew what I'd done. What I am."
"You son of a bitch-" Morgan growled, looking ready to rip the man limb from limb. The only thing that kept him back was the terrified look on Hailey's face with each step the man forced her to take.
"You're gonna put your guns down, or I swear to God I'll put a hole in her head!"
Hotch groaned, shoving himself up from the dirt, the side of his head bleeding down his face. "Hailey!"
It was the glint of steal that caught Emily's attention in the chaos.
Hotch stumbled to his feet as the man dragged Hailey backwards another step, screaming for them to put their guns down.
"Okay! Okay! We'll put our guns down," Emily said calmly, lowering her gun as her eyes met Rossi's, silently begging him to trust her. Reluctantly, he lowered his gun.
The man laughed, dragging Hailey one more step backwards.
And right into JJ's sightline.
One shot. The man never even saw it coming as he turned, the maniacal smile still on his lips as he tried to drag Hailey one more step and JJ fired, the bullet striking right between his eyes.
His body dropped like a puppet with its strings cut; Hailey stood trembling, blood-spattered but whole. The next moment and Aaron was beside her, his arms wrapped tight around her waist, holding her desperately.
JJ slowly lowered the pistol, the hand that had so steadily fired it merely seconds before trembling down in the aftermath. And then the gun was gone, replaced by Emily's hand holding hers in a vice-like grip as she swayed unsteadily.
"Whoa, it's okay I've got you," Emily crooned, wrapping her arms tighter around JJ's waist. "Just take a breath."
"I've never never killed anyone before."
"You managed it just fine this time, darlin'," Prentiss assured, smiling in relief. "You managed just fine."
JJ sat beside a sleeping Penelope as Reid tended to Hotch's cracked skull and Mrs. Strauss' battered face. She'd volunteered to watch over the other woman so that Kevin could close down the saloon for the night. Across from her sat Emily, who refused to leave JJ's side and currently was gently rocking a sleeping Henry in her lap while Hailey sat beside her, clutching tight to Jack.
Things had happened so quickly, JJ had barely had a moment to react. One second she was rushing after Hailey to see what the commotion was outside the store, the next she was watching Aaron be knocked unconscious and Hailey dragged into the street by a raving madman. There'd been no time to panic, no time to think, only act.
She'd grabbed the boys and shoved them into the storeroom and bolted the door despite their cries and confusion. The gun that Emily insisted be purchased had yet to arrive but JJ knew Aaron kept one under the counter by the till. It seemed to take forever to find it, to make certain it was loaded. The yelling had continued from the front of the store, so JJ had gone out the back, circling around the building until she was behind the man and Hailey. Her eyes met Emily's and she'd known what had to be done, known what she had to do. It wasn't easy, but it was necessary. She'd taken a breath, flashing back to that day she'd stood with Emily shooting at debris, and adjusted her grip, squeezing the trigger slowly.
And just like that it was over.
Beside her, Penelope stirred, groaning in pain. Reid had been vague on the details but from the look on his face everyone knew it had been an incredibly close save.
"Shh, he'll be right back," JJ assured, helping Penelope sit up a bit on the pillows. She offered water without needing to be asked, smiling gently as she held the glass to the other woman's lips. "Go slow. You gave us a scare."
"That man that man was at the bar he had her necklace "
"We know," Prentiss assured. "It's okay. He's been dealt with."
Penelope swallowed down the water, coughing to clear her throat. "You you shot him?"
Emily's eyes flickered to JJ. "Not me."
"He took Hailey hostage," JJ explained. "And he shot you and attacked Aaron of course I shot him."
Penelope reached out, squeezing JJ's hand tightly. "Thank you."
JJ squeezed back, smiling. "You do what you have to do for family."
Penelope gazed down at the bandages wrapped tight over her chest and sighed melodramatically. "Well, that's gonna leave a scar. Now how am I supposed to ply my wares?"
"Oh, I don't think you'll have a problem with that any time soon," Prentiss teased, nodding her head toward the door as Kevin walked in with a giant bouquet of wild flowers. Hailey and JJ grinned knowingly. "What do you say we leave these two alone, huh?"
