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 know you will . . . 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. "Nooo! God, 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, staring at her poor mother. Selena's 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 could visualize 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, sitting at the table as they did their schoolwork, 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 buried her mother that afternoon. 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. Then she packed up her belongings and some provisions and headed toward St. Louis. She stopped at the sheriff's office on her way through town and gave him her statement. It was the only thing she could think of to do that might bring some justice to her mother.
It took her two weeks to get to St. Louis and another week to find the job as a bar maid. 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 four hundred dollars. She was desperate to get away from the pub, because the owner 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 was determined to get away.
However, the main difficulty had been 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. She hadn't forgotten her experience with Jeb.
Selena wasn't conceited, but her previous experience with men had taught her that they usually found her attractive. She had started to disguise her looks to ward off unwanted attentions, and she had been relatively successful. Still, it was fairly common for men to make advances toward her, and Selena would invariably cringe with dread whenever any of them tried to touch her. She had virtually given up any plans to marry, for 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 pulled her down onto his lap and cupped her breast, Selena hadn't cringed. In fact, her skin had fairly tingled with awareness.
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 a fine specimen of a man 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, and it was apparent that he was a man who liked to have a good time. 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 McKenzie. That was the reason she had asked him to let her travel with him, she somehow knew she would be safe with him.
But there was more to it than that. She had actually felt attracted to Liam. When she realized that, Selena stilled, remembering the feeling of having his arms around her and his hand on her breast. Her pulse quickened, and she felt her nipples crinkling at the remembered sensation. What might it feel like to have him kiss her? Would it terrify her or thrill her? She smiled as she realized that the thought 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.
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 hopeful about her future.