Trailing Home

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Sometimes, the long and winding trail is the one that leads to love. Selena Darcy thought she would never marry. Her stepfather’s abuse has left her wary of men. She wants only to get as far from her stepfather as possible by joining her sister in Oregon. But when she meets a handsome stranger who can help her travel across the dangerous Oregon Trail, she realizes that he might be the one man she can trust with her heart.

When Liam McKenzie agrees to help Selena, he doesn’t realize she will turn his world upside down. He is sorely tempted by her beauty, but he isn’t ready to be tied down to a wife. But as they make the grueling trek over more than two thousand miles in a covered wagon, he can’t help but fall in love with his travelling companion. Now, if he can only convince her that he is the husband she needs before they reach the end of the trail.

Publisher’s Note: This historical western romance contains steamy, graphic scenes and a theme of power exchange.

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Sample Chapter

St. Louis, April 14, 1855

Liam McKenzie took a long sip of ale while he casually wondered how the little wench was managing to fool all the other patrons. He seemed to be the only one who had noticed that she was a fine bit of woman disguised as a run of the mill barmaid.

On casual inspection, there was nothing about her appearance to give her away. Her gown was nondescript grey calico, with no adorning lace or trim, and it was buttoned primly all the way to her throat and wrists. Because the dress appeared to be several sizes too large, it was difficult to determine what manner of figure the garment concealed. She wore a large white apron over the dress that hung from her neck and was tied loosely at the waist, providing further camouflage for any feminine charms she might possess.

Even her shoes were designed for functionality rather than fashion, and they made a strange clopping noise as she rushed around to serve the patrons their food and drink. Her black hair was pulled into a severe knot at the back of her head, but Liam noticed that several strands had been pulled forward to fall over her brow and cheeks, and they provided a screen for her delicate features.

He had yet to determine the color or shape of her eyes, because she never looked up. All he had been able to tell from her downcast gaze was that her eyelashes were exceptionally thick, long and sooty black.

In a subtle way, she made it obvious to the patrons that if they desired a quick romp with a willing woman, they would be well advised to choose the redheaded barmaid. That one displayed her generous bosom and shapely legs for all to enjoy and exchanged bawdy jests with an apparent lack of shame. Liam had been at the saloon less than an hour, but during that time, he had seen the redhead go upstairs with two separate men and return a short while later to drum up further business. It was obvious that the bulk of her income came from her upstairs activities rather than her tips as a waitress.

It looked as if no one but Liam was interested in the dark-haired one. He gave a wry grin as he noticed that there were rarely any groping hands or ogling stares directed at her. And the few that were came from patrons who were so intoxicated that they likely didn’t know what they were doing.

The maid had developed the ability to firmly rebuff any advances without drawing unwanted attention, and Liam grinned as he watched her employ the technique to good effect. It was obvious that she didn’t like being pawed.

Liam might not have noticed her either, if it hadn’t been for the way she smelled. When she had served him his meal, she leaned over to set his food before him, and the most enticing scent of wildflowers, soap, and clean, fresh woman had wafted up to his nostrils.

She was not the typical, sweaty, dirty barmaid, but a woman who recognized the advantages of good hygiene. Liam was intrigued. Without meeting his eye, she had inquired whether he wanted a second glass of beer, and her voice had been as smooth as warm honey. Liam had accepted a refill just to have the opportunity to observe her at close range for a bit longer.

As he ate, he watched her movements around the room, and he noticed that her walk was an odd mixture of fluid grace and boyish swagger. She was obviously accustomed to hard work, but she carried herself like a lady. The contrast was fascinating. She moved with understated poise and confidence, smoothly negotiating her way between the crowded tables while managing not to spill a drop of the beer on her tray. Liam straightened in his chair as the she approached his table once again.

“Could I offer you anything else, sir?” she inquired while she gathered his empty plate and utensils.

Liam knew she wasn’t referring to herself, but he couldn’t resist the temptation to tease her a bit just to see how she would respond. He hooked an arm around her waist and whisked her onto his lap, nearly causing her to drop the dishes.

“Well, that is a truly tempting offer, ma’am. I just might accept.” His warm breath feathered the side of her jaw as he leaned close to whisper in her ear, and he was acutely aware of his fingers brushing the outer curve of one soft breast. “I’m sure you would be well worth the price. What do you say?”

His eyes twinkled with humor as he watched for her reaction, and he was intrigued further when a glimmer of the girl’s spirit showed. She went totally still for a split second before she scrambled off his lap like a scalded cat and stepped back out of his reach.

“I meant food or drink, sir,” she stated evenly, her eyes piercing his for the briefest moment as twin spots of indignant color appeared in her cheeks. “I certainly wasn’t offering anything else.”

Liam’s flashed a roguish grin and heaved a regretful sigh. “Now that is a shame, since I’m not likely to meet another girl as pretty as you for some time to come.”

He realized as he said the words that they were true. He was more than a little disappointed that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to get to know this woman better. She was momentarily flustered by the compliment, but then her shrug indicated her skepticism.

