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The Bride of Willow Creek

By´╝ÜMaggie Osborne

Chapter 1

Of all the times to be late, this was the worst.

The instant Sam rushed out of the saloon, an acrid drift of soot and smoke wafting from the top of the street told him the train had already arrived. Damn. Being late was one more grievance to hold against his basically worthless attorney. If his attorney had kept a regular office instead of holding appointments at a table in the Gold Slipper, there might have been a clock that Sam could have kept an eye on. Of course, if he’d remembered to wear his pocket watch, he wouldn’t be in this pickle to start with. Some days turned sour the minute a man left his house. He’d had a lot of those days lately.

Dodging pedestrians and street traffic, giving up on the narrow boardwalks, he ran toward the depot. Plenty of time tomorrow to think about legal problems and attorney’s bills. Right now his most urgent problem came from the past.

And she was going to be furious that he hadn’t been waiting on the new platform when the train steamed into Willow Creek. Their reunion  —he guessed he could call it that—definitely was not beginning on a positive note.

Sam’s steps slowed as he crossed Fifth Street and noticed only one person still on the platform. That answered his major question. He’d wondered if he would recognize her. Ten years changed people.

When he’d known Angelina Bertoli, she’d been as slender as a nail, and he could swear she’d been shorter. She had filled out considerably—and interestingly—but he would have recognized this older, more womanly version of the girl he remembered. In fact, and it annoyed him greatly, if he were meeting Angie today for the first time he would have been strongly attracted to her.

Striding forward, he noted details that awakened memory. The mass of reddish brown hair knotted on her neck beneath her hat. The wide sensual curve of her mouth. The smooth slope of her cheek. Her vitality. She had been so filled with curiosity and eagerness to experience the world. Now that vitality steamed and fizzed beneath the surface, giving an impression of movement although she stood still, clutching her handbag at her waist.

When she spotted him her gaze flared, then narrowed, and he remembered that her eyes were dark enough to seem almost black, but he’d forgotten how expressive those eyes could be. Once he had read tenderness in her gaze, and love. Had felt the wrench of watching tears form and spill. But until now, he hadn’t seen the dark beams of fury. Temper wasn’t a trait young women displayed to their suitors.

“Sam Holland?”

Her tone conveyed perhaps a 90 percent certainty that she recognized him, but the hint of doubt made him wonder what changes she noticed in him. He wore his hair long now, tied at the neck with a strip of leather. That probably surprised her. A life largely spent outside had weathered his features and etched lines that made him look older than twenty-eight. Maybe he’d filled out and grown taller, too. Hard to say. Possibly she’d expected him to wear a suit, as he had the last time they saw each other.

Actually, he’d considered wearing his suit, then decided on denims and a flannel shirt instead. Today’s meeting wasn’t about making a favorable impression. He could say his final good-byes in his everyday clothing.

Either he nodded to confirm or she decided on her own who he was. Later, when he reviewed the incident, he decided she wouldn’t have hit him unless she felt certain of his identity.

The embarrassing thing was that he didn’t see it coming. His attention was fixed on the bags, boxes, and trunks piled around her, and he was frowning, wondering why she needed such an excessive amount of luggage for an overnight stay.

Her fist caught him on the side of the head and knocked him backward. Astonishment widened his eyes as he worked his jaw and checked with his tongue to see if she’d knocked any teeth out.

He couldn’t believe it. She’d hit him in public, and she’d hit him hard. She’d struck with enough force to send him reeling and damned if it didn’t feel like one of his teeth might be loose.

Sliding a look toward Bennet Street, he swiftly scanned the traffic to see if anyone was watching. Gossip ran through mining towns faster than grass through a horse. By tomorrow everyone in Willow Creek would know that Sam Holland had offended a woman at the depot enough that she’d whacked him good.

“Years ago I promised if I ever saw you again, I’d give myself the satisfaction of breaking your jaw.” She waved a gloved hand in front of her waist as if it hurt. He hoped it did. “I regret more than I can express that your jaw doesn’t seem to be broken!”

“So that’s how it’s going to be,” he said softly, staring at her snapping eyes and the fire blazing in her cheeks.

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