Kevin smiled as the women walked out, trading places to take up JJ's former seat as he put Penelope's flowers to the side. "Hey, so you remember when we were back in Cheyenne and you said, 'Kevin, let's go north. It's quiet up there.' Turns out not so quiet."
Penelope laughed and then winced, settling for a smile of contrition. "I called that one wrong didn't I?"
"Might be you've called a few other things wrong too."
"You're marrying me, and I'm not taking no for an answer."
"Is that right?"
"Well then I guess it's a good thing I decided to marry you already."
"I guess it is then."
"Does this mean I gotta be a respectable woman now?"
Kevin looked affronted. "I'm marrying myself the finest saloon mistress in the whole United States. You become respectable and all bets are off woman."
"That's what I was hoping you'd say."
The morning dawned clean and clear over Mission Springs, the summer heat still at bay in the early light. Emily turned over in bed, watching as JJ continued to sleep, Henry nestled between the two of them, snoring softly. They were cuddled together in one of the clinic's beds, a tight squeeze for two people, much less with a squirmy little boy, but Emily had never felt so settled, so comfortable. She'd travelled around the world, dined with royalty, slept in feather soft beds and the finest linens, and it wasn't until that moment that she truly understood what it meant to be home.
Reluctantly she pulled herself from bed and got dressed, tiptoeing down the stairs to pull her boots on outside the clinic.
To her surprise, she found Erin Strauss walking up the street, a basket full of food in one arm and a pot of coffee in the other. She looked like Emily felt and sported two black eyes and a bandaged broken nose from where their attacker had slammed her face into the stagecoach the day before. Emily brushed her hair back out of her face and tied it loosely at the nape of her neck. "Good morning."
"Good morning," Strauss replied. "Leaving already?"
"I have some business that needs attending," Emily answered, dropping the Western drawl she'd acquired over the years for the pristine and polished New York accent of the elite.
The change didn't go unnoticed by Mrs. Strauss, a none-too-subtle reminder that although Erin Strauss played along the edges of high society, Emily was high society and could return any time she wanted without more than batting an eyelash. "You and I started off on the wrong foot, Miss Prentiss. We don't have to continue that way."
"Oh, Mrs. Strauss, you and I both know we're never going to be confidantes," Emily said, barely keeping her smirk in check.
Strauss bristled, but kept her cool. "No," she admitted. "We won't."
"But we don't have to be enemies."
Strauss pursed her lips, considering. "A truce then?"
"A truce," Emily repeated with an affirming nod. "Here, why don't you let me help you with that," she offered, taking the basket of food from Strauss as she walked up the stairs to the clinic. "I think I'm the only one up so far, but the smell of that coffee should rouse the whole bunch soon enough." And just like that, the relaxed, easy drawl was back.
Mrs. Strauss smiled. "Well, if the coffee doesn't, these muffins should. I made them myself."
Emily hadn't been wrong about the smell of coffee waking the residents of the clinic and soon enough Hailey and Kevin came sneaking out of their patient's rooms with grateful smiles and growling stomachs. Prentiss managed a good morning, promised to return quickly, and snuck out with a muffin and cup of coffee.
She made her way to the other side of town, smiling at the shop owners along the streets as they opened up for the morning and receiving, to her surprise, more than a few smiles back. The bank wasn't open yet but that didn't stop her from knocking on the door. Rossi opened up a few moments later.
"Emily, what are you doing up so early?"
"I need your help."
The look on her face spoke volumes and David Rossi knew better than to argue. "Well, come on in then."
U.S. Marshal J.B Books was a patient man. He was a thorough man. He never drew his gun unless he had to but when he did, he aimed to kill. And as a patient and thorough man, he'd been tracking a raping, murderous bastard across the plains for three years only to have his journey end in Mission Springs, Wyoming, a town so small it didn't even have a sheriff, much less anything else of note.
He tipped his hat back as he trotted inside the town proper, taking a good long look at the layout, at the well-kept houses and buildings, at the relative prosperity. Small but nice, just the kind of place a predator would have chosen to make his hunting grounds. He found an empty rail and tied his horse up; a few inquiries and he was on his way to the town clinic.