“I doubt that, mister. There are plenty of ladies who are much prettier than I am in this city.” She surreptitiously scanned his features from beneath her brows, carefully concealing her reaction, for although she hated to admit it, he was a magnificent looking man. “I’m sure any number of them would be willing to,” she gestured vaguely with her free hand, “entertain you, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“Perhaps,” he replied as he counted out coins for the meal and added a generous tip. “But I will likely never know, since I’m leaving in the morning.”

The girl scooped up the money and dropped it in her pocket. Reluctant curiosity imbued her tone as she inquired, “So you are just passing through?”

“Yes, I’m heading for Oregon.”

He was surprised when her gaze met his fully for the first time, keen interest in her eyes. His curiosity was finally appeased when he saw that her eyes were the deepest, clearest blue.

“You’re getting ready to cross the Oregon Trail?” At his nod, her face turned thoughtful, obviously weighing what she would say next. “Will you be traveling with your family then?”

Liam noticed her knuckles turning white as she gripped the dirty plate she still held. “No, I’ll be traveling alone,” he stated carefully, wondering what had piqued her interest enough to make her so inquisitive. “Why do you ask?”

The girl bit her bottom lip between small white teeth and glanced around furtively before slipping into the chair opposite him. She remained mute for several moments before taking a deep, steadying breath and meeting his eyes once more. When she spoke, her voice was even but held an undercurrent of excitement.

“Would you be interested in letting me travel with you?” She didn’t wait for his reaction before rushing on, “I could cook and clean during the trip and I’m handy with a rifle. I wouldn’t be a burden.”

Liam’s amazement was evident. “Ma’am, do you have any idea what you are asking?” As he voiced the question, he imagined the two of them traveling alone across two thousand miles of prairie and mountain and his astonishment grew. “You can’t seriously be suggesting such a thing. You don’t even know me!”

The girl’s jaw was set at an obstinate angle. “I assure you I am quite serious, sir.”

Liam’s grin vanished as he leaned back in his chair and subjected her to a thorough inspection. “Ma’am, don’t you know that, by your request, you are inviting danger?” He ignored her frown and continued, “By all appearances this evening, you are not some hussy who sells herself casually to men, so why would you proposition a total stranger?”

“I am not propositioning you, mister!” She took a calming breath, obviously trying to keep her temper in check. “Let me make myself abundantly clear on that point; I am not offering to warm your bed. I simply need to travel to Oregon, and I cannot get there entirely on my own.” She assessed him through narrowed eyes. “Besides, I have excellent instincts about people, and I can tell you aren’t the sort of man who would take advantage of a woman.”

Liam briefly chuckled. “Then you have either underestimated your appeal or overestimated my ability to resist you. It would be nearly impossible for any man to travel alone for five or six months with a woman he finds attractive and not attempt to seduce her.”

The girl gritted her teeth to keep from venting an exasperated screech. “Why do all men have such a limited train of thought? I have absolutely no intention of being seduced, by you or anyone else. I assure you that I would have no difficulty dissuading you from any interest you might develop along those lines. So, unless you were willing to resort to rape, I would be perfectly safe.” She fiddled nervously with the edge of the soiled napkin. “Can’t you see the advantages of traveling with another person rather than entirely on your own? Why, anything could happen to you alone on the trail!”

“I’ve not been bothered by traveling alone,” he said with a shrug. “This will be my third crossing between Oregon and Kentucky, and I have no doubt it will be just as tolerable as the previous ones.”

He failed to mention that his brother, Brian, had broken an arm on their first crossing, and if he had been on his own, he would have been in real trouble. Liam also neglected to tell her that he had made his most recent crossing by himself, and he had suffered from bouts of loneliness, with no one to talk with during the trip.

The girl frowned, obviously weighing her options to convince him. “I could pay you. I have some money saved up, and I could make it worth your while.”

Liam had no need for the girl’s money, but he was interested to see just how important this was to her. “How much are you willing to pay?”

As soon as he voiced the question, he regretted it, for he saw hope flare in the blue depths of her eyes.

She cast a cautious glance around to ensure no other nearby patrons were listening and lowered her voice to an anxious whisper. “I could pay you one hundred dollars. That should more than compensate for the extra supplies you would need for me. I’ve already told you that I can help. I’m a good cook, so I could see that you enjoyed more than just beans and burned bread during the trip. I’m also strong and a hard worker. I can chop firewood, help pitch and pack up camp, wash your clothes, whatever is needed. Just please say you’ll let me come along.” Her eyes pleaded desperately for him to agree.

The amount she had offered was more than generous. He could only imagine how long she had worked and scrimped to save that amount of money. “Why are you so anxious to get to Oregon?” he asked.

The girl shrugged her shoulders and looked down at her hands. “There’s nothing for me here. My sister went to Oregon with her husband a few years ago, and she has written several times telling me how happy she is there. They have a farm, and they’re doing very well. She asked me to come and live with them.”

Liam frowned and looked away to avoid her gaze. How had one flirtatious remark landed him in such a sticky situation?

