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The Unexpected Wife(4)

By:Mary Burton

Abby stared at her cousin. Stewart and Gertrude had always thought their daughter perfect, especially in comparison to a niece who’d never been exposed to the finer social graces.

Abby managed a slight shrug of her shoulders. “He is a rancher in Montana.”

“And what business does he have with you?” Gertrude said.

A gold signet ring on Stewart’s right pinky finger winked in the morning light as he pulled the letter from his pocket. He laid it by his plate. “It seems this Barrington fellow is talking some nonsense about marriage to our Abigail.”

“Marriage!” Joanne laughed. “I thought you’d given up on love after Douglas made a fool out of you.”

Abby drew in a steadying breath, determined not to show her anger.

Annoyed, Gertrude tapped her finger against the linen tablecloth. “You told me nothing of this.”

Abby held out her hand. “May I have my letter?”

Stewart buttered his muffin. “Not until you tell us what this is all about. How could you even come to know such a man?”

Oddly, instead of fear she felt relieved to have it all in the open. “I answered his ad in the Chronicle for a mail order bride.”

Gertrude’s cup clattered down hard against its saucer. Stewart’s thin face whitened. “Why would you embarrass us in such a way? Haven’t we done right by you these last ten years? Lord knows we stood by you when we should have tossed you into the street.”

His words nearly rekindled the guilt that had kept her in check for so many years. “This has nothing to do with you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped. “Everything you do is my concern. When it’s time for you to marry, I will see that you marry a suitable man.”

“When I marry?” For a moment anger tightened her throat. How many times had she heard this? “If I stay in San Francisco, I will never marry. Dearest Joanne and her gossip have seen to that. And I want a family of my own. It is time for me to move on.”

Joanne tossed her napkin on the table. “This is all very fascinating, but Mother, we’re going to be late to the dressmakers, if we delay too long.”

Aunt Gertrude nodded. “In a minute, dear.” She lifted her sharp gaze to Abby. “If it’s a husband you want, I’m sure we can find one. In fact, I heard the butcher, Joshua Piper, is looking for another wife. He seems rather fond of you.”

At forty-seven, the butcher had four unruly sons and a mother who still lived with him. It struck Abby then that on her last visit to his shop he’d spent extra time with her. It also explained the extra lamb chop in her order. “I want a fresh start,” she said. “Away from the city.”

Stewart pinched the bridge of his nose. “The city is far better than Montana. I’ve heard tales about that wretched land. It’s full of cutthroats and murderers.”

Abby could feel the tension building in the muscles at the base of her back. “It’s my choice.”

“You can’t marry without my permission,” Stewart said.

“I am five and twenty, Uncle, and well able to take care of myself. I no longer need your permission.”

His face reddened and his lips flattened into a grim line. “Since when did you get so independent?”

Joanne rose. “Father, I really don’t care if she stays or goes. As long as she’s here to cook for my wedding reception. Freddie’s parents do love her scones and teacakes.”

Stewart didn’t take his gaze off Abby. “Your cousin is not going anywhere.”

“I am,” Abby said, firmly now.

“How do you propose to pay for this trip east?” he said.

“Mr. Barrington said in his last letter that he was going to send me money.”

“He sent twenty-five dollars. And I pocketed it.”

For a moment her head spun. “You can’t do that, it’s mine!”

He stuck out his fleshy chin. “I can do anything I please in my house.”

Enraged, Abby snatched up the letter off the table. “You’ve no right to that money.”

He rose to his feet. “I’ve every right, young lady. And you will not talk any more about this farce of a marriage to a stranger. I will not have people in this town talking about me and whispering about another of your scandalous deeds.”

Aunt Gertrude pursed her lips together. “I think perhaps a marriage to the butcher is not such a bad idea. In fact, I will talk to his mother today.” She rose. “As soon as Joanne is safely wed, we will see to Abigail. It’s become quite clear to me that she doesn’t appreciate what we’ve done for her and it’s time she leaves.”