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Westport teemed with activity. Storekeepers swept weathered boardwalks while customers indulged in spots of gossip. From inside Baker's Mercantile, Jessica Jones stared out the window. "I'll sure miss this town when we leave for Oregon, Mr. Baker."
The store owner wrapped a pair of gloves in some brown paper. "We'll miss you and your brothers, Jessie. Town will be downright dull without you to liven things up. Here's your gloves. Any idea when you're leaving?"
Jessie took the packet. "First of May. Only two weeks to go." Her voice rose with excitement as she thought of their plans to emigrate to Oregon. Suddenly, two weeks seemed so far away. She was eager for the adventurous trip, yet there was so much that still needed to be done. "Guess I'd best get back before James wonders where I've gone."
"I reckon he'll be worrying over what sort of mischief you're getting into."
Jessie grinned as she met Orvil Baker's twinkling gaze. "That too, Mr. Baker." With a farewell wave she stepped outside, greeting Shilo, her black mare. "Ready to go, girl?" The horse nickered softly as Jessie unhitched her. A loud shout in the street drew her attention.
One man, unable to control his oxen, rammed his team into another wagon, which resulted in braying mules and shouted obscenities. She shook her head. Westport had become another jumping-off place. Each winter and early spring, those seeking to join a wagon train bound for Oregon or California arrived in droves.
Stowing her package in the saddlebags, she leaned down to pat Sadie, her black-and-tan dog. She put one foot in the stirrup and grasped the saddle horn with both hands. But before she could swing up, a high-pitched voice hailed her.
"Yoo-hoo, Jessica, don't rush off."
Jessie swore beneath her breath and gritted her teeth. There was only one person in all of Westport who dared to call her by her given name, and that person had the ability to raise her hackles faster than a cornered rattler. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw three young ladies dressed in their Sunday best sauntering toward her.
"Oh, Jessica, I'm sooo glad I caught you before you left."
Dropping her forehead into her hands, Jessie swayed, her left foot in the stirrups, the right dangling loose. "Damn, just once I'd like to come into town without running into Coralie and her snotty friends!" Maybe she'd just ignore Coralie Renee Baker's royal summons and ride for home. A drop of moisture splashed onto her nose. Holding her hat in place with one hand, Jessie eyed the sky and groaned.
"Oh, dear, girls, it looks like Jessica will be riding home in the rain. Too bad she doesn't live here in town." Laughter accompanied the false concern.
Given a choice, she'd gladly endure all manner of bad weather if it meant not having to deal with Coralie. "Might as well get this over with," she muttered. Years of dealing with the rich girl had taught her that Coralie's attention always boded ill for her. Jessie stepped down into the muddy street and turned to confront Coralie. She stumbled when her boot sank up to the ankle in the mud and had to grab her saddlebags to keep from falling into the slippery goo.