Justin

By: Diana Palmer
Chapter One



It was a warm morning, and the weatherman had already promised temperatures into the eighties for the afternoon. But the weather didn’t seem to slow down the bidders, and the auctioneer standing on the elegant porch of the tall white mansion kept his monotone steady even though he had to periodically wipe streams of sweat from his heavily jowled face.

As he watched the estate auction, Justin Ballenger’s black eyes narrowed under the brim of his expensive creamy Stetson. He wasn’t buying. Not today. But he had a personal interest in this particular auction. The Jacobs’s home was being sold, lock, stock and barrel, and he should have felt a sense of triumph at seeing old Bass Jacobs’s legacy go down the drain. Oddly enough, he didn’t. He felt vaguely disturbed by the whole proceeding. It was like watching predators pick a helpless victim to the bone.

He kept searching the crowd for Shelby Jacobs, but she was nowhere in sight. Possibly she and her brother, Tyler, were in the house, helping to sort the furniture and other antique offerings.

A movement to his left caught his eye. Abby Ballenger, his sister-in-law of six weeks, stood beside him.

“I didn’t expect to see you here,” she remarked, smiling up at him. She’d lived with him and Calhoun, her

almost-stepbrothers, since the tragic deaths of their father and her mother. Their parents were to have been married, so the brothers took Abby in and looked after her. And just weeks before, she and Calhoun had married.

“I never miss an auction,” he replied. He looked toward the auctioneer. “I haven’t seen the Jacobses.”

“Ty’s in Arizona.” Abby sighed, and she didn’t miss the sudden glare of Justin’s dark eyes. “He didn’t go without a fight, either, but there was some kind of emergency on that ranch he’s helping to manage.”

“Shelby’s alone?” The words were almost wrenched from him.

“Afraid so.” Abby glanced up at him and away, barely suppressing a smile. “She’s at the apartment she’s rented in town.” Abby smoothed a fold of her gray skirt. “It’s above the law office where she works…”

Justin’s hard, dark face went even tauter. The smoking cigarette in his hand was forgotten as he turned to Abby, his whipcord-lean body towering over her. “That isn’t an apartment, for God’s sake, it’s an old storeroom!”

“Barry Holman is letting her convert it,” Abby said, her guileless pale eyes the picture of innocence under her dark hair. “She doesn’t have much choice, Justin. With the house being sold, where else can she afford to live on what she makes? Everything had to go, you know. Tyler and Shelby thought they could at least hold onto the house and property, but it took every last dime to meet their father’s debts.”

Justin muttered something under his breath, glaring toward the big, elegant house that somehow embodied everything he’d hated about the Jacobs family for the past six years, since Shelby had broken their engagement and betrayed him.

“Aren’t you glad?” Abby baited him gently. “You hate her, after all. It should please you to see her brought to her knees in public.”

He didn’t say another word. He turned abruptly, his expression as uncompromising as stone, and strode to where his black Thunderbird was parked. Abby smiled secretively. She’d thought that he’d react, if she could make him see how badly this was going to hurt Shelby. All these long years he’d avoided any contact with the Jacobs family, any mention of them at home. But in recent months, the strain was beginning to tell on him. Abby knew almost certainly that he still felt something for the woman who’d jilted him, and she knew Shelby felt something for Justin, too. Abby, deliriously happy in her own marriage, wanted the rest of the world to be as happy as she was. Perhaps by nudging Justin in the right direction, she might make two miserable people happy.

Justin had only found out about the estate sale that morning, when Calhoun mentioned it at the office at their joint feedlot operation. It had been in the papers, but Justin had been out of town looking at cattle and he hadn’t seen the notice.

He wasn’t surprised that Shelby was staying away from the auction. She’d been born in that house. She’d lived in it all her life. Shelby’s grandfather, in fact, had founded the small Texas town of Jacobsville. They were old money, and the ragged little Ballenger boys from the run-down cattle ranch down the road weren’t the kind of friends Mrs. Bass Jacobs had wanted for her children, Tyler and Shelby. But she’d died, and Mr. Jacobs had been friendly toward the Ballengers, especially when Justin and Calhoun had opened their feedlot. And when the old man found out that Shelby intended to marry Justin Ballenger, he’d told Justin he couldn’t be more pleased.

Justin tried never to think about the night Bass Jacobs and young Tom Wheelor had come to see him. Now it all came back. Bass Jacobs had been upset. He told Justin outright that Shelby was in love with Tom and not only in love, the couple had been sleeping together all through the farce of Shelby’s “engagement” to Justin. He was ashamed of her, Bass lamented. The engagement was Shelby’s way of bringing her reluctant suitor into line, and now that Justin had served his purpose, Shelby didn’t need him anymore. Sadly, he handed Justin Shelby’s engagement ring and Tom Wheelor had mumbled a red-faced apology. Bass had even cried. Perhaps his shame had prompted his next move, because he’d promised on the spot to give Justin the financial backing he needed to make the new feedlot a success. There was only one condition—that Shelby never know where the money came from. Then he’d left.