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“I don’t believe you. My sister was not charging boys to kiss her,” Meg McKenzie said, standing in the field of her small East Texas family farm in her father’s hand-me-downs.

Her sister’s schoolteacher stood in front of Meg with her arms folded, her expression filled with contempt, her nose wrinkling up in disdain.

This was her fourth trip out to the farm this year. Surely by now, the schoolmarm had grown accustomed to the smell of manure that permeated Meg’s clothing. Certainly, she knew Meg worked the farm alone, which was not for the faint of heart, and most definitely, she had to know Meg could barely tolerate the woman who wasn’t much older than herself.

Meg closed her eyes and wished for the thousandth time she lived the life of a normal young girl. With a living mother and a father who spent time at home. That she had a life of dancing, pretty dresses, and young men courting.

When she reopened her eyes, Meg recognized the poke bonnet and a bustle beneath the teacher’s skirt from the last catalogue Papa had brought home. The woman was wearing the latest fashion. Fashions Meg longed to design. Fashions Meg wanted to wear. Fashions that would make Meg feel like a woman, rather than an ugly hoyden.

“She was kissing boys,” the woman repeated. The schoolmarm’s reddening cheeks and narrowed eyes bespoke of the temper she seemed barely restraining as she confronted Meg about Ruby’s bad behavior.

At nineteen, Meg felt too young to be the responsible parent of a fifteen-year-old. And her sister, Ruby was definitely more than one person could handle.

“I’m sorry, Meg. I know you’ve had to raise this child without much help from your father, but I can’t have her coming back to school. She’s a distraction in the classroom,” the refined woman told Meg, her parasol shielding her from the hot midday sun.

For a moment, Meg wanted to reach out her hand to touch the silky fabric of the woman’s dress. But knew that would be wrong. Yet she longed to know what such rich material felt like.

They stood in the pasture where Meg had been hoeing as she prepared the spring garden for planting. Mud coated her work pants, she smelled of animals and sweat, and her hands were calloused and rough from time spent working the land. This was not the life she wanted for herself.  Meg dreamed of being a woman who had few responsibilities and wasn’t accountable for the care of the farm and her two sisters. She didn’t want to be a parent.

And Ruby seemed to stay in trouble. “My sister may not have had a mother to raise her properly, but she’s been taught that girls don’t chase boys.”

“She wasn’t chasing them, Meg. She was charging them a nickel a piece to kiss her,” Miss Andrews said, her parasol held tightly in her gloved hands.

Meg couldn’t help herself; she laughed. Not even Ruby would be foolish enough to do something so naughty. “I don’t believe you.”

Miss Andrews placed her hand on her hip and almost snarled at Meg. “I would never have found out about it, if the line hadn’t gone clear around the building. I caught her in the act of kissing Jimmy Brown.”

“Oh,” Meg said, her brows drawing down into a scowl. Could Ruby have been so stupid? At first, Meg couldn’t believe what the teacher was telling her, but when she thought about it, Ruby was at a stage in her life when she seemed intrigued with boys. “I’m sure she has a perfectly good explanation for her behavior. I’ll talk to her.”

The teacher took a step towards Meg, a frown on her scholarly face. “I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. She would have graduated next month anyway. Let’s just say she’ll receive her certificate showing she completed school in the tenth grade. I don’t think I can teach her anything else.” The woman lowered her voice, muttering under her breath, “She might be able to teach me some things.”

“She’s a kid. A girl who’s curious,” Meg said, defending her sister. Yes, Ruby was troublesome, but she was not a bad girl, just someone perplexed about the changes going on in her young woman’s body. Ruby was highly intelligent, easily bored, and often mischievous if left to her own devices.

The schoolmarm raised her brows in an insolent way. “Well, she’s training the students in a subject that neither boys nor the girls in my classroom need to learn at this time in their life.”

A rush of fury tightened Meg’s chest at the contempt she sensed from the schoolmarm. All of her young life, Meg had been dealing with the prejudice of people like the schoolmarm, who didn’t understand that Meg wanted to act and dress like a woman, but because of her situation in life, she dressed like a man. It wasn’t a choice, but a necessity. And now it seemed as if that injustice was reflecting on Ruby.

With a toss of the hoe, Meg walked up to the teacher. “Okay, Miss Andrews, Ruby will no longer be attending your classroom. I’m sure that will make your life a little easier.”

“Most definitely, since this is my fourth visit to your place this year. I’ll have more time to spend on students who are not so…social.”

Rage bristled Meg’s insides, and her Irish temper roiled at the not so subtle reference to Ruby’s antics. How dare the woman belittle her sister? Ruby could cause trouble, but still, she was a McKenzie, and Meg would protect her sister and the family name with her dying breath. “Maybe if your lessons weren’t so boring, Ruby wouldn’t be involved in seeking outside stimulation.”

The woman gasped. “If your sister would study rather than spending her time kissing young men, then I wouldn’t need to come out here. Good day, Meg.”

Meg reached out and grabbed the woman’s dress, her muddy hands clasping the material. It felt smooth and shiny and oh, so wonderful. The schoolmarm was in a hurry, and the material ripped, falling away from Meg’s hands.

Oh, dear. She hadn’t meant for that to happen; she’d only wanted to feel the material.

“Get your dirty hands off my dress,” the teacher said, taking a step back.

A smile lifted the corner of Meg’s mouth. She’d been rude, but the woman had deserved it, though she hadn’t meant to mar the lovely dress or the beautiful material.

Meg shouted after the woman, glad to see her leaving, “Hobble your lips about my sister, Miss Andrews. She’s young, impressionable, and she’s family. I won’t have you trashing her good name. Now, get off my farm.” She watched the woman hurry across the field to her buggy.

Ruby McKenzie could get in more trouble than a whole gaggle of small children. For some reason, she’d become fixated on boys and fornication and things she shouldn’t. If she continued, Meg would have to speak to their father about finding her a husband. Quickly.

Meg strode to the quaint farmhouse, taking deep breaths to cool her temper at her youngest sister. The red hair and green eyes she’d inherited from her mother, as well as the Irish temper that went along with her disposition, were well known by her sisters. And right now, her stomach churned like a plunger in the butter crock at having to yet again deal with Ruby and her shenanigans.

Meg was the only one around to keep a rein on Ruby. Her mother had died, and her father was out trying to earn money for the family farm. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have parents who were present like other young women had? A family life, rather than three girls trying to make do. There was no one for her to turn to, but herself.

Meg drew air into her lungs and closed her eyes. Once her sisters were raised, married, and out of the house, she intended to live without any responsibilities, wear dresses, and sew pretty garments. This life was harsh, and becoming the head of the household at the age of twelve had stolen her girlhood from her. Soon, it would be her time to live. She promised herself every day…soon.

“Are those riders in the distance?” Annabelle asked, stopping and shading her eyes as she stared toward the horizon.

Meg strained her eyes against the setting sun. “Is that…? That’s Papa.”

“Papa,” Ruby cried, running across the field toward their father.

“Something’s not right,” Meg said, gazing toward the two men on horseback. “He’s slumped in the saddle. He’s not sitting up straight and tall.”

“Oh, my God,” Annabelle said as she started to run. “He’s hurt.”

Meg’s chest grew tight, squeezing the air from her lungs at the thought of something being wrong with their father.