Each of the three brothers brought their own set of specialized skills to their farm. Aidan 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 a sizable profit that first year. Brian was the best builder of the three, and he designed their home and the large barn that they built. Because of him, they and their livestock were kept warm and snug through the long winters. He was also responsible for the construction of a small mill and smokehouse that had been added the following spring. 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, beef 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.
After two years, Aidan had met and married Naomi Tisdale, a newcomer to the area. Brian had followed his brother's example, and six months later, he had taken Sarah Martin as his bride. A pleasant byproduct of them getting married was that they had expanded their farm by another six hundred and forty acres, since their wives were able to add to their claim. Together, they had one of the largest farms in the Willamette Valley.
While Liam had been happy for his brothers, he hadn't felt a similar urge to settle down into married life. He was content to stay single. The brothers had pitched in to build two more sturdy houses 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.
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 had found his mother in very poor shape. She had been heartbroken over her dear husband's death, and her own health had quickly deteriorated. Bridget McKenzie had been happy to see her youngest son, but within a month, she had passed away. Liam oversaw her burial and the selling 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 sighed, 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 had sparked his interest. Several of them were pretty enough for his tastes, but their heads seemed to be filled with nonsense. Anytime he had tried to carry on an intelligent conversation with one of them, Liam found his mind wandering as he listened to their inane chatter. He had no interest in hearing about the latest styles of clothing to arrive from back east or being advised of all the latest local gossip.
Even worse were their attempts to seduce him, with simpering smiles and fluttering eyelashes. While Liam sometimes wished for a soft, feminine body beside him in the bed, he simply couldn't picture himself spending the rest of his days with any of those ladies. He was sure he would be bored to tears. He needed more, someone who would be not only a mate but a companion. Someone to share his joys and sorrows and who would have something intelligent to contribute to the relationship. His brothers had been fortunate enough to find someone like that, and they were both completely content with their spouses. Liam wondered it if were too much to expect that he might also be that lucky, but he wasn't yet ready to settle for something less. He was only twenty five, and there would be plenty of time to find a wife in a few years. Until then, he intended to enjoy the carefree life of a bachelor.
Without conscious effort, his thoughts returned to Selena Darcy, and he wondered whether she might be 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. Her breast had been so warm and full in his palm that he was getting hard just remembering it. 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 herself intelligent, and she had certainly held his interest throughout the evening. However, for all he knew, she could be nothing but trouble. Just because he had agreed to escort her to Oregon didn't mean he was willing to be saddled with her forever. He wasn't going to let her waltz into his life and change his entire way of thinking.
Still, the thought of getting to know her better tantalized him, and he grinned again. What better way to see if they were compatible than having to travel together, alone for several months? Liam was not a man to carelessly waste an opportunity, and he decided to see what the next few months would reveal about Selena. If he still found her intriguing by the time they reached Oregon, he could propose to her then. If not, they could part ways, 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. She was finally going to get out of this godforsaken place! It had been eight months since her mother had passed away, 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.
Eleanor had married Jeb Hawkins somewhat reluctantly after he had courted her for nearly a year. During that time, Jeb was unfailingly charming. Indeed, he had given all the appearances of a smitten suitor as he diligently wooed her. Selena had never liked him much, but she had dismissed her doubts, wanting desperately for her mother to be happy. Mostly out of loneliness, Eleanor had finally relented and agreed to become his wife. She hadn't loved him as she had her late husband, but 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 accept his repeated proposals.
However, as soon as the wedding vows had been spoken, Jeb began to reveal his true nature. He was worse that useless around the farm. 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 to help was an occasional bit of hunting. He seemed to like being out in the woods, and he usually brought home a deer or some other small game to replenish their larder. But the majority of the time, he just drank, and his penchant for drink 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 be became.
It was barely a week after their marriage that Jeb came home drunker than a skunk. Selena had been out for the evening visiting her friend Sarah, and when she returned, she found her mother, bruised and bleeding from a vicious beating. Selena's first reaction was to take a pitchfork to her stepfather who was passed out on the bed, but Eleanor pleaded with her not to do anything that might anger him.
After that, Jeb began to show an interest in Selena. She was often interrupted by him when she was carrying out her chores, and 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 took to 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 seemed to be heightened, and Selena would often feel his eyes roaming over her while she moved about the cabin.
Selena urged her mother to run away with her. Eleanor resisted at first, thinking that she could somehow change Jeb's behavior, but she finally accepted that he didn't have any redeeming features. The two women 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 would cost them nearly a thousand dollars. As it happened, Eleanor's hopes for an escape from her miserable marriage were not to be realized.
