Home>>read The Unexpected Wife free online

The Unexpected Wife

By:Mary Burton

The Unexpected Wife, - Mary Burton


Crickhollow, Montana

May, 1879

Hilda Marie Clements held open the door to her mercantile, as two men with low crowned hats and upturned collars filed through. Each carried a lantern, but the meager lights did little to chase away the predawn shadows that stretched across the assortment of boxes, barrels and crates. A chill clung to the early morning air, a reminder that even though June was but weeks away, winter had not fully released its cruel grip.

Mrs. Clements moved toward her counter as her visitors took seats on twin barrels nearby.

Closest to her was Holden McGowan. His long lean body, draped in buckskin, was well muscled by years of driving a stagecoach team. Nearing his thirty-fifth year, Holden had been in the valley for seven years. A trapper first and later a miner, he’d moved into town three years ago to open the Starlight stage line.

Next to Holden sat Frank Trotter. He’d moved to the valley eighteen months ago to help his daughter, Elise, and his son-in-law Matthias when Elise had become ill during her third pregnancy. Elise and her stillborn child had died six days after Frank had arrived. Trotter’s graying beard and hollow eyes testified to the sorrow he’d endured since he’d buried his wife and then his only child. He’d aged fifteen years in the last two years.

Mrs. Clements was impatient to get the meeting started. Her husband, Seth, would wake soon and she wasn’t interested in a lecture on meddling. “I know Frank ain’t got much time. He’s got to get on the trail at first light so he can get back to the ranch in time for lunch. So let’s get to business.”

Frank nodded, silent and grim. Of the three, he looked the most uneasy, the most worried.

Holden swung his gaze to Mrs. Clements. The plump Virginian had agreed to handle all their correspondence. “You said she wrote us another letter.”

Mrs. Clements pushed back a stray wisp of hair before she dug pudgy fingers into the deep pockets of her apron and pulled out a wrinkled envelope. “She sure did.”

Holden leaned forward a fraction, nervously tapping his long fingers on his thigh. “So did she accept our marriage proposal?”

Mrs. Clements grinned. “She’s ready and willing to travel to Crickhollow on our instruction.” She shifted in her seat with excitement. “And she has sent along a tintype for us to look at. Now she’s warned us that it’s a couple of years old, but she says it’s still very accurate.”

Holden’s gaze brightened as he held out his hand to Mrs. Clements. “A woman who thinks about the details. I like that.”

Mrs. Clements hesitated before she handed Holden the picture. “She’s not a real beauty,” she said, passing the picture to the coachman as he moved closer. “But she looks sturdy—good hearty peasant stock as my mother used to say. Looks like she’d weather many a winter here.”

Holden tilted the picture closer to the lantern light as he studied it. Frank stayed seated, nervously tapping his knee with his hand.

The coachman’s eyebrows knotted as he studied the tintype. A small oval face, slightly pointed chin, and peaches-and-cream complexion. A simple hat obscured most of her hair, but her unsmiling lips were full and her pale eyes filled with a softness that made her approachable. She wore a dark gray dress with a high collar. No hint of lace adorned the simple dress. “She looks a bit severe.”

Mrs. Clements waved away his concern. “I never put too much stock in pictures. Those big city photographers make you sit still for so long your muscles cramp. No one’s interested in smiling by the time the flash explodes.”

“I’ve never had my picture taken, so I’ll take your word for it. How old did you say she was again?” Holden handed the picture to Frank.

Frank shifted on his barrel, uncomfortable. He glanced at the image. “Sure hope she ain’t as rigid as she looks.”

“She’s not rigid,” Mrs. Clements said, defending her choice of the original six applicants to their mail-order bride ad in the San Francisco Morning Chronicle. Abigail Smyth had the neatest handwriting and her letters had been full of rich details. She spoke of dreams, new beginnings and making a home for them. “We’ve all read her letters. They’re lovely, full of wonderful ideas and plans. I can tell she has a fine heart.”

Frank scrutinized the picture, and then released a sigh. “Looking at her face makes this all so real. I never thought it would get this far.”

Impatient, Mrs. Clements rubbed her thigh. “Frank, you’re the one that came to us with the idea of finding your son-in-law a wife in the first place.”