Chapter 22

"What exactly do you want to get straight, Jason?" AJ asked angrily, "I told you I would hand Rebecca over, but if you press me-"

Jason interrupted coldly, "You'll what, AJ? You'll be stupid enough to do something about it? Maybe, but I reckon it's more likely you'll do nothing like the coward you've always been without Edward." Icy blue eyes locking with raging brown ones, Jason continued in a deadly tone, "But just in case you are that stupid, let me make myself clear. Don't ever try to get to me through my daughter or wife again. I won't be so forgiving next time."

"Jason, surely such threats are unnecessary!" cried Monica in real distress as she walked up to her estranged son, "Can we not have peace now? Please Jason." As she finished her plea, Monica placed a perfectly manicured hand on Jason's sleeve. The elegant woman detested any appearance of unpleasantness.

"Peace?! You obviously are still deluded about what kind of man Jason is now, Mother," AJ commented scathingly, "He's nothing but a murderer."

Monica let out a gasp. "AJ! That is a horrid thing to say!"

Placing a hand on his wife's shoulder, Alan sighed, "Your mother's right, AJ. You shouldn't be making such accusations. We still don't know what happened to Father." Then Alan's brown eyes rested on the unreadable face of his younger son, "And you, Jason. You've received a promise from AJ that Rebecca will be returned to you. Don't you think you should let the past go, and leave AJ alone?"

Jason almost smirked at Alan's suggestion. It was typical of the Quartermaines. They were so used to betrayal, they thought it should be easy for other people to forgive it, especially if it was the Quartermaines who had done the betraying. But some betrayals you just couldn't forgive. Ever.

After an ensuing uncomfortable silence, AJ shook his head and muttered, "Jason never forgives or forgets. Do you Jason?"

Ignoring his brother's taunts, Jason started to make his way toward the door, but before reaching it, he stopped to warn, "Don't try to pull anything funny with Rebecca, AJ. I'll expect to pick her up here in two days at the most. If she's not here by then, I'm going after her."

"Don't you threaten me, Jason-" AJ began but before he could finish his angry retort, Jason was already out the door, heading towards the garden.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Still a little shaken by the confrontation with the Quartermaines, Elizabeth took a seat next to Lila on an old wooden bench at the edge of the most beautiful rose garden she had ever seen. From the neatly trimmed bushes and trees in the front of the house, one would never guess such wild beauty existed behind the Quartermaine ranch. Along the brick path winding down the center of the gardens, every conceivable colour seemed to be blooming together in no particular arrangement under the bright afternoon sun.

"It is lovely, is it not?"

Sapphire eyes filled with confusion moved away from the spectacular scenery back to the kind elderly face. Lila smiled and pointed out to the scenery, "This garden."

Elizabeth nodded shyly, "Yes it is very beautiful."

"When we first came here, there was one rose bush planted," Lila's gaze shifted past Elizabeth to sweep over the garden as she continued, "It had these small lovely yellow blooms. All those years ago the land was still very much wild, and no settlers had lived here, so it was quite the mystery how that bush got planted. And even more of a mystery was how it survived with no tending when many of the bushes in the area had died due to the droughts of the previous years. I knew the moment I saw that bush, this was going to be our home...If that bush could survive and flourish on this land so could we."

As gentle breeze played with a loose dark curl that had slipped out from beneath Elizabeth's stylish new hat, a small smile played upon her lips at the story.

Lila turned her eyes back to Jason's new wife with a sad smile. "And we have survived, Elizabeth. The Quartermaines are still here...but unfortunately we have not all flourished as this garden has...there has been too much pain and not enough love over the recent years..."

Hearing the unmistakable heartache in those words, Elizabeth impulsively placed her tiny hand over the elderly lady's.

Taking her other elegant wrinkled hand, and placing it over the younger one, Lila smiled warmly again. "But I do believe you are just what this family needs, Elizabeth."

"M-me?" Elizabeth asked in astonishment, "Mrs. Quart-"

"Lila, dear," the wise woman reminded the girl gently, "And yes, Elizabeth. You. I do not know how much you know of our family, but you have just witnessed some of the anger that drives it." Lila took a deep breath as her eyes filled with tears of sorrow, "And as much as I love my husband, he was in many ways to blame for it. Edward was a difficult man, Elizabeth. Life made him that way. As a young boy, he was so very poor and had to struggle so hard to survive on the streets of Boston. As a young man, he worked his way from farm to farm on his way out West to Oklahoma, where he eventually saved enough money to buy a small farm. That farm was burned down by a neighbouring landowner who was trying to drive him out. It didn't work. Edward was never a quitter and eventually built that farm into one of the most successful ones in the county."

"We met a few years later when my family arrived in Oklahoma. Initially, I had my reservations about him, and so did my parents, particularly my father." The wise cobalt eyes twinkled as she continued, "But he was a charmer, my Edward, and determined. Once he set his mind on something, there was no stopping him. Eventually...inevitably, I fell in love with him, and we married. But Edward soon became restless. He wanted to be more than just a simple farmer. He wanted to make his mark in the world. So we sold the farm and headed to Kansas where Edward believed he could build his own legacy...the largest ranching empire in the country."

Elizabeth's eyes widened slightly.

Seeing the girl's astonishment, Lila nodded understandingly, "Yes, it was quite ambitious, but Edward was always ambitious. Even when all his dreams had become a reality, he was afraid that all his success would be taken away. I remember how adamant Edward was about buying all the land my father had bought to help us out when we first came here...Edward had hated the thought of being indebted to anyone. I believe it always irritated him to no end that my father never handed over to him all the land he had purchased and left it to me..." Lila paused as she patted the girl's hand, and said with a small chuckle, "You must be wondering why this old woman is prattling on like this."

Shaking her head, Elizabeth murmured, "Oh no, Lila...it is all so fascinating."

Lila smiled. "Thank you, for saying so, my dear. But there is a reason I am telling you all of this. As much as Jason has tried to distance himself from this family, he will always be a part of it. Rebecca is also a part of this family, and now, so are you, my dear."

Despite the fact the elderly woman had been nothing but kind to her, Elizabeth was still surprised that the woman would so easily welcome her into the family. "Thank you, Lila, for being so kind."

"No appreciation is needed, my dear. You are Jason's wife, now. You are family. And as such, I want you to know why there is such unhappiness in this family." She paused a moment to gather her thoughts before continuing again, "As I was saying, Edward had always been afraid that all he had worked for would one day be taken away from him. He pushed himself and the people around him to ensure that would never happen. Unfortunately, he ended up, more often than nought, pushing people too far. The men AJ and Jason are today is the result of this."

The elderly woman eyes became sad as she continued, "It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time when those two men were the best of boyhood brothers. But as they grew older, things began to change. You see, AJ was once a fun-loving, sociable boy who had somewhat of a wild streak in him. More than once, he was caught in some mischief or another."

"Jason, however, always took his responsibilities to the family very seriously. He knew how important the ranch was to the family. And he loved the land. Its history and beauty fascinated him. He would spend hours riding, swimming, fishing...exploring on the land. This led Edward to believe the future of the ranch and the Quartermaine fortune was Jason, and favoured him at both boys' detriment."

