Trailing Home Ch. 04byharemgirl©
They reached Independence late that evening, just as Liam had predicted. It took another half hour to secure the boat to the dock before they were finally able to disembark from the ship. Selena made a point of seeking out the Captain before they left. She found him overseeing his crewmen, and she approached timidly from behind.
"Captain Harris," she smiled when he turned toward her, "I just wanted to thank you for everything."
He doffed his cap and gave her a small bow. "Mrs. McKenzie, it was my pleasure to make your acquaintance and to preside over your nuptials. I wish you Godspeed on your journey."
"And you as well, Captain." Selena surprised him when she rose on tiptoes to plant a kiss on his weathered cheek. "I will never forget you."
The Captain colored with pleasure and cleared his throat. "Thank you, ma'am. That's very kind of you."
It startled Selena when she heard Liam's deep voice from directly behind her. "I owe you a debt of gratitude too, Captain." The two men clasped hands cordially.
The Captain gave Liam a broad smile. "You take good care of your wife, Mr. McKenzie. She's a dandy."
Liam slipped an arm around Selena's waist and hugged her against him. "I will, Captain. You have my word on that." Liam looked at Selena, and she was surprised to see the serious expression in his eyes. "We'd better get going if we're going to find a place to sleep tonight."
They made their final farewells, and Liam led her off the ship. It wasn't far to a nearby hotel, but Selena was surprised to see how many people were bustling around in the tiny town. Everywhere she looked, folks seemed intent on accomplishing their errands, rushing here and there carrying packages.
"Everyone is doing the same thing we are," Liam murmured, seeing her interest. "It's Oregon fever."
Liam stood aside so that Selena could precede him into the lobby, and he left her near the door while he spoke with the desk clerk. She watched him count out money and within moments he returned with a key.
"I'm surprised there are any rooms available," she said.
"Most folks are already camped outside of town with their wagons. That's what we'll be doing by this time tomorrow." Liam hefted the trunks once more and led the way to the stairs. "Come on."
Selena followed him to the second floor and down a narrow hallway. Their room was small and sparsely furnished, but it was still quite a bit larger than their cabin had been aboard the ship. There was a large bed with a brass headboard and footboard, a small washstand with a pitcher and bowl, and a round table and two chairs in one corner. The only light in the room was streaming in from the dim hallway, and Selena hurried to light a lamp that sat on the bedside table.
Liam set the trunks in one corner and stretched to ease the kinks in his muscles. Selena turned away from the sight, feeling her cheeks turn warm. Her eyes lit on the bed, and her cheeks got even warmer. As if reading her thoughts, Liam came to stand beside her, looking down at the feather mattress.
"I don't see any reason to sleep on the floor. This bed is big enough for both of us."
He looked at her with a challenging brow raised, and Selena swallowed hard. She didn't want to shatter the fragile truce between them, and neither did she want to admit that she was afraid to share the bed with him. She wasn't frightened of him. She was scared of her own reaction to him. It was as if she had no willpower at all when he turned on the charm, and she didn't want to do anything that she might later regret. She raised her chin and met his stare.
"Fine. I'll sleep on that side." She dug her nightgown out of her suitcase and laid it on the foot of the bed. "It's late and I'm tired. I think I'll go to sleep."
"Yeah, we should make it an early night. We'll have a busy day tomorrow." He dragged his gaze away from her and began unbuttoning his shirt.
During their time on the ship, they had gotten used to undressing for bed in each other's presence. Selena had perfected the art of donning her nightgown without revealing anything other than her creamy shoulders and arms, but Liam never could resist the temptation to steal a few peeks. He was usually rewarded with at least a glimpse of a trim ankle and sometimes he got lucky and caught a flash of calf or thigh when she stepped out of her dress. Tonight he got lucky, however, his victory felt hollow since it only served to whet his appetite for more.
Selena climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin as she rolled on her side facing away from Liam. He finished undressing and climbed in beside her. Although Selena had been on the far edge, the feather mattress collapsed beneath their combined weight, and she tumbled against his side.