“Ma’am,” he stopped short and looked at her, “by the way, do you have a name?”

“Selena Darcy,” she stated quietly.

“I assume that’s Miss Darcy?” he asked.

Selena nodded her head. “That’s right. I’ve never been married.”

That made the situation even stickier. Liam cleared his throat and frowned at her.

“Miss Darcy, surely, you know that as an unmarried woman, if you were to travel alone with a man, your reputation would be ruined forever. Everyone would assume the very worst about you. You would no longer be received in decent society.”

Selena heaved an impatient sigh and met his eyes without flinching. “In case it has escaped your notice, sir, I am working as a barmaid in a saloon. Every night, I have to avoid advances from men who assume I am a cheap little harlot. You, yourself, tried to proposition me.”

She raised an accusing brow and was gratified to see him flush uncomfortably before she continued, “I don’t have much of a reputation to protect anymore. And besides, if I stay around here much longer, I’ll likely lose more than just my reputation.”

Liam didn’t miss the fearful glance she stole at the owner of the saloon or the small shiver of fear she gave, and he scowled his displeasure. Was the man trying to pressure her into doing more than waiting tables? The thought angered him, and Liam’s frown deepened.

“Damn!” he swore under his breath.

He had always had a soft spot for anyone or anything needing protection, and he somehow knew that this girl was in a dangerous position. The very last thing he needed was to be saddled with an attractive female. She would be nothing but a source of frustration for him, but at least he knew that with him, she would be safe from rape. She had been right in her assumption that he had never forced a woman, and he wasn’t about to start with her.

Sensing that he was beginning to waver, Selena leaned eagerly forward. “Please, sir. Perhaps I could travel as your sister. No one would have to know. When we get to Oregon, we can simply go our separate ways, and no one would be the wiser.”

The owner of the saloon chose that moment to roar with annoyance, causing Selena to jump like a frightened hare. “Selena! Get over here and serve these drinks! I’m not paying you to socialize.”

Casting Liam a pleading look, she quickly rose. “Please don’t go. I’ll be right back.” She paused long enough to see Liam give a reluctant nod before she scooped up his dirty dishes and rushed back to her duties.

Liam sipped his ale and watched with heightened interest as Selena hurried to carry trays of drinks and plates of food to the other customers. The owner didn’t seem to care that the redhead spent most of her time sitting on men’s laps, flaunting her wares. The harlot no doubt gave a share of her earnings to pacify the owner, so he didn’t mind that she barely lifted a finger to help Selena serve the tables. As a result, Selena was nearly run off her feet.

With a grim frown, Liam noted that each time Selena came within reach of the owner, that lout was inclined to handle her lewdly. His beefy hand was forever landing on her bottom or brushing the side of her breast as he handed her a plate, and Liam seethed as he watched her trying her best to dodge the man’s unwanted advances. It was painfully obvious that she hadn’t been lying when she implied that her virtue was in danger.

“Damn!” he swore again, feeling the jaws of an unforeseen trap closing on him.

He didn’t want to take her with him, but he couldn’t in good conscious leave her in this place after she had begged for his help. Try as he might, he couldn’t think of any other way of helping her other than taking her along.

Liam didn’t know a soul in St. Louis, and he doubted that the girl would accept money from him to help her travel somewhere else. She seemed too proud for that. No one who worked as hard as she did would want to be a charity case.

After several minutes, Selena was caught up with her work, and she returned to Liam’s table with a large steaming serving of peach cobbler. She set the plate before him and gave him a tentative smile.

“Thanks for waiting. I brought you some dessert. It’s on the house.”

The smell of cinnamon and peaches wafted up to assail Liam’s senses, and he took a deep breath of the steam before giving Selena a boyish grin. “Now how did you know that I have a sweet tooth?”

Selena shrugged and gave him a tiny smile. “I didn’t. I just thought you might want some dessert after your meal. Try it.”

Liam lifted a spoonful to his mouth. Selena watched as his eyes registered surprise and then closed to savor the rich, gooey sweetness of the treat as he rolled it around in his mouth with obvious enjoyment.

“Umm,” he moaned. “This cobbler is delicious. I haven’t had any this good since my dear mother passed away.” He made short work of polishing off the last of it, scraping his bowl clean.

Selena smiled with pleasure. “I’m glad you liked it. I made it.” She grinned at his surprised look. “I told you I’m a good cook, and I could cook you lots of other things if you take me with you.” Her grin disappeared to be replaced by a pleading look. “Please.”

Liam grimaced and rubbed his forehead as if a persistent ache had developed there. “Miss Darcy, I’m not sure how you’ve managed it, but I find myself seriously considering your request.” He shook his head in self-disgust and refused to meet her excited gaze. “I’m planning to leave tomorrow afternoon. Would you be able to have your things ready by then? I really don’t want to be delayed.”

Selena nodded quickly, “Oh, yes, sir. I don’t have much to pack, just a small bag. I promise you won’t regret taking me with you. Where and when should I meet you?”