Lila sighed, "You see, Elizabeth, as Edward's favouritism continued, AJ's resentment of his brother grew until it has become the anger you saw today. And Jason...he soon became disillusioned by this family. We all failed him in so many ways..."

As Lila's voice trailed off, Elizabeth had this almost overwhelming urge to ask a myriad of questions that came to mind about Jason and his past. But she didn't quite feel it was her place to ask...in many ways it was as if she was delving into a stranger's most personal and intimate side...a stranger who happened to be her husband.

Curious crystal blue eyes searched Elizabeth's face. "You are not going to ask what happened, are you my dear?" Lila asked, "Has Jason told you why he has distanced himself from the family?"

Elizabeth replied softly, "A little."

"Yes, a very little I should guess," Lila nodded, "You have likely not had much time to discuss all of this, and Jason...he has become very guarded." When the younger girl did not say anything, Lila continued, "I do believe you are wise my dear not to ask what happened. I am not the one that should tell you. And Jason will in his own time. But I do believe you see in part why there is such distrust and anger in both AJ and Jason. And now with poor little Rebecca thrown into the whole dreadful situation, it has become even worse."

With a soft sigh, Lila continued, "I am hoping all this will soon come to a peaceful resolution and Rebecca and Jason can finally come to know one another. And you, my dear, I am sure will be of great help to them."

"I hope so," Elizabeth replied with a shy smile. She could not think of anything at the moment she wished more.

Smiling in return, Lila gave a firm nod. "I am most confident you will, my dear. As I was saying earlier you are just what this family needs." Seeing the baffled expression in the girl's eyes, the older woman explained, "These past few days, Elizabeth, I have heard a great deal about you."

As all the likely things Jason's grandmother could have heard about her ran through Elizabeth's mind, a bright scarlet travelled up into her face.

Laughing faintly, the elderly lady patted the girl's hand with a reassuring smile. "Do not worry, dear. All I have heard has only convinced me you are just what Jason needs. You see Elizabeth, it is very hard for him to trust, and that is what he needs most. He needs to be able to trust the people he allows close to him. And you, my dear, are very loyal." Holding up a hand at the girl's shy protestations, she continued, "I have heard all about how you stood up for him in front of the whole town even when it was at a very high personal cost to yourself. It was very brave."

Blue eyes rounded in surprise, "Oh no, Lila, I was not-"

"But yes, my dear," Lila interrupted firmly, "You were quite brave. Not many if any other ladies in your position would have sacrificed their reputation for a man they hardly new. And then you married him..." The lady's pale blue gaze settled onto the shining gold band on the girl's slender finger.

Elizabeth followed Lila's gaze down to her hand, and stared hard at the ring. It had only been two days since it had been placed on her finger, but it already felt as if it had always been there...Lila's voice broke through her bemusement at the thought.

"It was quite brave of you to marry Jason. I know what this town says about the dear boy, and that alone would frighten off any young girl. But to marry a man with a young daughter is quite astonishing, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth, still blushing, was quick to interject, "Oh but it is Jason who was helping me, Lila. My reputation had been ruined, and he was kind enough to ask me to marry him."

Lila smiled at this sincere statement, "I believe he was more wise than kind, Elizabeth. He knew he could trust Rebecca with you. And he knew what I know now," the elderly lady's keen eyes held the girl's wide ones, "You are more than brave enough to protect his daughter if need be."

At the gentle lady's words of praise, Elizabeth's eyes filled with confusion. How could Lila possibly believe she was brave? Everyone knew she was extremely timid about everything...it had been one of her grandmother's constant complaints about her.

Seeing the doubt in the girl's eyes, Lila squeezed her hand. "How can you doubt yourself, my dear? While many people can say they are brave, I believe a person is defined by their actions. Your actions...your standing up for Jason in front of the town, your marrying him, and..." the older woman's bright blue eyes twinkled as she finished softly, "And your defence of Jason in the salon. They're all the actions of a brave woman."

Elizabeth's eyes widened slightly at Lila's reference to the incident in the salon. Oh dear! Had Jason's grandmother seen...but she had not said anything...

Easily reading Elizabeth's expressive eyes, Lila shook her head, "My dear, do not fret so...I know you only meant to protect Jason. You did not mean to harm AJ. In fact, if anything, AJ caused the harm to himself."

As it became obvious the older woman had definitely seen Elizabeth tripping her grandson, Elizabeth's colour heightened even more in embarrassment. She did not even know how to respond to Lila's comforting words.

But as she searched for replying words, a tingling of awareness ran through her. Tearing her gaze away from Lila to turn around, she found herself staring into Jason's penetrating blue eyes. He was standing at the edge of the garden near the ranch house. For a moment she saw something flicker in his eyes, but in the next instant, it was gone. Jason's gaze shifted to his grandmother as he made his way over to them.

Watching the young couple exchange glances, Lila could see there was already a connection between them, a connection they themselves likely did not know existed.

With a concerned expression, Lila stood up and reached for her grandson's hand, "Jason, dear, is everything alright?"

"Yes, Lila," Jason replied gently as he enfolded her frail hand in his strong one, "As much as I was tempted otherwise, I left AJ in one piece."

Lila shook her head sadly, "I am terribly sorry, Jason, that it has come to this."

"No, Lila. Don't apologise. None of this is your fault," Jason's firm tone softened, "I'm sorry about this whole blackmailing business."

"It had to be done," Lila's voice conveyed conviction, "They left me with no other alternative." She sighed regretfully, then continued, "But at least it will all come to the right end soon. I will have word sent immediately to Emily, and she will see to it Rebecca is brought home safely."

Jason nodded his head. "I know she will." He trusted his sister absolutely. Emily had never once failed him.

Lila's face softened as a small smile appeared on her face. "Emily is most anxious to see you again Jason, and to meet Elizabeth." Lila's clear blue gaze turned to the girl now standing by her side. "I believe you will like Emily, Elizabeth. She's quite unique, our Emily, is she not Jason?"

Jason's lips twitched slightly in amusement, "Yes Emily is very unique."

As she found herself staring in fascination at the amusement in Jason's eyes as he spoke of his sister, Elizabeth wondered exactly how Emily Quartermaine was "unique". She could only remember a handful of times in her childhood when she had caught glimpses of the youngest Quartermaine. She remembered only a pretty face with an inviting smile, but could not recall anything else.

"Elizabeth?" Jason's voice interrupted her reverie, "I'm sorry to cut short your visit with Lila, but we should get going. We need to get the house ready for Rebecca."

Lila's eyes grew inquisitive as she asked, "The house? I never even thought to ask. Where are you going to live, Jason?"

Tensing slightly, Jason responded curtly, "On the farm you handed over to me."

Lila was silent for a moment as she searched her grandson's emotionless face. Sadly, she realised the pain was still there. That land was filled with so many memories of Robin...would it be fair to Elizabeth? With a quick glance toward the girl's concerned expression as her gaze fixed on Jason, Lila hoped Elizabeth would be able to hold her own against the memories. "I am happy Rebecca will have a home there. It is such a beautiful place. Have you seen it yet, Elizabeth?"

