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Kat dusted the wide countertop. She glanced longingly at the open store door, through which she could see a glimpse of blue, cloud-dotted sky. The sharp scent of pickle brine reminded her where she was–her father's mercantile. She smoothed out the wrinkles in the pristine white apron her mother had insisted she wear over her faded blue dress. She regretted that she'd ever offered to mind the store while her father went to St. Louis to track down a couple of lost shipments.
It was a perfect day to play hooky from adult responsibilities and go to the ravine for a swim or some fishing. A perfect day to invite Brendon to join her so they could catch up after his long absence.
He'd been home all of one week, and she had seen little of him, thanks to Faith Baldwin. The woman seemed glued to his side whenever Kat saw him out. She had to admit that Brendon usually looked very uncomfortable, as if he weren't quite sure how to handle the situation. He was a gentleman through and through, and being rude to a woman was something that was very hard for him.
Kat, however, had no compunction at all when it came to being rude if the occasion warranted it. And the occasion was fast approaching, if Faith didn't leave him alone, at least for a few minutes. Kat so wanted him to see how much she'd grown up in the last five years.
When he'd left for medical school, she'd been a tomboyish girl of fifteen. Somebody he could take fishing and swimming. Just like one of the boys, she thought, wincing at the memory of her former unladylike ways.
"You lay a hand on me, lady, and I'll tell my Pa," a child's voice shouted from outside.
Kat lookedoutside, wondering what was going on, when one of the Durwood kids came crashing through the screen door and skidding into the mercantile. Defiance, plus a tinge of fear, showed on his dirt-streaked face. He glanced around frantically, seeking a place to hide. He headed straight for a table loaded down with gingham, calico, and flannel standing in the middle of the room.
Kat sighed in resignation. "What did you do now, Jake?"
The ten-year-old boy was infamous for being the terror of Clayton, Missouri. For the most part, he lived up to his reputation. Kat liked him, though; he had a lot of spirit, what her grandfather called gumption.
Jake Durwood stopped and pushed back the dark shaggy hair that had fallen into his equally dark eyes. "Didn't do nothing," he answered with a sullen expression.
"Then why are you running?"
"He's running to get away from me and for good reason. When I get my hands on that brat, he won't be able to run, much less walk, after I'm finished with him," Faith Baldwin said, slamming into the store with a determined expression. She made straight for the boy and grabbed him by his worn, faded shirt. "Thought you could get away from me, did you? You dirty little savage."
Enough was enough.
Kat stepped out from behind the wide wooden counter. She jerked the small boy out of Faith's iron grip and pushed him behind her, out of Faith's reach. "You touch this boy again, and you will have to deal with me," she warned, her voice edged with anger.
"Why, I…never…" Faith sputtered, her face turning red with fury. "How dare you interfere, Kathleen Warner! This is none of your affair. I intend to teach this filthy guttersnipe a thing or two about respecting his elders. If not for him, I wouldn't have spent Sunday evening locked in our woodshed."
"I didn't lock you in no woodshed," Jake denied hotly from behind Kat's voluminous skirts.
"You did too," Faith countered. "Not only did you lock me in, you're a liar on top of all that." She made another attempt to pull the boy out from behind Kat.
Kat glared at her, and then pushed her hard, away from the boy. "Leave him alone. Jake said he didn't do it, and I for one believe him."
What she didn't add, however, was she knew who had. Only one person she knew disliked Faith enough to do such a thing–Rosette, Kat's very own imp of a sister, and Rosette's partner in mischief, Chatfield Morgan. But Kat saw no reason to reveal what she knew to the already incensed Faith Baldwin.
"You may believe him, Kat," Faith sneered, "but I certainly do not. If he didn't lock me in that awful place, who did? And why did I have to bribe this rotten kid to let me out, pray tell?"
Kat shrugged. "Because knowing Jake, he probably saw it as an opportunity to earn a dollar. Though I must admit I don't approve of his uh…methods."
Copyright © 2003 by Jewel Dartt