Books took off his hat as he stepped inside, greeting the doctor - if a man that young could actually be considered a doctor - and a small contingent of visitors and patients coming in and out of rooms. "I heard ya'll had some excitement the last few days. Shot and killed a man yesterday."
Hotch eased himself into a rocking chair, happy to be up and out of bed if still strictly under Hailey's watchful eye. "That's right, Marshal."
"Did he look like this?" Books pulled out a wanted poster and handed it to Aaron.
Hailey gasped as she saw the face; Hotch squeezed her hand reassuringly. "That's him."
"Mike Sweeney," Books answered. "I've been tracing that no good son of a bitch across six states and territories." As an afterthought he glanced at Hailey, muttering, "Pardon my language ma'am."
"No pardon needed," Hailey said grimly. "He was a no good son of a bitch. And now he's a dead one."
"If you don't mind me asking, Mr. Hotchner, how'd it happen? I've been tracking that man for years I have to tell you, I'm a little disappointed I didn't get to see him hang."
"Well, it started a few months ago " It wasn't a difficult story to tell, and Hotch told it with attention to detail and minimal embellishment, which Books appreciated. "And well, that was it. We didn't even really know his name before now. Miss Penelope assumed the name he gave her was a lie."
Books sat back, whistling. "That's pretty damn impressive for a bunch of amateurs."
"It was a team effort," Hotch said, keeping his gaze steady on Books. His head might be thundering like a team of loose Mustangs were running wild inside his skull but he wasn't going to be brushed off by the Marshal. "Amateurs or not, we managed to do what you haven't for the last three years."
"That you did Mr. Hotchner, that you did." Books stood up. "I guess that's about all I need to know then."
Hotch stood up as well. "If you'd like to see his body, it's being kept at the barbershop. We're gonna put him in the ground today."
"I think I'd like to see that." Books nodded once and said his goodbyes before walking out of the clinic. On the street, he put his hat back and let his eyes adjust to the sunlight. From the story he'd just heard it wasn't hard to spot the brunette with the matching pair of Peacemakers walking up the street and know it was Emily Prentiss. He tipped his hat. "Miss Prentiss?"
"That's right," Emily answered slowly. "And you are?"
"Marshal J.B Books," he answered. "I appreciate you folks cleaning up what I couldn't." He eyed her guns. "Hotchner tells me you're the best shot in town."
"I'm all right, I guess."
"Guns like those you should be sheriff," he smirked. "Backwater town like this could use one."
Prentiss gaped at him. "I "
"Have a good day, Miss Prentiss."
Emily turned and watched him walk away down the street, whistling happily. The clinic door opened and JJ walked out, smiling at her dazed expression.
"What's that look for?"
"The Marshal thinks I'd make a good sheriff," Emily answered, still smiling in dazed amusement.
JJ looked at her, considering. "He's not wrong."
Emily laughed. "You and I are going to break all the rules, aren't we?"
JJ smiled and leaned up, kissing Emily lightly on the cheek. "God, I hope so."
"And people think I'm trouble."
Fall was starting to show signs of settling in any day, but Emily wasn't worried. Oh, there were still a half-dozen things that needed her attention, but they were minor inconveniences. Her stock was solid, her barn and fences well-tended, but most importantly, her family was thriving.
All these things she noted with barely concealed happiness as she set about writing her mother for her once-monthly correspondence. Disowned or not, they kept in touch as a formality; it was simply poor manners not to, something her mother could not abide. Some might roil with jealousy over the parties and gala events her mother recounted from New York society, but not Emily. She took far more joy in describing her land and her friends, especially the stories she'd recounted from Penelope and Kevin's wedding only the week before.
There were two events of note, however, that had her pen hesitating over paper as she searched for the proper words to convey their importance. One dealt with the rather surprising town meeting from the month before. The residents of Mission Springs were shaken to the core by the murders that had so easily happened around them, not to mention the violence done to several of their fellow citizens. In response, they'd voted Hotch as the official mayor - not just a title in name only - and had, to Emily's surprise, voted her in as the town's first official sheriff.