"Yes," Elizabeth replied softly with a smile as she recalled the belonging she had felt with the land, "It is beautiful."

At the girl's response, Lila's mind was put at ease. No, the memories would not get the better of the girl. With one hand still in Jason's, Lila took hold of Elizabeth's with her other. "Thank you for coming by today, my dears. Despite the earlier unpleasantness, I had a lovely visit."

Jason leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on the old lady's pale cheek. "Thank you, Lila. For everything."

"I am praying everything will work out as it should," Lila responded gently as she returned his kiss on the cheek with one of her own. "You and Rebecca deserve to know each other."

As Elizabeth watched the affectionate exchange, she felt a pang of longing overcome her. It was odd, but she could not recall a single time when her own grandmother had simply kissed her on the cheek...such a simple gesture of affection yet so filled with love.

Lila turned toward Elizabeth, and seeing the touch of sadness in her expression, she said, "I cannot tell you how happy I am you have joined our family Elizabeth. You are certainly a breath of fresh air." And as if it was the most natural thing in the world, the generous lady leaned forward and kissed Elizabeth on the cheek. "Remember dear," she whispered, "Do not doubt yourself."

Eyes shimmering with emotion, Elizabeth whispered in return, "Thank you, Lila. I will try to remember."

Lila squeezed Elizabeth's hand and placed it in Jason's as she said to him, "I will have word sent to you about the train Emily will be arriving on, and when she will be at the ranch. I believe it may take Emily some time to convince Eve to come home. My guess is that it will be two days before they'll be here."

A little caught off guard by his grandmother's actions, and the feel of Elizabeth's soft, tiny hand in his, Jason nodded absently in agreement. "I told AJ that I'd be expecting Rebecca back by then. We will see you then."

"Yes," Lila replied with a small smile. She had caught Jason's hard stare down where his hand joined with Elizabeth's. It was very revealing as was the girl's lowered gazed and the flush rising over her cheek. "I hope to see you again soon, Elizabeth."

Looking up quickly Elizabeth nodded. "Thank you, Lila."

With a few more parting words, Jason and Elizabeth soon took their leave of Jason's grandmother, and to the wise lady's satisfaction, as they disappeared around the corner of the ranch house the young couple were still hand in hand.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

The ranch house had long disappeared from sight behind them when Jason glanced at the girl beside him in the buggy. Elizabeth had been even more quiet than usual since they had left Lila in the garden. The way she was staring off in the distance, biting her lower lip, made him suspicious something was worrying her.

Hell, of course something was worrying her. Any sane person would be unsettled after witnessing that damn fiasco at the ranch. He wasn't surprised with AJ's reaction to Lila's ultimatum, but he hated that Elizabeth had been caught up in the middle of the resulting confrontation.

And that brought him back to what was bothering her. "Elizabeth?"

She gave a little start as her eyes flew up to meet Jason's. If he had not known before something was wrong, he would now looking into her large blue eyes swimming with anxiety.

"Yes, Jason?" she replied hesitantly as she attempted to nervously tuck an errant curl under her hat.

"Did something happen during your visit with Lila?"

Surprised by the question, Elizabeth answered quickly, "I-I had a lovely time with Lila. She's such a kind woman."

Not one to skirt around an issue, Jason asked bluntly, "Then what's wrong?"

Her eyes widened slightly before her gaze shifted quickly away from his intense regard. Ever so quietly, she began, "There's something I need to tell you, Jason..."

Her voice trailed off into silence, but Jason didn't say anything as he waited for her to finish.

Taking a deep breath, Elizabeth raised her eyes again to meet his directly before revealing, "There's something you need to know about your brother's fall, Jason...I can't tell you how sorry I am...I didn't mean to harm him, really, but he was going to hit you and I just reacted. I-I tripped him, Jason. That's how he fell."

Jason didn't respond for a moment as he guided the horse off Quartermaine land onto the main trail toward town. Then he turned back to Elizabeth and said simply, "I know, Elizabeth. I saw you."

"You know?!" asked Elizabeth incredulously, "But why did you not..." She couldn't understand how he had not said anything if he had known.

"I didn't want to draw everyone's attention to you."

Elizabeth let out a soft, "Oh." She searched Jason's face for any signs of what he was thinking. His jaw was rigid and a frown was forming..."I am sorry Jason. I didn't want to hurt him."

"AJ will recover," Jason replied easily dismissing his brother's injury, "I'm not angry you tripped him. But you should never have been close enough to trip him." He stopped speaking as he pulled on the reins to stop the horse before once again focusing his full attention on Elizabeth.

"I don't want you to put yourself in between AJ and me again, Elizabeth. You could have been hurt." Of their own volition, Jason's hand rose toward Elizabeth's face to gently push back the loose curl that had been swaying into her eyes. He wanted to see into those expressive eyes. "I don't want you hurt, Elizabeth."

The words spoken lowly in his deep voice, the brush of his hand on her skin, the intense way his eyes were searching hers...all made Elizabeth's breath catch in her throat. She could feel the same heat spread through her body as she had earlier when Lila had placed her hand in his. It was as if she was feverish from an illness...

With great will, Elizabeth tore her gaze away from Jason to stare at the apple orchard laying just behind him. In a voice not quite steady, she replied in turn, "I did not want him to hurt you, Jason."

"I know," Jason murmured thoughtfully as he watched her eyes carefully avert his. This girl was so unlike any other person he had ever met. They had only known each other such a short time, yet she had already placed herself in harms way a number of times for his sake when he was a practical stranger to her. She was so different from the Quartermaines who were willing to trade a child whom they said they considered their own for a damn piece of land. Shaking off the anger that thought arose in him, Jason continued, "Elizabeth, I can handle AJ. I don't care if he goes after me, but I won't let him use you or Rebecca to get to me. Please stay away from him."

For a moment Elizabeth didn't respond as she thought back to the moment her foot seemed to rise instinctively as AJ moved towards Jason. She hadn't planned to do it. It just happened. "I will try, Jason, but sometimes...sometimes things happen without my intending them to."

Her words brought to mind all the situations he had come across her in. All those hogs running wild before the fair...Sorel falling into the trough...her appearing in his bed half seas under...not to mention the story of the runaway coach. Things did seem to have a strange way of happening around Elizabeth, but the thought didn't make Jason as irritated as it once had. Because he was beginning to see she always meant well...even if sometimes situations ended badly. He just didn't want her to get hurt when she followed her heart rather than her head. "Alright, Elizabeth, that's all I can ask. For you to try," he said thoughtfully.

And then out of the blue, Jason felt a slight smile twitching at the corner of his lips as he added, "Then again, perhaps I should let you near AJ more often. He didn't even know what hit him."