Liam sighed with resignation. “Meet me at the docks at three o’clock tomorrow afternoon. I plan on taking the steamship Arabia as far as Independence and traveling overland from there.” He pinned her with a glare. “The boat starts loading passengers at three thirty and leaves at four o’clock sharp. If you’re late, I won’t wait for you.”

“I won’t be late,” she said with a beaming smile. She shocked him when she reached over the table to grasp one of his large hands in both of hers. “Thank you, sir. Thank you so much!” She gave his hand a squeeze and started to turn away. “Oh!” she said, stopping in her tracks. “I don’t know your name.”

Liam stood, gave her a slight bow and stated simply, “Liam McKenzie.”

Selena had to tilt her head well back to meet his eye, and she surmised that he was several inches over six feet tall. “Well, thank you, Mr. McKenzie. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow afternoon then. I promise you won’t regret this.” Selena gave him another quick smile and then hurried back to her duties.

Liam watched her go, and he scowled sharply as he resumed his seat. His hand tingled from the soft touch of her fingers, and his imagination was inspired to wonder what the rest of her felt like. His practiced eye and his masculine instincts were enough to tell him that underneath her ugly clothes, she was pure, tempting woman!

“Damn!” he swore for the third time that evening.

What the hell was he thinking? He had spent only a few minutes in the girl’s company, and already he was as restless as a tomcat in spring. How did he expect to travel with her for the next five or six months and not lose his mind? He quaffed the last of his ale, snatched his hat and exited the establishment without a backward glance.

The hour was late, and a brisk evening breeze helped to cool Liam’s blood as he walked to his campsite. He busied himself getting ready for bed, knowing that tomorrow he would have his hands full. When he finally settled into his pallet on the ground, he stared for a long time up at the dark, star-filled sky.

His mind was too busy for sleep, and his thoughts flitted back over the past several years. Along with his older brothers Aidan and Brian, Liam had set out for Oregon six years before. Their parents had stayed behind, content with their life in Kentucky, but they had well understood their sons’ desire for adventure. The young McKenzie men had felt a natural urge to prove their worth and carve out a destiny for themselves in the untamed west. They had said fond farewells and set out on the grueling cross-country trek.

While their trip had not been easy, the three brothers had enjoyed their time together, and they reached Oregon to find a wealth of land, theirs for the taking. They settled in the Willamette Valley, an area of rich farming land nestled between the Coastal and Cascade mountain ranges.

It was the “promised land” they had envisioned, and the McKenzie brothers staked their claim. They worked diligently side by side, building a comfortable home, clearing the land and planting crops, and Liam’s heart swelled with pride as he thought about their success.

While they worked as a team, each of the three brothers brought their own set of specialized skills to their farm. Aidan, the eldest brother, had excellent instincts for farming, and he invariably knew which crops would do the best in which fields and when and how to plant the seeds. His talents ensured that they were able to make sizable profits.

The middle brother, Brian, was the best builder of the three. He designed their home, the large barn and the other various buildings they needed. Because of him, they and their livestock were kept warm and snug through the long winters. He was also responsible for the upkeep of the fences and dams on their farm.

Liam’s talent was with animals. He had a knack for breeding and raising animals, and under his guidance, their livestock had grown to include fine horses, cattle, pigs, a few sheep, and a barn full of excellent laying hens. They had more than enough food for themselves and had begun to profit from selling their excess meat, milk and eggs. Liam had had so much success that they were now able to offer fine breeding stock, and demand was quickly growing among other local farmers to acquire animals from him.

His eldest brother, Aidan, had met and married Naomi Tisdale, a newcomer to the area. Not long after, Brian had followed his brother’s example, taking Sarah Martin as his bride.

The brothers had pitched in to build two more sturdy cabins so that the newlyweds could each establish their own homes. Liam had remained in the original house, and though he sometimes felt lonely, he wasn’t ready to take a wife. He had yet to find a woman who could hold his interest. Until he did, he was content to stay single.

When the McKenzie brothers received word that their father had passed away, they elected Liam to travel back to Kentucky to fetch their mother out to join them. However, when Liam had arrived at his childhood home, he found his mother in very poor health. She had been heartbroken over her dear husband’s death.

Bridget McKenzie had been happy to see her youngest son, but within a month of him returning home, she had passed away. Liam oversaw her burial and the sale of their farm in Kentucky, but he had been forced to wait out the remainder of the winter before he could make the crossing back to Oregon. Now that spring had finally arrived, Liam was anxious to get home.

He heaved a sigh, thinking of what would await him back in Oregon. The McKenzie’s success had made Liam a very eligible bachelor, but none of the local young ladies held any appeal for him. Many of them were pretty enough, but their heads seemed to be filled with nonsense.

Any time he had tried to talk with one of them, Liam found his mind wandering from their inane chatter. He had no interest in hearing about the latest styles of clothing to arrive from back east or being apprised of all the local gossip. Even worse were their attempts to entice him with simpering smiles and fluttering eyelashes. While Liam sometimes wished for feminine companionship, he simply couldn’t picture himself choosing any of those ladies for a wife.

