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The Unexpected Wife(3)

By:Mary Burton

Eight years ago, she’d fallen in love with a young lawyer she’d met through her uncle. His name had been Douglas Edmondson. Blessed with blond hair and blue eyes, he had a poet’s heart and a gift for words that made her knees go week. She’d fallen in love almost immediately.

Words of love tripped easily from Douglas’s tongue, but love had not been what he was after. A night’s romp in the gardens had been his only desire. Abby learned of his shallow heart too late and in the end he’d made a fool out of her.

Her uncle had been furious about the scandal, but he’d not thrown her out. As an unspoken payment, she’d retreated to her kitchens and taken her place with the servants.

In January, when her cousin Joanne announced her engagement, Abby suddenly realized life was passing her by. Her years of hiding ended. She wanted a fresh start, a new beginning.

So, she’d taken action. She’d answered the ad in the San Francisco Morning Chronicle for a mail-order bride and taken her life into her own hands.

Abby shoved aside the memory and hurried up the stairs. Several deep, even breaths erased the tightness in her chest.

A year from now she’d be married, living a new fresh life filled with possibilities. In Montana she’d not be trapped between social circles, and perhaps, God willing, she’d be cradling her own babe in her arms.

“Stop your daydreaming!” Cora shouted.

Abby straightened. “Sorry, Cora.”

Her dreams were within her grasp, but she’d have to move carefully. Uncle Stewart would stop her f he knew her intentions. His society friends would frown upon him if word got out his ward, who’d already disgraced him once, had become a mail-order bride.

So far she’d managed to keep the letters a secret. Normally, Uncle Stewart read the mail in the evening, so it had been easy for her to sift through the letters unnoticed. However, today her uncle had taken a day off from work in preparation for her cousin’s engagement party, which was to be held in two days. He’d chosen to sleep late and was having his breakfast an hour later. The entire household, which worked around his schedule, was in a tizzy over the change.

As she reached the top step, she nudged open the door that led to the dining room with her foot.

Her Aunt Gertrude, Uncle Stewart and cousin Joanne sat at the large finely polished dining table. Her uncle, as he did each day, was reading the Chronicle, while her aunt and cousin chatted about her cousin’s upcoming wedding. None turned to greet her as she entered the room.

Abby set her tray on the side table. She glanced nervously through the double doors of the dining room toward the front door. The post always arrived at nine twenty. If she hurried, she’d make it.

Managing a smile, she placed the coffee cups in front of her uncle first, then her aunt and her cousin last. As she filled each cup and placed the muffins on the table, Stewart reached for the strawberry jam on the table and started to spread it on his muffin.

Wiping her hands on her brown skirt, she moved toward the door that led to the foyer, grateful for the first time that they’d not acknowledged her.

As she reached the threshold, her uncle set down his knife on his white porcelain plate. “Abigail, a letter arrived for you yesterday.”

The nerves in her body tightened and she could feel the blood draining from her face. Slowly she faced her uncle. “I got the post yesterday. There was no letter for me.”

“The postman held it back. He thought it odd that you’ve been receiving so much mail lately.” He bit into the muffin and carefully set it back on the plate.

“If it’s my letter, then I’d like to have it,” she said, careful to keep her voice calm.

“Who is Matthias Barrington?” he said.

Abby felt the color drain from her face.

Aunt Gertrude’s eyes darkened with suspicion. “I don’t know any Barringtons in San Francisco.”

“He’s not from San Francisco,” Stewart said. “He’s from Montana.”

Gertrude poured cream in her tea. “Good Lord, Montana? I wasn’t sure if anyone really lived there, let alone anyone who could write.”

Abby crushed back the welling panic. “You opened my letter.”

“I did,” said her uncle. “And why shouldn’t I? This is my house and everything that happens in it is my business. “Now answer my question. Who is Matthias Barrington?”

She’d known this day would come. She’d rehearsed what she would say to her aunt and uncle a thousand times, but the words suddenly caught in her throat.

Joanne lifted her gaze from several trousseau sketches she was examining. Golden curls framed a heart-shaped face and emphasized pale skin and lavender eyes. The blue watered silk morning wrapper hugged her delicate figure to perfection. “Cat got your tongue?” she purred.