At the unexpected amusement in Jason's voice, Elizabeth's eyes once again flew up to his face in surprise. When she saw the slight upturn of his lips, a small timid answering smile began to play upon her own before a tiny giggle escaped her. Immediately placing a hand over her lips in shock, Elizabeth gasped, "Oh dear. I shouldn't...it really isn't funny. He was injured..."

Jason shook his head, "Don't waste your time worrying about it, Elizabeth. He deserved what he got." Jason added almost offhandedly as he took up the reins again, "And besides, I like hearing you laugh."

Elizabeth blinked at this. She was finding that Jason sometimes said the most unexpected things...this was a side to him she would never have guessed existed only a few short days ago.

Not quite sure what to say, Elizabeth's eyes once again strayed toward the apple orchard. She wondered if the satchel containing her sketches was still safely hidden. Despite all that was happening in her life...or perhaps because of what was happening...she had this overwhelming urge to go off on her own and simply draw. There was so much she was feeling...and sketching had always helped her work through her feelings. But when would she be able to retrieve her sketching pad? Jason and Sonny were both worried about Moreno and his men...she knew she couldn't go off to the pond by herself any time soon.

Jason had been about to urge the horse to get going again, when he caught the stark look of longing in Elizabeth's eyes as she stared off at the orchard. His eyes followed her gaze. He recalled how he had come upon her there the first day he came back to Heaven, and how she had mentioned taking her hog to the pond here. What was it about this place that drew her?

"Elizabeth, did you want to go take a look around?"

For a moment Jason's question did not seem to register to Elizabeth, but then as she saw him incline his head in the direction of the pond beyond the orchard, she realised he had noticed her interest in the area. Even though she did wish it, she shook her head, "We need to get back to the saloon to plan for Rebecca's return. There's so much to do..."

"That's not what I asked you, Elizabeth," Jason gently chided, "I asked if you wanted to go to the pond. Whenever we go by here you look in that direction. Don't worry, we'll have enough time to get the farm ready for Rebecca."

Elizabeth glanced back toward the orchard. She wanted to retrieve her satchel, but she didn't want anyone to know about her sketches. She wasn't ready to share them with anyone. She turned toward Jason to answer, but he was already getting down from the buggy.

Making his way to her side, Jason offered Elizabeth his hand, "Come on. I want to see the area for myself again."

She stared down at his hand for a moment, before she reached out and placed her own in his. As he helped her down from the buggy, Elizabeth noticed how it was becoming more natural to feel her hand in his, not that it didn't still do the astonishing things to her insides...

They made their way through the orchard that was fortunately empty of farmhands due to the heat of the early afternoon sun, and walked over the hill until they reached the canopy of greenery by the pond.

The pond was the same as it always was. So quiet and peaceful...and yet it was also different. Elizabeth's glance flickered toward Jason's tall form next to her. His presence had the ability to dominate her senses, changing everything and every place she experienced.

Jason walked over to the edge of the water bending down to pick up a small pebble. With a quick flick of his wrist, he threw it. The pebble skipped along the shadowed water causing ripples to come alive along the calm surface. "I remember when I used to come out here to be alone."

Jason stared out at the water as he spoke. Elizabeth turned her eyes away from the dancing ripples for a moment to look at him. He was quiet for a long time before he said, "This was one place I could get away from all of them."

It did not take too much reflection to deduce the "them" was the Quartermaines. Elizabeth remembered her conversations with Lila. Had Jason come here to escape his grandfather's expectations of him...like she had tried to escape her grandmother's?

"I'm sorry about the scene at the ranch, Elizabeth," Jason sighed as he pushed back the rim of his hat in frustration, "I wish to hell I hadn't involved you in the whole thing."

Elizabeth shook her head as she impulsively placed her hand on his arm. "No, Jason, don't be sorry. I wanted to visit your grandmother. And I wanted to help you with Rebecca..."

His eyes fell to the tiny hand on his grey sleeve. "I know. But you shouldn't have been subjected to that...no one should be subjected to that damn family."

Remembering Lila's words, Elizabeth said softly, "They are your family, Jason, and now they are mine for better or worse."

At her words, Jason's first instinct was to deny they were family. Rebecca, Lila, Emily...and now Elizabeth were his family. Then there was Sonny, Carly and the boys...but the Quartermaines? He felt nothing for them.

However, he said none of this. "You come out here by yourself often, don't you Elizabeth?" She had seemed so familiar with the area, easily making her way across the orchard, and directly toward the pond despite the fact it was slightly hidden by the trees.

She paused for a moment before nodding briefly. "Yes."

"It's not safe," Jason said with a frown, "Especially when it gets dark. You could've come across trouble out here." Ever since the war, there had been many unsavoury characters wandering the countryside. Jason remembered how he had met Elizabeth for the first time. She had been alone that evening with that bicycle of hers...it would have been so easy for something to happen to her.

Elizabeth realised the truth in his words, but "Sometimes I just-I need to be by myself..."

Jason nodded in understanding. "Alright, but from now on, if you feel the urge to be by yourself, please let me or one of the boys accompany you from a distance."

"Then I wouldn't be alone..." Elizabeth murmured with a slight smile, "But I understand, Jason. It's not safe right now to be out here alone."

He was relieved she saw the danger that existed and was willing to let him protect her. Carly could be damn ornery about her independence, and more than once, she had caused Sonny a few grey hairs while asserting it.

They stood for a long time in companionable silence next to the pond. But Elizabeth's eyes naturally began to stray toward the old tree where her satchel was hidden. Or perhaps it was no longer there. What if someone had taken it? Or what if the sketches were to be damaged by the rain in the coming months...then all those sketches of all her friends would be gone.

Elizabeth shook her head slightly. No, she couldn't simply leave the sketches here. Before she could give the matter anymore thought and without daring to look at Jason, Elizabeth abruptly walked over toward the ageing tree. She reached around its base to retrieve the satchel from its hiding place in the hollow in the trunk. As her hand felt the coolness of leather, she let out a sigh of relief. It was still there. Pulling the satchel around the trunk and safely into her two hands, she turned around, expecting Jason to ask her what she was doing.

She found Jason was indeed watching her from the same spot she had left him. His gaze rested on the object clutched in her hands and when he raised his eyes, she saw curiosity there. But he only asked quietly, "Have you done what you needed to, Elizabeth?"

Eyes widening, Elizabeth could only stare at him.

He took her silence for assent, and walked in her direction. "We should get back to town before Carly sends out the cavalry," he commented dryly.

Hands still clutching her satchel, Elizabeth could only nod.

As he reached her side, Jason stopped to wait for Elizabeth to begin the journey back towards the buggy.

Elizabeth slowly began to move her feet forward, but all the while, she was puzzling over the mystery of the man that was her husband.

They had just reached the buggy by the side of the trail, when Elizabeth suddenly turned to Jason and blurted out, "Don't you want to know what's inside the bag or why I hid it?"

He glanced once again at the well-worn satchel, before replying simply, "If you wanted to tell me, you would have." As her expression remained confused, Jason explained, "Whatever is in that satchel obviously means something to you, and maybe someday you'll want to share it with me, but right now you don't. You have a right to your privacy, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth was just recovering from her astonishment at these words when suddenly she heard the sound of a horse and buggy. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw two figures in the buggy approaching them. As it moved closer and the identity of the individuals was revealed, Elizabeth paled slightly. Oh Lord...what were they doing here?