Liam needed more. He wanted someone who would be not only a lover but a partner, someone to share his joys and sorrows, someone he could protect and love. His brothers had been fortunate enough to find women like that, and they were both completely content. Liam had recently begun to doubt that he would be so lucky, but he wasn’t yet ready to settle for something less.

Without conscious effort, his thoughts returned to Selena Darcy, and he wondered whether she was the woman he had been dreaming of finding. Even dressed as she had been tonight, she was one of the most beautiful women he had ever met. He wondered once more what she would look like in more suitable clothes, or better yet, in no clothes at all.

He remembered the feel of her soft breast beneath his fingers, and he felt a familiar stirring in his loins. Realizing where his thoughts had strayed, Liam wiped the leering grin off his face and gave himself a mental shake.

He was getting way ahead of himself. He didn’t know anything about Selena. She had proven to be intelligent, and she had certainly held his interest throughout the evening. However, for all he knew, she could be nothing but trouble.

The thought of getting to know her better tantalized him, though, and he grinned again. What better way to find out more about her than by traveling together? Liam was not a man to carelessly waste an opportunity, and he decided to see what time would reveal about Selena. If she proved to be even half as appealing as his first impression of her had been, he could propose marriage when the time was right. If not, they could part company once they reached Oregon, and he could feel good knowing that he had helped her out of a difficult situation.

Feeling a sense of peace from his resolution, Liam fell into restful sleep. However, his last thought before drifting off was that the part of the sky that was the deepest blue, the part where it was turning purple, reminded him of Selena Darcy’s eyes.

***

Selena could hardly contain her excitement as she worked to finish her shift at the saloon. She was finally going to get out of this godforsaken place!

It had been eight months since her mother’s death, but she could still remember it like it was yesterday. Eleanor had lain on her deathbed and clutched her daughter’s hand with surprising strength.

Two years after Selena’s father died, her mother had married Jeb Hawkins. Eleanor had married him somewhat reluctantly after he had courted her for nearly a year. During that time, Jeb was unfailingly charming, diligently wooing her even though she told him she was not interested in remarrying.

Selena had never liked him much, but she had dismissed her doubts, wanting only to see her mother happy. Eleanor had finally agreed to marry Jeb, despite the fact that she didn’t love him in the way she had her late husband. Still, Eleanor had felt some fondness for Jeb, and the thought of having a strong man around the house to help in the running of their small farm had swayed her to finally accept his repeated proposals.

Almost as soon as the wedding vows had been spoken, Jeb began to reveal his true nature. He was far more interested in having a woman cook and clean for him than in contributing anything to the family’s upkeep. The only useful thing he ever did was an occasional bit of hunting. He enjoyed being out in the woods, and he usually brought home a deer or some other small game to replenish their food stores.

The majority of the time, Jeb just drank, and his penchant for alcohol was astounding. He liked nothing better than to laze around, sipping from a bottle of whatever liquor was handy, though he showed a definite preference for whiskey.

The more he drank, the meaner he got. Barely a week after their marriage, Jeb came home drunk and spoiling for a fight. Selena had been out for the evening visiting with friends. When she returned, she found her mother bruised and bleeding from a vicious beating. Selena had been tempted to take a pitchfork to her stepfather while he was passed out on the bed, but Eleanor pleaded with her not to do anything that might anger him.

It wasn’t long before Jeb began to show an interest in Selena. His lustful gaze made her skin crawl. Selena tried to hide her contempt, for any snide remarks she made usually resulted in her mother getting another beating.

Selena began barring her bedroom door out of fear of being raped, and she was careful not to be caught alone in the barn or the smokehouse. However, the more caution she used, the more Jeb’s interest was heightened, and Selena was often aware of his eyes roaming over her while she moved about the cabin.

Selena and her mother decided that their best option was to leave, and they began to secretly make plans to travel to Oregon to join Selena’s sister, Diana. They had no choice but to stay until they could save enough money for the trip. They estimated it would cost them nearly a thousand dollars for the necessary supplies and equipment.

As it happened, Eleanor’s hopes for an escape from her miserable marriage ended one fateful afternoon when Selena went down to the creek to do the laundry. Jeb was gone on a hunting trip. In his absence, Selena relaxed her guard. She was bent over the washboard when she heard his hated voice from directly behind her.

“Well, well, what do we have here?” he drawled.

Selena whipped around to see him standing only a few feet away. His beady eyes roamed her body, finally settling on her bodice. Selena had unbuttoned several buttons to combat the August heat. Jeb’s grin grew wider still, and he devoured her with his eyes.

Selena looked down and saw that the bodice of her dress was thoroughly soaked and clung to her breasts like a second skin. The outline of her nipples was clearly visible through the wet fabric, and she groaned and crossed an arm protectively over her bosom to shield herself from his gaze. She flung her other arm out toward Jeb and pinned him with a heated glare.

“Don’t you dare come near me,” she ground out through clenched teeth.