Selena scrambled to put some distance between them, and her hand brushed across his groin. The heat of his erection seemed to sear her fingers, and she gasped. Her eyes flew to his, and his face was frozen in a pained grimace.
"I'm sorry," she gasped.
Without waiting for his reply, she turned her back once more and scooted to the far edge of the mattress. Liam turned down the lamp, and moonlight streamed in through the small window. They both lay in the darkness, hearts thumping, breath shallow and eyes wide open. Selena felt confused and a bit frightened by her reaction. She felt a gnawing hunger in the pit of her belly that she didn't understand, but she knew Liam was at its source. She wondered what his reaction might be if she were to roll over and press against him once more. Would he welcome her or push her away? She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and tried desperately to slow her breathing.
Liam was going through a similar struggle, except he understood quite well what was required to satisfy his hunger. He fought a raging battle to keep from pulling Selena against him and exploring her silken curves. He dared not close his eyes because he knew his mind would instantly conjure visions of her without her clothes to torment him even further. Instead, he lay rigidly still beside her and listened as her breathing gradually became steady and even. It was a long time later before he found sleep.
They tossed and turned, and inevitably their limbs became intertwined. Liam awoke during the night to find Selena's arm flung across his chest and one of her lithe thighs lying across his loins. Her soft breasts were crushed against his arm and her nightgown had ridden up to her hip. Her skin was velvety soft and warm. He stifled a groan against the pain of his throbbing erection. Had he been condemned to hell, he was convinced that the devil himself would not have been able to devise a more grueling torture than Liam felt in that moment. He turned away from her only to feel her snuggle against him, her full breasts pressed intimately against his back and her thighs tucked beneath his. Despite his best efforts, a small groan escaped.
Sleep was impossible after that, and Liam was gone long before Selena woke the next morning. She sat up in the bed and yawned, noticing that it was barely daylight outside. She rose and quickly washed before changing into her clothes. She had no idea where Liam had gone, so she waited for him in their room.
Almost an hour had passed by the time he returned. He entered, and Selena took in his appearance. There were circles of fatigue beneath his eyes, and he had the thick stubble of beard starting along his jaw.
"Morning," he grumbled.
"Good morning," she replied with a hesitant smile. "Where did you go?"
Liam was tempted to tell her that he had gone to hell and back, but he tamped down the urge and the irritation that went along with it. After all, it wasn't Selena's fault if she was enticing enough to charm the warts off a toad!
"I went to check out the available wagons. I found a good one, but the store isn't open yet. We'll have breakfast and then go see about getting it."
Liam retrieved his shaving kit from the smaller trunk, and he began to unbutton his shirt. Selena turned away and went to stand by the window. It was still early, but she noticed that the streets were already beginning to fill with people. She could hear the sounds of Liam shaving, but she kept her eyes turned toward the street below, not willing to chance a glimpse of his fascinating chest.
Liam finished and washed the last of the soap from his face before donning his shirt once more. When he had it tucked neatly into his breeches, he crossed to stand behind Selena and looked over her shoulder at the scene below.
"It's going to be a hectic day," he said. "Try to say with me, because there are all sorts of people around. Most of them are honest, upstanding folks, but you never know. If we should get separated in the crowd, just come back here to the hotel and wait for me, alright?"
"Alright," Selena whispered.
For some reason, his concern for her welfare affected her profoundly. Was this what it might feel like to be his wife in truth? Would he always be protective and caring?
Liam grasped her elbow to turn her toward the door. "Come on. Let's go get some breakfast."
They ate in the dining room downstairs and then Liam led her to a nearby merchant that sold wagons. The man had just opened for the day, and Liam pointed out the wagon he wanted to buy. As they stood discussing the price, Selena inspected the wagon for the first time. Having grown up on a farm, she was familiar with buckboard wagons, but she had never seen one quite like this before. It had a four by twelve foot wagon bed that was coated on the inside with tar to make it watertight. There were brackets along the outsides where she knew that u-shaped wooden bows could be fitted to support a canvass top, but for now, they had been removed and stacked in the bed of the wagon. The canvass bonnet was folded neatly under the bench, and Selena could see that the bench was attached to sturdy springs to soften the bumps. The rear wheels were larger than the front ones, but all four were made of hardwood and wrapped with iron 'tires' to protect the wood.