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Chapter 22

Part 2

"Beth!" Lucky called out as he stopped his buggy in front of them. Quickly jumping down from his seat, he glanced from Elizabeth to Jason and after a curt, "Jason," he turned back to Elizabeth. "Beth, I'm glad we've met up with you. I was just saying to Sarah we should call on you today."

Judging by Lucky's honest, open gaze, and Sarah's rather displeased expression, Elizabeth felt this was indeed the case. Finding her tongue, Elizabeth replied softly, "Thank you, Lucky. I would have liked that very much."

With a voice tinged with concern, Lucky stepped toward her and asked, "Are you alright Beth?"

"Of course she is, Lucky!" Sarah shot out sharply as she made her way down from the buggy to place a possessive arm on her fiancee's arm, "I cannot believe you were concerned for her for one instant. Look at her! Dressed up like that!" Her sharp eyes swept over her sister, "You look beyond ridiculous, Lizzie. You look like a little girl playing dress-up with your mother's clothes."

Elizabeth's face flushed slightly as she was reminded of the beautiful outfit she had on. She, herself, felt the sophisticated outfit was out of place on her, but to hear Sarah say the words hurt.

"Sarah!" Lucky reprimanded angrily as he pulled his fiancee's hand off his arm, "How can you say such a thing?" With an apologetic look to Elizabeth, he said, "You look...beautiful, Beth." There was genuine warmth in his eyes as he smiled at her.

As Sarah let out an angry gasp, Elizabeth blushed. "Thank you, Lucky."

With cool blue eyes Jason silently watched the tense scene play out in front of him. At Sarah's cruel remark, he had felt a jab of anger but he had let Elizabeth handle the situation. He now knew she could more than handle her sister. But he should have also known Lucky would come to her defence. iThe boy always did./i Jason frowned slightly at the thought. Why the hell did that bother him?

Lucky's voice cut through Jason's thoughts, "Beth, will you come to supper tomorrow? Lulu's been begging me to ask you, and you know my parents always love having you by. They want to celebrate-"

"But I promised your aunt Bobbie we would have dinner at her house tomorrow, Lucky," Sarah cut in quickly, "We need to discuss the details of the wedding. After all not every wedding is rushed all into one day. I'm sure Lizzie won't mind coming by some other time."

Elizabeth didn't immediately hear her sister as she was distracted by Lucky's last words. What did he mean they wanted to celebrate? What could they be cele-oh heavens! Tomorrow was...how could she have forgotten her own birthday?! Elizabeth glanced toward Sarah. She wondered how her sister could have forgotten...or perhaps she simply didn't care?

But then again, birthdays had never really been celebrated in the Hardy household. Her grandmother did not believe one should make a production over such an insignificant event. All of Elizabeth's happy birthday memories had always been at the Spencer's. Her eyes travelled back to Lucky...it was very kind of him to remember...

"Sarah, how can you for-" Lucky began in irritation, but Elizabeth quickly interrupted, "That is alright, Lucky. I can visit another time. Thank you for the kind offer, and please give my love to your parents and Lulu." Wanting away from Sarah's anger, and yes, even, Lucky's painful kindness, Elizabeth turned to Jason, "Should we not be getting back to the saloon?"

Seeing the plea in Elizabeth's eyes, Jason nodded and took her hand to help her into the buggy. When she was seated, he turned to the other man with an acknowledging, "Lucky." Then walking right past the vexed looking Sarah, he took his seat, and picked up the reins.

After she made an awkward farewell to the other couple, Elizabeth felt the buggy jolt, and then they were off. Turning around to look out at the empty stretch of road ahead them, she could feel the daggers her sister was staring into her back, and Lucky's confusion. But overwhelmingly what she felt as she and Jason moved farther away was simple relief.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

"Hey Francis ya idiot, watch it with that there paint!"

From the porch of the farmhouse, Elizabeth paused in the midst of wringing the very dirty rag she had been using to clean the front door's large stained glass rose window. Turning around she searched for the source of the raised voices.

Eventually, despite the bright glare of the afternoon sun, Elizabeth could make out the figure of Johnny standing in front of the large barn with a bucket in one hand. His head was tilted back as he looked up at Francis, who was high up on a tall ladder. In both their hands, they carried paint brushes, which they had been using for the past three hours to paint the large bright red structure.

Francis glared down while waving his brush at Johnny. "I told ya to stay away from the ladder. It ain't my fault ya didn't listen and now be lookin' like a tomato."

"If ya could get yore mind off that damn gal, then ya might be gettin' more paint on the barn than on me, Francis!"

Before Francis could respond, an angry holler rang through the air, "Stop that bickerin' ya two. We ain't got no time for it! Jase and Elizabeth need this place fixed by night. Get back to paintin' or ya both'll be dealin' with me, ya hear?!"

The two men grumbled, but quickly followed the orders Carly had shouted out from an upstairs window.

Neither man wanted to get on her bad side. Ever since the previous afternoon, when she had heard Rebecca was expected to be home in mere days, Carly had been a woman on a mission. She had quickly organised most of Sonny's men and her girls to round up the supplies needed to start the clean up of the farm. And even though it had been almost evening by the time everything had been gathered, she had insisted they close the saloon for the night, and start immediately toward the farm.

And by dark, the group from the saloon had been able to get a good start on fixing up the farmhouse. All the floors had been swept and most of the furnishings wiped down by the women. The men had completed stripping most of the old paint from the barn, and had taken down sections of the fencing that were falling apart. So it was a very weary group that made their way back to the saloon. But the very next morning, Carly had everyone up before dawn to head back out to the farm again.

As her eyes swept over the almost completely painted barn, Elizabeth could only wonder at her friend's ability to get so much accomplished in such a short time. The house after a good airing and dusting was beginning to lose that faint scent of mildew that permeated it after two years sitting empty, and with all the linen and drapery in the house washed, the house was now very inviting.

Shaking off her thoughts, Elizabeth turned back to the door to finish her task. Her eyes lit up with pleasure as they travelled over the deep scarlet rose petals revealed beneath the grime. She couldn't wait to see how the early evening light would appear through the stained glass window.

After giving the glass one last thorough wiping, Elizabeth stepped down from the wooden carton she had been standing on to reach the window. Dropping the rag into a bucket of dirty water, she picked up the bucket's handle and made her way down the front porch stairs.

Walking a short distance toward the barnyard, she stopped by the water pump, and dumped the water from her bucket before filling it up again with clean water. As she wrung out the dirty rag, her eyes began to wander in the same direction they had all day...toward the edge of the farm where a number of men were working hard to mend the long stretch of fencing. But she was seeking one man in particular...

She immediately caught sight of him. While she couldn't quite make out his face as his back was turned to her and his full concentration seemed to be focused on nailing in a new wooden board, Elizabeth found she just somehow knew it was him. Perhaps it was the black hat he wore...or the blue shirt she had seen him in that morning, but she had a feeling even if all the men had been dressed the same she still would have recognised him. It was something about the way he moved as he swung the hammer...