She was inwardly trembling but dared not show any weakness. She felt trapped and vulnerable, since he stood blocking her only means of escape from the clearing by the river. The woods were too dense to walk in except on the path, and Selena knew if she tried to run into them, Jeb would quickly catch her.

“You know, I’m getting mighty tired of you being so uppity.” Jeb began to stalk toward her, and Selena took several cautious steps backward, searching for a way around the man. Jeb gave a low laugh, seeing her predicament. “Now, now. There ain’t no need to get all riled up. I’m just gonna enjoy you for a little while and then I’ll let you go. I ain’t gonna hurt you.” He lunged toward Selena and caught her by the arm.

“Let me go, you filthy vermin!” she shrieked as she yanked desperately on her arm.

Jeb pulled her against him, wrapping his arms around her and pinning her own arms against her sides. His chest was against Selena’s back, and he laughed again as he began kissing the side of her neck.

“You always thought you were too good for me didn’t you, missy? Well, I’m gonna give you a taste of the pleasure a real man can give you. You’re gonna like it, just like your ma does.” As he said the words, he began slobbering on her ear and neck, licking, and kissing with his awful lips.

Selena struggled wildly, trying to win her release, but her strength was no match for his. The stench of stale whiskey and foul breath almost made her vomit, and she tried desperately to keep his filthy mouth from touching her. The more she struggled, the more excited he became and she fought a rising sense of panic.

“Get your hands off me,” she screamed. “I’ll kill you for this, I swear it.”

Jeb merely laughed again as he tightened one arm around her until she could barely breathe, and her ribs felt like they would crack beneath the pressure. With his free hand, he began to grope her breasts, roughly assessing her curves.

“You’re even prettier than your ma. Ain’t nobody ever had you before, huh? You’re so tender and sweet, and ripe for the picking.”

As he said the last, he gripped the neckline of her dress and gave a vicious yank, rending the bodice down to her waist. Selena screamed and redoubled her efforts, kicking and squirming to get free. Jeb held her easily as he groped her breasts through her thin chemise. Selena managed to bite his hand, breaking the skin, and wringing a scream of pain from Jeb.

“You little bitch,” he yelped, jerking his hand away from her. Selena’s relief was short lived. “You’ll pay for that!”

Jeb punched Selena in the side of her jaw, making her knees buckle beneath her as she sagged in his arms. Her head was spinning, and before she could recover from her dizziness, he jerked her around and slapped her hard across the face with the back of his hand.

“I’m gonna teach you a lesson. Before I’m finished with you, you’re gonna be begging me for it.”

He flung Selena to the ground and fell on top of her. Through a haze of pain and nausea, Selena tried to fight him, but her efforts were pitifully weak. As if from a distance, she heard the sound of ripping cloth again, as Jeb tore her chemise down the front, baring her breasts entirely. Selena screamed and thrashed as Jeb mauled her. She shuddered with revulsion as he licked, pinched and squeezed her tender flesh.

When Jeb tried to kiss her on the mouth, Selena jerked her head to the side, trying to avoid his vile breath. This earned her another back handed slap that nearly knocked her senseless. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, trying to blot out the whole experience.

Selena could feel her skirts being hiked up to her waist and Jeb clawing at her pantalets until he managed to pull them down around her knees. She sobbed and thrashed helplessly. Jeb was obviously enjoying her torment, and he took his time telling her all the lewd, horrible things he was going to do to her.

Her breath locked in her throat as he forced her legs apart with his knee and knelt between them. Selena was helpless to stop him, and she knew rape was imminent when Jeb suddenly froze, his hand poised to open his britches. Selena opened her eyes and saw her mother standing nearby with a pistol pointed at Jeb. She sobbed with relief.

“Get off her,” Eleanor said in ominously low tones. She was normally a gentle woman, but there was a murderous light in her eyes.

Jeb groaned with frustration and gave Eleanor a narrowed eyed glare. His voice, when he spoke, was full of contempt. “Now, Ellie, you and I both know you ain’t capable of shooting me, so you might as well put that gun down.”

Eleanor’s response was to cock the pistol and place a trembling finger on the trigger. “Get off her this instant, or I’ll shoot you through the head, you no good son of a bitch.”

Sensing that she meant business, Jeb slowly stood up, ignoring Selena as she scrambled away from him. Jeb was focused only on Eleanor, and he began to walk slowly toward her, his eyes never leaving the bore of the pistol.

“Now, Ellie, give me the gun. I promise I won’t hurt you.”

Eleanor’s hands were trembling, but she kept the pistol aimed at Jeb’s chest. “Go away and leave us alone. I don’t want to ever see you around here again.”

“Ellie, you don’t mean that. You know I love you.” Jeb continued to step closer as he spoke in a low voice. “Come on now; give me the gun.”

“Stop right there. Don’t come any closer,” Eleanor whispered. She was trembling violently from shock and anger. She had never pointed a gun at anyone before, but she was determined to defend herself and Selena.