Having agreed upon a price, Liam counted out the money and told the merchant that he would be back once he had purchased a team of oxen. Grasping Selena's arm, he led her down the street to a large enclosure near the edge of town. A good size herd of oxen were milling around in a sturdy corral, and Liam searched out the owner. Selena waited outside the fence while the two men entered the corral and Liam inspected the animals. After looking them over thoroughly, he carefully chose six oxen, and he and the man harnessed them and led them out of the pen. They tied them to the fence, and Liam counted out the necessary amount. The two men shook hands, and the merchant went back to his office.
Selena had wandered over to pet the oxen, and Liam watched her with some confusion as she smiled and cooed to them. She showed no signs of being skittish around the huge beasts, and he rested his arm on one of the ox's back and frowned at her.
"I thought you were a city girl," he said almost accusingly.
Selena met his eyes briefly but continued to stroke one animal's broad nose. "No, I grew up on a farm in eastern Illinois. I only came to St. Louis a few months ago."
He stowed that bit of information in his brain and untied the ropes. "Can you handle two of them then?" he asked, holding out two of the lead ropes.
"Certainly," she replied. She took the ropes and waited for Liam to lead the way before falling in behind him.
He cast a few glances back at her but was much assured when he saw that she seemed quite comfortable. The oxen were following her meekly, and Liam grunted his approval. They returned to the wagon merchant's establishment, and Liam made short work of harnessing four of the oxen to the wagon tongue. Selena assisted him, and it was clear that she knew how all the straps and leads worked.
"What are the other two oxen for?" she asked in some bemusement.
"It's good to have an extra pair, in case one dies or goes lame. Also, I'll trade them off during the trip to give them a rest."
Liam tied the last two oxen to the back of the wagon and smiled with satisfaction. "Good. Now let's go back to the hotel and collect our cases. Then, we can see about getting our supplies."
Without asking her permission, Liam grasped her waist and lifted her onto the seat as if she weighed no more than a feather. Selena was quick to move to the opposite side of the bench, making room for Liam to sit beside her. The bench was so narrow that it was impossible for them to sit side by side without their shoulders and legs touching. Selena tensed as she felt Liam settle beside her, and when his strong leg brushed against hers, she held her breath for a second or two. For months, Selena had been repulsed by the touch of any man, and she was a bit amazed that simple contact with Liam could make her so breathless and giddy. Something about him stirred her senses.
For his part, Liam clenched his jaw when his leg made contact with hers. The same smell of wildflowers and her own clean essence drifted up to him, and he inwardly groaned at the thought of sharing her company on the long trip to Oregon. If he was going to retain any of his sanity, he would do well to keep his attention firmly fixed on other things. With that in mind, he did his best to ignore her while he concentrated on steering the team of four oxen onto the street.
The rest of the day was spent visiting the various merchants who could supply them for the trip. Selena noted that Liam knew exactly what was needed, and many of the items he requested were things that she would never have thought to acquire, but she could readily see the need for. He had a keen sense of value, and each purchase met with her approval, though she didn't interfere with his shopping. They made good progress, and by late in the afternoon, they had purchased most of the supplies for their trip. The items had been loaded in the wagon, and Liam used the canvass bonnet as a tarp to protect the items from prying eyes.
"Let's call it a day," Liam suggested. "We'll eat a quick supper and then find a campsite and set up for the night."
Selena merely nodded her acquiescence, and they set off. By the time they cleared the town and plodded their way onto the open prairie west of Independence, it was getting dark. For as far as Selena could see, other families were camped with their wagons and livestock, their glowing campfires flickering in the dark night. They made slow progress as they picked their way in between the campsites and nodded to the people they passed. After a while, Selena turned to Liam and her face was wreathed with wonder.
"My goodness, there must be thousands of people here. Are they all going to Oregon?"
"Mostly. Some of them will branch off to California and Utah and some of them will settle closer, in Idaho or Montana territory." Liam looked down at her with a grimace. "Some of them won't make it. They'll perish from injury, illness or starvation."