The explanation had been simple - she had the guns and had proven herself capable of using them. Was the job expected to be so uneventful that any fear of having a woman in charge had been minimal? Maybe, especially considering that with Hotch as Mayor, Emily would be reporting directly to him. Had Mrs. Strauss' hand been behind some of the machinations? Perhaps. And yet, there had been no dissention, just a simple chorus of voices seconding and affirming the nomination made by David Rossi. Even now, Emily had to reach for the gold star pinned to her vest, her fingers tracing over it, to remind her it was indeed a reality.
The second event - no less ground shaking - was a far more delicate issue to broach with her parents. As an only child, and a female, she'd long been regaled with terrifying stories of "fortune hunters" - rakish, unscrupulous men who sought to take advantage of young women merely to obtain their money before leaving them distraught and penniless. Most of those stories Emily had accepted as apocryphal, until she'd been pregnant and nearly disowned at the age of fifteen. The lesson had been excruciating to learn, but since that time she'd never trusted anyone with her money besides herself. The trust fund her grandfather had left to her would keep her well taken care of for years, and despite their differences, she had little doubt that should something happen to her parents, the majority of their assets would pass to her as well. There was a reason she'd never been formally disowned. The real question that had plagued Emily was what would happen to all that money if something happened to her?
She'd taken the initial steps with Rossi but the rest had required a solicitor, and that had taken time given the closest one was a week's ride away. But the paperwork was done now, and after more than a few discussions with JJ, the details arranged.
The partnership agreement had been easy enough to draw up after the deed to the land had been transferred into both their names, but it had been the longest argument. JJ refused to take a half-share in the land and wouldn't budge despite Emily's protests. No amount of logic or reason would convince the younger woman that taking any piece of the ranch back was anything but charity. Emily wouldn't relent, and JJ refused to give in, until in a fit of pique Emily had finally blurted out: "It's the closest I can get to marrying you, damn it, so just sign the god damn papers!"
There had been silence then. Solid, not-a-breath-silence.
And then JJ had simply straightened her shoulders and reached for the pen. "Well, why didn't you say so?"
The conversations after that - writing a will, naming JJ and Henry heirs, establishing joint access to bank accounts - were much easier. Their lives were as entwined as the law would allow them and there was no turning back, not that either of them wanted to. In a meadow on the western part of the property, while Henry ran around chasing butterflies and the horses grazed, they stood in the sunshine and made vows to each other, vows that were far more permanent than anything a lawyer had written down on paper. But it wasn't those vows Emily knew her mother would be concerned about and she had no idea how to explain one without the other.
A hint of lavender wafted over Emily's shoulder a moment before JJ asked in amusement, "Are you still working on that letter?"
"It's a rather important letter, don't you think?"
With Henry tucked away in bed and snoring soundly, JJ had finally taken her hair down from the bun it had been in all day and let it flow in loose waves around her shoulders. Emily scooted back from the table just enough to tug JJ down onto her lap, one hand fisting in the long locks as she drew the younger woman down for a lingering kiss. "Hmm, what were we talking about?"
"The letter to my mother," Emily teased, nipping at JJ's bottom lip just to watch the other woman's eyes flutter in arousal. This was a preamble of things to come, but Emily wanted to savor the moment nevertheless. Sometimes these small moments meant more than anything else.
"Ah, yes." JJ settled onto Emily's lap, indulging her own whim by twisting a lock of dark hair around her fingers. "You don't have to tell her about us, you know? I don't mind."
"I mind," Emily answered without hesitation. "They need to know who you are and what you mean to me."
"And what do I mean to you," JJ asked, already knowing but never tiring of hearing the answer.
"Then tell her that," JJ smiled, dropping a sweet kiss to Emily's brow. "And then come to bed. We've got an early morning ahead and I'm not done with you yet tonight."
A smile; a promise. Emily watched JJ cross the room and start to pull the covers down on the bed. She turned and put pen to paper once more.
You'll be happy to know that the possibility of my being asked to leave a foreign country again is highly unlikely "
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