Seeing her distress, Jeb took another cautious step toward Eleanor and lunged for the gun. The gun barked and both women screamed as Jeb jerked back, grunting with pain. A large red stain appeared near his shoulder and he roared with fury, lashing out with his arm to knock Eleanor to the ground. Her head struck a large rock with a sickening thud, and she lay dazed at his feet. Jeb began beating her, kicking her repeatedly in the ribs as he vented his rage.

“Stop it!” Selena screamed.

She had scrambled to get the gun, and she stood facing her stepfather. Tears and blood were dripping down her face, and her hands were trembling even more than her mother’s had been as she clutched the gun in both outstretched hands.

“You heard Mama. You get out of here! Now!”

Jeb stood glaring at Selena for a few moments. He didn’t bother to try to talk to her. He knew she had always hated him and wouldn’t trust anything he said. He sneered and spat on the ground, narrowly missing her feet.

“I’ll go, but you can bet I’ll be coming back.” His eyes raked her, seeing glimpses of naked flesh through the tatters of her gown. “And when I do, I’m gonna finish what I started.”

He stumbled to his horse and scrambled into the saddle. Selena stood with the pistol pointed at him until he had disappeared from sight, then she ran to kneel beside her mother.

“Mama, are you all right? Mama!”

Eleanor’s hair was matted with blood from a cut on her head, and her breathing was ragged and gurgling. She could only manage a whisper. “I think my ribs are broken. I can’t breathe. It feels like I’m drowning.”

Selena’s heart constricted with fear, and she cast a panicked look around. She was afraid to leave her mother to go for help, and she didn’t know what to do. A small sob of despair escaped, and Selena’s tears began to fall in earnest, dripping onto her mother’s face.

Eleanor knew that she was likely dying, and her main concern was to try to protect her daughter. “It’s all right, honey. Help me up, and let’s get back to the house.”

It took every ounce of Eleanor’s strength, combined with Selena’s, to get her on her feet. Selena supported her weight as much as she could, but she still had to practically drag her poor mother to the house.

By the time Selena laid Eleanor gently on the bed, her mother was coughing up blood, and her breath was making a horrible gurgling sound. Eleanor clutched Selena’s hand and made her to promise to go to Oregon to live with her sister, where she would be safe. Eleanor was growing weaker by the minute, but she was determined to help her daughter.

“Selena, the money we saved up…” She had to stop to cough up more foamy blood. When she managed to catch a shallow breath, she went on in halting snatches, gasping in between. “Hid it from Jeb…money’s in a jar, in the flour bin. Take it…get away from here, quick as you can.”

Selena could barely see through her tears, but she smoothed the hair lovingly back from her mother’s brow. “I promise, Mama. Don’t worry, I’ll be just fine.”

Eleanor managed a weak smile. “I love you…so proud of you.”

“I love you too, Mama! Oh, please don’t leave me.” Selena watched in horror as her mother’s eyes turned glassy and her breathing stopped. “No! No, please!”

Selena hugged her mother fiercely and sobbed out her despair, feeling very alone in the world. Her tears finally stopped from pure exhaustion, and Selena sat back on her heels. Her eyes traveled around the house, the origin of her happiest memories and the place where she had spent most of her eighteen years.

In her mind’s eye, Selena could picture her mother bustling around in the kitchen, humming a cheerful tune. She remembered her father sitting at the table, exchanging laughing comments with his wife as he worked on cleaning his tools. Selena imagined herself and Diana, playing with their dolls or begging for cookies, fresh out of the oven. This had once been a happy, loving home, but now it was nothing but an empty shell.

Selena felt a desperate need to get away. She had no way of knowing how soon her stepfather might return, but she was sure he would. She changed into an old dress and lovingly washed her mother, removing all traces of blood and dirt. Her tears fell unheeded as she brushed her mother’s lovely black hair into a neat queue and tied it with a bright ribbon. Then, she dressed her mother in her best Sunday finery and placed a bible in her hands.

Selena felt utterly fatigued, but she forced herself to get the shovel and dig a grave for her mother, beside the spot where her father was already buried. It took Selena most of the afternoon and evening to complete the dreadful chore. When she was finally done, she stood over the grave and said a small prayer of blessing. She felt hollow inside, as if she would never find any joy or wonder in life again.

It was too late to leave that night, so Selena went inside and barred the door in case her stepfather chose to return. She closed and latched all the shutters, even though the cabin was stifling in the August heat. She heated water over the stove and scrubbed her skin with strong lye soap until it was raw, trying to remove all traces of Jeb’s filth from her body.

Once she was garbed in a clean nightgown, Selena packed her most prized possessions into a cloth suitcase. She was able to fit only four dresses, a change of undergarments, a nightgown, a small picture of her parents, her hairbrush, soap, toothbrush and a cameo brooch that had belonged to her mother.

Selena went to the flour bin and uncovered the small jar of money her mother had hidden. She dumped the contents onto the table. There was one hundred and fifty dollars, and Selena sighed because she knew she would have to use some of it just to reach St. Louis. She would have to find some way to make some more money. She tied the money into a napkin and stashed it between her clothes in the suitcase.