Selena swallowed hard. She hadn't given much thought to the hardships they might face. She had only been focused on finding a way to get to her sister. Sensing her unease, Liam reached over and squeezed her hand.
"Don't worry, Selena. We'll be fine. Luckily, it's just the two of us, so we will have plenty of room in the wagon for sufficient food and supplies. We won't starve. Trust me."
Selena gave him a shy smile before turning away as she carefully removed her hand from his. "I do," she said softly. "That's why I asked you to take me along."
Her statement affected Liam more than he cared to admit. All his protective instincts rose up to combine with the attraction he was already feeling for Selena, and it was a heady mixture of emotions. He smiled ruefully as he thought that she wouldn't have to work very hard to have him wrapped around her finger.
When they finally found an unoccupied spot a short distance from the other emigrants, Liam set the brake and hopped down from the wagon. He set Selena on her feet, but kept his hands on her waist and pulled her gently against him. The night seemed to close in around them, and it felt as if it was only the two of them alone on the prairie.
"Tell me, Selena. Why do you want to go to Oregon so badly?"
Selena stared up into his darkly shadowed face, trying to make out his expression in the faint moonlight. "I promised my mother that I would join my sister and her husband there. It was my mother's dying wish." Her voice was so soft he had to strain to hear her words.
"And what do you wish for? What are you hoping to find there?"
Selena shrugged her shoulders, feeling shy beneath his steady regard. "The usual things I suppose. I wish for a home and a family of my own. I wish for a husband who will love me."
Liam was enjoying the feel of her in his arms, and he wasn't ready to release her just yet. He bent to claim her lips, gently savoring the soft warmth of her mouth as he pulled her even closer. Almost hesitantly, her arms slid up to encircle his neck, and Selena returned his kiss, tentatively at first, then with growing warmth. When he straightened, Liam's breathing was ragged and his voice had taken on a husky quality.
"I could give you a home and a family. I could be a husband to you," he whispered.
The deep tones of his voice triggered a longing in Selena's body, and she swallowed hard. "And will you love me?" she asked. She felt him tense beneath her hands. "I will settle for nothing less. If I can't have love, I would rather not be married at all."
Liam didn't know whether the emotions he was feeling were the beginnings of love. He wasn't yet ready to declare that they were, but neither did he want to return to the chilly hostility they had endured on the ship.
"I can't promise you love, Selena. But it's possible we could have a happy marriage anyway."
Selena stared up at him for a long time before she finally released a regretful sigh, as if she had weighed his answer and found it lacking. "We'd better make camp."
She pushed gently against his chest, and he consented to release her. As she hurried away, Liam stood still for several moments letting his blood cool. He wanted Selena physically, but in order to have her, he was going to have to make a commitment. Despite his body's urgings, he wasn't sure he was ready for that. What if they really weren't that compatible?
It was probably a good thing that she seemed able to reason logically despite the growing attraction between them. He would be wise to get to know her better before taking the irrevocable step of consummating their vows. The thought of wooing her seemed suddenly appealing. After all, they had five or six months before they reached Oregon. That would give him plenty of time to get to know her, and he could take it slow and see what happened. He could be charming when he wanted, and he definitely wanted to charm Selena.
They worked side by side to unhitch the oxen and see to their needs. Liam dug the tent that he had purchased out of the wagon and Selena helped him set it up. It was already late, so they decided not to build a fire, instead using several blankets to make a pair of warm pallets in the tent. Selena rushed to undress while Liam secured the wagon and relieved himself outside. She was already in bed when he entered the tent, and she turned her back to him while he undressed, even though she could only make out his silhouette against the glow coming from nearby fires. He settled in his pallet beside her and wriggled until he was comfortable.
"Goodnight Liam," she whispered softly in the darkness.
For the first time since they had met, they both found sleep easily that night.
Liam awoke the next morning to the smell of coffee and fresh bread. He rose and quickly dressed, peeking out through the flap to see Selena bustling around beside a neat fire that she had built. He wasn't used to being the last one to rise. Liam emerged from the tent and gave her a sheepish smile.