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The Unexpected Wife(10)

By:Mary Burton

He sniffed, and then popped his thumb in his mouth.

She’d never been around children before. She had no younger brothers or sisters. Joanne, though she was three years younger, was twelve when Abby had moved in.

Of course, she’d seen children of all shapes and sizes in the park with their mothers or nannies, but she’d never actually had to deal with one.

“How does your stomach feel now?” She glanced down at her damp skirt. “Better, I hope.”

The little boys stared at her, silent. She waited an extra beat, expecting them to say something. Nothing.

She glanced down at the mirror Tommy held tightly in his dirty hands. “Want to make another rainbow?”

Again, nothing.

Hoping for a better response from the older one she smiled at him. His face was covered in dirt and he looked on the verge of tears. She remembered one of the mothers in a San Francisco park. She’d picked up her son and held him close when he was upset. That child had brightened up instantly.

She reached and picked the little boy up. Before she could lift him on her lap, he started kicking and screaming. She struggled to hold on to him, but he arched his back and started to swing his arms. One pudgy hand caught her in the eye.

Abby put the boy down instantly. The child scrambled back next to his brother and started to cry. She rubbed her injured eye.

Oh Lord, what was she going to do? She’d always assumed she’d be a natural with children. That they’d love her if she were only kind and loving in return.

But these children seemed to hate her.

Nothing Abby said or did would quiet them until the older one discovered that he could stand on one seat and jump to the other across the aisle. The smaller one’s eyes had immediately brightened, and he’d begun to copy his brother. Abby was so relieved that they’d stopped crying that she let them keep jumping. She’d never expected such a mindless pastime would keep boys busy for over an hour.

Finally, they settled on the other seat and lay their heads down. The younger smiled and laid his head against his brother’s shoulder. The older patted his brother gently on the leg and they fell asleep. She untied the curtains over the window, dimming the interior of the coach.

A meager ring of light around the edges of the worn fabric provided enough light for Abby to watch the boys. She couldn’t help but feel the tug of sadness. The older of the two, who couldn’t be four yet, had already learned that he must look after his younger brother. Too young, she thought to be so independent.

Abby had lost her parents at the age of fifteen to cholera. Their loss had slashed through her heart and for a time she’d thought she’d never be able to live without them. But in time, she’d learned to cherish the memories of her parents.

Her mother, Caroline, had been raised in privilege. She’d grown up attending balls and wearing silks. The expectation was that she’d marry into another well-connected family. Instead, she’d done the unpardonable. She’d fallen in love with a young vicar, Richard, who didn’t have two wooden nickels to his name, and she’d eloped with him. When her family discovered what she’d done, they’d cut her off completely.

So Abby hadn’t grown up with silks or fancy parties. Instead, she’d lived in a simple Arizona parsonage that ministered to miners, harlots and the poor. To her parents’ sorrow, her mother had never carried another baby to term. There’d never been much money, but she always had enough to eat and there’d always been plenty of laughter and music. Her father played the fiddle and her mother the piano. Many a night her parents would play while she sang.

Smiling at the memory, she studied the boys. They weren’t underfed. Despite the dirt and grime, they looked to be a healthy size. She’d doubted there was music in their house and she couldn’t imagine their father laughed often.

Abby let her head drop back against the wall behind her. The now steady rocking of the coach coupled with the silence had her eyes drifting closed. She released a small sigh and let her shoulders sag. Perhaps she could steal a few minutes of sleep. Just a few minutes.

The coach jerked to a stop.

Her eyes popped open immediately and the boys started awake. Tommy, confused about his surroundings, rolled off the seat and hit the floor with a thud. He started to cry.

Immediately, Abby picked him up. Tired and disoriented, the boy didn’t struggle with her this time. Instead he laid his head on her shoulder and popped his thumb into his mouth.

Quinn pushed himself up. His hair stuck straight up and a wrinkle in the cushion had creased the side of his face. He looked around and stuck his lip out.

Abby held her hand out to him and he scrambled off the seat and came to sit beside her. “You two just rest easy. The coach driver should be here to tell us where we are.”