As if he could feel her eyes on him, Jason suddenly ceased his hammering, and turned around. As his eyes met hers, Elizabeth felt a deep red flush rise to her face in embarrassment at getting caught staring at him. She found that was happening a great deal lately...of their own will, her eyes seemed to constantly stray toward him...and he would catch her staring. He never said anything to her, but would simply look steadily back at her in turn.

After a moment longer while their eyes remained locked, Jason gave a slight nod of his head before returning back to his work. But even as he tried to concentrate on nailing the two blocks of wood together, he couldn't quite shake Elizabeth out of his thoughts.

As he caught out of the corner of his eyes Elizabeth making her way slowly back toward the house, he remembered how exhausted she had been the previous night. She had been so worn out that for the first time she had immediately fallen asleep on his bed as soon as her head had hit the pillow. Usually she was so nervous when they were alone in his bedroom, it would her take her an eternity to fall asleep, but last night, she hadn't even put up her usual argument over his sleeping on the floor...

But despite how tired she was from yesterday's work, this morning, Elizabeth had been as eager as Carly to get back to the farm. She was a small thing but he found she was one of the hardest workers out here. And she seemed to actually be enjoying the work. He often caught a soft smile on her lips even though she was covered with filth and grime from head to foot. And she approached each of her tasks with such care...he had seen how she had painstakingly cleaned each pane of the stained glass window.

"I reckon we're almost done here, Jase," Sonny's voice interrupted his thoughts, "And I'll be wagerin' that wife of mine has got that house as good as new."

Jason nodded and said almost seriously, "I'm only surprised she didn't find time to build a new one."

"Don't be givin' her ideas," Sonny said with a chuckle. Then taking off his hat to wipe a bead of sweat from his forehead, he muttered, "Damn, but it's hot out here."

Even Jason, who was used to the blazing heat of the Texas sun, found the heat suffocating. He glanced around at Sonny's men, and could see most of them were drenched in sweat. "Yeah, it is damn hot. Why don't you go and tell all the men they can head back? I can finish this last part here, and then we'll head back to the saloon. I want to see if Lila sent a message there." It was getting late in the afternoon, and still there was no word on Rebecca. Jason was beginning to get uneasy, but he trusted his grandmother to let him know if something had gone wrong.

Sonny agreed to Jason's plan, and called out for his men to start packing up. He made his way over to the house and shouted up to Carly, who he could see in the far left upstairs window. "Carly! Honey, I think we're done for the day. Can you tell the girls?"

"What?!" the blond shouted incredulously as she stuck her head out the window. "There's no way we're leavin'! There's still work to be done, Sonny! Why look at that there pathway! It's got to be painted, not to mention this here house!"

Sonny moaned, "Honey, we've already talked 'bout this. We can't finish everythin' in two days. We'll be back to paint the house. We really should get back to the saloon. If it ain't open a second night in a row, we'll have riots on our hands. There's only so much a man can take of family life."

"I don't give a hog's hair what them men be wantin'! Rebecca could be comin' home tomorrow! We can't have her livin' in this place when it's like this!"

At the sound of Sonny's voice, Elizabeth had made her way out of the front door and down the porch stairs to where he stood. She was in time to catch Carly's words, and peered up to say, "Oh no, Carly. It is quite liveable now. Please do go home. Everyone's worked so hard, especially you..."

"Elizabeth's right, Carly," Jason said as he walked over to his wife's side. "Thank you for all your hard work, but you should get back to the saloon."

"But-" Carly began not willing to give up quite yet.

"Honey, I promise we'll be back tomorrow," Sonny said with dimples showing. He paused a moment before adding, "And maybe Gia's back at the saloon by now."

"Oh!" Carly shouted as she vanished from the window. In a few minutes she was running out of the front door, yelling, "Wait 'til I get my hands on that gurlie! She's got a lot of explainin' to do, disappearin' like that. I'd wager she's off with some fella."

As Carly then went about organising her girls for their departure, Sonny gave Elizabeth a small conspiratorial wink, and whispered, "I knew that would get her movin'."

Elizabeth had to smile at the way only Sonny seemed to be able to get through to Carly. But soon her mind was on other matters, as the busy preparations to depart began. All the supplies had to be put away, and the few wagons loaded up.

However, it was only a half an hour later when Elizabeth found herself sitting next to Carly, who was guiding the last of the wagons making their way from the farm. The other wagons carrying Carly's girls were well ahead of them beyond the bridge crossing the river, as were most of the men on horseback. Only Sonny, Jason, and the two cousins rode behind with their wagon.

When they had made it half way across the bridge, Johnny came to a sudden halt, causing all the other riders to stop. Waving his hand, he shouted out excitedly, "Look at that there water! I could sure use a cold swim 'bout now! It's damn hot and I'll be bettin' there's still paint in my hair thanks to my good for nothin' kin!"

Despite his cousin's insult, Francis's eyes lit up as his eyes fell on the inviting shimmering water, "Yep, sure could use a dip!"

"The last one in's a rottin' egg!" hollered Johnny as he jumped down from his horse.

Francis was not far behind. Both men hurriedly started to remove their hats, boots and socks.

Jason and Sonny exchanged quick glances, before Sonny held up his hand, "Wait a minute-" But before he could finish, both men, stripped down to their pants and undershirts, had climbed onto the railing and jumped feet first into the water.

A resulting gigantic splash of water came flying onto the bridge, hitting both Carly and Elizabeth square in the faces. "Watch it, ya two!" shouted Carly in irritation as she wiped away droplets of water from her eyes. A hand then went immediately up to her hair. Satisfied that her golden locks were still miraculously perfectly coifed despite all the work she had done during that day, she hollered, "Get out of there, boys! We ain't got time for this!"

As Johnny swam farther away from the bridge, he complained, "Aw, Carly, we've been workin' all day...just a few minutes?"

"Yep, come on Carly...it's great in here!" Francis said with a chuckle as he splashed Johnny. "Why'd don't ya be joinin' us?"

"I ain't gettin' any wetter than I already am thanks to ya idiots!" Carly replied with a scowl. Then she entreated her husband, "Sonny tell 'em fools to get out of there!"

With mild amusement in his warm brown eyes, Sonny shrugged, "What harm will a few minutes do, Carly?"

Carly gave Elizabeth an exasperated glance. "Ya see what I gotta to be dealin' with, honey?"

Elizabeth, who had been watching the cousins clowning around in the water, turned to smile at the blond. "They have worked terribly hard today, Carly...and it looks like fun." As she heard more laughter and splashes, she was about to glance back toward the river, but at that moment, out of the corner of her eyes she caught a movement. Turning around she found Jason had guided his horse toward her side of the wagon.