They ended one fateful afternoon when Selena went down to the creek to do the laundry. Jeb had left to do some hunting two days earlier and had said he wouldn't be back for a week. In his absence, Selena relaxed her guard. She was bent over the scrubbing board, working on getting the stains out of one of Jeb's shirts 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 where Selena had unbuttoned several buttons to combat the August heat. Jeb's grin grew wider still, and he greedily devoured her with his eyes. Selena looked down and saw that the bodice of her dress was thoroughly soaked and clung to her generous curves 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 probing gaze.
Selena 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, missy." 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 isn't any need to get all riled up. I'm just going to enjoy you for a little while and then I'll let you go. I'm not going to hurt you." As he said the last, he lunged toward Selena and caught her by the arm.
"Let me go, you filthy vermin!" she spat, as she yanked desperately on her arm.
Jeb was unconcerned, and he pulled her roughly against his chest, 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 going to give you a taste of what a real man is. Don't you worry, you're going to love 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 whisky 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 got, and even through her skirts, Selena could feel the hard ridge of his arousal pressing intimately against her bottom.
"Take your hands off me," she cried. "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 a lot prettier than your Ma. Nobody has ever had you before huh? You're so tender and sweet, and ripe for the picking." As he said the last, he curved his fingers into the neckline of her dress and gave a vicious yank, rending the gown from neck to waist.
Selena screamed and redoubled her efforts, kicking and squirming to get free. Jeb's hand seemed to be everywhere, as it roamed over her breasts that were now clad only in a thin chemise. Selena stretched her head forward as far as she could and 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 curled his hand into a fist and 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 going to teach you a lesson you little slut. Before I'm finished with you, you're going to be begging me for it."
Jeb threw 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 rending cloth again, as Jeb ripped her chemise down the front, baring her breasts entirely.
"Look at these pretty little titties," Jeb said with a grin. "I've been waiting a long time for a taste of these."
He seized one breast and thrust the nipple into his mouth, moaning as he suckled. He bit down hard on the tender flesh, causing her back to arch with shocked pain. Selena screamed and thrashed as Jeb mauled her, and she shuddered in revulsion as he licked, pinched and squeezed her tender nipples. 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 as he forced his tongue into her mouth.
Selena could feel her skirts being jerked up past her waist, and Jeb clawed at her pantalets until he managed to pull them down around her knees. She sobbed and thrashed helplessly under his grimy hand, as he roughly probed her softness. He shoved two fingers deep into her pussy and jabbed them in and out, moaning loudly.
"What a nice, tight little pussy you have, missy." Jeb removed his fingers from her and spat on them for lubrication before jamming them back inside her. "Umm, umm you're going to feel good when I sink my cock into your tight little hole."
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 panic rose up in her throat, causing her to gasp for breath. Jeb forced her legs apart with his knee and knelt between them, using his body to keep her legs from closing.
Jeb began unbuttoning his breeches, and Selena sobbed even harder. She struggled desperately as he pulled his erect penis out of his pants and began to stroke it. However, he only laughed at her efforts and kept her pinned beneath him as he positioned himself to enter her. She was helpless to stop him, and she knew rape was imminent when Jeb suddenly froze. Selena opened her eyes and saw her mother standing nearby with a pistol pointed at Jeb.
"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 tensed but didn't immediately comply, giving Eleanor a narrowed eyed glare. His voice, when he spoke, was cajoling.
"Now, Ellie, you and I both know you aren'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 dead."
Sensing that she meant business, Jeb slowly stood up, ignoring Selena as she scrambled away from him, clutching the tattered remains of her gown over her bosom. Jeb was focused only on Eleanor, and he began to walk slowly toward her, his eyes never leaving the bore of the pistol. "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 went off 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 stone with a sickening thud, and she lay dazed at his feet. Jeb began beating her, kicking her repeatedly in the ribs as he snarled his rage.
"Stop it!" Selena screamed. She had scrambled to get the gun where it had fallen, 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!"
Jeb stood glaring at Selena for a few moments. He didn't bother to try and 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 don't you worry, I'll be coming back." His eyes raked her, seeing glimpses of naked flesh through the tatters of her gown. "And when I do, you can bet I'm going to finish what I started." He stumbled to his horse that was tied a short distance away, 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 alright? 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, and 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 to by herself. A small sob of despair escaped, and Selena's tears began to fall in earnest, dripping on her mother's face. Eleanor knew that she was likely dying, and her main concern was to try and protect her daughter.
"It's alright honey. Help me up, and let's try to 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 wheezing, sloshing sound. Eleanor clutched Selena's hand and begged 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. You take it . . . get away from here . . . quick as you can."