Justin's bride

By: Susan Mallery

Chapter One

Landing, Kansas—1878



Justin Kincaid was back.



Between the rustling petticoats of the ladies looking at the current issue of Godey's and the rattling of nails being weighed on their scale in the back comer, Megan Bartlett heard talk in her general store. The nearby farmers, in town to buy their spring supplies, mentioned the news to one another. The old-timers said it couldn't be the same boy. He wouldn't dare show his face back in Landing after what had happened to him. The newer settlers wanted to know what exactly this Justin Kincaid was supposed to have done. Vague talk about boyhood pranks and no one's ever having seen his father made them shrug. The town needed a sheriff, they said. If this Kincaid fellow could protect them and keep peace, they didn't much care about his past.

The women, clustering by the bolts of fabric and the new shipment of fashion books, whispered that he'd been as handsome as sin.

"And sin makes its own kind of trouble," Widow Dob-son said, shaking her head as she walked away from the group of women toward the front of the store and her small table and dresser that served as the United States Post Office. She maneuvered her considerable bulk around the furniture and plopped down in her chair.

Megan looked up from the inventory papers in front of her. The first big shipment from the East had arrived.

Spring was always a busy time. Settlers and farmers came into town more often. They needed seed and new tools, clothes and whatever supplies they'd run out of during the cold Kansas winter.

"Who's making trouble? ,, Megan asked, even though she knew the answer. Like everyone else, she wanted to talk about Justin. Had he really come back? Did he remember her? She shook her head. She was being silly. Of course he remembered. How could he have forgotten the way they'd parted seven years ago? Megan drew in a deep breath. Who could have known he would come back?

Mrs. Dobson stopped counting her small inventory of stamps and raised her head. She tugged at the bodice of her jet black gown. Ten years after Farmer Dobson's passing, she still wore mourning. From her perky feather hat set at an angle, clear down to her shoes, she wore black. Privately, Megan thought it was because the buxom widow, with her fading red hair, knew she looked especially striking in that color.

"Those women." The widow jerked her head toward the small group clustered at the far counter. "They're jawing on about Justin Kincaid. Saying he's handsome. Wefl, the boy was always more handsome than a body had a right to be, but he was always trouble, too. That kind never wants for female attention."

Megan set down the papers she'd been examining and smoothed her suddenly damp hands over her full skirt. "Maybe he's changed."

Widow Dobson turned in her chair. Her bright green eyes narrowed as she looked across the dresser, pinning Megan with her stare. "You weren't one of those harebrained misses who was sweet on that Kincaid boy, were you?"

Megan raised her chin and met the other woman's gaze. Her light laugh sounded confident, even to her own ears. "Did you ever once see me with him? Can you imagine him coming courting at my house?"

The older woman leaned back in her chair and smiled. "Of course not, Megan. You always were the right kind of girl. Respectable." She turned to her stamps. "Not that I would have blamed you for noticing him. Hard not to. And

he wasn't all bad. I'm willing to admit that. Still, he's going to be trouble. You mark my words."

Megan gathered her papers together and escaped to the back of the store. Behind the calico curtain was a short hallway. To the left was the large room holding her inventory. To the right, a tiny cubbyhole that served as her office. She closed the door behind her and leaned against the desk.

Like the rest of the store, this small space was clean and tidy, with everything in its proper place. Even as she struggled to still her pounding heart, Megan placed the inventory papers in the right pile on her desk, and slipped around her chair to the little table in the corner. After pouring some water from the pitcher into the basin, she rolled up her cuffs and washed her face.

It didn't help. The oval mirror above the basin showed her that the flush she'd felt on her cheeks was still visible. Her eyes glowed, although whether from panic or excitement, she couldn't say. Her mouth quivered. She touched her finger to her lips but couldn't still the trembling.

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