Taking a pillowcase, Selena stuffed it with food. There were several loaves of bread her mother had baked that morning, and she hugged them to her breast before putting them into the makeshift bag. She blinked away tears at the thought that this would be the last bread she would ever eat that had been made by her mother’s hands. Selena sliced a large chunk of salt pork and added it, along with a piece of cheese to the bag.

She sat down and wrote a statement telling the events that had happened that day and accusing Jeb of her mother’s murder. She signed it and folded it neatly, placing it in her suitcase. Realizing that there was nothing else she could do before morning, she collapsed onto her bed and stared at the flickering light of the lantern. She got very little sleep that night, and what little she did manage was haunted by nightmares of Jeb.

Selena left before dawn the next morning. She saddled their horse, tied her bags, along with two warm blankets rolled together behind the saddle and set out toward St. Louis. She stopped at the sheriff’s office on her way through town and slipped her statement under the door. It was the only thing she could do that might bring some justice for her mother.

It took Selena two weeks to get to the city, traveling by backwoods roads and trying to stay out of sight as much as possible. She didn’t feel safe, being a woman alone, so she slept in the woods, wherever she could find a dry spot. She was constantly frightened and got very little rest.

By the time she reached St. Louis, Selena was ready to collapse. It took her another week to find the job as a barmaid, and she had been working there ever since, saving every penny she could. Her salary was meager, and some of her earnings had to be spent for room and board, but she had managed to save up almost two hundred dollars.

She was desperate to get away from the saloon, because the owner, Sam, had begun to show an unhealthy amount of interest in her. Selena was beginning to have the same fears she had experienced with Jeb around, constantly feeling watched. She was as careful as she could be, but somehow, Sam always found some pretext or other to put his hands on her, and Selena was beginning to fear for her safety.

She had begun to despair of ever finding someone who would let her travel with them to Oregon. Selena wasn’t foolish enough to attempt the trip on her own, and anytime she had encountered a family going that way, they didn’t have room for another person. Their wagons were always packed to the brim with barely enough supplies to see them through the long journey without another mouth to feed.

The only other travelers Selena had met had been men, either traveling singly or in a group. She was understandably nervous about approaching any of them and inviting possible rape. Her experience with Jeb had taught her to be especially cautious.

Even with her looks disguised by the hideous grey dress, it was fairly common for men to make lewd advances toward her, and Selena would invariably cringe with dread whenever one of them tried to touch her. She had virtually given up any plans to marry. She couldn’t imagine ever trusting a man again after what Jeb had done to her.

That was why she had been so surprised by her reaction to Liam McKenzie. When he had casually put an arm around her waist and pulled her down onto his lap, Selena hadn’t cringed. In fact, her skin had fairly tingled with awareness. His fingers brushing lightly along the outside curve of her breast had inspired feelings of lust rather than fear.

For the first time since Jeb had attacked her, Selena had actually looked at a man with a woman’s interest, and she had been far from disappointed. Liam McKenzie was incredibly handsome, with his tawny hair and hazel eyes. His face was finely sculpted, with a broad forehead, high cheekbones and a firm jaw. There were laugh lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, hinting that he had a cheerful disposition.

Selena had developed keen instincts about men, and she could sense which ones should be handled with caution. She hadn’t felt any trepidation dealing with Liam. For some reason, she knew she could trust him. That was the reason she had asked him to let her travel with him. She felt safe with him.

But there was more to it than that. She had actually felt an attraction to Liam. With that realization, Selena stilled, recalling the feeling of being in his arms. Her pulse quickened at the remembered sensation. What might it feel like to have him kiss her?

She nibbled her lip thoughtfully as she realized that the notion didn’t provoke any fear. In fact, she found herself growing more and more imaginative. Could Liam be the one man capable of breaking through her reserve and igniting her womanly desires? Only time would tell. Even if the attraction she felt for him proved to be temporary, at least he would get her to Oregon.

As Selena snuggled into her bed that night, she smiled to herself. Her bag was packed and ready to go. She would leave tomorrow afternoon and start a new life. For the first time since her mother’s death, she felt optimistic about her future.

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1 review for Trailing Home

  1. Ronald

    A real treat. This book is a travelogue which details travelling through the western United States in 1855 by ox-drawn wagon – from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. It is also a wonderful love story between Selena Darcy, a young woman who has no family and is trying to support herself while avoiding her step father who tried to rape her – and Liam McKenzie, a young farmer from Oregon who had gone back to Kentucky to take care of his parents’ affairs, after they passed away. She asks to accompany him on the trip to Oregon, because she has a sister there, and he agrees. He is the younger brother of Aidan and Brian, his partners in the farm, and the subjects of earlier books in this excellent series. During the trip they fall in love, marry – and develop a warm and loving relationship. There are many other interesting characters in the book, and some major problems with the ex-husband and a jealous woman – but the strong love that they develop gets them through it – and it is supported by many wonderful scenes of love making between the two of them. Both main characters are really likable – and strong and honest, knowing themselves and handling their emotions well. . I received a free copy of this book via Booksprout and am voluntarily leaving a review.

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