There was something unusually relaxed about his posture in that moment as he leaned slightly over his horse, with his arms folded slightly in front of him. His eyes, shadowed by the rim of his hat, were focused on the swimming pair, and she thought she could detect a hint of amusement in the bright blue of them. It was astonishing how his eyes appeared to change hues at times. It reminded her of the way the river could quickly change from crystal clear to a murky blue, depending on whether the sun was out or hidden by one of the fluffy white clouds in the sky.

A shout from the river broke through Elizabeth's musings.

"Come on in, Jase! Reckon I can beat ya in a race now!"

With a shrug, Jason smirked at his friend who was still a distance away from the bridge. "Perhaps you can Johnny.."

Swimming on his back, Francis was chortling with laughter as he sputtered out, "Yep, iriiiight/i Johnny me boy. Remember last time, ya swam 'gainst Jase? He was over to the other side of that lake 'fore ya even took off."

Johnny didn't take too kindly to these words and immediately swam straight toward his cousin, catching him off guard and dragging him under the water. "At least I don't sink like a rock, iFranny me girl/i."

In a moment, Francis resurfaced, pushing away the darker man's hands. "Hey, why'd ya go and do that for!" And soon he was retaliating by attempting to dunk his cousin under the water.

"Oh dear," Elizabeth murmured as she watched the two men fight in the water, "Do you think they'll hurt each other?"

Despite herself, Carly had found herself smiling at the men's antics. But she said in her characteristic brisk manner, "Would serve them right, if they did."

"You've seen how they fight all the time, Elizabeth," Sonny explained wryly, "They haven't killed each other yet."

They watched the two men for a moment in silence, when Elizabeth's saw Sonny lift his hat to wipe his perspiring forehead with the back of his hand. She asked, "The water does look refreshing. Why don't you swim with them, Sonny?"

"Sonny don't swim, Elizabeth," Carly said with a chuckle, "He hates the water like me. That's why we love each other, ain't it honey?"

Laughing in return, Sonny nodded. "Only reason I married you, honey." His dimples became prominent as he finished, "Sure wasn't for your cookin'."

Carly's eyes narrowed, "Don't ya be startin' on my cookin', Corinthos." In response, Sonny rose his hands in mock surrender, causing all four of them to laugh.

When their laughter died down, Carly turned to Elizabeth. "How 'bout ya, honey? Do ya swim?"

"No." Elizabeth's eyes wandered back to the water where Johnny and Francis were still playing around in the water. She remembered how much she had wanted to learn to when she used to watch boys like Lucky swim, but her grandmother had been adamant that a woman did not need to learn. And besides, she did not consider it idecent/i activity. No granddaughter of hers was going to wear one of those shocking black bathing outfits.

Carly's eyes took on a speculative glint as she suggested, "If ya have a hankerin' to, honey, I reckon Jase'll teach ya. Ya really should learn. After all ya'll be livin' here by the river."

At the suggestion Elizabeth quickly glanced at Jason, who slowly nodded, "You've got a point there, Carly. Elizabeth should know how to swim around here." His eyes rested on the girl's face as he inquired, "Did you want to learn, Elizabeth?"

"I-I think-" She didn't even have an opportunity to finish her reply before Carly took hold of her arm and ordered, "Well, then come on." Noticing some of the promising glances passing between the younger couple, the blond wanted to seize upon this opportunity to gently nudge them to spend more time together. iEspecially in an activity where they would be in such close proximity to one another/i, Carly thought with a wicked smile.

As she found herself being pulled out of the wagon, Elizabeth's eyes rounded in surprise. "What?! iNow/i, Carly?"

"Yep, ain't no time like the present!" Then seeing Jason was still seated on his horse, she urged impatiently, "What ya waitn' for, Jase?!"

Fully aware of his wife's scheme, Sonny chuckled. "I thought you wanted to get goin', honey?"

"Oh we have time, Sonny," Carly replied easily as she pulled Elizabeth toward the bridge's railing.

"But Elizabeth doesn't even have a bathing outfit, honey. She'll drown wearing that skirt," explained Sonny reasonably as he dismounted.

Carly looked thoughtfully over Elizabeth's now dreadfully stained, white shirtwaist and yellow skirt. "But underneath she's wearing a chemise and bloomers."

Oh Lord! Elizabeth's face went a bright red in mortification. She couldn't believe Carly was making mention of her underclothing!

"She can swim in those," Carly continued with no reservations.

Elizabeth was about to protest when Jason's voice rang out, "No, Carly. She'll freeze in those wet things by the time we get back to the saloon. We'll do it some other time." He too had dismounted and made his way over to the two women.

"Do what?" Johnny yelled out as he and Francis swam toward the bridge where the two couples stood. They had seen Carly drag Elizabeth out of the wagon and were curious about what was going on.

"Never ya mind," Carly hollered back. Turning back to Jason, Carly reluctantly admitted, "Ya may be right, Jase..." Then with her plan on hold for at least the moment, Carly leaned down over the wooden railing of the bridge and commanded, "Get out of the water, ya two! We're goin'."

After a few minutes of futile attempts to change Carly's mind, both men finally made their way back up onto the bridge.

As the two drenched men went to dress themselves, Sonny, Carly and Jason became involved in a conversation about saloon business. And Elizabeth found herself walking along the bridge guided by the railing. Leaning over the railing, she peered down into the clear water. To her delight, she caught sight of a school of spotted brown fish. They were moving so very quickly that if she blinked she was sure she would have missed them.

Lifting her eyes, she soaked in the beauty of the river and the surrounding land in the warm yellow sunlight. A burst of happiness suddenly filled her. This was where she was going to live soon, where Rebecca would grow up, where Burt would live in that large fenced pen...she smiled at the thought.

"Elizabeth?"

At Jason's voice coming from directly behind her, Elizabeth lifted her head and turned around. "Are we leaving, now, Jason?"

His gaze swept over her face for a moment before answering her. Her eyes appeared to be twinkling, and a wide smile played on her lips. Wild curls, having fallen loose from her hair pins, flew every which way in the wind. Lord...she appeared at that moment so...ialive/i. He murmured, "You look happy."

At this, Elizabeth blinked, but then with a shy smile she replied, "I am...I feel Rebecca iwill/i be home tomorrow."

He found her smile infectious, and responded with one of his own as he offered her his hand. "I hope so. Let's go, and see if Lila has sent word about when." The uneasiness he had been feeling about the lack of word from his grandmother was starting to come back with some urgency.

As they walked back toward the others, both spotted Sonny lifting Carly back onto the wagon. Once the buxom blond was seated, her husband seemed about to make his way to his horse, when Carly laughingly pulled him back toward the wagon. She leaned in to kiss him, and without any hesitation he responded in full.

As she watched the other couple's passionate display, Elizabeth felt the heat rise to her face. She was still not used to the way Carly and Sonny would show their love for each other so publicly. But it seemed they weren't even aware of other people in moments like these.

However, at that particular moment, Elizabeth was ivery/i much aware of the man beside her and the warmth of his hand around hers. She wondered how he couldn't feel the pounding of her blood where their skins touched. Daring a furtive glance up to his face, she found he was watching her with an intensity that made her heart beat even faster. However, she didn't look away but rather her gaze was drawn to his lips...she wondered what they would feel like...taste like...

