Note to Readers: Here is the third book I have written. I am posting all 13 chapters tonight, but I have no idea how quickly they will be released on the site. It is the story of how love bloomed along the historic Oregon Trail. I did lots of research while writing it, and as far as I know, the details of their journey are accurate. I hope you enjoy it!
April 14, 1855
Liam McKenzie took a long sip of ale while he casually wondered how the little wench was managing to fool 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. There was nothing to give her away, if one looked only at her appearance. 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 large 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 ascertain 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 well-curved woman, they would be advised to choose the red-headed barmaid. That one displayed her generous breasts and shapely legs for all to enjoy and exchanged bawdy jests with an apparent lack of shame. Liam had been at the pub less than an hour, but during that time, he had seen the red-head 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. His smile was wry 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 girl had developed the ability to firmly rebuff any advances without drawing attention, and Liam's smile widened 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 himself, 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 woman had wafted up to Liam's nostrils. This was no sweaty, dirty barmaid, but a woman who recognized the advantages of good hygiene, and Liam had been intrigued. Without meeting his eye, she had inquired whether he needed a refill of his ale, and her voice had been low and sultry. 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. She looked like she was accustomed to physical activity, but she carried herself like a lady. She moved with understated poise and confidence, smoothly negotiating her way between the crowded tables while managing not to spill a drop of the ale on her tray.
Liam blinked and straightened in his chair as the object of his interest approached his table. "Could I offer you anything else, sir?" she inquired while she gathered his empty plate and utensils.
Liam knew she was referring to food or drink and not herself, but he couldn't resist the temptation to flirt with her a bit just to see how she would respond. He hooked an arm around her waist and yanked her onto his lap, nearly causing her to drop the dishes.
"Well, that is a truly tempting offer, ma'am. I just might accept." He cupped one of her breasts in his palm and rubbed his thumb across her nipple. The fact that her firm breast more than filled his palm made his cock stiffen. He leaned close to whisper in her ear. "I'm sure you would be well worth the coin expended." His eyes twinkled with humor as he watched for her reaction, and he was intrigued 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 didn't miss the fact that her nipples were straining against her bodice. He flashed a roguish grin as he 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.
The girl was momentarily flustered by the compliment, but then her shrug indicated her disbelief. "I doubt that, mister. There are plenty of ladies who are much prettier than me 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...entertain you, if that's what you're looking for."
"Perhaps," he replied, as he counted out the necessary coin 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, placing it in her pocket. Reluctant curiosity imbued her tone as she inquired, "So you are just passing through?"
"Yes, I'm one among many, 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.
"Then you're getting ready to cross with the others on 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 low but there was 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, and he gave a nervous laugh. "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 set in 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 perusal. "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 whore that sells herself casually to men, so why would you proposition a total stranger?"
"I am not propositioning you, mister!" She took another calming breath, obviously trying not to let her temper get the better of her. "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 good instincts about people, and I can tell you aren't the sort of man who has to take advantage of a woman."
Liam gave a warm chuckle. "Then you have either underestimated your appeal or overestimated my ability to resist your charms. It would be just about impossible for any man to travel alone for five or six months with a woman that 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, 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 took a deep breath and fiddled nervously with the edge of the soiled napkin. "Can't you see the advantage to 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. 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 while he hadn't worried about his safety, 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 much it was worth to her. "How much are you talking about?" As soon as he voiced the question, he regretted it, as hope flared 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 two hundred and fifty 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 bacon 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.
"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 four 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 told me that I would be welcomed to come and live with them."
Liam frowned and looked away to avoid her gaze. How the hell 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. "Yes, I am not married."
Liam cleared his throat. "Miss Darcy, surely you know that if you were to travel alone with a man, your reputation would be ruined forever. Everyone would assume the worst about you."
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. Every night, I have to fight off advances and worse from men who assume I am a cheap little whore. You yourself tried to buy my services." 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 pub, and he scowled his displeasure. Was the man trying to pressure her into doing more than waiting tables? For some reason, 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 that needed protection, and he somehow knew that this girl was in a vulnerable 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 now.
Sensing that he was beginning to waver, Selena leaned eagerly forward. "Please, sir. I could travel as your sister. No one would have to know. When we get to Oregon, we can just go our separate ways, and no one would be the wiser."
The owner of the pub chose that moment to yell at her, causing Selena to jump like a frightened hare. "Selena! Get your lazy ass 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 nod hesitantly 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 red-head 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 rump or brushing the side of her breast as he handed her a plate, and Liam seethed as he watched her having 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.
He felt 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 to her fate in this dump, and try as he might, he couldn't think of any other way of helping her. Liam didn't know a soul in St. Louis, and he doubted that the girl would accept money from him. 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 serving the other tables, 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? I never can resist dessert."
Selena shrugged, "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.
"Ummm," he moaned. "This cobbler is delicious. I haven't had any this good since my poor mother passed away." He made short work of polishing off the last of it.
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 eyes pleaded with him as she waited for his answer.
Liam groaned and rubbed his forehead as if a persistent ache had developed there. At length he gave her a pained grimace.
"Miss Darcy, I'm not sure how you've managed it, but I find myself contemplating taking you with me." 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 earnestly, "Oh, yes sir. I don't have much to pack, just a small bag. I promise you, you won't regret taking me with you. Where should I meet you, and when?"
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 smiled. "I'll be there with bells on." 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." 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! Even now, he felt a tightening in his breeches.
"Damn!" he swore for the third time that evening.
What the bloody hell was he thinking? He had spent only a few minutes in the girl's company, and already he was as randy 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 on and exited the establishment without a backward glance.
The hour was late, and a brisk evening breeze helped to cool Liam's blood somewhat as he walked the few blocks to where he was camped. He busied himself getting ready for bed, knowing that tomorrow he would have his hands full.
When he finally settled into his blanket on the ground, Liam 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 Louisville, 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 traveled until they reached 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. Between the three of them, they were able to claim almost a thousand acres. 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.