"Jase! We're ready to go."

At Johnny's shout, the spell was broken, and a startled Elizabeth abruptly moved away from Jason and stepped up onto the wagon. As the wagon started, Elizabeth was grateful for Carly's constant chatter about the farm. Having to concentrate on her friend's conversation allowed her to pretend she wasn't feeling something strange and a little frightening...

The rest of the journey back to town was uneventful, and soon they found themselves back at the saloon. Johnny and Francis, who were highly uncomfortable in their still soggy clothing, were the first to go into the saloon in search of something dry to change into. They were soon followed by Carly in search of Gia.

As Sonny and Jason spoke to Max, Sonny's man who had come out to meet them, Elizabeth made her way to the back of the saloon to visit Burt as was her custom every evening.

It was a quarter of an hour later when Elizabeth stepped out of the stable after a wonderful visit with her friend. To her surprise, she found Jason waiting for her by the saloon's back door. Stopping a short distance away from him, she asked expectantly, "Have you heard anything, yet?"

He shook his head as he walked towards her. "Max said there hasn't been any word from Lila. Sonny's gone in to make sure no one else has heard anything before I go off to the ranch to find out what's going on."

"Oh dear. You don't think something's happened, do you?" Elizabeth asked in concern. Could AJ have changed his mind? Or had something else happened...

He answered honestly, "I don't know." And not knowing was making him damn frustrated.

As a thought came to her, Elizabeth's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "But why are you waiting for Sonny back here? Is your horse not out front?"

"It is, but you shouldn't be out here alone," Jason spoke absentmindedly as his thoughts were preoccupied with possible reasons his grandmother hadn't sent him any word.

"Oh," Elizabeth let out softly. His words reminded her of their conversation by the pond the previous day. "But surely I'm safe here. And you have enough to worry about without having to stand guard for me."

Shaking off his worries for the moment, Jason concentrated on the woman in front of him. Not that concentrating on her was difficult as he found his thoughts straying to her a lot lately. He admitted to himself he could have sent out one of the other men to keep an eye out for her...but the thought hadn't crossed his mind. He couldn't quite explain it, but he had felt the need make sure that she was safe. So he had made his way out back to wait for her.

As these thoughts ran through his head, his eyes wandered over her pretty face to rest on her lower lip which was slightly swollen as she bit it in anxiety. Raising his gaze, he found her extraordinary eyes staring at him in concern. Something in those trusting eyes struck a chord deep inside of him...stirring a need that he had thought was long buried. A need so powerful he felt as if he had been kicked in the gut. He knew then what he had been trying to deny since he had first met her, what he had felt every night sleeping in the same room as her. iHe wanted her./i

"Jason?" Elizabeth spoke his name in confusion. Why was he staring at her in silence? And for an instant there she thought she saw something stir in his now stormy blue eyes. Something that made it almost impossible for her to breath.

He took a step closer to her until they were close enough to touch. "Elizabeth."

He was so near that she could feel the heat from his body. Swallowing hard, Elizabeth whispered, "Yes?"

Raising a callused hand, Jason began, "I-"

"Jase!"

As Sonny came bursting out the back door, they jerked apart. Upon spotting them, the saloon owner immediately had the feeling he had interrupted something. But at that moment, he had other worries. "Jase, we've got a problem."

"Is it Rebecca, Sonny?" Elizabeth asked worriedly as she saw the lines of concern on Sonny's face.

He nodded, and looked at Jason, "One of Quartermaine hands just came in. It looks like Rebecca and your sister took the evening train. They are suppose to arrive tomorrow morning at seven."

So far Sonny's words didn't sound too ominous, but Jason could hear in Sonny's voice something was very wrong. Despite his impatience, he waited for the rest of the story.

"Your suspicion somethin' was wrong turned out right, Jase. Your grandmother did try to send word about Rebecca to you at the farm earlier this afternoon, but the man she sent never made it. When he didn't arrive back this afternoon, your grandmother sent out another one of her men to look for him, and he was found a short distance away from the ranch house. He'd been hit over the head and the message your grandmother sent you is missing."

Elizabeth let out a gasp, "Is the man alright, Sonny?"

Sonny nodded, "Fortunately, he's still alive." Turning back to Jason, he continued, "And he remembered recognising the voice of one of his attackers."

"Who?" Jason asked the question but he already had an idea. This kind of attack didn't sound like AJ's work, so it could only mean...

"Sorel. Your grandmother's man said he thought he heard Sorel say somethin' like, i'Looks like now we can pay a call on Morgan's sister and daughter.'/i"

With his suspicions confirmed, Jason cursed and he began to move towards the front of the saloon where his horse was tied. "How the hell did they find out about Rebecca? Damn! That means Moreno knows what train Rebecca and Emily are on. I have to get to them before he does."

"I know," Sonny said as he followed his friend around the corner of the building, "And I'm comin' with you."

"Well, ya ain't leavin' without me!" shouted out Carly, her hands set determinedly on her hips, as she stood in front of the saloon doors with Francis, Johnny, and a number of Sonny's other men, all armed with shotguns.

"No, Carly," Sonny said with a firm shake of his head, "You're not goin' anywhere."

Walking directly towards her husband, Carly's eyes blazed, "Oh no, ya don't, Sonny. I ain't goin' to let Moreno hurt Jase's daughter."

"Carly-" Sonny began angrily.

"We don't have time to argue about this," Jason interrupted abruptly as he quickly untied his horse's reins from the post. "You're not going, Carly. You and Elizabeth are staying here where it's safe. We can't afford to give Moreno more targets." His gaze fell on Elizabeth who was standing a short distance from him. Her eyes were big with concern. "Please stay here with Carly."

Swallowing a lump of fear, Elizabeth could only nod.

He was about to say something else when he saw Johnny and Francis making their way toward their horses. "No, Johnny. You and Francis aren't going either. I need you to keep an eye out here."

Both men nodded their heads solemnly.

Jason, Sonny and the other men recruited for the journey mounted their horses. While still angry she couldn't go with them, Carly nonetheless ran up to her husband. "Ya take care, ya hear me, Sonny? Come home to me."

Sonny's dimples came out as he bent down to kiss her gently. "Yes, ma'am."

As the couple said their goodbyes, Elizabeth slowly walked over to Jason's horse. He was sitting completely still, staring off into the distance with his jaw set in determination, and one hand on the holster of his gun.

She reached up and placed her hand on his. "Jason?"

At the soft touch, he looked down. For a moment the deadly chill in his eyes disappeared. "Don't worry. I'll bring Rebecca home, Elizabeth."

"I know," she replied softly as she removed her hand from his and took a step back, "Please be careful, Jason."

He nodded, and then with the stony mask in place once again, he told the men they were leaving. With one last glance toward Elizabeth, he urged his horse down the road, and the other men followed suit.

As she felt Carly's hand take hold of hers in comfort, Elizabeth stared after Jason's retreating form. With the setting sun in her eyes, she prayed that they would all come home safe.

~ * ~ * ~